As so often happens with me, I find out about a film because someone I know is in the cast (in this case Okema T. Moore). After researching the film, I decided to become a funder. As the film “Back to Natural: A Documentary Film” has been making the festival rounds, I decided our readers would be interested in the filmmaker, Dr. Gillian Scott-Ward.
I sent Gillian a list of questions and I received her response on November 28, 2017.
Alan Greenstein: Tell us about yourself.
Gillian Scott-Ward: My name is Dr. Gillian Scott-Ward. I was born Brooklyn, New York to immigrant parents from the West Indies. Growing up outside NYC, I was a theater kid, singer and musician. I was also always very interested in helping people and volunteered a lot. Early on in my life, I decided I would find some way to combine my interest in the arts, media and healing.
I did my undergraduate degree at Cornell University in Psychology and Women’s studies but continued to pursue my interest in music and sang in a group. I completed my PhD at the City University of New York in Clinical Psychology and wrote my dissertation on the impact of media stereotypes on the academic functioning of black students.
A: What drove you to make “Back to Natural”?
G: I decided to start filming the documentary after making the decision to go natural. I wasn’t involved at all in the natural hair movement, so didn’t fully understand how massive and global it was. I started filming because intuitively I knew going natural was going to be a powerful emotional journey and I wanted to capture the journey I was going through as I immersed myself in the movement.
A: How did you gather the cast?
G: The entire process of making the movie was a series of fortuitous events. Because I had no background in film or with filmmaking, a lot of my first interviews (many which didn’t end up in the movie) were just people I knew, like family and friends of family, to get a hang of the camera and how to conduct an interview for film. One of the first new people I met who was a part of the global natural hair movement was Mireille Liong-A-Kong. She wrote one of the first books I read to help me on my journey, “Going Natural: How to Fall in Love with Nappy Hair” (2004). She is also the founder of Going-Natural.com and America’s Next Natural Model (among other amazing things). I ended up emailing her and telling her about the project and she was so enthusiastic about it. She introduced me to Lurie Daniel Favors Esq., who wrote “Afro State of Mind: Memories of a Nappy Headed Black Girl” (2013); and Aline Tacite, founder of salon Boucles d’Ebène and, alongside her sister, started the natural hair movement in France. Almost everyone I interviewed connected me to someone else they knew who had powerful stories and unique insights and I was able to tap into wonderful, healing communities with so many rich ideas and experiences to share. I feel like casting was a blessing.
A: What message are you conveying in the film?
G: I think every viewer is going to receive a different message because that’s, I believe, how film works. People get the messages they either need or feel ready for. Ultimately, what I would hope people will leave the theater with is deeper compassion for themselves and others, and an understanding that who we are and how we feel about ourselves is the result of many factors including history, family, and community. I hope people feel empowered and in charge of their personal healing and I hope it helps people see how connected the global black community ultimately is; we are all so deeply connected and that I hope gives people solace.
A: At what film festivals has “Back to Natural” been shown? What awards has it been nominated and which has it won? What future festivals are booked?
G: “Back to Natural” opened this past August in Johannesburg, South Africa at the Mzansi Women’s Film Festival, which was amazing to open on the African continent. The film actually returned to South Africa in October when it was invited to the Red Bull Amaphiko Film Festival. We have played in Europe at the British Urban Film Festival in London and Da Bounce Urban Film Festival in Amsterdam. And across the US: Martha’s Vineyard Run & Shoot African American Film Festival where we were a finalist for the HBO best documentary award, the Pembroke Taparelli Arts and Film Festival in both Los Angeles and New York, the Teaneck International Film Festival, and the Baltimore International Black Film Festival. We are really proud to have won the Founders Award and Best Poster award at the International Black Film Festival in Nashville, Tennessee this past October.
Right now, we don’t have festival screenings scheduled though we are waiting to hear about many more opportunities in the next coming months. Right now, we have started a college and school-based tour where we screen “Back to Natural” for students and also engage in an optional customized, healing and exploration-based workshop. I am really excited about this and find it extremely fulfilling. This February I anticipate we will be very busy for Black History month screenings with organizations.
A: Describe the reaction of people attending the screenings to whom you spoke.
G: My absolute favorite part of traveling with “Back to Natural” is speaking to the audience, hands down. People seem really moved and I think it encourages people to share really transformation experiences, both good and bad, that they have had with their hair, during Q&A and also privately with me. Ultimately, the movie and the sharing, people have said, makes them feel seen, heard, and validated. People have told me that “Back to Natural” is really unique in that it takes a global and historical look at this issue and also, because of my background as a clinical psychologist, a psychological look that’s really foundational to healing of historical wounds. I think also people are just shocked about what they have learned specifically about the history of black people’s relationship with hair, and helps to put their experience within a context of the larger world and history.
A: Do you have any other projects planned?
G: I am really interested in healing within the African Diaspora so my next project explores a wide range of ways people think about and approach healing psychologically, spiritually, physically and on a community level.
A: Is there anything else you want to tell our readers?
G: I would encourage readers to reach out to schedule screenings for their schools, churches or community organizations. It’s a great way to create dialogue that affirms authenticity and racial identity, which research keeps showing is really important for the academic success of young people. I encourage our readers to follow what’s happening with the film by signing up for our mailing list at www.BackToNaturalDoc.com. People can join our social media pages www.facebook.com/BackToNaturalDoc; Twitter: @Back2NaturalDoc, and Instagram: @BackToNaturalDoc. Also, people should stay tuned. We are reopening our Etsy page soon will have some great, affirming products to offer for the holidays.
A: How can people get in touch with you?
G: People can get in touch with me at BackToNaturalDoc@gmail.com.
The path Gillian, with a PhD in psychology, took to become a filmmaker is very interesting. She did not just document going natural, she lived it. I have learned from Gillian that there may be serious ramifications to going natural, both emotional and social. I am really looking forward to seeing this award-winning film.
Please provide feedback or questions in the Comments. I would really enjoy hearing from you.
“Back to Natural” links:
Website (see sizzle reels for the film)
Originally published December 1, 2017. Updated August 19, 2020 to adjust category assignments.