I am using this blog as a low-key way to announce my start on a new documentary project: my co-filmmaker this time around is Maria Threese Serana (my spouse). Our project has a purposefully generic working title: The Immigration Project. We shot quite a few scenes over spring break, and it has gotten off to a promising start. The project itself is about a topic that we have lived with and discussed on a daily basis for almost 7 years. Threese arrived in the US from from the Philippines on April 7th, 2005. And in ways we perhaps did not expect, she and the people in our film have so much in common. I don’t want to say anything more about our undertaking, except that Threese was a journalist in the Philippines and continued to write articles for a Filipino-American newspaper when she first arrived. And in the Philippines, her newspaper columns were often about films, which she discussed from a political perspective.
So far (and this is the early stages) working together on this project has been fun, allowing us to actively employ many of the reciprocal skills and interests that brought us together in the first place. Going to the Conference on Women, Social Justice and Documentary at Smith College (Northampton, MA) was an obvious activity for us to do together–but it did not seem so obvious until we’d been at the conference for almost an hour–– when it all began to fall into place.
It was a room filled almost entirely with women–often quite angry women, who had not such nice things to say about the field of American documentary as a male-dominated industry. Who knew? (Well almost everyone on the room except yours truly.) I guess I assumed–or wanted to believe––that documentary as a left-wing formation had really changed back in the 1970s and we had made slow but steady progress ever since. Maybe I had spent too much time with Barbara Kopple, Deborah Shaffer and Alexis Krasilovsky in my youth? Or Jane Gaines, Laura Poitras and Zareena Grewal more recently? I had wanted to think that documentary practice was one of those limited arenas in which gender equity had been largely achieved. Not surprisingly, the women in my course, Documentary Film Workshop, knew better and at our first post-conference meeting echoed much of what I heard this past weekend.
At first it was a room full of angry strangers–but then familiar faces began to appear–like that of Alex Juhasz. We overlapped at NYU and shared an interest in documentary praxis, even though my work had been in film while she was a new media maven working in video. It was a generational difference, among several others. Of course now our situations are reversed in that Alex is the master blogger and has a flourishing multimodal career while I am doing my best to catch up as I follow timidly in her footsteps. Alex had covered this conference on her blog Media Praxis: Integrating Media Theory, Practice and Politics long before I had even gotten started.
After the usual preliminaries, the conference opened with a presentation by Smith graduate Cynthia Wade whose film Freeheld (2007) won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. It was my first encounter with Cynthia and her work, but I had been alerted by my Yale colleague Margherita Tortora––a Smith graduate who teaches courses on Latin American film. Margherita had met Cynthia a few weeks earlier and urged me to bring her down to Yale. Now I understood why. The excerpts of her films were powerful, and she was an inspirational speaker, offering advice to students and the many young women in the audience who were in the early stages of their careers: These women should become professionals with a craft, so that they could make a living as a cinematographer or editor. For many years Cynthia was hired because she was “a vagina with a camera”–not even a skillful vagina with a camera–just someone who could go into situations where only women could go. Sobering.
Obviously this was a group of veteran heavyweights, and it was a pleasure to get tastes of their recent work. Friedrich showed a piece of From the Ground Up (2008), about the coffee business and the long chain of exploitation that makes it possible to buy a cup of coffee from a New York street vendor for 50¢. This was followed by Seeing Red (2005), for which Su has offered the following description:
In Seeing Red, three elements run parallel, overlap, diverge, lock horns and in various other ways give voice to the notion that a color, a melody, or a person has multiple characteristics that cannot be grasped by, or understood within, a simple framework. One element is purely visual. One is very verbal and minimally visual. One is purely musical. So is red the color of a fire truck or a ruby, of rust or a rose, of blood or a brick? How fixed is a melody if it can be twisted, stretched and shaken to the point where we no longer recognize its original form? And when we “see red,” what color is that exactly? What aspect of passion are we feeling? Are we looking outward and seeing injustice and cupidity, or looking inward at our own limitations and failings?
Friedrich took issue with the term “experimental documentary” as it is applied to her work. Although her films fools around with the real world, it is the real world she shows. “I don’t want the term ‘experimental documentary’ –just documentary,” she said. Ok Su. Next time I teach Contemporary American Documentary (post-1968), I’ll show one of your films!
Barbara Hammer showed clips of some early militant lesbian work and then some footage she had recently shot in Palestine. Projection problems meant that somehow only part of the image for this latter work got on the screen, but it was powerful nonetheless as we see and feel the ways in which ordinary Palestinians are essentially trapped in a vast outdoor prison. Rea Tajiri showed a variety of clips from recent works in progress. In one long scene, she follows her mother as she wanders around a nursing home, going in a circle. Early in the scene she encounters a display of photographs, including a snapshot of her with Rea. When she completes her circular tour of the facility, she again encounters the display board: When Rea shows her the same photo, she encounters it as if for the first time. A slow, memorable and very painful piece.
The keynote speaker was Lourdes Portillo, who showed a section of Señorita Extraviada, Missing Young Woman (2001) and talked about the process and problems of production. This included the dangers: how one day when she was in Mexico, a stranger made clear that the film had put her and her family in danger–he knew where they lived. Afterwards I said a brief hello, but Threese–who was no stranger to the dangers of extra-judicial killings when in the Philippines––felt a powerful connection. Soon I was taking their picture and in a brief period of time, they found another connection: Lourdes has a Filipina daughter in law (making them life-time Facebook friends).
Threese and I then had dinner with Holly Fisher, a friend of mine from long-ago. As the conference began, Holly sat down across the aisle from me: we barely recognized each other!
The time chasm was quickly bridged. We had gone through the NYU Cinema Studies program together in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember the day when one of our fellow classmates––someone plugged into the downtown art scene––casually informed me that Holly had become the nation’s foremost experimental filmmaker. Hmmm. She also cut Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1988), a film I love, have written about, and often teach. Holly and I recalled our shared experience as filmmaking professionals trying to make sense of film theory as taught by Noel Carrol–a bonding experience if there ever was one. Holly, who recently moved from New York to the Five-College area, had just come back from the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, where she showed her latest film: Deafening Silence (2012).
The next day, as Threese and I returned, it was to a room good friends. On this second day, the younger, still emerging generation held the stage–though in many respect these women documentarians were closer to mid-career. Liz Miller presented several excerpts. The first was from her documentary short Novela, Novela (2002), which examines a soap opera series that was made in Nicaragua and dealt with serious social issues. The Water Front (2007) looks at the privitization of the water supply in a small American city, where residents receive water bills totaling thousands of dollars. Finally there was Mapping Memories, “a collaborative media project which uses personal stories and a range of media tools (video, sound walks, mapping, photography) to better understand the experiences of youth with refugee experience in Montreal.” This project has been developed in partnership with the Canadian Council for Refugees and Montreal Life Stories and I was happy to put Liz in touch with our friends at IRIS – Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services––in New Haven.
Next up was Alex Juhasz. I had missed her recent presentation at Yale due to an unavoidable conflict, so now I had a chance to make amends. She spoke to a dilemma I seem to face almost everyday––the opposition to real praxis in the academe–at least in the Humanities. As Alex noted, “institutional schooling confirms we are not authorized to ask world changing questions –and we are expected to either work as scholars or as artists, which others will write about.” Alex encouraged us to see the latest film that she produced––The Owls (2010), directed Cheryl Dunne––which is on Netflix, and then gave us a quick introduction to Learning from YouTube, her videobook published by the MIT Press. More generally Alex discussed her critical relation to the internet, as she seeks to bring “old school values” and principles to new media forms such as the Internet.
Sonali Gulati showed an excerpt of her autobiographical documentary I Am (2011), about her fraught relationship with her mother. I found it to be a beautifully crafted and thoughtful film. I was frustrated when the lights came up, 10 minutes into the film.
The final speaker in this group was Anayansi Prado, who showed excerpts from three of her documentaries, all of which are about topics that touch our lives and/or the lives of people in our film-in-progress. Maid in America (2005) focuses on the lives of undocumented workers in Los Angeles. Children in No Man’s Land (2008) “uncovers the plight of unaccompanied immigrant minors entering the United States.” Paraiso for Sale (2011) looks at the influx of American retirees into Panama, where they acquire waterfront properties, displacing local residents. Her current project is working with grassroots groups so ordinary people can use video to document their lives. By this time Anayansi and Threese had spent the morning together, bonding and talking about some possible future project on which they might collaborate. Anayansi is from Panama and came here when she was 13 with her mother and an American stepfather, who had worked in Panama.
Finally Debra Zimmerman talked about the history of Women Make Movies, which is now 40 years old: how she had reorganized it, and how it has survived and flourished even as its distribution formats have migrated from film to videotape to DVD to online streaming. Another account of that history can be found here. Afterwards there was the usual picture taking:
As the conference concluded Threese and I arranged to videotape a quick interview with Anayansi Prado; then we all went to a late lunch at the nearby home of Alexandra Keller, director of Smith’s Film Studies Department. Alex organized the conference with Bernadine Mellis, a Five College Visiting Assistant Professor of Film Studies.