Crystal Kayiza says she's barely in her family's home videos — her spot has always been behind the camera. Now, the 26-year-old's accolades speak for themselves. This year, her film See You Next Time was an official selection of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, a huge accomplishment for her age that will put her on the industry map. And that's just the beginning. Crystal Kayiza's life as a young filmmaker is unpredictably fulfilling and she's set the bar high for herself.
As a freelance filmmaker and director, Kayiza focuses on telling unique stories that highlight diverse perspectives in the non-fiction space. Her ever-changing schedule means there's no such thing as a "typical day." She'll work out of coffee shops, office spaces, or out of her apartment in Brooklyn, New York. "It's exciting," she tells me. "It's like there's not one version of my day that is repeated throughout the week."
Kayiza put her passion into action early on. A first-generation Ugandan-American, Kayiza went to high school in Jenks, Oklahoma, and she credits her school's non-fiction film program as the catalyst that started her career. "It was really instrumental in grounding my understanding of storytelling. And I think having that at such a young age made the idea of becoming a filmmaker really tangible and possible and was really helpful." In 2013, she went on to receive a full ride to the film school at Ithaca College, where she studied documentaries.
Kayiza's family has always been supportive of her work, although she explains it might not have been what they expected. "My parents are from [Uganda]. So I don't necessarily think filmmaking was part of their 'American story' for me," she says. But she says her family is excited and proud of her success. "I think they understand that they came here for me to have opportunities and for me to have access to things and are really proud that this is kind of where things ended up."
The generation before me and the filmmakers that weren't necessarily included really did the work to ensure that there was a space for me and the work that I'm doing.
Having opportunities, access, and people who believe in her have been the keys to Kayiza's success. In 2018, she was accepted into the Sundance Ignite Fellowship program, sponsored by Adobe, which supports 18-to-24-year-old emerging documentary and narrative filmmakers through a year-long fellowship. It was a pivotal moment that gave Kayiza a sense of community and institutional support. It had a "huge impact on my career trajectory as a filmmaker, how I go about my work, and what I think is possible," she says. She explains the community fostered by Ignite is extremely supportive, as opposed to the competitive world of film, and building relationships with other determined filmmakers is invaluable. Kayiza points out the filmmakers she's worked alongside in her fellowship experience are likely the ones she'll still be working with in 20 years. She hopes they'll continue to be instrumental in facilitating change and giving unique perspectives a voice.
As a woman of color working in the historically white, male film industry, Kayiza considers herself fortunate to follow in the footsteps of other women of color filmmakers. "The generation before me and the filmmakers that weren't necessarily included really did the work to ensure that there was a space for me and the work that I'm doing," she says. Kayiza doesn't need to fight to be a woman in the room as much as she would have 40 years ago. Of course, she acknowledges that there's a still a long way to go for the playing field to even out — for example, there were no women nominated to win Best Director at the 2020 Oscars, despite high-profile films directed by women like Olivia Wilde's Booksmart, Lulu Wang's The Farewell, and Greta Gerwig's Little Women.
As Kayiza points out, it's great their films exist, but it's time to be acknowledged for their work. "[There are] all these incredible films by female filmmakers, and to not have them recognized and affirmed in the ways that other films have been is really disappointing," she says. "But I think that it's really encouraging that the work is happening and being done."
Kayiza's mission is to start more of these conversations, and she's been recognized for her drive and talent. As of 2020, Kayiza is one of Filmmaker Magazine's 2018 25 New Faces of Independent Film, she received a Heartland Emmy Award in 2012 for her film All That Remains, and was a recipient of the 2017 Jacob Burns Film Center Woman Filmmaker Fellowship as well as the 2018 Sundance Ignite Fellowship. In 2018, she received the Gold Plaque at the Chicago International Film Festival for her film Edgecomb, which became an official selection of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Kayiza's most recent project, the six-minute short film See You Next Time, takes place in a Brooklyn-based nail salon and explores the relationship between a Judy, a Chinese nail artist, and Ariana, her black client. Between the real-life, documentary-style moments at the salon, there are re-imagined moments that interpret the way "these two women see each other and what their relationship could be like if it existed outside of this space."
Kayiza describes it as a "poetic observational project," and she hopes that it sparks discussions about "how we see each other and how we position, specifically, women of color in the beauty space — and the conversations that we have around how we're seen and how we see each other."
Looking ahead, Kayiza says she's "really excited to start thinking about feature work." Her work in the shorts space has given her a level of confidence that's allowed her to feel passionate about her approach for longer-form work. She plans to start writing more and try narrative work, stepping outside of documentaries. With a seasoned professional's worth of awards already under her belt, the film has only just started rolling on Kayiza's career.