AFI Alum Constanza Castro Partners With Lena Waithe and Indeed to Launch Rising Voices Initiative – American Film Institute

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AFI Alum Constanza Castro Partners With Lena Waithe and Indeed to Launch Rising Voices Initiative

Photo by Tori Time

Following her graduation from the AFI Producing Program, Constanza Castro (AFI Class of 2015) founded the production company 271 Films with her sister Domenica and has been at the forefront of creating innovative content including award-winning videos, short films, and commercials. Their eclectic work has been featured on sites such as MTV, Billboard, The New Yorker Screening Room, Nylon, Vice and BET Networks, among others.

Recently, Constanza and her company 271 Films joined forces with Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions, Ventureland and Indeed to launch the Rising Voices initiative in order to invest in filmmakers of color and champion their stories. Ten up-and-coming filmmakers were selected this year, including Second-Year Directing Fellow Stacy Pascal Gaspard and AFI alum Kantú Lentz (AFI DWW Class of 2014). The participants have been awarded a $100,000 production budget and crew,  plus $25,000 in Covid safety costs, to produce a 15-minute short film, which will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. AFI spoke with Constanza about the mission of the Rising Voices initiative, working alongside other AFI alumni and empowering underrepresented storytellers.

AFI: Tell me a little bit about your background and what inspired you to attend AFI as a Producing Fellow? 

Constanza: I graduated from University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) with a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts and filmmaking. I knew that I wanted to continue my education and had a lot of friends who had gone to AFI. I visited a few AFI sets and was totally impressed by the level of professionalism, and I knew immediately that I wanted to immerse myself in that environment of creativity and growth. At AFI, I was able to hone my producing skills and learn how to make films in Hollywood via the studio system that AFI encourages, surrounded by hundreds of talented filmmakers working in all disciplines. It is immensely gratifying that my AFI family are still some of my dearest friends and collaborators.

Photo by Tori Time

AFI: What was your motivation and mission in starting 271 Films with your sister Domenica?

Constanza: We wanted to be able to say “yes” to projects that move us and inspire us. We created 271 Films as a home for creativity, respect and kindness, where we could make powerful content freely with the people we believe in and build a community through our craft. At 271 Films, we create intelligent, story-driven, socially conscious content. Currently we’re developing both fiction and non-fiction films and TV while continuing to work in commercials, music videos and branded content, and also expanding into the VR space. Our mission is to empower underrepresented voices and stories that challenge the status quo, which is so important to us.

AFI: What does “271” signify?

Constanza: “271” was the street number of the home where we grew up in Mexico City. When coming up with a name for our company, we had to find something that truly represented who we are – our foundation, our history, where we come from, family and values. 271, our childhood address, represents all of this for us and adds a deep and valuable meaning to our work and what we’re building.

Photo by Fanghao “Edge” Tian

AFI:  How did you first become involved with Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Production and Indeed’s “Rising Voices” initiative?

Constanza: Filmmaker Minhal Baig was directing her first commercial, which was also the first commercial Hillman Grad was producing, and they brought us on to produce. The piece was a powerful commercial campaign for MTV called Save our Moms, which is about the mortality rate and complications Black women undergo during pregnancy and childbirth. We loved working with Rishi Rajani, the President of Hillman Grad, and Lena Waithe. There’s a level of trust, respect and collaboration between us that spawned from that initial project. We have similar missions and values about the industry, the stories we tell and who tells them. We have now produced multiple projects together, and we love our Hillman Grad family.

AFI: What are your hopes for the program in terms of empowering and representing underrepresented voices?

Photo by Fanghao “Edge” Tian

Constanza: The initiative invests in 10 filmmakers through this mentorship program to get them to the next level in their careers in an industry that continues to limit opportunities for our BIPOC community. We want them to have their films as a calling card to get their next job. This opportunity could lead them to direct a pilot or get their feature film made.

These 10 talented filmmakers are being given a large budget and platform to create their art through this program. The productions are running like they would in the studio system. We’re introducing them to a more professional structure and way of working. We’ve received amazing feedback not just from the directors, but also from their crews; they are enjoying learning to work in this system. For us, it was important that the mentorship didn’t only extend to the directors. We wanted to empower their crews and department heads as well.

We’re also providing valuable access to industry collaborators and relationships like Panavision, Company 3, One Thousand Birds, Showbiz, Media Services and, of course, the vital mentorship of Melina Matsoukas, Lena Waithe, Rishi Rajani, Calmatic, Paul Hunter and LaFawn Davis. The hope, of course, is to continue the program in the coming years to discover the next generation of BIPOC directors.

AFI: What was the process like in terms of selecting this year’s participants?

Photo by Fanghao “Edge” Tian

Constanza: We had 3 weeks to evaluate over 850 submissions! It was wild. We had a pretty tight deadline and worked endlessly to get through it all. The submissions review process was helmed by Justin Riley, who was invaluable in this process and had an amazing team of readers working with him. We narrowed the pool down to 150 submissions and finally to 20 directors for a final round of interviews. With so much talent in front of us, it was extremely difficult to narrow the group down to the final 10. Stacy and Kantú’s work rose to the top. They were selected by the judging committee, and we were thrilled to see their names chosen for the final round of interviews. It has been such a joy to work with all 10 finalists, and we cannot wait to share their films this year at Tribeca.

AFI: How often do you work alongside other AFI alumni?

Constanza: All the time! I try to bring on at least one AFI alumni department head to every project we work on. Having gone through AFI, I know we are taught to be strategic and make decisions based on how to better tell the story. On the Indeed Rising Voices program, we had the following AFI alumni:

– Craig Boydston (AFI Class of 2015), Key Grip on Shelly Yo’s film

– Razzaaq Boykin (AFI Class of 2021), 1st AD on Stacy Pascal Gaspard’s film

– Benji Dell (AFI Class of 2015), Cinematographer of David Fortune’s film

– Alex Dixon (AFI Class of 2017), Production Designer of David Fortune’s Film

– Salvador Pérez Garcia (AFI Class of 2015), overseeing all 10 films as Supervising Editor

– Roja Gashtili (AFI DWW Class of 2014), Producer of Kantú Lentz movie

– Guo Guo (AFI Class of 2020), Producer of Shelly Yo’s film

– Dae Hyun Kim (AFI Class of 2020), Camera Operator/ Steadicam Operator

– Molly Moses (AFI Class of 2020), Art Director on Shelly Yo’s film

– Carlo Canlas Mendoza (AFI Class of 2018), Cinematographer on Johnson Cheng’s film

– Arlene Muller (AFI Class of 2015), Cinematographer of Shelly Yo’s film

– Mikhail Saburov (AFI Class of 2020), 1st AD on Shelly Yo’s film

– Summer Xinlei Yang (AFI Class of 2018), Producer of Stacy Pascal Gaspard’s film

– Shi Min Yong (AFI Class of 2020), Production Designer of Shelly Yo’s film

– Sophia Youssef (AFI Class of 2021), 2nd AD on Stacy Pascal Gaspard’s film

– Mengyao “Mia” Zhang (AFI Class of 2020), Editor of Shelly Yo’s film

AFI: You’re providing filmmakers with financial resources and crews, as well invaluable mentorship. Can you talk about the Program Mentors you’ve assembled and the importance of having guidance and support from filmmakers who understand the challenges of this industry?

Photo by Fanghao “Edge” Tian

Constanza: It’s so important to have industry professionals provide mentorship to our rising voices. The advisory board and mentors were put in place by Ventureland, in the hopes of providing the filmmakers with a deeper experience during the process. Lena and Rishi were joined by filmmakers Calmatic, Melina and Paul from Ventureland’s sister company PRETTYBIRD who all jumped at the chance to participate in the program. They’ve all been mentoring the selected filmmakers through prep and will do so with their edit as well. In the current climate, filmmakers faced unique challenges with their scripts, casting and prep that they were able to talk through with their mentors on Zoom.

271 and Hillman Grad have guided them through prep, production and post, and we’ve provided creative feedback throughout. Our collective goal is to support them and help them make the best film. It’s really hard to break into this industry and having a mentor helps you navigate the many challenges that get thrown your way. Also, having someone who believes in you and takes the time to share their wisdom with you can help you maintain your faith in yourself and the work that you’re doing.

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