RBL Spotlight: Documentary filmmaker J.M. Harper

(We welcome J.M. Harper to the RBL)

Editor’s Note: “The Reel Black List” is our annual spotlight of brothers and sisters in the worlds of advertising, film, TV, music, radio and media who are making a difference through their contributions and creativity on a daily basis. For the next 29 days, you will be able to celebrate wonderful human beings, like J.M. Harper with us.

J.M. Harper is a director and documentarian. The non-fiction short he edited, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, won the Jury Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

As a director, Harper was honored as part of the AdWeek Creative 100 and nominated for a Webby. In his spare time, he teaches 16mm/35mm cinematography at a cinema arts non-profit called Mono No Aware.

His film work has also been featured at the Tribeca Film Festival, AdWeek, Vimeo Staff Picks, FADER and the Guggenheim Museum.

What did you originally want to be when you grow up?

Growing up, I wanted to be a jet pilot. My eyes weren’t good enough, but I still look at planes sitting on aircraft carriers with a sense of absolute awe.

How did you get into your documentaries?

While studying abroad in Berlin, I convinced Princeton to buy me a DVX100a so that I could document my experience. I ended up landing a random gig traveling around Germany filming a series that went viral for a (now defunct) social media company.

Then I did a stint as an underling at a nightly cultural show that taught me production workflow. Between long nights at dance clubs and schoolwork, I started directing scrappy music videos for German bands and filming little poetic shorts around Berlin.

By the time I returned to the US (with everything but the study abroad doc I was meant to use the camera for), I’d stepped into the outskirts of the industry. 

Who were your mentors?

Jerry Solomon, who was an EP at Epoch at the time, had a blog called “Confessions of an Executive Producer.” Often controversially, he used this blog to divulge his insider perspective of the commercial film production business, relationships with agencies, etc.

I devoured that blog, and although he didn’t know he was a mentor to me–that was how I figured out how to get representation and eventually make a career.  Then there are a thousand other people who taught me (and still teach me) how to be more human and tell stronger stories.

Biggest Achievement?

My biggest achievement is my child, who is due to arrive in August!

Biggest disappointment?

I don’t keep a tally of disappointments. Sometimes life doesn’t go as intended, but one thing always leads to another.

ALSO READ: Check out others who have made it onto the 2021 Reel Black List here

Name your biggest pet peeves.


Predictions for production over the next decade.

I think in the aftermath of the pandemic, there will be a revival in the communal experience of watching films together, but it may not take place in or look like the traditional theaters we know and love.

Name a job you had that would surprise people.

Waiter, bartender, librarian…

What famous actor plays you in your life story?

Isaach De Bankolé. Only because I want to be him in The Limits of Control.

What do you wish you had more time to do?

I wish I had more time to read. You can live so many lives in books. 

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What drives you to create?

I’m endlessly fascinated with things that have been made and the making of things.

Follow J.M. Harper