Film In Conversation
FEMEXFILMARCHIVE with Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa
In the Fall of 2017, the filmmakers Irene Lusztig and Julie Wyman orchestrated a joint project between two classes being taught at the Universities of California, Santa Cruz and Davis. The product was a website titled the FEMEXFILMARCHIVE project, which houses a collection of interviews between established experimental filmmakers and undergraduate film students. Created under the cloud of the Trump presidency and the roiling developments of the #MeToo movement, this archive provides a fascinating snapshot of current anxieties, advice, and work of women and gender-nonconforming artists at different stages of their lives and careers. The following interview was conducted with Irene and Julie, as well as four of their students—Nadia Zafar, Anneliese Hartling, Kristal Chan, and Julia Boorinakis Harper—in early January 2018.
Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa (Rail): Julie and Irene, can you start us off with a description of the genesis of the FEMEXFILMARCHIVE project?
Julie Wyman: For years, I’ve been assigning “interview with a filmmaker” to my students with the goal of empowering them to communicate with artists who they admire and whose career paths they’d like to follow or learn more about. I designed this assignment in response to students articulating that they wanted more connection to the “real world,” but more important to me: to help them move beyond what I perceive as their shyness and lack of confidence to engage in meaningful conversations with a stranger. I have never archived their conversations or even thought about the assignment as distinctly feminist. But once I learned about Irene Lusztig’s planned class project it made perfect sense that this work could find a really generative place in the study of feminist filmmaking.
Irene Lusztig: Feminist work is chronically underfunded, undervalued, under-screened, inaccessible, marginalized, and relegated to archives. I think of this kind of project as a form of intergenerational feminist cultural work—a way of introducing younger filmmakers to older makers that they might not know about. I also think of this archive as a visibility project. Experimental film history has definitely been largely told by men about men. All of my college film teachers were men, and most of the experimental work that I saw in college was also made by men (Stan Brakhage, Peter Hutton, Hollis Frampton, Jonas Mekas, and so on). This project feels aligned with many other conversations happening right now in the experimental film and art worlds about how to dismantle the sexism and misogyny that is deeply entrenched in our creative communities.
Rail: Nadia, Anneliese, Kristal, and Julia, why did you each choose these specific filmmakers—Lynne Sachs, Elliot Montague, Valerie Soe, and Zoe Beloff, respectively—to interview? What were you hoping to get out of your selections?
Anneliese Hartling: I chose to speak with Elliot because I wanted the chance to interview and learn from a queer filmmaker whose work does a lot of thinking in terms of complicating queer narratives. I also am interested in people who make highly personal work, and not only is Elliot’s work personal, but it is complex, really beautiful, and formally dynamic. And as someone who aspires to someday establish a career in experimental filmmaking, I wanted to hear about his journey through academia and the art world.
Julia Boorinakis Harper: I was first drawn to Zoe Beloff’s work because she explores dream imagery and the idea of the artist as a medium, things that resonate with me and my own work. I watched a few of her short films, and her use of found footage and old/new technology really clicked with me as well.
Nadia Zafar: I chose to interview Lynne Sachs because the genre that she mainly works with—experimental/documentary filmmaking—is something that I’m personally interested in. In my own work, I struggle to combine both narrative and documentary aspects into one film and Lynne does that beautifully in her films. I was curious to learn about how she became the successful filmmaker she is today, especially with the type of work she creates.
Kristal Chan: I chose to interview Valerie Soe out of a desire to confront my own fear of embracing the visibility of my racial identity. I previously felt my filmmaking was stranded in a place of racial erasure, tiptoeing around the ambiguity of colorblindness but never indulging in creating characters with faces that looked like mine even though that’s all I craved for as long as I can remember. When I spoke up in lectures and discussions, I heard my words championing the complexities of forming diverse identities and challenging hegemonic entrapments on screen, yet my own work found safety and comfort in whitewashed narratives and characters. Valerie’s work is unapologetically bold, passionate, and subversive—everything Asian women are not supposed to be and everything I was too afraid to create. As a young filmmaker who exists at the intersections of several marginalized identities, I had somehow chosen to bury and hide the most visible part of myself—my race. Valerie’s work foregrounds the voices and faces of Asians and Asian Americans who experience this very racial erasure. When Julie and Irene presented us with their extensive curated list of fantastic feminist filmmakers, it was a no brainer. I picked Valerie because she melds the personal and the political seamlessly. She is unafraid to say what is silenced, and she does so in a way that subverts not only mainstream content but its form as well.
Rail: One of the most interesting aspects going through the archive is the wide variety of responses to the label of “feminist.” Some express ambivalence about these terms. Zoe Beloff for instance responds to the title of “feminist filmmaker,” “I have no problem with it; it’s not the first word I use.” Others seem to question its coherence as having a single meaning. As a trans filmmaker, Elliot Montague describes himself as queering feminism and as interested in placing feminist concerns in relation to other questions of identity. What definitions of “feminist experimental filmmaking” did each of you have entering into the project? Had they changed upon its completion?
Chan: I really enjoyed the myriad of definitions regarding feminist or feminist filmmaker! I think it’s in the volume and variety of responses to this question that I found clarity in my own definitions regarding “feminist experimental filmmaking.” It’s a process we use to think about difficult questions. Sometimes it gives us answers and resolutions and other times it leaves us with more questions than answers. Those questions are more concerned with forms and structures rather than narratives and plots and characters. But I think the key word is process. We are film scientists! And we use process to answer our questions. Feminist experimental filmmaking is always going to be a working concept in the sense that we, as artists and creators, are in a state of transformation—not always in one place but instead moving towards a goal that is constantly growing and evolving. Whether it be filmmaking or feminism, our duty is not to adhere to any set of rules but to use our own creative practice to adapt and grow with the changes brought on by process and to embrace the nature of experimentation. And maybe that’s confusing and evasive of a real definition, but I’m okay with definitions being in a gray area. I’d rather work in a space that permits messiness and experimentation than have to conform to restrictions.
Rail: The FEMEXFILMARCHIVE project is framed around a question of intergenerational approaches to feminism. Irene and Julie, can you reflect on the role of feminism in the creation of your own approaches to filmmaking, and how this differed or overlapped with the role that feminism plays in the lives of your student filmmakers? Nadia, Anneliese, Kristal, and Julia, how did the definitions of feminism from the artists you interviewed resonate with your own lives and the films you have made and hope to make?
Lusztig: I definitely identify as a feminist filmmaker in my own creative life, and teaching a class for younger feminist filmmakers has made me think really hard—in a good way—about intergenerational feminism and how to teach feminist histories. I also think about history a lot—I usually make projects that begin with archival materials—so issues around how feminist histories are remembered and re-narrated converge easily for me. I think it’s incredibly important and often also very difficult for feminist creative practice to build on past work. One of the enduring and vexing problems in feminist history is forgetting the work done by previous feminist generations (and it doesn’t help young feminists that the rest of the world is continuously disappearing the accomplishments and cultural production of feminist makers and thinkers). The “waves” model for understanding feminism gets at this issue very directly—with each generation, we reject our mothers’ feminism, start all over again, and in the process forget or abandon all the work that our own feminism is indebted to. Even though many of my students identify as feminists, they’ve never heard of Ms. magazine or consciousness-raising or Carolee Schneemann or the Women’s Building in L.A. or Mother Art or a million other historical things that are all incredibly important forebears that have contributed to making today’s feminism possible. My students don’t have to like or agree with everything about older feminist work, but they should know that this work was done and that they are standing on its shoulders. At the beginning of my feminist filmmaking course I showed a bunch of ’70s documentary work (like [Johanna Demetrakas’s 1974 film] Womanhouse) and my students all wrote about how the work was outdated, essentialist, and overly preoccupied with unimportant questions about reproduction and domesticity. But then after class a student came up to me to ask where the Womanhouse building is and whether it’s been memorialized somehow. (It actually got demolished shortly after the Womanhouse show in the ’70s and now seems to be an anonymous apartment complex—we checked on Google maps.) I feel like these two overlapping responses—the outright dismissal of ’70s feminism as something that has nothing to do with right now and, at the same time, the sense of loss at learning about a cultural history that has basically been erased—gets at something really complicated, messy, and important. I hope my students can work through ways of acknowledging feminist histories and building on top of them and tearing them down to build new, better, more inclusive feminisms all at the same time. It’s hard but really necessary work.
Wyman: I am a product of the ’90s third wave’s version of the “personal is political,” i.e. an emphasis on the discursive and political dimensions of sexuality and embodiment. And I am absolutely a feminism-driven maker: it was feminist critiques of media and feminist body politics that brought me to the medium of motion pictures—not the other way around. I feel lucky to have had these awakenings in my college classes; partly because of the zeitgeist but also because of my amazing professors and peers, I was able to forge an understanding of the political dimension and the injustice that I’d either experienced or witnessed in my life and to envision a path forward that would engage with these problems.
In many ways, these undergrad experiences are what brought me into teaching as well. Pedagogy at its best is often an intergenerational exchange, isn’t it? And so, as a professor, I am always seeking ways to allow students to arrive at their own awakenings. Teaching Feminist Filmmaking is certainly one of the endeavors that has sometimes felt meaningful in this way. Incidentally, many of the students who enroll in my course enter without an investment or any background in feminist thought or social justice work of any kind. As Irene mentions, my students may either deny and/or be completely unaware of the history from which they are directly benefitting. The algorithms of Google and YouTube make the anti-feminist, alt-rightish movements of our time appear more readily than the rich and influential histories.
All of which to say that the one-by-one approach of this interview project’s intergenerational exchange seems as meaningful and productive, if not more so, than the large set of catching up/filling in I often feel drawn to do.
Rail: In reading through these interviews, I found that some of the most enthralling moments were those in which the students spoke about themselves and their own hopes and anxieties over their future as young filmmakers. There is a very clear sense that the answers to these questions hold not only theoretical or academic meaning for the interviewers, but also very real practical meanings. Nadia, Anneliese, Kristal, and Julia, how did the interviews change how you see your own career paths going forward?
Chan: Honestly, my interview with Valerie was the final push I needed to decide on pursuing grad school—something that I had always looked down upon for being a huge waste of time and money. It’s kind of weird because as students our professors encourage us to really “make it.” Like submit to festivals and apply to grants and fellowships and make films in our free time outside of the film projects we are already assigned in school. A handful of these professors were in film school and then dropped out because they made a great film in college that went to festivals, and then others are these brilliant film scholars who dedicated years to a higher education in film. Both of these paths are daunting yet inspiring. I don’t want to have to choose one over the other.
Hartling: It gave me so much hope to speak with Elliot, and even more generally studying these makers whose work I admire so much! It was really enlightening to hear the struggles and triumphs of pursuing a career in queer experimental filmmaking from Elliot; and it was so valuable to map out the career path of someone whose work I look up to. Before taking this class, I had the same thoughts about grad school as Kristal did, and now I feel happy to have learned that pursuing higher education is a total possibility and could be a great option to sustain a career in experimental film. I’m still not certain what’s next after graduation, but more than ever I feel that there is a space in the world for me to do the kind of work that I want!
Zafar: When I was first applying to colleges my senior year I only had three in mind: NYU, USC, and UCLA. After receiving rejection letters from all those schools, I’d let it determine my self-worth and skills as a filmmaker. At first I was disappointed to find myself studying film at UC Davis, a school known more for its sciences rather than the arts. When I asked Lynne about her own rejections, I shared my personal experience and how horrible it was to feel as though I wasn’t good enough for the only career I see myself doing. Knowing that I’m personally interested in experimental filmmaking, Lynne reassured me that the program at NYU wasn’t for me and that it’s actually a good thing I didn’t get in. It was very comforting to hear that from someone who actually taught at NYU and truly knows the program and made me grateful to attend UC Davis.
Boorinakis Harper: I’m a returning student, coming back to university after a long break. Everyone tells you that going back to school gets harder the longer you wait, but I think it’s really that everything else gets harder; life gets harder! I’ve found myself in plenty of moments of “why am I doing this?,” and talking with Zoe was a reminder of why I’m doing this. Her work is so exploratory and creative, but it’s very grounded in theory and classical filmmaking, in psychology and media archaeology. She talked about how her academic background had given her the tools to do her work, and the opportunity to teach, and I just felt like that was exactly what I needed to hear at that point in time.
Lusztig: I was so happy to see these kinds of conversations happen in so many of the interviews! My most talented, interesting, and ambitious students regularly show up in office hours to ask me what they should do to be artists when they grow up, how can they keep making films in a world that is increasingly inhospitable to people who want to make creative work, and how they can turn experimental filmmaking into a career. These conversations seem incredibly important to me, but at the same time it is hard to give clear answers. Unlike becoming a doctor, a scholar, or an electrician, the life path for becoming an artist is hard to lay out—should you go to grad school and get an MFA? Should you move to Pittsburgh or Cleveland or some other affordable city where you can pay cheap rent and find a creative community of peers? Should you move to L.A. and get a day job logging reality TV footage? So, I was interested in the idea that this project could encourage students to seek out creative role models and ask these kinds of questions about how to be grown up artists in the world.
Wyman: I have similar experiences to Irene. There is often that moment in a term where it becomes clear to me that what my students are so hungry for is this type of practical conversation: how did you get started? How do you have confidence in your own ideas? I actually think that this kind of exchange is key to the type of feminism I am most committed to: a feminism that has time to talk about the real, the nitty gritty, and to take seriously the anecdotal and the quotidian. The personal is political. So is the practical.