Never define your project before you’ve put it on paper, and even after that, still don’t define it. Documentary, narrative, experimental. Trust what comes to your gut, what feels right and naturally flows with that process. From there, how you want to build/execute it will grow from the soil you’ve been treating. For me, defining it upfront puts too many restrictions on what the idea can flourish to be. Initially, our film Gramercy was going to be a photo series/printed book. Goes to show to never limit it from the start.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jamil McGinnis and Pat Heywood.
Co-writers and directors Jamil McGinnis and Pat Heywood, who met five years ago working in advertising, collaborate under the moniker Seneca Village Pictures. The name was inspired by the little-known New York City settlement in the 19th century, where Irish immigrants and freed Black Americans owned land and coexisted in harmony. McGinnis, a Turkish and African American who lived in 13 different homes growing up on military bases, and Heywood, an Irish-American from Fall River, Massachusetts, figured the name fit like a glove. Gramercy is their fourth short film together, as well as their first foray into narrative.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
JAMIL: I was born to a Turkish mother and an American father who was a soldier in the US Army. I lived in twelve different homes switching between three different languages so my definition of home is never to a specific location but to the people in my life. Most of my life was spent in Germany with most childhood summers in Turkey visiting family and somehow snuck in a week or two back in Cleveland, Ohio to visit my dad’s side of the family. I followed in the footsteps of my sister and father to Florida A&M and was in the world of stock trading in finance. After two summers, I listened to myself and ended up in an ad agency and was a producer there (not sure why that happened). In that time period, I met Pat and have been making films since. Growing up in between two vastly different cultures, I learned to love the differences between my mother’s and father’s stories which taught me how to listen with curiosity. I think my upbringing led me to filmmaking since no other medium could express what my mind is interested to muse on.
PAT: The only thing that can be true is life’s entirety brought me here. I’ll tell the cliffnotes. I grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, poor, raised by a single mother. Mom died when I was eleven, my beloved grandma took the reins. After that, I was a fairly classic screw up for a few years. Never met my father, didn’t have any substantive male figure in my life until I got to high school, where my freshman English teacher took me under his wing and started recommending old films to watch. I gobbled them up, fell in love with cinema, and started learning about the arts from him. Ended up going to film school, then moved to New York, got an entry-level job at a production company, then did the full-time office thing for four years. During that span, I met Jamil and we decided to try and make films together. Left the office lifestyle two and a half years ago. Four short films later, here we are!
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
JAMIL: Talk about interesting. After shot one of day one for Gramercy on our way to the next location, Shaq got into an accident with the broken Cutlass that you see throughout the movie. Our whole initial script was written with the car being in every scene of the movie of him driving around. The car was a representation of his mind, a vessel where one can always be with their own thoughts. In a split second, new decisions had to be made that pushed us into telling the story how it was supposed to be told. After all, the car still became a symbol of one’s state of mind based on the way one looked at it. The universe is always trying to push you further than the comfort you think you want to give yourself.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
PAT: I’m reluctant to name names because I genuinely believe there’s interest to be found in everyone… sometimes you just have to look closely. And how interesting any person is can’t be anything but relative! That being said, I often find fleeting interactions to be the most interesting. My imagination fills in the unknowns.
For example, last week I was sitting in Prospect Park, writing in my journal, and taking the world in. From about 300 feet away, I spot this man walking toward me barefoot. He eventually gets to me and asks about what I’m doing, what I’m writing about. His name was Clarence, and he said that he sensed my energy and openness from across the field. He spoke about consciousness, awareness, suffering, and described why he walks in the park barefoot everyday for at least an hour (to connect to the earth). It was a twenty minute conversation and I felt like I’d been handed the universe’s secrets. He said goodbye, and walked away without looking back. As I write this, I still wonder about his life, where he’s from, and where he’s going. I’ll never know. I think that is very interesting.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
JAMIL: I’ve had the time to reconnect with my mother and father during quarantine in ways I would have never imagined, which has helped me put a long time idea in my head on paper. I’ve been writing memories they’ve told me over the course of my life, writing memories I’ve personally had with them and watching snippets of old home movies before I was born when it was only my older sister. I’ve been essentially writing versions of them that I never had a chance to know which has been a trip. From the housing projects of 35th and Hough in Cleveland, Ohio to the rural farmland of Luleburgaz, Turkey, I still find it fascinating how their two existences merged together to then spend the next 30 years with each other. Time doesn’t feel as linear as we seem to perceive it when deconstructing all of our own memories as well as others.
Within those findings, it’s also given me a chance to specifically talk to my father about his vivid Florida A&M University memories in relationship to mine and the individuals I went to school with, many of which who had parents that went to school with my father. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of lineage in a place that was very different from what it used to represent, which has my mind working through an experimentation of preserving time and how one does that through many voices.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
PAT: Wow, I’ll have to do a few different categories.
In human history… where do I begin and end… Joan of Arc, the Buddah, Mahatma Gandhi, James Baldwin, Socrates, the Dalai Lama, Anne Frank, MLK, Malala Yousafzai… I could go on and on. Some of the highest character human beings the world has and will ever know.
In filmmaking history… Abbas Kiarostami, Andrei Tarkovsky, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Edward Yang. They expanded the boundaries of what cinema could and can be in the name of exploring the human experience.
In my personal history… my grandmother. She worked as a social worker for over thirty years, and sacrificed everything to raise me in the face of the most devastating personal loss one can suffer.
There are so many people to be inspired by.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
JAMIL: I’ve been working on a 260-page photography/design book with my friend and roommate Max Friedman titled Things You Know. We’ve been documenting the neighborhood of Crown Heights for the past 2–3 years and have compiled personal experiences, photographs, interviews, 16mm motion film, sound bits, objects on the ground, all into what we’re currently printing. We’re taking 100% of the proceeds and chatting with a couple potential partners (either a school or a museum) to create an image-making program for the students to be exposed to something they might not otherwise know. Ultimately, we want Things You Know to be a space to push someone to rethink the things in life they once thought they knew. We hope a program like this could inspire and give guidance to the youth in ways they haven’t thought of before. Whether it’s directly with image-making or if it becomes a way of creatively thinking through life, at least the message was received.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
PAT: I’ll push back on the premise a little. Every person manifests ideas, dreams, or passions at some point in their lives. I grant that it happens at different scales, and some appear more grandiose than others… but I fear narratives around the idea that there are people who do manifest and people who don’t is a damaging binary caused by expectations. Expectations can be barriers to fulfillment. Jamil and I learned that in the three years of developing, shooting, and editing Gramercy. When we grasped onto expectations about how something ought to be, or held onto a preconceived notion about the past or future. We lost touch with where we were in the present moment, and I feel honest reflection on the present is a good compass when it comes to making art.
As for an “Aha moment” — filmmaking is an ever-changing series of them. You can’t be too precious about identifying that kind of thing because you may have another one the next day, or decide to change the narrative.
That being said, I think bringing awareness to the plight of grappling with depression came from hearing our struggles, and recognizing that there was a subjective cinematic language to create around them. It starts from that inward place, and then moves outward. We became cognizant that this meditative space would not just be for us, but for everybody that would (hopefully) see a hint of themselves somewhere in the film. In that way, the artist and the viewer end up being one and the same.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
JAMIL: There’s been a couple notes from people who feel extremely inspired to want to tell their own story that has been a fascinating feeling to take in. That means that the story, the people, the area that was projected on the screen feels tangible and of reach. The more we can have that feeling, the more we can feel inspired to make our own art. I don’t want to name specific people but hearing some of those thoughts and expressions were the same sentiments I had when watching some of the films that move me to my core. That connectivity is what makes us motivated to then tell the next story we have in our minds.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
PAT: The great English poet David Wythe has a sentiment that resonates deeply: “A real conversation always contains an invitation.” If we take that sincerely… if we invite those we engage with to share, and recognize we are not robots with all of the right answers with agendas to push, then perhaps we could understand each other more deeply. At the level we ought to be. We could live in a society that was less judgmental and more open. If we asked questions instead of shouting answers, we would be more in touch with our vulnerability and humility. We would listen to what’s on the other side of a question mark. Society is better when we’re self-examining and interested in the world around us.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is useful here. It is difficult to be introspective whilst struggling with the fundamentals of modern-day survival. It’s not impossible. Some of the most compassionate people I’ve met are people that could use the most help. But, broadly speaking, if our government and society was more interested in getting folks out of poverty, cultures of violence, giving people quality education, teaching people to think for themselves, and getting access to real equal opportunity as opposed to the appearance of it, as opposed to using hatred to keep people pinned against each other, as opposed to taking away people’s freedoms, then we would go a long way toward making people’s inner well beings more attainable.
I have no idea if I’ve given zero, three, or infinite number of things there with that response!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
JAMIL: Man, haha.
- Never define your project before you’ve put it on paper, and even after that, still don’t define it. Documentary, narrative, experimental. Trust what comes to your gut, what feels right and naturally flows with that process. From there, how you want to build/execute it will grow from the soil you’ve been treating. For me, defining it upfront puts too many restrictions on what the idea can flourish to be. Initially, our film Gramercy was going to be a photo series/printed book. Goes to show to never limit it from the start.
- Filmmaking can be as expensive as you want to make it to be. If you want to grab the most expensive gear with the largest crew, go for it. Just know you can tell the same story with an iPhone, a producer and a mixer. I think approach and development will also become a part of your personal style as a filmmaker and this kind of goes back to the first point of trusting your gut.
- The project you are working on now does not define you as a filmmaker, it’ll just help you paint a clearer vision for your next project. Sounds like a “not in the moment” train of thought but it’s a basis on which to learn from and what you wouldn’t do again in the future. Truthfully, no single project will clearly define you as a person since you’re constantly evolving. It’s good to think of this in retrospect as opposed to when it’s presently unfolding in the moment. Think of your films as reflections of an older version of who you are today and you’ll begin to find deeper appreciation and growth.
- The circle you keep matters, and understanding each person’s goal in that circle matters even more. As a director, picking out the right individuals who deeply understand your intention is your biggest job.
- Enjoying the process more than the final outcome will bring wonder in your life, so in order to enjoy it, you have to be very grounded in the moment for it. The moments I had to rewatch Gramercy, I began thinking about every ounce of work that went into the making of the piece rather than the piece itself. Within all of those prep days and moments of chatting with the core team around the project, when I see them today, we usually go back to the days of the process rather than the film that the world has a chance to see. It’s a trip to think about.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
PAT: Because life will be more meaningful. Our egos trick us into believing our happiness depends on immediate self gratification, our wants and desires, collecting more and more things… but really, altruism in all its form not only betters our society, but it makes individuals happier in both the short and long term. We feel more personally fulfilled if we open ourselves up to helping others that need it.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
JAMIL: There’s this one guy, Wallace Peeples, he goes by Wallo267. If you don’t know about him, he has an unbelievable story and has a soul the world needs more of. He is truly a source of love and inspiration. What he does is truly the light in a world where we see the opposite. I’d rather not discuss his background and for anyone reading to find him online and see the work he is doing. He is truly remarkable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
PAT: A simple and profound insight by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. “You cannot separate a lit area and a shaded area from one another.”
Good cannot exist without bad. Bad cannot exist without good. These limiting value judgements divide — both in our society and within ourselves. Instead, simply notice, see, and accept everything as whole, including yourself. Remind yourself of that constantly, because you will forget. I do. That is what it is to be human.
How can our readers follow you online?
JAMIL: You can follow Pat and I’s production company www.senecavillagepictures.com where all our projects are housed under. You can also pre-order a photograph/design book that my friend Max Friedman and I are currently printing titled Things You Know, www.thingsyouknow.org. Instagram is @jamiltmcginnis, Pat’s @mpatheywood