Going against the script

Scene 1: The Encouragement Must Come Early

Lorna Ann Johnson-Frizell, associate professor of communication studies, received a $15,000 Leeway Transformation Award because her short films featured powerful imagery and honest portrayals of women affected by real-life issues such as domestic violence and war.

And, in small part, because of the 40 comment cards that are framed on the third floor of her house.

lorna johnson
Award-winning filmmaker Lorna Ann Johnson-Frizell has taught in TCNJ’s communication studies department for 11 years.

Johnson-Frizell’s path to that award started in the mid-1990s. She went from learning about filmmaking—working in various aspects of film production and distribution in New York, absorbing lessons and inspiration—to picking up a Super 8 camera and actually doing it. “I wasn’t sure what I was making a film about,” she remembers. “I was just shooting my environment,” primarily Brooklyn.

In 1995, “viral” was a term confined to doctor’s offices—film festivals were how movies built buzz. Money was tight, so Johnson-
Frizell stayed home and submitted her autobiographical short documentary, Strands, far and wide. Months later, the comments arrived. The organizers of a forgotten festival, either in the spirit of self-improvement or inadvertent dream crushing, had asked audiences where Strands had played in the Northwest to provide feedback.

“It was the most amazing thing, one or two lines,” says Johnson-Frizell, who is also chair of TCNJ’s communication studies department.“They were so beautiful and life-affirming.” It gave her the energy to keep going. She has not stopped.

The Leeway Foundation, a Philadelphia organization that supports women and transgender artists, honored Johnson-Frizell for exhibiting “a demonstrable practice of art and social change.” She prefers to think of her work as a social critique or “giving the world another frame.”

“You really think you have something to say,” adds Johnson-Frizell, who will put the award money into her films, “and you want people to hear.”

Scene 2: Entering a New World

Telling her immigrant parents felt like coming out. Mom, a nurse, and dad, an engineer, equated America with social mobility. (Johnson-Frizell was almost 12 when she arrived in Kansas City, MO. Another move, this time to the Bronx, NY, followed at age 16.) Young Lorna studying engineering at Northwestern fit the game plan. Ditching it after sophomore year to pursue the creative life did not.

“When you’re immigrant class, your parents, all they think about is upward mobility: ‘There’s a reason we came here. You have to go to college, you have to do this,’” Johnson-Frizell says. “The fact that I knew I wanted to be an artist was not something that sat well with my family.” What kind of artist? She wasn’t sure.

An internship senior year at Kartemquin Films, the Chicago nonprofit responsible for documentaries such as Hoop Dreams, provided some focus. “There was something about grappling with issues in a really creative way that I liked as a kid,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Wow, this is great.’” Before she left for New York, the folks at Kartemquin gave her a list of independent filmmakers there to contact. After she graduated from college in the late 1980s, she started calling.

Her first job was at the production company Film News Now working on the marketing for the Academy Award-nominated documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin? She realized that movies could “take an issue or a topic or a subject and really delve deeply into it. And I really loved that.” Later, at Third World Newsreel, a film distribution company, she was exposed
to female directors—such as Mira Nair and Julie Dash—and even got to work for some of them.

Their role was more inspirational than educational. Here were women of color, just like her, out in the field calling the shots. “You learn by doing,” Johnson-Frizell says. “You have to create. They showed me that it was possible.”

Mom and dad would have to deal with the career path, even if they indirectly caused it. When you come to a new country, explains Johnson-Frizell, who was born in England and lived in Jamaica before heading to America, you’re not immersed in the culture. Like a director, you have to observe.

Scene 3: The Artist’s Mind Never Rests

The body of work and the hefty checks from admiring strangers don’t keep the doubts at bay. When asked at what point she considered herself a filmmaker, Johnson-Frizell says, “I always question it, even though I should have known from the beginning.”

She’s curious about the world, and trusts herself and her perspective. If that weren’t the case, she says, she couldn’t create art. No one could.

The identity crisis is not affecting her output, that’s for sure. Her upcoming documentary short, …about love, is in final edits. Charles Musser, professor of film studies at Yale University, saw a cut more than a year ago. “I love this film,” says Musser, a longtime admirer. “It speaks to me in ways that move me to tears—and I presume it has the same effect on many others.” The Leeway Foundation’s money will allow her to make a longer piece, a narrative about “immigration and loss” based on interviews. It’s all part of Johnson-Frizell’s quest to make films that resemble real life, something she doesn’t see in a cultural landscape dominated by multiplex sequels and reality TV.

And if this mind-set doesn’t convince Johnson-Frizell she’s a filmmaker, she could always take a trip to the third floor.

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