Kayla Briët: The Languages of Storytelling

Image courtesy of Smoke That Travels, directed by Kayla Briët.

“I wanted to capture part of my childhood for myself and my baby brother to look back on when we’re older. I’ve always had this fear of the culture--my culture, my Native heritage, my Prairie Band Potawatami heritage-- slowly fading away. I wanted to make a reaction to that feeling of fear of losing a part of your identity. It had to be a personal story. I knew that I had to be in the film and speak in the film and narrate the film because it comes from what’s in my heart.”

Kayla Briët is an award-winning 20-year-old filmmaker and composer. Her 2016 documentary, Smoke That Travels, follows the Native American heritage Kayla grew up with. As a teenager, Kayla directed, edited, filmed, and scored the production all herself. Since its completion, the short film has had acclaimed success, winning her last year’s YoungArts ‘cinematic arts’ category and travelling to over 35 different festivals. Most recently, the film was shown at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and is due to show at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

I was fortunate enough to speak with Kayla. Below, she talks about her journey in film, music, technology, and her legacy.  Interview by Danielle Leard.


Lithium Magazine: What role would you say storytelling plays in our lives, and why is it important to translate it to film?
Kayla Briët: I think that we all tell stories. It’s the only way that we’re able to connect with each other, and to understand our differences. To be tolerant of another person is to understand what it’s like in their shoes. For me, filmmaking is how I was able to combine different languages [including] visual arts, music, and editing. I grew up very shy and it was hard for me to communicate just through talking to people. I started out with music and piano pieces, and eventually [learned] the skills of visual arts and editing. Now I’m able to mesh everything together into a comprehensive piece. Storytelling in any kind of medium is [very] important and comes naturally in some form or another. It makes us distinctly human. It’s powerful in that it can affect people in positive ways and in very negative ways. We see the effects of propaganda, stories that are true, stories of prejudice, and stereotypes--those are equally as powerful as stories that can debunk those and form a powerful connection.

LM: What are some of your favorite influences in film?
KB: Some of my biggest influences in film are actually my friends! I’m really inspired by [slam poet and YouTuber] Rhiannon McGavin/TheGeekyBlonde. I love her “Bath Chats” series! She invited me to be apart of one! She literally just had a little flip camera on top of a Powerpuff Girls tissue box and we’re sitting in this bath tub! I love how down-to-earth [Rhiannon] is. I also have another friend named Kira Bursky. She’s a phenomenal filmmaker of narrative and music videos. She makes such whimsical stories that are similar to [those of] Tim Burton. [Kira] is also a musician! She has a production company called All Around Artsy where she does pretty much everything A-Z! Kira is one of those young creatives who just does everything on her own and is able to command an awesome spirit of collaboration. The friends that I am surrounded by are some of my biggest inspirations. Music, too! I love Grimes. She directs her music videos and produces her own music. I really identify [with] her.

LM: What has helped guide your vision for your documentary Smoke That Travels?
KB: I wanted to capture part of my childhood for myself and my baby brother to look back on when we’re older. I’ve always had this fear that culture--my culture, my Native heritage, my Prairie Band Potawatami heritage--is slowly fading away. I wanted to make a reaction to that feeling of fear of losing a part of your identity. It had to be a personal story. I knew that I had to be in the film and speak in the film and narrate the film because it comes from what’s in my heart. So, it was very scary. To answer your question, it was really scary to create something that would invite people into my childhood in that way. It’s [more] nerve-wracking to share a film like that in front of your family than it is in front of strangers. But after I showed it to my family, they were great; they were proud of the film. If just one person said that they felt less alone or [had] learned something new from the film, I think that is more than I could even ask for. I’m very, very, very lucky that [Smoke That Travels] has been traveling to different festivals and online. It means something to people, and that is very dear to my heart.

LM: You’re credited with directing, editing, filming, and scoring the production for Smoke That Travels. Do you have a specific aspect of the movie making process that you’d say is your favorite?
KB: In post, it’s either between editing or the music. I love editing films because that’s [where] the whole thing comes together--in the editing room. That’s where you form the structure and tell the story. But I also love cinematography. It’s just so fun! I love creating this aspect of my visual style.

LM: Do you have any plans for your future endeavors in film?
KB: So much! There’s so much that I want to tackle. I’m really keen on delving more into the virtual reality space. I love the idea of virtual reality because you have interactive experiences and live action experiences. The ability to put yourself in another world, another perspective, and outside of yourself is just so amazing to me. There are people who have definitely inspired me to delve into all of the skills I need to pursue that. As for as other film projects, I’m really keen on getting more into the narrative style and fiction. I’m writing my first narrative right now, and I’m excited! It’s a wishful love story of sorts. Overall, I’m just excited to delve into some things I’ve never done before!


LM: You mentioned that you started your career in creativity with music. When and why did you start pursuing music?
KB: When I was about 13 or 12 [years old], I first started messing about on the piano. I’d listen to songs on the radio and figure them out on the keys. Sometimes my parents would come home and heard me playing radio songs on the piano by ear. Through that, I learned how to form different types of pieces with different styles of music. That was kind of [my] ‘gateway drug’.

LM: What are some of your favorite musical influences?
KB: I’m obsessed with these weird and random genres of music. Like, I’m really into Celtic music. And folk! I could listen to Irish folk music all day! I also listen to these Gregorian choirs. They’re haunting. They do this thing where they sing two tones at once. I’m trying to do it, but I can’t do it for you right now, sadly! [Laughs.] I’m inspired by a lot of different types of music.

Image courtesy of Kayla Briët and The Recording Academy.


LM: What was it like learning that you could blend art and technology/science into one?
KB: It’s all just different languages of storytelling. I like that feeling of going for a thing, and imagining that thing, and being able to make it. I feel like these tools [such as] math and coding, especially, are just ways of being able to translate an abstract idea in your mind into something tangible and real. Combining tools like code, visual arts, style, and editing--forming all of that stuff together to translate your idea into the real world is so powerful. That combination of art and science is so natural. It should be expressed like that in schools. I think we should make arts and science more integrated because they really are just there to express ourselves.

LM: How has the internet guided your pursuit in your art?
KB: I feel like we [as millennials] grew up with the internet. I discovered a lot of my music taste through scouring YouTube and falling into rabbit holes! . . . It’s all just part of our childhood that we’re able to reach out into this archive of information. I learned a lot on my own in the first stages of my life. Now, as I’ve gotten older, it’s about not being afraid to reach out to people--to connect with people in real life and conversation, and that’s a scary thing to do. Learning how to articulate yourself and connect with people, make friends, be a human!

LM: Do you have a favorite part of producing music?
KB: When someone’s working on something worthwhile, you get into a creative flow, where the hardest part is starting out. You’re trying to find a melody, you’re trying to find a base, you’re trying to find some kind of structure for what you want to create. Once you find that, you’re able to be get into it. And when you get into it, you start improvising and enter this flow. There’s this alignment with your idea and executing it. It is that kind of creative flow that is my favorite part of making music. Improvising. That’s one of my favorite things. When I write songs I have a melody in my mind, and sometimes I don’t know the lyrics yet, so I just sing gibberish for hours and hours! And then I start to write in lyrics. Having that creative flow is my favorite part [of producing music].


LM: What effects has Smoke That Travels’ success had on the community?
KB: I think Smoke That Travels has brought all different cultures together. There are so many different types of indigenous cultures around that experience the same kind of emotions. There are natives in Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, Scandinavia--every region has their indigenous peoples and we all suffer from this type of fear of “how will we be remembered?” [It] has really opened up my mind and heart to understanding different perspectives all over the world. I’ve gotten people who want to learn the language Neshnabek, people who want to share this in their classrooms for history--I think that’s such a magical part of sharing your story. You never know who it will connect to. It’s been quite unbelievable, so far. [It recently showed at MoMA and] it’s going to be showing at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Those are such grand and historical institutions! This experience has taught me that if you have a story, you shouldn’t keep it to yourself. You should share it.

LM: Is there anything you want to say to encourage young people to share and document their stories?
KB: Definitely! I would say that with any kind of person’s story that you’re starting to share is that it’s always quite scary at first. You have a lot of self-doubt. You wonder, “Is my story even worth sharing?”, “Is it unique and different?”, and “Are people even going to learn anything?” But I think personal stories of all capacities are worth sharing. Everyone has a perspective that people can learn from. Opening your heart and asking yourself what it means to be vulnerable is so important. Just make the thing and don’t worry about being too polished! Don’t worry about perfection! That is my main piece of advice that I would offer to any young storyteller: just make it and share it. It is the hardest thing ever--but the most important.

You can watch Kayla Briët’s internationally acclaimed film Smoke That Travels here. Keep up with Kayla on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, or her website.


  1. loved how this interview was laid out + an interesting read!

    1. Thanks Daisy! Kayla definitely had wonderful insight.

  2. I have to watch this film omg

    1. You definitely should, Veronica! It's linked at the end of the article. (: