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Making a Scene

Fearless, unrelenting, and passionate, professor and filmmaker Ya’Ke Smith has emerged as a major influence in independent cinema.
By Kenneth Perkins

When Bart Weiss saw Ya’Ke Smith’s short film The Second Coming, it stayed with him far longer than expected. Like a sucker punch to the gut, it left him a bit limp. Weiss’ first thought: From whose brain did this originate? The Second Coming is a brutally honest portrayal of fatherly love lost and found, a vivid soliloquy about a wayward dad whose last, unselfish deed turns around the life of a seemingly unforgiving son.

The film is stark and bare, shot mostly on a street corner and lasting a mere dozen minutes. The defining scene features a scuffle, a gunshot, and death.

“It is,” Weiss says, “pretty extraordinary.”


Weiss is no casual moviegoer. An associate professor in the UTA Art and Art History Department and artistic director and co-founder of the Dallas Video Festival, he dissects cinema for a living.

Yet The Second Coming moved him in a way few short films do. He’d never heard of Smith, a San Antonio native who had remained in Austin after completing a Master of Fine Arts degree from The University of Texas. Smith’s hang-loose manner mixes nicely with what one film festival executive once called a “smoldering relentlessness.” His short film Hope’s War, about a U.S. soldier’s difficult transition to civilian life, already had screened at the 2006 Cannes International Film Festival.

“The first time I saw Ya’Ke’s work, I fell in love with it,” Weiss says. “I knew that whenever we had a position open in the department, I’d want to bring Ya’Ke in. When that happened a bit later, the first moment I possibly could I called and asked him to apply.”

That was five years ago. Smith now holds the Morgan Woodward Distinguished Professorship in the College of Liberal Arts and has emerged as one of the University’s most popular instructors. It helps when you’re considered a rising voice in independent cinema and when, at 33, you’re not much older than your graduate students.

Ya'Ke Smith

Bold Direction: Whether helping students on the set of their films or working on his own projects, Ya’Ke Smith tackles tough subjects without flinching.

“What I like best is that it’s not like we’re listening to a professor who did something back in the day,” says grad student Gabriel Duran, whose film The Mule, about tragic outcomes of the drug trade, was screened at the UT Arlington Student Film/Video Organization’s Spring 2014 Festival at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

“He knows the situation we’re in because he’s still out there doing his thing. And doing it his way, you know? He puts it out there. No fear. I mean, have you seen his work?”

Those who have often leave reeling from emotional exhaustion. Smith gravitates to characters beaten down from the turbulence of life. In Katrina’s Son, he tells the heartbreaking story of an 11-year-old boy looking for love from a mother who can’t give it. Then there’s Wolf, an unflinching tale of sexual molestation that also tackles such taboos as morality within the walls of religious institutions.

“What he does best is evoke emotion,” says Barbara Morgan, co-founder and executive director of the Austin Film Festival, where Katrina’s Son was shown. “He has a unique voice—not just in the vision of the films but in the actual writing. And he’s relentless. Yet nothing is more important than staying true to himself.”

Professor’s Picks

When Ya’Ke Smith isn’t making films, he’s watching them. Lots of them. Asked to select five must-sees, he found the assignment excruciating. “I love so many movies,” he says. “It’s so hard to pick just five.” Here they are, with commentaries.

City of God

City of God, Fernando Meirelles director

The mix of lush cinematography and downright gritty cinematography was groundbreaking for me. Also, the way it depicts cycles of violence and how those cycles are handed down from one generation to the next is quite extraordinary.

Boyz 'n the Hood

Boyz ’n the Hood, John Singleton director

This is the film that inspired me to become a filmmaker. It humanized individuals who had been vilified in the media and delved into their everyday struggle to show that a lot of their actions were in response to their environment. That rang very true for me because I grew up in similar neighborhoods and know that struggle firsthand.

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro director

I loved how the director used fairytale elements to show how a child escapes the everyday violence and carnage that exists all around her. The mixture of war and beauty, fantasy and devastating reality was a unique take and one I hope to emulate in Heaven.


Crookyln, Spike Lee director

I must have watched this film a million times when I was in middle school and loved seeing Spike Lee do something that was a departure from the hard-hitting social dramas he’s known for. I love most Spike Lee films from the late ’80s and’90s, but this one sticks out because it was a touching film that dealt with family, death, and coming of age.

A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes director

I couldn't take my eyes off the screen when I saw this in film school. The realism and intensity of the performances (mainly Gena Rowlands), the camera work, and just the raw quality of the story really inspired me. It changed the way I looked at filmmaking and influences the way I shoot my films and direct my actors.


Smith grew up on the east side of San Antonio, a place that often hit the evening news for all the wrong reasons.

“It was rough, I won’t lie,” he says. “Gangs. Drama. My mom was like, ‘You’re not going to get involved.’ But she didn’t shelter me. She wanted me to see the world and stay in school.”

Smith’s father was not around; his hard-working mother raised him and two older sisters with firmness, giving him just enough hope to keep him dreaming. A male’s presence is a lingering theme in many of his films, including the critically acclaimed Wolf, which is as much about a well-intentioned but often absent father as it is the title’s pedophile preacher.

“I watched so many of my friends go down the path of drugs and gang activity, and a lot of it stems from not having that male figure,” Smith says. “We’re all looking for role models. You don’t have a father in the home, you’re always looking for a replacement.”

Weiss says of Smith: “He’s had a difficult life, one that certainly could have turned another way. He was one of the lucky ones. You see that clearly in his work. None of the characters he creates gets the easy way out.”

The big out for Smith was filmmaking, which tugged on him at age 11 when he saw John Singleton’s Boyz ’n the Hood about a teen and his father navigating the inescapable violence of street life. Characters weren’t used as device props but elicited real emotions.

“I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Smith recalls. “That film really touched me. Up to that point, I hadn’t seen a film where anyone talked about the humanity and what these families go through. I wanted to make media that touched people in that way.”

Produced at age 15, A Cry for Help, Smith’s first film while a student at Sam Houston High School in San Antonio, was “a very bad movie about a young girl’s struggle after getting pregnant by her boyfriend. It was my way of making something socially conscious.”

An aware teacher handed him a screenwriting book and even allowed him to take home a camera on weekends to shoot, which he did, rounding up friends as actors. His mother would make pounds of spaghetti.

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Smith says. “There was no script. I was just pulling my friends, asking them, ‘You want to act? Come on then.’ ”

One of those friends, Ralph Lopez, has worked on every Smith project as a producer through their Exodus Filmworks production company.

“He knows what he wants and knows how to get it. He’s always been that way,” Lopez says. “His excitement and energy on set bring up morale. I bet he does that with his students.”


Ryan Britton, who graduated in May, says that fierce passion sustained him through the master’s program—not to mention the professor’s willingness to take late-night phone calls. At home.

“He didn’t just chat with you about your film and let you go and say, ‘Hope you come back with something good,’ ” says Britton, whose film about a family meth business, Not Abel, was shown at the UTA spring festival. “He wouldn’t let you go until he knew you knew.”

In April the College of Liberal Arts honored Britton and Smith with a Dean’s Accolade Award, which recognizes high-achieving students and their faculty mentors.

“Ya’Ke is a dedicated and gifted teacher,” liberal arts Dean Beth Wright says. “He works side by side with his students, and he inspires them.”


Smith’s classes are like discussion workshops where he’s more motivator than lecturer.

“I’m not one of those people who thinks he has all the answers and everything I say is right,” he says. “My classroom is open dialogue. I’m listening to them, giving feedback. My goal is to pull out the real artist that’s locked inside.”

He gets ample opportunity in the small, tightly knit program. Smith shares teaching duties with Weiss and Senior Lecturer Mark Clive. Everyone gets exposed to everyone else. It’s a hands-on atmosphere that students treasure.

Undergraduate Malina Miller took a narrative class with Smith. “You’d think after writing the film, that would be it. Not with Ya’Ke. He’d ask stuff like, ‘What were you trying to convey? How is this moving the story? What is the essence of the story?’ He really makes you think about every little thing. He really has this drive for authenticity.”

So does this authenticity in tough subjects prevent Smith from reaching a wider audience? Even while winning awards—his work has been honored at more than 40 festivals, broadcast nationally on HBO, and nominated for a Student Academy Award—his films often are deemed challenging to market. He is unapologetic, saying that of course he desires a wider audience, but not at the cost of his vision.

“It’s what I know. I don’t want to shy away from my truth. If you’re not being transparent, you can’t be an effective storyteller.”

Consider his next two projects—dawn., the story of an ex-convict readjusting to life, and Heaven, about a ballet prodigy who is sexually and psychologically manipulated into the world of sex trafficking.

For Smith, real art is a reflection of the soul. He wants people to re-evaluate the way they think.

“A lot of time we only see part of the story. We never get a chance to understand the humanity of people who come out of bad situations,” he says. “Nobody wants to be a drug addict. No one really wants to be a deviant of any kind. We often find ourselves in situations. Some of us make it out and some don’t. I want to show that.”

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