In February of 2021, Gabriela Ortega was accepted along with 9 other BIPOC filmmakers to take part in the Rising Voices program from Indeed and Lena Waithe’s production company Hillman Grad . The Huella director discusses her short film, and the responsibility of brands to support diverse stories.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US in 2020, Gabriela Ortega began writing to help process what was happening in the world.
“It came out of the collective grief that we were all experiencing,” said the Dominican Republic-born writer, director, and actor. “It was me looking at where I was in life, and connecting back to my roots in a year that I couldn’t go home. I was really inspired by the women in my family and my ancestors and the things that connect me back to them in a year where we had so much loss.”
This became the script for Huella, a story about a flamenco dancer trapped at a desk job who navigates the five stages of grief when the death of her grandmother unleashes a generational curse. It wasn’t until 2021, though, that Ortega got the opportunity to turn this ambitious script into a short film.
In February of 2021, Ortega was accepted into the first season of Rising Voices, a program from Indeed and Lena Waithe’s production company Hillman Grad that invests in stories from BIPOC filmmakers. Rising Voices gave 10 filmmakers $100,000 to produce short films that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Indeed also worked with Amazon Ads to help amplify the films through Fire TV.
According to a recent survey from Amazon Ads and Environics Research, 72% of US consumers want to see more diversity and representation in advertising. And 75% desire to learn more about the customs and heritage of racial and ethnic groups in their country.
Like art, advertising has an important role in helping to shape society and culture. It is now more essential than ever for brands and creators to consider diversity, equity, and inclusion when connecting with audiences.
We caught up with Ortega (shortly after Huella screened at Sundance Film Festival) to discuss her art and why it’s important for brands to support diverse voices.
To start out, tell me a little bit about where your love of film began.
I’ve always loved film and filmmaking. As an actor, I grew up watching incredible performances and studying them. I really appreciated the art form for what it could do for culture. You have movies like Do the Right Thing and The Godfather that have stayed in the zeitgeist and are part of the fiber of who we are as people and help shape our opinion of the world.
How did you make the move from acting to directing?
In 2018 I went home to the Dominican Republic and I wrote and produced a short with two other women. That was my first experience with making a film, and I rallied for every favor that I could ask, and I asked for money from all these people that I knew. The film had the intention to start a conversation about microaggressions toward women in the island, because sadly, in the DR, there is a lot of violence toward women. We started creating all these conversations, and it was really lovely to do something that felt like it was helping. I was really inspired by that experience.
Then in late 2019, I went on a road trip with my dad, and we were going to all these beautiful places and I started documenting it with my phone. By the end of that I wanted to do something with it, and I turned it into a short about my dad called Papi. And that was incredible because I spent like $300 on it and it got into like eight or nine festivals and people really started connecting with it. Then I got a call that HBO wanted to license it. It’ll premiere on HBO in July.
When did you get involved with Rising Voices?
I became obsessed with directing throughout 2020. I worked like I haven’t worked ever in my life. I put money into these things; I forfeited pay so the project could have more budget. I really sacrificed a lot of things so the project would be good and I could have a portfolio. By the time Rising Voices was announced in February, I had all these things that I could send them. I really believe that some opportunities you need to be ready for.
I am so grateful that I have had all the rejection I’ve had in the past. I’ve worked so hard and applied to these programs for years and I’ve been rejected by over 100 of them. Then to get Rising Voices, which has been the best program in terms of what it got me as a filmmaker—resources, the attention, the opportunity. Now I have a film that says, ‘Hey this is what I can do when I’m supported and have a proper budget.’
What kind of opportunities did Rising Voices give you, and how did it make this project possible?
When I got into Rising Voices I was so excited because [Huella] was something that I had envisioned but I knew it was ambitious. So it was the perfect storm to be able to have these resources and prove to myself that I could do it and not take this opportunity for granted. If you’re going to give me $100,000 to make a film, I’m going to go all out. There’s going to be visual effects; there’s going to be dancing. But that’s just who I am. I may not have this amount of money in the foreseeable future to make a movie, so I better prove to everyone that I can do it.
Why are programs like this important to help creators from diverse backgrounds get their stories told?
You know, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need diversity programs because these creators would just be able to step into the industry easier. But, the reality is that there are still far fewer opportunities, and a huge pay gap, for women of color in the entertainment industry. When programs like this come along that feel like they’re not just about companies putting a stamp of diversity in the roster, that’s the game changer. They really were excited about us having agency and us making the films that we wanted to make.
Rising Voices is supported by Indeed and Amazon Ads. What responsibility do you think brands have to amplify projects like yours from BIPOC storytellers?
If you’re trying to make something global, if you’re trying to change the culture, if you’re trying to connect with people, then you need to support the people who have that experience authentically. If you really want to do it right, then you really have to get the people from those backgrounds. Diversity is not a consolation prize; it’s the world we live in. If you want to be part of the cultural moment you have to have people who are filling those gaps that you may have.
People want to be seen by brands and the art they consume. People want to be included. If you’re a big company, you’re not going to have the reach you could have unless you are mindful of all the other demographics out there. And if you’re a media company, your content is going to be better. If you have many different individual perspectives as possible, the work that your company could do would be groundbreaking. It could bridge so many cultural gaps and boundaries and I feel like that’s the future. It’s truly what we need.
What’s next for you and for Huella?
I always intended [Huella] to be a feature, so I’m in development right now. I’m hoping to have the script by spring. There’s some interest and I’m working with some really lovely people. So I’m hoping to make it as soon as possible. There’s a TV show I’m developing, and I’m working on the next BioShock video game.