Jazmin Watson’s project began as a writing assignment. Now, her creative pursuit is going far beyond class credit.
The senior creative media major’s short film “HIGHLAND” is centered on two pairs of boys who navigate two vastly different worlds in the fictional district of Highland.
The film sticks out in two major ways. In addition to it being an all-student production crew, 95% of the team is female. Though this might seem purposeful, producer Maytreecia Harriell, a junior majoring in creative media, said this occurred purely by coincidence. She either knew the women from her work on campus, or they were the best-looking applicants of the bunch.
What also makes this film so special is its connections to Watson’s hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, where she graduated high school. Watson said like fictional Highland, Montgomery has its own history of funding disparities.
“You know it’s a historical city, and it has seen growth on its own, but a lot of things like entertainment started getting pushed further eastward,” Watson said. “I’ve come across so many people from Montgomery who find out, ‘OK, if we want to go to the outdoor mall, we have to go east. If we want to go the movie theater, we’ve got to go to the east side of the city.’”
Similar to Montgomery natives, the boys from Highland must go further north in order to get involved in activities that suit their interests.
The other pair, from Northside, are far more fortunate in finding these activities at home.
Though the boys in the film are separate in their ability to make ends meet, what draws them together is their love for basketball.
Watson was able to make a visual representation on how disproportionate city funding looks through the opposing aesthetics of the courts in either district.
Finding usable basketball courts in Tuscaloosa pointed to the city’s own struggles with funding inequities. Aside from university-owned property and Northport, which are more affluent areas of town, there were no usable or nice basketball courts to film. This was particularly true for Tuscaloosa’s West End community.
“When we were looking around the densely populated ‘kid areas,’ there was no nice outdoor court,” Harriell said. “It was like a court without a net or a court that didn’t have any of the actual goals or baskets up.”
‘A Call to Action’
“HIGHLAND” in many ways calls out state officials and the fictional district’s own residents.
Watson makes it a point to highlight city officials who ask residents to have faith while solutions to funding disparities are rarely resolved. Instead, city officials pour money into the areas where they believe they can reap the most reward for their allocated funds.
For the film, the area most benefited is Northside. This leaves communities like Highland left with only the bare necessities. As a result, residents feel obligated to move if they are able to.
According to population data from the 2017 to 2018 United States Census Bureau, Alabama ranked No. 19 on a list that determined the states Americans were fleeing the most, with a total population increase just above 13,000.
Young people particularly begin to feel apathetic toward their own hometowns due to the displacement of resources and activities. Watson said this reality is particularly true for many Alabamians.
“I feel like in the South and especially Alabama, it’s a common thing that people feel like they need to get up and go or come back when they’re older or their parents are older to retire or to be here to support their family,” Watson said. “A lot of young people don’t want to come back to Alabama because there’s nothing to do. And if there is something to do, then you have to travel out of the way to get there.”
Rather than move, however, Watson said she hopes many will consider how to make the situation better before they pack their suitcases.
“It’s a call to action to people to not give up on their own community, and we have to start investing in ourselves because the issue is always gonna be here,” Watson said.
The Making of ‘Highland’
The idea of “HIGHLAND” derived from Watson’s time in her short film writing class, JCM 346, last fall. There, she was able to write the working script for the film.
Stepping into the spring semester, Watson knew this script would be the basis for her first film as a director. With that, she was able to move ahead and find her production crew.
Unfortunately, Harriell said there were setbacks due to it being directed and produced by a student production crew.
“You have to work with people’s schedules, which can get tricky because people have their own classes, lives and obligations they have to go to,” Harriell said. “What might work for one person may not work for 12.”
Other problems stemmed from the pandemic and businesses’ own private interests.
“A lot of those places may not trust students coming in and like highlighting their bad features,” Harriell said.
Though there were setbacks, there were also rewards.
Watson set up an Indiegogo fundraising campaign for the film with a goal of $900. The money would go to traveling expenses, music licensing, props and other location expenses.The deadline of the fundraiser was April 9, but within two weeks of its posting, the group was able to reach its goal on March 19.
“We are very aware that people are going through hard times during this pandemic, but it really felt great to feel supported because a lot of those donations are coming in from friends and family members who support and see the vision,” Watson said. “It feels great to know that people know that I have a passion and they want to see it through.”
The cast for her film was announced the week of the 19th and shooting took place March 26 through March 28. Editing will push the film to a tentative release date of late April.
Watson said she will push her films into local film festivals like Black Warrior and Sidewalk.
A portion of the film’s proceeds will go to the Benjamin Barnes YMCA located on 18th Street, which is one of their filming locations. The amount the gym will receive is currently up in the air.
As for Watson, this will be her directing debut. Though the film starts the conversation on community building, she believes this film will also start a conversation on what it means to be an American storyteller.
“I think when it comes to being a Black woman in this creative industry, we need a lot more scripts written by women and Black women,” Watson said. “I think that is very important for the betterment and advancement of American storytelling because we all have a story to tell, and this so happened to be my story. Even if you don’t relate 100% to what is being told, you’ve seen it, or this will be your first time hearing about it.”