Jenna Kanell is one of those people about whom you will say, “I knew her when … ” She is destined for greatness in the world of film, as well as social consciousness. She is an impassioned young director/writer/actor who is making a name for herself with her short film, Bumblebees, winner of the 2015 Disability Film Challenge and starring her own brother. And though this Atlanta native could be complacent with all the awards she’s winning for her moving piece, she’s already jumped into other film projects.
This self-described “cat lady” uses “film as a language that everyone understands. It’s a medium for communication, for interpreting ideas, for intense examinations of our history and future. It’s escapism. It’s dynamic art. It’s job opportunities for all the kids who were bullied in middle school. Film has the power to inspire individual and societal change or, at the very least, motivate thoughts and dialogue.” Get to know our newest FACE, Jenna Kanell, and make sure you watch her inspirational short film, Bumblebees, included below.
You went to Atlanta’s The Paideia School and then received a writing scholarship to Pace University, but decided to work first instead of attending college. Why did you make that decision and were your parents upset?
After high school, I embarked alone across the country on buses, meditating on the future and at last making the decision to postpone university for a variety of reasons: I was not only anxious to escape the academic bubble and frustrated by the priority placed on test scores, but found during the gap year that my field of interest often valued experience over formal schooling. Naturally, my parents were initially concerned, pressured by their extended families not to let me stray from the beaten path. So I studied independently and worked relentlessly, illustrating that my choice was not out of apathy.
Attending college is advantageous for many career paths and individuals, but it is not for everyone. Knowledge is invaluable, but academia is not the only source.
When did you decide to get into the entertainment industry, and in what capacity? How did the reality of the industry differ from what you thought it would be like?
I’ve told stories in one form or another throughout my life, initially entering the industry as an actor and stunt performer, and later branching into writing, directing and other production positions. I learned the hard way that a number of people operate on fear: of losing their jobs, of not obtaining or maintaining monetary gain, of taking risks and stepping on toes. Though I was working, I struggled at the beginning to identify mentors and peers with my best interests at heart. I butted heads with biases I had heard of, but refused to believe in.
What made you decide to move back to Atlanta and how have you had to readjust with regard to your career and personal life?
After training and working in Los Angeles for about four years, I was visiting home and found myself uncommonly busy, leading me to research Georgia’s tax credits, incentives and the resulting boom of local projects.
Readjusting to living in the Southeast was simple in terms of cost of living (and the decrease in traffic), but challenging socially. I moved from a city full of people who understood the strange film world to one where I was the odd one out again. But through numerous creative groups and networking events, I’ve modified the nature of the waters I wade in.
Your younger brother, Vance, was born with eight neurological sensory disorders, including autism, cerebral palsy and epilepsy. What was it like growing up with him, and how has your relationship changed over the years?
When he was young, doctors informed my parents of the likelihood that their son would never walk, speak, read or write. Vance was nonverbal for the first seven years of his life, and required a great deal of extra attention and care. As a kid, I had trouble being patient with him and relinquishing my expectations for him to be like my friend’s siblings. But as he got a bit older, our relationship evolved. In hindsight, there were times when he was more patient with me than I was with him. There were, of course, his tantrums, the times our family was limited and many uncomfortable situations aggravated by social misunderstandings. But my parents were, and are, superheroes. They drove him all over the city for physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy up to five days a week.
Then roughly a decade ago, they found Lionheart, a school in Alpharetta for kids with autism spectrum disorder. Since then, Vance has been a new person, now conquering everything he wasn’t “supposed” to. I slowly became more understanding while he worked to grow communicatively. But I don’t feel that I fully saw his soul until we made Bumblebees together. He is so smart, so lovable and so compassionate, and he teaches something to everyone who meets him. I want everyone to see people they don’t understand in that light.
You wrote and directed your first film, Bumblebees, starring Vance, upon entering the 48 Hour Disability Film Challenge. What does it feel like knowing that your movie is challenging perceptions and providing exposure for subject matter that goes largely ignored by the film industry?
It feels incredible, of course. For myself, for my family, for anyone affected by challenges often ignored or misunderstood by popular culture. People with autism are often represented in films by neurotypical actors, in a sob story, either so high functioning that they are socially awkward geniuses, or so low functioning that they do nothing but scream and hit themselves. Most people on the spectrum, however, fall somewhere in the middle. They still have to worry about getting jobs, about dating, about the same things all of us do.
The highest compliment I ever receive about the film is when parents come up to me afterwards and say, “that was my son,” “that was my daughter,” “I know that person” or just, “I loved Vance.” I wanted Bumblebees to be a lighthearted approach to a foggy subject, and I am beyond thrilled that it resonates with anyone. In 2010, the CDC released the statistic that 1 in 68 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. So I’m just happy that special needs are something that the public is receptive to and ready to take on.
You’re a self-described “cat lady in training.” How will you know when you’ve officially made it as a full-fledged cat lady?
When all my friends have four legs and I only leave the house to tell kids to get off my lawn.
What is your next project on the horizon?
Since Bumblebees, I have written and directed two more short films: Void was another 48-hour project addressing xenophobia, isolation and society’s relationship with mental illness. And Civil premiered at Out On Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. That film touches on what it means to be civilized, how our relationships distinguish us from other animals and how, at the end of every rough day, we find a way to keep going.
I recently completed work as an actor and stunt performer in two feature films and am currently directing a fundraising video. I’m also writing a number of things. Not to mention that I’m still periodically hopping back into the festival circuit to represent the “bees!” Various disability assistance organizations are sending me to New England and Canada in March.
If you could cast a movie of your own life, who would play Jenna Kanell?
I. Love. Aubrey Plaza. We don’t look all that similar, and this would mostly be an excuse to meet her, but she has this witty, dark, dry edge.
What is your best piece of advice?
At the vanguard of your path, be sure of who you are, what you want and why, so that those who wish you ill can’t easily throw you off course. It’s not necessary to tolerate people who make you uncomfortable purely because they might give you a job.
Where is your favorite place to go in Atlanta?
Outdoors: The BeltLine
What are three things you can’t live without with the exception of family, friends and faith?
Modern medicine: Vance isn’t having several seizures per day anymore, my dad doesn’t limp anymore, my mom isn’t crippled by her multiple sclerosis, and I’m no longer bedridden each month by my endometriosis. Though it’s preferable to solve things without having to resort to pharmaceuticals, if they make life easier, it’s not a weakness to take advantage of all of the scientific advancements we now have at our fingertips.
Animals: I want to open the doors to every slaughterhouse in the country and free the cows and ride them into the sunset.
Nature: We are incredibly lucky to be on this planet while there is still so much beauty on it untouched by man. A tree doesn’t care about what other trees think of it — it simply grows.
In order to get a better understanding about Jenna, her family and her passion for cinema and doing good in the world, watch her award-winning short film, Bumblebees, below.
And as always, a huge thank you to CatMax Photography for the amazing photos!