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Walk with me

Social Change + Art in Tanisha Christie's film, Walk With Me


Social Change + Art in Tanisha Christie's film, Walk With Me


You know how most documentaries feature a slew of talking heads lamenting about dying whales or something? You know you should be interested but then you doze off and wake up with a crick in your neck and drool on your chin from falling asleep on the couch? Let's be honest - sometimes a really compelling documentary can be hard to pull off. It takes a good story, interesting subjects, great footage and a whole lot of other things I'm completely unaware of to make it enticing. Drawing from a well of creativity coupled with incredible drive and determination, filmmaker Tanisha Christie directed and produced the film Walk With Me along with her co-director and co-producer, Ellie Walton; a process that has taken over five years. Inspired by her mentor and teacher, Rebecca Rice, Walk With Me profiles three women who use theater to inspire and connect with people in overlooked communities e.g. prisons and schools. The result is a compelling, interesting, moving, and inspiring documentary film about giving voice to the people often deemed voiceless and allowing them to access their own sense of power through theater, play, and discovery.

I'm not the only person diggin' the film. Walk With Me has been screened at multiple film festivals and has been used for educational presentations at various national universities; the film also won honorable mention at the 2012 San Francisco Black Film Festival and most recently, Best Documentary Feature at the Our City Film Festival in Washington, DC. Christie beautifully shared her creative process with CultureFphiles as well as the importance of yoga and cocktails to help make it through the challenging times.

Walk With Me is inspired by your relationship with your mentor, Rebecca Rice, who is one of the three women featured in the film. What about your relationship with her inspired you to make the film?

I met Rebecca while I was the Assistant Director at the former Living Stage Theater Company in Washington, DC. Working there was a pivotal time in my development as an artist because that experience not only deepened my craft as a performer and educator; I learned the responsibility of being an artist and while the nurturing of my own voice has value, there is significant value in sharing the creative process with others.

Rebecca brought an amazing amount of integrity to her creative work and taught me that process was just as important as the product. It is rare to find teachers or mentors who are so good at reflecting you back to yourself - for better or worse - she did that for me. She was adamant in giving me tools to figure out the 'whys' of wanting to make art - What stories did I want to tell? What songs did I want to sing and for what purpose? She would often challenge, 'you can sing in the shower, write a poem for yourself, but the minute you desire to share it with the world, what do you want the audience to experience? Why should they pay money to see it or hear it?' She firmly believed in the artist’s role in culture and society; and taught me to take great care in my role by having respect for myself as a theater artist.

In making Walk With Me, we, [Ellie Walton Co-Producer/Co-Director], wanted to share a slice of Rebecca’s story and the stories of our friends and colleagues who are doing similar work inspired by the same passions. When artists and community workers talk about ‘arts activism’ or ‘arts for social change,’ most don’t understand what that means. Instead of theater artists simply “talking” about this kind of creative work, we wanted to show what making theater with people actually looked like. We wanted viewers to witness the process and see how others' were moved by the experience.

What has it been like collaborating on the project with your partner, Ellie? What have you discovered in undertaking a project of this magnitude with another person?

Ellie and I had the rare gift of having the same artistic vision for the film. I enjoy collaboration immensely and both of us respect the concepts connected to having a process around making something – for example,  experimentation, taking-time, critical feedback. We also shared a huge respect for deadlines. You know how it is, we creative-types, we can sit in the nuances of our muse for a long time. At times, one of us would say, 'Let’s just try it this way and leave it!' Don’t get me wrong, we had disagreements and were frustrated by each other. We have very different working styles. But we left our egos at the door, knowing that what we wanted to achieve was greater. We wanted to make the most beautiful film we could make with the resources we had available. Period. I guess we were blessed with ignorance, in some ways. While we knew that making the film was going to be difficult, [Walk With Me is Walton's third feature length and Christie's first feature length film], we didn’t know what challenges were actually going to present themselves and thankfully, we’re both comfortable with being in the unknown.

Our real roadblocks were money and time. And our imagined roadblocks were money and time.

You've been working on Walk With Me for the past five years. How do you get through the real and imagined road blocks to manifesting your vision for the film?

Our real roadblocks were money and time. And our imagined roadblocks were money and time. Even though the means for filmmaking are getting easier, there are still costs associated with making a film. We raised 20% of what was needed to make the film; this was pre-Kickstarter so it was primarily done through Facebook , email campaigns, fundraising events and grants from Humanities Council of Washington, DC and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities which we are extremely grateful to. We decided that we were not going to let money deter us. We capitalized on relationships; we had an amazing co-producer named Cat Mallone who came on to the project, amazing support from friends, family, cut costs where we could, and paid for essentials like licensing rights, animation, sound mastering, etc. Time and distance was a challenge because we both had to earn a living, Ellie was teaching and working on other projects in Washington, DC and I was in New York holding down a demanding corporate job. We essentially ‘stayed the course’ and didn’t focus too much on what we lacked but what we had keeping our vision in our sights.

But really I think we got through the blocks with well-timed cocktails and lots of yoga.

How do you move through any doubts, fears, or uncertainties as you continue to work on the film? Are there ever moments where you feel like giving up? Or where you question your commitment to the project?

We were fueled by the labor of love. I know that sounds cheesy but it’s true. We also allowed ourselves to take breaks from the project when, either our schedules were too tight or we were getting burnt out. I feel like we managed our uncertainty by becoming very protective of what we were making. The vision of the project changed three or four times, so there was a lot on the editing room floor, so to speak. And for me, they felt like huge losses but I had to quickly accept this as part of the process of filmmaking. I never feared that we weren’t going to make the film, I feared that it wouldn’t be seen which was a whole other part of this process – making the film is one thing…sharing it with the world is another, which is where we are with the film now. This is the aspect of this project that is the most tedious and time consuming in a different way and the least glamorous. I give up once a month. We’ve had some successes and some disappointments in this area, but I’m committed. I can’t see spending years making something and not giving a good go of sharing it with others. I suppose, this is where my tenacity meets my passion.

What keeps you motivated, inspired, and moving forward?

I’m not quite sure beyond a deep understanding that this is what I’m supposed to be doing although, I often go through periods of feeling lost and unsure. So I have to pay attention to each moment.

I just presented an excerpt of the film to 500 Juniors, Seniors and their teachers at the San Diego School of the Creative and Performing Arts, which is an amazing public school. These students were inspired and articulate about their chosen craft be it visual art, dance, music or theater. I was honored to be invited to speak to them about my creative career, which has taken many twists and turns. I had such a great time talking with them and they seemed to enjoy the presentation….so having 500 people clap, cheer and show appreciation…. yeah…that’ll keep me going for a long while.

Do you feel a sense of satisfaction when you have "finished" creating a piece of art? This question extends to your work as an actor and singer as well. Are you able to be present or feel a sense of finality in your accomplishments?

Ha. I hardly feel satisfied and accomplished! But I suppose, something is "finished" for me, when I decide to share it but at times, even after the audiences’ response, the show/performance/story, I might feel that more work needs to be done. So, I developed a part of my process that is called, 'Tanisha, put the project down' where I just force myself to stop nitpicking the project and myself in order to let my muse breathe.

I have yet to feel a sense of finality with anything that I’ve created. I guess I feel like my creative life is an extended novel, and with each project/show/performance it’s another chapter in an evolving story in my growth as an interdisciplinary artist.

Even with the film, if we were to watch it together, I can tell you everything that’s "wrong" with it. Or when I perform, even after the applause, I’m critiquing my performance. I’ve accepted these quirks and my perfectionism as a part of my process so I work on being kind to myself in these aspects. But no, I have yet to feel a sense of finality with anything that I’ve created. I guess I feel like my creative life is an extended novel, and with each project/show/performance it’s another chapter in an evolving story in my growth as an interdisciplinary artist.

What have you learned from this process? What are some of the things you were most surprised by?

I’ve accepted that I’m a whirling dervish when it comes to my creative life. I’ve begun to understand that, for me, content dictates form, meaning I have an idea and then my muse aids me in choosing how or if I will manifest it. And while this poses its ownchallenges around mastery of craft, time, and resources, I’m surprised by how deep of a creative well I have left.

Check out more information on Walk With Me.

Words by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: JD Urban