Growing up, Haley Elizabeth Anderson held on to a secret. There had been periods of time, on and off in her adolescence and even up until when she was attending college, when Anderson and her family were homeless. They lived in motels, and at times, in their car. Now, the director, whose debut documentary film, If There Is Light, opens up about her own past through 14 -year old Janiyah who wrestles with life in New York while her mother tries to move their family out of the shelter system.
Anderson’s film is a part of the Queen Collective, a program launched by Queen Latifah, Procter & Gamble and Tribeca Studios to support new, visionary female filmmakers who are committed to telling personal stories that focus on a social issue and inspires positive social changes.
BET.com spoke with Anderson about the power of revealing her story through another woman’s truth, the struggles of sheltering in place when you’re homeless, and the life-altering value of mentorship from other Black women creatives and filmmakers.
BET.com: This is a really personal story. What was your motivation in telling it?
Haley Elizabeth Anderson: I knew I wanted to tell the story about kids living in this transitional housing crisis because I had the same kind of experience when I was a teenager. All through my life, off and on, I experienced homelessness to different degrees. So, going into it I wanted to follow a young girl going through this experience. I was very fortunate to find Janiyah, Makayla and their mother, Jakenah because I wanted to tell this story through the eyes of a girl who had a family, especially from the older sister’s point of view. As the first child, you’re always the first one to do something in the family. You’re the one who has to make your mom feel better and take care of your younger siblings. I found Janiyah going through the same things in this situation. I wanted to tell my own experience and kind of give back to someone who was going through the same.
BET.com: You follow this family through some very intimate moments like the hospital visit. How were you able to make that work ?
Haley Elizabeth Anderson: They trusted us, so it happened faster than I think it would have happened in any other situation. I told them my own story and I think we connected. The first thing we shot was the hospital visit. That happened early on but we put it in the middle of the story just because there were so many things coming at them. Real life doesn’t lend itself to film structure. She called us and said, ‘Hey I had a stroke’ and I was like, ‘We don’t want to get in your way but would you be willing to let us film?’ We hung out with them for several days in the hospital and that’s how it all started.
BET.com: Have you been in touch with them since?
Haley Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah, I texted with them today. Money [their brother] is out of jail. He’s doing really well. The girls seem to be doing ok. Jakenah was living with a relative and then they moved out to their own temporary place. It’s not stable still, but they’re doing much better than they were before.
BET.com: I was thinking about the current lockdown situation while watching the doc and wondering about the millions in the country who are in similar situations.
Haley Elizabeth Anderson: It’s difficult. What I’ve heard in some places is that it’s good in some ways because if people are already settled in a place, they aren’t kicking them out. But in other places, they would get hotels but they haven’t let people in yet. This is an extremely difficult time and people should realize that being able to quarantine and be bored in your house is such a privilege because it could be so much worse.
BET.com: Last year, your film If There Is Light premiered at Tribeca. What did you take away from your conversations with Queen Latifah and director Dee Rees?
Haley Elizabeth Anderson: Oh my gosh, so much. Little did I know that those conversations would really carry me through the next few months of my life because last summer was crazy. My career took off but then some other life things happened. And the strength that I got from the mentorship really helped me through. I don’t think I would have made it without that experience at all. It helped me to trust myself, stand up for myself, and to value myself. To not second guess myself as a person and as a creative. I’m here right now, sane, in part because of that experience. Afterward I got an agent, and I’m getting commercial representation. I really don’t think any of that would have happened without this program.
BET.com: Your film is streaming on Hulu. What does that feel like?
Haley Elizabeth Anderson: It’s crazy. Hulu is so recognizable. It also premiered on a smaller film site called Cinema Club, but I was able to tell my Uber driver that my film was on Hulu and to check it out. It’s accessible and the story is truly out there, so that makes me happy.
BET.com: How’s it going with developing your other projects like Coyote Boys and Gulf?
Haley Elizabeth Anderson: Really, really well. I’m finishing the final draft of Coyote Boys. We’ll be starting the development and packaging process in the next month or so. The smaller projects I would have been working on are stalled because of the coronavirus but there are a few things on the table. I’m also developing a film with Lena Waithe’s company called Hillman Grad about the first Black punk band. It’s a really cool project and I’m super stoked about it.
(Photo: Jomo Fray)