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Pickering, Ontario, a Toronto suburb of some 100,000 souls, and home to the world’s oldest nuclear reactor, was briefly the stamping ground of a tweenage Neil Young, and is a popular shooting location for 21st-century telly, including Suits and American Gods

It also now has a new string to its bow when it comes to notable former inhabitants – 24 year-old director, actor and creative force of nature Karena Evans. Her video roster encompasses rappers including Drake, SZA, Belly and SiR as well as the title track video for Coldplay’s latest album, Everyday Life

I started off doing the lower-budget jobs. That’s where you practice,  and it’s a challenge to get a very low budget and expand it to a hundred times that value.

Her work on the likes of SZA’s Garden, shot on Maui with Childish Gambino, challenges and redraws conventional ways of representing black and female artists, while her commercial work has embraced a penetrating interactivity with a series of fourth-wall-breaking films for Tinder, and her first foray into long-form television launches this summer on US channel Starz, with new series P-Valley, set in a Mississippi strip club, for which Evans directed the pilot.

Above: Karena Evans.


Given that just a few years ago she was a teenager having to decide whether to stay at film school or drop out to intern with Director X, her rapid ascendency is remarkable. After cold-calling X and acing a subsequent face-to-face, Evans was signed up and started directing low-budget videos from the get-go. Her star as a director has risen on account of the intimate, direct gaze she employs – a young, unflinching black female gaze – combined with the weave of narrative, character and a lyrical humanity that makes you look afresh at the language of short-form video, with an embracing sense of a bigger story to tell.

Her older brother Jordan is a leading producer for the likes of Jay-Z and was always an unstinting supporter of his little sister’s nascent talents.

“I moved to Toronto for film school aged 16 or 17,” she tells me. “Growing up in the suburbs breeds that appetite.” The family life she left behind was a decidedly creative one. Her older brother Jordan is a leading producer for the likes of Jay-Z and was always an unstinting supporter of his little sister’s nascent talents – while she was an enthusiastic videographer of her family’s life, making birthday videos and the like, even an apology film for her mum after a particularly shouty argument as a teenager. 

“It really hurt her and I didn’t know how to communicate in any other way that I was sorry, so I edited this video of our relationship and why I admired her and why I look up to her. And it sealed the deal.” She laughs. “We’re no longer fighting.” 

It really hurt her and I didn’t know how to communicate in any other way that I was sorry, so I edited this video of our relationship.

Making up with Mum is a pretty good real-world outcome for any short film to achieve, but then Evans’ family had her back from the get-go. “They pushed for me and believed in me even when I said I was going to drop out of college,” she says. “I said ‘trust me, I’ve got a plan,’ and they did trust me.” Director X put his trust in her too. It paid off. “I started off doing the lower-budget jobs. That’s where you practice,  and it’s a challenge to get a very low budget and expand it to a hundred times that value.” The budgets changed when she took the director’s job on Drake’s God’s Plan. “Drake is a genius,” she says simply, “He has a really big heart and it’s a privilege to work with him.”

Drake – God's Plan

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Above: Evans' first project with Drake, God's Plan.


To date, they’ve made four videos together, with God’s Plan being a stand-out example of fusing music video with a filmic, docu-style approach and a live, in-the-moment event – Drake coming to Miami to distribute a million dollars among those who most needed the support. It’s follow-up, Nice for What, set the Canadian rapper’s stage amid a gallery of notable women – the likes of Jourdan Dunn, Rashida Jones and Olivia Wilde – letting their passions hang out in a sumptuous mansion setting, with Drake not so much the star performer as the bonding agent that holds the whole scene together. 

X and I often had great conversations, where we would agree and disagree with each other, which was all in order to keep growing as a storyteller.

“Growing up, I loved the art of music videos,” she says, “but at the same time I was uncomfortable with the way in which women were represented, and that became my focus.” She decided if she could change that, she would. And she did. “Director X created this environment that was so positive and allowed for growth,” she says. “X and I often had great conversations, where we would agree and disagree with each other, which was all in order to keep growing as a storyteller. He really challenged me and motivated me.”

Drake – Nice For What

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Above: Nice For What, another video shot for Drake.


An early stand-out production was her 2016 Black Lives Matter film, Strange Fruit, a political art piece that directly correlated to Evans' own feeling and experiences. “It was at a time that still feels like the present day,” she says. “I felt like I silenced myself often, for fear of speaking out and saying the wrong thing.” 

Breaking that silence, what is striking about Strange Fruit is the powerful humanness and intimacy of her gaze – so you make correspondences from the inside, not the outside, with the women, men and children depicted, touching on the personal and the universal as well as drawing in a wider, deeper, and more intimate representation of contemporary black culture. 

I felt like I silenced myself often, for fear of speaking out and saying the wrong thing.

There’s an involved realism at work here, just as there is in the man on the street soliloquising on the theme of ‘life is good’ at the opening and closing of God’s Plan. “I’m fascinated with realism,” she says. “I put a certain emphasis on that and how I connect to that is in an intimate way. It’s what audiences are craving right now – to have that intimate, real connection.”

I’m always working to communicate truth, reflecting truth, and visually always searching for what is the most powerful or stylish gateway for that to happen.

It’s become something of a signature style for her, rooting not for some fantasy projection, but pulling on the heart strings of a direct connection. “I’m interested in reflecting the human experience, and within that, the human condition, the truth of that, which correlates to the current state and politics of the world. I’m always working to communicate truth, reflecting truth, and visually always searching for what is the most powerful or stylish gateway for that to happen, for that truth to be received, or told.” 

Tinder – Swipe Night

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Above: Tinder's Swipe Night campaign.


Her recent video for Coldplay’s Everyday Life (“the band that pretty much scored most of my life’s biggest moments”) comprised shoots in Cape Town, Marrakesh, the Ukraine and El Matador Beach in Malibu, all framed by a voiceover rapping on the connecting matter of humanity behind the meaning of “ubuntu” and embroidering each colour-saturated tableaux together to create a cinematically artful and painterly distillation of the song’s basic message of togetherness and the everyday beauties of life. 

“It was a challenge having to take a small budget and make it speak to a global audience with a big message,” she says. “I just wanted every shot to feel like a painting or portrait that could be in a gallery.”

It’s that instant of creation that’s like crack to me, it’s so addictive. Turning what’s in your head into something tangible in front of you. I love that part of the process.

Currently signed to Popp Rock in Canada and m ss ng p eces globally for video and commercial work, and with WME in the US for film and TV, recent projects have seen her extend beyond the time constraints of music video for longer-form TV and interactive work. This summer, P-Valley premieres on cable channel Starz, a drama bringing the lives of women at a Mississippi strip joint to the screen. 

TV is a completely different language and medium to video and commercials.

Evans helmed the pilot. “TV is a completely different language and medium to video and commercials,” she says. “My challenge, being that it was my first time, was learning about the world of P-Valley and learning how to communicate that, the story and characters. I really thrive on the energy of being on set,” she adds, “and in the edit. It’s that instant of creation that’s like crack to me, it’s so addictive. Turning what’s in your head into something tangible in front of you. I love that part of the process.” 

Dolby – Dream in Dolby Lizzo

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Above: Evans' work for Dolby with Lizzo.


Her commercials work includes the audacious interactive series Tinder Swipe Night, a first-person, adventure set the night before the end of the world, where at key turning points Tinder members decide what happens to them next, influencing not only the story but who they match up with (like there’s no tomorrow…). “It’s advertising, it’s interactive film, it’s a television show, it’s all these in one, and it’s all for the benefit of connecting people and providing them with conversations in the really confusing modern dating world.” 

It’s really exciting to explore new forms of storytelling and also new ways of connecting with people.

And while she admits that the interactive element was initially outside her comfort zone, she set about approaching it like a normal film – scripting, casting, rehearsing and learning a whole new visual language for the first-person, handheld POV of interactive drama. “We’re not really trained as actors to be in direct communication with the camera,” she says, “so we were rewiring our brains all at the same time. But it’s really exciting to explore new forms of storytelling and also new ways of connecting with people.”

Dolby – Dolby Atmos Music + J. Balvin

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Above: Evans' work for Dolby with J Balvin.


More recently there was the campaign for Dolby’s Atmos surround-sound technology, its launch film getting inside the creative mind of flautist and rapper Lizzo in an all-encompassing performance and interior monologue beautifully set and shot against folds of green drapery. Spots featuring reggaeton star J Balvin and Coldplay soon followed. “We worked with some of the leading artists today and got in to their brains about their artistic process,” she says of the campaign. 

For so long particular groups of people – women and people of colour – have been wrongfully represented.

It’s that intimate reach into what really matters that is the connecting thread through Evans’ work, and with it, the powerful gaze of a woman and artist who knows where she comes from, what she’s doing, and where she’s going. 

“I believe and support wholeheartedly in the power of the female gaze,” she says, “and for so long particular groups of people – women and people of colour – have been wrongfully represented, and I think there is something more true and real and right when someone with a female or a black gaze can communicate that.”

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