Mercedes Ortiz has just completed a year as a Tribeca Film Fellow—a year filled with mentoring, workshops, panel discussions, traveling, and, of course, filmmaking. The 18-year-old describes herself as “a singer, a musician, a songwriter, a poet, an activist, and a filmmaker,” and has gone from almost dropping out of high school to creating an award-winning short film. Ortiz, who hails from Spanish Harlem and will be attending Borough of Manhattan Community College later this year, talks to BlackEnterprise.com about her year in the fellowship program.
BE: How did you find out about the Tribeca Film Fellows program, and what was the application process like?
Ortiz: I started off as a poet with Urban Word, an organization dedicated to teaching kids how to write poems and bettering their writing. One of the teachers saw that my poems were very visual, and she thought I’d be perfect for filmmaking, since she had recommended some of her previous students. So she recommended me to Reel Works Teen Filmmaking in Brooklyn, and from there I made my first short film, called “A Work in Progress.”
Since I have a unique style of filmmaking, [and] I was the only teenager doing experimental in the program, they recommended me to the Tribeca Film Institute Film Fellows program. To get in, it was very competitive. I think I went up against 400 kids, almost. You had to send essays, send in previous work samples that you had done, and I also had to go through a tough and rigorous interview process, [which] was three rounds.
BE: Can you describe what the past year has been like as a Film Fellow?
Ortiz: It’s been crazy, hectic, wonderful, amazing—it’s been a lot of things for me. In my school, I felt like I didn’t get the type of education that I wanted, in terms of career, and Film Fellows was that gateway for me to get everything and anything I ever wanted to learn but didn’t have access to. They introduced us to a bunch of different speakers and presenters. We talked to a lot of working artists, which was new for me, because I had no idea that outside of teaching, you could pursue art as a career and feed yourself from it, so that was awesome for me.
I was exposed to a lot of other things, too. We got to go on a Hollywood set, and that was my first time ever being on a set of anything, which was really a good experience, to see how many people are in the process of making a feature-length film, especially one with a Hollywood budget being put on the big screen. I also got to travel: I went to South Korea with the program, to share what we learned with other fellows and other teachers.
Being close to my peers was another huge thing for me, only because I didn’t know that there were other teenagers who were so heavily involved in this art form. As I told you, I was a poet, I was a singer, I didn’t know too much about film, I just knew that I had an interest in it, and that I could potentially be okay at it, and I’ve come along from when I first started to now.
My film premiered on [April] 19th at the Film Fellows graduation during the festival, and it won an award for creative excellence, and [the following] Sunday I went to a screening for Imagine a Future, and they kept it a secret from me that I was winning a scholarship that day. So not only did I get an award for creative excellence, which came with $1,000, two days later I won a scholarship for $2,500.
BE: That’s exciting!
Ortiz: Very exciting, especially for me because I came from a place where I didn’t have much faith in my art form or in filmmaking. I didn’t know that my stories would be recognized to that extent, because I thought, “Oh my God, everyone else worked so hard, and everyone else do this,” and they were like, “No, you work hard, and you do this, and you do that, so you deserve it.” And I’m just like, “Alright, thank you.”
BE: What is your film Breaking J.A.N.A. about?
Ortiz: Breaking J.A.N.A. is an experimental narrative about a girl who is trapped inside the confines of a room, but the room is symbolic of her being trapped inside of her mind. Basically, you’re going through the journey in my head about me trying to escape the world.
BE: How has it been being a Tribeca Film Fellow at the Tribeca Film Festival?
Ortiz: It’s been amazing, both festivals, last year and this year. Last year, we got filmmaker badges, and we got to see the films that we wanted, except for The Avengers. It was amazing to be able to see and learn from that, just to be in a space where you’re allowed to sit there and ask questions, and discuss whatever you saw with your classmates, with your peers, that was awesome.
And now this year, it is such a big difference, because now everyone’s acknowledging my work, and a lot of people know my name and they recognize my face from either working at an event or speaking at an event or getting an award at an event, so the buzz around me is just crazy right now. This year’s festival is very crazy. Everyone’s asking me to speak at a lot of things. I’m speaking at a panel tonight.
BE: Do you have any advice for the Class of 2013?
Ortiz: Oh, of course, I give them advice all the time. Every time I see them, I’m giving them advice. I’m always like, “Make sure you speak up. Make sure that your presence is known, because your opinion does matter. If you don’t know something, find out.” I’m always telling them to think outside of the box, but the main thing I would say is, speak up and confidence in yourself, because we are at the perfect age to tell our stories.