LOS ANGELES — The rebirth of black independent film is taking place in a small office in the San Fernando Valley.
This is where filmmaker Ava DuVernay and her staff of two operate AaFFRM, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, a boutique distribution company dedicated to discovering and promoting black directorial voices. The fledgling company has released just four films since 2010, but one of its artists has already caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey: DuVernay herself.
Winfrey has repeatedly told her 14 million Twitter followers about DuVernay's latest film, "Middle of Nowhere," which expands to 14 more cities Friday after opening in six theaters last week. She described the film as "powerful and poetic."
"Excellent job especially with no money," Winfrey tweeted to DuVernay. "Bravo to you my sistah."
The 40-year-old DuVernay, whose easy smile, animated energy and passionate dedication make her seem a decade younger, beams as she says, "I'm living my dream."
There's a massive congratulatory bouquet of orchids on the desk in her small office overlooking Van Nuys Boulevard. A bookshelf is crowded with recent awards, including the best director prize she won at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. (She was the first black woman ever to win.) Posters from her first documentary and first narrative feature adorn the walls. A magnum of Moet with a big gold bow on top sits on the floor.
Just a little over a year ago, DuVernay was a Hollywood publicist focused on other people's movies. Through her namesake public-relations firm, she helped develop release strategies for films such as "The Help," ''Invictus" and "Dreamgirls," while quietly dreaming of telling her own stories.
In 2002, the Los Angeles native and UCLA graduate sat down and wrote "Middle of Nowhere," a story set in her hometown about a young medical student coping with her husband's recent eight-year jail sentence.
"Where I'm from, it's impossible not to look at this real epidemic in black and brown communities of incarceration and the women who are left behind," said DuVernay, who grew up in and around Compton.
She pitched the script to some of her Hollywood colleagues, but got no traction and shelved it.
"Everyone in town has a script in the drawer, so I just joined the club," she said.
Undaunted, she wrote a second screenplay, "I Will Follow," which became her first feature — produced in 2011 with her own $50,000 savings. It earned raves from Roger Ebert and nearly tripled its budget in ticket sales.
"It proved there was an audience for low-budget, thoughtful films for women and people of color," she said.
So she went back to her original script with new confidence, making the film last year for around $200,000. Set against a social-justice backdrop of prison inequity, the film is more about the interior lives of the women it features.
"It's really trying to get to those quiet spaces which are just not being depicted in cinema," she said. "I purposely didn't want it to feel like castor oil or medicine, which is something that we get specifically when we're dealing in African-American cinema. It's always a lesson, or a history lesson. This is a beautiful love story, and the sister's got a man who's locked up. Let's explore what that is."
Bringing light to untold stories and broadening the scope of black independent film is what moves DuVernay to distribute her own projects and those of other black filmmakers.
"Black audiences are not used to art-house fare because they've not had any kind of diet of it. It's not been provided to them," she said. "And independent audiences are not used to black fare."
She wants to cultivate and educate both audiences through her own films and AaFFRM.
"There's something very important about films about black women and girls being made by black women," she said. "It's a different perspective. It is a reflection as opposed to an interpretation, and I think we get a lot of interpretations about the lives of women that are not coming from women."
DuVernay is convinced that stories from underrepresented populations will find audiences in this digital age, just as her films have.
It's easier to get your hands on a camera now, easier to make a film, easier to get and find an audience and new ways to reach people through digital," she said.
She plans to make a film a year, and so far she's on track. Up next is a documentary about Venus Williams, and in February, DuVernay will start production on her third screenplay.
"Nowhere" producer Paul Garnes says DuVernay is a force in the resurgence of black cinema.
"Ava is part of a new generation of writer-directors of color who think out of the box, and declare that there are stories that we aren't telling and that we must tell them, our way," Garnes said.
That means skipping the big studios and their deep pockets and digging more into honest stories.
"If you want fame and you want industry and all of those things, then you need to ask permission," said Duvernay. But if you're saying you want to be an artist who tells their stories and reaches an audience and is able to create a canon of art and work, there's no reason you can't do that."
Bet Oprah would agree.