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by Xenia Shin
It is a sunny California day as we drive towards the beaches of Santa Monica with filmmaker, composer and musician Kayla Briët, to shoot a segment for the MY HERO TV pilot. Kayla first came across our radar with her submission to the 2014 MY HERO International Film Festival, Stay Curious: Technology in the Classroom. A year later we awarded her the MY HERO film festival’s Emerging Artist Award.
Since then we have been proud to see her go on to become a finalist for the National Young Arts program, a Sundance Ignite! Fellow, Adobe Creativity Scholar, and class of 2017 TED fellow. We chatted with Kayla about her first experiences with The MY HERO Project and what she’s been up to.
The MY HERO Project
“I submitted Technology in the Classroom to The MY HERO International Film Festival in 2014. I also submitted a short film called Another World, which was an experimental film. And they welcomed me to the 2014 film fest. They told me to bring everyone, so I brought all the people I love there. And I won an award there, and from then, I’ve met a whole family of MY HERO.”
After the festival Kayla said meeting like minds amongst the educators and activists at The MY HERO film festival was a “transformative moment” for her as a filmmaker: “I knew that this is something that I want to do for the rest of my life.”
She also met virtual reality pioneer Nonny de la Peña at the following year’s festival [Nonny was awarded the 2015 Immersive Storytelling Award]. Nonny is the CEO of Emblematic Group, who use immersive journalism–a mix of virtual reality and 3D–to create a “being there” experience of the news.
Kayla was thrilled by her visit to Nonny’s studio: “They are such an awesome, awesome team. I went up to her after the award ceremony and I was just fan-girling out. I was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re so awesome!’ I just asked her if there’s any way I could visit her studio. And she’s just such a nurturing, bad ass woman. I love her so much.”
Did she find it hard to go up to her? “Everything’s a learning experience. And once you have that mindset, it makes it so much easier to talk to people, ask questions, ask about how other people they found their passion.”
It wasn’t always so easy for the filmmaker. She talks about her struggles with shyness. “If you met me two years ago, this whole thing right now would not be possible. I was really awkward growing up. I couldn’t even order pizza on the phone. It was really tough times.”
“But I think that the hardest part was just not feeling comfortable in my own skin, and not feeling beautiful as I was growing up. Just not knowing where I fit in. And that all changed when I found arts, and when I found music. Just being able to delve into something and create something that can make other people smile made me feel beautiful inside. And it gave me the confidence to tackle other subjects like science and math.”
In 2015, Kayla became a Sundance Ignite Fellow through an Adobe Film Challenge. Kayla responded to a call for entries for short pieces on the theme “What’s Next.” Kayla made an excerpt of her documentary short Smoke that Travels.
“They sent me out to Park City, Utah, and I saw snow for the first time! Sundance Ignite was an incredible experience. They invited the Ignite Fellows to Sundance Film Festival to stay in cabins, watch films, meet filmmakers, talk to them in intimate chats about their future films, and their pieces at Sundance. It’s about getting to know behind the scenes what goes on at this event.”
The fellowship also features a year-long mentorship. Kayla was mentored by director Kat Candler (Hellion). Kayla admires Kat’s leadership by example: “Kat Candler is a total bad ass! She’s from Texas and is an amazing woman. And she’s very inspiring because she’s so nurturing. She’s such a kind-hearted soul. She’s gentle but she’s also a firm, dedicated leader and director. She understands how to command a team, but also be nurturing and help other people grow. I think that’s so important as a leader. I’ve learned from her that being kind doesn’t make you weak, being kind makes you kind.”
Smoke that Travels
Kayla’s film Smoke that Travels is a snapshot of her native heritage, haunted by the specter of loss. “Smoke that Travels is my dad’s family’s name,” she explains. “It refers to traditional ceremonies where you breathe in a pipe, you breathe in smoke, and then from that all your thoughts and prayers ideally collect with that smoke. And when the smoke exits your body, the smoke travels far lengths, far and wide across the land and up to the sky above.”
“I’m part Prairie Band of Potawatomi and Ojibwe. Our tribe originates from the great lakes of Michigan area, then relocated down to northeastern Kansas, during the relocation period. I grew up as a little girl, dancing at all the powwows, learning all the songs and dances. I love everything about the culture. But I always felt this inner fear at the back of my mind, that one day all of this will be gone. One day the language will fade away. It’s already fading away. It’s really hard to preserve because it’s orally passed down. So I wanted to explore this in a way that’s honest and vulnerable.”
Kayla describes the film as a story about how stories are remembered. “I wanted to create a time capsule for me, to always remember how I felt at this age. I shot it initially when I was 18 so I wanted to keep that for me for the future, to always remind myself how important it is to be proud of where you come from, but also to be vulnerable. It’s ok to have these fears, and it’s ok to find other ways to express your connections to your history and to your past.”
Kayla acknowledges the anger in the native community and her artistic choice to create the film positively. “There’s definitely a reality of a lot of anger in the community. It’s like a time capsule only for myself. I didn’t want to channel any anger, I wanted to channel a celebration of beauty in life. That’s why I focused on music in the film, because music brings, and unites everyone together.”
“I created Smoke that Travels as a way to create something beautiful out of this feeling of fear. I wanted to celebrate the culture and the color, and to embrace the sadness and the wistfulness. Because in the native community there is so much anger, there’s so much anger and heartbreak in the community. Sometimes it’s really hard to create something without wanting to arise more anger. I wanted to create something specifically that was beautiful that everyone can relate to.”
Kayla spent a summer as an intern at USC Institute for Creative Technologies: “It’s the center of a lot of the origins of virtual reality. You have these amazing labs with amazing researchers that research into computer vision, virtual reality, narrative storytelling.”
She worked with Professor Andrew Gordon, on the data-driven interactive narrative project: “It’s about creating a free text choose your own adventure story, and I created a visual medium to that.”
However, she stresses the importance of storytelling behind the technology: “It doesn’t matter what technology you use in a story, it doesn’t matter how much money you put into graphics, what matters most is storytelling. That’s how you teach people things and inspire people far and wide through telling a story. So that was my focus for the summer.”
Kayla is also excited about the potential of blockchain technology: “It’s the technology that runs Bitcoin. It’s a public ledger system. I think there’s such a whole frontier of innovations to be made from block chain. It’s like the internet in the 90s. No one could have foreseen how internet is used today in the 90s. The same with blockchain technology. I’m really interested in using and harnessing these new technologies for storytelling purposes. I love entertaining the thought of making this all accessible to people.”
“There are so many women using technology and film to inspire the masses. And I take from that energy of determination and fire and hope. And I try not to to let anger and fear drive my decisions.”
“A lot of the applications for block chain is mainly in the financial sphere. Fin tech and the legal sphere. Block chain is a series of smart contracts and exchanges between users across a network of nodes. It could drastically change the way that we run our voting systems. Because blockchain offers such a transparent platform, blockchain could lead to internet democracy. Where artists could potentially share their work and be completely clarified on the contracts and the rights of their work. So if you could imagine massive collaborative project, everyone could be able to know their rights and their contracts in that whole network. That’s one of the small applications.”
One of the pioneers in blockchain technology is Imogen Heap, who is working with block chain to benefit the artistic community: “She’s creating a musicians’ network on Blockchain using the blockchain network Ethereum. So she’s working on prototyping this app that would streamline music sharing and really pay tribute to the importance of artists, and artists being properly compensated for their work. Imogen is one of my heroes!”
As someone who has learned the power of finding her voice, she wants to empower others and share her knowledge–whether composing music, filmmaking, or coding.
Kayla shares her source of inspiration with us: "There are so many women using technology and film to inspire the masses. And I take from that energy of determination and fire and hope. And I try not to to let anger and fear drive my decisions."