Tribeca Film Institute funds up-and-coming storytellers so that they can become “catalysts for change” in their communities—and one of them is Homewood native Jessica Chriesman. She and Kayla Gladney were recently named one of five finalists in Tribeca’s If/Then Shorts American South Pitch for their documentary, A Bridge to Better. Fittingly, the independent filmmaker is also a media production manager at Impact America, which addresses consequences of poverty through health, economic, and education-based initiatives. Jessica has been traveling across the country and even to Canada making films since 2015, and along the way has participated in Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival and Florence’s George Lindsey UNA Film Festival. In October, she was one of six finalists New Orleans Film Festival to boot. Jessica recently graduated with bachelor’s degrees in filmmaking and psychology from UAB, and she’s the daughter of Willie Chriesman, a local journalist, and Frances Smith, the children’s librarian at Albert L. Scott Library in Alabaster. Here’s what she had to say about what’s she’s been up to.
What made you decide to pursue filmmaking as a career?
When I was little, I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t think that kids really liked to read. I remember being in elementary school watching TV and noticing things many kids my age didn’t notice, like the set and how people were blocked. When I was in college, I took a theater class and then I thought, “Ahhh…screenwriting! I can write a script and have the actors perform it on screen.”
What subjects do you like to focus on in your films?
I like to take historical events in history and center Birmingham and Alabama around it. For instance, A Bridge to Better focused on the subject of inclusive economies. We featured entrepreneurs A.G. Gaston, Isaac Cooper, Tabilah Bayles and Damian Carson and the role they have played in helping develop the black businesses of today. A new A.G. Gaston exhibit was just opened at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
What has been your most memorable experience in filmmaking?
Recently, I was invited to be a participant in a convening of Southern filmmakers hosted by the International Documentary Association. Getting to know established filmmakers on a personal level and having my voice acknowledged was an amazing privilege, especially at this stage in my career.
Where can people see some of your work?
I have two websites, JessicaChriesman.com, and SeeYourselfMedia.com. The first one is where where I have posted several of my short films, including The American Values Paradox and Nature’s Song. The second one expands on that and includes my family’s podcast, This is a Family Program, where my parents, my sister Samantha and I offer commentary on diversity and representation in the media.
What are you working on for the future?
Over the next five years I hope to tell create short form, episodic and feature-length projects that educate, inform and entertain people. I want to continue to tell stories that highlight lesser-known aspects of our communities. Additionally, I plan to continue to use my skills to help nonprofits share their stories. I also hope to use my experiences to teach media skills and media literacy to creators in the early stages of their careers.