This is an installment of the Artgus Artist Spotlight, an ongoing series presented by the Arts & Culture section, intended to highlight the artistic talents of the wider Wesleyan community. To nominate a student artist for a profile, go to tinyurl.com/3ttmszh4. In this installment, Contributing Writer Amanda Ding ’25 and Arts & Culture Editor Sophie Griffin ’23 spoke with Abbi Abraham ’23. As a film major at Wesleyan, Abraham has continued to expand her horizons outside of the department into the world of music video directing and independent film projects on campus.
The Argus: When did you first get interested in film?
Abbi Abraham: Well, I came to Wes pursuing English and Theater. In high school, I was very strongly involved in theater as an actress and singer. Most of my extracurricular time was devoted to rehearsals and performances, and when I was applying to schools, all of my schools were actually theater schools or musical theater concentrations. Then I randomly ED-ed to Wesleyan because I was feeling nervous about devoting four years of my life to a discipline that is very stringent, especially if a young person is still trying to find themselves, and I just needed a bit of space and time to figure things out and learn about the world before I pursued any kind of craft. I still wanted to do theater when I came to Wes, but I gave myself a year to explore other avenues before I would settle with theater, which is what I always thought I would do. Then, I took the intro film class, “Language of Hollywood,” and saw that studying films and watching movies, and creating a visual language is so enriching and fascinating.
I was also part of the film workshop taught by Professor Mirko Rucnov, and that gave me a more intense look into the practical production side. I also wrote a lot in high school and in my life, but translating your writing capabilities to the screen takes a lot of time and energy. So, all of my freshman year, I was just workshopping scripts with him. Even when the pandemic happened, we still met over Zoom, which was the only club that transitioned like that. I continued workshopping stuff—which was a really great outlet—and going to the film series, and spending a lot of time in the theater made me feel really comfortable with the idea of me shifting my path towards something that is more behind the scenes. I’m currently really interested in directing, but I just find that organization and creativity are both things that I’m skilled with. So eventually, everything that I ended up doing ended up being an intersection with film, which has been really exciting, and it conducted a realm of possibilities that I could have never imagined myself.
A: Is there a certain project that you really liked working on?
AA: I recently found a passion for creating music videos for artists on campus which fuses things that I love: film and music and supporting artists on campus. I did one for a band called Bloody Undies. The film center has a lot of resources but most of them are reserved for thesis students in the fall. But because we shot in the spring we could use a green screen, the soundstage, which is a kind of huge facility that has a full lighting setup, and we built our own set for that short. And they also have probably the best technology that the school has to offer in terms of cameras, so I hit the jackpot. It was also training myself and the people around me on how to use those facilities safely, responsibly, and professionally, which was a huge deal. And I’m currently working on a music video for Dachelle [Washington ’23], which will be coming out in hopefully the next two weeks. That has also been an incredible process. We received less departmental support just because it is the fall. But through a lot of rigorous organization along with experimentation in terms of the creative elements of the music video, as well as some funky transitions, I think it’s been a really amazing project to work on. Especially for that project, I was super intentional in the crew and having it reflect, you know, not only what I want to see in a crew, which is diversity, but also the artist and the kind of source material that we’re taking from, which is R&B and ’90s Black culture and lifestyle. Making sure that everyone that we had on set understood that message and really felt what we were trying to go for was crucial, and I think that translated into an incredible project.
A: When you make music videos, what’s your process for turning music into images?
AA: Well, I’ve only done it twice, and both times have been different. Centering the artist is really important because at the end of the day, it is their product that represents their music. Learning the balancing act of incorporating with your own kind of stylistic vision and narrative or your own input with the person who’s funding the project or the person who you know has given you the responsibility of providing a creative treatment to something that they worked really hard on is important. So having a conversation with the artist and establishing boundaries is the most crucial step, and I think professionalism, in general, should be discussed more frequently when it comes to creative collaborations. It’s pretty easy to just kind of take something and do all the things you want to do and end up not exactly matching with the artist’s larger trajectory. But for the Bloody Undies video, I had a dream about it. The concept is essentially “Rosemary’s Baby” meets “Teen Mom.” I had a really crazy dream about this teen mom being kind of possessed by her angry little fetus and her coming to terms with it through engaging in reckless behavior like drinking drugs, partying. Then she doesn’t really understand what’s happening with her body until it’s too late, and the baby is actually a little monster which we portrayed through stop motion. Aiden Champeau [’23] was the Director of Photography and also did the stop motion which was impeccable. I brought that lucid dream to the band and they were like, go for it. With Dachelle, she had a pretty particular vision of what I am looking for. I’m not going to spoil the general narrative, but I took this general idea that she had and tried to flesh it out as much as I can. I do kind of work in dreams or I plan everything out in my head. And then on paper, realize some things just don’t make sense and adjust from there. But I like keeping things in the imaginary until it’s necessary to put them on paper so I can still be open to whatever comes up. We had a lot of conversations about how things should look and feel. I felt like it allowed me to be creative in terms of crafting the details but also gave her the agency to still steer the ship in a way that would be fitting with the project.
A: Is there a project that you’ve always really wanted to do but never had time to pursue yet?
AA: Well the thesis films seem like a really amazing capstone for anyone to partake in. That’s something that I’m looking forward to. I’ve been thinking a lot about where I would want my project to go. It’s definitely super demanding. I’m really grateful that I have had previous production experience. And what’s interesting is that most of my production experience has not been led by the Film Studies department and I’ve kind of learned independently, which allows me to carry some knowledge especially about organizing and overseeing, that some people may not have experienced with and I think that’s a really big asset that’ll hopefully take my shoot far and make things a bit easier. I am in progress in potentially developing a student forum next semester, for music video direction, but I’m still trying to figure out how to get money for everyone. That’s one thing that’s fundamental to me, that everyone should be able to pursue something as large or simple as possible, but everything requires a little bit of money. And it’s really unfair to put the pressure and onus on students to fund projects that they’re passionate about when this school just has so many resources and so much money sitting somewhere. It will probably be a very small class, but each student would be connected to an artist on campus. And I’ve already been talking to some artists who are so talented and who deserve to have some kind of commemoration of their work while they’ve been here. Hopefully, I can also connect them to the Film Department’s resources in terms of shooting with school equipment and help them develop a workflow and a creative vision. Also having weekly check-in discussions about music video history, about the implications of music videos on society, because there’s also a huge anthropological sociological component to music video messaging as it very succinctly points to particular cultural values and can be, depending on the audience, impressionable on young people especially. So it’s also important to consider why you’re making this and what effect or impact it might have. Additionally, talking about professionalism and organization—boring topics, but super crucial to just creating healthy work environments and creative environments on campus—because I don’t want people having difficult relationships with the artists they are working on. That’s paramount to having healthy, stable relationships with your artists, like you would your family or your dog.
A: What has been your experience with the Wesleyan film community and creative community in general?
AA: I owe the Wesleyan film community for why I gravitated towards film in the first place. I explored the department’s resources and met amazing people through that and so I couldn’t be more grateful towards them for providing avenues and outlets. And also there are some really incredible talented students in the department. Besides that, I encourage more independent exploration and independent projects outside of the department, at least for me, because it provides you with a kind of true freedom. On my last shoot, I told all the crew, “I hope that you meet people who you will select as collaborators and will continue this kind of tradition of project making and creativity that doesn’t have to just be within the strict parameters of film.” Any limitations usually come from departments, so I would say reject limitations! But that being said, thesis shoots are notoriously very arduous, and people have very different a vast array of experiences. Some love the grind, love the hustle culture, and some leave feeling a little dissatisfied. My first thesis shoot was fairly long and complicated. I learned so much from it. But I also recognize that certain things like the relationship between director and DP [director of photography] was pretty fraught. And there was a lot of tension on set. And also just not a lot of organization and all those things really need to be nailed down in order for things to go smoothly.
A: What sort of themes or subjects do you usually gravitate towards in your work?
AA: It really depends. If you have a music video, it’s definitely based on the song. I first listen to the song at least 10 times, sleep on it, and then read the lyrics and try to parse out as much contextual information as I can. Then I just start daydreaming based on the atmosphere the song brings about. In terms of other projects, or projects that I’m thinking about, I definitely gravitate towards liminality in terms of identity. I am an African American, but also the daughter of African immigrants. I don’t know whether that will be the focus of my next project, but it is something that I would love to discuss the nuances and shades of. I would also love to do intimate portraits of people at crossroads because everyone at some point provides their own unique perspective. Visually, I really enjoy composition, creating different frames, and using color to draw attention or maybe distract. Being precise with how things are framed and balanced is something that communicates something super internal that you can’t really describe. But creating beautiful images is what I’m going for.
A: What would you say are your filmmaking influences? Are there people that you think are central to your vision? Or do you think it’s more of something out of yourself?
AA: I really hate the question of what’s your favorite movie. There’s so many, and I could so easily be proven wrong any second after another great one. Mati Diop visited last semester and made a big impression on me. I just love her filmmaking and her portrayal of her country in the immigrant experience. I try my best to watch as many things as I can to have a good perspective on things. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Pedro Costa, a Brazilian director who creates sumptuous, deep, moody films. But then I also love a good comedy. My dad and I used to watch Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies, and recently I made him watch a Kurosawa film and we both fell asleep. A lot of my childhood influences have been cartoons or classic Hollywood films, especially older action films. I try to keep my taste varied and disturb it sometimes with something random. I’m also part of the Gather Project, which is an organization on campus that is like a ciné club, which was created in France during the ’60s so people could come together and talk about movies. It promotes film literacy through knowing the terms in which to describe what you’re seeing on screen. Our group is pretty intimate, but it mostly consists of women, non-cis men, and people of color. So it’s evolved into a judgment-free zone of just talking about cinema. We’re hoping to have some events soon, some outdoor screenings and discussions. We started over Zoom last year, and it became a great space and source of discussion about films. We collaborated with ASHA (Adolescent Sexual Health Awareness), who want to talk about “American Pie” through cultural critique which is really valuable. So I’m hoping to do more with that.
A: You mentioned that you had a lot of background in theater and acting. How do you think that plays into your filmmaking now?
AA: It’s made it a lot easier to understand the person in front of the camera and also understand what might be going through their head and how to communicate what you’re trying to see. Performing is super visual as well and super focused on movement, so when you’re watching a bunch of people move it’s a simultaneous feeling of you doing it yourself and then also being super critical. It allows for a balance of sensitivity to the performer and also the ability to be objective. One thing that I did struggle with when I was in theater was that sometimes in the community that I was in, I would be cast in certain roles I would feel somewhat uncomfortable playing, like slave characters and or characters that are rooted in stereotypes. I would talk to my mom and say, “I know I’m really talented. Why am I not getting cast in the roles that I believe I should play?” And she said, “Well, the only way you’re going to fix that is not depend on them to create those roles and you need to create those roles yourself.” But after she repeated that and reinforced it in my brain, I began to realize she’s correct in that as long as somebody else’s story is in their hands, you might never see the person or themes that you’ve always wanted to see, you’ll see what they want to see. And that’s not always a bad thing. It definitely encouraged me and created some doubt in my head as to whether I wanted to only perform. And I actually have not done any theater since then. I miss it a lot, but I’m also pretty engrossed in the “film bro” culture here at Wes. Put that in quotes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Amanda Ding can be reached at email@example.com
Sophie Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org