How does one go from ticket-taker at the Sundance film festival to a person on the list of all female directors of the critically acclaimed drama series Queen Sugar on OWN? Well, it's certainly not a straight, or short, path.
In the case of Shaz Bennett it involves canning fish in Alaska, being involved in the drag community in New York City, working as a staff member of several film festivals, diving into independent filmmaking, being selected as one of eight women for the AFI Directing Workshop for Women and winning the New York Women in Film & Television's Nancy Malone Award.
Once you accomplish all that, you put your feelers out. And then you finally get it — a call from Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time and 13th) asking you to direct an episode of Queen Sugar. Of course, this is not a trajectory everyone can take, but it is how it happened for Shaz.
When Ava was creating the series for the Oprah Winfrey Network, she decided to use only female directors — something never done before in the history of television. Shaz was asked to helm Season 3, Episode 5 "A Little Lower Than Angels."
In our recent interview with Shaz for The Passionistas Project Podcast, she reflected on the atmosphere on the set. "Ava DuVernay has created this world where no one is competing. Everyone is just trying to help each other up."
Shaz lamented that her biggest professional challenges have been getting people to take her seriously as a director and continually having the feeling she needs to prove herself over and over. Many people in the industry remember her as that 13-year-old ticket-taker from Sundance or the staff person that helped them book a hotel at a festival. Now one of the biggest female directors has given her the chance to prove herself as a major league TV director once and for all.
While flying first class (for the first time in her life) and feeling so happy to be on her way to shoot her episode of the show, Shaz texted Ava, showrunner Kat Candler and Producing Director DeMane Davis and thanked them for the amazing opportunity. She recalled, "Ava responded, 'I remember that feeling. Now take that and go kill your episode and then pass it on to somebody else.' What a gift to give that to me and for me to give that to somebody else."
This camaraderie is a very uncommon one in the TV business, and most definitely rarely seen by women directors. Shaz stated, "It's a completely different world. We've always been fighting for the one seat at the table. But it's like, no actually, just move over a little bit. There's space for all of us."
Listen to the latest episode of The Passionistas Project Podcast to hear more about Shaz Bennett.