Jessica Chermayeff ’04 Champions Social Advocacy Through Film

Standing next to a row of lights and video cameras, Jessica Chermayeff ’04 watched artist Kehinde Wiley photograph a cluster of models. Chermayeff served as a producer for “Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace,” a 2014 documentary about Wiley that featured as one of eight films on a shortlist for nomination as Best Documentary Short Subject for the 2015 Oscars. While on set, Chermayeff was taken by surprise when the film’s director and other producer, Jeff Dupre, asked her to interview the models. Yet, despite her nerves and lack of preparation, Chermayeff sat down and spoke with the models. “For me that was one of those very nerve-wracking moments in the beginning of anyone’s career, because I had to sort of wing it and pretend like I knew exactly what I was doing when I wasn’t sure if I did… But that was also a very personally exciting moment where I got to realize that sitting down and interviewing a subject is the moment when you make a real connection with somebody. You can use that not just to get what you need on film, but also to build a relationship and forge a connection that can help to tell a story in a way that I’d never really known before,” said Chermayeff in an interview with The Phillipian. Chermayeff’s interest in documentary film stemmed from a passion for photography and non-fiction writing she fostered during her time at Andover. In particular, Chermayeff’s work on an independent project with Seth Bardo, Instructor in English, for which she photographed and wrote about the work of Habitat for Humanity, piqued her curiosity. “[That project] is what really sparked my interest in image-making and storytelling to talk about people’s lives and their stories in a way that has a social importance and helps people look beyond the world that they’re normally living in,” said Chermayeff. Though she was an anthropology major at Brown University, Chermayeff also took Arabic classes and courses within her field that related to film, including courses on Arab film. After graduating in 2009, she headed to Los Angeles to work for BoomGen, a company that at the time focused on media and the Middle East. “I was very interested in things that came out of and were centered around the Middle East, and the media relationship between the West and the Middle East. I worked for the company BoomGen in [Los Angeles]. I did a lot of work at the time about the Green Movement in Iran. So at the time I was doing journalistic short form content around the Middle East and a lot of small projects with my friends, just small things to just test out what things you like doing,” said Chermayeff. Chermayeff moved to New York City in 2011 to work at Show of Force, the media company of her cousin Maro Chermayeff ’80. She served as Associate Producer of the 2012 PBS mini series “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” This was Chermayeff’s “first foray into a very large-scale production” before beginning work as a field producer for a follow-up mini series ed “A Path Appears,” she said. At the same time, Chermayeff also began work as a producer for “Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace,” a documentary about the creative process behind New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of African-American women. “[‘Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace’] was an incredibly consuming project over a long period of time. It was the first film that I was a full producer on, so I had such an enormous amount of say in what we were able to do and how we were able to follow the story, which was incredibly exciting for me,” said Chermayeff. Chermayeff said that producing is a multifaceted job that includes not only gaining access to the subject of a film’s story, but also fundraising and finding other team members. “[Producing] is a lot of communication and management of teams and maintaining a singular goal and focus, which is often hard on a project like [‘Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace’] because there were many times when we thought we didn’t have enough money to finish it. [The project] did work, but we didn’t know if anyone actually wanted to see it… [Producing] is really about maintaining that kind of faith in a project, and maintaining everyone’s faith and excitement can often be quite challenging,” said Chermayeff. While she has concentrated her career on producing, Chermayeff hopes to also direct in the future. Ultimately, she wants to continue pursuing documentary filmmaking. “I think the really amazing thing that documentary filmmaking can do is [get] different communities to interact, whether that is seeing them interact on screen or meeting each other through a film project. [Documentary filmmaking] is a very humanizing medium and there’s nothing quite like seeing or hearing somebody talk and live,” said Chermayeff.