We all have heroes who have inspired our careers––but most of us aren’t lucky enough to win a fellowship in their name. Ashley Omoma, second-year filmmaking graduate student and this year’s Marlon T. Riggs Fellow, managed to do just that.
“It’s the best thing ever to be a black female filmmaker granted this award named after Marlon Riggs,” Omoma said. “To be influenced by him to come here, then to be given this amazing award named after him, is such a blessing.”
Commemorating the late Berkeley Journalism alumnus and professor Marlon T. Riggs (’81), the $10,000 fellowship was created in 2014 through the efforts of Vivian Kleiman, Riggs’ former collaborator. Funding was provided by Riggs’ Oakland-based production company Signifyin’ Works, the Ford Foundation, and The Filmmaker Fund. The fellowships are awarded annually by the School’s filmmaking faculty to a promising student of documentary.
Omoma, a self-described “born storyteller,” always knew she wanted to capture narratives. As an undergraduate at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, she majored in journalism and Africana studies, and worked as a reporter and photographer for the school paper. She recalls falling for film while making a single short video for a photography class: “It was a horrible video, but I loved it,” she said.
Still, a career in filmmaking seemed far beyond her grasp.
“It never occurred to me that I could tell stories in a visual sense because I just didn’t grow up seeing people who looked like me telling stories in that way,” Omoma said.
Fortunately, Lehigh offered a Documentary Storymaking minor jointly with nearby Lafayette College and Muhlenberg College, an opportunity she says was “amazing.” There she found a community of emerging filmmakers and made friendships that have lasted to this day. “That program just opened my eyes,” she says. “The people I studied with were some of the most thoughtful, caring and forward-thinking people I’d ever met.”
The program also exposed her to her first film festival—the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C.— and she would soon study under an important mentor, Iranian-American documentarist Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz.
“Aggie is a powerful filmmaker who was leading a whole cohort of filmmakers to be badass, as insightful as possible, and make the films we hoped to see. She taught us to be thoughtful and intentional and to be critical about how certain communities have been portrayed in the media and taught us how not to be bound by what we thought documentary should be. Without that time of my life, I would not be the filmmaker I am today.”
Bazaz in turn knew Berkeley Journalism instructor and filmmaker Andrés Cediel (‘04). She introduced Omoma to Cediel, with whom the student shared an affection for the work of filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha. That, in part, was how she decided to come to Berkeley.
Bazaz was also the teacher who recommended that Omoma watch Marlon Riggs’s 1989 film “Tongues Untied”. To Omoma, the film unlocked everything she had been missing in print and photography but couldn’t precisely name.
“Marlon’s work spoke to me as the balance of journalism and art,” Omoma said. “It made me think that this was a medium that I could be in, giving room for exploration and discovery while still telling stories that are journalistically sound.”
Omoma grew up in New York, in Queens, almost to Long Island, she says, then moved to North Carolina, and on to Nigeria for four years—a “transformative experience,” she says, that exposed her to a range of experiences around the intersections of gender and race that continue to influence the stories she is drawn to.
Travel proved to be a passion and a theme in her life. By 16, she’d graduated high school in New York. By the time she graduated from college, she’d travelled to Ghana, Cambodia and Cuba, where she studied the function of journalism around the world. She got to see state-run journalism, to appreciate the role of the underground press, and to learn that “truth is really a revolutionary tool.” Africa also enabled her to advance her technical skills. In Elmina, Ghana, she filmed the famous 15th Century slave castle using 360 video.
Her final undergraduate project, The Making of Sketchlehem— examining university-based gentrification via the diverse stories of community members in Southside Bethlehem, Pa.—earned her a Mellon Fund for the Digital Humanities Fellowship. Before graduating, Omoma began researching filmmaking programs to broaden her skills––and saw Marlon Riggs’s name on the U.C. Berkeley website.
“I thought, ‘Oh I have to go there now,’ ” Omoma said. “My favorite documentarian created this program. If it’s run off of his legacy, then this has to be a place that will also help me become the storyteller I want to become.’”
For Omoma, graduate school has offered a chance to grow creatively, free from the pressures of a deeply competitive and often exclusive industry. And she attributes much of that growth to the support and “extraordinary patience” of her editor and instructor, Cassandra Hermann, herself an alum of the School.
“It’s not easy being in spaces where you haven’t been historically. And as a black woman, it can feel extremely isolating in an industry where the cost of entry is so high,” Omoma said. “So getting help from the few women who are in those spaces is so encouraging and so uplifting.”
For Herrman, the feeling is mutual. “Ashley is a thoughtful, bold filmmaker who is passionate about telling stories about communities of color, with a particular focus on stories about women,” she said.
Herrman also sees parallels between Omoma and the fellowship’s namesake.
“Ashley has talked about the powerful experience of feeling ‘recognized’ when she first saw one of Marlon’s films,” she said. “I am really excited to watch her as a filmmaker create those turning point moments for the next generation.”
Before returning to the School for her second and final year, Ashley worked as a producer for Refinery29 in New York City. Now, she’s hard at work on her thesis project, In Favor of Fetus, a film examining how certain laws can have outsized impacts on women’s pregnancies. `
“Ashley’s video and film work at the School has focused on stories about women of color, and examines how the criminal justice system and policies around gender and reproductive justice impact them,” said Ed Wasserman, Berkeley Journalism dean. “That is the kind of passion that Marlon Riggs would recognize and vigorously support, and it’s why Ashley is the ideal recipient of this award created in his honor.”
As Omoma looks forward in her career, she hopes to contribute to a growing body of minority voices pursuing undercovered stories, and to explore ever-more creative ways to tell them. Taken together, Omoma believes these voices will transform the industry.
“This is our turn to tell our stories that reflect us, that sound like us, that are told from our point of view,” she said. “It’s exciting to be a part of that next generation of filmmakers who tell the stories we want to tell.”
By Brett Simpson (‘21)