After the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, a Black man from Georgia convicted of killing an off-duty police officer, Chinonye Chukwu said she felt compelled to give incarcerated people a voice.
Chukwu, a 2010 master’s of film and media arts alumna, founded Pens to Pictures in 2015 — a project that teaches incarcerated women how to write and direct short films.
Chukwu is also a film production professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Initially, Chukwu said she planned to teach a screenwriting, directing and producing course at Dayton Correctional Institution and produce one short film made in collaboration with her students.
Eventually though, Chukwu decided to turn each of her five students’ stories into short films, rather than producing one collaborative film.
“I wanted to create an empowering experience for these women to tell their own stories on their own terms,” she added.
Four of the screenwriters — Jamie, Kamisha, Beverly, Aimee and Tyra — all asked to keep their last names out of this story.
Jamie and Aimee both wrote films about addiction, while Kashima and Beverly’s films focused on women’s issues like the hardships of incarceration and motherhood.
Chukwu brought in five co-directors to help the women plan out their short stories. All of the co-directors were women because Chukwu knew some of the films dealt with abuse and she wanted writers to feel comfortable during the process.
“Some of the ladies had never gone through a creative revision process,” Chukwu said. “It was a challenge.”
Jamie collaborated with Wright State alumna Liz Yong Lowe to produce her short film, “Trans-Parent,” which tells the story of a young girl who takes care of her siblings while their mother struggles with addiction. Jamie ran away from home and married at 16 years old before she gave birth to her son while in prison.
“Jamie’s positivity, artistry and intelligence always blows me away,” Lowe said. “She continues to look forward, even when she is faced with opposing forces.”
Lowe said she became involved with Pens to Pictures because she admires the work of Chukwu, her friend and former professor.
Chukwu taught for the first time while studying for her master’s at Temple. As a teaching assistant, she taught English to third graders at Joseph C. Ferguson Elementary School on the corner of 7th and Norris streets before it closed in 2013.
She said she started to teach because she needed money to produce films, but she “unexpectedly fell in love with it.”
“Teaching was the first experience I had that made me very conscientious of what I contribute to the world,” Chukwu said. “That was a very foundational moment for me as a filmmaker.”
Chukwu added that Warren Bass, the former chair of film and media arts, had a profound impact on how she felt about teaching and filmmaking during her time at Temple.
“He was an advisor to me, he was a mentor and he was somebody who believed in me no matter what,” Chukwu said. “It definitely impacted the way I teach now as a professor, in making sure that I also empower my students and remind them of their worth.”
Bass said he believes the project is “very enterprising and very important.” He added that it is consistent with the values the master’s program of film and media arts tries to instill in graduate students.
“We want to foster alternative voices in the media,” Bass added. “We don’t want to just produce mainstream entertainment.”
Chukwu said she plans to partner with nonprofit organizations, community art spaces, schools, libraries, prisons and jails to host screening events, discussions and workshops together in 2017. In 2018, Pens to Pictures will begin its second cycle of film productions with new participants and new stories.
“After meeting the talented ladies and reading their scripts, I was hooked,” Lowe said. “When I’m with them, they remind me why I want to be a filmmaker.”
Meghan Costa can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Meg_costa19.