February 4, 2016
SCA Alumni Stories: Ashley York
By Eileen Kwon
With a deep understanding of the power of visual storytelling, Ashley York ’06 has helmed documentaries that reflect her passion to shed light on social issues confronting us today. York discussed her journey to becoming an accomplished filmmaker, starting with her move from Kentucky to Los Angeles and her evolving acquaintance with documentary filmmaking.
What influenced your decision to come to SCA to earn your MFA? I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky where I studied journalism with an emphasis on race, class, and sexuality. As an undergraduate I worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, talk show host, and television news editor. I became interested in visual storytelling and telling stories about marginalized and vulnerable people and communities. I was inspired by Appalachian filmmakers Anne Lewis who made Fast Food Women (1991) and Elizabeth Barret who made Coal Mining Women (1982). Their work motivated me to make socially provocative and feminist films and to pursue a career making films where I could build on the long history of non-fiction work that addresses significant social challenges of our time. Documentaries allowed me to continue pursuing my passion of telling stories and USC gave me a space and the resources and support to find my voice as a filmmaker, experiment with form, and explore storytelling as a cinematic art.
What is the most memorable student project that you worked on? My film So Help You God began as a student project in Professor Amanda Pope's documentary planning class where I started researching a story about the experiences of folks in prison, which led me to think about the only people who I knew who were incarcerated. I decided to pursue a story about some teenagers from my hometown who are in prison for murder. The project became my thesis project, where I explored the story as a live cinema performance and collected a wide range of material that put me in a position to make a feature length documentary, which I am still working on twelve years later.
Most of your work (Becoming Chaz, GRAB, So Help You God) can be defined as “socially conscious documentaries.” What drew you to this particular medium and artistic focus? During my undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky, I watched Barbara Kopple's Academy-Award winning film Harlan County USA (1976) in a sociology class. That film moved me deeply. It tells the story of a coal miners' strike in southeast Kentucky and portrays its subjects with complexity, dignity, and grace. The film is as journalistic as it is cinematic. It's a personal, political, and emotional film which demonstrates social issue filmmaking at its finest. Seeing that film was an “aha” moment, as it was the first time I saw the people of eastern Kentucky portrayed in a nuanced and complex way, unlike the many negative and hateful portrayals of rural people I saw on television growing up. That film invigorated my desire to make powerful, impactful, and meaningful documentary films for mass audiences.
Could you share about your time directing Tig, a Netflix Original documentary about comedian Tig Notaro? How did you first become involved? I saw Tig tell her famous Taylor Dayne story as part of a This American Life special that was beamed into movie theaters across the country in May 2012. That was my first time experiencing her storytelling, which was so unique
and unlike any comedy performance I had ever experienced. Several months later I remember reading that Tig was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy and shortly thereafter I received a Facebook message from Kristina Goolsby, a producer I met working on the documentary series "Intervention." She and I had been talking about collaborating on another project and she asked if I was interested in making a documentary about Tig, who was a friend of hers unbeknownst to me. Without hesitation I said, yes, of course.
Kristina knew Tig for nearly 20 years and knew what was happening to Tig and asked if she'd be interested in being the subject of a film. Tig said yes. I reached out to Huy Truong, who I had collaborated with for many years, and invited him to come on board as our director of photography and co-producer. He said yes. From that point forward, we were shooting multiple days a week with Tig all around Los Angeles working on various productions and developing new stand-up material. At the same time, we were submitting applications for grants and meeting with financiers. The first year was invigorating and so intense and challenging because we were capturing the story of the film without any money while doing all the work that was required to secure financing. Once we formalized the partnership with Beachside, things got much easier because the resources were there to execute the film the way we envisioned. The film was made in record time for a documentary.
What has your journey with Take Action Games, the Los Angeles-based design collective that you co-founded, been like thus far? Take Action Games is a design collective co-founded by Susana Ruiz '06, Huy Truong, and myself. Our work has been recognized for its commitment to highlighting issues that affect women and girls and partnered with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, the International Crisis Group, ITVS, and the Center for Asian American Media. Take Action Games received an Emmy Award nomination in the category of New Approaches to News and Documentary Film as well as the prestigious Governors' Award from the Academy of Arts & Sciences in recognition of a campaign co-produced by mtvU to raise awareness about the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of the Sudan.
The work we do at Take Action Games is rooted in social awareness, feminism, and media for social change and has taken us all over the country, from America's prisons to Native American reservations. Our intention is to continue creating media that recognizes the interconnectedness of race, class, and gender and challenges audiences, policy makers, and citizens to take a second look, think differently, and move across boundaries. We fully believe in the power of media to inspire social change and effectively lead viewers to question the status quo, both in their local communities and in the world around them.
As the technological climate of the industry continues to become more interactive and interdisciplinary, how can art media such as cinema and games be utilized to effect positive social change? Stories can take many forms, from documentaries and television series to experimental cinema as well as emerging modes of storytelling that crosses traditional media platforms, such as video games, social networks, and apps. To me, cinema, movies, and media art is grounded in the emotional and ideological and it's about listening to the needs of the story and its subject (or subjects) and letting those voices guide the direction and production of the storytelling. I find that I learn something from every job and every platform and approach each opportunity as one that is unique and one that allows me to refine my practice.
What’s next for you? I am developing a mix of fiction, non-fiction, and hybrid projects. In addition to So Help You God, I'm also developing a feature length documentary called The H Word, which examines a cultural history of the iconic American hillbilly image in film, television, and literature. I’m thinking about content that highlights the culture and traditions of Appalachia and Appalachian American people as well as social issue media projects that go beyond traditional screens. I’m intrigued by the interactive documentary movement as well and exploring the relationship of audience as co-creator and collaborator.