Not everyone will love your work. And that is okay. Anytime you put your creative work out into the world, some people will love it and some won’t — it’s subjective. Take any and all criticisms and learn what you can from them to make your next project even better. People who will tell you what they don’t like are actually helping you in the long run — whether they are right or wrong.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Filmmaker Jia Wertz. She pursues stories that explore wrongful convictions in the name of protecting the social order. She is currently investigating the vagaries and inconsistencies of the American Criminal Justice system through the story of Jeffrey Deskovic and other exonerees who have had their freedom restored at the cost of irreparable damage to their minds, relationships and families.
Her debut documentary short titled Conviction premiered at the Greenwich International Film Festival and saw success on the film festival circuit receiving eleven official selections and three awards to date.
Jia is from Calgary, Alberta and currently lives in New York City with her husband and son. She is a graduate of New York Film Academy. “Conviction” is her debut film.
In addition, Jia is a featured writer for Forbes, has contributed to a number of fashion and business publications, and the Founder and fashion designer of Studio 15.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
My parents immigrated to Canada from Pakistan, and settled in Calgary. That’s where I lived until I moved to Toronto for college to study fashion management and marketing. From there I moved to the U.S. when I met my husband, who is American.
I am the oldest of three and my two younger brothers, who are just a few years younger than me, are my best friends. Being an older sister to them has been one of the most wonderful experiences in life. Our family is huge, and I mean seriously big. My mom has eight siblings and my dad has five siblings so growing up I had countless role models and all of our aunts, uncles, and cousins were very close, it was like everyone was immediate family. It was a super fun upbringing with lots of laughter, massive family dinners, and entertaining road trips.
Growing up as first-generation immigrants was an interesting experience. At times it was tough because I was incessantly bullied in school for being different — looking different, eating different foods, being a quiet kid, the list goes on and on — and while it used to bother me a lot as a kid and even in my twenties, I know now that those experiences built character and have shaped who I am today.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite life lesson quotes is: “You never change your life until you step out of your comfort zone; change begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
For majority of my life I shied away from doing things that were out of my comfort zone. Only recently did I fully understand the repercussions of making excuses to stay within my comfort zone. I realized there were many, many things I want to do in life but I was the only one holding myself back. It’s so important to get out of your own way. I recently saw another quote that stuck with me, it said, “Whatever you think you can’t do, just know that there is someone who is confidently doing it wrong right now. They have no plans at doing it better either and people are paying them to do it. Please believe in your excellence as much as they believe in their mediocrity.”
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
When I was about 20-years-old I read Rubin Carter’s book The Sixteenth Round, and was very moved by his words. Carter was wrongfully convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, and after losing all of his appeals and really having nowhere to turn, he wrote the book as a last attempt to seek help from anyone that would listen. It was a heart-wrenching read. His raw account of how his life had been ripped apart and the emotional and physical hell he was going through left a lasting mark on me and always stayed in the back of my mind, even today.
Fast-forward to 2014 I listened to the Serial podcast and was shocked and horrified by how Adnan Syed was treated and wrongfully put in prison. Hearing his story and remembering Rubin Carter’s words, made me want to do something to help people who’ve been wrongfully convicted, so a friend and I organized a fundraiser for Adnan to raise money for his legal defense fund. While planning that fundraiser, my friend introduced me to Jeffrey Deskovic, who had also been wrongfully convicted of murder and had spent 16 years in prison. Jeff spoke at our fundraiser and that is how we first met.
A few years later, while trying to figure out what more I could do to support this cause, I was at Adnan’s post-conviction hearing and there was a camera crew there filming the HBO documentary series The Case Against Adnan Syed. With my 20 years of experience in photography, I started to think that films would be a great way to reach a broader audience and that was something I would enjoy doing while also supporting the cause. That led me to enrolling in a documentary film program at New York Film Academy — which was the beginning of my new career.
When I decided to go into filmmaking, I knew I wanted to focus on true crime films about wrongful convictions, and Jeff was the first person I approached since I knew him personally.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
I had a 20-year career in the fashion industry, and very much loved what I did for many years. Just prior to the pandemic, however, I had made the decision to switch careers to follow a passion of mine — to help people who have been wrongfully convicted. I enrolled at New York Film Academy to learn documentary filmmaking because I thought films would be a way to spread awareness and reach a larger audience. I had seen the success of shows like Making A Murderer and it was apparent that audiences were drawn to these types of stories.
Shortly after finishing the program ay NYFA, I completed my documentary short, Conviction, and filmed majority of the feature length film that I am still currently working on. When the pandemic hit, my film had just been accepted into numerous film festivals and I was very disappointed because I thought I would not get to enjoy the fruits of my labor, and I would miss all the opportunities to screen the film for audiences.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
After spending some time rethinking the marketing strategy for my film, I realized that even though most film festival screenings were moving to virtual events and I wouldn’t have the networking opportunities that an in-person event can provide, I saw many opportunities to connect online with people from all over the world, and that is exactly what I did. Many established filmmakers were hosting zoom calls and masterclasses to share their expertise. I joined as many of those calls as I could and learned invaluable lessons from filmmakers who have been working in the industry much longer than I had. These online connections are what led to getting my film on Amazon Prime — something I may not have done had the timing been different.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
My “aha moment” definitely happened when I was at the post conviction hearing for Adnan Syed. A small camera crew was shooting while I was at the court hearing and spending time with Adnan’s family afterwards. I was told that the crew were filming an HBO documentary about Adnan’s story and (in my naivety) I thought if a small crew of just a few people could be creating a documentary for such a large network, that I could also do it. That is what made me go home and enroll into film school, and that is how my career in film first began.
How are things going with this new initiative?
My film, Conviction, has been quite well received, which has been really nice considering it’s my first film. Almost every day I get to meet new people and have opportunities to share the film — whether it’s with students through educational screenings, with audiences at film festivals, or with journalists and podcasters.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am eternally grateful for my husband who is always so supportive of all my endeavors. From a fashion startup that took several years to get off the ground, to switching careers to go into filmmaking at 40-years-old, my husband has not only been supportive of what I want to do, but also lends his talents to all my projects — he is an extremely talented writer and has contributed so much to my film and marketing efforts. I couldn’t have done any of the things I have been able to do without him.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I have had many family members of people who are wrongfully incarcerated reach out to me and that has been a very moving experience. Since my personal goal is to share stories of people who are currently wrongfully incarcerated, it has been nice to connect with these families and talk to them about their experiences.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You can’t do it all yourself. It’s very tempting to take on every aspect of your project, but you will always have a better end product if you collaborate with other people and put creative minds together.
- Patience is key. Filmmaking is a very long process with a lot of moving parts. It will always go much slower than you expected — be patient.
- Making an indie film is like launching a new startup, every single time. It takes a lot of work and requires much more than interviewing, shooting, etc. You have to be a great marketer, publicist, manager, the list goes on and on.
- Managing people and personalities will become a huge part of your day-to-day. From the subjects of your film to your crew and everyone else who contributes to your film, there will be a lot of personalities and issues that will come up and you will have to juggle them all effectively in order to complete your film and have a great end product.
- Not everyone will love your work. And that is okay. Anytime you put your creative work out into the world, some people will love it and some won’t — it’s subjective. Take any and all criticisms and learn what you can from them to make your next project even better. People who will tell you what they don’t like are actually helping you in the long run — whether they are right or wrong.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
When I am in stressful situations, focusing on work helps me deal with the stress. So throwing myself into my work has been a nice distraction and also helps me mentally. Mediation is also something that I depend on when I need to clear my mind, destress, or refocus.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
My focus is on raising awareness of wrongful convictions. I think that for the average person, this isn’t a cause they think about, unless it has personally impacted them. But with approximately 2–5% of all prisoners in America being wrongfully convicted, we have over 120,000 people in prison who shouldn’t be there. If we could inspire a movement that would change laws and correct these wrongs, that would be so important for these individuals and their families, and our country as a whole.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Yes, Oprah! She has done so much good for so many people and is such an inspiration. It would be a dream to talk to her one day.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!