ARTISTS ON THE RISE:
Queens has long been known as a hotbed for aspiring artists. From Martin Scorsese (who was born in Corona) and Jack Kerouac (who lived in Ozone Park) to Nas (who was among the many hip-hop stars who grew up in Queensbridge Houses) and Paul Simon (who attended Forest Hills High School), the borough was the birthplace of a number of iconic figures across every artistic medium imaginable. In this section, you’ll find four aspiring artists to keep on your radar in the years to come.
By ARIEL HERNANDEZ
A rebellious act has turned into the realization of a lifelong dream for a young, film-obsessed Queens woman.
“My mom moved to Fresh Meadows when she was only 14 years old from Trinidad,” said Christina Raia, 29. “My mother worked multiple part-time jobs because she was a single mom, so I would have a lot of babysitters who would watch things I wasn’t allowed to. I fell in love with watching those movies and how they could transport you to another world—the way you can walk into someone else’s shoes and live a life that isn’t yours.”
At age 10, after realizing her daughter’s love for horror and comedy, Raia’s mother would tell people that her daughter was going to make movies.
“I didn’t really know what that meant,” said Raia. “All I knew was that I loved movies.”
As Raia got older, her love for the art form increased. By high school, she knew that she wanted to pursue filmmaking, despite people’s telling her not to do so.
“People told me I shouldn’t go into this business because it isn’t practical; because I didn’t know what this industry was or how to break into the industry,” said Raia. “But I was passionate about storytelling and images and how they could affect people, so I decided to study film in college.”
Raia attended Hunter College and majored in film. Although she completed her college degree, she didn’t feel that the courses she was taking were relevant to who she was or what she was hoping to accomplish.
“I found while in school that I was learning a traditional Hollywood model about how to be a filmmaker and it didn’t really exist anymore and it was very much about championing a very specific type of person who was largely white and male and of privilege, which was not me in a variety of ways. And I felt like this system wasn’t designed for me, so I started using social media to identify people who cared about the kinds of stories I wanted to tell and I started building an audience,” she said.
Raia’s first feature film was titled Summit. It follows the story of five friends who are going on a ski trip and end up at the wrong location.
“It’s a generic slasher setup, but the film was actually made to dissect gender and race tropes in horror and how those are reflections of issues in the real world, and how people can objectify each other,” said Raia.
All of Raia’s works are comedies, horror films or a combination of the two. She said that horror movies allow the filmmaker to address social issues from a “safely removed place,” and comedy films act as a bridge, bringing people together through laughter.
“For me, filmmaking and art are really about addressing social issues and trying to make people understand experiences that are or aren’t their own,” said Raia. “So, I like sort of blending those two genres to get conversations going and to get people to think outside themselves.”
In 2013, Raia created a web series titled Kelsey, which provides a more “realistic” take on the popular hit series Friends. Kelsey tells the story of a group of friends living in New York City. The main character is a lesbian and the remainder of the group of friends are all from different ethnicities, religions and backgrounds, which Raia said is “actually a reflection of New York City’s diversity and not just a group of white people in New York.”
That web series was listed on IndieWire’s Best of 2013 list.
After Kelsey, Raia wrote About a Donkey, a comedy about a family that is struggling in various ways.
“It’s like a catalyst for change,” said Raia. “It’s quirky, it’s sweet and it has a mission to kind of spread empathy and awareness and bridge gaps—and it’s LGBTQ inclusive.”
Raia said that she will screen the film in “Bible Belt areas throughout the country,” and hopes to increase empathy in the process.
About a Donkey premiered at the Georgia Film Festival, and has screened at the North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and Austin Revolution Film Festival. It is expected to screen at the Adirondack Film Festival and Buffalo International Film Festival.
Considering that her films take place in Queens or feature scenes in the borough, Raia intends to submit her film to the Queens World Film Festival, hoping to close down her festival tour for About a Donkey at home.
“I shot the film in Queens, so I want to close out our festival run there,” said Raia.
Raia said that Queens’ diversity—both in its people and its landscapes—is the element that makes the borough her go-to locale when filming.
“You can get that urban city look, but if you go deeper into Queens, you can also get that suburban look, so I usually always stick to home because it’s convenient,” said Raia.
Raia, who lives in Woodside, said that her most frequent spots to film are Doughboy Park and on the 7 train.
Although her preferred genres are comedy and horror, Raia said that the events of 2016 motivated her to tell the stories of those who are underrepresented, and to address injustice.
Amid the rise of original series, Raia said that she hopes to eventually create her own.
“With every platform doing its own originals, it’s the perfect opportunity for me to get in there,” said Raia.
Raia’s goal is to make filmmaking a lifelong career, and she has even set her sights on television.
“Film is changing constantly—the way that we make films, the way we shoot them, how we watch them, and so it’s hard to really think about my entire lifetime,” said Raia. “I’m trying to have a sustainable career, so that filmmaking can always be what I do for a living, my passion and what pays the bills. I’d also love to try out TV because it reaches people in a way that movies can’t because they actually go into people’s homes.”
Raia also runs a monthly film-screening series known as IndieWorks at The Local, a bar and café in Long Island City. The event showcases the work of local filmmakers and is operated via Raia’s production company, CongestedCat Productions. Raia said that she’d also love to eventually obtain funding for local women filmmakers.