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Spike Lee mentors Native filmmaker Kyle Bell

In February, iconic filmmaker and Oscar-winning director, Spike Lee was one of four influential artists participating as a mentor for the 2020-2021 Rolex Arts Initiative. It’s an effort initiated to assist up-and-coming artists by pairing them with leaders in their fields. As part of the initiative, Lee selected 33-year-old Native American filmmaker Kyle Bell as his protégé.

Rolex announced the new mentors and protégés for 2020-2021 at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre Centre earlier this year. Since 2002, Rolex has paired 54 influential artists with protégés all over the world.

“We at Rolex have been privileged that, for nearly two decades, dozens of the most genre-defining artists have lent their time and expertise to the Arts Initiative,” said Rebecca Irvin, the program director for Rolex’s initiative, in a release. “We look forward to the impact (mentors) will have on their protégés, as they pass on their devotion to their art in this cross-generational exchange.”

Bell, Thlopthlocco Creek Tribal Town of Oklahoma, is a 2019 Sundance Indigenous Program Fellow whose body of work as an editor, cinematographer and director includes projects like “Osiyo: Voices of the Cherokee People,” “Broken,” “Defend the Sacred” and “Terlton. He spoke with us regarding meeting with Lee, his own artistic process, and his advice for young filmmakers.

Vincent Schilling: How did you come to know Spike Lee in the first place?

Kyle Bell: I was contacted through Rolex. They emailed me last year in the fall saying they wanted me to apply for a mentorship in their Rolex Arts Initiative.

I heard back from them a few months later ... From there, they wanted me to come out to New York to meet Spike. They flew me out to New York and I ended up meeting him at NYU where he teaches film. And yeah, me meeting him for the first time, it was really surreal.

Vincent Schilling: Tell me a little bit about your work ethic and your approach to film and what you've done to get to that point.

Kyle Bell: Around 2014 is when I really first started getting into filmmaking, at the end of 2014 is when I made my first short documentary and that won some awards. And basically, from there, it was just kind of like snowballed into creating short docs.

That turned into a job in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a great production company. Over the next four years, I kept on making more short docs. Then in 2017, I started writing my first short film. And in 2019, I submitted it to the Sundance Indigenous program and it got selected. This is a new short film called “Spirits.” It hasn't been released just yet, but they took my script and they helped through a director's lab in Santa Fe, New Mexico. From there, I ended up making my short film this past December and I shot that out here in Oklahoma. Another big event was going to Standing Rock, I think it was really an experience in itself.

Vincent Schilling: That sounds like a lot of hard work that got you to where Rolex reached out to you. Then you made the cut and were selected by Spike Lee. So, that first time meeting Spike Lee, can you tell us what happened?

Kyle Bell: I ended up meeting Spike at NYU and man, we just sat there for almost two hours, just chatting. Then he wanted me to show some of my films that I've made and he sat through all of them. After he watched them, he gave me little tips and pointers about what he loved about them. And also things I've been working on, too.

Vincent Schilling: Wait a minute. You sat with Spike Lee, showed him your films, he sat through them, and then gave you tips. One in half-a-billion gets an opportunity like this.

Kyle Bell: Oh, man, yeah, even just sitting there, I was thinking, "I'm just happy sitting here to talk to him, you know? I don't even have to show my work. Just sitting there chatting with him was everything."

And his office is just full of film, everything film. It was like, ‘Man, all I want to be doing with my life is movies, you know?’

Vincent Schilling: How did that feel?

Kyle Bell: Man, sitting there with Spike, it was like, ‘I can't believe it.’ Coming from where I come from in Oklahoma, film is not encouraged or art. I feel like I wasn't ever encouraged when I was going to school, high school. And for film, to even do this as a job, then to go and sit in there with Spike and have him watch my work, talk about it, and even laughing about some of the stuff that I made? And to have him tell me how much he loved it? It was super encouraging. Yeah, it's knowing that my voice matters. And whatever it is I want to tell in a story.

Vincent Schilling: So, Spike Lee showed you by his actions and by his time, that you do matter.

Kyle Bell: Yeah.

Vincent Schilling: What about Spike Lee has inspired you?

Kyle Bell: He really inspired me. After I met him, I was like, ‘it's really time to write my first feature.’ Because he was telling me about his first feature, he made it for, I believe $175,000, which is nothing, you know?

Vincent Schilling: “She’s Gotta Have It,” right?

Kyle Bell: Yeah. And so, he said, ‘Do whatever you’ve got to do to write it and to make it.’ That's really where I'm at. You know, you want to get your voice heard and that's what he did.

Vincent Schilling: How did you feel after meeting with Spike Lee in terms of your own trajectory as a filmmaker?

Kyle Bell: After meeting with Spike, I was and am really motivated to get out after all this COVID-19 lockdown stuff. But really, I want to stay writing, and I'm writing right now. I'm working on a short film that I have had an idea for, for a while. But also, I'm still coming up with ideas for my first feature film. And I had a couple of other documentary ideas, but I'm moving into the narrative world. I want to be making movies, writing movies, and just really getting on that level of creating more bodies of work.

Vincent Schilling: At 33, you are a young filmmaker, who has been able to get guidance from Spike Lee. So with that in mind, what's your advice to young people?

Kyle Bell: My advice to the younger generation, is definitely: whatever dream you have, go right after it, and chase it. Exactly as I did. Now, there's a lot of things that come with that. You really have to work at it. Sometimes you'll meet the right people. But really, if it's what you want to do, put everything you have into it. And that's what I did with filmmaking. I worked a regular job for a while. I saved up and bought my first cameras. And from there, I had to buy a computer to edit on. And it was really a culmination of all these things that you have to work towards in finding the story you want to tell. And don't be afraid to put yourself out there and tell what you want to tell, basically. That's what I did.

That's how I started. I just started telling stories that I wanted to tell. And it did start with artists that I knew at first or that basketball documentary. That's how I first started out. And for a while, I guess you would say, I was afraid to just take a chance.

But if I would leave any advice, it's ‘don't be afraid to take a chance, just find out what you got to do. Work, work towards it. And over time, everything will work out the way it's supposed to.’

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