January 7, 2016

SCA Student Stories: Ayana Baraka

By Eileen Kwon

As a newly minted Fall graduate, Ayana Baraka ’15 reflected on her time as an SCA student and on lessons learned about creativity, life, and the elusive nature of “success.” Baraka also shared her experience as a cinematographer on The Hunting Ground in which she was able to help young women tell their stories of rape culture on college campuses.


What in your past experience has given you inspiration or a unique point of view that you bring to SCA? My sister has always said that in order to grow you must be uncomfortable. I’ve internalized this to mean take risks in order to grow, know yourself (truth) and seek improvement (change). Face your truth. I visualize life as a pyramid. Start at the bottom. That’s the foundation. As I have experiences, whether good or bad, I reflect on how I’ve come through those situations. Have I changed? What is to be learned? I don’t want to be stuck at that base level nor do I want to move further up the pyramid with a shaky foundation.

During my spring 2015 semester at USC, I wrote and DP’d a film called We the People. It’s a short lyrical fiction piece about perception; based on the #blacklivesmatter movement. I was deeply disturbed by how the conversation in the news changed from dealing with the deep-seeded issue of how African Americans are perceived and being killed without cause, to Blacks vs. the entire police department. My experiences have shaped every part of who I am and the work that I create. If I’m compelled to create a film it is because I need to work though a life experience or a situation in the world that I do not understand.

Could you share one piece of advice that has centered you in the midst of your journey as a filmmaker? Two things have helped center me on this journey to becoming a filmmaker. I have changed the way I view myself and I’ve stopped chasing “success.”

I shot a segment during the PBS-SoCal News Hour called “Bonnie Boswell Reports” in which I had the opportunity to meet Herbie Hancock, an award-winning musician. In our session, he stated that he doesn’t define himself as just a musician. I took his statements to heart. I’m not only a cinematographer but also a human being, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a dancer, world traveler, an activist, feminist, a soror, and worlds more. I think about the positive influences that I’d like to have, and cinematography is the tool by which I can see that change.

For a long time, I chased “success,” the success defined by fame and accolades. I’ve decided to do things that I love to do instead of the things that will make me “successful.” Don’t get me wrong. I have goals. I want to be an ASC member. I want to make at least one feature film a year and also shoot commercials. I want to provide for my family. But I will not base my happiness and self-worth on the idea of success. If I’m true to myself and make work that resonates with people, then I believe those other things will come. As a filmmaker, this choice has made me a better and more creative collaborator and risk-taker.

How did you become involved with The Hunting Ground, a documentary focused on the rape culture on college campuses? What was your experience at the premiere of The Hunting Ground at Sundance 2015? I worked on a 547 documentary called Beyond the Sole, directed by Derek Dow ‘14. After that semester, I was referred to The Hunting Ground by Professor Amanda Pope. Ian Rose, the associate producer, looked at my previous work and started me working immediately.

The Hunting Ground hired several cinematographers from across the U.S. I covered Occidental College, USC, and UCLA. Rape culture is a major issue and I’m so proud to have been a part of this film. I am totally thrilled about the success that The Hunting Ground documentary has had at Sundance and for being shortlisted for an Oscar. All of its success has helped schools change its policies on sexual assaults.

Sundance 2015 was my first time going to the Sundance Film Festival. The Hunting Ground premiered at Sundance where I saw it for the first time. The USC School of Cinematic Arts had two parties at Sundance. I went to the film screenings, went to parties, Q&As, I ate good food, and met new people. It was a wonderful experience and created a feeling that I can’t quite articulate. I love filmmaking and I cannot wait to go back to Sundance with another film.


Could you share your experience as the cinematographer of The Hunting Ground? What were some challenges you faced and how did you overcome them? Aaron Kopp and Thaddeus Wadleigh were the primary cinematographers on the film. I believe they conducted the sit-down interviews. I had the pleasure of meeting Thaddeus Wadleigh at Sundance. He is a true talent in this industry.   

The most challenging moments when shooting The Hunting Ground, or any documentary, are right after someone trusts you enough to open their heart to you. For The Hunting Ground it was after college-aged women told me their stories about being sexually assaulted on campus. I just want to say thank you to all of the people brave enough to tell their stories.

How do you hope to see yourself and your work evolving in the future? I want to continue to grow. I don’t want to ever stop learning. I’d like to take advantage of the new technology yet to be invented that will provide us new ways of thinking about how to tell a story. I hope that with my experiences I’m smart and open enough to apply it to my work. I hope that I can get back to the child-like imagination that I had long ago. The creativity was endless.

I hope that I continue to see ways that I can improve and take risks.  I hope I don’t stand in my own way and accept that I am learning.

What are you currently working on? Jihad in Hollywood directed by Genie Deez ’15 will be at a

film festival near you soon. I’m currently shooting a virtual reality project with the Mixed Reality Studio called M5. I’m also the LA based DP for a documentary called United Skates. Additionally, I’m shooting a segment for PBS-SoCal News Hour called Bonnie Boswell Reports. My hope is to continue working with the wonderful directors that I’ve met in LA. I’m currently in preproduction on projects with directors: Skinner Myers, Coerte Voorhees ‘15, and Tarik Jackson ‘14. Please look out for those films to come!


Is there anything else you would like to share? Lastly, I would like to drop some words of inspiration and give thanks to the folks who have believed in me thus far on this long crazy journey:

Like anything else, this journey is what you make it. Everything that could go wrong will go wrong in life and on film sets. You have to have the tenacity to keep with it and give it all you have. Be supportive and teach others.

So far, I have made tons of sacrifices for this dream. I am extremely thankful for my rocks: my wonderful supportive husband, family and friends. I am grateful for the teachers that continually share all of their knowledge to make their students better filmmakers. I came in with the best cohort that has ever passed through USC. Hire them, film world! Follow me on Instagram @iseeflicks if you’ve read this all the way through to THE END.