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Q&A with A.V. Rockwell

interview

A. V. Rockwell’s films exhibit a caring yet critical look toward New York City. The Queens-born filmmaker attended high school in Brooklyn before conducting her undergraduate and graduate education at New York University. During her time at NYU she produced Open City Mixtape, a collection of shorts about inner city life. Her films were praised by Spike Lee and Alicia Keys, and she followed them up with 2018’s Feathers, a short film about hazing and police brutality. Her feature debut, Sundance 2023 Grand Jury Prize Winner A Thousand and One, builds upon her previous works by telling the story of a Black mother’s struggle to provide her son with a good life as Harlem faces rising gentrification.

 

A Thousand and One opens in theaters today.

Q. Your film cuts between three different mayoral administrations in New York that saw increased gentrification. Was there a particular moment growing up when these neighborhood changes made themselves apparent to you?

A.  For kids who grew up in New York City, Manhattan had long been considered the center of the five boroughs, the idea that we no longer would have to leave Brooklyn in order to have a piece of that was really exciting. To see that shift, how it really came to play out and the ways it benefited the city at our expense was one of the first realizations I had of the city changing in a way that may not be as exciting as I thought it would be.

Q. How did Teyana Taylor get involved and how was it working with her?

A.  I wanted somebody who could come to the role with a sense of truthfulness, somebody who really represented a New York City woman, a woman who is from the inner city and has that raw street edge without it coming through in a way that felt performative.

Teyana stood out like a gem. In addition to having the elements of the New York City girl, she really understood this woman and had the charisma I was looking for, or that would pop out. She had the rough toughness, but also the vulnerability and nurturing side to her.

Q. There is striking light-play at work in the film’s look, what informed your visual approach to A Thousand and One?

A.  When it came to lighting, I told my DP Eric Yue I really hated practicals. I said, “I don’t want any unnatural light.” [Laughs].

I know that was a bit of a challenge for him, but you don’t see any practical lights in the movie. Every light that is seen comes in from a window or a similar source. Since the movie is largely a daytime movie, it feeds into how you experience its world.

Q. Do you have any on-set rituals that help you get through the process of filming?

A.  I try to get good sleep, drink water, stay centered and stay present as much as I can.

Q. With no creative or financial constraints, what project would you pursue?

A.  I have ideas in my head and I trust that they will happen, so it feels too early to share them. There are certain projects I am looking forward to making. I have a few ideas about epics that I think would be really great, whether that be as a feature or a limited series.

Q. Are there any filmmakers working today you admire and would like to see develop a greater following?

A.  There are many unsung heroes who have not received any attention for their work. For instance, Euzhan Palcy is a very accomplished Black woman filmmaker who made one of my favorite movies: Sugar Cane Alley (1983). I wish more people knew her name. Lina Wërtmuller is a well-known filmmaker, but I still think she’s not as recognizable as many of her male peers. Those are people that I am a fan of, and I often wish more people knew and celebrated their work.

I also think Oscar Micheaux is one of the earliest and best examples of independent filmmaking. He did it out of necessity because as an African-American filmmaker at the beginning of the last century making movies, nobody was trying to open doors for him so he opened doors for himself. I think he set the stage for how to make it by any means, and I think regardless of your race or gender, he’s one of the great examples of making it happen regardless of what anyone else has to say. He needs to be more celebrated.