by Hannah Baek
Cyán Williams is inspired by human nature, by anything that appears to be odd or jarring. A junior transfer in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts who hails from Trenton, New Jersey, her films are heavily influenced by experimental jazz, Afrofuturism, black aesthetic, science fiction, and the natural world. Channeling her original love of writing into a visual medium, she aims to create something that can be read through film, an experience that both challenges and enchants her visual readers.
Could you talk to me about your love of writing and how reading and books inspire you?
I grew up in a household where we were not allowed to watch cartoons. And on Saturdays, if we weren’t put in sports, then we would have to go to the library and we spent almost, if not all day, at the library or at the park. So books became my best friend because there was nothing else for us to do except read books. I started thinking, “Wow, these stories are so cool. I could create my own story. I have a big imagination, why not?” I would spend the night at my friend’s house and we would write stories. I would write one part and then she would write her part, and then we would write the ending part together. That’s when I decided I wanted to write one day for people. When I started getting older, I was also introduced to film because my mom loved old TCM movies [Turner Classic Movies] from the 1920s and 30s, and she introduced me to a lot of movies from the 80s because that was when she was a teenager. My brother, he grew up dyslexic and he didn’t like reading because it was hard for him. I wanted him to read my stuff so bad so I was like, “You’re not going to read it, so what if one day I make it into a movie?”
What’s your process like?
My process starts off with my writing, so I always write things that I feel are unusual. I really like working with narratives where there’s no speaking at all. You know how when you’re reading some people speak out loud, but usually most people don’t read out loud. It’s in their heads. I want bring that into the film. I want you to feel like you’re reading. I want people to feel kind of uncomfortable so I write things normally, but I guess it’s the visuals I want to throw people off with. I want things to be familiar, but not familiar. Comfortable, but uncomfortable. Relatable, but something you’ve never seen before.
Do you feel like your films have a political tinge ever, or is it more about a purely emotional experience?
Sometimes I feel like there’s a political tinge, but I don’t necessarily do or say things to make a political statement. I do things because it’s something that I feel. If I feel like talking about something, I’ll put it in the film, but I don’t want to put it somewhere where you think “Oh! That’s what that means.” I want it to be something you pick up on your own. One of the films I did for class last semester was about hair, black women and hair. The beginning scene was a woman sitting with a crown on her head, and after watching it, [the class] were like, “Oh, this is about more than just hair.” But I was like, “No, this is just about hair.” I think most of the time I go for experimental. Certain things that I think in my head are not necessarily things other people think in their head. So if it comes out political, cool. If it makes you feel a certain type of emotion, that’s cool too. I just want to create so people can feel different kinds of emotions.
Could you speak to the things that influence your filmmaking process?
Music is a really huge part of how I create. Jazz is a really big part. Jazz is like literature, but in just instruments. It’s like somebody talking, but in just a musical form. When I listen to jazz, I try to listen to every instrument that I’m hearing. That’s how I break things down: what kind of emotion is this instrument trying to convey? Whatever emotion I feel, I go with that and I write.
Nature inspires me to write because I have this belief that everything is connected. When we die, we go back into the dirt, and we turn into dust. You’re created out of nothing. We don’t really know where this earth came from. Or what we’re doing. When I create, or when I write, I think about the connection it has to somebody else, or I think about how other people see this and how do they go about changing their journey and their life. I believe we’re all on journeys, going where, who knows. I think that everything, every material on this earth, has a purpose.
Another influence to me is people of color. Mostly black women, mostly because it’s what I grew up around. It’s who I grew up around. I’ve just been influenced by so many different things that I think that it would be a disservice to those people, and people around me, to not put these influences in film. Whenever we read a book, we don’t necessarily think of a person of color, but we think of white/male/middle America? We don’t really think about anybody of color. So when I write, I think, “Who is this character? Is this character Asian? Is this character Latina? Is this character queer?” Why does everything always have to be whitewashed?
I feel like your films and your art are studies or meditations. You’re trying to convey a kind of thought process. It’s not necessarily verbal, but it has a sort of literary feel to it.
What is it about the experience of reading that you love so much?
Representation is really important. I feel like if you don’t read books about yourself, books that really interest you, you’re going to hate it. The way I feel about reading is that I can always see myself in the story. I like to be taken to another place. Toni Morrison is one of my favorite authors because it’s like poetry, the way she writes. She writes in riddles, but it’s poetry. You’re not sure how to feel because you’re feeling so many emotions.
How might you describe the aesthetic of your art?
My aesthetic is fucking messy. My complete aesthetic is a mess, but it works. My films are going to look like a mess, but it works. I feel like the aesthetic is more of...a trash aesthetic? Something that’s really creepy but it meets the city or country or space. I don’t know...SoHo utopia?
It sounds fucking messy.
Yeah, it is fucking messy! It’s so fucking messy. I just want to mash so many things together. I’ll say Afrofuturism, because that’s mostly what my art is. People usually think of sci-fi when they think of Afrofuturism. But to me, Afrofuturism is taking the aesthetics of Afrocentricity and putting them into the things of now, the things of the future, thinking beyond your past. There are so many tropes and stereotypes, things that people think of when they think of blackness. There are so many different things we think about each other, no matter what ethnicity you are. And I want to take those things we think about each other, and let us see them, but then take it to another place where it’s kind of distorted. It’s just something you have to see. Or read.