Female Filmmakers Festival 2018: Sharon Oreck sounds off on the wild world of music videos with Jenn Nkiru and Alma Har’el

All three female filmmakers have completed numerous iconic music videos, including Madonna’s Like a Prayer and Apes**t by Jay-Z and Beyonce.


                            Female Filmmakers Festival 2018: Sharon Oreck sounds off on the wild world of music videos with Jenn Nkiru and Alma Har’el

The 2018 Female Filmmakers Festival started with a bang through a lively discussion of the ins and outs of music video production. The talk was moderated by Tabitha Denholm, a British director of music videos, documentary shorts and commercials who may be best known today for her work as art director for popular indie band Florence and the Machine. The panelists included Sharon Oreck, famed producer of over 600 music videos; Jenn Nkiru, a British-Nigerian director known for her short film Rebirth is Necessary and her work on The Carters’ Apes**t video; and Alma Har’el, an Israeli-American director who has done videos for indie darlings Beirut and art-rock band Sigur Rós.

Because Oreck, Nkiru and Har’el’s work comes from diverse backgrounds and time periods, what emerged was a free-wheeling discussion of creativity and the state of the art. “I got my first video in 1984 by lying profusely about my experience,” Oreck said. “I had a baby when I was 16, went to city college, took film classes and started working immediately. And then someone told me about this thing called a music video and I was like, ‘I could do that.’”

Oreck’s rise to prominence in the film industry began around 1984, when she was nominated for an Academy Award for her 1984 short film ‘Tales of Meeting and Parting.’ Shortly thereafter, she started making music videos through her company O Pictures, which she owned and operated. As MTV was turning music videos into a dominant pop cultural art form, Oreck’s company served as a creative force and a hatchery for female filmmaking talent from 1984 to 2000.

Sharon Oreck speaks at the music video production panel for the 2018 Female Filmmakers Festival.
Sharon Oreck speaks at the music video production panel for the 2018 Female Filmmakers Festival.

“When I started in music videos, they were like porn in the sense that it was not being monitored,” she said. “It was not like, ‘Women can’t do this.’ It was like, ‘Who cares?’ There was a very strict hierarchy where there was film, there was television and there was music videos, the lowest. For me, it was the wild, wild west. It was the place to go in and start a company that was about as pro-female as I could make it.”

For her part, Nkiru came to filmmaking by way of law school, then film school, then a short-term commissioning work for television in the UK. After that, she moved to Washington, DC and completed an MFA in film directing at Howard University. Like Oreck, Nkiru’s vision is reinforced by a strong perspective. “I have a very specific project,” she said. “I’m interested in seeing an image of black people in ways I haven’t seen them before. I feel as an artist I’ve been starved of images I would like to see in the ways I want to see them.”

While her work could be broken down from a critical perspective, Nkiru considers her process much more organic. “The decisions I’m making in my work are very much instinctual,” she said. “I’m very much working from a heart space and a spiritual space. In conversations like this one, when the work has been produced, I then have to intellectualize it. It’s my gaze, essentially. But it’s a culmination of my experiences.”

Of the three panelists, Har’el may be the most eclectic and undiscovered—though her career has recently been gaining steam. She recently directed a striking video for Sigur Rós starring Shia LaBeouf as well as ‘Bombay Beach,’ an award-winning, feature-length documentary from 2011 about a poor Californian community living in the Salton Sea. As it turns out, her unique perspective dovetails nicely with her unusual entry into filmmaking. “Back in Israel when I was living in the desert,” she said, “I was very eager to learn how to edit. I was hosting a TV show and I was very frustrated with it and felt like it was not me. So I was walking in the desert talking to myself and I bumped into this very strange man who claimed he was abducted by aliens.”

Jenn Nkiru and Alma Har'el at the music video production panel for the 2018 Female Filmmakers Festival.
Jenn Nkiru and Alma Har'el at the music video production panel for the 2018 Female Filmmakers Festival.

Through this chance encounter, Har’el went with him to his house and discovered a treasure trove of filmmaking equipment. “He said he was working on building a sort of visual demonstration that would help people expand their consciousness,” she said. “And he said my destiny was to interpret abstract concepts into ideas people could digest. I ended up editing four spiritual videos for him. It was very abstract. And then I went my merry way after a while, but that was my film school.”

Through it all, all three filmmakers stressed that music videos were a unique medium to discover one’s artistic voice—though that process can sometimes be dampened by financial constraints. In particular, Oreck’s experience on Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ video informed her way of thinking about things. “When [Madonna] made out with hot Jesus [in the video], [Pepsi] withdrew their support for her tour,” she said. “And when it went to MTV, originally they said, ‘take out the stigmata and the making out with the saint.’ And Madonna said, ‘No, that’s the good part.’ MTV, of course, played it, which she knew they would.” In similar situations, Madonna served as a role model for kicking out unwilling male executives so that “the girls [could] get some work done.” “That’s what happens when you have 15 million dollars,” Oreck said. “You can determine a new path.”

Echoing that sentiment, Nkiru noted that staying true to the work was the most important thing. “I don’t spend time thinking about [others’ opinions] very much,” she said. “And I think if a lot more of us focused more so on who we are and where we want to go, we’d probably get there faster.” Whatever limitations the music video industry still has today, Har’el believes that it remains a unique place to start—no matter the budget. “You really digest your own subconscious and your pain and hopefully create some gold [from it],” she said. “The only freedom is when you have nothing or when you have 50 million dollars. Everything in between is pretty much torture. Knowing that reality, know where you’re at and then make your choices.”