My City Series | Amberly Alene Ellis
No one knows a city better than its people. Consciously Connected Travel shares with you our global fam and friends through our My City Series. Unmasking some of the coolest places and it’s people and giving you a deeper more connected insight.
Amberly Alene Ellis is a documentary filmmaker, photographer and writer from Baltimore who is making huge strides within the underground art scene in Cuba. With Havana now as her home, she exhibits topics like race, gender and social mobilisation through her art, breaking barriers and redefining the Cuban art culture and creative scene. She focuses on telling the untold stories of the people of Latin America and the Caribbean, shedding light on what gives those places vibrance and uniquety.
After graduating with an MFA in film from American University, Amberly received a Tinker Grant to study women, cinema and race in Cuba. In 2012, she studied cinema at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing arts in Prague, Czech Republic. In 2014, she created a documentary titled which showcases the prevalence of gun violence in the United States. It was selected as an installation at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore to bring awareness to gun violence and was also nominated for Best Documentary at the American Visions Awards.
1. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Baltimore, USA. Growing up, I had a lot of exposure to different cultures, and it encouraged me to seek adventure and push my boundaries. At a very young age, I also began studying history and the culture of the Caribbean to learn more about my families’ story of immigration to the U.S from the West Indies. I really enjoyed my childhood, it was full of exploration and many beautiful memories.
2. Tell us about your parents, how did they play a role in your creative development?
My parents are my biggest support. They gave me the space, the encouragement and the know how to believe that you can be whatever in life it is that you want to be. My mother is a graphic designer and my father is a videographer and photographer. Some of my earliest memories are of my father with a camera in his hand, and my mother drawing cartoons of my brother and I. I even went through a brief period of wanting to create my own comic books inspired from my mother’s drawings! I always wanted to be a storyteller in one form or the other. My parents really have been the foundation for my creativity. They have always believed in me, and been there every step of the way in my growth as an artist. I feel really thankful that they fostered my desire to create from a young age.
3. Are you an only child?
I have a brother who is 12 months younger than me, so we are what some people call “Irish twins”. We are very close. We grew up doing everything together, and we really look alike, so when we were smaller, we would tell people we were real twins, and nobody could tell the difference! My brother is also an extremely creative person that likes exploration. He is a talented piano player, painter and most recently he has decided to go on the journey of RV life. He’s decided to live life on the road in his RV with his dog and his girlfriend, traveling from place to place. I think it is really cool to be able to be free like that. I am really proud of him.
4. When did your love for photography and videography blossom?
I think I always loved photography. I always loved looking at old photographs. I always was the one among my friends with a camera, trying to document everything, all of our outings, parties and events. Growing up female in an environment that did not always encourage creative growth for girls that looked like me, I never really saw myself behind the camera lens. It wasn’t until my father, who as I mentioned is a videographer and photographer gave me my first camera and told me that I could do it, that I saw that kind of work in the path for me. And I believed it if he said it. My dad has traveled all over the world, from the Amazon, to Machu Picchu in Peru, Tanzania, and beyond because of his talent. I thought that with his support I could do it, or that I could do anything, really. So, when I received my first professional camera from him as a gift before going to study in India at 20 years old, it just seemed like everything was destined to be.
5. What about being behind a lens inspires you?
What inspires me most about being behind a lens is that, no person can ever make the exact same photograph, or tell the exact same story. Every time you take a photograph, or record a video, you are telling a story about the objects in front of your lens, but also a story about yourself. It is such a personal process that is so unique to you. You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their photographs. You can feel their emotion through them. I think that is what inspires me the most about filmmaking and photography, that it can be interpreted in so many different ways, and that is breaks the language barrier. It really is a universal language of communication, and it is inspirational to know that it can be a platform to connect us all as human beings.
6. Aside from photography and videography, what are some of your other hobbies?
Aside from photography and videography I really love being in nature. I love hiking, walking, running, swimming, and I am learning how to be a better gardener. I also make jewelry and like finding unique fabric to design something new out of old or recycled clothing. I am a very active writer as well and I love holistic wellness. I like working with crystals and plant based remedies. I spend a lot of time at an organic community farm near my home. Being at the farm helps me feel grounded and connected to the planet.
7. How do you get physical; do you have a go to workout regimen?
Running is my workout of choice. I love to wake up in the morning, when the city is still silent, and get a good workout. I love the way that Havana feels in the morning time. The sun is still not fully at its peak, and there is a very nice sense of tranquility that I can only find in the morning in Havana. I try to run as often as I can because I find that it helps me to better start my day.
8. What is your Day-to-Day routine?
I wouldn’t say that I have a Day-to-Day routine, but there are some things that I do every day, that I think are more of personal rituals for me. I meditate and write every single day. Before I rise, I always take a few moments to just sit in silence, and clear my mind. I find that my whole day is out of balance if I just spring up without intention or thought. I feel the same way about going a day without writing. I have actually kept a journal every year of my life since I was 8 years old. Maybe that will be a documentary that I will make one day, but writing has been a ritual of mine for over 20 years, and it is just a part of my Day-to-Day that I cannot go without.
9. What aspects of Cuba inspire you as an artist?
I think the people of Cuba are what inspires me the most in Cuba as an artist. I have really good community and family in Cuba. I think that they are what keep me on task, and keep my focus on my projects. My husband and my parents-in-law are always there to give me support and feedback. It is really amazing to be able to have people that you trust to be able to share your ideas with. It is amazing to have people who you trust to do test runs of your projects or ideas, because you know that they will tell you the truth. They will tell you what works and doesn’t work because they really want you to be your best. I also feel that, there is an honesty about people in Cuba that really allows for storytelling that dives deep. It keeps me inspired to know that people are willing to share themselves with me in the way that people have opened up to me in some of my documentary work in Cuba.
10. What do you go to find your Zen?
To find my Zen, I always look for the sun or the moon. Wherever I can go to best see the sunset, the sunrise or the moon at night is where I can find my Zen. Sometimes I go to the Malecon of Havana or Regla and watch the sun or the moon over the water, or I sit or lay on the roof of my house. There is something about the cyclical nature of the sun and the moon, the way that we rely on them for light, and the way that they are constant that keeps me balanced. It reminds me that everything in life changes, and that we are all constantly moving. I see it as a way of knowing that we are all in one state or another of a cycle and a movement towards something greater than ourselves.
11. As an artist, do you stick to one medium or experiment with other styles of creating?
I like to experiment in as many mediums and styles of creating as possible. I am currently experimenting more with audio, oral storytelling, and poetry. I am trying to find different ways to use sound mediums in photography storytelling. I like the idea of merging different forms of digital tools to tell individual stories. Last year I curated my first digital storytelling installation, it was amazing to see how meshing methods of communication can produce raw, personal stories that paint a picture of people that you wouldn’t be able to see from first glance.
12. What is one of your favourite places that you’ve travelled to?
I don’t know if I have a favourite place that I’ve travelled to. I think that each place is unique, and each experience was so different for me personally at different points of my life. To pick one place, to me, would create a hierarchy that I wouldn’t want to be taken as any place being more special or unique than the other. They have all been incredible. Some of the places that have been really special to me have been India, Haiti, Puerto Rico and Costa Rica. I keep those experiences really dear to me.
13. Where’s your next adventure?
I think my next adventure will be Colombia and Ecuador. I am planning to learn more about holistic medicine in both of these countries so that I can take what I learn and apply it to the groups and students that I work with at the organic farm where I volunteer in Casablanca, Habana.
14. Does Travel breed creativity?
I think that our openness to learn from the world, no matter what our circumstances breeds creativity. Some of the most creative people that I know are people that have never even traveled out of their own pueblo or town, but they are creative and they are wise because they are good listeners and they absorb stories. I think that these kinds of people travel through the experiences and memories of others, and that is beautiful to me. This is the kind of travel that breeds creativity for me. It is travel that doesn’t involve being able to have the privilege of being born in a country where your passport is not limited because of your ethnic origin or political circumstances, it is making the best of what you have and learning from the world to be the best, most creative person that you can be.
15. From an artist’s standpoint, what is the importance of global connection to you?
Global connection is so important because it reminds us of our humanity. It reminds us that your experiences are often the experiences that others have had, and that other person could be someone so totally different from you, that you could have never imagined the thread that holds you both together. Global connection is important to me as an artist because it reminds us that we are not alone, and that there are other people in the world using art to express themselves and it shows us that we are all in one way or another connected to one another.
16. As for connecting the mind, body and soul, what do you do to promote self-love?
To promote self-love, I write affirmations and I put them in places where I can see them daily. It reminds me to feel good about myself, what I do, and it helps me to stay on task in the journey towards my goals.
17. Who is an artist (of any medium) that motivates you to create, and why?
An artist that motivates me to create is my mentor, Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando. Gloria is an independent filmmaker who really defied the odds as a female filmmaker, and it is amazing to know the things that she had to go through to create her work. She is so dedicated. She submerges herself in her work, and at the same time she is so giving and kind in her personal life. She is the kind of artist and person that I really aspire to be like one day.
18. Where would you like to see your art go in the future?
I would like to see my art one day reach larger global audiences. I hope to be able to expand my connection with filmmaking communities in Africa. I also would like to one day create a center or a school for young women filmmakers to study filmmaking. Eventually I also want to grow the digital storytelling projects that I am working on, and teach the workshop in more countries and underserved communities. I see limitless possibilities happening in the next coming years, but at the same time I am really focusing on the present and finding joy in this current moment.
19. If you could have a dinner party with 5 people, dead or alive, who would they be and why?
If I could have a dinner party with 5 people dead or alive, I would probably choose, writer Zora Neale Hurston, painter Frida Kahlo, environmental activist Berta Cáceres, filmmaker Julie Dash, and poet Audrey Lorde because it would just be incredible to be in a room full of that many powerful women all at the same time!!!
20. Your ultimate playlist?
Nina Simone, H.E.R, SZA, Fela Kuti, Erykah Badu,Fertile Ground, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Earth Wind & Fire, Lauryn Hill, Digable Planets….the list goes on.