For this week of the #BlackFemaleFilmmakerSeries, we had the opportunity to speak with Tirrea Billings, a filmmaker with a social justice niche and grad student from Michigan.
How long have you been in the industry and what made you want to go into this field?
I’ve been in this industry professionally for two years, however, my passion for film began in 2014 when I took a new media studies class my sophomore year of college. I declared the Film, Video, Media Studies major at Western Michigan University my junior year. Then, I became involved with media-related organizations on campus such as Young Broadcasters of Tomorrow and Bronco Productions. I also completed several internships during my undergrad career with organizations like the Public Media Network and ImageStream Creative Communications.
After graduating in December of 2016, I began freelancing in 2017 as a production assistant for companies like HGTV, TLC, ESPN3, and Rogan Productions. I also landed my first client, the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, who hired me to do a promo video for their website. From there, I began getting consistent clientele mainly with companies and nonprofits rooted in social justice.
2017 paved the way and laid the foundation for the birth of my company, Reflct Media Group. Launched January of 2018, Reflct Media Group is a film and video production company that specializes in documentary-style storytelling in the areas of social justice, human rights, and the experiences of people of color. We ensure that people who are or have been marginalized have a platform to be heard, and we aim to be catalysts for change through film. Storytelling is our passion. Film is the medium.
Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome in this industry? If so, how did you overcome that?
I don’t think I have a psychological fear of being exposed as a fraud, per se. However, I definitely struggle with always doubting my accomplishments. I’ve just always been extremely hard on myself and never satisfied. I always need to be doing more, being better, etc. I’ve struggled with this since the beginning of time. I’ve been trying to be more intentional about patting myself on the back, taking breaks and being proud of my journey, but it’s hard.
I also think I’d be a lot happier if I moved out of Michigan. But I don’t have a rich family that can pay my rent and bills while I “figure it out.” I don’t have a crutch or a support system I can lean on. So, I have to be strategic. Great things take time I guess, but I am proud of the foundation I’ve built here and the relationships that have manifested. I know that one day, I’ll be able to fulfill my big city dreams. In the meantime, one of my mentors, Mia Henry, told me that it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond. So, I’ve been focusing on building a platform and foundation that will eventually lead me into the direction I want to go to. “You have such a strong presence here in Kalamazoo. I think you shouldn’t be so hung up on not living in a big city right now. You’re young. You have time. Bigger cities mean more competition with more people who are better than you and who have been doing this longer than you have. Grow where you are planted, perfect your craft, and the opportunities will come to you. Why move if you can work hard here until eventually, people will be paying you to go to them.” So I have been taking her advice.
What would you identify as your most successful moment up to this point in your career?
To this day, the most successful moment I’ve had in my career is winning an award for the first documentary-short I ever created. It’s called Painting Dreams: The Story of Johnson Simon. It’s about a former Western Michigan University student who is a painter with cerebral palsy. The film documents his experience of being a college student with a disability, and how he uses art to cope with his disability. It got an honorable mention at the 2016 BEA Festival of Media Arts. To have won an award on my first piece of work meant a lot to me, and it was the affirmation I needed to know that documentary filmmaking is “my thing.”
How would you describe your artistic style?
Artistically, I’m a very minimal planner. I go into a documentary project with an idea of what I want the end result to be, but I definitely leave enough room and creative space to allow a story to tell itself. I think there’s more authenticity that way. I kind of let the story be the director, and I’m just the one that puts it all together.
Do you have a film bucket list? If so, what are you still wanting to do?
There’s SO much on my film bucket list, both with my company and as a personal filmmaker. One day, I hope my company grows to scale to where we can be the next Kartemquin Films to not only tell amazing stories (WITH funding because I’m going broke paying for everything out of pocket!) but also offer development programming for filmmakers and become advocates for documentary film. I want to create a film that wins at Sundance. I want to work on a team with Ava DuVernay (or at least meet her…she’s my idol). I want to create documentary content for HBO or Netflix. And like, I’d even be satisfied to just be nominated for an Oscar. I wouldn’t even have to win!
What would you say to other Black female creatives wanting to break into the industry?
To other Black female creatives wanting to break into the industry, figure out what exactly you want for yourself and then get to work. Don’t wait for permission, and don’t be afraid to kick down your own doors of opportunity when no one will open them for you. Network, find your support system, and seek resources that will help you get to where you want to be. There’s no right way to do it or one best path to take. You have to figure out what’s best for you. Don’t compare your journey to others and remember that slow and steady wins the race.
It’s hard being Black AND being a woman in this industry. I’ve been stereotyped many times, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been denied jobs because of it. Everyone assumes that my partner is the CEO of our company because he’s a man. When he corrects them and tells them that it’s me, they’re shocked. But, confidence is key. Once you establish that you’re the HBIC in the room, you’ll gain the respect and the opportunities that you deserve. Wear your crown, don’t be afraid to communicate what you want, never settle, and be bold because that’s what it takes to make it in this industry.
Why do you feel is it important to have our voices represented in this industry?
It’s important to have our voices represented in this industry because everyone deserves to see (positive) representation of themselves, especially in the media and film industry. Our views and perceptions of the world are shaped by what we see, hear, and experience. The media and film industry play a huge role in that. Too often, we’re left out of our own narratives and have no control of our self-image. However, with the rise of technology and social media, it’s easier now more than ever to create and be immersed in content that is representative of our unique, lived experiences. We still have a long way to go, but I think we’re heading in the right direction and are actively fighting a system that’s been predominately white for too long. By increasing our visibility and normalizing our stories, we’re able to celebrate us and more importantly, show our children that consume what they watch on TV that we can also be superheroes, doctors, writers, activists, chefs, authors, and regular human beings, and not just the underdeveloped and stereotyped characters that have saturated the industry for too long.
How can we find you? (website/social media handles)
Anything else you would like to share?
Being a creative is hard. I often want to give up and just work a regular 9-5. There are no days off as a creative, especially as a creative entrepreneur. I go to work, come home and then do more work for my company. I am also in graduate school. I am tired all. of. the. time. But when I think about even the possibility of manifesting my wildest dreams, the work is worth it. As I said before, slow and steady wins the race, don’t compare your journey to anyone else’s, connect with other creatives, and figure out what you want for yourself and go for it. No one is stopping you but you. Appreciate your journey and trust the process. I started off with a camera, a crappy tripod and a basic microphone. Now, I have a company! So, I’d like to think that I’m doing something right. 😉