Direction - Sanaa Hamri '96
anaa Hamri ’96 is one of the most successful music video directors in the business today-a 31-year-old wunderkind with a client list that includes the likes of Mariah Carey, Prince and Dr. Dre.
She’s also a budding Hollywood film director whose first full-length picture-Something New, a romantic comedy about an African-American woman who falls in love with a white landscape artist and then must struggle with the emotional fallout triggered by her interracial romance-was praised as “a fine feature debut” by The New York Times.
Ask Moroccan-born Hamri to account for her meteoric rise from acting in high school educational films about chemistry in the late 1990s to her current status as one of the country’s most sought-after directors of music video, and the former SLC theatre student will surprise you by laughing out loud. “I’m not sure I can explain what’s been happening to my career during the past few years,” she says. “All I know is that I sat down one day in 2000 and started teaching myself how to use an Avid [video] editing machine.
“Really, I just opened the manual up and started on page one! I had never taken a filmmaking course-and I still haven’t taken one. But it didn’t take me long to discover that I seemed to have a knack for putting images together in order to tell a story. I’m convinced that making videos and films isn’t a logical process; you can’t use mere calculation to get where you want to go.”
And she didn’t. While relying on her own “gut feelings” and trusting her instinct for dramatic imagery, Hamri began making videos and knocking on doors throughout the music industry. Her big break came four years ago, when video mogul Malik Sayeed saw one of her early productions, loved it, and began enthusiastically showing it around. The video so impressed Mariah Carey that she hired the young director on the spot.
So what’s the secret behind her gift for creativity? Hamri, who first came to the U.S. from Tangier in 1992, says she doesn’t waste much time trying to analyze her knack for making moving pictures.
“To tell you the truth, I just do it,” she says. “When I’m directing, I have to feel my way along from one shot to the next. For me, the process kind of flows from within, and the story seems to take shape on its own, as I link the images one by one.”
More than anything else, she says, powerful filmmaking requires “a kind of inner freedom, along with a willingness to explore character without resorting to labels and predetermined attitudes about identity.”
The daughter of a Muslim Moroccan painter and a Jewish-American mother, Hamri says she chose Sarah Lawrence because “it offers students a great deal of freedom-and I really wanted to attend a college that would encourage me to think for myself. While growing up in a Muslim country, I’d lived in a world where it was sometimes difficult for a woman to speak out.”
She says she thrived in the open-minded climate of Sarah Lawrence, and still remembers the thrill of stepping onstage to deliver one of Richard III’s most challenging speeches, as a beginning acting student in Paul Austin’s popular theatre class. After a “dynamite” year of studying acting in Paris during her junior year, she graduated in 1996 and headed straight for Manhattan.
She struggled through auditions and unemployment for a few years, until she finally decided to try directing and began teaching herself how to use that Avid editing machine.
With such blue-chip artists as Sting, Christina Aguilera and Mary J. Blige all clamoring for her services in recent years, Hamri has gained a national reputation for her innovative music videos-like the sinuous, gorgeously choreographed Black Sweat, a black-and-white ballet in which Prince snakes his way across the stage with a stiletto-thin dancer.
As a video-maker, Hamri has reached the top of the mountain. Now she says she wants to make more films-including “pictures about daily life in the world of Morocco, and about human beings who are in conflict and struggling to understand themselves, wherever they happen to be.”