Q&A with Raven Jackson
Raven Jackson is a multi-talented artist whose work encompasses poetry, photography, and filmmaking. The ways in which life mirrors nature is central to her practice, as much of her artistic output concerns life’s cyclical changes. Jackson holds an MFA from New York University’s Graduate Film Program, where she directed her award-winning thesis film Nettles. Her feature debut All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt chronicles the life of a woman in mid-century rural Mississippi and is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles theaters.
Q. You’ve spoken about how you didn’t think film was something that was possible for you for a long time. What prompted you to make the jump from poetry to filmmaking?
A. It was a now or never moment. I was about to graduate from my writing program at The New School, and had been interested in filmmaking for a while, but didn’t see it as a viable path for myself because I didn’t have a technical background. But I felt such a strong pull to take the leap and apply to film schools. And I’m grateful I trusted that. I applied to NYU Graduate Film with pictures I took of my roommate at the time to fulfill the visual component of the application — not with a film.
Photo by me. Taken in 2014 in Brooklyn, NY.
Q. You play with structure in very interesting ways both in your short film Nettles and All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt. Do you arrange your narratives while editing or write them in the same way the images present themselves?
A. With All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, I’m interested in creating an emotional journey for the viewer, not a traditional plot-driven one where the film is executing plot point A, plot point B, and plot point C. I call the scenes with Mack at different ages or experiences in the film “portraits,” and while writing these, I didn’t always know how they would connect, but I trusted the process of discovery. The connecting threads and heartbeats of the characters organically unfolded and revealed themselves as I continued writing. It’s a sixty-page script, but I wrote way more pages than that. Everything I wrote that isn’t in the film, I needed to write to get to what is. There’s a lot of listening involved in the way I like to work: listening to where things are asking to land, to what you don’t need even though you love. There’s a lot of trust involved too. Trusting the process of creation and knowing that sometimes that means sitting in the unknown for a bit.
It was a similar process for the edit. I worked with Lee Chatametikool, who is an amazing editor, and I knew at script stage the script would not be one-to-one with the edit of the film. It’s a very modular film. And as it’s my aim to create an emotional journey, I always let that be my guiding light. I’d often ask myself: “what emotion is needed here?” and go from there. Every portrait in the film is ordered very intentionally. In the same way a poet would intentionally order each poem in a poetry book to create an emotional journey for the reader, I’m doing something very similar with the portraits in this film. Some cuts in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt feel like a line break in a poem for me.
Q. Was there a particular moment or conversation that prompted you to write this film?
A. If our lives were to flood, what are the moments that would rise to the surface, and how would those moments speak to each other, and swim between each other? That question really circles it all for me. And not just the profound moments of a life, but the seemingly mundane ones too. The quiet moments. The details and textures of a life. I’m interested in giving these moments equal weight.
Coming off of Nettles, I knew I wanted to play with structure in a longer project. And, like in Nettles, I knew the film would be very close to nature. As a creator, I’m deeply drawn to the ways our lives and what it means to be human are mirrored in nature. The seasons of our lives. The changes. How relationships change. How family can change. How love can change form. The cycles. Life to death. Everything is temporary.
Water is a very important image in the film and that fluidity is mirrored in the edit: the changes of form — from hands to embraces, from Mack at age 7 to her in her early 30s. All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is a watery experience of Mack’s life that asks to wash over you.
I also thought a lot about Albert Einstein’s quote: “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another,” in the making of this film.
Q. Most of your film takes place in close-ups. What draws you in to look so closely when working with such a big canvas?
A. I trust the body’s ability to communicate without words, and I’m drawn to capturing that. I’m also very drawn to details, which speaks to my interest in hands. I love eyes, but, for me, hands are right up there. They say so much. How they hold something or someone. For how long. The lines running through them.
One of my favorite shots of the film is when you see these different generations of hands holding each other, comforting each other. In a film that deals so much with what’s passed from one generation to the next, that shot communicates so much for me — just with the hands.
Q. What’s the last film you saw and loved?
A. Runner by Marian Mathias. I saw it recently and adored it. Jomo Fray, the DP of All Dirt Roads, was the cinematographer on Runner as well.
Q. What is your first memory of watching a film as a child?
A. I doubt this is actually my first memory of watching a film, but what comes to mind is E.T. and how I would scream when you see the little outline of him in the shed that first time. I love that film.
Q. Which artists do you constantly refer to in your own artistic practice?
A. I’m often reading the poetry of Lucille Clifton. When I’m creating, there are some artists I turn to who remind me of what’s possible. Whose work feels expansive for me — like it opens doors into where I’m trying to go. Ms. Clifton’s poetry puts me in my body. I thought a lot about her poem, “Blessing the Boats,” in the making of All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt.
blessing the boats by Lucille Clifton
(at St. Mary’s)
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
Q. What image would you like to end this interview with?
Photo by me. Taken in 2018 in Tennessee.