BFFs at SXSW: MediaMaker Fellowship World Premieres

Published On: March 7, 2024 |

In a candid conversation, filmmakers, friends, and MediaMaker alum, Robie Flores and Contessa Gayles, offer unique insights into each other’s projects ahead of their premieres at SXSW.

We asked them both to reflect on their collaborative friendship, which began in 2013 at the NYU Journalism Documentary Film Program they both attended for graduate school, and the deeply personal narratives they’re bringing to the festival.

Robie’s film, The In Between, follows the return to her hometown Eagle Pass on the Texas/Mexico border, wanting to turn back time. She collides with unruly experiences of adolescence – quinceañeras, Rio Grande river excursions, teen makeovers and beyond – that invite her to soak up the details of the home her brother adored and she ignored. What emerges is a playful dance between a personal and collective coming-of-age portrait of kids on the border and Robie herself as she rediscovers the possibilities of joy in the aftermath of grief, while offering a nuanced and unexpected portrait of the border.

Contessa’s documentary visual album, Songs from the Hole, follows James “JJ’88” Jacobs through a musical opus of Hip-Hop and Soul, inspired by his innermost struggles as both a person who has committed and experienced violent harm, as he serves a double-life prison sentence. The film interweaves the collective storytelling of its non-fiction participants with imagined representations of memories, dreams and spiritual dialogues set to its protagonist/writer’s original music.

SXSW begins this Thursday, March 7.

Could you each describe the other’s film in your own words?


Robie, on Contessa’s film, Songs from the Hole: Ummm you’re a Futurist. Your creative vision is just off the charts. And you and your art are just, so loving and empathetic. You’re an uncontainable force, Contessa! That’s the headline. POST IT.

And your movie came from this incredible project that you made, The Feminist on Cellblock Y, during your incredible tenure at CNN. The basis was a visual album that would tell the story of this man [writer, co-producer and protagonist, James “JJ’88” Jacobs]’s experience through his music, his words, lyrically and journey through that. It gives you an insight into his mind, so it’s an expansive experience — expanding on form and pushing the boundaries of our understanding of each other with new tools for storytelling. I can’t wait to see it on the big screen! And then everybody’s going to make a documentary visual album after this.


Contessa, on Robie’s film, The In Between: An intimate, poetic portrait of place and identity, a love letter to childhood and community, and a counter-narrative.

Since the beginning, you knew that you wanted to tell a story that would offer a different perspective and a different lens on what we’re otherwise constantly bombarded with in the media about what the U.S.-Mexico border looks like. You were like, I’m going to do something that’s going to be for my community to help them feel represented and to dream. You’re presenting a more holistic truth about where you come from and what it looks like and what the community between the two spaces actually is. And to make your first feature film about where you came from, what it was like to grow up there and just have it be really about family and community and hometown vibes and your own personal journey into discovering and rediscovering your own identity — the self-excavation, it’s really brave.

I said this to you in my speech at your wedding, but your appreciation for the tiniest details and most quotidian moments that most other people overlook or ignore is such a beautiful way to look at the world and I think is at the heart of your film. The childlike curiosity is so you and your approach to life and to filmmaking.

Robie: I’m very much inspired by Mars [my brother]. That childlike wonder he had and patience and genuine curiosity — I try to mirror it. I don’t innately have it. But he did.

Contessa: I feel like you’re channeling it from him. Maybe it’s him acting through you.

Robie: I super identify with that, yeah. In the beginning, I was very direct cinema because I wanted to prove that like, this is what the place is, completely unaltered. I think once I got out of my direct cinema phase, I was like, “Oh, I could just make up what I want.” And it felt nice to just be like, “I want to see this. I want to see a beautiful, colorful picnic on the riverbanks.” I was like, this is my narrative and this is the way that I experience things and I’m going to create this — whether this was something that exactly happened or not, this is what I feel. This space now felt so empowering.

Contessa: For us, it was cinematically and musically representing James’ interiority and his experience on both sides of serious violence, and the process of transformation and healing from that through the creative expression. So, referencing these collective memories, dreams, nightmares and just straight up imagining these interpretations of our themes around transformation and healing, and faith and family, and forgiveness and freedom.

Robie: You’re just so rooted in love. With all this hate and divisiveness, the response is an invitation, it’s love, it’s nuance, which I think is huge for both of our films. We don’t live in the black or white space of any of this. We’re trying to be expansive with the gray space, because that’s where we find the connections and the community with each other. I think that there’s just no other way forward. The other side is just complete and total self-destruction. We all want to be loved and to be accepted and to feel safe.

How did being a BAVC MediaMaker Fellow impact your project?

Contessa: The fellowship came at a very important time in the transition from development into early production, when I was really formulating a lot of the ideas with what we were doing with form. It was a really great community to be in and bounce ideas off of and to hear reflections back from, particularly because it was other filmmakers of color. I appreciated having that early on as one of the formative cohorts and fellowships that was a part of our process with this film.

Robie: Yeah. I relate with that too. It’s a nice testament to their program with the cohort that they create. And for me, to experience that with the first part of the pandemic creeping in on us was such an amazing, memorable experience. And then to sort of process it with them. I think that this cohort and the mentors, I felt it was exactly what I needed. The type of guidance that felt that they were caring for us was just super nourishing.

What does it mean to you to be premiering your film at SXSW?

Robie: It’s a home-state premiere. It’s just like the coolest thing ever. SXSW was like the first festival I ever knew about. And my mom and my brothers lived in Austin, so I spent so much time coming home to Austin while I was away and at school. So there’s just such a community there. To also have our film be acknowledged as a Texan film and just like, this is an American town, and for us to be able to present it as like a Texan film is such a big deal. It’s also a really great homecoming. Mars went to film school at UT, Alex went to UT, so much of that community is still there, and so much of our frontera community is there too and it’s so close to home so the whole family is coming! It feels like what I’d imagine a bottom-of-the-night-bases-are-loaded home run to feel like. I don’t know much about baseball, but that sounds right.

Contessa: For our film as a documentary visual album, and SXSW being both a film festival and a music festival is really exciting for us. We hope that we can attract the film heads and the music heads and that our film has that crossover appeal with audiences. Folks that might not necessarily watch documentaries are going to come into this film and experience something new and vice versa too, doc folks that maybe wouldn’t otherwise listen to Hip-Hop or Soul music are going to be brought into a different experience. And then, we get to go to each others’ premieres back to back on the same day. Just makes the whole thing that much more amazing. I can’t wait.

Robie: Yeah also that part. Like, what?! is our life right now?

From left to right: Robie Flores and Contessa Gayles graduating from the NYU Journalism Documentary Film program.

How does your friendship impact your individual documentary filmmaking processes?

Contessa: Starting together in grad school, you know I was a little intimidated by you, because you were more technically experienced and more knowledgeable about documentary and had had more exposure to the industry. But then obviously, I very quickly learned how generous you were with all of that and sharing and imparting your skills and your wisdom. And since then, we’ve worked together on everything from grad school assignments, to CNN series during our overlapping tenures there, to you editing the short film I directed, Founder Girls (BET, 2023). And as far as our separate independent filmmaker journeys, you were the one to convince me and lead by example that we could do this independent filmmaking thing and that it was a risk and a leap worth taking. You took the leap first, so you modeled that for me, and that was when you were starting out on making The In Between. And here we are today, both premiering our first independent features together.

Robie: And that’s been the nature of our relationship. Like, it’s so symbiotic and so uplifting of each other, and it’s just like, you climb up and you hold me up, and I climb up and I help you up. Fostering each others’ talent feels really great. Especially as we we’re beginning, we didn’t know much technically, but like, we knew what we wanted and we had really strong ideas, and then we saw that in each other and that’s really cool. Because when your best friend believes in you, you’re like, “Holy shit, I can do anything!”

The In Between and Songs From The Hole are both screening at SXSW Film Festival, showtimes and more info below:

The In Between tickets

Songs From The Hole tickets

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