W’at Abowt Us?: #Metoo, Storytelling, & Film
I had the incredible privilege to interview the prolific Shelley Jarrett—a multiple award-winning entrepreneur, documentary film producer, magazine publisher, women’s advocate and, community leader.
Shelley is the epitome of an inspiring Africana female leader who is making a difference and fostering change to empower our community. Despite all her accomplishments, Shelley is the type of woman who makes you feel seen and heard. With a heart to give back to her community, she has led and participated in several initiatives to empower racialized populations. Whether it is by sitting as a board of advisors member for the Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE), board member of the Art Gallery of Mississauga, Founder and Publisher of SMJ Magazine, Co-founder of Shelland House of Films, educational consultant, business consultant, documentary film producer—Shelley is a trailblazer and a force to be reckoned with.
I wanted to learn more about her acclaimed documentary, “W’at Abowt Us?” where Shelley explored #metoo within racialized demographics. What inspired Shelley to produce this documentary and what are her hopes for the documentary film? Read below to find out!
Serwaa: “What is “W’at Abowt Us?” and what led you to create the documentary?”
SJ: It is about 8 women who come from diverse backgrounds who tell their stories of abuse; abuse in the workplace, violent relationships, domestic violence, child molestation, sexual harassment, and different forms of gender-based violence.
It kind of just fell in my lap. Having the magazine (SMJ Magazine) and media platforms (Shelland House of Films), I felt a sense of urgency that I needed to bring these stories (#metoo) to the mainstream because some of these women would have never had their stories heard on the mainstream channels and platforms.
I know for a fact that this exists within our community—whether at home, at work, in our churches or school environment…it is everywhere. I wanted to give racialized women the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words. I found it was time for breaking the silence since it is especially hard for women of color to tell these stories because they think nobody will believe them. This is even more complicated in different cultures where you are not allowed to talk about these things. I found that it was time for us to start talking about it.
Serwaa: Wow, this is incredible! “So, what was the journey like then, in producing the documentary?”
SJ: It really was a journey for me because it really was my first time producing a documentary film. It took us 11 months to film. We first ran the story in our magazine (SMJ Magazine). Our magazine covers fashion, art, beauty and entertainment, health and wellness, etc. So, when the #metoo movement broke out, there was such a shift in the gender-based violence field.
I had been working from an empowerment perspective for 20 years, in areas such as Dress for Success workshops etc. I had not been focusing on the domestic violence aspect too much, so I had no idea what #metoo was until I heard about Tarana Burke and then Oprah did the speech about it. So I kind of did some research, and found out a little more about it, and found out that these were survivors who were needing some resources and different supports to heal.
Because of my background in social work, I was able to talk to these women in a way that they could trust me. Building trust was important. Originally there were 5 women in the magazine feature. The editor of the magazine had asked one of our writers to go and find some women who would be interested in sharing their stories. We did not want to show just one color because this happens to all women of all different backgrounds. It is not just a specific group of people. We selected 4 from the feature in the magazine and put out a casting call and we interviewed 8 women and selected 4. I did not personally know any of the women who responded to our casting call or who were featured in the magazine, but I invited them to my home and made them feel amazingly comfortable. For filming, we went to their homes to make them more comfortable. It was 30 hours of filming cut down to an hour and a half.
Unfortunately, we could not use all the material, although it was so rich! It was extremely hard for me to listen to some of the stories, and to hear of how another human being was disregarded and abused—it was painful and very emotional. We had to take a couple of breaks during the filming because some women would cry after they shared pieces of their stories.
Serwaa: Wow, what a moving journey! As a follow-up, “Why do you think that the average human being should care about Violence Against Women (VAW)?”
SJ: Wow. Because it is destroying our communities. It is sending the wrong message that men can [abuse women]. No, they are not allowed to do that. Nobody wants to get hurt or be abused. No one should be made to feel that it is their fault or anything like that. It is not normal. We should all work together in our society to put a stop to it; whether it is a policy change, we should work towards getting societal change. It is not good for our society. What kind of future do we want? Our young men beating up on our young ladies or even older ones? It’s not good.
Serwaa: Very well said. “So why do you use film as a storytelling method?”
SJ: I am glad that you asked me that question because that was one of the points that we really wanted to bring out. The reason why I decided to use film to bring this story out was because of the reaction that I had witnessed from one of the featured ladies when she got the magazine cover of the story. She was screaming like “Oh my gosh! I cannot believe this! I can’t believe that I’m in a magazine!” And I watched her pain and excitement, and everything all tied in one and I thought, “Oh my gosh I have to tell her story on the screen.” I said to them, “It’s ok to be in a magazine, a few people can see the print. But on a big screen, a lot more people can see it. Are you comfortable bringing your stories on the screen to a bigger audience?” It becomes a bigger story to get people to move to action and do something about this happening in our society and in our community.
Film is very moving. It is very emotional. Fun fact: I had never done a film before. I never went to film school, but I used all of my years of experience to build a team of professionals who could bring these stories to life. I told them that I had an idea, and this is what I wanted to do to bring it to an audience, and thank God it is an award-winning documentary.
Serwaa: Wow, this is amazing! The last question that I have for you is “What advice would you give to a woman who is interested in becoming a filmmaker to effect change?”
SJ: Oh wow! I would encourage everybody who is a creative to just go for it. Write a story and tell a story about your community. My documentary told a story of what really happens in our racialized communities. Without documentaries like this, people would not really know what happens in our community. I had to tell the truth. The most important point is to bring about quality change and help women to feel and know that they are not alone. By telling a story like this, it helps women know that this does not only happen to them. It may also help other women think twice when they see some warning signs that begin to pop up in a relationship.
Serwaa: Powerful! Thank you so much, Shelley! I appreciate you taking the time to share your journey in making such a landmark documentary. You have impacted so many lives including my own. Thank you.
If you would like to learn more about “W’at Abowt Us?” please see: https://www.shellandhouseoffilms.com