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SXSW: Ava DuVernay, Motivational Speaker 12
Photo: Stephen Becker

Photo: Stephen Becker

AUSTIN – Ava DuVernay made it to town at 1 o’clock this morning. In 10 hours, she’d be giving the SXSW film keynote address. And she hadn’t written a word.

Which is understandable – she’s in the middle of developing a pair of television series and only just recently stepped off the Selma rollercoaster.

So credit today’s moving, motivating keynote to the focusing powers of deadline.

DuVernay told a crowd of a few hundred at the Austin Convention Center about the lessons she learned by making her first three films.

Her first narrative, I Will Follow, she made for $50,000 with the intention of getting notice for Affirm, a distribution collective she founded. Mission accomplished.

Her second film, Middle of Nowhere, she made for $200,000 with the intention of getting into Sundance.


But if her successes taught her anything, it was that she could accomplish what she her mind to, but a goal can be misplaced.

“My error wasn’t what was achieved – because on both films I made great strides as a filmmaker and a film distributor,” she said. “The error was my intention in the first place – and where I put my attention. Because I wasn’t making great strides as a human being and an artist.”

Properly conceived intention, and devoting all of your attention on that idea, is the key to success, she says. And, yes – she learned that from Oprah.

The Queen of All Media was a guiding force for DuVernay’s next film, Selma. All of the sudden she had $20 million to make a movie – that’s 100 times the budget of her previous film.

But instead of focusing on delivering big box office or piling up awards, she fixated on what she was really there to do.

“I had no thought about any of that other crap that usually had motivated me to make films,” she said. “I went into that film with one thought, singular and clear: serve this story. Serve this story – you have to. It wasn’t made with any sort of achievement in mind, it was an experience and an offering.”

So she thought about her father, who’s from Alabama. She thought about John Lewis and Martin Luther King. And she thought about all of the nameless, faceless activists whose story she was charged with telling. By serving the story, she was allowing herself to truly think big.

“If your dream only includes you, it’s too small. If that dream is just about the thing you want to accomplish and you don’t even know why you want it – it’s too small,” she said. “It may take your attention, but you’re not really winning. You may achieve it, but you’re not growing from it. You’re just going from thing to thing. It may look like success from the outside. But if you don’t even truly know why you’re doing it, then you’re cause and effect will be off, and you’re not going to be fully truly living your dream.”

Oprah couldn’t have said it better.