The Q&A: Tanji Gilliam (Founder, Oil House Productions)

O n the work of an indie filmmaker: evangelizing, building infrastructure. Oh, yeah: And filmmaking.
There has been persistent talk of the “democratization of film-making” as the equipment needed to make movies and videos became less expensive over the last decade.  However, while more people can now make movies, Los Angeles and New York have ceded very little ground as the epicenters of this nation’s media industry.  This in turn has meant that young filmmakers working outside of LA, NY, or Atlanta and Austin, often find themselves spending as much time working as evangelists for their hometowns and building the necessary infrastructure needed for a filmmaker to thrive as they do working on their films.  Such is the case of this week’s Q&A feature, Tanji Gilliam, Founder & Principal of Trenton New Jersey’s Oil House Productions.  

1) What inspired you to become a filmmaker/producer?
Oil House Productions
I was in grad school doing film studies research and was frustrated by the fact that there was no access to the films that were being discussed in the text. I wanted to literally see the point that the author was trying to make. Furthermore, among black film scholars, Toni Cade Bambara was a real model for me. Her writing was clearly informed by her use of the camera as an instrument. I am still pretty adamant, particularly with my students, about resisting the logo centric nature of the Academy. Film was a new literacy for me and has become my preferred voice.

2) What is the story behind Oil House Productions?

I began taking on freelance video projects in Washington, DC. Our first client was a Southeast activist organization called The Visions to Peace project, we helped them film and edit a student-directed documentary on how violence affects youth. Even at the point where the work evolved to music videos for independent artists, our company’s focus was an activist agenda. The name, Oil House, was chosen by my father. Oil House’s were near lighthouses on plantations, they contained the oil to keep the lighthouse lit. I like to think of them as places where slaves snuck away for ring shouts and prayer meetings. Oil House will continue to serve as a think tank and design firm, addressing social issues that are especially relevant to marginalized groups.

3) Most people might say, you have a PhD from UChicago, you could’ve easily become an academic.  Or, you’re also a filmmaker, you could easily be living in Los Angeles, New York or even Atlanta to help further your filmmaking aspirations.  Given all this, why did you decide to return to Trenton?

I don’t think it’s ever easy, particularly as a young black woman, to pursue being an academic, and Hollywood and black “urban” film are also limiting in their scope of representations of black people both on and off the screen. I’ve actually never lived in Trenton until now but I have taught students from here, as well as Philadelphia, D.C., Chicago, New York;  the needs here are the same as everywhere. My hope is that by being here I can help to address issues of poverty and racial marginalization in new and creative ways.

4) Would you call yourself a Trenton evangelist?  Might a run for political office be in your future?

I can think of a slew of reasons why I am not a politician. My favorites are that my hair is always disheveled and, as I’ve been told recently, I “don’t know how to hedge.” I want to be one of the people with their sleeves rolled up, and have even offered to help run the campaign of a person who’s socialist politics, and active presence in the Trenton community, seem to me, to be right on the mark. The bottom line though is Trenton is a tough town, it’s extremely xenophobic and while there is some apathy here, it’s not waiting to be converted. I do want to lead, that’s been evident since my elementary school playground, but I am as jaded by public officials as the average Trentonian, rightfully so. I think the real power lies in cooperative business and that has been Oil House’s platform and practice.

5) What are some of the things that you have upcoming at OHP?  What should we be looking forward to from OHP in 2013?

We are currently finishing our film, Blind Man Walking, and preparing for a festival run with that work. We are also archiving all of our tapes online, on the Facebook site, Oil House, and this will include interviews, commissioned performances and other presentations with Melissa Harris-Perry, Boots Riley of the Coup, and Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., among countless others. This is being done to facilitate our new web series, Scheherazade.  We are working with the West End Little League and N.J. turnkey leader, Holly Nance Property Solutions, doing some grant funding and other development projects. God willing, and this was actually my unrealized goal for 2012, we will get our own physical home, but for now we’ll continue to make the most out of urls.
You can follow the latest OHP developments: Twitter/ @oilhouse, YouTube/oilhousep,and  instagram / sansagram.
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Ferentz Lafargue is a faculty member in the History and Social Sciences Department at Georgetown Day School. He is also a memoirist (author of 2007′s Songs in the Key of My Life) and a essayist often exploring New York and national politics and culture, Haiti’s diaspora, social media, and community outreach.