Dee Rees never thought she would become a filmmaker. "My journey into film has been pretty roundabout," she told AfterEllen.com. The Tennessee native started out in the business world, where she met her girlfriend, Nekisa Cooper. The two recently collaborated on the award-winning short film Pariah (Rees wrote and directed; Cooper produced), a coming-of-age story about an African-American lesbian teen who struggles with her sexual orientation in the face of a conservative family.
"Going into undergrad, I knew that I loved writing," explained Rees, "but was afraid to major in English or journalism because it didn't seem 'practical.'"
Thankfully, Rees didn't stay long in a field she was unhappy in, but her stint in business did beget the essential partnership behind Pariah's creation. "I met Dee while working at Colgate," Nekisa Cooper recalled in an interview with AfterEllen.com.
"We had taken similar paths to get there — we both went to business school and graduated thinking we would take the marketing world by storm," she continued. "Dee was a breath of fresh air for me, and we became fast friends." The pair began dating while Rees looked for graduate programs in which she could follow her true passion.
Her creative drive was originally centered on writing, but film also had a certain appeal. "As I started learning about screenwriting and film programs," Rees said, "I was completely sold on the idea of being able to literally bring my characters to life." She enrolled in film school at New York University, throwing herself into her new craft, and soon called upon Cooper's organizational skills to help produce her films.
"I should've gotten an associate's degree from NYU," Cooper said with a laugh, "because I spent so much time going to classes with Dee and meeting the people in that world!"
Pariah was a labor of love for both women, who have been blown away by its runaway success on the film festival circuit. The film is the story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old African-American girl who struggles to find herself and her sexual identity in between two unforgiving worlds. She dons one set of clothes around her gay friends and another around her family, hiding who she is from her judgmental parents.
Even the title evokes the outcast, the unwanted — and an emotional chord has been struck within many communities. The film has received high praise and awards from circles as diverse as the Los Angeles Film Festival, Urbanworld and the biggest LGBT film festivals, including Frameline, Outfest, NewFest and the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. "It is has been more than we ever could have hoped for," said Cooper.
Rees wrote and directed the film as her graduate thesis, with the intention of creating something that could open the doors of communication between families and communities.
"I think awareness is the first step in creating change and to opening discussion," she said. "And the film has definitely done that. We were really excited that the film was well-received at Urbanworld [a film festival that focuses on the black community], because it means that people are starting to listen and be open, which was exactly what we were going for."
As a film that encourages discussion, Pariah hits on quite a few heavy topics within its brief running time. Rees sees the film as a parable that everyone can relate to, but it examines the struggles of queer black youth most closely.
"Pariah is about identity," Rees explained. "I think that identity is something that everyone has struggled with in some way and at some point in their lives, so I think it's a very universal struggle and experience that all audiences can relate to. At the same time, I did want to bring to light the experiences of gay youth of color because it's a story that hasn't been fully told and needs to be seen and heard."
The project was a tough sell from a production standpoint, hampered by the usual hurdles of making a successful short film: access to good actors, equipment, locations and support that can ruin even the most masterfully written script. "The production experience was extremely intense; it was really hard, dirty work," Rees said. "It was definitely a labor of love, but the actors were amazing. My DP [director of photography], Brad Young, was a genius."
She continued: "Nekisa did all the heavy lifting and was a miracle worker in making everything happen and cultivating relationships. [She is] a really supportive and amazing girlfriend and producer, and I feel really lucky to be with her."