October 5, 2022 | 5:23 pm
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Jessica Dornbusch on doing justice for slain artist Israel Hernandez Jr. aka Reefa

The film Reefa chronicles the true-life story of Israel Hernandez Jr.’s last summer in Miami before his tragic death where police brutality played a direct hand. The film shines a light on the way Reefa lived and how his family, friends and unyielding passion for street art molded his life.

It’s an unfortunate story that is becoming increasingly more prevalent as more attention is paid to the way police are (and have been) treating black and brown people in the United States.

I had a chance to chat with the film’s writer and director, Jessica Kavana Dornbusch, who expressed how hard “Reefa” was to make and all the challenges that almost stopped the film from completion. You don’t want to miss the Dope Interview.


You can check out the transcript below (please be advised transcript may contain typos or errors with less than 100% accuracy)

Warren Shaw: Welcome everybody to the Dope Interview series. My name is Warren Shaw, and today we are joined by film writer-director extraordinaire Jessica Kavana Dormbush to discuss her new film, Reefa Jessica. How the hell are you?

Jessica: I am doing well, how are you doing?

Warren Shaw: Good and even a little bit better after seeing your masterpiece in film, I am by trade, Miami native Fort Lauderdale, to be exact. Born in New York, I lived out here in the Florida area all my life. And to see this story kind of come to fruition was very eye-opening and very telling, and it hit home, especially as somebody who lives in the area and seeing the familiarity of some of the spaces and things of that nature as well, too. But I don’t want to get to that just right now. I want you to talk about that. So my first question for you is just how did you get into filmmaking?

Jessica: I took a film class in College. I was studying international relations. I had always loved movies, was the person that always quoted every movie as part of making my point in the conversation and really kind of just fell into it and fell in love with it and have been working in film ever since. I don’t want to give away my age, but that was a long time ago, not to give away your age, but what was your first job in film? What was the first thing you had to do? I was actually a production assistant, and that is a very nice word for what I actually was to Talia, the famous Mexican singer. Awesome. Yeah. So I was her girl. I did everything and just started there and then kind of went up the ladder from there for many years in New York and independent film and then came down to Miami and started filmmaking here as well.

Warren Shaw: Outstanding. So set the stage for us, in your words, as somebody who researched it, wrote and directed it, et cetera, et cetera. What is this film Reefa about?

Jessica: I haven’t actually been asked that question yet. Funny enough, you took me back. In its entirety is the story of Israel Hernandez, whose artist’s name was Reefa, and it’s the summer after he graduates high school. And most of the film takes place over that summer, where he falls in love for the first time. He spends the summer skateboarding and hanging out with his friends, creating art. He was very involved in the Miami art scene, especially the graffiti scene spends time with his family. And unfortunately, as everybody knows, gets stopped by a police officer for doing illegal graffiti and ultimately gets killed because of it.

Warren Shaw: So there’s a lot, in my opinion, to kind of break down into this film in terms of casting the story itself. But let’s start kind of maybe even a little bit more of the inception. What made you want to do a film about this tragedy?

Jessica: Really, it came to me. There was a producer at the time who had been working on Israel story at a local news station, and he was also involved in films. And he came to me and he said, I think you need to write this story as a film. And I was a little hesitant. Fruitville station had just come out and it touched upon similar themes. So it wasn’t until really, I met with Israel’s family and his friends and I started falling in love with the story of his life and not just the story of his death that I knew it was a story I wanted to tell. I love what you said there Jessica. Really? It’s like the story of his life. I think people call and get the flowers after they’re gone, right. But there’s a great way the story is depicted. It really does tell you how you lived. Did he make some mistakes? Sure, as all teens and people do, right. But at the heart, he was a good kid, coming from a great family as well, to hard-working family.

Warren Shaw: So what was it like talking to them about wanting to make this into a film? How does the family receive it? And kind of what tips did they give you throughout the process?

Jessica: It was not an easy process. I’m not sure I would do that again. I didn’t really realize the way that the responsibility I was going to feel towards this family day in and day out of the entire process, from raising the money to the financing collapsing several times. It’s one thing when financing collapses and you’re just making your own movie, and it’s kind of part of the hits that you have to take. Another thing is when you have to report those hits to a family who every time makes it feel as if their story doesn’t have value because somebody is not interested in telling that story at that particular moment, which isn’t really the case, but that’s how it feels on a personal level. And then once I started working with them, it was only not even a year after Israel had passed away, so it was still very fresh. So it took a while. It took a bit for people to trust me and open up and really be able to tell the story of Israel the way that he was and not just through rose-colored glasses, which is kind of what tends to happen, especially close to someone’s death.

Warren Shaw: How long, in essence, has it taken to get the story to the point where it’s a film now?

Jessica: Well, it took five years to get it off the ground, literally five years of it coming together and falling apart just over and over again. It was really tough. It was really heartbreaking. As a team, we had many lows where I asked people to please put other jobs on hold that we thought we had the money and then it would fall apart. It was tough, but we all really wanted to tell the story. And then we shot it in June of last year, and in June 2019. And then we were supposed to premiere March 12, 2020, as the world got shut down. So here we are one year later and the film is finally coming out. So seven years total since I started working on it.

Warren Shaw: That’s crazy. Well, Congratulations for sticking through it, really and truly and for the family as well, too, sticking by you to tell a story in the way that it did. So we’re going to jump around here a little bit, I guess, because you just brought up a really interesting point that I think kind of captured on the film timing. Yeah. So the timing of it now kind of coincides into a very unique time in our world where police brutality and the disproportionate kind of for lack of a better phrase, racism and a lot of things just that happened to black and Brown people. But this is a very unique story in that of itself, too, because the officer in the film is of Hispanic descent as well, too, but still exhibits police brutality. So just talk about the serendipity of all that in some ways, where now this story is being told at a time where it may even get even more attention based on kind of where the world is at.

Jessica: I’m not sure about that. I don’t know if it’s going to be a double-edged sword. I’m hoping that it’s what you’re saying. I’m hoping that look, when we started the film, one of the reasons that I really want to tell the story is I did want to shift the conversation from it only happening like African American stories that had been so beautifully told in this context to Hispanic stories that weren’t being told. And this was happening almost as frequently to Brown kids as it was happening to black kids. And I thought it was an important story to tell. And just like you’re saying, the fact that it was also a Latino cop who perpetrated the crime, I thought was even more intriguing about the story. But I guess we’ll see. I mean, I’m hoping that it is a good moment that people want to see the story and realize that it is time to keep having these conversations and really take the conversations to a different level. But I don’t know if people are burnt out from seeing so much of the news and won’t want to see it. So hopefully the message gets out that the film is about a beautiful life. It’s about so much more than just the way that his life ends. I don’t know. I guess we’ll see.

Warren Shaw:  Yeah, it is crazy. And I think you do bring up a good point because there is the fatigue right now. We have a trial going on with a murder if you will. And people again, like you said, they don’t care. It’s just they don’t have the energy to kind of get there as alluded to. But I think from a local standpoint as well, there’s just so much that you can dig into with this film. And I kind of wanted to ask you about the overall arching and framing of the city and making sure that you’re able to utilize spaces that really are representative, because a lot of times you’ll get I’m going to use probably the wrong terminology, but demographic pieces, if you will, that are portrayed. They’ll try to portray a place in Europe that and they actually shot in Atlanta or something like that. Right. How important was that to be in Miami and Wynwood and places like that for you to help tell the story?

Jessica: Florida lost tax incentive several years back. So it’s more expensive to film in Florida than it would be to film it in Atlanta that has a 30% tax rebate. So our desire to film on the streets where it happened was strong, and we did think it was going to pay off ultimately, both visually and financially, from a financial perspective, it did pay off in the sense that there’s a lot of money on the screen that wasn’t in the budget. And it happened because it was a community story and people opened up their stores and their streets and their extras and their friends to us. And that wouldn’t have happened somewhere else. From a visual perspective, there’s so much texture in the streets of Miami that isn’t usually shown. And all of us were locals, the on set. And we wanted to make sure that we really brought that local feeling of the streets that we grew up on into the film.

Warren Shaw: Very well said. And you talked about being a local aspect. You do have some great actors and actresses in this space. How was the casting process? How involved were you in that as well, too? And other actors that are portrayed in the film. How many of them are from Miami?

Jessica: Quite a bit. Two leads are not from Miami. Tyler and Clara come from New York originally, and the parents and the police officer also sorry, they’re cutting the grass right now. This is life, right. Welcome to school. But, yeah, the rest of the cast was all made up of Miami actors, local actors. And it was really important for me to bring a local feel and a real feel as far as the young kids into it, because, look, I’m nowhere near cool enough to write the way an 18-year-old speaks. So I wanted to cast actors that were going to bring their own character into the film. For example, with Tyler with our lead, I cast him. And after I cast him, we spent, I think over a month every day on FaceTime, going through the script line by line and making Israel a little more Tyler and Tyler a little more Israel, and I pretty much stayed out of that. I think that my script served as a guideline. I knew where we needed to go, but I really wanted the words to be their own.

Warren Shaw: I think that’s a great call on your part, because remember, as I watched it, I remember just as a lot of the teens in Israel and his friends are talking. They’re talking like how teens talk, sometimes vile, sometimes vulgar for the parental ears, if you will. But we know what our kids are doing kind of because we were kids once, too, and we talked a certain kind of way as well. So I think there was a true authenticity to that space, especially in some of those moments when they were just kicking it, playing video games, drinking

Jessica: 100%. I mean, Cynthia that plays Israel’s sister, and she’s originally from Miami. So I actually met her when I was doing castings in LA. But she’s a Miami girl. And in the scene where they’re sitting on the stoop and she walks away and she’s like, “Why you always clowning me?” that by no means is in the script. And the minute she said it, we all died laughing, and I knew that that had to stay in there.

Warren Shaw: She was off-camera when she said that right? I remember that part. It was funny. Great. Again. Great call on your part there. So how much did you learn about the graffiti culture doing this and how much did Tyler, as an actor, have to learn about this? I guess he had to learn a great deal. But how much of that and even bringing in some of the people who do do this still right now in the Miami area.

Jessica: Yeah. Absolutely. Tyler actually is really talented artist himself. So we thought we were going to have to use Israel’s friends who are also artists and use their hands to kind of fake certain pieces. But Tyler was able to do it all. He was able to create Reefa’s tag. He was able to create reefs, flower, and all the art is Tyler. Yeah. I learned a lot more than I ever thought I was going to learn. And I fell in love with the world of graffiti and the world of street art and just understanding their movement and understanding the reason why they do what they do and why they need sometimes to use that as their voice. I thought it was just a lovely thing to learn about. And yeah, like you said, we went to all original Miami Street artists and got them in the film, and we went to their store, which is four and Winwood. And it’s where all the graffiti artists that come from all over the world get their supplies when it’s time for Art Basel. So, yeah, we wanted to keep it as local and as legit as possible.

Warren Shaw: You definitely did that. So I got to ask you this. Did you get a chance to try your own hand at a little street art and graffiti?

Jessica: Oh, God. I have zero talent. I couldn’t draw street line if I need to.

Warren Shaw: Well, let’s frame it another way, if you could. What building number one…what building would you tag? And then what would be the art that you create?

Jessica: Probably the Miami Beach police station. I don’t know. I guess I’d try to maybe write a list of names of people that have been affected that haven’t been prosecuted.

Warren Shaw: Oh, man, that’s beautiful. That truly is. Couple more before I let you get out of here.. Just what do you want people to feel coming from this? And I can share my own story with it as well, too. So I was familiar with it before watching it didn’t tell my family they were not familiar with it. You may take this one way or the other, but my daughter, she looked. She’s watching it. She’s okay. It’s a pretty good movie. So forth and so forth. And then it ends, she’s balling. “Why did you make me watch this?” Well, I mean, it’s a real story. And to that point, she didn’t know that it was based on a true story. So to me, it runs the gamut of emotions. Right? You have the family aspect. You have the first love aspect. You have your buddies, you have, obviously the police brutality and even the police. They have the story in the conversation. He’s trying to clean up the city. Yeah, he feels in that moment he’s doing what is right. But again, just what do you want people to feel out of this whole thing once they get a chance to view it?

Jessica: No, I think that undoubtedly they’ll feel the injustice of the situation. But I hope they feel empathetic to immigrant families and understand the stresses and the pressures that they go through in order to run from a place they call home to save their kids lives here. Unfortunately, in this case, the life was cut short by those more to protect. But I hope they feel what it’s like to be a teenager again and a kid when all you have is passion and dreams and you don’t really have a cure in the world, for better, for worse. And I hope they feel what it’s like to have a first love again. So that’s where I tried to guide the film.

Warren Shaw: I think you did a great job. So really the last thing before I let you get out of here, what’s next? What can we see from your shop coming in the future, or what would you like to work on potentially, would it be? And they said this story was difficult to tell, but something similar in terms of a documentary or something based on a true story or kind of going off into a whole other direction, broad comedy light in the mood, right.

Jessica: I have a couple of other films that are written and hopefully we’ll get into production soon, but let’s let the rest of the world settle down a little bit, and hopefully we can get into production without masks on and with the creative freedoms that we’re used to.

Warren Shaw: Well, thank you so much, Jessica, for joining us. This has been another dope interview with Jessica Kavana Dornbush. Make sure you go see the film. Reefa. It is a heart-wrenching, but great story told by Jessica and her team. Make sure you check that out. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jessica: Thanks so much. I appreciate it. Absolutely. Thank you. Bye.

Reefa is available now on VOD / Digital Platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, On-Demand, FandangoNow and all major cable/satellite platforms.

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