(c) Josefina Santos

Meet the Makers: Victoria Rivera

BY Kio Shijiki, March 1, 2018

Victoria Rivera is a 2nd year student in the directing concentration. Her most recent short film, Verde will have its world premiere at the Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias in Colombia later this month. Her previous documentary short, Skull + Bone was recently selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick.


Where are you from and what’s your background before coming to Columbia?


I am originally from Colombia, but my family is spread around the world and I feel most at home here in NY—I have lived here for 12 years. I initially moved here to obtain my undergraduate degree and after I graduated, I worked as a producer and director of branded content, commercials, and documentaries.


What made you pursue a Masters at Columbia?


I studied film as my undergraduate at School of Visual Arts, but it was more focused on film production. They teach you lighting, editing, production design, etc. So it was more like a general scope even though I was a directing concentrate.


What pushed me to go to a grad school was the fact I was directing/producing mostly branded content. The reason I wanted to come to the States was to pursue film—that had always been my passion, especially directing and writing. I had been working on this one script after graduating college, but I was having a hard time cracking it. I got to the middle and couldn’t move past that. So, I actually intended to take a summer class here at the School of the Arts called “Finish Your Feature”, but the class was cancelled, so I went to the MFA film information session, and I immediately knew I wanted this. It made me fall in love again with the idea of making film, writing and directing my own work, working on my craft and developing my first feature.


You made Skull + Bone after your undergraduate degree, am I correct?


Yes, it is a short documentary I made that right before starting grad school as a personal project.


I had ended my job as a full-time producer and was freelancing, and together with three close friends who were also freelancing at the time, we decided to go to New Orleans for 7 days on somewhat of a “creative retreat” intent on making a location-specific project together. I read about a 200 year-old Creole gang from New Orleans called the Northside Skull and Bone Gang, and I was immediately captivated by them. I contacted the journalist who had written the article and decided to seek them out. Specifically, intent on finding Bruce Barnes, Chief of the gang. He agreed to an interview in which I understood that Bruce commands the attention of the camera. He spoke about race, gun violence, and the importance of a strong community that values ancestral traditions. Months later, we returned for Mardi Gras, which is when the gang comes out at the break of dawn, dressed as skeletons and armed with bones, taking over the streets of Tremé. So researching and shooting went fairly fast, but what took the most time was editing. It was hard because I didn’t yet know where the short would end up so I started with a 16 minute cut and eventually ended up cutting it down quite a bit, understanding that it would most likely be published online. To see it take a life of its own and screen at Tribeca Film Festival was unexpected and exciting.   


Was it your first time producing a documentary?


I had made another one back in Colombia before Skull + Bone. It was a commissioned piece for a music festival. A documentary following 3 musicians who were selected to play at the festival.


I consider a lot of branded content work that I did as commercials disguised as documentaries. Skull + Bone was the first one where I had total freedom because it was my project, nobody else’s. I could do whatever I wanted with it and I didn’t need to answer to a client.


The Vimeo staff pick was an exciting surprise because it reaches an audience I could never get to on my own. It’s also amazing because this project was turned down by everyone at first. I sent the pitch to many press companies and applied grants, but nothing worked. Then I talked to this one director I know. He  told me to just make it. It won’t cost too much, I’m working with my friends, just do it. Once it’s done people are gonna want it. So I put it on  my own wallet. It was a good lesson and the best advice ever; if you can do it, you should always do it.


What influenced you as a filmmaker?


There was not a particular movie that influenced me while I was growing up. I have two sisters who are 10 years older than me who also love movies. So I always watched their movies, which were way too mature for my age; Dracula, The Exorcist, The Omen, etc. I think that influenced my darker taste—I really like suspense thrillers.


I started to watch movies by certain directors. For example, I watched Shining and I started to watch all Kubrick’s films. I developed my own taste, but it still remained in the genre. I also love Lynne Ramsay, Lucrecia Martel, Andrea Arnold, Jane Campion—strong independent female directors.


I would say darker themes have always attracted me. Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults, Donna Tartt and Shirley Jackson are some of my favorite authors.


How was shooting your 8-12, Verde, in your home country, Colombia?


Neda Jebelli, who I met in the program here at Columbia, wrote the script which originally took place in Iran. I immediately fell in love with it so I contacted her and told her I’d love to direct it as my end-of-year project. We started working on rewrites, and I kept thinking about this one house in Colombia, which was a perfect location for the world of her script. So we worked on several iterations of the script and translated it to my home country. The story is universal; a young girl sees her older sister start to outgrow her. so it didn’t matter much where the story took place. I also felt a very personal connection to the story, particularly about the dynamic between two sisters, so I thought it was a good idea to shoot the story where I could relate to it.


I really wanted to work with actors in Spanish; that was always a big challenge for me, to direct actors in my own language. Another challenge was that I would be working with 5 kids, one of whom had never acted, and I had two scenes that contained sensitive material. My friend Carlos Medina who is a casting director and an acting coach, helped me a lot. We did several rehearsals with the actors without having them go over any lines. We mostly used this time to gain trust from the kids. We played games, getting into characters, etc. And I played the game too. We became close through these sessions. Aand although the film still had many challenges, I think I successfully overcame my personal challenge of working with actors through this experience.


Having a background of being a producer myself, I tend to naturally step into that world, even when I try not to. I had never had the privilege of solely focusing on directing, but my superstar producer Camila Zavala took care of everything and really pushed me to only focus on directing. It was such an incredible experience to work with her—to work with a producer I can totally trust to get things done and right, and work with a producer who owns a great sense of responsibility for everything she does. It was an exciting collaboration. One I know will extend way past our time at Columbia.


What is your biggest pleasure of being a filmmaker?


The collaborative process is what I love the most. You have an idea, and you get to work with people who are specifically good at doing a particular aspect of making your idea actually come true. No other art form allows you to work with so many talented people who bring their own specific magic to your vision.


What kind of a filmmaker do you want to be in the future?


My goal has always been to make films that people can recognize themselves in. I believe today’s world could use a little more empathy, so telling stories about people who haven’t had much of a voice in the past is essential. Being able to experience the world from someone else’s perspective is powerful and somewhat of a gift, so the personal connection between the story and the audience is something I always strive for.