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Arts & Culture

Ya'Ke Smith Explores The Hard Life On The Outside In 'dawn.'

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Don Hopkins Photography
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Mikala Gibson, in "dawn."

Ya’Ke Smith’s films are about the demons that haunt us. They address the struggles of addiction, homelessness, sexual abuse. In person, he is ebullient. Yet the drama “dawn.” may be his most personal film yet.

Smith based the short film on the troubles of his sister, who he says has been in and out of prison for over a decade. The movie opens on a character named Dawn who has recently been released. But over the course of the film’s 20 minute running time, she finds herself unprepared for the challenges of life on the outside.

“I don’t think people really understand how difficult that transition really is,” Smith says. “When you’ve lived a lifestyle for so long, and you get out and try to do something different, it’s difficult because…” Smith’s voice trails off, and he stops talking about the character and turns again to his real-life sister. “My sister is 42. And at age 41, here she is catching a bus to work, and working a job that I worked when I was like 16 or 17. Society isn’t kind to you after you’ve been in prison a few times. You can’t really get a good job. Getting into school can be difficult.”

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Credit Nathan Cone
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Mikala Gibson and Ya'Ke Smith.

Smith co-wrote “dawn.” with his wife, Mikala Gibson, who plays the title role. Gibson says she was surprised by his request for script help, but came to realize that it was difficult for him to lay bare these personal feelings. “Normally it just flows, but there were some moments where he would block himself from putting it all on paper,” Gibson says. “We talked about him being an enabler [to his sister],” she continues.

Smith nods in agreement. “At some point, somebody has to do it on their own. They have to want [to improve themselves] so bad that regard less of what happens, or what comes their way, they’re going to try and fight.”

In some ways, Smith’s story is the opposite of his sister’s. He’s a successful independent filmmaker, the founder of Exodus Filmworks, and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. What set him on a different path?

Smith points out that his mother was just a teenager when his sister was born, but that she was in her early twenties when he arrived. “It’s a different type of parenting when you’re 15 than when you’re 25,” he notes, adding that “everywhere I went, I had angels. Teachers who would take me under their wings, and when I got in trouble, they would call my mom…they were pushing me because they saw something in me at the time that I didn’t see myself.”

Thoughtfully, Smith continues, “On a more spiritual level, it’s a God thing. I think you have to at some point in your life, look past what you actually can see in front of you. And you have to see a vision for what you want for your future. And if you are fortunate enough when God flashes it in your mind’s eye…and catch hold of it and hold it in your heart…then you will make it.”

Nevertheless, both Gibson and Smith acknowledge that the prison system doesn’t make that mission easy to achieve. Smith points to prisons in other countries that focus on rehabilitation, training, and life skills, rather than punishment, and says, “We don’t care about all that [in America]. You’re just here to sit in your cell, read a book for 20 years until you get out, and then we want to throw you back out and expect you to miraculously have changed.”

“dawn.” ends on an open note, as the main character finds herself at a crossroads. Will she embrace her old lifestyle, or continue to strive? I pointed out to Smith that the word “dawn” itself implies another four-letter word: “hope.” Smith agrees.

“As long as a human being has breath, there is an opportunity to change. As a brother [to my sister], I hope and pray that that change will come.”

Ya’Ke Smith’s film “dawn.,” shot in San Antonio, is now available on demand from HBO GO, and will be shown this month several times on the network. For details, visit the Exodus Filmworks website.