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A filmmaker finds her voice

Documentary maker's project hits close to home

by Ryan Gilmour
Jamari Perry
Jamari Perry filmed a documentary about the effects of the autoimmune disease lupus. (Photo/courtesy of USC School of Cinematic Arts)

The halls of the USC School of Cinematic Arts are filled with talks about “voice.” It’s one of the hardest attributes to define for the aspiring filmmaker or scholar.

Documentarian Jamari Perry recently sat down to discuss how she found her voice on her award-winning documentary Soaring on Invisible Wings. The documentary about the autoimmune disease lupus was produced as part of a course in the film and television production division and recently won the grand prize at the African American Women in Cinema Festival.

For more information on Perry and the documentary, visit  http://www.jamariperry.com/

Tell me about Soaring on Invisible Wings.

Soaring on Invisible Wings is a short documentary done in the 547 documentary class about the autoimmune disease lupus that affects about 1.5 million Americans, including my mother. My mom has had lupus for over 30 years. I’ve only known her with lupus. [The documentary] follows her and my family, as well as two other families struggling with lupus. One of these families has two sisters who have lupus; the other is a single mother with the disease who is raising a daughter by herself. The film is educational, but it also talks about what it’s like to support someone with the disease.

Why did you decide that the 547 course was the right time to tell this story?

One of the main reasons was that a friend of mine, Elgin Stafford (we went to undergrad at UC Berkeley), suggested it to me. His sister had lupus, and a good friend of ours had passed away from lupus. He felt really strongly about the doc. He only knew one filmmaker and that was me [laughs]. I put it in the back of my head; when it came time for me to pitch in class, I started to develop it.

During the time the class was going on, he gave me the contact information for his sister. At the same time, my mother was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, so when she was deciding what kind of treatment she was going to get, lupus had a lot to do with that decision. Long story short, Elgin passed away during 531. Elgin passed away the day before I found out this was selected to become a project in 547. I decided it was the right time to learn more about the disease so that I could be more aware for my mom’s health; it catapulted the journey.

What are the challenges of showing lupus visually?

I think one of the biggest is that it’s an invisible disease. It’s one of the reasons I named the film Soaring on Invisible Wings — it’s a disease that many experts don’t know how to diagnose. The symptoms vary in so many ways. A lot of people have fibromyalgia. A lot of people have arthritis. A lot of people have skin issues. It’s a disease that carries so many symptoms that it’s not easily diagnosed. One of the biggest challenges was education about what the disease does internally. I collaborated with an animation student, Cecilia DeJesus. We collaborated very closely to make this film visual and cinematic. It was hard to take something people knew so little about and make it visually interesting.

Lupus is the Latin word for wolf or “to devour.” An autoimmune disease is where the body attacks itself, so we created a wolf that swims around the body and makes a woman sick. And we did something with the butterfly because that’s a major symbol for lupus. A lot of patients get the butterfly rash, that’s a determining factor for lupus. We explain the butterfly rash, where the wings aspect of the title comes from.

A scene from Soaring on Invisible Wings

A scene from Soaring on Invisible Wings

What did you personally learn about lupus?

I learned a lot about what my mother was going through. Although, growing up, I knew that she had lupus, she never told me what it was. I don’t know if she didn’t know much technical information about it or if it was because I was young and she chose not to tell me.

One thing I learned is that it largely affects minority women. This year is the first year that doctors are using a new form of medication. All these years these women had been taking the same medication — Prednisone — which has a lot of different reactions and side effects. I also learned that lupus affects women in their childbearing years, which has a huge stigma to it. If you’re between 15 and 45 and you have this debilitating disease, that’s supposed to be the peak of your life!

It also informed me about how my mom was suffering silently. All these years, I didn’t know these things were happening to her. She could have been crying herself to sleep at night. It made making it to my basketball games a big thing. Her going the extra mile could have made her suffer a reaction from lupus. I look back at my childhood and have so much compassion and sympathy for her.

You were recently awarded the African American Women in Cinema Festival in New York. Tell me about that experience.

I wasn’t going to go because it is in the middle of the semester, but my family and friends encouraged me to go, and so I went. The festival was warm and such a great experience. I was able to see other filmmakers like me from all over the country and hear different voices. I felt enriched and empowered by the experience. I had no idea I was going to be awarded the grand prize. It was such a great surprise. The whole week had been such a great experience, I already felt awarded. When they announced the winner, I was happy, so happy that I could bring that back to my family and wonderful crew.

For prospective students: Did you come to the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) thinking you wanted to make documentaries?

I came to SCA to find my voice and find out who I wanted to be as a filmmaker. I didn’t come in thinking I’d focus on documentary. After producing a 547 doc and meeting the faculty and seeing the wonderful perspective of the students and faculty, I gravitated toward them. I loved the feedback. The camaraderie. And how they went the extra mile for our films. And that’s what made me stick around more. Dedicating a year to the program showed me how important documentary is to the school. It might not be the first thing that people think about when they think of USC, but it’s an important part of what they teach.

If someone is coming here to find their voice, what’s your advice?

The most important thing is that you don’t have to have it figured out when you come in. I spoke to a lot of my colleagues and after that first year, you say, “Wow! I think this year was for me to find my voice.”

A lot of people think they know who they are, but being malleable and being able to be transformed is a good thing. As you go into your career, being able to be collaborative, being able to take criticism, is invaluable for film school. Come in and be ready to explore. Be open. It’s a good perspective to have when you’re going into an unknown place.

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