Kaytie Nielsen

Hot Tempers in Avignon


I was trying to stall the bus driver with fragments of bad French and Joe was running across the parking lot to find Mame when I heard someone shout my name.

I looked around, but couldn’t see who had called me. The bus driver took my distraction as an opportunity to pull the folding doors closed and step on the gas, leaving me halfway off the sidewalk. When the bus cleared off, I saw Mame across the street, leaning out of a taxi.

“Kaytie, viens! Hurry!”

I hesitated, knowing that Joe wouldn’t know where we were. After a long day that began with getting locked out of our hotel in Avignon and having to lug around camera equipment and a sick baby Malik under the hot summer sun of southern France, we had split up to find the fastest way home; Mame went to the taxi stop to see if one would arrive before the bus, and Joe and I waited at the bus station. But the bus came early and apparently Mame had managed to get a taxi at exactly the same time. So now we were all over the place.

“Kaytie, now!”

I ran across the road. Why was she so urgent?

When I got closer to the taxi, I heard the driver yelling at her. I couldn’t make out all of it, but it was something about how it was against the rules to pick up other people, that he couldn’t believe this sh*t, how she needed to get back in the car.

But when he saw me, he stopped. Not immediately, and he certainly didn’t apologize, but he cooled down from his tirade to a venomous simmer.

Fortunately, Joe came running shortly after me, and we all piled in the taxi. I asked Mame what the driver’s problem was, and she said he was mad because she asked him to pick us up, which was “against the rules.”

“But notice how he stopped yelling when you two arrived?” Mame asked, a big smile on her face, balancing a squirming baby Malik as he climbed all over her and the taxi.

And that’s how Mame almost always deals with racist microaggressions. She waves it off with a smile and a laugh, and usually adds something like, “Aren’t people crazy?” She moves on.

Meanwhile, I was in the passenger seat, boiling. “But this is unacceptable, Mame! We shouldn’t pay for this taxi,” I argued. “He can’t treat you that way!”

“Kaytie, I’m already past it,” she laughed. “I am thinking about how to get this crazy baby to sleep and give him his medicine and if I need to buy more diapers. I can’t let this bother me. I’m already gone.”

And so I dropped it.

The women we interviewed in these past two weeks of production shared similar stories. Elizabeth told us about how people never assume she’s the owner of her art gallery; they always ask if she’s one of the artists, or a secretary. Bintou is always introduced at conferences as a “black choreographer,” never just a choreographer. And Fati was hesitant to say anything controversial, because her Franco-Senegalese food truck just started a new branch in Paris’s business district, and she didn’t want to risk gaining any sort of notoriety.

But even in light of all these unfortunate reminders of why this documentary is so necessary, I was also uplifted and inspired by these women. Each one was pursuing her dreams with high hopes and tenacity, succeeding in spite of those who expect her to fail.

I’m back in the States now, and post-production starts straightaway. I can’t wait to dig into the footage we captured and weave together these amazing stories, and I’m looking forward to sharing those stories with you.

Learn more about my project.

The Jay-Z to my Beyoncé

I just realized that I’ve never introduced you to my Director of Photography, and all-around partner in crime, Joe Hill.

In Prague, after a successful showing of Joe’s production, Surrounded 2.0

In Prague, after a successful showing of Joe’s production, Surrounded 2.0

He’s a fellow student in CMU’s School of Art and will be the primary camera operator on this project. We’ve worked on several films together, including the short promotional videos we shot in Tamil Nadu, India for Visions Global Empowerment. Most of these videos are still in post-production, but you can watch the Dindigul episode here, which we published at the end of last semester.

We’ve definitely learned a lot throughout our adventures about filming on the run and traveling with equipment. One thing is certain; big suitcases are harbingers of death on hilly, cobblestone streets.

Little did I know, this was only the bottom of the hill.

Little did I know, this was only the bottom of the hill.

But I guess it was worth it.

But I guess it was worth it.

And after the hundreds of selfie sticks and outstretched smartphones that bombarded us in Prague, Rome, and Barcelona, we’ve been inspired to consider an idea for a new documentary: Touring the Tourists.

This couple didn’t have a selfie-stick. I was happy to oblige.

This couple didn’t have a selfie-stick. I was happy to oblige.

Anyway, we arrived in Paris last night, and we start filming today at an AfroParisian Network event. Our batteries are charged, our memory cards are formatted, and our permits are secured. It’s time to get to work!

Learn more about my project.

Couchsurfing in Limbo

We begin production in just two weeks, arriving in Paris on July 9th. I’m nervous, of course, but I’m feeling ready to get started.

I’ve been in Europe for about a week now. Under the auspices of CMU’s School of Drama, I was just in the Czech Republic attending the Prague Quadrennial, the biggest international convention for theatrical design in the world. I’m currently in Oslo, Norway, staying with my friend’s extended family here. (Basically, I’m bumming around Europe wherever I can stay for free until we start filming in Paris.)

Yes, those are real. Welcome to the Czech Republic.

Yes, those are real. Welcome to the Czech Republic.

New friends, old traditions: Elin with her formal bunad

New friends, old traditions: Elin with her formal bunad

Before I left the states, Dr. Niang and I decided on how we would approach the interview process with our participants. We chose four diverse individuals to focus most of our time on. We’ll be following these characters throughout their daily routines, with both moving and stationary interviews. Each day will have a different theme of questions:

Day #1: Daily life, and what lies ahead

Day #2: Beauty/sexuality

Day #3: Identity

Day #4: Major events pertaining to religion and race (Charlie Hebdo, 2005 Riots, etc)

Day #5: Fears/struggles/obstacles

I’m excited to get to know these women, and I hope that through us, you can get to know them too.

For now, check out this series by Cecile Emeke, which is my current inspiration.

Read more about my project.

Unfortunate Sources of Inspiration, or Hometown Shame

Texans respond to police brutality in McKinney

Texans respond to police brutality in McKinney

The recent McKinney pool party incident, in which a white police officer physically and verbally abused several African American children, strikes close to home. My father works for this town, in the parks and recreation department. We were there just the other day, getting lunch. We went to choose a gift for my mother’s birthday. It rained, hard.

Never once did our waitress treat us less than kindly. Never once did the jewelry shopkeeper eye me as if I might steal something. And as my father, my brother, and I ran through the rain to get to the car, never once did we fear an officer might stop us, suspicious of our intent.

I can never understand what it is like to be Black in America, no less the American South. But I do understand that I can use my privilege to promote the voices of those who often go unheard.

This sort of racial injustice is not only endemic in the United States. While there are certainly differences between the situations of African Americans and Afro-French, their parallels remind me that this McKinney incident reflects a much greater, global strife for those of the African diaspora.

I hope that our documentary on the young Black women of the French banlieues (suburbs) can act as a platform for individuals of this demographic to speak out about the realities of their lives.

I’m wondering if this documentary can also act as a critical mirror, not only for French society but for Americans as well. Maybe because it is removed, because it is all taking place across the sea, Americans would be more inclined to look at the stories of these young women objectively, and without all their own cultural baggage.

And maybe that could inspire them to think about their own society, and question stigmas and entrenched beliefs about the Black communities of the US.

And maybe I’m being entirely too optimistic. But if we can raise at least a question, if we can make the foundation of racism and prejudice in our global culture tremble even slightly, I think we will have made progress.

“Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things.” -Vernor Vinge

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On To Something New

Kaytie Nielson

Kaytie Nielson

I’ve finally purchased my plane tickets, so it’s official: my mentor, Dr. Mame-Fatou Niang, and I will be filming our documentary in France this coming July. Our documentary will focus on the stories of young black women from the disenfranchised suburbs of Paris.

Dr. Niang is currently in the process of publishing a book on French writers of immigrant descent, and is well-versed in the developing field of Black French studies. Before we begin filming, she will guide me through preliminary research on our topic. After filming, the rest of the summer will be used to edit and produce the first version of this documentary.

During the school year, I will be working to produce a second version of the documentary. I’ll spend the fall semester diving into research on the documentary form, studying artistic methodology and technique. In the spring, I will re-approach the footage I collected in the summer to create a more experimental iteration of our documentary. By March 2016, I aim to have produced two films that express one important story in two very different ways.

Kaytie Nielson

Filming at the beach

But for now, I have other projects to finish so I can focus on the next one. Of my current film projects, the most demanding is the documentary I recently shot in India. This documentary follows the stories of three women living in different parts of India, and relies on imagery to relate their complex and contrasting experiences. My partners and I have been editing the footage all semester, and we plan to release the film this summer. Here’s a link to the trailer.

Well, it’s back to work I go. Thanks for reading!

Learn more about my project.