How D. Smith Nailed Her Visually Cool Sundance Debut—with No Budget
This first-time filmmaker creates an empathic and visually stunning look at Black trans sex workers for her Sundance debut.
KOKOMO CITY presents the stories of four Black transgender sex works from New York and Georgia. Smith captures the realness of these women through a visual style that is peeking behind the curtain of our expectations of these stories and ourselves. Shot in black and white, the boldness of Smith’s style is realized, even if this is the filmmaker's first time diving into the world of filmmaking.
Smith, who acts as director, cinematographer, editor, composer, and producer, is daring and unapologetically real in her efforts to capture the analysis of Black culture and society at large. KOKOMO CITY is vulnerable and unapologetic.
Smith sat down with No Film School after the premiere of her film at Sundance 2023 to talk about the inspiration behind this project, working with no budget, and creating a visual style that is true to you.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NFS: What was it about this story that drew you in and inspired you to tell it?
D. Smith: Well, it snowballed into this specific story, but what initially got me wanting to do a documentary was, I used to ... well, I still am, but I'm a music producer. I've been producing for about 15 years in the industry. I worked with a lot of major artists. Had a really good reputation in the business. Never caused any problems. I got paid and minded my business.
Then, I decided to transition. I battled with it for years and suppressed the thought. In 2014, I decided to do it. When I did that, phone calls just stopped. And emails, invitations to music industry events, all of that. I was just completely ousted. I was in denial for a long time. I was like, "No, this can't be me. This is not happening to me." Years passed by of being homeless, and not having my own place.
I thought, with all that I've accomplished or am able to accomplish, to be cut off like that because I'm transgender. I started to think about how sex workers feel or other trans women, particularly sex workers because they're just so dismissed and trivialized. I felt that way, even though I've never done sex work. I just felt so dismissed. I was drawn to do some more due diligence on sex workers. I looked [my subjects] up online, and found some girls and interviewed them over the phone. That was the beginning.
NFS: Did you know that you wanted to always create a documentary as your directorial debut?
Smith: Absolutely. I've watched a lot of movies and docs and they're really interesting. But it's very hard to find an LGBT documentary that is easy to watch and enjoyable. Everything's a trauma. Everything's a story of trauma. It's filled with statistics that we've seen a million times, which is a real thing. But I thought, “What if I try a different approach?”
First of all, I want to make a film. I didn't want to necessarily make a documentary. I just wanted to make something that felt like a film. An artistic film. But the subject of trans girls came up and I really thought it'd be very provocative to strip them from all of the glitz and glam that we like to hide behind.
'KOKOMO CITY'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance InstituteNFS: Your documentary is just so beautiful. All your subjects love themselves fully, even if the world doesn't always see them as who they are.
NFS: You do it right from the start. That first conversation you have with Liyah [Mitchell] kicks off the entire doc. I love that it's a story and your subject sets the tone right away.
Smith: That's the reality. Look, sex work ... that wasn't to glamorize sex work. It was to bring awareness to the amount of personality and charisma and joy and fight that trans women possess. We don't see a lot of that. There's this one-sided narrative where we're defensive and we're in need and we're traumatized. But there is another side where we're super strong and we are very collected as a community. I wanted to really let the girls know that this was not going to be your PBS kind of special. This was something to feel free in. I'm not going to hold you back if you're being yourself.
NFS: I know that you wore multiple hats on this production. You were the director, editor, cinematographer, I assume composer as well.
NFS: You did almost everything in this movie. Can you kind of tell me what that experience was like, being completely in charge of your first feature?
Smith: That's kind of always been me creatively. I've always not necessarily just wanted to do everything or take control. I see things and I just want to get it done. Sometimes when you bring people into the picture, no matter how good they are, if they don't see it the way you do, it could slow up and just water down what you're seeing, especially after you're explaining it. Then, you question yourself.
So, it was just so much easier for me to just pick up, wake up in the morning, and leave the house at 10 o’clock. Got my backpack, my camera, and just me. I'm going to film, whether it's a B-roll or film the girls. But those positions also came to me because I was broke. I couldn't afford to pay anybody so I had to do it.
But I'm also a very spiritual person. I believe in messages from the universe. We're not going to give you a director for this film because this is for you to do. We're not going to have you as a cinematographer. We're not going to get someone else to do the lighting, because you got this. You got this.
This is going to give you a new life. This opportunity that we're giving you is going to give you new life, and you deserve it. And there you go. Go for it. You got it. And I do. These are things that I could do. I've always done it around the house, or just as a child playing with my cousins. These are things I've always done. As an adult, it feels great to have that same liberation.
'KOKOMO CITY'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance InstituteNFS: I want to talk more about your visual style. Watching the film, the way you frame shots or compositions, it feels almost very guerilla style of filmmaking, but also very artful in a way. Can you talk about how your approach to directing came to be?
Smith: That is so funny. It definitely was guerilla-style mixed in there. Absolutely. Because a lot of girls trusted me, but they were still not 100% guarantee that they were absolutely going to commit to everything that I needed. And I had to shoot. I didn't care what angle. I did look. I saw what I was doing, but those things helped bring that style to life. A lot of the things were spontaneous. When I thought we were done they would say something and I would, "Yeah, great. Absolutely." And next thing you know we're filming for another hour and I got what I really went there to get.
So it's like ... and then again, it was just me. I didn't have to tell the guy, "No, no. More over here." No, I'd just move the camera where it looks great. And also, when my friends are talking, personally sometimes I get down on the floor. I know it's weird. Sometimes I get down on my floor or I get on my back. I listen to them. And it may look like I'm not paying attention, but, maybe I have ADHD, but I look at things. I look at my surroundings while they're talking, while I'm thinking. There could be something in the background that completely distracts me. And I'm listening to them, but I'm just like ... so I filmed that way.
NFS: I can definitely see that in the cinematography too. One of the moments I think about is when you're in the bathroom with one of your subjects. You're filming her, and the exposure becomes underexposed or overexposed. I think that creates a great connection and allows you to get those really great stories from them.
Smith: Yeah, those special moments like that. I'm so excited to do my next documentary, so I can experience that feeling again. Again, not having staff or partners or whatnot, allowed those ... I don't want to say mistakes, but those non-conventional moments happen. I didn't have to question. I don't want to lose that moving forward. I'm going to have to have help, but I don't want to lose the intimacy of my filming.
NFS: I love that. Again, you have all these people who want to celebrate you and your style of filmmaking. So, whenever you have a team that's going to help you with these things, they're always going to be in service of your style.
Smith: I'm excited about that, though. I know that it could help me, especially with editing, to have certain things like a sound guy. I mean, God, I was doing everything. Sometimes, I forgot to press record or I forgot the mic wasn't on. Girls were bawling, crying, and, "Yeah, I've never told the world this but this is my biggest secret." and I'm like, "Oh my God." I made some stupid mistakes. I made some big fuck-ups, and things were so horrible that I didn't even tell the girls.
NFS: It's never a mistake if you don't admit it's a mistake. It's a happy accident.
Smith: That's right.
'KOKOMO CITY'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance InstituteNFS: I know that you edited this KOKOMO CITYon iMovie. How was that experience for you?
Smith: It's so fun. I enjoy the process of working on iMovie. There are some things I would like to talk about. And simple things to help other filmmakers to want to use the app. I think the hardest thing was to take the footage from iMovie and put it on a more professional app. It was very difficult. My producer was completely over it. I didn't think of it that way. I still don't know what the problem was, but it was a big, big to-do. It was a big deal. I wouldn't be mad at working on iMovie again. Would I want to do that in the future, I don't think I can do that. But for my next documentary, I don't care who's mad, I think I'll still do it.
NFS: At least to get that rough cut together. Then, go from there.
Smith: That's right. Exactly. I feel like I got to at least start something from there. It's kind of scary to go from that to a professional thing. And I have to learn it. I want to learn it. I don't want to listen to someone with something so intimate. The editing process is very personal to me. Sound. It is very personal.
NFS: Well, you are a music producer, so it makes sense that sound matters so much to you, especially when you're putting it with a visual story.
Smith: Honestly, so many things really just elevated the film, but sound ... A couple of people told me, "If you have crappy visuals and you have great sound, you have a great chance of keeping people in the seat." I agree with that. The sound just elevated the film greatly. It's just magic in the sound.
NFS: You were kind of talking about all the lessons that you've learned in this process. What is one lesson that you're going to take with you into your next documentary?
Smith: I was thinking the other day. What have I learned? And I haven't learned a damn thing. No. I've learned that—and this is not me just making something up but this is what comes to mind—I've learned that your first creative idea, what you really wanted to do from the beginning, stick to it. Because I was right. This is what I did. I have a lot of questions about it. "Wait, but you had them say this?" Or, "What? You showed them doing what?" And I said, "Yeah, I do these things. This is me."
This film makes me feel human as a trans woman. There are a lot of films that don't make me feel human because there are boundaries in walls and fortresses that we've built over the transgender experience that we're just in our little bubble. I don't want to be in this bubble. I want to go out and play and fly and be free and talk and live. I think this movie will allow trans women to see that that's what we could do. Yeah.
NFS: One thing I took away from your doc was that it looks at people who want to be themselves, and you shouldn't be mad at somebody else who wants to just do whatever they want. It's the conversation that those three men had in the car that you eventually got into. You showcased this message through your style.
Smith: Well, there is this thing in the Black community sometimes, people are so unforgiving in the Black community, and it's unfortunate. But people, men, in particular, have an issue with trans or gay people because they have an issue with themselves. They're battling what they like or what they're curious about, even if they don't like it. If you're interested, it bothers you, and you're angry. You're not compassionate or empathetic. You're angry because that's the easiest way to dismiss your emotions. It doesn't dismiss the emotions. It just makes you a mess and you're eventually going to come to what you like. And you've wasted all these years being mad at something you like. So, it's like people are hating on people because they're curious. It's so crazy, isn't it?
NFS: They get angry because they don't understand. They can't put two and two together. Don't respond to that anger.
Smith: That's right. That's right. But seeing the girls in this intimate setting allows people to see how human trans people are. The laughing, the crying, the vulnerability. That is a human thing. That is human. There is an exchange of energy when you watch someone show emotion that you can also have. There's a connection that happens when people see the film. I hope that it impacts as many people as possible.
'KOKOMO CITY'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance InstituteNFS: What advice would you give to any filmmakers who want to make their first documentary?
Smith: No matter what resources or tools you have, just make the damn film. Stop waiting for the perfect lens to drop. Stop waiting for this next Sony camera to come out. Stop making excuses about that crappy job that is taking up all of your time. The boyfriend, the girlfriend. Stop it with excuses and just make the film.
NFS: Your next project's going to be a documentary. What is next for you?
Smith: I don't know if it's going to be a doc.
NFS: Do you want it to be a doc or would you like a more narrative piece?
Smith: More narrative. But I have some tremendous docs ready. I also have people interested in trying to help those docs to be realized. But I think I'm going to definitely take a break from the trans narrative. I want to be fair to my creative self as a person, and venture out to all the other things that I want to talk about or create. So I do have documentaries set up. They're hits. There's one in particular, it's just insanely beautiful. Insanely beautiful. I want to make it so I can see it. I'm itching to do a narrative. I have a brilliant idea. So, we'll see. I don't know which one's going to happen. I don't. I don't. Right now, just coming off a documentary, I want to do something else. That's my natural feeling right now.
No Film School's coverage of Sundance 2023 is brought to you by Adobe.