Interview: Director Kamelya Alexan winner of the MFF Empowerment Award

Kamelya Alexan
Kamelya Alexan

Director and self-proclaimed wearer of many hats, Kamelya Alexan won the Empowerment Award at the 2022 Midwest Film Festival’s Best of the Midwest Awards, for her short, Changing The Disciple.

It is the story of Shango Johnson, a former gang leader born on the south side of Chicago, who wanted something more out of life than just being part of a notoriously brutal Chicago gang. Johnson decided to dedicate his life to preserving life, as opposed to taking it, by becoming a mentor to the youth of Inglewood and imparting onto them how truly powerful yoga and faith can be.

I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to speak to Kamelya Alexan about her short, how she got to meet Shango, her professional relationship with her cinematographer Manuela Hung, and what the present and future holds for Kamelya Alexan.

Alexan was born in Tehran, Iran and moved to Chicago at the age of six. When asked to describe herself she said that she is someone who likes to wear many hats, loves new challenges, and that she does everything in the film industry and she enjoys it all. She has worked on, and completed, over 45-projects including independent and industry films, documentaries, shorts, music videos, commercial spots, and feature films.

How she got started is a very interesting story, “I was turning 15 and I decided to write a feature script cause my family and I were traveling to L.A. and for some weird reason I felt like I was gonna meet a producer or director, and I did,” says Alexan. “It turned out that that producer/director ended up being one of my mentors.”

She went on to say, “I was speaking at Columbia College at like 15…” and while doing so she got the opportunity to listen, through a closed door, to a lecture about how to write a screenplay. “I just knew this is the profession I wanna get into.”

Her background originally centered around music, but, “things didn’t go well and then after that, I got into film.”

How she came to meet Shango has a lot to do with her being a vegan for nearly 10 years. Her friend, Gina Marino-Kalish, owner of the plant-based restaurant, Kalish on Wilson Ave., told her about Shango and how his story would be very compelling for the current times. “…it has to do with Inglewood, it has to do with the Black Lives Matter movement and I just feel that right now is the best time for his story to shine…” Gina said to Alexan, trying to convince her.

Eventually, Alexan and Johnson met at Kalish and had a 3-hour lunch where they got to know and understand each other. There is a moment Alexan spoke about, that made her realize that they really clicked, “…I was waiting on a phone call from my vet and he knew right there. He looked at me and goes ‘the fact that you waited and you were so worried about your dog really said a lot about your character to me, it made me trust you more.’”

After they both agreed to the short, Alexan tapped someone who’s path had crossed with hers for many years, cinematographer Manuela Hung.

Manuela was a name that Alexan heard constantly when she worked at a Fletcher Camera. Then, while at the Midwest Film Festival, Alexan heard someone call out for Manuela, and she finally met the person she had been hearing about for more than a decade. She introduced herself to Manuela and a partnership was born. Alexan even helped Manuela with her own documentary titled The Handpan Journey about a woman in Wisconsin who makes handpan drums from scratch.

Manuel has left a considerable mark on the media world. She is the recipient of many awards for her outstanding work in the film industry and is currently involved in the independent film community, with photography as her first passion.

Alexan is currently working for the Amazon show, Night Sky, and when asked what the top of the mountain looks like to her, she answered, “Whatever comes, whatever’s fun, that’s what it’s about. I’m lucky, I have a lot of teachers, a lot of good people around me so I’m very lucky in that sense,” said Alexan. “The wife of one of my mentors used to be president of The Academy, that’s a great connection to have.”

She closed with, “I don’t have to report to any studio, I make art, and either you like it or you don’t.”

If you are interested in watching Changing The Disciple, there will be another screening on Tuesday, March 1st, at 7:00 PM at the Gene Siskel Film Center. For ticket information, please contact the Midwest Film Festival for further details.


Directed by: Kamelya Alexan

Executive Producers: Gina Marino-Kalish

Produced by: Kamelya Alexan, Gina Marino-Kalish

Cinematography: Manuela Hung, Kamelya Alexan

Editor: Anna Christian

Colorist: C. Ryan Stemple

Location Sound: Michael B. Murrie

Additional Camera: Brian Soszynski

Music: Ong Namo

Re-Recording Mixer: John Wong

Himself: Shango Johnson

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