Photography by Aurora Jimenez
Jalena Keane-Lee is a social justice filmmaker and the spring 2018 Sally Burns Shenkman Woman Filmmaker Fellow. Based in San Francisco, Keane-Lee is inspired by elevating women of color’s voices through documentary, narrative and advocacy storytelling. In early October, she debuted a short documentary, PERIOD GIRL, featuring Nadya Okamoto that explores Okamoto’s healing and helping through her non-profit PERIOD ORG. Keane-Lee is carving out an important niche within the filmmaker community as she shares culturally important legends and lore at breathtaking remote locations like Mauna Kea.
Keane-Lee has the industry by the tail as she captivates with her passionate and fearless spirit for sharing stories. Her bright creativity and enviable style game make her one of our favorite Belle en Argent muses. Read on for more about what Keane-Lee sees as the real key to change and representation in a white, male-dominated industry. She also clues in on her favorite beauty tips, perfect for keeping the look fierce and photo-ready while taking on the world.
We played Two Truths and a Lie with Jalena! .....You probably know the rules, but here is a quick refresher--Below, Jalena gave us two true fun facts, as well as one that's made up. See if you can guess which one is the lie! View the answer at the bottom of her interview.
I was a youth reporter at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
I was so obsessed with honu or green sea turtles my first email was email@example.com.
I was a vegetarian for seven years after watching Babe the Pig.
This is a tough one! I love the women I've made / am making documentaries about - @nadyaokamoto @puacase, and @hawanemusic. I also love visual art from my sis @ashlukdraws and @niqabaechronicles, and I really been loving @karenaevans and @laceyduke, such inspirational young women directors!
When did you know this is what you wanted to do?
I was born a storyteller. I grew up sleeping on the seats in the third row of my parents Asian American theater company in San Francisco. At five, I traveled with my mom to different schools around the Bay Area and helped her tell stories about our people and culture; about Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy; about how Lion Dance scares away the evil spirits; and about the woman who was so sad she drank a potion and ended up in the moon.
In college, I found my love for film and more specifically documentary when I took a class about media studies and realized it was everything I was interested in synthesized into one class. I made my first film The Construct: Female Laborers and the Fight for Equality after being in an international relations program that left me frustrated that most global issues have solutions, but we lack the political will to enact them. I got into documentary to bring new voices to the table, to tell stories with love and care, and to give women of color our rightful place in history.
What projects are you working on now?
I just premiered my short documentary PERIOD GIRL, that was made through the Jacob Burns Film Center Creative Culture Fellowship. It's a 13-minute short that follows Nadya Okamoto, a 20 year-old girlboss and Harvard sophomore who started the non-profit PERIOD ORG as she opens up about some of the personal trauma that helps fuel her work. I'm now working on a feature documentary that follows Nadya as she takes a year off from Harvard to grow PERIOD into a global organization.
I'm also directing a short film about the mother-daughter relationships of the Ku Kia'i Mauna -- the protectors of Mauna a Wakea, the highest peak in the world from the sea floor. Mauna Kea is threatened by a 30 meter telescope, and Standing Above the Clouds follows the women dedicated their lives to protecting their sacred mountain.
What is your dream project? Or dream collaboration?
I have many dreams! I would love to have a Lena Waithe-career - directing, writing, acting, producing, shooting. I want a career that allows me to take on numerous projects in a variety of capacities.
List three (3) accomplishments you are most proud of
- Directing and producing a film in Yangon, Myanmar while still in college.
- Standing up for what I believe in regardless of the audience.
- Learning to shoot and edit and one year later DP’ing and editing my own short documentary.
Who is your favorite character from a movie?
Carmen from Spy Kids! She made me feel seen, growing up.
Who is your favorite filmmaker that you've worked with?
My favorite filmmaker that I've worked with is my Breaktide Productions partner Reaa Puri. She a is phenomenally talented cinematographer, a great friend, and just such a pleasure to be around at any hour of the day (and I know this because we've been awake at wild hours for various shoots!).
Who do you admire and why?
I admire all women of color out here making things happen, because they know if they don't, no one else will. I admire our work ethic and dedication to our communities.
What do you feel is the biggest hurdle for women and POC in the film industry?
Perception is so important in this industry, especially when it comes to fundraising and distribution. I think those are the most challenging aspects - when a traditional industry gatekeeper has to size you up and decide if you're trustworthy, a good investment, or a talented new voice.
Did you know in 2016 women made up only 7% of all directors working on the 250 top grossing films?
Yep, it makes me feel multiple types of ways. First, our idea of what makes a powerful work of art should not be tied to monetary achievement. Tying artistry and or impact to revenue is the ultimate capitalist act, and we must evaluate our work beyond that system.
Secondly, we need different points of view shaping mass media. That's the only way to create cultural, societal change.
Do you know women who aspire to be film directors?
Yes! I'm lucky to be a member of many wonderful filmmaker communities, from my all women of color production company Breaktide, to the Jacob Burns Film Center, to NeXt Doc, to Brown Girl Doc Mafia. I never second guess if I'm qualified or worthy of this work because I'm surrounded by a loving community that has my back.
What is one thing you wish you could tell your younger self? What is one wish you have for your future self?
To both: Trust yourself, chose your community wisely, and stay grateful.
What's your favorite makeup item?
Honestly, my Fenty highlighter. I throw it on my eyelids, cheekbones, nose, and just walk out the house ready for the day.
Whats the lie?
I was a youth reporter at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She was actually a reporter at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics!