Stefani Saintonge is drawn to cinema. Her blood stream has fragments of celluloid sprinkled all over it, and lots of vintage cutting room dust. If her parents had their way, she would be doing her medical school residency right now, not doing this interview about her career as a Bronx, New York-born filmmaker of Haitian descent. At least, they can be proud of all the accolades she’s received for her work as a writer-director-writer. These laurels include the winning trophy at Essence Black Women in Hollywood Short Film Contest for her coming-of-age short Seventh Grade. Her documentary La Tierra de los Adioses (The Land of Goodbyes) won Best Latin American Short Documentary at Mexico’s Festival Internacional de Cine en el Desierto.
Her next project will bring her to Haiti, her parents’ native land. It’s a project close to the Hofstra University MFA-holder’s heart entitled Babay, Papa Rose.
Kreyolicious: How did your interest in film begin?
I come from a movie-buff family. Both of my parents are obsessed with cinema in their own way. My dad loves the action- thriller- high drama blockbuster type stuff. While my mom loves the indie- foreign- documentary type stuff. Movies are our only bonding activity aside from eating. It didn’t become a viable dream for me until I had to graduate college with a print journalism degree, and the thought of writing news articles for the rest of my life terrified me. That forced me to face what I truly wanted to do with my life and cinema was it. I applied to graduate school and the rest is history.
Kreyolicious: You’re based in New York. Do you think that it’s absolutely necessary that a filmmaker be based in either New York or Los Angeles?
I’m from New York, so I’ve never tried to be a filmmaker outside of this city. With that said, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, but it does help in developing a network. Filmmaking is so accessible now that you can do it from anywhere. So it depends on what you want out of film. If you just want to make your own films, sure, live in Milwaukee. But if you want to work on other’s people’s films and connect with super talented individuals, then it’s probably best to be in one of the two.
Kreyolicious: If you could put together a list of five films and five filmmakers who have influenced you, who would figure on that list?
That’s a hard one. That list changes depending on the week and the project I’m working on. Right now I’m preparing for a short to be shot in Haiti about a family reuniting for a funeral. So I’ve been watching dysfunctional family-event films like The Celebration, Rachel’s Getting Married or About Elly. I’m also looking at movies shot with natural light since that will be our situation given Haiti’s electricity problems so Dallas Buyers Club, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Tree of Life are also on my list.
Kreyolicious: What made you undertake the project Seventh Grade?
I had mentor who told me to write about a significant event from my childhood. I couldn’t think of anything so instead I tried to pinpoint when my childhood ended, and for me it was Seventh Grade and all the terrible, confusing, hormone-induced incidents that come with it.
Kreyolicious:: Now that film won every possible prize for short films, practically. Were you surprised at the way it was received?
I was surprised. It was my first narrative venture. I’d gone to school for documentary, but wanted to try my hand at fiction just to see if I could. It was rough learning as you go, but we made it work. I’m glad people connected with it, which is always the goal when creating films.
Kreyolicious: Practically every film project you’ve done touch upon topics of community, migration, and adolescence. Why those themes?
Also…women. I have two immigrant parents who come from a place where community and family is everything. That can be a nurturing space for young women but also quite destructive. I guess I’m interested in that clash.
Kreyolicious: You’re involved with a film collective called The New Negress Film Society. First off, I have to say that this name sounds really cool. Not just negress…new negress. What made you join this initiative, and what does it mean to you?
My friend, Ja’Tovia Gary, is one of the founding members, and she asked me to join. I agree with you, the name is dope. It embodies exactly how we as black women artists confront the world. I encourage everyone in this artist hustle—especially black women—to organize. It can be marginalizing. The saying is correct—there is power in numbers. New Negress is all about concrete support whether it’s through exhibition, promotion or working on each other’s individual projects. Having a network of people you admire as artists who have pledged to ensure your success is invaluable.
Kreyolicious: How do you stay connected to Haiti? Do you go to Haiti often?
I’m working on a short now to be shot in Haiti, which has forced me to go to Haiti more. I was just there in June laying out a foundation, and I will be back in December to stay until the shoot at the end of January. The goal is to have this be a Haiti-US co-production involving the film community based down there as much as possible. I hope this will open a door to continue creating and building connections with the artist community in Haiti.
Kreyolicious: Would you advise a college freshman to major in film in preparation for a career as a filmmaker? Or would you encourage her to major in finance, work in that field for a while, and then use income she saved towards a career in film?
I do not advise the latter at all for two reasons: At the end of the day, the only way to improve at your craft is by completing projects. Many, many projects. If you work in another field for a while, all that time and energy you spent doing something you don’t like was time you should have been using developing your art. Filmmaking is not a hobby. It takes full-time effort. Secondly, people get addicted to comfort. Starting a film career is years of seeing a minuscule return for a massive amount of effort. If you let yourself become accustomed to a fat paycheck every other week, you’re never going to want to change your career to something as poverty-inducing as filmmaking.
If you want to be a filmmaker, then be a filmmaker. There’s no safe path. If you can go to film school, do it. You’ll have four years to practice, develop your art, build a network and create something to potentially launch your career.
Kreyolicious: Filmmakers and other creative people are never idle. Even when they’re sleeping. What are you working on now, and what do you plan to undertake next?
I was fortunate enough to receive a grant to do my next short project in Haiti. We’re shooting in January, just outside of Port-au-Prince. The film is loosely based on my mother. It’s about a woman going to the funeral of her estranged father in Haiti.
Kreyolicious: You hold an MFA from Hofstra University in Documentary Filmmaking and Production. Looking back now, would you have made the same choice?
I go back and forth on this. Sometimes I wish I had gone to traditional film school so I could have the narrative training that many of my colleagues have. However, documentary film training has informed my aesthetic in exceedingly beneficial ways. The intimacy and authenticity you see in Seventh Grade came directly out of documentary. I plan on merging my training into my narrative pieces even more with my next project. I guess today I’m at peace with the decision. It was a great program, and the choice brought me further than I expected.
[Photos furnished by subject.]