AU senior filmmaker overcoming the odds of the industry through project ‘Feed the Reel’
Ismah Khan pitched, wrote and was granted $10,000 to fund a project for film and art nonprofit Current Movements
Ismah Khan, an American University senior studying creative writing and history, decided in the summer of 2019 that she would “stop being sad” and pursue her dream of filmmaking, despite the many barriers impeding her progress in the industry, including being a woman of color.
Khan pulled out her phone that summer in Puerto Rico to capture flashes of flags, signs and banners adorned with #RickyRenuncia – electrifying the scene with color.
Thousands of protesters were calling for the resignation of then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló after leaked messages among Rosselló and his closest advisers revealed sexist, homophobic and other offensive comments.
“It was difficult because, when you look at the film industry in general, it’s just so well gatekept,” Khan said. “I didn't really know where to even begin. There was nobody I could turn to in film that my parents knew – or anyone knew, for that matter.”
Khan grew up in a small, low-income, coastal city in Massachusetts.
“I grew up around people who are all first-generation,” Khan said in a message to The Eagle. “I have a lot of pride for my city because it’s special. People are struggling, but they’re usually very intelligent and driven.”
Her high school offered opportunities for filmmakers and provided access to equipment, though Khan did not feel comfortable taking advantage of those opportunities.
“As a brown girl, to say, ‘Mom and Dad, I want to do something that seems completely impossible’ – I was a little ashamed and nervous to tell my parents that this is what I wanted to do,” Khan said.
And yet, Khan grew up witnessing the intermixing of different cultures and socioeconomic classes, which continues to shape how she writes and where she works to this day.
In September 2019, Khan answered a past-due ad: “film festival intern needed.” The ad was placed by Current Movements, a nonprofit with a mission to connect “activists, organizations and movements around the world using film, art and technology,” according to its website.
Khan became an intern, and recently, she received a promotion and a raise. Today, she spearheads Current Movements' recent effort to welcome low-income people of color into the world of filmmaking with a community forum called “Feed the Reel: How to Become a Radical Filmmaker.”
Khan said that she built the forum to offer the resources she needed when she started making films.
The forum is split into three segments: a filmmaker spotlight, weekly question and answer sessions and installments of tutorials.
The filmmaker spotlight encourages mentorship and networking among “Feed the Reel” filmmakers breaking into the industry and coming from marginalized backgrounds who may share common experiences.
Question and answer segments offer casual opportunities for users to brainstorm and problem solve with other early-career filmmakers. Affordable, reliable tutorials equalize what can otherwise be unaffordable training.
Khan was given creative freedom from Current Movements, and this encouragement helped her pitch, write and win a $10,000 grant to fund “Feed the Reel.”
“That was the moment that I knew, ‘No, this isn't just all in my head. People actually want this, and they believe in this project,’” Khan said.
Khan likes to make short films, particularly horror films, that touch on real issues of social justice. However, Khan attributes most of her success with Current Movements, and with making independent films, to guidance from professors.
“Despina Kakoudaki … ignited my passion and made me really believe that this is something I’m capable of,” Khan said, while discussing the AU literature and film professor. “It doesn’t have to be a white man’s industry. It doesn’t have to be a rich person’s industry. It can be yours.”
With no majors in the School of Communication, Khan can’t rent video or audio equipment from SOC’s Equipment Room, which Khan said is an unfair “institutional barrier.”
But Khan is not deterred.
“I know I want to take two years off after college to work and get as many videos made as possible,” Khan said. “I want to sell a screenplay if I can. I got my foot in the door here, but there are so many doors after this door that I have to get my foot into.”