Dunya Djordjevic on Advocating for Yourself as a Female Filmmaker

Dunya Djordjevic is a multi-hyphenate actor, writer, producer, and director. Her work spans a range of genres including the short film “End of the World,” the documentary short “Wyoming’s Mystery Dinosaur” and the feature Desert Vows.  Born in Serbia, Dunya immigrated to the US at age 12, leaving behind an extended family that was deeply immersed in film and entertainment. In addition to her father, who was a prominent documentarian for a Belgradian TV station, Dunya’s film focused family included her aunt, Olivera Markovic, a famous actress, as well as a cousin, Goran Markovic, who who was also an award winning filmmaker. By her own admission, these connections didn’t help Dunya much in the world of filmmaking, but are certainly evidence that her passion for storytelling runs in her blood. Other than storytelling, Dunya’s other passions include building up communities of creative women by starting the LA branch of Camp Reel Stories, in which girls 12-18 create and complete a film within 10 days. In her interview with The Light Leaks, Dunya shares wisdom on creative blocks, sexism in the film industry, and her long term goals for Camp Reel Stories.


On Her Start In Filmmaking

Can you talk about your early life and connection to storytelling?
My mother was passionate about languages, and she taught both English literature and German. She instilled in me the discipline to write and rewrite. Much later she wrote a beautiful memoir about her own childhood growing up in Serbia in the small town of Novi Sad on the Danube. I will be adapting it into screenplay that I will also direct.  My father was and still is an incredible storyteller. His sense of humor, penchant for a good story and passion for history and politics always made for endless listening and laughing.

How did you discover filmmaking?
I stumbled upon it at the very end of college. I was pre-med until my last year in college and with only three upper division biology classes left to graduate. I walked into the theater department and got cast in my first show "West Side Story".  I felt like I had 'come home' and found my tribe. It was quite a shock to my family when I announced that I had switched from my bio degree to film and theater arts. I completed my whole film and theater degree in one year and stayed for a new graduate program in Film and Theater to get a graduate certificate. I got my first film lead role while still in college in a film called Voyage of the Heart,  which garnered world distribution and ultimately brought me to LA.  I continued studying at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in SF and, afterwards, with all the best acting teachers in LA like Sanford Meisner, Milton Katselas and Jeffrey Tambor.  

What are misconceptions about directing for film versus theatre?
Directing actors is a skill that can be used in both film and theatre.  Knowing how to talk and treat the actors is key for them to trust you and give their best performance. As an actor that is easy for me since when I was acting I knew I needed clarity and space to do my work. In film there is the whole technical side that you need to address with your DP, which is why that relationship is so important to me.  I've worked with the same DP in both the feature, Desert Vows I produced and starred in as well as the award winning short, "End Of The World" I directed.  

How do you move past creative block?
I definitely had writer's block and have learned that sitting still and writing a screenplay is very daunting for me.  It can paralyze me. My brain is so fast, and I can’t keep up with it, so I often get frozen. I looked for writing partners, but after a lot of mixed experiences I learned I can do it alone and am no longer afraid.  In fact, I look forward to it. I have found a community of women that give me tons of support. That keeps me moving forward and being accountable to my peers.

What’s a typical workday like for you?
It's a bit of a frenzied potpourri still, but I have found my stride as a mom. I spend time on numerous projects while my son is at school, and then I shift gears and do mom things in the evening with him.  I have realized that I actually enjoy jumping from one thing to the next and that is very comfortable for me. It's actually part of why I like filmmaking.

On Camp Reel Stories

When did you launch Camp Reel Stories (LA branch)?
My friend Esther Pearl founded CRS six years ago in Oakland after ending her 10 year work stint at Pixar.  This year (2018) I reached out to congratulate her on awards she received, and she asked me if I was interested in launching the LA branch, which I did.

Why did you feel like it was important to start?
The community I discovered by launching the CRS-LA was one I had basically been looking for all my life. Giving back to the next generation of female filmmakers was incredible gratifying as I met new women who became my colleagues in the industry. It's an exciting time to be a female filmmaker.  I feel hopeful as I see that old barriers are crumbling and support and opportunities seem to be emerging.

What have you learned from it?
I learned that a little support goes a very long way!  I also learned how many women right now are so willing to share their time and expertise. So many of us are connected by the MeToo movement, and this gives so many of us a way to give each other and support the next wave of young filmmakers, mostly because we didn't have that support and had to fight so very hard to find it and create it.  

What are your future goals for Camp Reel Stories?
My goals are to expand it through out LA in different campuses on both the west and east side. I also want to do a year round advanced program that will make a high calibre professional feature film that can be competitive in the Hollywood marketplace.


On Her Current Process

What are your favorite roles in production? (directing, producing, acting)?
Acting is my first love, but I love directing as it's all the things I am passionate about—storytelling, putting beautiful images together, collaborating with talented artists. I also have a deep, compelling need to write. It's still something that I love most. It's like making so much out of nothing. Like magic!  But writing still kicks my butt at times.

Do you feel filmmakers should attend film school? What did you gather from your experiences?
My film school was making my own feature film where I did everything from inception to completion.  In my mind there is no better school than that. Film school may offer contacts that may be instrumental in funding your film and your career, but the logistics of filmmaking can be learned by doing.

What has been your favorite production thus far?
The most profound experience was writing, producing and starring in the feature film Desert Vows. It's a film I'm proud of but that kicked my ass like no other, teaching me personal things about myself for years after the fact.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
After making my feature I actually was deeply affected by the politics and discrimination I experienced. I got depressed and decided that perhaps I was meant to do something else since I felt so beat up by the process. I was also recovering from a cancer diagnosis, which became my priority. I began to apply for a nutrition program and at the last second got a call to direct the short I ended up getting an award for.  It was a spiritual moment for me in a way as I really needed an outside affirmation that I should continue filmmaking. Now I will never be that isolated and have created a community of women around me who I check in with regularly for support, advice and feedback!

What struggles have you had with being a woman in the film industry?
It started close to home when I got married and thought that my talented husband would be a good creative partner.  We co-wrote Desert Vows. I produced and starred in it while he directed it.  My expectations were so high as I thought this was a dream come true. In reality, it was the most brutal experience, partially due to men’s attitude towards women in the film industry.  I took it very personally, and now I realize it wasn't really personal. It just is a reality and mind frame that men have everywhere but especially when they are creative, driven and want to be leaders in their field.  It's easy to feel chewed up and spit out as a woman even if you are the producer of the film. It's a very real thing!!

What do you wish young women looking to pursue film understood?
Just how strong and capable they really are. Having that confidence is key because for so long we keep wanting affirmations from the outside when in fact the goods are all there already. Now it's clear that it's just important to be strong.  

You can keep up with Dunya on her website.