Just as it takes many feathers to make a wing, the new documentary “Anatomy of Wings” needed all of its subjects to make the project whole, said the film’s co-creator Nikiea Redmond.
“We all are on this journey together. A wing can’t lift anything off the ground without it being in unison,” Redmond said.
Redmond and fellow Baltimore filmmaker Kirsten D’Andrea Hollander directed “Anatomy of Wings,” which showcases the more than 10-year journey of a group of Dunbar Middle School girls, documenting their lives as they grow into women. The film will premiere at this year’s virtual Slamdance Film Festival from Feb. 12-25. People can purchase a festival pass, which includes a ticket to watch the documentary any time during those festival dates.
A pre-recorded Q&A with Redmond and Hollander, moderated by Alejandro Valdes-Rochin, will be available at the end of the film.
But before the documentary makes its way to audiences’ screens – before the collection of clips were woven into a film – it began with the “Wings” girls gathering on Valentine’s Day 2008 in a classroom at the Maryland Institute and College of Art (MICA).
In 2007, Allison Welch started an afterschool group called “Finding Your Wings,” where Dunbar Middle School students were able to participate in yoga, art and other activities. Hollander, then a part-time faculty member at MICA, met Redmond, another volunteer, through that project.
After Welch and her family moved to Chicago, Redmond and Hollander stayed in touch and decided to continue the group under the name “Finding Our Wings,” often shortened to just “Wings.”
Most cellphones at the time did not have the ability to capture videos, and Hollander wanted to give the girls the opportunity to record their own lives in video format. So she applied for a MICA grant to, securing enough money to buy camcorders and microphones to teach video skills to the girls.
Starting in 2008, a group of six Black girls from Dunbar Middle School met with Redmond, Hollander and other mentors at MICA every Thursday. The group would later expand to include 10 girls (now women): Brittany Backmon, Teshavionna “Tazz” Mitchell, Sheila Butlter, Brienna Brown, Marquise Weems, Danisha Harris, Cami McCrief, Quandra Jones, Tywana Reid, and Quanisha Carmichael.
At first, the group mainly focused on nonfiction and documentary filmmaking. But about a year and half into meeting, mentor Jane Cottis introduced the girls to narrative filmmaking.
Cottis was helping the girls write a script about a young girl telling her parents that she was pregnant when the conversation shifted to the Wings girls reflecting on some of their peers who were dealing with that very question.
“The conversation got a little raw because I think some of the girls started to feel like we were entering a conversation where they were going to be being told what to do or what to perceive,” Hollander said. “What happened was we somehow transcended age in the room that day, and it just became women sharing about their personal experiences around what it means to think about having a baby, to not have a baby, if you’re already raising one.”
At the beginning of each meeting, the group had a ritual of setting up the cameras and making sure everyone was in view.
The camera allowed everyone involved to be more present in the moment, Hollander said.
“The idea is you look through the camera without judgment and without expectation,” she said, adding that she asked herself “Am I being completely present behind the camera as I listen to someone else speak and share?”
The documentary shows some of these candid conversations, with topics including pregnancy, abortion, HIV, what it means to be transgender, violence, losses of loved ones, and more.
Each meeting also began with breathing exercises, Hollander said, which helped them slow down and be more open to sharing vulnerabilities.
“When we would sit down and get quiet and slow down together and do some sort of breathing, that’s the beauty that you see coming out,” she said.
Those breathing exercises allowed them to step out of their “energy of urgency,” which she said perpetuates fear and prejudice.
“I think we’re learning every year and day that goes by, especially right now, that living in a sense of urgency is really a white supremacist way of acting or a way of responding to the world. Because when we’re consistently in a state of urgency, we stay in our fight or flight in our nervous system, and we can’t slow down enough to feel in the heart,” she said. “When you can’t get there, those systemic fears and biases are just present in the room. But when you can slow it down so that you can feel your heart, they suddenly aren’t there in the room.”
Redmond remembers her excitement when Slamdance programmer Alejandro Valdes-Rochin called her on a Sunday afternoon to tell her that “Anatomy of Wings” had been selected to be screened at the festival.
“He was happily emotional about sharing the fact that we were selected to be in Slamdance. It was just really great to hear from someone that the film meant a lot to them,” she said.
But while Redmond is grateful to have the film be part of Slamdance, a 27-year-old event that bills itself as a showcase for edgy productions, she was heartbroken to learn that she is the only Black woman filmmaker in the festival’s documentary category this year.
“It’s heartbreaking because I feel like there are so many great films out here and there’s so many women, black women especially, who made great films … I hope that it’s encouraging, but also I hope that it’s a call to action that Black people’s films aren’t chosen just because they’re made by Black people but because they deserve the same amount of credit as any other type of filmmaker or director or producer,” she said.
At the beginning of the documentary process, the girls each documented their own lives on video. While many of them shed the videographer role over time, they continued to act as directors, asking others to record videos of their special moments, from participating in pep rallies to getting ready for prom, Hollander said.
“That also took a lot of courage and trust because they weren’t only asking to be filmed, but their families and communities were also with them while they’re being filmed,” Hollander said. “It’s just a great privilege to not only watch these young women film what they chose to film, but then to also say ‘I’m not going to be filming myself, but I know this is important and I’m going to ask someone to come see me with their camera.’
People can register on AnatomyOfWings.com for their Slamdance Virtual Extravaganza and view a panel discussion on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. EST, moderated by film director TT the Artist and art historian and critic Kathy O’Dell. That event will also include a live performance of “No Idol Music” by T.W.I.Y.A., the music group of Danisha Harris, one of the stars of the documentary.