Joosje Duk has a sweater that reads “DON’T PANIC.” She wears it on days when she might, well, panic.
“I always tell my family, if this all doesn’t work out, I’ll go study math when I’m 28, and I’ll be fine,” she said, because math seems like an effortless career path, right? It is, depending on your perspective, more effortless than filmmaking, Duk’s chosen trade.
But less than a year after she graduated from NYU, the 23-year-old Netherlands native, who at 17 moved to the United States for college, is doing all right: Her thesis project, a short film called “Night,” has screened at festivals in New York, Chicago, Connecticut, Florida, Boston, Nashville and the Netherlands. Her career, in other words, is beginning the same way that many contemporary directors’ careers began, including that of Paul Thomas Anderson, an auteur she’d like to emulate, whose 1993 short “Cigarettes & Coffee” led to a Hollywood deal that birthed his first feature, “Hard Eight.”
In November, HuffPost screened about three dozen shorts playing at Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Shorts Festival; we chose “Night” as the recipient of our annual Impact Award, given to a submission with social or political resonance. As it turns out, the prize reflects Duk well. Despite taking a liking to physics and chemistry as a teenager, her early studies at NYU focused on journalism and theater (with a little math tossed in for good measure, of course). In both arenas, she was drawn to subjects that let her double as something of an activist, namely portraits of racism, mental health and other travails. A screenwriting course and a directing course helped to crystallize her path: Duk would use a journalistic lens to tell fictional stories about everyday struggles.
She is, in other words, a fabulist with a progressive perspective on cinema’s ability to deliver messages and unearth truths about the world.
“Night” is loosely based on a transaction Duk observed. While waiting outside a nightclub in France, she watched bouncers usher one white person after the next through the door ― until a group of Moroccan guys were inexplicably denied entrance. Duk felt conflicted. Should she speak out? Or would the men prefer to avoid further embarrassment? What is her duty as a bystander witnessing ostensible racism? Even in New York, a city known as a live-and-let-live playground, Duk said she and her “diverse” group of friends frequently encounter microagressions related to their genders and racial identities. These aren’t the sort of crimes that would make headlines or result in physical harm; instead, they’re the mild exchanges that make women, people of color and queer folks feel uneasy, judged.
Duk poured these experiences into “Night,” scripting a nine-minute tale that begins as a bubbly, somewhat surreal jaunt and ends as a poignant bait-and-switch about racial profiling. In the opening seconds, a pair of young white women arrive at an apartment where two woman of color are preparing for an evening out in New York City. Outside a nightclub, a black bouncer admits the two black women without a fuss. But the white women, one of whom is visiting from the small South American country Suriname, are turned away, until one of the black women bribes the bouncer with $40.
Later in the night, the women recount the events, when suddenly Duk implants a twist that deepens the racial themes. (You can watch “Night” below.)
The ironic shift that occurs more than halfway through the short evokes a mastery commonly associated with more experienced filmmakers. “Night” boasts a narrative sophistication that’s impressive for someone who didn’t grow up a cinephile, who, during our conversation, pulled up a document on her laptop with a long list of movies she still needs to see, like “Little Miss Sunshine” (her friends keep insisting it’s in line with her own sensibilities), “Heathers,” “Requiem for a Dream” (she loved “mother!,” also a Darren Aronosfky film), “Big Fish” and the Japanese drama “Late Spring.”
“Initially the story wasn’t written with the characters swapped,” Duk explained. “It was just the two black girls being rejected in an all-white world. When we were rehearsing it and rereading it and I was sharing it with people, it felt a little too preachy, and a little too much like, ‘Look, here’s what’s wrong,’ which often takes people away from something because they’re like, ‘I know, I know, but that’s not me.’ Whereas this was more about misleading the audience and giving them no choice but to feel what it’s like to be in these girls’ shoes. [...] It invites people to look at their own prejudice.”
Since graduating in May 2016, Duk has been busy assisting a documentarian, creating a Dutch web series and completing a fellowship with the NYU Production Lab, where alumni receive mentorship while completing creative projects. There, she finessed a feature-length script that stems from an idea born at age 16, when her best friend revealed she was grappling with depression. While learning about her pal’s mental health, she envisioned a story about a town where it rains every day. Bright umbrellas are the ultimate accessory, but the protagonist slowly loses her ability to see color. Thinking she’s the only one suffering from this chromatic deficiency, she internalizes her pain ― just like many suffering from depression and other ailments.
Without having read the script or seen the film, called “Sunshowers,” it’s easy to draw a parallel to “Night,” both in its social consciousness and its surreal premise. The aesthetics are baked into the logline, with pops of color fading in a largely grayscale setting. Once her script is ready, Duk’s main challenge, it seems, will come in financing the film and securing its distribution ― the tasks school can’t prepare you for.
But “DON’T PANIC” remains Duk’s mantra. Things seem to work out for the tall brunette, who has a warm energy and an endearing accent. Back in the Hague, for example, when she was in a play at 15, a casting director pegged her for the lead in a children’s television series called “Snuf the Dog.” Because the arts, she said, aren’t treated as seriously in the Netherlands as they are in America, it was then that Duk first conceptualized acting as a viable profession. In a way, “Night” and “Sunshowers” and the “DON’T PANIC” incantation are extensions of that realization. All the best artists pour their formative experiences into their work, but Duk takes that one step further, channeling the tribulations of those around her. She is, as Roger Ebert might say, an empathy machine.
“Growing up, I saw a lot of commercial movies that I enjoyed, but I never thought of filmmaking as a medium where you could tell stories that have an impact on a social or societal level, at all, until I came here,” she said, referring to the States. “It’s like, oh, filmmaking is not just entertainment —it’s also a way to reach a large audience and spread a message that people aren’t hearing yet or don’t want to hear yet, or show places that people aren’t familiar with yet.”
The fifth annual Nitehawk Shorts Festival took place in Brooklyn, New York, last year, during which HuffPost served as the event’s media partner.