Over the past year, Assistant Professor Ya’Ke Smith (Art & Art History) has been promoting and talking about his first feature-length film, “Wolf,” a poignant picture about how one family deals with sexual abuse in their church. The film has garnered interest and accolades from audiences and critics alike: “Wolf” was screened at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival and won awards at the Urbanworld Film Festival, Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival, Sidewalk Film Festival, Little Rock Film Festival and the Dallas International Film Festival. More importantly, Smith has been initiating a conversation among audiences about childhood sexual abuse and the responsibilities of church congregations to address those issues.
Recently, COLA Communications Coordinator James Dunning sat down with Smith to talk about the film, the reaction and what’s next.
Q: As you were filming and editing “Wolf” in 2011, stories about Jerry Sandusky and Bishop Eddie Long broke nationally. Suddenly, sexual abuse issues were front and center. How did that affect your film?
A: The story evolved. New stories were coming out about pedophilia, secrets being revealed in churches and outside. When the Eddie Long thing happened, I had already written the screenplay. But you go back and rewrite 18, 20 drafts before you’re ready to shoot it. That sort of influenced some of the things that went into the screenplay. People’s reactions to that influence it. Seeing that story, I started to do more research and began to find more stuff that I hadn’t discovered before. And then all of that changed the story. It changed the way I told the story, changed my perspective on the pedophile, it changed my perspective on the victim, the family, the reactions of the church, the reactions of the community. Because I was now looking at real, live reactions, things unfolding in front of my eyes. So all of that sort of changed the way I approached everything, I think.
Q: What changed?
A: There is one scene in the movie that wasn’t even in there until a month before we started shooting. You find out about the pedophile’s past, and I didn’t initially go there because that wasn’t the story I was trying to tell. But then I thought, wait, a minute, this is the story. This is what the story is about. The idea of the cycle, that this happens in secret and these people don’t get the help they need and then it happens to them. It’s at the root of why people become who they become.
Q: How have audiences reacted to your film?
A: It’s interesting. It happens almost everywhere we screen. We were in Chicago in August and a man stood up in a packed theatre and said, “Just two years ago, this was me.” He continued on, telling us the story of how when he was 11, someone in church molested him. No one believed him and he told his family. They didn’t know whether to believe him or not. So it continued to happen because no one would help him. So it took him down this 10-year struggle with his sexuality, a 10-year struggle with trust issues, struggles with psychological trauma. And the man stood there and said, “It’s literally been a year since I’ve been able to get the help I needed.” He’s 22 now. He said, “This is something I’m going to live with for the rest of my life.”
Next night, same festival. A woman stands up and says, “I have my two 15-year-old sons with me, and I wasn’t going to bring them, but I wanted to because I wanted to share this story. This happened to me. I wanted them here so they would know that it doesn’t just happen to girls, it happens to men. This is something I think kids need to see because they need to know the signs. They need to know if somebody says this to you, that’s inappropriate. If somebody does this to you, that’s inappropriate. But if they don’t know, if they don’t have a meter to gauge it against, they don’t know. They’re just kids.”
That kind of reaction means a lot to me because it lets me know I have achieved in doing what I set out to do. That was the goal in the first place: to get people talking, to get people coming out into the open and saying, “This happened to me.” Because I think when that starts to happen, if one person will say it, then the next person sitting next to them who was ashamed or timid… they’ll say, “If he said it or she said it, I can say it.” I think what this film is doing… I wish it was doing it on a larger scale. I wish we were in theaters everywhere so everybody can see this movie. Not for fame, and all that, but really I think that when this stuff comes out, people start to talk.
Q: Where did the idea for “Wolf” come from?
A: The genesis of this is, I grew up in the church. I’m still very much a part of the church. And I know people who have been sexually abused within the church. You know, people talk. And you see how some of those individuals are still struggling because they didn’t get the help they needed. They’re still not able to have healthy relationships or love themselves. There’s always something there. There’s a void. And it’s because one, nobody believed, or two, they never told anyone. One or the other. And seeing that and watching people struggle with that, I said I need to make a movie about this. Again, we need to talk about this because we’re not talking about it.
There was a documentary called “Deliver Us From Evil” and that documentary really had an impact, too. It was the first time you saw a pedophile given some sort of humanity, in the sense of getting an understanding of where he came from and why he did what he did and what he was exposed to that made him get this appetite. Then, you got exposed to the children. A lot of those children are still, 20 years later, 30 years later, still dealing with the psychological trauma of what he did to them. One of them said he can’t even bathe his child because it’s weird and affects him. He hasn’t really had a chance to process it all and really deal with it. That’s where it came from. I said we’ve got to deal with this.
When you’re 13, 14, 15, and you’re hearing people talk about this stuff, you don’t know what to do. You just know that they’re talking about it. And I’ve had several of these conversations. So I think this story has always been here, it’s always been in me, and I didn’t know what to do with it, didn’t know how to tell it. I didn’t know if I wanted to tell it or if I ever would tell it because I didn’t know if it was a story that needed to be told. I know that’s weird, but I was like, would anybody listen or would anybody care? But then I said, they need to, they need to talk about. It was those conversations I was having as a teenager, hearing from others, that I eventually said, it’s time to make this film.
It’s interesting, because Facebook opened up a whole other thing. After this film was made, I started to get messages from people saying, “this was me when I was 12,” or “this happened with I was 15.” I had one guy tell me this happened when he was young and now the guy who did it to him is still around and it’s, like, whatever. Because family didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to deal with it. It’s something we just don’t speak about. One lady said her father knew she had been molested and because he wanted to save face [and not] ruffle any feathers in his church, he said, “you know what? You’ll get through it, we’ll be all right, don’t say anything.” That kind of mindset exists, so we have to talk about this stuff.
Q: Knowing the kind of reaction you might get from the audience, what do you do at the film screenings to address those issues? How do you handle it?
A: We had a screening in Austin in June, and I had my pastor, Bishop Copeland from San Antonio, come up from Austin, and he and I did an extended Q&A. He’s written some things and works with sexual abuse victims and does counseling. So that was the forum there. In August, at a screening in San Antonio, we partnered with the Rape Crisis Center of San Antonio and had counselors onhand. We had a Q&A/forum and had representatives from the Rape Crisis Center talk about what they do. I will go to Baltimore in March to speak at the Child Sexual Abuse & Trauma in the African-American Community Conference. They’ll be screening the film and we’ll talk about it there, too. We’ve had some screenings where there have been partnerships with crisis centers, but other times, no. It’s just us. It’s hard. What do you say? The only thing I can say is, one, I’m sorry that happened to you, but two, I’m glad you are able to stand up in this room and say this because it takes a brave human being to be able to do that. Not just for them to feel good about it, but when they speak, other people begin to speak. And that was the whole point.
Q: Is there a fear of being labeled or too connected to the subject matter of a film like this, especially when it’s not a central part of your own life story?
A: There’s no fear. I know when it’s time to say, I’m done with this. It’s getting to the point where I’m already moving on to the next project, moving on to the next film. We’ve already shot a short for the next film. I’ve already moved on. I won’t allow us to be pigeonholed into doing one thing. At some point you have to let people know I’m not coming there, I’m not doing that. It doesn’t bother me, but I know when to let go. I love being a part of the conversation; that’s why I made the film in the first place. But, yeah, after a while, I’ve moved on to the next thing.
The interesting thing about the next project is I’m sort of doing this trilogy about sexual abuse/sexuality amongst teens. The next film [tentatively called “Heaven”] is about a girl that’s trafficked. She’s an aspiring, very talented ballet dancer who comes from a semi-broken home and winds up in the hands of this guy, who she loves. It follows her struggle to get out of his clutches while holding on to this dream.
Q: You’ve garnered a lot of national attention from critics and the industry. How do you think your film stands up to that scrutiny?
A: There are a lot of films made about this stuff. They may not be made well. They might not have any cinematic quality to them. I’m not trying to dog anyone’s film, I just see a lot of these films that sort of deal with these issues. And those films don’t necessarily have a voice. I think you have to have both to have successful and to be recognized. I think the thing that helps “Wolf’ stand out from the pack is the complexity of the story. And even the complexity of the visual components, the way it’s shot, the production design. I get a lot of questions about that. “Oh, look at all that red in there, I see that you did that.” People take notice that you took time out and thought through the material artistically, as well as telling a hot-button story with grace and complexity and nuance you don’t quite see in those other projects.
Q: The film has its world premiere last year at SXSW, which is a great achievement. Do you worry about trying to get into festivals like SXSW and Sundance?
A: I used to worry about that, I’m not gonna lie. Every filmmaker wants their work to be seen. And I used to think, man, if I could only get onto that screen or into that festival… Don’t get me wrong, you still have those aspirations, but I find that now I really worry about telling the story. And if people respond to it, they do. If they don’t, they don’t. I’m a firm believer that if you’re making something that is compelling, even if you don’t get into that particular festival or in front of that particular person, that the right thing will come along. I’m a firm believer that we think one thing and God thinks another, and He orchestrates exactly what He thinks should happen. So I don’t do that anymore. I’m writing, I’m directing, I’m trying to think visually. I’m trying to get a good cast and put more hype into it. But I’m worried about the story and telling the story as authentically as I can.
Q: You’ve done a lot of stuff in the realm of drama. Your award-winning short, “Katrina’s Son,” told the story of a young boy searching for his mother in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Ever feel a desire to move into a different genre, maybe make something a bit more light-hearted?
A: The way I approach a film or the way I sort of start to write a film is like a response to something. I don’t think in genre. I don’t think about any of that. I don’t think, OK, this time I’m going to write a film about a girl that’s trafficked. OK, now I’m going to write a romantic comedy. I don’t do that. If something comes up and I hear a story about two people madly in love and one of them dies… wait, that’s a drama. [Laughs.] I don’t know. But it depends on what I respond to emotionally. I’m not opposed to doing anything. As long as, for me, it’s something I feel, something that really hits me in the gut. Something I feel people need to or want to see or hear at that time. Whatever that is, that’s what I’m going to do.
Q: Filmmaking tends to run from the extremes of working by yourself or with a team of people. When do you feel like you do your best work: alone or with others?
A: I work in stages. When I’m writing, I don’t want to be bothered with anybody. That’s my time to figure it out. For me, writing isn’t just sitting at a computer. There’s a lot of research that I do, too. I talk to people. I’ve had a chance to interview pimps and prostitutes. I’ve done all of that research and build the research for this new film. That’s a “me” thing, meaning that I want to have that time and I don’t want anybody telling me how to do that. It’s my time to sit with the story and let it gestate inside of me. Once we move into pre-production and it’s time to get with my DP [director of photography] and find a production or art director, production designer, costume designer… now I’m ready for the collaboration. It’s then that I’m really ready. And even when I get into post, I don’t edit in a cave. The film I’m working on now, I’ve sent three cuts to my production partner and let my class see it and get their notes. It’s not always about, oh, I liked it, but it’s about how do people respond to it. That’s what it’s about. Now, there are some things you like and nobody else likes. It’s your movie, so you can do that. But when you only think of it in those terms, you’re stuck with whatever is there. You don’t want to be the only one who emotionally responds to it, you know? Somebody else has to or what is the point in making it?
Q: With the critical acclaim and favorable responses from audiences, do you feel pressured to get the next film out quickly?
A: I do. I do. I’m not gonna lie. I think one of the biggest mistakes I made was when I got out of graduate school. I won a Director’s Guild of America award in 2005, and I’ll never forget I got a call from this manager who was representing a lot of big talent at the time. I went out to L.A. and met with him, but I had nothing. I didn’t have a feature script. I had not thought ahead. I was just in that moment, loving that moment. And he was like, “that’s nice, but I can’t do anything with a short. What do you have?” I didn’t have anything. And when I did a year later, I call him up and he’s moved on to something else. I think while the iron is hot, why you are sort of hot, you need to roll with it. The next year, it’s somebody else. I don’t think anybody can exactly do what you do, but that doesn’t mean anything if you’re sitting around for 10 years waiting to make your next film. Then you have to reestablish yourself. Unless you’re like Terrance Malik and you do these huge masterpieces, he can take five years. Or James Cameron. But until you get to that point, you have to stay relevant and make movies. I want to be like Spike [Lee]. Spike made a movie every year for 20 years. That’s what I want to do. I have to make “Heaven” this year. We’re shooting in November if we get all the money together. If not, we’ll figure it out. We couldn’t get all the money together for “Wolf” but we still figured it out. But, yeah, it’s time to do something else.
Q: How do you avoid getting caught up in the rave reviews and press hype?
A: It’s hard. When you’re a young filmmaker, still trying to make your mark, you have the tendency to read every single review. I do that. Somebody from the Fort Worth press said, ”you can’t do that to yourself.” It’s true. If you do that, you’re being thrown into, oh, this person thinks this and this person thinks that, and after awhile I don’t really care about what these people say because I know I went in and did the best job I could with the time I had. I know I made this film for this purpose and it’s doing that. “Wolf” won five awards and has done well. There’s a lot of people whose first films never see the light of day. This film wasn’t as successful as I wanted it to be, but it has opened up doors that I had not had opened. It’s a process and makes me feel like I’m doing it right. Regardless of what the critics say, regardless if people say they love me. I’ll say, thank you, and smile. It’s not about that or a negative attitude. It’s about me dealing with my heart… and making the best film I can make. Being the best filmmaker I can be.
“Wolf” will debut at UT Arlington on Tuesday, Feb. 26, in a 6 p.m. screening at the UTA Planetarium in the Chemistry & Physics Building, 700 Planetarium Pl.