Danielle Bernstein, (BFA/DIP '06), is the founder of Clear Films in Atlanta, Georgia, and directs and produces award-winning documentary films and non-profit media campaigns. We caught up with Danielle to ask her about her time at SMFA and her life as a professional artist.
Tell us about your company, Clear Films.
Clear Films was started in 2006 after I graduated from SMFA. My goal was to start a production company that focused on social and environmental documentary. Seven years later, that is exactly what we are doing. With several projects, feature length documentary projects, under our belts and more in the works.
We also create content for advertising agencies, small businesses, and non-profits. However, I am picky about what we work on. We are based in Atlanta so there is a lot of pressure to work for corporations like Coca Cola. Every now and then we will get asked to bid on a commercial for a pesticide company. Needless to say, soda isn't healthy and large scale agriculture isn't sustainable, so we turn those jobs down.
What was your focus at SMFA and at what point did you realize that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
My progression toward film was very organic. I entered SMFA with a photography portfolio, fell in love with sculpture, was totally inspired and changed by Mags Harries's installation class and Tim Nichols Drawing Breath class. I spent most of my time in the casting studio trying to capture the space in between objects. But everything changed after video class I took with Jane Hudson. I loved moving picture but didn't like video, so I took a summer 16mm class with Paul Turano and was hooked. My last year at SMFA, I took a leap of faith and signed up for advanced film with Jane Gillooly to pitch a project idea. I thought I would stay in the class if my project got picked, or I would return to installation if it didn't. But it did and we made an awesome 16mm short, about a boat on the Boston Fish Pier, called "Almahrosa." I think it is still there. The collaboration of vision and talent is what attracted me to film. There are so many different moving parts and working with 16mm film was magical to me after coming from a photo background. That was it. I left SMFA in 2006 and moved to Ecuador in 2007 to make my first documentary, "When Clouds Clear." We shot on 16mm and the film went on to over 50 film festivals worldwide and won several awards. It was a great start.
How did other SMFA students influence you?
SMFA and its students really shaped me as an artist and as a business person. The School itself is challenging in that there is so much freedom. You can get lost and sidetracked, but it is kind of a self-regulating system because the students that stay are really driven. They have a vision and they finish what they start. I felt particularly honored to work in the sculpture department. Sculpture, like film, can be a really collaborative process and I felt like there was an incredible group of students and faculty that challenged and supported one another.
Any advice for graduating students on transitioning to the professional world?
Don't stop making work. It's hard to start again.
I am not sure what else to say that doesn't sound totally cliché. I love running into students from SMFA who are still making work! I think the School itself really prepares you for the real world. If you don't do the work, then you don't pass your boards. After school, if you don't do your work, then you cease to make art. You have to work, make money, build relationships. There are a million more reasons to not do your work when you get out of school.
One thing that is a more personal piece of advice, is to find relationships that are supportive of your passion for making artwork.
How did you come up with the idea to help other artists by listing funding sources on your website? (Bravo, by the way!)
Karma? It's one of those things that I have spent hours doing, or assigned an intern to, and thought "this is stupid, someone just needs to compile a huge list." I used to try to keep up with dates and when things were due but I don't have the man power at the studio, so I just settled on sharing what I find.
Tell us about your latest film, "Imba Means Sing."
The film follows two kids, Moses and Angel, from the poorest neighborhoods in Uganda, through a year in the USA, and back. They narrate the film along with three Ugandan chaperones who were once in the choir.
Their stories weave together the hardships and challenges of their lives in Uganda, the wonder they feel at being exposed to life in the West, and their boundless hopes and dreams for their future.
Moses and Angel are part of a 20-person choir formed by a non-profit called the African Children's Choir, or Music for Life. The film follows the children over the year and a half that they spend visiting three countries, more than 100 cities, and as they stay with multitudes of host families along the way. They perform almost every day of the week singing in churches, community center, and theaters. The money raised goes toward the non-profit and, ultimately, their education. As they grow, learn English, and enjoy the wonders of the West, they realize that the stakes are high; their own futures and the futures of their families hang in the balance. At the same time, they are brimming with joy—at the new sights and experiences they are encountering on this grand adventure.
The pot of gold for each of these kids is the superior, robust education they'll receive when they return to Uganda. Overall, only 17% of Ugandan children make it to high school, and for every year of education a child receives, their adult salary increases by 10%, truly changing the course of their lives. These kids epitomize those statistics, and give the audience personal access to their emotional journey to an education that surpasses even their wildest dreams.
The film has some incredible potential and it has been a really challenging, yet incredible process. It is actually the first film in which I have been hired to be the director.
Thank you, Danielle—we're excited to hear what comes next!