This month, we are talking to filmmaker Dedra Stevenson, who in addition to being a successful fiction writer, is also getting into film. Dedra teaches New Media at Zayed University (ZU) in Dubai, and she is also the Co-Chairwoman of WIFT, UAE. Dedra’s latest film project is Lemonade, the name is taken from the saying, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” In other words, there is always a good side to everything, even if at first it is not immediately apparent.
Michelle: Dedra, I know your interest is in fiction/fantasy, and fiction based from a true story. But let’s discuss the non-fiction side. Lemonade, your most recent project, is a short documentary about adult autism. You know about this topic firsthand, as you are the mother of an autistic adult. How did this project come about?
Dedra: It came about because we were faced with the challenge of managing our adult autistic son when he was dismissed from his special needs school for being too old to attend anymore. Basically, there were no programs for adults with Autism that would suit Ibrahim, and the choices are too few in UAE anyway. There are some centers that accept adults with Autism, but they are either insanely expensive or glorified babysitting services that are mostly ineffective at teaching real life skills or providing one on one instruction.
I wanted everyone to see how we have taken an innovative approach to Ibrahim’s continued education and empowerment, to give other families who are in our situation, a little bit of hope and the belief that they can do something about their adult son or daughter right now, without waiting for “someone [i.e. the government] to do something”.
Michelle: What were some of the challenges shooting Lemonade and what were some of the triumphs?
Dedra: Some of the challenges of shooting Lemonade were equipment failures and coordinating schedules. For example, our interviews had to be shot twice because in our first attempt, the set wasn’t well lit and the sound quality was poor.
The triumphs were the interviews themselves. In spite of the fact that they had to be shot twice, the student filmmakers who directed and shot the project were also skilled with interviewing, and I believe that the viewers will “feel” the emotion of the film and get some useful information and tips.
I also think that Ibrahim’s joy with his family and his two caregivers will be shown well in the film, as the camerawork was very well done. His laughter and his expressions are well shot.
Michelle: How did Ibrahim feel about the experience of being on camera?
Dedra: Ibrahim absolutely loved it! When the girls were on their way for shooting, we told him that he needed to get ready because a movie star must look his best. He immediately started to smile and became almost bouncy with excitement.
Michelle: I know some of the ZU media students were involved in making the film, Lemonade. Do you think the ladies came away with a better understanding of autism and the challenges involved?
Dedra: Yes for sure! The very talented young filmmakers that were involved in the film also learned a great deal as they had to research the script and execute the interviews, as well as determine the shots.
Michelle: Media is suddenly much more acceptable as a profession for Emirati women. As an educator in New Media studies at ZU, do you see young women considering media seriously as a profession, or is it still in the “hobby until I’m married” stage?
Dedra: I have seen an increase in the students who wish to practice what they’ve learned, but I’d say that we still have a long way to go in terms of inspiring a passion for media in women.
Thankfully, the ones who have a burning passion for the work make up for the way the others fall flat, because these are the ladies who understand that they must work twice as hard as a man to get the same things.
Those ladies inspire me to carry on doing my very best, because I know that I’m making a difference.
Michelle: What would you say has been so far, the most memorable moment in teaching these young women? Have you had a student that you saw become inspired to be a filmmaker or writer from your example?
Dedra: I think my most memorable student was in a Public Speaking class that I taught. When asked to deliver her first practice speech, she literally had to sit down because she said that it made her so nervous that her heart was beating too fast. By the time she’d finished her semester with me, she was thundering away delivering speeches on a large auditorium stage, and took a TwoFour54 class for those who wish to become newscasters. Later on, she informed me that she was now getting into filmmaking as a result of her newfound desire to tell relevant stories. I am very proud of her success, and I hope I had a little something to do with that. Since then, there have been many more that I feel I’ve influenced, but her case is my favorite memory so far.
Michelle: The Middle East has the highest penetration of people using the internet, that’s a lot of content! What do you suggest to get more young people into being creative and getting content out there?
Dedra: Well I think we are doing the needful to a large extent, as we’re using technology and social networking sites in our classrooms, but we must also encourage more students to think outside of the box and stop using memorization as a valid teaching technique. Hands on training is far more effective and long lasting. Also, I think there’s far too much emphasis put on “making the grade, so students are concentrating on getting the A rather than actually learning and exploring, or truly following a passion. Most are still far too concerned with only doing what’s expected, which includes making only A’s and B’s. This isn’t how creativity is fostered.
Michelle: You are a naturalized Emirati, originally an American from Alabama USA. As the mother of Emirati children, and the educator of Emirati women, where do you see the future of content from Emirati artists going? Do you think we currently have artists/writers/directors who can honestly compete internationally? (If yes, explain why, if no explain why)
Dedra: I’m grateful for the few “pioneers” who are bravely moving forward, in spite of the critical voices against them, because it’s these ladies who are blazing the trail for the future generations. I see Emirati women as “on the cusp” of change, as more and more of them desire to have their voices heard through artistic pursuits like photography, music, painting, writing, and filmmaking, but as a whole, they haven’t arrived yet, in terms of being viable internationally. We need to do a lot more to foster this progress, in terms of honest criticism, inspiring leadership, and providing the right tools. UAE is still very young as a filmmaking nation, so it’s only a matter of time and acquiring the right kind of experience.