This late summer I had the grand opportunity in visiting the Reel Works headquarters located in Brooklyn, New York. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by an enthusiastic team of both staff and students, eager to share with me all that they do in their recently expanded space - a filmmaker’s and storyteller’s playground built by filmmakers for filmmakers. Fully equipped with Mac machines loaded with editing software, with state-of-the-art video equipment, mini meeting rooms, and a relaxing lounge area.
In November 2021, I spoke with co-founder John C. Williams about Reel Works’ mere beginnings to what it’s evolved to now with a full-time staff, with a growing range of opportunities for young filmmakers. During my in-person visit, Keisha Katz, Director of Workforce and External Partnerships guided me on a tour through their facilities introducing me to key staff making real change for their current, incoming and alumni students. Keisha is a Reel Works alumna herself, a graduate of the Spring 2007 lab class, and had quite a successful career as a producer on both film and television documentaries that have aired on leading networks including NBC, Lifetime, TLC, Investigation Discovery, Animal Planet, History Channel, National Geographic Channel, and BET. The fact that she has come back to work for and with Reel Works, speaks volumes to their overall community culture and ethos.
“Thinking about my experience with my mentors, I would love to do that once I feel comfortable and I know my craft and I have that expertise. To give back – I think it would be so helpful for another student, as a student now, mentors have helped me so much, so I would love to come back.” – Maya Velazquez
Reel Works conducts various in-person classes in their space, namely after-school programs that run from the Fall into Spring, and they conduct a 4-week Summer program. Their team also fosters relationships with surrounding schools from elementary through high school and bring teaching artists with cameras and gear to these schools so that the students can do the filmmaking within their environment. The goal is to engage with these young filmmakers and bring them to Reel Works so that they can continue their filmmaking education and journey. And each student has a one-to-one mentorship with a filmmaking professional throughout the time they’re creating their film. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that all of this is free for students.
Once settled in, I sat with a few selected student filmmakers, Maya Velazques, Sekou Cherif, and Aldo Merino to discuss their experience in the program, dive into their films and what’s next for them on their individual filmmaking journeys. Sekou, a young filmmaker born in North Carolina and raised predominantly in The Bronx, taps into his life experiences and rubbing elbows with different socioeconomic groups to inform his writing and directing, is now an alumni of Reel Works. He wasn’t able to join us in person, as he was on set, but found time during the productions lunch break to Zoom in with us and tell me more about his experience in the Narrative Lab and about his film African King:
Sekou Cherif: “I was in the Narrative Lab my junior year of high school and in the Narrative Lab I got to be mentored and guided through writing the short film and then learning how to direct it, learning how to have a vision for it. And the film that I decided to create was the African King. It was basically a film about a struggling Black actor who goes to an audition and he is kind of tested to his limits in front of white casting directors. And I just really wanted to show how the industry and acting can be so much more difficult being a Black male and an actor of color in general. I feel like the theme of that was transferable into many different fields and I feel like that’s why it had such a big impact and it was able to get nominated, because the stories that do the best are the ones that are relatable and kind of point to a situation of like, ‘Oh, I understand that.’ That’s basically my message in the film.
Sadie: So, you’re now in college – are you pursuing filmmaking there as well?
Sekou: Yes, I’m an incoming freshman. This is going to be a new experience and I do want to study film and business there. So hopefully one day, work in production and then one day create my own production company. I really appreciated Reel Works, when I was in the Narrative Lab my junior year, every week, Friday I think, there was always some guest speaker in a Zoom and we got to learn the inside workings of other things in the industry. I feel like what’s really got me to the think more about film, not just the creative side, but that there’s just so much more to it.
I was in complete and total awe of these young filmmaker’s craft and voice within their created works. And I was even more impressed after speaking with them about effortlessly tapping into their voices, pointedly selecting their themes and subject matters for their documentary films. Charles Reynoso, Director of Education, was in complete agreement, a tinge of happy tears in his eyes, as he listened to the students speak about their work and share their experiences in the documentary program, “Their voices are clear. You can hear who they are through the things that they make. We’re always imagining them getting even bigger in some way shape or form. Even when they’ve stopped making the film, their voice still continues to matter.”
The young filmmakers have plans on coming back to Reel Works to give back and volunteer their time. Maya shared her thoughts on why she would come back when the time is right, “I feel like, personally for me, that I was able to dive right in with my documentary is because of the support at Reel Works. All of the staff are pushing you to do your best – the support is super important.”
Charles continued on about watching Maya’s growth as a filmmaker through their programs, “The trajectory of seeing Maya from a timid wonderful middle schooler into this powerhouse who already has a focus on being an AD and who’s chipping in – just seeing that kind of growth over the last six years – oh, I feel old Maya [laughs] – over the last few years, it’s just amazing to see that trajectory.”
The Documentary Lab is where things get more serious, as opposed to the Summer lab where the fledgling filmmakers are just getting their feet wet. There’s about fourteen students that participate. In the Narrative Lab, the students are writing screenplays and producing their work with roughly 12 students participating. Their fellowship program shifts between 16 to 24 fellows, as they focused on a specific track – screenwriting, directing, cinematography and producing – that all work collaboratively. The Reel Works teams is always going to choose quality over quantity, for the perfect impact on the students trajectory and finding that happy medium with one-on-one mentorship. Within the last fiscal year, they served 1,700 students across all of the different programs offered at Reel Works. There’s expectations to see that number grow within the next year. And friendly reminder, this is all completely free for students.
After speaking with the young filmmakers, I sat in on the Career Lab culminating class, part of the MediaMKRS program at Reel Works. The young creatives consist of 12 high school and recent high school graduates who gain real-world insight into careers in both the film and TV industry, with an insider’s look at how the film business runs with visits to production offices and studios like Showtime Networks, Vice Media and Light Iron to name a few. Additionally, over the course of 38 hours, they take part in a readiness training program that gives them the appropriate tools and resources for professional development and communication. It was fascinating how each individual Career Lab student was drawn toward a different part of the filmmaking trade, choosing careers that are seemingly outside of the norm (screenwriting, directing, producing) and choosing what genuinely fascinated them, like ADR, being a colorist, sound design and more.
Needless to say, the Reel Works team has created a safe and nurturing space for young creative minds to explore and contribute their art to their surrounding community. I’m very hopeful the initiatives being created at Reel Works in New York will cross state lines and borders as their programs continue to grow and evolve. I look forward to following these selected filmmakers' journeys and the forthcoming initiatives and opportunities created by Reel Works for their ever-growing creative community.
A huge thanks to the dedicated Reel Works team for their time and deeper gratitude for all of the initiatives that they've created and provided for these young and talented students - I feel much more at ease that the future of film is going to be alright.
If you are an industry professional, I encourage you to contact their team for volunteer opportunities and learn more about how to lend your support.