Trinidad and Tobago-born film producer Jolene Mendes wanted to tell stories through film even before she knew exactly what film production was. Mendes who is now based in Los Angeles recently launched a production company, More Avenue, which pays homage to her roots.
“I launched it here in the US with the intention to branch out to TT, which I will be doing soon.”
Mendes has worked on films including She Paradise, directed by TT’s Maya Cozier, and
Bienvenidos a Los Angeles, directed by Lisa Cole – both of which received recognition at film festivals and awards. Mendes and two other female producers, Vivian Johnson and Cindy Lu, won the 2022 Toronto International Women’s Film Festival award for best female producer for
Bienvenidos a Los Angeles.
She Paradise is a coming-of-age story with a Caribbean spin, about a quiet girl from a humble background in Port of Spain finding her inner voice through dance. It has been recognised by top-tier film festivals such as the Tribeca Film Festival of New York and AFI Fest in Los Angeles.
Explaining her role in film she said, “Look at each film as an individual company, which technically they are, and with that the film producer is the CEO and often the founder of each film.”
At no point in her 29 years did Mendes see herself doing anything other than film. She’s always wanted “to tell stories to elevate the voices of creators, by giving people from all avenues of life a chance to tell their story through film and music, whether it be through producing films or managing TT musical artiste Issa.”
Asked how she got film production opportunities, Mendes said more often than not, it happens by word of mouth. “Sometimes someone sees a film or music video that I produced and feels like the work I do is in line with the projects they want to get off the ground. That happens too.”
Becoming manager for TT-born artiste Issa, however, was a bit different.
She discovered his song Pictures as a recommended listen by streaming platform Spotify. “I heard and felt something very special and universal, not only in his talent but in the message he is putting out to the world through his music using his personal story, so I reached out to him to learn more about his story and goals in business and life. I really connected with his intentions so I felt a need to be a part of his journey and help elevate him as an artist.”
As a teen she did not have a clear idea of what she wanted to do professionally. She thinks now that’s because her heart was always set on film, but: “I just didn’t see it as a career, or at least a reachable career, at the time.”
It wasn’t until social media became part of mainstream culture that Mendes began paying attention to what can be done online, such as targeted ads and other features of social media connected to film production.
“Because I was consistently researching film and television – and the business of it – I started getting ads for film school, which brought to my attention that it was something people make a career out of. When I looked into it, I realised it was something I would adore doing every day.”
Mendes, a past student of St Andrew’s, Holy Name Convent and Maple Leaf, said her family always encouraged her to do what she was interested in, only ever asking what she could see herself enjoying most – not influencing her decision.
“I feel very fortunate in that.”
This love affair with film production began on the couch of her childhood home on Moore Avenue in St Ann’s.
“It honestly started simply in watching films every Friday night with my family, when we went to the DVD store and picked two films each for the weekend, after not watching anything during the week, to focus on school and after-school activity.
“I think film and television was always a world I sought to travel in mentally – to find the solace and inspiration and belonging in life that everyone looks for and deserves.”
She saw it as a way of travelling outside her little island, through a screen, to learn about the rest of the world and its many perspectives. She wanted to be “part of a team that could make more of that – tapping into even more perspectives of the world.”
Though directing/cinematography wasn’t on her mind as much as producing, Mendes found herself constantly playing with cameras. She was given a camera when she was about 11, which she used to make short films at home using her siblings, their friends, and their friends as actors.
She did a one-year production programme at the New York Film Academy and kept learning through research, practice and mentorship.
“Most of my learnings came following that course, from working on set to being given opportunities to produce films straight out of the course, by a teacher-turned-mentor, Richard D’Angelo.
“He was my first professional mentor who saw something and believed in me. I will forever be grateful for him.”
Mendes told Newsday when she first moved to New York to pursue producing films, she didn’t know anything more than what was self-taught. So in classes, she felt least knowledgeable and was the only one with no experience.
“Rich took the time – even if it meant more time than he was paid for – to really help bring me up to speed to feel at some kind of level with the rest of the class. He taught me everything I needed to know to produce a film from start to finish, and he gave me the opportunity to do that on his films, which gave me the experience and connections I needed to take another step. He prepared me to go out and start producing for others and build my way into the feature film world.”
Mendes has never worked in the corporate world. Other than in film, she said, “I had a few football coaching jobs and mall jobs, as I worked before going to New York for schooling.”
Three projects on which she worked of which she is most proud
are She Paradise,
Bienvenidos a Los Angeles and the music video for RUN IT by DJ Snake, Rick Ross and Rich Brian featuring Simu Lu.
“She Paradise is certainly a top one. It was a Trinidad feature film directed by Maya Cozier and it turned into a co-production between Trinidad and the US. We developed and shot it in Trinidad, but did post-production and secured the distribution in the US.”
Mendes said she felt pride and gratitude when the film was recognised by film festivals like Tribeca and AFI – reaching audiences both locally and worldwide.
“To go watch it in a theatre in Los Angeles was a very proud time for me. Any time I can be a part of taking stories from Trinidad to the rest of the world through film would always count toward my proudest moments.
“It is a story that is close to my heart and for it to get the recognition that it has and for it to be seen and have an impact on how people see the world is what this job is all about, and is the reason I chose this job in the first place.”
RUN IT got over 10 million views on YouTube and was more than just a music video.
“It was to promote a song from the Marvel and Disney movie Shang Chi. I love how closely film and music are, and how they need one another to survive. Two of my biggest passions merged into one, and I had the best time working on it in here Los Angeles. It was challenging, but the challenge always pays off.”
She registered More Avenue in the US early this year, though she said it had been on her mind years before it came to fruition.
She said the name itself, minus an “O,” reminds her not only of her roots, but of possibility.
“Moore Avenue is where I dreamt all my dreams that many times felt like fantasy. It’s where I found solace in films every Friday night when we were allowed to pick two films at the DVD store. It’s where I spent my days and nights as a kid trying to find every piece of information on the business and craft of film, TV, music.
“I was lucky to have the greatest family to encourage and support me in chasing my wild and difficult dreams, and I want to help create that opportunity and space for others while also bringing people solace, inspiration and togetherness through entertainment around the world.”
Asked about challenges she encountered on her professional journey, she said they were too many to list.
“From missing home and family every day, to encountering people who take advantage of kindness and work ethic to further themselves even if it means bringing you down.
“But most importantly, I would say the challenge of mental health, and allowing my anxiety to get in the way of my drive. Until we take care of ourselves, we cannot take care of others or our work – and my work requires leading and taking care of so many people on multiple projects at a time.”
To keep herself grounded and motivated, she reminds herself of the domino effect the work she does can have on the world.
“That is all the motivation I need, along with my family by my side through every difficult and successful moment.”
As sole owner of More Avenue, Mendes collaborates with other film professionals on each project she produces.
“I partner with other producers/companies and directors that are the right fit, and bring the right visions to each project.”
Asked what lies ahead for her and the company, Mendes told Newsday, “My most recent feature film, Sour Milk, directed by Sophia Sabella and Pablo Feldman, will have its release in 2023. I also have a number of feature films in development in the US, and some co-productions between TT and the US.”
Mendes said it will always be her goal to help grow the local film industry while she grows as an international film producer.
“I also plan to continue music video production for top artists, as well as my journey into the music-management world with the otherworldly artist Issa.”
Her advice for aspiring filmmakers: “Everyone is just as afraid as you, but what sets us apart is taking the step, as far as our circumstances allow. The fear doesn’t last forever, but it is always worth facing, no matter the outcome, because anything in life is possible, once you keep stepping. Small steps matter.”
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