As a teenager attending boarding school in Virginia, Natalie Harris, 22, was able to go to many Black Lives Matter events in Washington, D.C.
“I recorded everything around me and made my own short documentaries,” said Harris, who started college at American University with the intent to create documentaries. She soon discovered, however, that she “had her own stories to tell” and transferred to New York University for its film program, graduating in 2020.
“I like to do a little bit of everything,” the Laurel resident said. “Short films, music videos, narrated documentaries, really everything related to film interests me.”
Harris’ 14-minute short film “Pure,” which she wrote and directed for her thesis project at NYU, is now attracting attention in the film industry.
The story of a young Black girl as she prepares for her cotillion ball, an event similar to a debutante ball which presents young women to society, “Pure” was selected as a finalist for the American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase, which takes place during the Cannes Film Festival, this year scheduled for July 6 to 17. The film also earned Harris the 2020 Directors Guild of America Student Film Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in the East Coast African-American Directors category.
“It is really, really exciting to see your film on a big screen,” said Harris, though that experience has been limited due to the coronavirus pandemic. “Even in a virtual event, it is still exciting to have people get to watch your film though you can’t hear them laugh or cry.”
“Pure” will have its Maryland premiere during the Maryland Film Festival scheduled for June 12 to 21.
“It is a coming-of-age story that explores identity and the role of traditions, especially in the Black community,” Harris said. “I am passionate about incorporating joy in my work. I care a lot about that.”
Harris is now writing a full-length film version of “Pure.” She is also applying for grants and fellowships to help fund a full-length film.
“It will be very similar to the short film,” Harris said. “I already know the story I’m trying to tell.”
Coming-of age-stories are one of Harris’ favorite genres to work in, she said. Harris’ next short film will be in a Black Southern gothic genre of filmmaking, she said, comparing it to “Eve’s Bayou,” a 1997 film set in Louisiana.
“Growing up, I often didn’t see myself properly represented,” Harris said. “I want to make films to help others see themselves.”
Her ability to tell stories caught her professor’s attention.
“As soon as I met her, she struck me as a determined artist who knew what she wanted and would work hard to get it,” said Rosanne Limoncelli, director of production for film and new media at NYU, in an email. “Best of all, her courage to share her personal stories is something needed in the world. It not only shows the world who she is but helps others feel seen and heard.”
Merissa Collins has known Harris since their youth, when both girls took dance classes and attended the same middle school. While they attended different boarding schools for high school, the two remained in touch.
“She has transformed before my eyes,” said Collins, who became a dancer before COVID-19 left her unemployed. “She used to be a little shy and quiet. An observing kid ... with a sense of humor. She has really opened up. She has a warm presence and is no longer the shy person.”
Filmmaking, Collins said, helped Harris grow.
“She uses art as her personal voice ... to say what is on her mind and how to express tough things,” Collins said.
Harris never judges anyone, Collins added, and allows people to be themselves around her.
“Natalie loves community and a solid group of people around her,” Collins said. “She maintains relationships. I really like that about her.”
There is no defining moment for Harris when she decided to purse filmmaking as a career. She does remember watching the movie “The Color Purple” with her mom when she was a young girl.
“It was a beautiful story of Black women,” Harris said. “Black women represented in cinema. It was really special.”
When the pandemic is over, Harris is hoping to return to New York City. In five years, she hopes to have accomplished at least one feature-length film and to be working in a variety of different mediums of film.
“I’m pretty open to wherever life takes me,” Harris said. “To be able to thrive as a working director ... that would be really amazing.”