“Has God made you promises?”
The judge is testing Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s Jeanne d'Arc, interrogating her direct line to God. It is an indelible scene from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent French film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Dallas filmmaker Dom G. Jones was a sophomore studying film at Columbia when she first came upon Dreyer’s masterpiece. Her class was in the campus theater, entrenched in darkness and silence, with only the flickering of the black and white images before them.
Jones, in her seat, was staring into Falconetti’s eyes. She found herself becoming lost; an anxiety attack took control of her nerves.
“I felt like I'd stopped breathing at one point because there was so much build-up of anticipation. I'd forgotten to take a breath, and before I realized it, I was having a panic attack,” Jones remembers.
As Falconetti’s contorted, intense face peers up to God for answers to her earthly judgment, Jones could take no more. The film had transcended cinema. She darted from her seat, hands shaking, vulnerable and manic as she burst through the theater’s doors with tears flowing from her eyes, gasping for air.
“I left the theater and went downstairs to the bathroom where I sat crying with my head in my lap, just trying to steady my breath. I'd forgotten it was a movie.”
She stayed in the bathroom stall, making sense of what she had seen. A young woman defying the emotional, spiritual and physical violence of a patriarchal world, for a belief that she was special, ordained by God to lead.
Jones returned to the theater and finished the film. Once it was over, she told herself, “Yes. This is it. This is who I want to be."
She graduated in 2012, and today that watershed moment colors her career as an avant-garde filmmaker.
“I wanted to make people feel how I felt in that moment: open, vulnerable and questioning of who I was and what I stood for. Very few art mediums have such a visceral effect like that. And unlike musical performances that you witness one time and then go home, cinema can outlive you.”
Perhaps Jones could become the Jeanne d’Arc young black women need in an art dominated by white male faces.
“A part of me identified with her," she says. "Isn't that what cinema is? Staring at your likeness, putting yourself in the character's shoes and wondering if you'd make those same decisions? If you would die for the life you've chosen like she did? That's why we need cinema.”
It would be difficult enough to break barriers as a woman in cinema. It is even more difficult to face the odds as a young, black female filmmaker.
“As a POC, female filmmaker, the odds are stacked against you," Jones says. "I just felt like Joan and I were experiencing similar feelings of wanting to be a leader, knowing we were both made for a greater purpose and having faith that we could make it happen despite the odds.”
Since writing her first script at age 6, Jones has worked for ID GERMANY and commercial fashion companies, where she has been behind the scenes at 15 New York fashion shows. This year, Jones was a part of the Oak Cliff Film Festival, sitting on a panel at Spinster Records put on by the “What is Cinema?” podcast. It also featured Francine Thirteen, performance artist Netherina Noble and Justina X, black women, femmes and queer women of color who worked on Thirteen’s newest music video for her song “Sovereign, Song of Auras,” which premiered on Noisey by Vice last month
Although she was involved with one of the city’s best film events, the landscape is still predominantly white and male. Jones is unfazed, with sights set further than just the city she calls home.
“I feel like I exist outside that frame, no pun intended," she says. "The film world in Dallas seems pretty insular, to be honest, and just full of 30- and 40-year-old white men. Since I've always thought my trajectory was bigger than Dallas, I don't really seek to break barriers so much as to continue making really strong films. Now if that happens to 'break barriers' that's fine by me. I gonna keep on working and doing my thing, whether people pay attention to me or not. The right people always take notice.”
Since exploring the Dallas arts community, she has taken a thoughtful, calculated approach.
"I'm very strategic," Jones says. "I only reach out to artists whose work I respect. And I've learned that saying no is just as, if not more important, than saying yes. I don't say yes to every event or every collaboration. I'm a filmmaker, I'm not a gun for hire. I will even work for local companies, but if their brand and ethos are not something I'm down with, it's a pass. It's important that I maintain my integrity as well as my personal creative vision. I cannot compromise that, because my name is all I have.”
Jones wants to bend and break the misconceptions and motives behind what is defined as “black cinema.”
“I've already shot a short film in Moscow and translated it into Russian," Jones says. "You even hear me do the voice-over dialogue in Russian too. It would be wise to not box me in as a POC filmmaker capable of making only 'black cinema.' ... Black cinema was mainly defined and outlined in theory books by white men, please don't forget that. And please understand that I could shoot a film in Moscow and have it be entirely in another language, how can it not be thought of as black cinema too if I am its originator? I'm constantly trying to redefine cinema on my own terms. Eventually, I will find my place among the great filmmakers and the descriptor black won't be required. I'll just be a filmmaker.”
It was this type of mentality that led Jones to collaborate with Francine Thirteen, whom she met at a potluck at the DIY gallery and performance space Black Lodge in Deep Ellum.
“With every artist, I like to ask them about their previous experiences working with directors and what they liked, disliked about it," Jones says. "I try to address any fears, concerns first because I don't want that to affect their performance or judgment when working with me. With Francine, I was the first to say what I was capable and not capable of doing. It was about looking at what the song was saying and then determining the look and vibe of the piece that best told that story. I also asked her what were some of her non-negotiable terms. Music artists who have vision and who are hands-on like Francine Thirteen are very clear about what they want and don't want.”
The team behind the video shoot were all non-male black artists, a celebration of the talent this city has to offer but is rarely recognized by media. They spent four weeks in pre-production and hired the full crew. After the team was put in place, the team shot the video in a single day.
“I pulled from so many references — old films, fashion runway looks, literature and even architecture," she says. "Mood boards help my team a lot. I learned that from my days interning as a fashion film director's assistant back in NYC. My set designer Paige Morse had her own mood board I'd made which comprised of design inspo from artists like Anish Kapoor and Daniel Arsham. We pulled from images of ancient Egypt and Chris Habana's works. I watched Cleopatra with Liz Taylor. I was even inspired by Interview with a Vampire and the threesome between Lestat, Louis and the prostitute. Louis drinking from Lestat's palm was inspiration for the blocking of the bite scene we did in the music video. Horror and desire often go hand in hand, don't you think?”
The video shows Thirteen with a large snake. Invoking Biblical and other religious narratives, the artist is front and center of the frame’s universe. Calm, powerful, free, the artist is always framed as such. There is an ancient embracing of darkness and feminine royalty that sits as a clear counterpoint to the overfetishization of black and brown bodies in male-driven media narratives.
“Filmmaking is the closest experience to lived reality, and the human race needs empathy now more than ever," Jones says. "That's why representation is so important. It's no coincidence that in the overall scope of cinema, there is little representation of the POC experience and there is also little empathy for POC people in general. It is harder for human beings to empathize with people whose backgrounds they don't know or have not been exposed to.”
In the video, Jones subtly reconstructs ideals of femininity, gender, race and spirituality.
It’s clear Jones is a force to be reckoned with.
“I'm currently in pre-production on a short film which deals with grief and loss, specifically about a young mother who loses her child in a crazy freak accident around the time of a post-apocalyptic war raging in her backyard," she says. "I wrote it two days after the shooting in downtown Dallas. The identity crisis and strife that America is going through is being fought in our own backyard — there seems to be no escaping it at times. And this past year I've seen so many young people of color grapple with fear, grief and depression. A collective grief is experienced every time we turn on the news and see someone that looks like a family member who's been wrongfully killed. I don't care to watch any more slave narratives or exceptional Negro stories, which seems to be Hollywood's motion. I want to see men and women, right here and now, who are dealing with very real issues in real life.”
Dallas, like the rest of the country, is in racial turmoil, Jones explains, and now is a time when leaders are forged.
“Our country is in a state of reckoning with our past and what it means for our future," Jones says. "We're going through an identity crisis. I don't have the luxury of hiding behind my camera and letting the work speak for itself like most white male directors are allowed to do. When you want to be revolutionary and groundbreaking, the ground is never stable.”