New York City, Nov. 12 – Nasreen Alkhateeb is an award-winning director and cinematographer who has dedicated the last decade to creating content that amplifies underrepresented voices. She is a leader on diverse storytelling projects that include broadcast, digital, and film. Most recently, she has spent the last two months as the cinematographer for Kamala Harris’ campaign as she was seeking the Vice Presidency. I sat down with her after the monumental win to discuss her creative trajectory, life on the campaign trail, and what the future of American filmmaking looks like.
When did you start developing your voice?
I started to develop my voice at a young age… It didn’t feel like a good thing then, because I was ostracized for being different and othered. People didn’t really know how to relate to me, because of my ethnicity, culture, my parents’ religion; because of my skin color. I was raised by a women’s rights activist who taught me at a young age to ask for what I want – and to use my voice not just on behalf of myself, but the people around me as well. At Pratt Institute, I found a community that was like me in that it used its artistic gifts to create work that can potentially influence the world. That was there I started to envision how I can take my weird film, sculpture, and monster make-up, and turn it into social justice work.
Do you remember when you first realized that film was your medium?
I decided that film was my medium when I was seven and I watched The Fly. I realized that people could have fun at work. I thought, someone gets paid to have fun – and there’s no way that I can stand not to have fun at work for the rest of my life.
[Laughs] Is Cronenberg still one of your major influences?
Oh hell yeah. He’s a total weirdo.
Your earliest works were genre-driven fiction, mainly horror and fantasy. Over the last two decades, you’ve shifted your focus towards human interest stories, and finding relatable moments in irregular situations. Can you talk a little about the change in your content, and where the need for the shift was borne out of?
Getting to witness the impact of my mother’s human rights’ work left an indelible mark on my young mind. The knowledge that storytelling can be used for shifting general consciousness never left me; I just didn’t know how to pair my cultural interests with my social justice interests. The first few internships I had during college were doing docu-series, working with museums and filmmakers who were shooting cultural history in New York City. That’s where I realized that I could take much more ownership over my projects in a documentary space.
How has your personal experience shaped your career?
As my career has developed, I’ve been much more vocal about my choices, and I stand my ground when I get notes back from non-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) producers. It’s really important for BIPOC to stand up and use their experiences to shape the work that they’re doing, and to affirm that work vocally, both with audiences and non-BIPOC executives. The lens that BIPOC look through is unique, and often trauma-informed, to be honest. In the past, that hasn’t been a supported path in the film industry, and that’s shifting visibly. It’s felt.
Do you find that creating work that is colored by your own experience is challenging?
Totally. I’m not coming across gatekeepers who have my background; so, the challenge is really finding something that resonates with them in my story. The last project I worked on before the campaign was the first time I brought my biography into my work, it’s the story of four teenage girls (one non-binary) from Muslim households – we follow their coming of age in high school, one week before 9/11. We get to see them before and after.
Your work almost always centers on the ideas of advancing diversity and inclusion; how has this shaped your projects? Do you feel that the themes you create around are consistent with the direction we’re moving in as a society?
I would hope so! After the recent election, there’s an audience for my type of work out there; but, there’s a huge part of the country that hasn’t had the opportunity to be exposed to someone that looks like me. Same goes for a refugee, or a queer person, or someone who doesn’t identify with a gender. All of those concepts are not only foreign to them, but they might feel like an attack on their reality – I focus on work that helps to bridge that gap.
Two summers ago, a hit-and-run assault resulted in an injury that forced you to change the pace and type of the work you do; gone were the days of lugging heavy equipment by yourself. How has this loss of physical ability changed the nature of your work – and have you found a well of creativity in having to do things differently?
The assault definitely had me re-creating what a production workday looks like. I could no longer be on my feet for hours. It took me a year to come to grips with saying the words, “I’m disabled.” It’s like a curse-word in the American narrative; like admitting defeat.
RespectAbility helped a lot with this; I met a group of people who were unabashedly accepting of me and my otherness, and it was never the first thought in anyone’s head. It was more like, “okay, you’re disabled; let’s talk about the film project you are pitching right now, because that’s where the energy needs to go.” My body works differently now; but, I’m still working – and I now have a lens that makes my work impactful and widens my audience. I’m considering disabled people in every facet of my production process, and I’m more vocal about my needs on set. And, it turns out I’ve always had needs – the film industry puts an emphasis on back-breaking work as a badge of honor, and it’s not about that. I now provide my body with what it needs so that my brain can flourish.
You’re part of a class of young creators who are shifting perceptions; themes of inclusion and equality have been creeping into genres beyond just documentary and traditional drama narrative; as an example, Black Panther or Get Out. How do you think the future of filmmaking will be impacted by the trajectory of social change?
The time that we’re living in is so exciting. There’s groundbreaking content being created, like When They See Us and Lovecraft Country. The industry is being challenged; all of the biases and discrimination that were thriving five years ago are now outdated. Having a black female or a disabled person on screen as the lead is actually great for the box office.
On that note – tell me about what you’ve been doing in the last two months.
Since mid-August, I’ve been on the road with Kamala Harris documenting her campaign. It’s been unlike anything I’ve ever undertaken and the hardest I’ve ever worked. In my life. [Laughs]
What made you decide to drop everything and be nomadic for a few months as you follow the campaign?
I felt that there was nothing more important than having a woman of color in a Presidential cabinet. If I could contribute towards that in any capacity, there was no question. Just Kamala’s participation in our democracy on such a level changes how people think about women of color, and changes how little girls look at themselves. I wish I’d had that as a girl! Having the opportunity to document a woman of color who comes from two very divergent cultures, own conversations across social, racial, and gender boundaries – sometimes with people who look nothing like her, that she had to create safe spaces for – was reaffirming to say the least. She’s breaking all the rules and doing it comfortably and confidently. She owns her power, and instills power in others, all in her own shoes.
Her Chuck Taylors.
The idea of someone in the White House who is both a woman and a person of color is both inspirational and aspirational for so many Americans. You yourself are a woman of color who had a major role to play on a powerful team in the last couple of months; can you talk about what it’s like to be leading the charge of a new wave of creators that exemplify the face of the future of this country?
It’s finally starting to feel like we’re being considered for jobs that are equal to our experience, and that feels phenomenal. I’m excited to be part of a rising group that’s having an effect on the way content is created and presented, and absorbed by society. That means so much – when I’m behind the camera, my experience informs how I tell the story. I want to show future creators that if they can convert their trauma into stories that people can relate to across culture and language – that’s where their revolution starts.
Was there a favorite piece you created while on the campaign trail?
The “I Vote” video, which centered on women of color and disabled people. I wanted to interview people about what was important to them, and why they’re choosing to participate in our democracy.
Why are YOU voting? pic.twitter.com/s1AASMOQEt
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) November 2, 2020
What inspires you as you look beyond the election and your work with the Harris team?
We’re at a ‘yes we did’ moment in history, and I get to be in the front row for a world that’s going to be represented on the film screen in a way that mirrors the world on the street. Little girls of color will see the opportunity to become CEOs and directors, there will be disabled writers and producers, maybe our next VP will be a disabled VP! Or maybe the next President will be a Black woman. I get to help tell those stories and normalize a shift that’s long overdue.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to sleep for two weeks straight. [Laughs] I’m in a position where my work can be seen and appreciated on a national scale, and I want to honor that. I’m working on a new project with a female MMA fighter who’s going to her home country of Cambodia to explore her roots and reconnect with her ancestry through the art of kickboxing.