Cynthia Francillon is a 26-year-old storyteller based in Brooklyn, New York. With a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism and Media Arts, where she wrote freelance for online publications such as The Mary Sue and Black Girl Nerds, Cynthia is currently studying for an MFA in Screenwriting at Brooklyn College's Feirstein Graduate School for Cinema. With her growing knowledge of telling visual stories, she wants to develop a catalog of movies and television shows that illustrate the many ways Black girls and women live, and the adventures they embark on as they come into themselves. We spoke to Cynthia about her work and being a creator.
Black Girls Create: Why do you create? Specifically in the medium of film?
I’m somebody that really enjoys stories. I think everyone does, we can’t live life without stories. I seek to read, to watch, to listen stories whether they are nonfiction or fiction, I just love hearing it. I’ve been writing since I was 10, especially after I realized a lot of the books that I read were kind of the same storyline, girl likes boy blah blah. I wanted something different so I thought I should make it and started writing. When I got to college I was studying journalism and we had to take electives. One of the electives I took was media arts and that was where I learned to create visual storytelling and when that happened I was like, “Oh, this is new and I really like it." I’ve always dabbled in wanting to be on camera and wanting to create, but I don’t think I really considered being behind the camera and creating until undergrad. So that happened and I thought "I can do this, I want to do this," and seeing that there was a lack of us as the front runners I thought "I want to be apart of that." That’s what made me want to go to school so I could learn the fundamentals of actually going about making film.
BGC: Studying it and going to school for it and then actually getting out there and creating are two totally different things. How has starting these projects been for you?
Well, because of the fact that I’m in the institution, it’s actually relatively easy. Not to mention I’m in New York. I’m in Brooklyn and my program is at Steiner Studios, which is a film lot where they film a lot of TV shows and movies. So the access is readily available which doesn’t make it difficult, which isn't to say that it couldn’t be, because there are levels to this that need to be considered to a certain degree. As easy as it is to put up a Backstage.com ad to get actors, it’s not as easy to direct them, knowing how to do that. It’s not as easy to hold a casting call, knowing exactly what you want, being able to actually go on Twitter, go on Facebook, go onto pages and say “hey I’m looking for this.” There is a level of vulnerability that you have to have in order to get what you need. Whether that be your crew, your actors, your locations, the crowdfunding to gain money, all that kind of stuff. I would say that I’m in a better position, because of the fact that I’m in an institution where all of that is taught to us and there are a lot of extensions that our school provides versus a lot of people that don’t have the luxury of going to school and who have to do it themselves, but there are levels to this. For example, even if there was somebody who wasn’t going to school, if they’re extroverted enough to the point where they know how to deal with a lot of people or even if your introverted but you know how to talk the talk, you can get your actors. It may take a little more finessing, but if you sell an idea and people want to invest in it and want to be apart of it you can definitely rally people.
BGC: So you talked about how you want to work on projects exclusively about black women and girls. How would you describe your ideal audience of people? Who are you talking to?
I’m definitely talking to the people around my age, whether that be from 24 to 34 years old, but I’m also truly talking to the 50+ and the 17 under you know? It’s interesting because a lot of the stories that I’m making are within the different age ranges where I feel like anybody could enjoy it, they each have their own specific demographics. The feature film that I sent to get into my program is an animated feature film that involves young girls in a planet that’s in a completely different atmosphere. Though it’s animated and it’s geared towards kids, it’s something that I could definitely see people older watching and that's not an issue. A lot of the stories that I do write cater to 24-34 because I’m 26, so there are levels to this that I understand. But I have a lot of friends that are older Black woman as well. I want for them to be able to watch these movies and be like, “Man I wish I had this when I was younger,” or, “This is the thing that at 24 years old I would’ve gone crazy for and even though I’m 60 years old I can still identify with this, I can still enjoy this piece of media." So I would say primarily my target is people around my age but I still want for my stories to be able to extend past that.
BGC: Who or what inspired you to do what you do?
That’s a list. I’ll keep it minimal though - J.K. Rowling is one person. I mean, I didn’t get into the Harry Potter craze until the first movie came out, because I saw how big the books were and I thought “not me.” I didn’t think I was ready for it. Then I watched the first movie in theaters and I was like this is dope as hell so I’m going to go to the books. When I read the books it was like falling through a kaleidoscope of awesome and I was just taken by how developed she made this world out to be, the fact that this world was something I could understand because of my age and the age of the characters. It was just filled with so much wonder and I loved that because that was what I was interested in. So just seeing how J.K. Rowling was able to create this, as an adult, can illustrate that your imagination does not disintegrate. It doesn’t leave you the older you get, if anything it can grow. So J.K. Rowling was definitely a really big influence.
Janelle Monae is another one. I mean, ask anybody who knows me and they know I’m a huge Janelle Monae fan because she was the first time i saw a Black woman very much invested in Afrofuturism before I knew what Afrofuturism was. I was 18 years old when I got into her and that was when she actually really hit the scene with her Chase Suite series and that was also when I was graduating high school and entering college wondering who am I going to be, in this phase of my life like what am I going to embody? I did musical theater a lot and I wanted to continue but I wasn't sure where that avenue was, and then I heard Janelle Monae’s music which to me, sounds like a soundtrack to a musical feature film. I’m just blown away by the artistry and the fantasy and the sci-fi and all that’s within. I’m just completely taken away by her and I love the fact that her music is based around a character that she created. It is literally a story, the arch android is a whole entire chapter book and I love it.
Third, I don’t know if this is going to sound cheesy but I’m really inspired by the woman I want to be, that I envision to be. The person that I always dreamed of becoming. I’m consistently inspired by her because she’s a bad ass bitch, she has everything together. I don’t even think that’s realistic anymore and I’ve humanized her a bit, which is great, but I’m just really inspired to be her because she is living her dream and working in it. She’s not happy all the time, because that’s unrealistic as well, but when she sits back and looks at what she’s achieved she’s content and she’s happy. There is a path and she’s following it.
BGC: How has the journey of getting to the person you want to be informed your art?
One of the most life-changing things that really happened to me was when I was beginning to see myself as a Black woman. I think around 2013, that’s when it really began to happen because I was becoming more active on social media and it was a really pivotal time where conversations were really beginning to center around understanding ourselves and our culture. Especially with Eric Gartner and Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, especially Trayvon Martin, that’s what really set everything off. That’s when I really began to pay attention to the fact that I am a Black woman, that is who I am and there is something really beautiful about that that I need to explore. I don’t think I ever took a moment to explore the complexities of that before, I never really thought of myself as this person where there are so many layers that I should be able to sit down and really unpack. I really began to understand what I define as a Black woman to me, and in doing that, it really began to help me understand what my passion is. That was something I was always really confused about. I love to tell stories but about what? About who? From what perspective? Me telling you now about what kind of stories I want to make, three or four years ago, I had no idea. It wasn’t until I began to discover myself as a Black woman and stopped calling myself a girl - no I am a woman. When I started to take myself seriously, that’s when I began to see my stories as more than just stories but as something that could really unlock something for me and for whoever else embarks on it with me. That’s not to say that all of my stories are serious because a lot of them are whimsical. I like the realm of magical realism because I like to take real life situations and add magic to it to have that magic be the realization of what we already have inside of ourselves. It’s a more dramatic illustration of it, but it wasn’t until I really began to understand myself that I began to realize that stories are so much more than just something that we tell at night to help our kids go to sleep, something to entertain each other until our lunch break is over. It’s so much more than that, it is something that can actually save a lot of people and I want to save people. I am very invested in saving Black girls and women, my mission here is to remind each other just how awesome we are and to also take a minute and to look to yourself and be like “yo, I am something."
BGC: When you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, what do you pull from to keep working hard?
Well, up until two years ago I was really bad at handling those kinds of things. I used to be a perpetual wallower, I would swallow myself in my emotions, it was bad. It wasn’t until I started seeing a therapist that I began to learn that it is ok to be overwhelmed. It is ok to be anxious, it is ok to feel heavily emotional, but what you have to do is to not place thoughts to those feelings. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, feel overwhelmed that’s fine, actually sit down and feel those feelings, but don’t place thoughts to them because that's when you begin to create things in your head and that really begins to mess you up. It’s difficult too, I’m not going to say that it’s easy. I’m a perpetual overthinker, but it comes to a point where you begin to catch yourself doing it. When you catch yourself doing it, that's when you have to sit down for a second and just relax. Alright, you’re feeling overwhelmed, why? What is making you feel that way? Sit down and plan out what you can do to decrease that anxiety. How? Schedule yourself, take it one step at a time. You don’t have to push, you don’t have to go crazy because that doesn’t help at all. Worrying just makes you feel worse. I’ve learned to take a step back and to just feel it. If you’re sad, feel that sadness. Lay in bed and be sad for a little bit and ten minutes later be like "Ok I’m over it." That sadness comes back but that’s natural, it’s going to come back but it’s not going to stay and it doesn't have to stay. Nothing is going to stay if you don’t want it to. This is for me, I'm not talking as someone who suffers from mental illness because for that level, I can’t speak for anybody because that’s a whole other degree. But for someone who does not suffer mental illness, it can be easy, gradually. When you practice it, just to feel things and not add thoughts to them and if you are going to have a thought, the only thought should be why. Why do you feel this way? What is making you feel this way? Basically don’t think to the feeling, just feel the feeling and practice that. Ask yourself questions when you begin to feel a certain way and the more honest you are with yourself, the better you will become at navigating or beginning to control your emotions. A lot of us believe that our emotions control us but that’s not the case. That’s BS actually. I don’t tell anybody that they have to get this right away because I still struggle with it, but I have gotten to the point where I can question myself. Being aware, I think, can help you.
BGC: Do you think that in learning this you’ve seen some change in the way that you attack filmmaking and storytelling?
Oh hell yeah. Because I don’t take things as personal as I used to, I used to take things very hard. I’m not bad with critiquing - I actually really enjoy people critiquing my work and telling me what can be done to elevate it. But what I had difficulty handling was when people just didn’t understand. I guess it was because I made stories very personal to me so whenever that happened I used to take it personally. But now I’m like yes, there is a part of me that is in the story but this is a story. It’s fiction, it’s not real. There is a manipulation here, I’m adding this and that to make it better. Yes, this character is real to you but at the same time it’s not, so there are things that you can play with. So when I realized that, I began to take it less personal and it makes it easier to navigate the story. In me not thinking to my feelings I am able to stay focused and on track. I’m not sitting down wallowing in my feelings, I don’t wallow like I used to anymore. I’m able to get stuff done. Feeling my feelings helped me to become more patient, helps me to listen more and helps me to control the emotions and not get so personal with them. The less personal you are, especially when you’re in a film school with a bunch of other artists, my god, people can be so dramatic. When it comes to your art, people get sensitive about their stuff. You’re entitled to be sensitive because art is not easy. It’s a very vulnerable position to be in, that you enjoy being in regardless, but it’s nauseating at times the way people project themselves on you because they take it personal. So I try to do my best to not be like that as much as possible.
BGC: I see you connecting with other women and I wonder is that something that comes naturally to you or are you mindful about wanting to build these relationships with other Black women especially?
It’s both. I’m naturally talkative, I’m naturally friendly and I’m very curious about people. Humans suck but at the same time, I love them because people intrigue me. Every single person on this earth has a story, I just see stories in everybody and I’m always interested in knowing what yours is. So I like talking to people, I like getting to know them. Not as projects but I’m intrigued. I have my perspective and I want to know what yours is. What is the world like for you? I’m very invested in that. But when it comes to Black women, I think that was another part of my testimony in terms of me finding my passion. A lot of things began to really change for me when I began to realize my Black womanhood within meeting and talking to Black women. It wasn’t until I invested my space into being around them, that things really began to change completely. Prior to 2013, I didn’t have friends. I was that girl who was like I have my boyfriend that’s all I need. But by nature, I am not that type of person. I have numerous friends because I like to talk to people, I like to know people, people like to talk to me. So I was dwindling myself for my relationship and that blew up in flames once I began to talk to Black women and getting to know Black women. I began to feel this undeniable energy of being around these amazing people that are helping me to realize who I am. A friend of mine took me under her wing and invited me to the BlogHer conference, a conference for female bloggers. She was a speaker and I went and I had so much fun around these amazing Black women who did the same things that I did. I remember leaving and feeling like I was on this high and I never wanted it to end. I think because of that, I just started talking more to Black women creators, filmmakers, writers, actors, artists, all types. I really began to learn about myself and I think there was this equal exchange because they’re going through the same thing too. They just want to understand themselves and learn about themselves through each other. Even to this day, I do like to meet Black women because I want to be able to invest in them. I told myself anything I invest in I want to ask a Black woman first. A lot of my mentors are Black women, the people that I’ve worked with have been Black women. The places that I eat or go to I want to make sure it’s Black woman owned. That’s not to say that I will exclude everything else but I will seek that first so I can invest in that first. In me wanting to make that mission I have been able to come into contact with a lot of women and in making the contact I create the friendship or relationship from there. Like I didn’t expect to meet [Robyn] at San Diego Comic Con but we ended up just sitting together because of Connie and from there something sparked and that just happened. I didn’t know anything about [her], I didn’t know what [she] did or what [she] had, we just started talking. Afterwards, that’s when I began to know what [she] did outside of that and then I was like ok, I want to invest I want to be a part of that. For me it goes both ways to be honest.
BGC: Why do you think it’s important for Black women to create art?
Because we have stories to tell, man. It’s as simple as that. There are levels to Black women that people can never understand and I don’t think we should create art to explain that to people, I don’t feel we need to explain ourselves to anybody, but I feel as though in creating the art, we illustrate the different ways in which we’re bad ass, to ourselves especially. A lot of the art that I make isn’t to prove anything to anybody but it’s to cater to the little girl in me or the friend of mine, who has told me the story and needs affirmation in knowing that you are not alone. It’s those little things and I feel as though we should create because if that is our means of expression than please express yourself, it’s a thing we have a tendency to not do. It’s indoctrinated in our culture where we keep quiet and there is so much bottled up, so much tension in our shoulders from having to hold the weight of how we’re feeling inside along with the emotional burdens of other people on top of that. If art is your means of expression, please express yourself. I just want us to feel safe enough that if I want to write a story I’m cleansing myself of all the crap that’s hidden all up inside of me. If I’m a painter, every stroke of the brush is a means of expression,. If I’m a singer, every time I get to the mic I’m going to let people hear it. I’m going to let this out. Black women should make art because they should express themselves, we deserve that right to express ourselves.
BGC: I know being in school, this may not apply, but how do you balance doing the work that you’re doing with the rest of your life? How do you stay balanced, or do you do that?
I can’t balance for shit, I’m still learning how to balance. The thought of organization makes me so happy but I can never get it together because I’m so used to being sporadic. It’s ok to be sporadic but not all the time, it doesn’t always work, so I got a planner and it’s helping me. Being in school also does help because it’s consistent. I’m somewhere at the same time, I have this due, I have teachers holding me accountable, I have classmates that I’m going to work with holding me accountable so that really helps. The friends I’ve made at school who want to continue working over the summer hold me accountable and I do the same for them. So when I hold somebody else accountable I clock my own shit - you’re telling someone else to do it, what about you? I’m not balanced yet, I’m going to be completely honest, but it’s something that I continue to work on because I want to be. The planner does help because I see what it is I want to do and when I do it, I feel really accomplished. A planner helps, having people hold you accountable helps, but then there is the so what about you? How are you going to hold yourself accountable?
I just start thinking about what I’m going to create. If there is a script I'm working on and I haven’t touched it in a few days but I know I need to, I’ll sit down and start thinking about it and visualizing it. Once I get the idea in my head I’m in the zone and once I’m in the zone I have to start writing. That’s how I help myself stay accountable as well.
BGC: Do you have advice for people starting out?
You do not have to know exactly what you need to do right now. In American culture it is very frowned upon if you don’t know what you want and that’s just not right. Everybody is different, you will know what you want, when you know what you want. If you don’t know now that is ok. What you can do if you are interested in delving into the arts, taste everything. If maybe acting is something you want to do, take an acting class, see what that feels like. Put yourself in the spaces of what you’re intrigued by because that at least it will tell you if you want to keep going forward or if you want to try something else. But for whatever it is that you’re trying, don’t just try, actually do it. If you are going to take the acting class, give it your all so that you’ll know in giving it your all if you’re not into it move into something else. If you are really into it, keep going. Put yourself in the spaces. I know that every time I was really confused or I didn’t know what it is that I wanted, I would put myself in the space and that gave me a clearer idea of what it is that I wanted to do. Being in undergrad and being intrigued by filmmaking because of that elective, I took another course that was even deeper in filmmaking. Then I started working in the film industry, I started helping out with film festivals and I started to see more filmmakers and that’s how I realized ok, I really want to do this, and that is what helped me. Putting myself in the spaces based on the intrigue. Whenever you feel like you’re intrigued by something, go with it. Listen to yourself, sharpen that intuition because that’s really important too. Your intuition is really undefeatable and when something feels right, you feel it. But the only way you can do that is if you begin to listen to yourself. If you’re used to denying that intuition, if you’re used to telling yourself that your intuition is correct, then when your intuition is trying to tell you something that’s good, you’ll deny it. Listen to yourself, if you’re intrigued by something go with that intrigue. Let it guide you. My intuition and my intrigue has never steered me wrong, even if the outcome wasn’t the best. In that outcome I still learned something and that helped me for the next time. I was winning even if it felt like I was losing.
BGC: So I know you have Haitian parents. How is that culture different than the American culture and how have those cultural differences informed who you are and what you do?
Haitian culture is kind of the same way, it is very much frowned upon to not know what you want. In Haitian culture, there is no taking a break, you’re in school, then you go straight to work, then as you’re working, you save up money you go straight to having your own house, getting married having kids. There is this linear path, it’s kind of like the American dream in its own way. The only thing that’s in Haitian culture, you gotta be a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer. Something that will definitely make you money. Being an artist? Hell to the no, it can be a hobby, it can be fun, but as a profession? Nah. That’s why I’m really thankful my parents are not like that, they definitely were to a certain extent, especially when my sisters and I were trying to decide college-wise what we wanted to do. For example, my parents noticed that I loved reading and that I loved to write stories, they noticed it so they were like ok why don’t you do this. My little sister loved performing, she loved to dance and sing so my mom put her in pageants and put her in performing classes. But when we got older my parents began to ask those questions, so what do you want to do? Because I like to argue a lot, my parents were like, you should be a lawyer, so then because I was blogging a lot I was like I think I want to go into journalism. My mom was like eh but my dad was like my daughter can be on CNN, go for it. So even within those realms they’re still thinking really big and a lot of money. I would want to be a print journalist or in a magazine but my parents are thinking CNN and MSNBC. They’re still thinking bigger for me.
BGC: If you could make anything and money, time, and resources were not an issue, what would it be?
There are so many projects that I would love to make. I’d make that animated feature film, I would make a bunch of the shorts that I would love to make. I would make the TV show that I’m currently trying to write, but most importantly I would make programs for kids in the hood, especially. I would make programs for kids who do not have access to camera equipment and facilities so that they could learn how to tell their stories and to be unafraid of getting creative with those stories. I think it is very important to teach young kids that their imagination doesn't just have to stay that way, it doesn’t have to be something that you just daydream about. I would love to have them in schools so it’s necessary and fundamental that they learn to do this because I would rather just put them in the environment. As a kid, it’s always good to dabble in everything, so just like physical education is mandatory I think music and arts should be mandatory as well and it’s a shame that they’re removing a lot of it from schools. Kids really need to be able to express themselves in a creative atmosphere. When you’re in school and you’re looking at math and history that’s cool but it’s not the only thing. They need their imagination enticed as well. So if money wasn't an issue I would do that in a heartbeat.
BGC: Any future projects that we should be on the lookout for?
So a friend of mine, Rebecca Theodore who is also Haitian-American and a Virgo like I am, she brought me in as a partner to co-direct, co-produce, and co-write a short film series that she’s making that centers around the different ways that Black women love and the types of relationships that they have. That’s all I can say right now but be on the look out because we are currently casting and currently writing and we’re going to be opening up a crowdfunding campaign pretty soon which I’m really excited about. I’m also going to be, possibly, making two short films over the summer. I’m ready to work.