Creative Capital Interviews Daresha Kyi on Her New Documentary Film: Mama Bears
Creative Capital spoke to Daresha Kyi about her Creative Capital project, Mama Bears—a film exploring how the lives of conservative, Christian mothers are transformed when they decide to accept their LGBTQ children. Mama Bears premieres at Violet Crown and Alamo Drafthouse in Austin and online as part of SXSW on March 13, 14 & 18, 2022.
CC: What excited you most about this project?
Daresha: When I came across an article about how Kimberly Shappley had gone from being a Texas-based Tea Party Republican to winning an award as LGBTQ Activist of the Year because of her love for her transgender daughter, Kai, I was intrigued. But when she mentioned that she’d found the courage to change by joining more than 2,000 “mama bears” on the same journey, I knew instinctively that these had to be some brave, badass women and I wanted to tell their story.
But it wasn’t until I shared the idea with my friend, Scotch Ellis Loring, who unexpectedly burst into tears at the mention of the “mama bears” and then shared his own painful journey with his mom, a Jehovah’s Witness who’d felt compelled to shun him for years after he came out, that I realized what a powerful impact simply knowing about these women could have on the LGBTQ community, especially those from conservative, religious families. His reaction told me I was on to something important — so important that he promptly offered to cover the expenses for us to shoot and edit a sample and became an EP on the film.
Film still from Daresha Kyi’s Mama Bears of Tammi Terrell Morris and fiancée Shadae Miles. Footage by Amy Bench.
CC: What do you hope audiences will experience or take away from this work?
Daresha: I especially hope members of the LGBTQ+ community from conservative religious families who may have experienced the pain of familial rejection find it healing. I want them to know that deeply religious people who love and accept them are fighting to make the world a more loving, safer place for them.
From its inception, I’ve envisioned Mama Bears as a powerful tool for bridging divides. For religious families struggling to accept their LGBTQ+ children, I want the film to serve as a guide on how to “choose children over church.” That’s why Tenita’s story is so important. Although it’s uncomfortable, she stands in the gap and loves her daughter, Tammi, no matter what. Even though she dropped out of the film, it was vitally important to Tenita to share the message that you don’t have to become an activist or ally or even agree with your child to love them.
I also want churches that are struggling with the issue of inclusion to use the film to jumpstart safe, candid conversations around the subject. Of course, I hope everybody else likes it too!
CC: What was most challenging about this project?
Daresha: The most challenging aspect of making an independent documentary if you don’t have generational wealth or deep pockets of your own creation is raising the money. Fundraising through grants is a long, tedious process — but aside from private donations and crowdfunding, it’s been the source of all my funding thus far. It took five years to finish Mama Bears but if we’d had the funds up front, it probably would have taken two or three years at the most.
For example, Chavela took 2.5 years from start to finish because my co-director could carry the film financially whenever necessary while we had to shut down production on Mama Bears repeatedly for months at a time due to lack of funding. It requires a lot of tenacity to stay the course and see the film through but it’s very, VERY rewarding when you make it to the finish line!
CC: What is one piece of advice you would give to an artist embarking on a new project right now?
Daresha: Keep the faith and enjoy the journey!
Film still from Daresha Kyi’s Mama Bears of Sara Cunningham at Atlanta Pride. Photo by Cameron Mitchell.
CC: What has it meant to be an artist during the pandemic?
Daresha: Actually, I worked harder during the pandemic than ever before. I spent the last 6 months of 2020 traveling to 8 states with Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown, the co-founders of the Black Voters Matter Fund, as they toured the country educating, empowering, and uplifting African American communities and registering them to vote. My new feature doc, Black Voters Matter, will share the paths they took from acolyte activists to veritable power house civil rights leaders who played a pivotal role in flipping Georgia from red to blue in the 2020 Presidential election and the 2021 Georgia Senate Runoffs.
Although we wrapped principal photography in January 2020 we are currently at FULL STOP. Remember what I said about fundraising being the hardest part of indie filmmaking? Well, when we first started filming, right after Rep. John Lewis passed away, folks were ready to do ANYTHING to get rid of Trump and threw money at the project, but once Biden, Warnock, and Ossoff were in office, people lost interest and we lost momentum. Though how anyone could think Democracy isn’t still under full frontal assault is beyond me. So anyone out there reading this who wants to help — come through!
Anyway, it may sound crazy that we were out there “in them streets” at the height of the pandemic, but Cliff, LaTosha and their partners created COVID safe events like riding car caravans through Black neighborhoods blasting James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, and stopping along the way to hand out free food, information, and PPE. They held concerts and events at drive-in theaters so people could stay in their cars yet still have fun outdoors and they had folks scan QR codes to register. Part of their genius is an incredible ability to pivot on a dime in response to a situation and come up with a new strategy — a different, but equally brilliant plan of attack. Even when they’re under attack. And believe me, they were attacked repeatedly, from a fire set at their Airbnb to a suspicious package from Russia left on the doorstep, but they came back harder and smarter than ever — and we filmed it all. I can’t wait to introduce people who don’t already know them to these smart, funny, down to earth people who are driven by love to devote themselves to making the world a more just, fair place for all people.
Also, our crews took every precaution possible. We had a COVID safety officer with us who ensured that we followed ALL the constantly shifting guidelines from the CDC and I’m proud to say that not a single member of our crew got sick!
Director Daresha Kyi and director of photography Amy Bench on a shoot in California. Photo by Scotch Loring.
CC: What’s one thing you look forward to each day?
Daresha: I try to remember to say, “thank you” as soon as I wake and I love those first few lazy moments of lying in bed, coming back to consciousness and feeling grateful and blessed to be alive.
CC: What does home mean to you?
Daresha: I inherited a restless spirit from my mother who was always trying to escape my hometown, Dayton, Ohio, so for a long time I was a gypsy. I’ve lived in New York, Los Angeles, Orlando, Honolulu, and Fort Smith, Arkansas (don’t ask!) but it’s only been since I moved to Atlanta 4.5 years ago that I’ve really felt like I’ve had a place I could call my own. Home is the place where I belong.
Daresha Kyi, in her kitchen, shares with Creative Capital her favorite mezcal sour recipe.
CC: What’s a special food or drink that you enjoy?
Daresha: I’m a foodie so this is a hard question for me. I love mezcal sours. They’re sweet and smoky and tart all at once. SO yummy! Here’s a recipe but I use both fresh lemon and lime juice.
CC: How has Creative Capital been helpful to you?
Daresha: I’ve met so many wonderful people and made friends for life through being a member of the Creative Capital family. I’ve also received an incredible amount of personal and professional support, particularly as a result of doing the pitch. Not only did it help me refine my skills as an orator, it led to quite a bit of additional funding!