Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

It's who you know! Hollywood filmmaker Sanaa Hamri on her mentors

updated 6:26 AM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sanaa Hamri is a Moroccan music video and film director
  • She got her start in the film industry as a post production assistant working up to editor
  • Hamri met Mariah Carey on set who advised her to think about becoming a director
  • Now she hopes to inspire youth through her success and open a Moroccan film studio

Editor's note: African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri moved to New York with dreams of making it big as an actress. But like so many others, she found herself struggling through endless auditions and unemployment. Born worlds away in the town of Tangier, Morocco, Hamri wasn't afraid to fight back. She'd grown up in a traditionally male-dominated society and her rebellion against gender stereotypes had helped put her on this creative career path.

Refusing to give up, she changed tact finding work with a post production company. She was soon noticed by cinematographer Malik Sayeed who, in turn, introduced her to Mariah Carey.

Hamri: Mariah believed in me

And with the famous singer's guidance, Hamri embarked on a new, highly successful, career trajectory, leaving her mark on the entertainment industry.

Hamri went on to direct numerous high-profile music videos as well as three feature films and several episodes of popular TV shows like "Desperate Housewives" and "Glee." Here she reveals to CNN what's like to collaborate with entertainment royalty like Lenny Kravitz or Nicki Minaj while achieving success among the stars in Tinseltown.

Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images/File

Embrace your heritage. "I'm a product of a multicultural union of my father who is and was Moroccan and my mother who is American," says Hamri. "So I was able to grow in a household that had both. I very much identify as a Moroccan woman because I was born and raised there. My father's Moroccan and I went to school there so that is home to me."

Education is vital. Hamri's mother, Blanca taught at the American School of Tangier and she credits the establishment with providing opportunities that others in her neighborhood didn't have. "The memory of it for me is education was something that was a gift that you have to take advantage of," she explains.

Minority director tackles tough issues

Rebellion can ignite a journey you'd never contemplated before. "I would look around and I would see all of these men in the cafes and on the streets and I would think to myself, 'I can be just like that and do whatever I want to do as you do.' Just because I'm of a different gender, that doesn't mean I can't drive, I can't rule, I can't think, I can't create."

Networking is key (especially when it's with Mariah Carey). While working for a production company, the ambitious Moroccan soon found herself in the midst of some of the biggest names in music but it was an introduction to "songbird supreme" Mariah Carey who would lead her to her calling. "One day she turned to me and said, 'You know, you really should direct' ... And then I got the opportunity to direct her in this video called "Thank God I Found You (Remix)" ... [Directing] was extremely natural to me and I realized that Mariah was right -- this is where I belong."

Sanaa Hamri currently lives and does most of her work in Los Angeles.
Angela Weiss/Getty Images/file

Take every opportunity to learn something new and always ask questions. In addition to the mentoring Carey provided to her, the songstress would also provide industry insight and help explain the ins and outs of working among the best in the business. "(She would say) 'this is what it means in America when we say this,' because she was used to foreigners. she understood that. And whether it was working with her, Jay-Z, or Destiny's Child, or Sting, any of those people, I would learn from them."

Never forget why you want to work in the industry. "I realized I was able to use the medium of music videos as a way to communicate to young adults in an inspirational way. The minute I realized that, I quickly shifted my career, so I would turn down a lot of artists and projects due to lyrical content, due to meaning," she says. "I didn't come all the way from Morocco and go through what I went through to get to the United States and say nothing."

Sanaa Hamri and \
Sanaa Hamri and "Something New" star Sanaa Lathan.

Find other avenues to express your creativity. Soon the up-and-coming director found herself constrained by the time limitations of producing music videos. But reading the script for the movie "Something New" provided the outlet Hamri was looking for. She explains: "I loved the idea of a woman who is an African- American woman who is having issues dating white males because she racially had an issue with that ... and the minute I started working on 'Something New' and I was doing my movie I realized, I was like 'I am a film director.'"

Always keep your aspirations in mind, no matter how lofty they may seem. Hamri's strong work ethic has seen her direct several Hollywood films and jaunts onto the sets of well-known TV shows like "Desperate Housewives," "Elementary" and "Grey's Anatomy." Yet despite her silver screen success, she remains very much connected to her birthplace. "I definitely want to create in Morocco as a base a very large studio that would be in competition with the big studios in Hollywood," she says. "We would be able to go on location and stuff, but just really creating like the biggest entertainment hub in Africa."

READ THIS: The meteoric rise of Lupita Nyong'o

READ THIS: 10 things to know about 'Omosexy'

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Australia's Tim Cahill appeals to the linesman after a disallowed goal during the Group B match between Chile and Australia at Arena Pantanal on June 13, 2014 in Cuiaba, Brazil.
Kenya's national football team may not have made it to the World Cup Finals in Brazil -- but one man will be there for his African nation.
updated 6:44 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
African contemporary art is thriving, says author Chibundu Onuzo.
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Wegkruipertjie, a short film playing at the Durban International Festival
From Ghanaian rom-coms to documentaries celebrating 20 years of South African democracy, festival-goers are spoiled for choice at this year's Durban Film Fest.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Kalibala with one of the children she supports.
In 2010, Ugandan journalist Gladys Kalibala embarked on a mission to bring attention to her country's lost and abandoned children.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
Sunset at Camps Bay with one of Andrew van de Merwe.
A trip to the beach is usually for lounging in the sun. But for Andrew van de Merwe, the sand stretches in front of him as an enormous blank canvas.
updated 8:40 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
Esther Mbabazi, Rwanda's first female pilot
Esther Mbabazi wheels her bag towards the airstairs of the Boeing 737 sitting quietly on the tarmac at Kigali International Airport.
updated 7:22 AM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
Jun 1978: Filbert Bayi #42 of Tanzania rounds the bend during the 5000 Metre event at the AAA Championships in Crystal Palace, London.
He's smashed world records and revolutionized running during his career. And yet the name of Filbert Bayi has largely been forgotten.
updated 8:49 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Nelson Mandela
Adrian Steirn and the 21 ICONS team have captured intimate portraits of some of South Africa's most celebrated. Here he reveals the story behind the photographs.
updated 6:41 AM EDT, Fri May 9, 2014
As the old adage goes, "If you want it done right, do it yourself" -- and for social activist Rakesh Rajani, those words have become an ethos to live by.
updated 6:50 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
David Kinjah njau and Davidson Kamau kihagi of Kenya in action during stage 2 of the 2007 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race.
He's one of Kenya's premier cyclists but David Kinjah's better known as the man that trained Tour de France champion Chris Froome.
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
A Silverback male mountain Gorilla sits in the dense jungle canopy on the edge of Uganda's Bwindi National Park in this 29, January 2007 photo. Bwindi, or the 'Impenetrable Forest' as it is known to many tourists is home to the majority of Uganda's rare and endangered mountain gorilla population where plans are underway to habituate two more gorilla family groups to counter growing demand from a flourishing gorilla trek tourism business, a major source of income for the Uganda tourism Authority. AFP PHOTO / STUART PRICE. (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)
Meet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the woman from Uganda trying to save critically endangered mountain gorillas before its too late.
updated 5:59 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Jean Claude Nkusi
In Rwanda, young genocide survivors are forming "artificial families" to help each other financially and emotionally.
updated 5:42 AM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
The President and founder of the organisation 'Femmes Africa Solidarite' (Women Africa Solidarity), Bineta Diop.
Senegalese human rights activist Bineta Diop reveals why she is willing to risk her life to help women in Africa.
updated 6:14 AM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT