A.V. Rockwell's films are of New York, by New York, and for New York. Born and raised in Queens, the filmmaker studied at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and cut her teeth helming short films with titles like Gotham F—king City and El Train, exploring race, identity and systemic oppression within vignettes of the city. Rockwell's voice, however, has resonated far behind the boroughs — notably, in Park City, Utah.
Her feature debut, A Thousand and One, premiered during this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
"I made a movie that was very specific to me," Rockwell says. "I made it from a very specific place, but I was ultimately trying to reach anybody that saw themselves in these characters or felt closer and able to understand people that look like them. So, it means so much to me that it resonated in that way."
Set in Harlem beginning in 1994, A Thousand and One follows a young mother, Inez (Teyana Taylor), as she's released from Rikers and sets out to start a new life with her 6-year-old son, Terry. To do so, she first must kidnap him from foster care. Over the decade that follows, the two fight to find a place for their family amid a rapidly gentrifying New York.
"It's very emotionally true. I did pull from a lot of my experiences in order to shape what you see in the film," explains the filmmaker. "But I feel like to say it is autobiographical wouldn't be fully accurate. I think more so it is symbolically and emotionally autobiographical."
Below, Rockwell shares with A.frame the six films — because "the last one is a draw, so I'm going to cheat" — that most informed her filmmaking sensibilities, including a perhaps unlikely inspiration for A Thousand and One.
Directed by: Spike Lee | Written by: Joie Susannah Lee, Spike Lee, and Cinqué Lee
Crooklyn is one of my favorite films. Even though it's one of Spike Lee's lesser-known gems, that movie was so special for me, because it was the first time that I saw myself. I didn't realize that's what was igniting in me then, but it was the first time I saw myself represented in a character and in the world that was surrounding Troy, who is the lead character in that movie. That was a really special experience for me, and had a lasting impact — in addition to all of Spike's work, and the way that he told stories. That all impacted me as a filmmaker when I started my journey.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese | Written by: Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese
I love Goodfellas. It was just an entertaining ride, and I I knew that I wanted to watch it over and over. Scorsese makes movies and New York movies from such an authentic place, as well. His experience was so different from mine, in many ways, but I think the way he was able to capture those things with honesty, and purity, and specificity, I appreciate that. I appreciated his voice as a filmmaker.
Written and Directed by: Lina Wertmüller
Lina Wertmüller is such an amazing writer. I love the way she's able to balance the humor of life, but also the depth of tragedy and sadness and the complexities of it. There's so much depth in her work and so much beauty in her writing and in her directing I really admire. And the performances are so beautiful. There are so many frames in her movies that I just feel like, 'Ah, exquisite.'
Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo | Written by: Franco Solinas
Seeing Battle of Algiers was a turning point for me, because I was like, 'Oh, this is the power of what you can do with a movie.' It really angered me and, as I started on my journey as a director, I was like, 'This is what you have the power to do — in terms of how you can have an impact on society through films — and this is what you have.' It was just me remembering how much you can say through movies, and especially speaking for people who feel voiceless. I think that was what was really special — speaking for voiceless communities. I think that movie had a certain level of objectivity, which was also really great, but I did love seeing the underdog represented. And in a way, that was empowering. That was really great.
Directed by: Costa-Gavras | Written by: Costa-Gavras, Jorge Semprún, and Ben Barzman
Z, I love because it had so much to say as a political drama, and about politics in general, and corruption in general. Movies like that, that can help you understand how the world really works, are important. But it was told in a way that was so entertaining and so honest, and it even had moments of levity in it. The writing was so intelligent. It was just filmmaking at its finest. These movies all set the bar for me as I continued to get tighter and better at telling my stories and mastering my craft.
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis | Written by: Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman
I love the world building of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. As I watched that movie as an adult — because I still do replay that movie — a lot of what that movie is about is connected to what A Thousand and One is about. Like, protecting Toontown and what's special about Toontown is the same as me saying, 'Protect and stand up for Harlem.' As I was writing this movie, it was fascinating to look back at that movie through a new lens.
Honestly, if you know anything about the history of New York and Robert Moses, it made me think of Judge Doom and the way he wanted to knock Toontown down for a highway. I'm like, 'Robert Moses wanted to knock down so many of these historic, iconic neighborhoods in New York for highways,' amongst other things. He didn't appreciate what was special about New York City, and what's special about the people and communities of New York City. That's what I was trying to honor, so I love the movie for that reason. In addition to just how entertaining it was — it was a beautiful ride and had so many things to say.