Faculty Profile: Marco Williams and his journey to becoming an award-winning filmmaker

Marco Williams will be teaching directing and screenwriting at NU-Q this fall. [Photo by Ifath Sayed]
Marco Williams will be teaching directing and screenwriting at NU-Q this fall. [Photo by Ifath Sayed]
Marco Williams grew up in Lower East Side of New York without a television and never went to the movies. So it isn’t surprising that he never expected to become a film studies professor or a documentary filmmaker, let alone win numerous awards for his work. His prize-winning films, “Banished,” “Freedom Summer” and “Two Towns of Jasper” focus on issues of race and class, concepts that he was introduced to in his childhood. Williams recently arrived in Doha to teach screenwriting and directing at Northwestern University in Qatar for the fall semester.

Ever since Williams was a child, his life was, what he calls, an “amalgamation of lots of different people and experiences.” He grew up in a New York neighborhood largely occupied by members of the working class. “My friends were African American, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Italian, Irish, Polish and Ukrainian and some working class white kids,” he said. Studying in a private school enabled him to experience the affluent side of New York and summer camps introduced him to Jewish socialists. “Almost from the beginning, I’ve had a collision of class, race and culture,” said Williams.

When you see Williams now, it’s not hard to imagine him as a filmmaker. His intelligent eyes are always flitting around, observing everything with utmost concentration. His desk encompasses photos of his new students, and he makes observations about each and every one of them: some students suppress their emotions, some reflect confidence, some display ease, and some exhibit pure joy at being surrounded by their friends.

Marco Williams [Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images]
Marco Williams [Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images]
However, it wasn’t easy for Williams to discover his passion for filmmaking. While doing his undergraduate degree in visual and environmental studies at Harvard University, Williams still did not know what he wanted to do with his life. He only took his first communications course to fulfill a requirement, a course other students referred to as “Monday night at the movies.”

“It was a class on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and I was transformed,” recalled Williams. He was amazed at the precision Hitchcock used in his filmmaking, which excited him. But still unsure about the direction he was headed, Williams decided to take two years off from college.

“Why be in college if you didn’t know what to do?” he said. In those two years, Williams worked as a dishwasher, a short order cook and in the construction and garment business. While working in the garment industry, he received a smaller bonus at Christmas than the other workers due to his African-American descent, he said. He realized he wanted to return to Harvard. “I knew I had value, and the way people at this place treated me sparked something within me. I started to say f— this,” he added.

Williams pursued his passion for filmmaking back at Harvard and completed his bachelor’s degree. “[Through] filmmaking, I found a community, a place and an identity,” he said.

After being a teaching assistant in an advanced filmmaking class at the university, Williams was fired by his supervisor, who later told him he wanted Williams to explore new potentials. Williams then went through a series of difficulties that included working as a waiter at a restaurant. He went back to New York and joined the Black Filmmaker Foundation, an organization that supports independent African-American filmmakers. After working as a production assistant for multiple films and commercials, Williams said he felt as though he wanted to do more in his career, a realization that led him to pursue African-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. It was at UCLA that Williams finished his first documentary, “In Search of Our Fathers,” which recounted his seven-year journey of searching for his father, a man he said his mother never talked about when growing up.

After struggling for a few more years in various jobs, Williams started to teach filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts, before becoming a professor at New York University (NYU), where he has been working for the past 18 years. After teaching at NU-Q in the fall, Williams plans to return to NYU.

Williams said his decision to come to Qatar for a semester was due to his curiosity about the Middle East: “I had a chance to immerse myself in a place with a different cohort of students that I imagined, at the time, could be life changing.” While looking through photos of NU-Q, he said he was enthralled by how the students looked so different than they did back in New York.

During his first week of orientation at NU-Q, he met two students, a Palestinian and a Qatari, who he talked with about various issues, from politics to the culture and society here. “And I felt like this is why I came,” he said, describing the incident.  According to Williams, that’s what he’s doing here: “looking for a moment.”



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