Go backBack to selection

“Let’s Talk about Glitch Feminism, and What is a Cyber Doula?”: Jazmin Jones on Her Expansive Sundance-Premiering Doc, Seeking Mavis Beacon

An African-American woman is looking through a magnifying glass at photographs laid out on a table.Still from Seeking Mavis Beacon

Exuberantly maximalist in approach, Jazmin Jones’s blast of a debut feature, Seeking Mavis Beacon, is a rapid-fire blend of neo-noir road movie, desktop essay film and meta critique of the “searching for” documentary subgenre. The picture follows Jones and cyber doula friend Olivia McKayla Ross — self-described “e-girl detectives” — on their years-long journey to locate Renee L’Espérance, the Haitian-born model whose face in 1987 adorned the software packaging for the typing instructional program “Mavis Beacon Learns to Type.” As the program sold in the millions, the character of Mavis Beacon, who many believed was a real person, became an inspiration for generations of Black students thrilled to find representation within this new way of computer learning. But the character’s backstory — named after Mavis Staples, she was created by three white tech executives, and L’Espérance was paid just $500 for her photographic likeness — was less well known at the time. L’Espérance would later sue when a subsequent edition of the software altered her likeness by way of a fairly horrendous woodcut-style rendering and then drop out of public view. 

In their investigation, Jones and Ross are able to infectiously channel all of their younger enthusiasms for Beacon while subjecting her larger story to self-aware cultural critique. As Jones said to Filmmaker when we selected her for our 25 New Faces list in 2021, “I do have problems with the idea of a Black woman being in a perpetual role of servitude, but, also, y’all made something brilliant that touched me as a young girl. They weren’t necessarily thinking about representation when they put her on the game. It was marketing—they knew it would get folks to pick it up. But it’s a different public conversation now in 2021.”

Formally inspired by Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film The Watermelon Woman, referencing Saidiya Hartman’s theory of “critical fabulation,” and grappling with the implications of the movement towards a digital “right to be forgotten,” Jones, who is mindful of not replicating the sort of media exploitation the model experienced earlier in her life, dubs her goal in the film simply to perform “a wellness check” on L’Espérance. Nonetheless, the director also has a movie to make, and the tension between the larger documentary’s goal and Jones and Ross’s intent to do the ethical thing propels the picture forward even as it introduces all manner of provocative tangents, asides, and moments of disarming introspection — the latter in scenes depicting the two experiencing the sorts of challenges many young creatives faced during the pandemic years.

In our interview, Jones and I discuss just a few of the film’s storylines and avenues of inquiry, including its portrayal of its makers’s mental and physical health during its pandemic production, the issues behind the film’s dizzying use of the desktop, and, to start, its glorious Oakland investigation office. Seeking Mavis Beacon is being released by NEON and premieres today in Sundance’s NEXT section.

Filmmaker: Even though your film is about the search for Renee L’Espérance, the model who was the face of Mavis Beacon, it’s about so many other things, and it has multiple narrative strands. One I loved had to do with your Oakland office. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that a location becomes a character, but in your case, the office really does. And it does so at a pandemic and post-pandemic time when thinking around office spaces has really shifted. So many people just don’t have an office anymore, but yours gets more and more decorated and more and more inspiring throughout the film, and then becomes embroiled in a drama of its own. Why was it important for you to have an office and why was it important for that to be a strand in the film?

Jones: I love talking about the headquarters. It was a blessing and by the end, it was like, “Is this a curse?” I knew I wanted to play with the genre of noir, not that that’s been a film genre that I have ever taken a liking to. But [noir imagery] is just so rich, and I also liked the idea of making a neon noir — we definitely don’t want to be painting with shadows on Black skin, right? I want people to see the people in the movie! But in noirs, you have your detectives who smoke a lot and have their headquarters. So I did research [into film noir], and I watched a lot of YouTube videos and video essays about True Detective [to guide] the evolution of the space. We created these mood boards about what we wanted it to look like. There was this idea of it being super futuristic with touch screens, but then it was like, “Okay, what can we really do because we are the ones making it?” The idea evolved into everything here being secondhand, old technology, and we’re giving it a new life. Olivia and I approached it like, if there wasn’t a film crew, we would absolutely finesse ourselves a little hangout spot and decorate it and make it cute. 

And then there was a really beautiful plotline that developed. I’m grateful for that nonprofit that shall not be named, who offered us this space for free, a room, during the pandemic. It had a carpet that was infectious and there was no electricity, but it was exciting to kind of have ownership over it. The theme of gentrification came up as we were getting the agreement with the building, which was really challenging. It was not, you know, “above board,” which is true to the experience of many of my artist friends in Oakland. There was a version of [the film] where we wanted a storefront, something glossy, and to partner with organizations who actually would be interested in supporting us through that partnership. But I actually think [the office storyline we ended up with] is a perfect metaphor for what Black femmes do, what Olivia and I do, which is we’re gonna take something, we’re gonna polish it up real nice, we’re gonna make it feel safe and cozy, and then we’re probably not going to have control over what happens with that space. You know, that’s what it is, but it was hard. This film is a road movie, and I really wanted Oakland and the Bay Area to be super present in that, and I felt like that space became a perfect metaphor, not only for just what it means to be an artist in Silicon Valley but also for our imaginations, like a shared mind map place for Olivia and my dreams.

Filmmaker: But it was a place where you were actually doing work, right? It wasn’t just for camera? 

Jones: Oh my God, yes. I slept there many a times. I actually had to keep those fish alive, and they lived long and beautiful lives. I edited the first teasers there. It got weird when I’m editing footage of us in this space, and there’s no ventilation. I started to lose my mind a little bit. And then when we went on our first Florida trip, our locks were broken, our agreement was broken, apologies were made and the things were returned. That was just a weird moment of feeling disrespected as a filmmaker and someone who’s trying to lead a project. But I’m also like, “This is fucking amazing material!” Like anytime something bad happened, I was like, “Alright, let’s roll.” But I do think [shooting these scenes] kept me sane in a way, too. If I was going through these struggles without the camera crew, it would have felt a lot more depressing.

Filmmaker: You show so much about the process of making Seeking Mavis Beacon and about your personal lives while making the film, but there are elements of the process you don’t fold in, such as anything related to financing. How did you decide which elements of the process to include and which not?

Jones: There was a version where this was the film about the film. I was a pupil undergrad with Caveh Zahedi, and he was very much like, “Put yourself in the work, make it weird, make it divisive.” And my partner [Yeelen Cohen] is the DP, my partner’s brother, Joaquin Cohen, who is technically like my brother-in-law, is the audio person. Guetty [Felin, producer] was my mentor and by all intents and purposes my mother-in-law. So there was this whole process [for me] of trying to figure out what it meant to make a film like this. There was this whole plotline we didn’t include, a version where my future children are related to L’Espérance. Guetty is Haitian, and her family name is L’Espérance. Olivia helped me look up the DNA ancestry results, and we were like, “Okay, .02% is not going to cut it.” But if there was a stronger familial tie, [the film] would have absolutely gotten even more meta.

There was a lot else I wanted to explore, but I think I was always aware that any of the subplots about Olivia and I would be detracting from the balance of talking about Mavis Beacon. And I was determined to make sure that people would walk away feeling like they learned something about her. 

Filmmaker: You made Seeking Mavis Beacon into and out of the pandemic, and you’ve left so many time markers in, not just the masking but also, for example, the discussion of monkey pox. I’ve seen some filmmakers try to hide the production timelines of their films, but you’ve gone the other way and have really leaned into yours.

Jones: I think transparency and vulnerability are interesting. So yeah, when it came to pandemic, I was really interested in naming that. And there’s one side of it, the industry side, where we don’t want to bum people out — trigger them and have them think about some of the worst years of their lives. But, I’m also like, “What about all the people like Olivia, who are dealing with the weird, vague symptoms of long COVID as life has just gone back to ‘normal.’” This was a factor I was aware of coming from my community-organizing background. There are going to be people watching the dates who are like, “Wear the masks!” So let’s talk about this in terms of public safety outside of the virtue of the art we’re creating. [Mask wearing] was definitely a conversation because there are moments when you want to see our emotions a bit stronger. And in those situations, we always prioritized the subject of the scene. So with my dad, it was like, “You’re not going to wear a mask, so we can see you, but I will wear a mask.”

There’s an audience out there who will actually be more comforted by this acknowledgement than offput. We have a lot of films that were made in the span of the pandemic that don’t acknowledge what happened. Especially considering that this is a documentary, let’s talk about it a little bit. Given that Olivia did get COVID multiple times in production — not on set —and then her symptoms were worsening, it was also a factor that we couldn’t deny. She was dealing with exhaustion and pain, and these were things that we were thinking about when we were planning the production. I think it comes to a head on camera with me [in the scene] when I’m having that emotional outburst, feeling, “Damn, I might’ve lost sight of what Olivia is going through in this moment because there’s this bigger thing happening.” I really like what that scene does, and I hope that there’s an audience out there that feels seen by Olivia naming, frankly, medical racism as a factor she’s dealing with as a young adult.

Filmmaker: Yours is such a maximalist film in terms of all its references. You show your browser screen throughout, and you’ve got multiple windows open — YouTube videos, TikToks, websites. It’s a screen within a screen that can juxtapose many different pieces of content that in another kind of film might have been compiled into montages. What were the issues involved in that approach, particularly when it comes to Fair Use?

Jones: We had a lot of conversations about Fair Use. Shout out to Martin Luther King, because the first film I made was at the Bay Area Video Coalition when I was 15. It was about this group of high schoolers who made Martin Luther King Day an actual holiday, and that’s where my familiarity with Fair Use began, [around] using his speeches. I won, I think, a Fair Use award at the Media That Matters film festival, and ever since then, I’ve been very big on, “YouTube is a source and we’re gonna work with it.” So I really enjoyed the conversations that we had with legal around Fair Use because it’s kind of a perfect meeting ground. I want the film to be ethical. The film is all about ethics. I also want the film to feel like it’s all of the things on the internet. And so having legal people say, “This isn’t clear, and the lack of clarity creates a large legal issue,” creates a whole larger conversation creatively. I found out during the process of making this film that I love entertainment lawyers because they’re people who are thinking creatively. There was one situation where there was a clip we were using and it was someone defining something, and I thought that would be covered by Fair Use. And I wanted to follow it up with a Black person essentially talking crap. But then I didn’t get the chance to include the Black person talking crap. When I was with legal, they said that [the first clip] didn’t qualify for Fair Use. I was like, “Well, what if I put a clip or a TikTok of a Black person making a joke about it?” And then they’re like, “Yeah, that covers it.” So the answer was just including more jokes and more analysis, and that really allowed me to lean into that maximalist approach. I’m really excited and grateful to all of the people who are included in the film as researchers in their own rights, whether or not they’re making video essays or TikToks. I think that they are what keeps the internet afloat, and I’m so excited to be in dialogue with those people.

Filmmaker: Were you recording your screen as you researched and then went backwards to do these clearances, or were you very deliberate about building these sequences through the use of browser windows?

Jones: The only thing that we were recording holistically during production was anytime Olivia and I were on a Zoom call. So we had the protocol of recording on Photo Booth, and then sometimes I’d be in the space and just record myself. Otherwise, we constructed the whole arc of the film and then determined where we were going to insert these desktop montages. And we thought about those desktop montages as a kind of manifesto. Like, if you made a workbook to teach this film, then what would each chapter include? What would you need to understand? Let’s talk about glitch feminism. What is a cyberdoula? Let’s make sure these keywords are really landing so people can understand them and then have fun with the analysis that follows.

Filmmaker: You’ve spoken about initially trying to mimic the workflows of directors you admire but then finding your own directorial voice. What were some of those orthodoxies that you discarded, or aspects of “being a director” that you moved on from in the process?

Jones: I always felt like I needed to wake up at 7:00 a.m. and just, like, “start the day.” The person who really had me shaking was Micaela Cole in talking about her workflow with I May Destroy You. She said she was the first person on set in hair and makeup, shot all day, was the last person on set doing rewrites and that just being the process. For me, it was just at a certain point, [I thought], “We have to put out the biggest fires that are in front of us and little things will burn.” I think there’s just this idea of a director who gets up early, doesn’t smoke weed on set. And it was like, our call sheets were always late! Also, you probably won’t believe it, but slow cinema was a reference in that I really did want to do things slowly and take my time, but I realized I have too much to say. I’ll have to make another movie that is much slower, but this one is fast-paced.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham