We had the good fortune of connecting with Monika Watkins and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Monika, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?Bird Set Free Films was born out of a desire to tell stories that were based on my lived experience. At the time I decided to make the leap to do my own thing, I was with a production company for about 9 years and wanted to have more control over the stories and themes that I was giving my creative energy. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia but spent a great deal of my childhood with my Grandmothers who lived in more rural areas. Because of their example, it has always been in my very existence to celebrate faith, a love of nature and the human spirit. There is something supernatural about all those things to me. Those themes aren’t always considered economic engines for the business of media content, but I think that’s what many of us are seeking — to catch a glimpse or a full view of something magical or miraculous. Those are the types of stories I want to tell. So, I created this company so I could do just that.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
My films and the stories I tell are largely about redemption, about being redeemed. The animated series that I am directing and producing starts with DABNEY, a short about Dabney Montgomery who hears the voice of God compel him to do something he is frightened to do. Ultimately, he courageously faces his fear and through that act he is redeemed. I am also currently directing a documentary on the Tulsa Massacre called, “Dreamland: Tulsa 1921”. This doc follows the Turtle Creek Chorale, a predominantly white and predominantly male organization working to become more racially equitable. Sean Baugh, TCC’s artistic director, commissioned work by African American artists and the chorale is performing this work this season in Dallas at the Meyerson, in New York at Carnegie Hall and in Tulsa. Some of the chorale members decided not to participate in this work but those who have seem to be transforming as they learn about the horrific history that took place in Tulsa. Those that I’ve interviewed so far are reflecting on their own experiences with race including their unconscious and conscious biases and their privilege. As they continue to grapple with this tough work it would seem to me that they are on a redemptive path and it’s inspiring to witness.
I started my career off as a photographer and still love doing that work. However, in the beginning I didn’t have the necessary business acumen needed to make it a sustainable business. I decided to get my bachelors degree in film at UNT and upon graduating I started an internship at AMS Pictures. At the end of that internship program I was hired and spent the next ten years working there on incredible projects and learning everything I could.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that my journey has been easy, but I do feel it has been divinely favored. There are certain moments where I have felt things align in a way that is remarkable. Walking into the film building at UNT was one of those moments. I knew that was where I was meant to be. I had many moments like that producing documentaries on the Black experience (In the Shadow of Hollywood; The Real Great Debaters; The Tuskegee Airmen Trilogy) and interviewing giants in civil rights activism like Marian Wright Edelman — that was a moment. I also felt that way directing & producing a documentary on a summer film school at Wiley College. Writer/Director Radha Blank taught screenwriting, the talented Qasim Basir led the directing class, Charles King the CEO of MACRO came through to share his invaluable insights and many more. The students at that inaugural intensive were beyond brilliant. We could all feel something divine happening there.
One lesson I have learned is that it is important to stay true to who you are. There are people who will doubt your ability, who will try to make you conform to their limitations, who will ask you in so many words to play down your very gifts. Don’t do it. Staying true to yourself is the very thing that will help you soar when the door of whatever cage you are in at the moment opens. Another lesson, being grateful is evergreen. I have found that no matter what, there is always something to be grateful for.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Some of my favorite spots in DFW are the museums. The Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth is fantastic. I didn’t know I liked modern art until I went there for the first time many years ago. Their cafe is also lovely, pricey, but lovely. Also, the Kimbell Art Museum is literally a short walk away from the Modern and one of my all time favorites. I visit their standing exhibit regularly and am always inspired. The DMA in Dallas and the Nasher are good spots to visit, as well.
So many great places to eat in Dallas! Mai’s Vietnamese on Bryan is a staple for me. Nick & Sam’s on Maple is always excellent. And, True Food Kitchen in Preston Center Plaza is also a fave.
An outdoor spot that is close to my heart because my Dad loved it is White Rock Lake. It’s a great place to be one with nature. You can row, run, walk, cycle, bird watch, play – all the things.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Wow. This is tough because there are so many people who have helped to illuminate my path through love, encouragement and mentorship. My Grandmothers, Addie and Anna, always come to mind when I think about my journey. Brilliant, strong, and extraordinarily capable women who were foundational in the person I have become and the way I see the world. The knowledge that they were prevented from achieving certain dreams because they were women, and because they were Black, fuels me to do the best with this moment in time that I have been given. They taught me how to pray, how to love, how to communicate with and without words, how to survive and from that I am learning how to thrive. They are my truest loves, my greatest examples. My shoutout goes to them.
Instagram: @MonikaWatkins or @byrd_free
Brian Guilliaux Jennifer Schanuth Cam Gossett Keith Wooten