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Meet Trailblazer Jennifer Jessum

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jennifer Jessum.

Jennifer, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I grew up in a household with a single mom who, despite her intense struggle to support us, always found a way to get art into our lives and for that I am forever grateful. Art helped me with the difficult circumstances I grew up in and creative expression was how I made sense of the world. I created Flying Limbs, my production company, when I was still in high school as a way to encompass all of the art forms I was drawn to. Music, writing, and visual art were always a part of my life, but dance was the art form that really grabbed me and I went to NYU Tisch School of the Arts to get my B.F.A. in dance.

In college, I began in-depth studies of somatic techniques – techniques that all dancers need to learn to take care of their instruments – and began working in the fields of Pilates, Neuro-Muscular Therapy, and Feldenkrais as a way to support my life as an artist. These advanced somatic techniques further fueled my practice of introspection and self-analysis.

After an extensive career traveling, dancing, teaching, and choreographing, I returned to NYU for my M.F.A. in Dance with my sights set on experimenting in film. After my first class, I was hooked. Film was a way to combine all of the art forms I had been involved in and a way to create meaningful and socially responsible work that could reach beyond the constraints of the dance and theater world. I went to USC Film School and have been working in film ever since. I am still in love with and involved in the world of live performance – but most of my focus now is on film.

I have had a long, deep relationship with the Lakota people – traveling to and working on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation for over 25 years. It is the focus of many projects I have done with my husband and creative partner Simon J. Joseph, Ph.D. The Lakota people possess a deep spiritual consciousness and profound respect for the mysterious. The Lakota people have a beautiful culture and an incredibly resilient spirit. They have survived, like most Indigenous people, unspeakable injustice, and cruelty that continues to be perpetrated against them. There is a lot of suffering on Pine Ridge from the intense poverty, inter-generational trauma, and other side-effects of the colonization and genocide that has been carried out against them. Yet the fact that they remain strong and resilient in circumstances that would make most people crumble – is a testimony to the power of their spirit.

I never thought I would create a non-profit, but in 2008 Simon and I were in Pine Ridge working on our feature film HOLY MAN: THE USA vs DOULAS WHITE and a terrible wave of teen suicides hit. We knew we had to do something. As artists and educators we knew the healing power of art and so we created The Mitakuye Foundation to address the teen suicide epidemic by creating uplifting and empowering opportunities for the kids.

Throughout my life and work, I have been driven by truth, beauty, and a sincere need for social justice. I believe it is our duty and design to take care of each other and that in caring for each other we recognize our interconnectedness.

Has it been a smooth road?
As a woman in any field, there are always going to be challenging because of the history of patriarchy. That is global and ancient. But I was raised by a single mom in a difficult situation and she was tough. Having a mom that tough gave me confidence that I could do whatever I put my mind to. I never thought there was something I could not or should not do because I was female. I certainly have encountered that kind of thinking in the work I have done – and I have had my share of experiences with uninformed people who simply can’t deal with a female director or woman in any position of authority – but I don’t buy into it. Not everyone is comfortable with strong women and I don’t take it personally. I am a director. I have a clear vision, a lot of energy and drive, and I will keep working hard until I get it right – or as right as I can. I will always go the extra mile to get things right and I am blessed to know and collaborate with some wonderful artists who share the same dedication and work ethic.

As an artist in a consumer-driven society, financing has always been the greatest challenge. It requires a lot of perseverance and drive to keep at it. To keep practicing your craft, keep studying and improving, keep making work: it all takes funding. So it is a lot of hard work to keep creating, to continually search for funding and pay your bills at the same time, but it’s all worth it. The same goes for running a non-profit: it is endless work finding funding, creating, and running the programs we do, but at the end of the day – I always feel blessed to spend my time doing things I believe in and that have meaning to me.

And perhaps that is the best advice I can give: do what is meaningful. Because then you are fueled by something more powerful than physical circumstances. I have had many people give me advice that I shouldn’t try to do what is meaningful as a career. I should do that on the side as a hobby. They tell me I should do what is profitable – but I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. When you follow your own truth and are authentic to the vision that fuels you – you create something unique that no one else can create.

We’d love to hear more about Flying Limbs Inc. Productions.
I am an artist, activist, and educator. I work in the mediums of film, dance, music, and writing. I also serve as a producer and creative consultant for film, theater, and non-profit endeavors.

As a filmmaker, I bring fine art aesthetic, a long history in the professional dance and theater worlds, and musical training to narrative and documentary forms, Dance-for-the-Camera, PSAs, commercials, music videos, live events, and theater. My background in dance naturally predisposes me toward non-verbal storytelling and my movement and somatics background inform and inspire my shooting style – which I call Kinema –a synthesis of dance, somatics, and film.

As a documentary filmmaker, I am drawn to tackling questions about social justice, consciousness, and spirituality. As a narrative director. I am fascinated by stories that deal with the deep human experience.

As a cinematographer, I am happiest shooting documentary style – when I have a camera and I can just shoot! I like being free to move – no sticks, nothing to hinder me. I love shooting in natural light and finding the beauty at the moment. I love to get myself on anything that moves – cars, trucks, skateboards! I don’t have to wait around for grips or an art department – I can just create!

As a Director, I love working in both narrative and documentary styles. In doc – I am finding the beauty that is already there. You never know what you are going to find, what a person is going to say, what unforeseen event will unfold. I love to create safe spaces where people feel comfortable and can share their truth.

As a narrative Writer-Director, I love creating a story and a world down to the very last detail. Creating something from nothing and bringing in the elements: the story, the characters, the canvas, the soundscape, the color palette. Narrative films allow me to explore subjects that transcend the laws of the physical world, where there is no hindrance to my imagination.

I try not to put myself into a box. I think that what makes my work unique is that I am inspired by the vision, not the form. I let the vision inform and dictate the form – not the other way around. So, I see myself as an artist working in the mediums of film, dance, music, and writing – and whatever else is needed to bring a specific vision to life.

What’s the most important piece of advice you could give to a young woman just starting her career?
My advice to young women starting a career: Experiment! Push yourself out of your comfort zone. This is something I tell students all of the time. No matter what field you work in – find the thing that is hardest for you and try to master that. Expand that cosmic billion-celled masterful computer that is your brain and expand your human potential! Listen to everyone’s point of view, ESPECIALLY the people you don’t agree with. Be the best version of YOU you can be – not someone else – but you. And that comes by listening to your own authentic voice – taking time to tune out the chatter of the world and the Internet and technology and sit and listen to what makes you tick. Embrace hard work and embrace every situation – good or bad – as a learning opportunity. Try to do as much good as possible, commit the least amount of harm possible, and treat people with kindness and respect.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:

Simon J. Joseph, Lo Sprague, Flying Limbs, Alan Johnson

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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