Ava DuVernay // 2015 SXSW Keynote

I love Ava DuVernay. I haven’t met her, so maybe this is weird and forward, but I do. I love her attitude and humility; the way she talks about her projects and collaborators; wins, losses; good weeks, bad weeks; the struggle to get where she’s at now and what it’s like when Meryl Streep wants to talk to you about your film.  (Here’s a Tumblr you can obsess over, if you’d like). We all struggle with life and “the process” and I don’t tire of hearing how people overcome their personal and professional challenges, or when they’re in a bad mood and want to stay in bed all day. For better or worse, those people encourage me.

DuVernay is an award-winning director, writer and producer of independent films like I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere (for which she won Best Director at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival), and most recently, the phenomenal Selma (becoming the first black female director to have a film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards).

Last week, she gave the keynote address at the annual SXSW Film Festival, an address she admittedly wrote only hours before. It’s a little over 20 minutes long, but it is packed with stories, insights and advice she’s learned along the way.


In typical fan-girl fashion, I really want to write it all out and tape it to my front door so I can see it every day, but I’m editing all week so these are just a few of my favorite moments:

Give your attention to your intention. “It’s so big for everyone, but especially for artists and creative types like us. [. . .] Whether you are conscious of it or not, your intention is the cause that produces the effect, which is your life. So if you are not paying attention to your intention then your life is a bit of a hot mess. That is what I’ve found.”

“Serve the story. You have to.”

There are dreams out there bigger than you even know how to dream. Don’t limit the dream with the small stuff. You have to open up and let your intention be beyond yourself because if your dream is only about you, it’s too small.”

On the Academy Awards: “It’s cool, it’s very cool. [. . .] But my work’s worth is not based on what happens in, around, for or about that room.”

There’s a Q&A portion at the end, which is equally enlightening as DuVernay answers questions on everything from how women were originally portrayed in early Selma scripts to the lack of studio interest in producing films featuring people of color. “Obviously,” she says, “The studios aren’t lining up to make films about black protagonists. Or about freedom and dignity as it pertains to black people and people of color being the drivers of their own lives.” And to diverse filmmakers wanting to see their stories told: “Stop asking people who don’t care about the work and do the work.”

Also: Check out this short posted last year by Academy Originals on DuVernay’s “creative spark” — It’s one of my favorite in the series and a good look into her pre-Selma creative process.


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