Interview with Filmmaker Crystal Kayiza

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From July 11-15, the Circle Cinema, Tulsa’s independent theater and gallery, hosted its second annual film festival to celebrate 91 years. The festival featured a large variety of films, but the best (and admittedly only) one I saw was the film Edgecombe, with a Q&A afterward with director Crystal Kayiza.

Crystal screened Edgecombe at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and participated as a Sundance fellow. Crystal started her filmmaking journey as a student at Jenks High School. It was there she got her first award, a regional professional Heartland Emmy in 2012 for her short documentary All That Remains, which is about Boley, Oklahoma, one of the last all-black towns in America. Since then she has been interested in community portraits that focus on, in her words, “the numerous ways black folks overcome across generations.”

Edgecombe is the latest of her work in this trend. The fifteen-minute film follows Shaka Jackson, Doris Stith, and Deacon William Joyner, three residents of Tarboro, North Carolina, in Edgecombe County. Jackson is on probation and is working at an Applebee’s, and the story weaves his and Stith and Joyner’s individual stories together to show how Edgecombe and its people continue to navigate both systematic and personal struggle.

Crystal learned of Edgecombe while working at the American Civil Liberties Union where she focused on the criminalization of poverty. The ACLU helped her figure out exactly what stories she was drawn to. “It was like a two-year extension of my education,” Crystal says of the work. “So when I left to start filmmaking full time I felt a lot of confidence in my own voice as a filmmaker.”

Crystal was actually my camp liaison when I attended Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain a few summers ago for film, and we both studied filmmaking under our teacher Clifton Raphael, who served as the moderator at the Q&A following Edgecombe‘s screening and guest reviewed on this blog a few weeks ago.

When she came to Tulsa to premiere her film Crystal generiously took time to be interviewed by me about the piece. This is a highly condensed version of our conversation, but I think even in this small snippet it is clear how thoughtful Crystal is about her films, the impact she makes both in front of the camera and behind it, and that she is an exciting new voice in filmmaking. If you’ve ever been curious about documentary filmmaking, Crystal has some unique insights.

You aren’t from North Carolina or Edgecombe. How did being an outsider affect your perspective as you made the film? 

I think one thing that’s important is being really, really aware and intentional about how you take up space and also being super-open to learning and not making assumptions about what your own work should look like. I was introduced to [Edgecombe County] through the issues I was working on at the ACLU. That was my entry point, but just because it was my entry point doesn’t mean it’s necessarily how I should be grounded in the space, right? Talking to Shaka, Ms. Stith, and Deacon Joyner and having their vision about their world inform the end product is part of what really interests me about nonfiction work.

What is it like to become close to the three main characters and then have to move on?

I think there’s this strange relationship built between filmmakers and people in projects. You build this relationship that is so fragile in the sense that it can be super-temporary or lead to really long-term communication.

When I was in the edit, I was very careful to be in communication with Shaka, Ms. Doris and Deacon Joyner and made sure to send them the film before it was screened. The language that is used around describing them is something I’m also very sensitive too and I’ve had situations where I’ve felt that their characters and identities weren’t being portrayed in a way that I think is inclusive or equitable to the story, so also protecting them. There’s a trust and respect that’s built, and part of maintaining that isn’t just during production.

Tell me about your choice to often use close-ups on your characters’ faces.

During the filming, there was a part where I was in a church where a lot of the women worshipping there looked back at the camera. I’m very interested in breaking the gaze between the audience and the people in the film… breaking the myth that there’s no power dynamic between myself as the director and the people that are in front of the camera. I think portraits can be a powerful way to acknowledge that there is a gaze, but it can be reciprocated.

What inspires you outside of filmmaking?

Music for sure. Reading… I think it’s really important to engage with other media, regardless of if it’s something you’re passionate about or pursuing yourself. I just find that most of my leisure time is spent thinking about film. Oh! And yeah, eating. I love food, I’m a huge foodie. When I was in Mississippi me and the Director of Photography would go to all the historic places and ask for [food] recommendations. It’s an important part of production. You can’t undervalue the importance of having a good meal and learning about a space based on what people eat.

What do you want Tulsans who see Edgecombe at the Circle Cinema Film Festival to take away?

The way communities operate are very intergenerational, and are reinventions of previous lives and spaces, and I think that very much exists in Tulsa. Examining the histories that we do and do not talk about is something that is really important to me and something I try to explore in the film. So take a moment to respect and acknowledge [Edgecombe], but then look home and see what histories and spaces we devalue and which ones we uphold.

I’m really excited to show it at Circle. The first time I ever watched indie film was at Circle Cinema, so it’s really exciting to come back home and screen it. Out of all the screenings I’ve done so far it’s probably going to be one of my favorite experiences because showing it in spaces that have really informed your own work is always a really cool experience.

-Madeleine D.



For those living in Tulsa who are interested in the arts and culture scene, I highly recommend Time + Temp, a monthly email newsletter edited by Liz Blood, former editor of the Tulsa Voice and a Tulsa Arts Fellow. The newsletter typically includes an interview with local artists like Crystal, stories about new sightseeing attraction, two restaurant/food recommendations, and a couple other special surprises each month. I had the opportunity to work behind-the-scenes on the newsletter this summer and saw just how much attention and passion is put into it. You can expect it in your inbox at the beginning of each month, always free. I’ve really enjoyed reading it, and I think you might too. Subscribe below:


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