The Girls We Know by Kahea Kiwaha
Interview with Kahea Kiwaha, writer and director of “The Girls We Know”.
The film will be playing at the Latinx Film Festival on January 25th, 2019. Tickets and information available here.
Tell us a little about where you’re from.
I was born in El Paso,TX but moved a lot growing up. I lived all over North Texas until finally settling in my hometown of San Benito, TX. San Benito is part of the larger Rio Grande Valley and, as a border town, a cultural pocket of latinx communities. Growing up, I was always very adamant about leaving but now, especially in this cultural climate, I’ve come to really appreciate where I’m from and the array of beauty in my community.
What got you started making movies?
In the 7th grade, my two best friends and I had a media class where we had to make a movie for a grade. Using what resources we had available to us, we ended up making a documentary about cockroaches. I know. At the time, I don’t think any of us really had a concept of what we were doing but it was a really fun and defining moment for me. I remember saying out loud for the first time that I think I could be a director! Movies were always a big recreational part of my life but I hadn’t fully put the pieces together until that moment.
Favorite films: This is a hard list to make but I think these films cover the emotional/visual territory I am most drawn to: Y Tu Mama Tambien, Closer, Black Swan, Weekend, The Fits.
Favorite filmmakers: Ava Duvernay, Darren Aronofsky, Alfonso Cuaron, Andrew Haigh, Mike Nichols, Miranda July.
Where do you land on the scale of technician and artist?
I think there’s value in a balance of the two. I would say I lean about 65% artist in the fact that my push and pull to a project is from that very instinctual center. To a detriment, I used to get very hung up on not being the most tech savvy. But I’ve learned that being able to communicate your vision and trusting others with the right skillset is just as important.
Do you think of cinema in political terms?
I think that as a poor, queer Mexican-Hawaiian from South Texas, my perspective and voice is inherently political. I don’t think cinema as a whole has to be political, although I love a strong voice. I would love the privilege to just be able to tell stories about people I love and am interested by however, systemic erasure ensures that anything “other” is on the periphery. I’d like to clear through that bullshit and just focus on empathy and humanity. I don’t think that has to be political.
Tell us the story of how The Girls We Know was made
First and foremost, The Girls We Know wouldn’t have been possible without my phenom producer Andrea Wheeler, the incredibly supportive community of RGV-based filmmakers, and my younger two sisters Andrea and Alexia that starred in the short film. From the beginning I knew I wanted to tell a story based on my sisters’ relationship while highlighting the landmarks of where I’m from. As the oldest brother of 5 sisters, the film comes from observing them navigate this world that continuously takes away choice from girls.
Writing this film was my way of dealing with those anxieties and finding the beauty in these very real circumstances. Leading up to production, I fully intended on shooting on my iPhone. I had just won a One-Minute Film Contest from something I did on my phone and figured FUCK IT! As I started reaching out to local colleges, Facebook groups, and film collectives I found an amazing local support system that ultimately led to us getting a camera package and crew. I can’t reiterate enough how thankful I feel.
For the visuals/photography, I wanted a very rich cinematic feel in a way that we’re not used to seeing these community stories told. As I feel like the stories of teenagers can be a bit glossy, I wanted something a bit more personal and quiet. I collaborated with my two cinematographers Mariana Gonzalez and Jason R. Johnston to create that visual thread and I’m really happy with what we were able to capture!
Post Production was definitely my personal challenge of this project ranging from a broken laptop to doing ADR with my sisters via Skype from LA. With Andrea and I spearheading all aspects of this project with barely any funds (isn’t that always the case), post was a necessary monster to tackle with to grow and be better. As I’ve continued to edit my own projects, I have so much respect for what post production people do and I’d love to work towards having a collaborator for all those special and vital components.
Talk a little bit about the marketing / release / distribution of the film
As a freelancer in the film festival world, I definitely want The Girls We Know to have its run through the circuit. We had our festival screening at the Cinesol Film Festival in November and I’m excited to get more eyes on it. We do plan on doing a digital release to give the film to the community that helped create it, so I’m interested in seeing what that can result in!
What does this project mean to you?
The Girls We Know was my first leap into fully committing to my vision. Though I’ve made other short films, this was me pulling back the layers in a way that I hadn’t before. We shot at my house, in my bedroom, with my sisters; it was very revealing. This film was also a lesson in asking. I really had to work through my own resistance in asking for help! I think it had more to do with seeing myself as valuable and being worth the help. Andrea Wheeler was the first person I asked for help and it’s only been amazing from there. ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT!
What has your work leading up to this been like? How has your filmmaking changed?
Now, I trust my instincts 110%. In acting school, we were told “life problems are acting problems” and I think that definitely leaks into storytelling, in general. If I’m not being authentic and don’t trust myself that’s gonna read on the page, through my crew, and on the screen. It’s a very new feeling for me but it feels right. Since TGWK, Andrea and I have been doing a lot of work as producers. Working with a variety of uber-talented filmmakers has really helped me understand myself as an artist. Now, headed into writing my first feature and next short film, there’s just a clarity in the total vision.
How has technology helped you make films?
The access to information is incredibly valuable. YouTube is my greatest friend anytime I’m trying to learn something new or get some perspective on a character. I wish that every single program wasn’t a monthly cloud subscription but....I’ll persevere.
Is there any technology you’re excited about using?
Not necessarily! I just want access to a full sound suite and designer, think of the possibilities!
What do you think of the future of film?
When I think of the future of film, I think of all the stories that have yet to be told! We haven’t even scratched the surface, which can be disheartening. I think that the variety of communities I exist in, and beyond, we see the power that comes with existing in this visual language and I sense a great urge to create and be seen. It’s exciting. I’m a bit exhausted by television right now. There’s just so much stuff to watch and everyone is trying to buy our attention. I think there’s something really powerful in a concise filmic experience and I’d like to see that expand from an inclusion standpoint. I mean Netflix will be doing 90 features next year soooooooo who knows.
Thoughts on digital versus celluloid?
I’d LOVE to shoot on film. It’s daunting but I’m fully up to the challenge. I need money though and that’s the only major factor, for the time being. I think there’s something to learn from working with a finite medium so I’m excited to play around with it and the texture that comes from it.
What are some themes and topics you’d like to see covered in film? (i.e; social inequality, the internet, global warming, domestic abuse, religion)
I think themes and topics get backpaddled for the sake of palatability. I think we should challenge our audiences a bit more to invest and give their own perspective to what they’re consuming. I think a culture that propagates taste with a thumbs up or down is boring. I hope that when people watch something of mine, they’re left with a question for what the film meant to them.
Which countries’ and cultures’ film are you interested in?
I really have no gauge on this. There are so many good films out in the world, I want to watch them all! I just watched a 1997 Portuguese film by Pedro Costa called “Ossos” and I felt like an idiot for having never experienced it before. I’m going to challenge myself to seek films like that more often which is why FilmStruck was so great.
What do you think about the current state of television / streaming shows?
While I watch a lot of amazing television, I get a bit overwhelmed by all the options. I’m encouraged by all the pivotal original voices like Issa Rae, Ava Duvernay, Tanya Saracho, Lena Waithe, Steven Canals, and more with all the work they do in serving up groundbreaking content.
I’m currently writing my first feature, A Sickness. My queer horror film exploring work in love and what it means to fully give yourself to someone. I have some visual projects I plan to shoot next year that aren’t necessarily narrative but keep me on my toes. I’m also getting back into the game of acting which is something I’m excited to explore again. Lots of ground to cover but I feel good about it!
Major goals / benchmarks
Two features written and ready for notes/eyes. Quit my retail job. Direct 3 more shorts. Get into Project Involve.
What is the worst advice you see or hear being given to filmmakers?
Lie, cheat, and steal to get what you want out of this industry. I think it’s a toxic approach that has perpetuated all the bad behavior that you see tanking the “bigs” today.
What have you changed your mind about in the last few years?
Not everything I create has to be precious.
What advice would you give yourself 10 years ago?
Say who you are and what you want, surround yourself with people that push you to be better, and be gentle with yourself.
How has failure set you up for later success? Favorite failure?
I guess if I had a failure it would’ve been trying to be a cinematographer because I thought that was more practical than being a director/actor. Which is totally ridiculous. Most of my failures have been when I didn’t listen to myself. My favorite failure is when I tried out for football in the 5th grade and failed massively.
When you think of the word successful who is the first person that comes to mind?
Ava Duvernay is the first person that comes to mind. Not only does she operate as a filmmaker on her terms but she supports community and other artists. IDEAL!
What obsessions do you explore in the weekends and evenings?
I love the subway and Downtown LA. The old buildings, food, people, art, all of it!
What purchase of $100 or less has helped you most as a filmmaker?
Books. Both technical and fiction. Reading scripts really helps me see the translation of script to vision and you can find those for free typically.
Find more info on Kahea and “The Girls We Know” @