Presenting the Youngest Director in Tribeca Film Festival History

At age 19, Tisch first-year Phillip Youmans is the youngest director in history to have a feature film premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Wendell Pierce as a preacher "Burning Cane" (via Susan Norget Film Promotion)

For most people, junior year of high school consists of hustling to maintain their GPA, gearing up for college applications, hanging out with friends and dreaming about prom. Phillip Youmans was instead writing a draft of what would end up being his first feature film. Little did he know how far this early ambition would take him.

“By the time we premiere, it will be a complete two-year cycle from when I went down to write the first draft of the feature,” the Tisch first-year said.

Youmans’ film, “Burning Cane,” is one of the 10 features chosen for the Tribeca Film Festival’s U.S. Narrative Competition this year. He is the youngest director and writer to have a feature at the festival.

“It’s so lucky. I worked as hard as I could on it, but you never know. You never know who it is going to resonate with,” Youmans said. “I think a lot of my career, in the long run, has opened up and Tribeca has opened up so many doors.”

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Youmans grew up with an innate passion for storytelling. He says he was very introverted as a child and would often dress up in costumes and invent new worlds to deal with his shyness. After first showing an interest in acting, he began dabbling in film at 13 years old when he shot his first short film.

He decided to pursue filmmaking as a career and eventually went to an arts-based high school, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts — NOCCA — to further his artistic education. 

When talking about NOCCA, Youmans noted the impact of his mentor, director and Media Arts Department Chair Isaac Webb and the resources the school offered to nurture his growth as a filmmaker. The gear NOCCA provides to students gave him an opportunity most aspiring high school filmmakers don’t have access to.

Youmans said he continually put this gear to use, renting it out whether or not he had an idea to shoot. The second half of principal photography for “Burning Cane” was actually shot using NOCCA’s gear. 

“Burning Cane” is a look into life in rural Louisiana and explores how religion and family affect the relationships and experiences of the people in this world. The film predominantly follows one woman, Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), as she struggles to help both her son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan) and her church pastor, Tillman (Wendell Pierce), overcome their vices and the troubles these bring. 

The film’s team is filled with NOCCA alumni, including lead actors Karen Kaia Livers and Wendell Pierce and production designer Ojo Akinlana. 

“NOCCA is a sort of family, and we as a community look out for each other,” Youmans said.

The narrative is a reflection of Youmans’ desire as a filmmaker to tell honest, nuanced stories about black people, from a Southern perspective. After a short film he made before conceptualizing “Burning Cane,” he decided to exclusively tell stories from a black perspective, and he said that this film is an example of that.

This film takes a subdued narrative approach, focusing more on emotion, experience and character rather than plot. Youmans takes a slow burn approach, incorporating scenes of hollow silence that allow the audience to wade in the characters’ moods and immerse themselves in the film’s world. 

“I wanted it to feel like a moment in time, like we were living with these characters for a little,” Youmans said. “There is something that comes from the natural beats of life that provides its own escalation.” 

Once Youmans finished shooting, he jumped into post-production, which he admits was difficult because of his perfectionist tendencies. He found himself sitting with the film for hours and neurotically editing even the tiniest mistakes. Eventually, he realized he had to let go and began sending the completed film out to festivals as a means to finally release control of his work. 

He first applied to the Tribeca Film Festival last summer and found out he had been accepted during his first months at NYU.

“I was in a psych recitation, and I checked my phone and froze up,” Youmans said. “And then I called my mother. It is wild. I don’t know. I feel super fortunate for it.”

“Burning Cane” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25 after two years of dedicated work. 

“Stay true to the story that you want to tell,” Youmans said. “There is nobody who is you, so there is nobody who can tell that story like you. And that’s how you stand out.”

“Burning Cane” had its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25 at 5:30 pm. 

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 29, 2019, print edition. Email Kaylee DeFreitas at [email protected]

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