March 7, 2022

Alumni Spotlight: Jacqui Barcos ’96 and Sarena Khan ’07

By Claire Wong

Sarena Khan (Left) and Jacqui Barcos (Right)

Jacqui Barcos ’96 graduated from the School of Cinematic Arts with a MA in Cinema Production. She is a DGA award-winning filmmaker whose credits span the film, television and animation industries. Most recently, Jacqui wrote the pilot and bible for wildlife crime series, Shadowland. Developed in association with Athena Pictures, co-founder Sarena Khan ’07 joins Jacqui to produce Shadowland.

Sarena graduated from the School of Dramatic Arts with a BFA in Theatre. Fascinated and intrigued by the entertainment industry, Sarena concentrated her studies around filmmaking. Today, she focuses her creation around cross-cultural and issue-driven storytelling. Both Jacqui and Sarena join us to speak more about their artistic journeys and filmmaking in the wildlife crime genre.

How did your time at USC shape your creative endeavors? What are some takeaways from your education that you use in your career today?

SK: The biggest thing for me was the sense of community and shared passion. We spent years of our lives in a small, black-box theater together. We went through the same learning experiences, growing pains, successes, and failures. It mirrors a bit of the experience working on projects in the business - every project becomes a small intimate family. When you get out into the real world, it can become scary to take chances without that structure and support, but that’s exactly what you’re creating in your projects as a producer - a supported and structured atmosphere to tell great stories. I am still very close with some of the people from my program. I am grateful for that support and those relationships every day.

JB: Access to a creative community is wildly important – guiding your career, giving access to opportunities, and cross-pollinating ideas and projects. A skill set that I still use to this day is the art of giving and receiving constructive criticism- understanding the note behind the note. The seeds were sewn for me by Duke Underwood in my first 290 class.

What motivated you to tell this story?

JB: I have been an animal lover my entire life. The spark for this project came with Cecil the Lion and the outpouring of collective outrage. I have always been horrified by trophy hunting. When I began looking at the dire poaching statistics, these numbers truly frightened me. It is devastating to think that rhinos and elephants will become extinct in the next five to seven years, unless the current rate of poaching stops. I began devouring books and articles on the subject. Around this time, I was introduced to two wildlife crime experts - retired special operations veterans who now dedicate their skill sets to saving endangered wildlife. The true crime stories they told were shocking. We discovered that the truth behind wildlife crime was getting whitewashed and sanitized. This was the most shocking revelation: the people installed to protect endangered animals are in fact some of the worst offenders. Sarena and I immediately knew that this was an important, untold story. We needed to do everything we could to bring hidden truths to light and to a global audience.

Sarena and Jacqui with Rhino Guard

Can you walk us through your decision to take on Shadowland?

SK: Honestly, there wasn’t much to think about. Jacqui and I were introduced through a colleague and we met for a casual coffee. She told me about some of the projects she was working on and I was hooked the second she mentioned wildlife crime in Africa.  I have had a close relationship with animals since I was a kid and have a deep passion for the cause. I made the decision right then and there. I think sometimes the best decisions are instinctual, when you have the gut feeling that you have to do something.

A lot of the content covered in Shadowland surrounds Africa’s dire poaching crisis. What are some of the moral implications that are important to consider when capturing crime?

JB: In the wildlife crime space, there is a tendency to over-simplify - but that is far from the case. The real drivers behind wildlife crime are far more nuanced and complex. The solution for us in Shadowland was to create a tapestry of multiple, intersecting storylines, all based on real people and events - to give a dimensionalized portrait of the real drivers behind wildlife crime. Our aim is not to demonize the poachers, but to explore the syndicates and corrupt actors that hire them to traffic product. We also explore the socioeconomic conditions that force some poachers into wildlife crime because it is the only option to feed their families. As a filmmaker, I felt a moral imperative to capture the truth and authenticity of this world without bias.  I don’t believe in glorifying violence. Often, implied violence is far more powerful.

Shadowland is led by two strong female characters, a rare on-screen duo especially in the crime and thriller genre. Why do you think representation is important in film and television today?

SK: As an Indian-American woman, I believe it is vital that there is representation in Film and TV. The climate was different when I graduated from USC. I was an actor then and there were no good roles or characters for women like myself. I was mostly going out for guest star roles as a young doctor or lawyer. That was one of the reasons I made the shift into producing and writing. Representation in front of the camera and the stories that are told becomes more natural when there is representation behind the camera. There is a gravitation toward stories and worlds that are diverse. We are a diverse, female-led team - and our project reflects that.

Wildlife Crime is a very niche genre of film and television. Why do you think it is important to bring light to these stories?

SK: Wildlife Crime is also a story about the exploitation of earth’s resources - of its very life. It does not feel niche to me when you think of it as part of a whole. There are so many issues surrounding the environment and wildlife. We see a lot of stories around that now, but perhaps more or less about similar topics. It is important to expand awareness to the multi-layered issues surrounding our planet by understanding our relationship as human beings with living, breathing animals.

How do you balance telling a story that is authentic to you with telling a story that will appeal to a broad audience?

JB: I am a specialist in Global Content. I spent a few years working at Miramax in distribution, as well as working in Foreign Sales as VP of Acquisitions. Having spent quite a few years knocking around the global markets, it has been amazing to see the explosive growth in global content and local language content. One thing I have observed is that for a story to truly resonate and become a cross-cultural phenom, the story has to embrace universal themes. Very often, the stories that drill down into the specificity of a culture end up being the most universal. Universality through specificity is the secret formula. I have never been interested in telling intimate stories about my own life. I am far more drawn to dark and complex stories that take place in exotic worlds. By excavating emotional truths and drawing parallels to your own life, it is possible to write with authenticity about these worlds. I am a “method” writer. It took traveling to Africa with Sarena, embedding ourselves in the underbelly of wildlife crime, and observing first-hand the raw brutality, the corruption, and the gut-punching emotional truths from the people who live and breathe it – to write this story with both personal truth and authenticity for the world and the characters it is based on.

You are launching a social action campaign to go along with the production of Shadowland. Why was it important for you to include this as part of the story you’re telling?

SK: Launching a social campaign is as important as the story itself. Everyone on our team is committed to making a highly commercial, entertaining series, but the purpose of that is to get as many eyes as possible on the issue. We are giving our audience something exciting to watch and characters to relate to, catalyzing curiosity surrounding the issues the characters are dealing with. We want to get into the audience's hearts and minds, guiding them to how they can get involved with the cause. We will give them the opportunity to understand the issue at a deeper level and provide them with options of how they best can support it.

What advice do you have for artists wanting to bring light to untold stories?

JB: This is a great time for untold stories, especially from voices that come from diverse communities. Take the time to thoroughly research your world, the characters, idioms and era. Be bold and audacious with creative choices, but always true to your characters. If possible, try to find IP that you can base your untold story on, it will make your life so much easier!

SK: The biggest lesson I have learned so far is to not be afraid of change and failure. Change and failure may be the door to something bigger and more truthful. I got my BFA in Theater at USC.  When I graduated, all I wanted and had worked for was to be an actor. As I got out into the world and delved deeper into the industry, I realized that maybe acting was not my actual calling. That was a hard moment. To make that decision to transition from what you have spent your life working toward and to realize that all that work was in support of a new direction. I am a better producer and writer because I was an actor who spent years of my life in a theater exploring character, humanity and story. I have my own approach to my work. Most importantly I am relentless and never give up.  I have heard the word NO more than I can remember, but I choose not to dwell on those responses. I take the YES's and run with them. You have to build each story and project from the ground up. You must be relentless in your pursuit of getting a story told. It is a cutthroat business. If you love it, you do it - and you never give up.