Maria Judice: Running the Show From the Bay Area

By Thuc Nguyen • September 10, 2021

Script contributor Thuc Nguyen speaks one-on-one with filmmaker Maria Judice about her filmmaking journey, her current projects her open-source Black Film list she created, teaching and so much more!

Maria Judice

Maria Judice has been quietly working on films and social projects that will capture your heart and imagination, that’s when she’s not staring at a pastry case at a bakery in Mill Valley, California. I caught up with Maria recently when we whisked ourselves away north of San Francisco for a couple of days. I find out what fuels her passions, besides gluten-free baked goods!

Maria Judice, photo courtesy Thuc Nguyen

You can usually find Maria in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, making things happen for herself, other filmmakers, and just other folks on their paths in life. As a producer, she had a feature film in competition called Neptune Frost at the Cannes International Film Festival in France this year. As an educator, Maria teaches at the School of the Alternative in Asheville, North Carolina. As a social innovator, Maria helps run Code Tenderloin in San Francisco.

Next up is a personal feature film called Elephant that’s in post-production. Here are more fun facts that will help you get to know Maria, her background, influences, hopes and dreams.

Where did you grow up and what did you watch?

When I grew up is just as important as where I grew up. I grew up in the 80s and 90s of San Francisco. By the time I was 16, we had moved about 14 times. Times were hard. There was an endless recession, and my parents couldn't keep work. We lived mainly on the South Side. South East/South West. We lived in the hood in a little big city of contradictions. The streets were hot drugs, gangs, poverty and yet enveloped and sheltered in a community. Our parents threw us out into the streets in the summer and didn't expect us to come home until the sun started setting. Not before, not after, but just as the sun began to dip into the other side of the world.

On the South Side was where most of the poor people lived. Black, White, Chinese, Filipino, Chicano, El Salvadorian, Samoan, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Gays, Lesbian, Trans, Artists, weirdos, freaks and poor working-class whites. We took care of each other. HIV was an epidemic, and it seemed to be affecting us on the South Side in a whole extra way (pandemic brings this all to the front of my memories). I grew up in a Black community as much as a multicultural one. A cooperative community. Our parents were community organizers, Black Panthers, Brown Berets, civil right leaders, union organizers. And yes, both can exist simultaneously while separate and together. That doesn't mean there weren’t conflicts, but we seemed to work them out for the most part. The only way we could deal with the violence (gangs, police, environmental, systematic) was together.

Majority Black neighborhoods still existed, and I lived in just about everyone. The community had each other's back. I remember somebody's dad or mom grabbing me more than once when there were drive-bys, and I would end up in their house until my parents came home. I'd be sitting at a table with their family eating their food and absorbing their culture. The 80s and 90s in San Francisco were raw. It's not the image you see on postcards with fog romantically hugging the top bridge posts. It was a little big city with a special kind of grind. The best I’ve captured this “growing up” the best is in Palm Trees Down 3rd St.

Neighborhoods that now have bidding wars were once places you learned to fight to get to and from school. We fought then to stay in those neighborhoods, and nothing much has changed today except there are a whole lot fewer of us. I had four generations that lived within the city. All my grandparents lived in neighboring neighborhoods, so it was a very old school upbringing in many ways. Back then anybody could be your family. I seemed to have a lot of cousins with their eyes on me if I slipped up. I couldn't watch much. We snuck some of the corniest TV shows like Soul Train or MTV or Nickelodeon's You Can't Say That on Television when they were away at work. But then again, kids weren't really up under parents or grandparents back then.

We were latchkey kids. We got up, got dressed, made lunch, and went to school. Then we came home, made a snack, if there was one, and flipped on the television while doing our homework. There were mainly reruns on TV like the Brady Bunch, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Laurel and Hardy, Little Rascals, Dark Shadows. Gone with the Wind seemed to always be on the TV along with Birth of a Nation. I mean all the "classics."

When the parents weren’t around, it was usually some too adult movie I was watching. My dad loved Westerns. I snuck his Blaxploitation collection into the VCR, BetaCam Player, or LaserDisc when he wasn't around. That was the cool shit in my eyes as a kid. When I hung with my grandparents, it was completely different. My grandparents didn't watch movies or much tv even though the television was always on. It was more of a noisemaker for them. They read newspapers, did hobbies, fixed up the house, played music; they knew how to occupy their time moving. They expected us to do the same.

Both my grandparents had a library. I read a lot. I read even more than I watched movies or TV. Nobody cared what I was reading. Both my parents and grandparents thought the TV was rotting my brain, but reading was completely safe. Nothing on their shelves was a "kid's" book. Even Grimm's fairy tales were horrific. I loved them. I loved books that were too adult for me. I remember reading Roots at 12 and Malcom X around that time. I read every Toni Morrison on the shelf way too young. I read classics, too, like Moby Dick and Grapes of Wrath. Anna Karenina was a book I remember reading like damn "this good," and I didn't know white people had such tragic lives. There was so much Shakespeare. I don't even know half the time what it was about, but I like the poetry—the prose. I love some good prose. I understood little of it, but it seemed to have the makings of an excellent high-brow soap opera, which I was allowed to watch because my grandmother wanted updates on her soaps when she got home from work.

Do you remember the first film you ever loved?

As a kid I loved The Neverending Story. Ghostbusters. I remember my mom taking me to Bambi like five times. The first time we all cried. By the fifth time I was like mom I don't like this movie. My mom responded but “I do” while belting out every song in the movie. She loved musicals. I am not the biggest fan even to this day. Basically, anything my parents took me to I loved. The movie was a special treat I always looked forward to. It didn't matter the movie, just that space with the light dimming low and that projected image. I always thought the movies were magical.

But at some point we got enough money to go to movies by ourselves. We basically picked PG and PG-13, but we started to sneak into movies. The more adult the harder to understand movies I really loved. Foreign films, dramas, thrillers…

As I started to study film, I loved the Imitation of Life - the 1939 version.

By college I had come into my grown and sexy and loved a very snowy VHS version of Love Jones

Top 5 movies you love?

Usually, I would divide this up between scripts and films but I’ll give you my top 5 all around favorite films. I have the caveat that I am able to change this list at any given time. I cheated but I gave films that I think are close to perfect.

Daughters of the Dust

Taipei Story/Love Jones

The Great Dictator

Moonlighting

M

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

Like I made a decision here. [laughs] I decided to go to grad school for film because working for a bank and working my way up to a Data Analyst position at the time, when data was not cool. It was a really oppressive environment in my early 20s. I was miserable. I was working late at night as a photographer, mainly capturing Hip Hop shows and artists. One groggy morning my boss called me in and asked me about my future. I said I was thinking about film school. She nudged me to make a decision. Take a career at the bank and get this money. Or get your life and become an artist.

It just so happened that I ran into Spike Lee making Sucka Free City during this same time. I won't go into the whole story. But he set me on a path. We were in a club with my girls and his cast and crew. He gave me grad school advice over soda and vodka in a dimly lit club called Big Heart City with hip hop music blaring in the background. Anyways he screams to me over the music, "Great, do it. Now you gotta make a choice." My face screwed, not understanding what he was saying. He leaned in on the point, "Make a choice either you're going to get a promotion at the bank, or you're going to film school. You can't do both.” Young Maria was shook. I was totally maneuvering to do both, transfer my job to NYC or LA, be safe and not an art loser.

I absorbed all the layers he intended. You can't serve two masters. I put in my resignation two weeks later, applied to grad school, and packed a bag to NYC. Spike invited me to the set the next day, which did not happen because I was at work on a deadline. Reader I know this sounds crazy but I had not yet chosen. I was the responsible Jr. Data Analyst still. But I ran into him years later and thanked him. I lived in NYC for a little more than a year finding myself doing things most people do in their early 20s.

NYC was starting over, but it was necessary to cement this filmmaker pathway. I was learning to pray to my new god, Cinema. Everyone I met during that time was so encouraging and supportive and offered up resources and connections. That was a magical time, a reaffirming time. Filmmaking was the path. I tried my best not to make it too hard for myself. I ended up in film school in LA at CalArts. It's not where I became a filmmaker but it's where I deepened my study. I didn’t learn until later that film school doesn't make you a filmmaker but it does create the filmmaker you become.

I've given up being a filmmaker many times. It always calls me back. I've become a filmmaker over time. I've always had celluloid dreams. When I close my eyes at night, every dream plays out like a movie. I always saw myself more as a writer, but even my writing is a movie and a story. How I talk is a story. I can make a story out of anything. I grew up in a culture that spoke in stories. Every exchange is a way to tell a story.

I don't believe our lives are entirely determinant, but a few things are set in stone, and all you can do is prepare yourself for the impact. The universe is showing you your true self all the time. The best you can do for yourself is not throw rocks in your path. 

Maria Judice self portrait

Tell us more about the open-source Black Film list you made. 

The 101 Essential Black Films came out of Black Film as Protest. Black Film as Protest began as a response to the Spring 2020 Police Brutality Uprisings that demanded justice for the murder of George Floyd. Multiple forms of protest, boycotts, and riots once again brought to the surface the United States’s ugly truth about the lack of equality and equity for Black lives and Black people. Corporations made performative outward gestures standing with Black people and holding on to their #1customer.

Of particular concern to me was the gesture made by the Criterion Channel. The company released a collection of Black Films from behind its paywall for six weeks with the statement, “We are also committed to examining the role we play in the idea of canon formation, whose voices get elevated, and who gets to decide what stories get told...”. For the oppression we experienced as Black people, we could now watch rare masterworks made by us and for us about us for free; but act quickly because offered for a limited time only.

After a week of heavy Criterion watching while putting the series together for Black Film as Protest, the 101 Essential Black Films list popped out. I began to keep a list of films I thought were essential watches for any serious Black film “student.” I use the word student here in the broadest sense of someone at study. I began with Criterion but quickly, my searches missed several films that I wanted to be a “criterion” selection. Overnight I had 100 essential Black films.

By the end of the week, I had 101 Essential Black Films, going back and forth between that one film that must be on the list. While people were home looking for things to do, I organized discussions and readings around Black films. The screenings series stretched over four months. Every Thursday, we all met on Criterion and watched 20 Black films in serious study and conversation.

The 101 Essential Black Films is an open source list for folks to continue the discussion, make suggestions, and deeply engage in the Black film canon.

[Also read 101 Essential Pan African Films ]

How did you get involved with Neptune Frost, a film that is playing at the Cannes Film Festival this year, as its producer? What does the title mean?

Saul and I had known for a few years through a screening and storytelling series I collaborated with in Oakland called Matatu. Saul and his wife Anisia Uzeyman and I became friends talking about our weird experimental radical Black film tastes. I worked with them first co-producing Dreamstates directed by Anisia Uzeyman and starring Saul Williams. Dreamstates is a beautiful film pushing the boundaries and layers of storytelling and moving images on screen.

Quickly we started to talk about Saul’s series Martyr Loser King, a play, graphic novel, albums and movie called Neptune Frost. The first step was to raise funding for the film. In 2018, my consulting firm Indigo Impact took the lead on the crowdfunding campaign. Where we raised a little more than $200,000 between crowdfunding and private donations. We ran the campaign with a trailer Saul, Anisia and a small crew and cast in Rwanda shot. Our global 50+ ambassadors helped us reach all corners of the world. Each $1 donation spread the word about an independently made Rwandan sci fi musical with a Rwandan cast and crew that people were hungry for.

In 2020 we raised more funds to go shoot the damn thing. In January 2020 I was in Rwanda producing NF. By March 10, 2020 I was back in San Francisco in lockdown. We premiered the film at Cannes this year with rave reviews. I am so proud of this journey and where it’s headed.

Neptune Frost is the name of the character of the film. I am going to defer that deeper answer to Saul and Anisia, the co-directors and writers of the film.

[Marion Hill Climbs the Filmmaking Mountain and Plants Her Flag with 'Ma Belle, My Beauty']

What are the most stand-out memories of your time in Rwanda? What is the time frame in which you were there?

My stand-out memory in Rwanda is having a complete feeling of being emerged in Cinema and art. That happened with a handful of projects I have produced. Most of the projects I felt that way were my own. An emerging cinema surrounded me in Rwanda, and everyone was engaged in that discussion 24/7, and nothing less than pushing boundaries was acceptable. There was so much talent in Rwanda and the greater region.

I am looking forward to watching films and filmmakers in the coming years. After my time in Rwanda, I am more committed to opening these cinema borders.

If it weren't for the pandemic rising, I would have stayed for another month after the film absorbing art, people, nature, land, and sea. 

Tell us about the impact that you do - SOTA, Code Tenderloin.

I am on the board of the School of the Alternative. I started teaching there in 2018, and I joined the board during the pandemic. It allowed me to expand my political and cinematic pedagogy and film study. I need motivators like teaching, research, or making a film to maintain my cinema study. I’m a Taurus. I can be quite lazy and comfortable in any 90s Canadian sci-fi series. The class I teach at SotA is Screenwriting Rooted in Decolonization in Abstract Thinking.

This screenwriting class takes scripts like Daughters of the Dust and A Raisin in the Sun. It pairs them with political, philosophical, intellectual, and spiritual/metaphysical thinkers like Franz Fanon and N. Scott Momaday to help us unlearn all this traditional cis white male filmmaking. I like to remind folks that Lorraine Hansberry was a Black Marxist. You can read her play or watch the film with this kind of lens of the Black middle class attaining equality and generational wealth, a sort of capitalistic lens. Or you read it as a comment on class struggle and Black labor in America, a socialist/labor view. Both are valid, but one seems to be the dominant hot take on her writing. She was a queer woman with so much to teach us about the marriage of art and political education – she transitioned way too soon. I began to dig into her life, essays, and other radical plays in the last few years.

This class started in bookstores and community spaces in my hood in San Francisco in 2016. SotA allowed me to expand the class, convene with others on films that I love, and be in place, space, and community beyond my film nerds. SotA focuses on non-hierarchical peer-to-peer education, so you are a facilitator/teacher and a student. I spent my first SotA session teaching my class for three days, then being in the student chair in body movement, herbal studies, and vinyl sign-making classes. At SotA, we move each year to deepen our commitment to accessibility. That accessibility ranges from financial, physical, and emotional. Our goal is to have a supportive community and an open and welcoming space that meets all the needs of the people. It's a one-three week art retreat in the historic location of Black Mountain College in Black Mountain, North Carolina. For a city girl like me, it's what the art doctor orders every year and right on time.

2020 moved to virtual space, but in person, sessions begin 2022 pandemic willing. Lots to say here about my costly arts education being something I feel strongly about not being all that it's cracked up to be. In my art practice, I'm dedicated to giving ways around institutional art education.

Syllabus 2021

Syllabus 2019

There's also a screenwriting reference list. I think that's pretty good.

I open my screenwriting class twice a year in the Spring at SotA, which has scholarships. I open it again in Fall/Winter virtually or locally in San Francisco. Either way, it fills up fast. Following SotA and me on social media is the best way to find out about the class. And everyone finds themselves on the page.

Code Tenderloin is my day job. CT is a community organization in the Tenderloin in San Francisco focused on barrier removal for people experiencing life transitions like homelessness, addiction, former incarceration, mental illness, or unemployment. Our goal is to find solutions to living wage income and long-term wellbeing.

I started there as a volunteer maybe four years ago now. I helped the organization raise its first big monies. I worked on media and communication materials and also guided capacity building. I did a Healing Justice Media Lab where folks in the neighborhood could come in and learn how to capture their story and articulate their voice. We learned, collaborated, and trained participants in podcasts to videos, play readings and performance, sketching, sound recording, DJ techniques, and body movement. I knew community leader Del Seymour from volunteering for organizations concerned with unhoused and homeless people in San Francisco. When I met him in 2015, he had $30 in his pocket and could barely keep the lights on at Code Tenderloin. We raised $50,000 that year. That gave the organization the ability to keep serving the community.

Early in the pandemic, we were gifted $1.6 million from Jack Dorsey's Start Small Fund, which opened up funding for me to come on as a staff member. I now work as the Development Director, doing the same things I did when I volunteered but more strategy and capacity building. We dream of a building we own and a woman's center, especially for mothers experiencing housing instability. We went from a $200,000 organization when I started to about a $2.5 mil organization in 2021. At SotA I also teach a workshop called FUND YOUR MOVEMENT. In this workshop, I pass on all my funding, impact, and capacity-building lesson. Funding your movement is about autonomy to design a world through your imagination.

Our slogan is meeting the people where they are. We provided water and basic essentials during the shutdown, providing mobile vaccinations for unhoused people and people living in tents, or just giving transportation cards to get back and forth from work or a new suit for a job interview. I love my family at Code Tenderloin. We were named the California Nonprofit of the Year in 2020. We recently hosted a free mobile vaccination event; vaccination participants got $200 for entering our vaccine rap performance and free cannabis giveaway. It's a Black-led organization in a city with a declining Black population. Every day I show up to work, and I feel like I know my purpose. 

[How Janicza Bravo and 'Zola' Are Changing the Narrative]

Tell us about your film Elephant. What’s it all about and when do we get to see it?

My feature, believe it or not, started in 2016, during the Ferguson riots. I had become withdrawn, depressed, and hopeless. I did not leave my home other than to re-up on groceries for more than a year. I had pulled back significantly from my social life, working any in-person 9-5 job and social organizing. I laid in bed, dreading the sun. To get me out of it, I started to shoot performance art stuff as an outlet. Eventually, Elephant showed itself. It became the story of a woman who witnesses the murder of a young skateboard kid by a cop on her doorstep. She suffers from an inescapable feeling of impending death and does not leave her apartment for more than a year.

Through her community, she moves through grief, violence, and the complexities of racism to finally engage once again with the outside world. It is a film about a beloved community that brings us back from the darkness.

I acted, directed, edited, and produced with my co-producers Amanda Vigil and Sloan Abihaidar. The shelter in place ordinance was a welcome working period. The script is a few pages of an idea with many scenes attached. I didn't fully improvise, but I didn't work from any locked script. I wrote a broad story and with the help of the actors that participated. I defined roles, scenes, and moments depending on the day's energy.

The film is a larger project, including a play, A Metaphor in 3 Act produced by Obsidian Theater in Detroit. Complementary to the film is also a book of writing with poems, essays, recipes, and a list of instructions. I'm most excited about the physical music album with artists like Drea the Vibe Dealer, Shamila Ivory, and Marisa Ewing's amazing plant scapes.

I am submitting to festivals. And if it's too weird for festivals, I'll figure out my own route. 

You have an idea for a second feature. Would you like to share?

My second feature is called A Certain Grace. The film is about a wealthy Black family in San Francisco who’s matriarch suffers a breakdown after the death of her youngest daughter and finds herself living in the unhoused community of Central California’s desert for a long period of time. The family spends a significant amount of resources, wealth and network only to discover there is little recourse for families of color with missing loved ones. The film is about the strength of Black family and widens the perception of folks who are unhoused to people within your family. Almost everyone has a story of a loved one that went missing and homeless on the streets.

The script is out in the world and ”done.” I’ve been fielding rejections but in this creative pathway, you learn to take punches and keep on keeping on. This is a story that comes from my experience as a child with my mother and experiencing periods of housing instability and homelessness. It also comes from my work with Code Tenderloin. There was a moment when the story opened up and I listened to Del Seymour at a speaking engagement say, “What would happen to homelessness if we all went and got our moms, dads, brothers, aunties, and uncles from the streets. We make homeless a distant problem that couldn’t happen to us. Any one of us could have a significant life transition that knocks us down.” I hope if I ever fall there is a community to help me move through it and get my life back like Code Tenderloin. 

What is your writing process like? What inspires you?

My writing process is a rewriting process. Many scripts begin from pieces of dreams. My short film, moonless (not cap), is precisely the dream I had. I dreamt an extraterrestrial being returned me to earth after exploring the universe for an unknown time. I was fighting my way back on the ship. I lost. I was deserted on this minor planet by my hosts. I didn't want to return to a world of violence and harm. I woke up out of breath, sad, angry, overwhelmed, and longing to return to that vast open space. It took me a minute to calm down and call it a dream. Boom, I made it into a script and then a film.

I write every day. Or I try. I try to write for a couple of hours, even if it's not a script. It's been well worth expanding my practice to poetry, essays, recipes, instructions, and plays. It's where I began out of undergrad as a Creative Writing major, but my focus has been screenwriting over the years. When I get disgusted with myself, I flip to one of these other forms. I find play again. If there's any advice, have fun in the challenge and enjoy the struggle on the page. Be at play always. Don't let that feeling go. I've written one page of a script, held it for a few years, and then sat down and bang boom bam; the whole thing fell out of me over a couple of weeks. I usually set to a script until I am finished —usually finished "for now" until I return to it ready to play. The other piece of advice is to trust the page and the process. There are many times when I feel taken over, only a vessel for the story to move through.

[South-East-Asian-American Stories You Need to Know About]

I have a trusted group of people that I let read my work. Feedback is important. When I begin writing, I don't always know what I am writing or what it means, so I place feedback in the journey, even if it's me reading it out loud over and over. Voice recorders are a great way to listen to your words read back to you. Script readings don't have to be all pomp and circumstance; get a group of folks to read it out loud anywhere. I like obstructions or obstacles while writing. I do well within a tight frame I set for myself, only to know exactly why I am breaking out of it. I am not the kind of person who lacks inspiration. I know how to use my imagination and play by myself. If I could write every day and write in a post-capitalist world, that would be my dream – to be free to write whatever and whenever I want without the concessions of financial needs. I am inspired by nature. My neighborhood. My city. My people. My family. The homegirls from high school. My community. I don't reach v far for inspiration, and I think that's noticeable in my work.

You can read my short Pushing Future Past in the Obsidian Literature Journal. I always tell young writers to get their hands on Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust script. The first three-five pages are everything you need to learn about screenwriting. Send me a DM on some platform and thank me. A personal belief is that cinema should be accessible and public. The people should not have too many challenges and financial strings to watch great cinema.

What’s next for you- for the rest of 2021? 

2021. Wow. This pandemic be shifting the world right under your feet. I haven't made many plans these days other than to love the people closest to me before they transition. Try to get to Boston to ask my 97-year-old Aunt Tootsie some questions.

I had so many plans pre-pandemic, but as of July 26th, I am finishing post-production on my feature film Elephant. I will get it out in the world. Finish my next script. Maybe sew some pockets on a few jackets. Smell the flowers before the climate shifts too left. Whatever is in store for me in 2021 is set. I need to walk along the path with intention, gratitude and not throw any rocks in my way.


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