Our Moving Image staff surveys the world of film and video from classic to global, experimental to digital.
Minnesota-based artist and filmmaker D.A. Bullock’s in-progress film Killing Mookie is a searing documentary essay on the killing of 22-year-old Terrance Franklin by a Minneapolis SWAT team in May of 2013. No charges were brought against the involved officers Michael Meath and Lucas Peterson, who was named in 13 excessive force complaints between 2000 and 2013. The officers, using language that […]
Minnesota-based artist and filmmaker D.A. Bullock’s in-progress film Killing Mookie is a searing documentary essay on the killing of 22-year-old Terrance Franklin by a Minneapolis SWAT team in May of 2013. No charges were brought against the involved officers Michael Meath and Lucas Peterson, who was named in 13 excessive force complaints between 2000 and 2013. The officers, using language that has become commonplace in officer-involved killings, stated that they feared for their lives. Occurring before both the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Franklin’s death received comparably little media scrutiny. In revisiting the incident, Bullock draws attention to the a history of police conduct that precedes the Black Lives Matter movement.
An excerpt from Killing Mookie screened at the Walker Art Center on Thursday September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In conjunction with the program, I connected with Bullock to discuss the film. This is the final interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher, Karl Jacob, Dawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.
Killing Mookie addresses the shooting of Terrance Franklin by Minneapolis police in 2013, prior to widespread public engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement. What made you decide to investigate an officer-involved shooting from this period? Do you think Black Lives Matter has changed public awareness and media coverage of policing?
I decided to focus on Terrance Franklin’s case because I thought it would be interesting to look back on some of the police narratives that we have accepted and taken for granted. This case stood out to me because I remember when it happened, I remember the sick feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, and most importantly I remember how the city at large reacted with a collective shrug, an assumption of Terrence’s guilt: “The bad guy got killed by the police.”
I think Black Lives Matter has forever changed the awareness around policing of Black and Brown folks, for that I am eternally grateful to the mostly young people who have put themselves out there on the front line, to demand justice.
Your project draws on a tremendous media archive ranging from newscasts to footage shot on mobile devices. What made you to decide to draw on such a broad range of material?
We live in a world of media tapestry and media collage. Much of our lives are pieced together as timelines and tweets and bursts of small storytelling. I thought it was appropriate to use that approach in piecing together Terrance’s life and the events of that day. Also, we know we cannot necessarily trust the entire mainstream media narrative about this case and others, because that narrative was sourced from one single entity, the police. It is the classic case of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie termed “the danger of the single story.”
What do you feel is absent from daily news coverage of policing?
We are delivered stories of events without context, and with a certain degree of bias, whether that’s conscious or subconscious. The traditional media doesn’t analyze police policy with a critical eye. They don’t supply the depth of questioning. In Terrance Franklin’s case, they didn’t ask if Terrance had gun residue on his hands; they relied on the police narrative of DNA. They didn’t ask about why the grand jury was convened by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. They didn’t examine the police narrative and question what did not add up. Lastly, they wait for cases like this to tell the story in false equivalencies. They do not take the time and effort to tell the story of the systemic failure that creates these cases. We are currently living under a dysfunctional police and criminal justice system.
The film is shot in black and white and includes voiceover. What made you gravitate towards overt directorial intervention, instead of vérité technique, for the project?
I own my bias and my imagination. I’m very up front about it. I feel like part of my artist responsibility is to advocate and elevate and touch and inspire. I think the vérité technique is more manipulative in that it lulls us into believing that film is not a contrived fabricated presentation. It is a creation, even documentary. I’m not manipulating facts, but I am leading the viewer down a deliberate path. Every good documentary does that. I embrace that idea. I admire the work of documentary storytellers, like Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, who imagine with a distinct point of view. The black and white here is about contrast; it’s about the conceit that the story we are given is “just the facts”—very black and white. In fact the story we received was wrought with nuance and manipulation and bias. The system likes to pretend it’s blind to all that, so I wanted to present my education on this case in very black-and-white, visual terms. The media in the film taken from television reports and social media at the time of the case remains in color, and the archive is in color. I’m making the case in black and white.
These days, Winona LaDuke—an Anishinaabe activist and onetime Green Party vice presidential candidate from northern Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation—is a key voice backing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline project in North Dakota. The ongoing protests mirror a project closer to home: Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper pipeline, which would’ve piped oil from northern Minnesota […]
These days, Winona LaDuke—an Anishinaabe activist and onetime Green Party vice presidential candidate from northern Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation—is a key voice backing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline project in North Dakota. The ongoing protests mirror a project closer to home: Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper pipeline, which would’ve piped oil from northern Minnesota through tribal treaty territory to the port city of Superior, Wisconsin. A four-year battle that eventually resulted in Enbridge canceling the pipeline is the subject of award-winning photographer and filmmaker Keri Pickett‘s newest documentary, First Daughter and the Black Snake, which looks at LaDuke’s environmental activism and advocacy in defense of Sovereign Lands. The title, as Picket explains, combines the Dakota meaning of La Duke’s first name with the destructive “black snake” of indigenous prophesy—the oil industry.
The film screens at the Walker on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program, I connected with Pickett to discuss the film. This is the seventh interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher, Karl Jacob,, Dawn Mikkelson, and Norah Shapiro.
First Daughter and the Black Snake addresses Winona LaDuke’s environmental activism and, in particular, her work to stop the Enbridge pipeline. When did you begin work on the film and what attracted you to the subject matter?
My real American history education started in 1980 when I attended the Black Hills Survival Gathering. At that gathering I volunteered to run the switchboard in the American Indian Movement tent. Years later I wanted to learn more about the indigenous people of Minnesota and a friend said, “I know just the person for you to meet.” So in 1984 I met Winona LaDuke up at the White Earth Reservation, and over the years I have tried to document the milestone moments in her life.
In 2013, when the Enbridge corporation announced that they planned to construct a pipeline which would across the Headwaters of the Mississippi River and the wild rice beds of Winona’s Anishinaabe territory, I knew I had to follow that story.
I started photographing LaDuke’s actions in the spring of 2014, and I started filming her “Love Water Not Oil” horseback ride against the current of oil that summer. But it wasn’t until I followed her to New York City to participate in the climate change summit and the People’s Climate March that I realized that I had to commit to making a film about her efforts. Native people are the leaders of the charge to protect water from contamination of fracked and tar sands oil.
I attended college at MSU (now University of Minnesota Moorhead), and I love northern Minnesota. I believe that our states water is our most valuable resource and worth fighting to protect. Inspired by Winona and her Ojibwe community, I want to share what have seen with others so they might add their voice and participate in protecting our natural resources.
Your background is in photography, and previous projects such as your photo book Faeries have provided rich, intimate engagement with subjects often marginalized (or absent) from mainstream media. How did your background in photography inform this project?
As an artist, my work has centered on family and community, and I am interested in revealing how our lives reflect our value systems. Intimacy and honesty are important to me and through my photography books Love in the 90s, Faeries, and Saving Body and Soul I have shed light upon people who have typically been marginalized in our society—the elderly, the gay community, and the poor and homeless.
First Daughter and the Black Snake is a continuation of my artistic interest in family and community exploring how actions reveal value systems and how much one person can make a difference. Documenting Winona’s pipeline fight is therefore a natural extension from photography into the moving image reflecting my lifelong efforts to document people who are struggling against the odds.
The film includes sequences of public forums and town halls. Why did you think it was important to capture public debates? How does this footage supplement the interviews you include?
First Daughter and the Black Snake follows what happened during these past two years. In the course of documenting I have amassed over 800 hours of footage in the process. Winona and her allies have attended countless public hearings conducted by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and the state Department of Commerce. Winona says in the film that “democracy is not a spectator sport.” Many people complain about the system, and very few take the time to engage within the system.
I am inspired that the native communities who have lost so much at the hands of the government would choose to participate in that same system. The film has interviews but primarily I have tried to tell a compelling story of how Winona has fought the pipelines with treaties, indigenous “slow” food and her spiritual horse ride with a cinéma vérité approach.
Democracy Now recently featured an interview with LaDuke and a report on funding for the Dakota Access Pipeline, identifying 17 banks that are providing financial support for the project. In making this film, were you primarily interested in depicting activism or the larger systems and companies that support the pipeline? In national coverage of the oil industry and pipeline development what parts of the story do you think are typically under-addressed?
My documentary film focuses on the activism. Native American communities have born the brunt of much of the extreme energy extraction practices of major corporations. Enbridge Energy and Marathon Petroleum are featured in my film. These corporations have experienced the Minnesota regulatory system and pushback from many environmental groups such as Honor the Earth, Friends of the Headwaters, and MN350.
Citizen protestors have gathered and made their voice heard. The people’s efforts have been the focus of my film as I am documenting what I have seen Winona and others efforts to protect the water.
In indigenous communities the “black snake” is prophesied to bring destruction to the earth, and many believe that the oil industry is the black snake. The people I have documented and tried to make visible are the protectors rather than the perpetrators.
The end of my film reveals the Enbridge pipeline battle has changed. There is a win with the Sandpiper pipeline but the struggle remains here in Minnesota with Line 3, and now the black snake has moved to North Dakota to the Dakota Access pipeline.
Former McKnight Filmmaking Fellow and award-winning filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson’s newest documentary follows four people—in the US, Cambodia, and Australia—as they negotiate forgiveness and justice in the face of extraordinary trauma. An excerpt from Risking Light screens at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works […]
Former McKnight Filmmaking Fellow and award-winning filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson’s newest documentary follows four people—in the US, Cambodia, and Australia—as they negotiate forgiveness and justice in the face of extraordinary trauma.
An excerpt from Risking Light screens at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program, I connected with Mikkelson to discuss the film. This is the sixth interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher, Karl Jacob, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.
In Risking Light you speak with subjects who have been victims of tremendous abuse and trauma. What made you decide to make a film about forgiveness? As you worked on the project did you always feel ready to forgive, or were you also experiencing anger and sadness about what the film’s subjects had faced?
Honestly, I was looking for some hope in my own life. I’d become rather jaded about people and was searching for stories that could change my perspective. Then I met Mary Johnson, who shared her story of the loss of her son and ultimate forgiveness of O’shea Israel, his killer. I knew this was the story. But I also saw that their story, if told alone, only gave one perspective on forgiveness and was compelled to find more. To really explore what forgiveness was and what it wasn’t.
As someone with at least an average level of empathy, I found that swimming in these stories of pain and injustice was challenging. This is what kept me digging into their stories. I needed to understand how one gets from anger and pain to forgiveness and healing.
I think that I tend toward films that explore things that I need to work through in my own life. I had a lot of repressed anger directed toward myself and others, for a lifetime of injuries. Nothing nearly as profound as the subjects of Risking Light, but enough to have made me pretty bitter. I pretended that wasn’t the case, but the more I dug into this subject, the more my own anger and frustration would surface. Many times, this would subconsciously lead to a slowdown in production. Then I’d figure out my own challenge, and miraculously I was able to move forward with the film.
Did you meet with each of our subjects knowing that they wanted to forgive the perpetrators of crimes and violence against them, or did the journey towards forgiveness begin during filmmaking?
In each case, their journey to forgiveness was complete or nearly complete before we met. That is how I found them. One of the things I find interesting about each of their stories is that they are all still on a journey. A journey to continue healing and a journey to make a positive change in the world, as a result of their acts of profound forgiveness. It is rare to find someone who has forgiven injuries as big as these without having moments where they are haunted by the past. Pain has a way of showing up in your life in all sorts of ways. But having begun this journey, they are much more prepared to handle the surprise moments when pain revisits in a different form.
In addition, each of them is compelled to do more with their lives as a result of their forgiveness. They have turned something that was destroying them internally to something where they are now helping others in their lives, in big and small ways, heal. The ripple effect of forgiveness is clear in all of these stories. It is not just about you. It is about who you become in the world and how that new person changes the lives of others.
First person accounts play a large role in the film. Why did you believe it was important to have the subjects speak for themselves about their experiences with limited formal or narrative interventions? What role does the testimonial play in your documentary practice?
I am a big fan of having subjects tell their own story, without the use of narration, whenever possible. In this film, that went to the extent of using an EyeDirect device that effectively projects my face on the lens of the camera, so they are looking directly at the camera. Thus they are looking directly at the audience. Looking into a subject’s eyes, you see another layer of vulnerability and experience a more intimate connection with them as an audience member. Throughout my career, I have tried to tell the stories of my subjects with emotional honesty. We spend so much of our time debating issues, in effect distancing ourselves from the personal impact of our actions, political or personal. I’m a believer in the power of the personal story and sharing of lived experiences as a way to connect us as humans. To increase empathy and compassion for one another.
The film addresses restorative justice, a system that focuses on reconciliation and rehabilitation instead of punishment. What role do you believe restorative justice has to play in the criminal justice system?
Restorative justice plays a critical role in the story of Mary and O’shea, in particular. They came together through a restorative justice process. Prior to making this film, I didn’t have any exposure to this kind of process. Since then, I have really grown to see restorative justice as one of the keys to creating a more just society, through making Risking Light, as well as additional work I’ve done on restorative dialogue circles. Every story, every crime, every person is unique. So I hesitate to speak in general terms when it comes to restorative justice. But I will say that I have seen it utilized at all levels. From petty crime to murder to war crimes. So often we frame “justice” in terms of retribution or punishment, but what if “justice” was something that would allow victims to process their pain and heal? What if offenders could learn the impact of their crimes and possibly reform, thus breaking the cycle of violence? This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what restorative justice can bring to the criminal justice system.
The 2016 recipient of the US Fiction Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Blood Stripe is the story of a female war veteran’s return to civilian life. The directorial debut of Remy Aubernonois, the film was cowritten by Auberjonois and Kate Nowlin, who co-star in the work. An excerpt from Blood Stripe plays at the Walker on Thursday, September […]
The 2016 recipient of the US Fiction Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Blood Stripe is the story of a female war veteran’s return to civilian life. The directorial debut of Remy Aubernonois, the film was cowritten by Auberjonois and Kate Nowlin, who co-star in the work.
An excerpt from Blood Stripe plays at the Walker on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program, I connected with Auberjonois to discuss the film. This is the foftj interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher, Karl Jacob, Dawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.
While other films—from The Best Years of our Lives (Wyler, 1946) to The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2009)—depict servicemen returning to civilian life, it is unusual to see comparable stories about the experiences of female veterans. What made you decide to focus on a woman’s return home? Do you think that gender influences the experiences of people returning from deployment, be it by shaping access to resources or the official support available?
We decided to make a film about a female returning from war because it’s a new character that we haven’t seen. The story of returning from war is one of the oldest stories we tell, but the American woman veteran who has seen combat is a new character type and we felt there was a space in the genre. There are a lot of documentary films being made now on the subject, and there is a lot of reportage, but we haven’t seen many of these stories told in a narrative fictional context. We felt like it was a way to introduce the issues inherent to the subject to an audience that might not consume documentaries, and provide an entrée for the audience into the experience through empathy and engagement with character and story.
As to the role of gender in the experience of homecoming, it is our understanding that a lot of women returning from deployment experience it differently from men because they are not expected to have “been in the shit” by the civilian population. So I think there is an assumption sometimes that they won’t have been affected in the same ways as their male counterparts. Of course this is a fallacy in many cases, particularly because these wars against guerrilla insurgents have no “front lines.” Gender also comes into play because many of these women are wives and mothers and have to return to these “traditional roles.” This I think presents its own set of challenges. Also, when we are speaking of women who have served, we cannot avoid the fact of military sexual trauma (MST), which admittedly plagues both men and women.
Blood Stripe depicts the protagonist Our Sergeant’s struggles with PTSD without using flashbacks or identifying a singular source of trauma. What made you decide to focus on the experiences after her return instead of during her deployment?
We wanted there to be some mystery. We wanted to challenge the audience, and trust them. We wanted the audience to project the what and the how. I felt that the audience would bring their own associations from other sources to the story. Hollywood can make big war movies, but as a scrappy independent film we were constrained by our resources, which I think opened up a whole area of exploration. We drop clues, but we found when we were writing that when we had the character speak about what “happened” to her it minimized the potential scope. She is plagued by “war” and everything that represents. Kate pointed out early on that in Greek tragedy the blood is almost always shed off-stage. There is a lot of violence depicted in todays films. There is violence implicit in our film, but not depicted. I hope that creates more tension and potentially allows for a greater emotional catharsis. Also, speaking about trauma is the beginning of healing, and so many people who struggle with this type of trauma are not healing. There are no easy answers to this epidemic; we wanted the audience to engage with the problem, without our prescribing a solution.
The film specifically addresses the difficulties in receiving support from the VA. Did you hope this film would raise awareness about the challenges faced by veterans?
We wanted to make a film about a pressing, contemporary, dare I say “urgent,” issue, without being preachy or having it feel like watching it is taking medicine. Our ambition was to make a cinematic, artful, dramatic film that is truly about something. Many things. When we were financing the film the tragic reality of veterans dying while on waitlists at the VA was unfolding. It was certainly a somber validation of the relevancy of our subject matter. We hoped to use the tools of independent drama to enlighten and expose a reality. Our goals are to entertain, expose, and contribute to an understanding of a very current human condition. It is only one version of the veteran experience, and trauma is universal.
Filmmaker and actor Karl Jacob‘s newest film, Cold November, is the second installment in a trilogy on the culture of Northern Minnesota. Drawing on his own experiences growing up in a matriarchal household in the region, Jacob crafted an intimate portrait of the familial ritual of hunting, a subject that intersects with contemporary conversations about firearms. An […]
Filmmaker and actor Karl Jacob‘s newest film, Cold November, is the second installment in a trilogy on the culture of Northern Minnesota. Drawing on his own experiences growing up in a matriarchal household in the region, Jacob crafted an intimate portrait of the familial ritual of hunting, a subject that intersects with contemporary conversations about firearms.
An excerpt from Cold November will screen at the Walker Art Center on Thursday September 15 at part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program I connected with Jacob to discuss the film. This is the fourth interview with each of the filmmakers featured in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher, Dawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.
The beginning of Cold November depicts the film’s protagonist, Florence, playing in a cardboard village before being ushered to bed by her grandmother, a sequence that clearly establishes her youth and innocence. Why did you decide to begin the film with a sequence of Florence playing?
To be honest, the scene was originally just an experiment, but then became much more important as the writing process went on. I was working with a group of writers, led by my friend Jacob Krueger, on some character work, and this scene was a result of the process. It’s stayed identical to the first draft almost beat for beat, and it was the very first page I wrote of the script. As the writing went on the matchbox cars became a bigger player in the overall story arc, and an important piece of the puzzle, which was nice to discover. When the full film becomes available, you’ll be able to see how this unfolds. Twelve is admittedly a little old to be hanging on to a tiny toy city, but there’s a reason.
The sequences of Florence playing emphasize her youth and childlike qualities. Do you mind speaking more about the decision to center the story on an innocent, or even morally unimpeachable, young woman?
The focus on the age of 12 is derived from ancient human ritual. There is a near omnipresent tradition in cultures throughout the world that centers around the 11- or 12-year old transitioning away from childhood. For a long time in human history this has historically been the period when kids go through a ceremony to become adults. Examples range from the Jewish Bat Mitzvah to communal near-death beatings. Rituals that focus on death experience as the main goal are the most common, among a wide range of groups. As I personalized and compared this knowledge with my own “death ritual” of killing a deer at the age of 11, it became clear that the story had to be about a young woman: I was raised by six women, my mother taught me how to gut out a deer, and my grandmother taught me how to shoot my first gun. The fact that each of them had also gone through this ritual as kids seemed like the most interesting and salient way to approach telling the story. Also having them as a resource while I was writing the script was obviously crucial, as I have never been a 12-year-old girl. The insight and talent that the actress Bijou Abas brought to the role of Florence was also crucial. The character would not have been the same without her commitment to developing Florence completely.
Tradition and family are clearly very important to the film’s narrative. Even though it’s a fictional feature, did you draw on personal experience to craft the story?
Since early development, I’ve thought of this film as a hybrid piece. Cold November is a story that has been in my mind since I went through the process of learning how to hunt and kill a deer myself, many years ago. My family is very important to me, and they played a big role in making this film happen. We shot the film on family land during deer hunting season, and I literally couldn’t do it any other way. It would have been impossible. My parents, aunts, uncles, and grandma were actually hunting while we were simultaneously shooting. I did this by design because I wanted the film to feel lived in, and I wanted to use real animals in the movie. There is a scene of all of the women skinning a deer together, and a scene of Florence field dressing a deer, and those scenes are effectively documentary, but using actors instead of the people who actually killed the deer themselves. Everyone in my family was very supportive and they were on hand to coach, assist, and make sure the animals were dealt with in a way that preserved the meat in line with the family tradition. I also think they were very invested in the movie because I am effectively documenting this personal ritual that is admittedly unique for most modern Americans, despite it being an ancient survival ritual. A semi-tangential fun fact is that I am a vegetarian, and so is the cinematographer.
How did consideration of economics shape the world you create in the film? What kinds of financial resources did you envision Florence and her family as having at their disposal?
It’s funny that you are asking me that right now because I have been thinking a lot about economic influence since I last watched the latest cut of the film. I think Florence’s family will likely come across as a middle-class family, which I believe makes sense for the time frame of the movie. One of the goals of the film was to accurately portray the region, and Hibbing has had a long history of being both middle class, and a place where economic downturns can happen fast when the mines shut down. I think we definitely reflect all of these points in the film. The idea of needing to live off the land being right around the corner definitely drove the building of the story world and characters. In related news, I’m in development on a new project right now that centers around one of the seemingly biggest economic coups in American history that also took place in Hibbing in the early 1900s. I think the current economic conditions of our region and disparity in the country in general has influenced both Cold November and my new project.
Though the film focuses on familial ritual and hunting, its portrayal of hunting—and, by extension, guns—clearly, intersects with contemporary political debates surrounding gun control and the Second Amendment. Did you intend the film as a political intervention or for it to take a political stance?
I never intended the film to take a political stance, but I definitely realize its political importance. I also personally value the tradition of living off the land, which my immediate family has done and continues to do to an extent. It’s what got my grandparents through the Great Depression. Guns play an important role as a tool in that lifestyle, and I think that lifestyle perhaps has not been portrayed that much, if at all, in popular media. As I discover the place that Cold November can have in gun discourse, I’m excited at the prospect of the film being seen by someone who has maybe spent their entire life in a city. One’s relationship with guns is completely different when they are not being used primarily as objects of war, which is effectively the case in most urban living. You’re not shooting squirrels with a 12-gauge in Loring Park, you know? I think I am a bit of an anomaly as a predominantly liberal, urban-living vegetarian who values the importance of gun ownership. I think the world needs to know that people like me exist and that perhaps the “gun debate” is not as simple as the NRA vs. The Liberals. There are nuances to every issue, and having compassion with someone’s story that is different than your own is important. I mean, it’s the foundation of what our country is supposed to stand on, right? For that reason I am proud to be adding this angle to the conversation.
In 2014, Mahmoud Ibrahim—a Lebanon-born Palestinian and an Iraqi refugee—and documentary filmmaker Nathan Fisher began work on Travel Documents, a short cinematic retelling of Ibrahim’s journey to the United States. Completed amidst a global refugee crisis, the film links Ibrahim’s personal experience to the behemoth, bureaucratic mechanisms that determine statehood, citizenship, and mobility. The film was produced in conjunction […]
In 2014, Mahmoud Ibrahim—a Lebanon-born Palestinian and an Iraqi refugee—and documentary filmmaker Nathan Fisher began work on Travel Documents, a short cinematic retelling of Ibrahim’s journey to the United States. Completed amidst a global refugee crisis, the film links Ibrahim’s personal experience to the behemoth, bureaucratic mechanisms that determine statehood, citizenship, and mobility.
The film was produced in conjunction with Iraqi Voices, a mentorship program that supports the production of documentary shorts by Iraqi-Americans living in Minnesota. Screened at the Walker on Thursday September 15, 2016, Travel Documents is part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the screening, I connected with Ibrahim and Fisher to discuss the film. This is the third interview with each of the filmmakers featured in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Karl Jacob, Dawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.
Travel Documents is the result of collaboration. How did you meet and decide to work together on the film?
Mahmoud Ibrahim: I knew of the Iraqi Voices project from an Iraqi friend who was also making a film. He introduced me to Nathan, and I started working on telling my own story. I had only been in the US for a couple of months when I started this project with Nathan.
Nathan Fisher: Since 2012, I have co-produced fourteen short documentaries with Twin Cities–based Iraqi refugees as part of an ongoing collaborative filmmaking lab called Iraqi Voices. I worked with Mahmoud from March to October of 2014 to transform his story into a short documentary. Mahmoud wrote the story he wanted to tell down on paper and we took it from there.
The film tells the story of having your passport replaced after your home was raided by police officers. Because you are a Palestinian citizen and were a resident of Baghdad, the process was complex, requiring you to grant power of attorney to your sister. Why did you decide to focus on the documentation necessary to travel to the United States?
Fisher: Mahmoud was born in Lebanon, and his children were born in Iraq. Yet because they had a grandparent or great-grandparent who was born in what was Palestine, they are not nationals of anywhere. There are at least 10 million stateless people living in the world today, including at least 3.5 million Palestinians. For me, Travel Documents is not just about a family trying to move from Iraq to the United States, but an illustration of the bureaucratic ordeal that stateless people have to endure when they want to do things that many of us would consider routine, even banal.
On the eve of a US presidential election, the documentation necessary for international travel, immigration, asylum, to attain refugee status and to vote has featured prominently in the news and has been central in conversations regarding borders, national security, citizenship, and discrimination. Do you feel connected to other stories of advocacy on issues such as voter ID Laws? How do you hope this film will connect to other stories?
Ibrahim: I hope Americans, especially politicians and people of power, will watch this film and see the suffering and struggles of displaced Arabs, especially the Palestinians who fled between 1948 and 1967. We as Palestinians have been stateless for almost 70 years. My family became refugees in Iraq in 1967, and in 2010 were still considered refugees by the Iraqi government. I hope the film makes people listen to those who are asking for asylum and refuge.
Fisher: Concepts like national borders and voting rights are only really legible when you are dealing with citizens of somewhere—citizens who “belong” on one side of some line. Our modern understanding of civil rights is based on the fiction that every human being is attached to some extant nation, but this is not true. Statelessness is a separate category from all other immigration statuses, including refugee status. Statelessness is a very human reminder that the freedoms many of us take for granted are not even universal in theory.
Throughout the film your story is rendered by Adnan Shati, an illustrator. What drew you to illustration as an effective way to tell this story?
Fisher: I liked the idea of hiring a sketch artist to listen intently to Mahmoud and then document the trials and petty injustices that he had to endure. Sketch art has a place in our legal system, both in investigative police work and as a dignified way to render courtroom proceedings. In this way, I wanted Mahmoud and his story to be afforded the dignity that he and it deserve. For years, Mahmoud’s very personhood had been rejected by an absurd international legal regime, the complete opposite of being listened to and taken seriously by a sketch artist and a filmmaker.
Ibrahim: After I wrote my story, the idea of illustration came up in a discussion between Nate and myself. My story has a lot of interactions with the government and military and it would have been difficult to re-enact the scenes or find suitable footage, and ineffective to just rely on my words. We decided to involve Adnan Shati and execute my story through illustration because it would easily capture the different scenes throughout my story.
You begin the film by describing Mahmoud as stateless and end with sketch artist Adnan Shati saying, “Welcome to Minnesota.” Does the feeling and experience of statelessness persist even after being granted refugee status?
Ibrahim: I feel completely different after finding a country that finally welcomed me, gave me legal papers, and will consider me a citizen in the near future. It is a very beautiful and amazing feeling after I was stateless and displaced for so long. Especially since we asked for citizenship from several Arab countries and were always refused. My two children will soon have citizenship. In October, I will welcome my third child who will be born with citizenship in a country that is safe and secure.
In his 2016 short film New Neighbors, artist, filmmaker, and curator E.G. Bailey explores how race shapes daily interactions, refuting the oft-repeated notion of a “postracial” America. The story of an African-American family’s relocation to a new, predominantly white neighborhood, New Neighbors offers a thoughtful consideration of racialized barriers to home, community, and safety. The film features a local […]
In his 2016 short film New Neighbors, artist, filmmaker, and curator E.G. Bailey explores how race shapes daily interactions, refuting the oft-repeated notion of a “postracial” America. The story of an African-American family’s relocation to a new, predominantly white neighborhood, New Neighbors offers a thoughtful consideration of racialized barriers to home, community, and safety. The film features a local cast including actor, playwright, and performance artist Sha Cage, Bailey’s wife and co-founder (with Bailey) of the Minnesota Spoken Word Association.
Screened at the Walker on Thursday September 15, 2016, New Neighbors is part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the screening, I connected with Bailey to discuss the film. This is the second interview with each of the filmmakers featured in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher, Karl Jacob, Dawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.
New Neighbors depicts a family with two teenage sons acclimating to a new neighborhood. What was the inspiration for the film, and where in Minneapolis does it take place?
Sometimes works come in a flash, fully formed, almost already completed. New Neighbors was like that. It was first written in London. We were touring Sha’s U/G/L/Y, and one morning I was scrolling through Facebook and came across an article about the woman that was pulled from her home by 19 officers because a neighbor thought she was breaking into her own home. I couldn’t stop thinking about the article all day, and I wrote the script on the taxi ride home after taking the kids around the city.
Having two young sons, I’ve been dealing with how parents are affected by the onslaught of police brutality, how they confront the fears and burden that comes with raising young Black men. Some months earlier, I directed a staged reading of Ted Shine’s Herbert III. In it, a Black couple waits for their son to return home, but the mother anxiously wants to call the police station, the hospital, fearing some harm has come to her son. I thought of this when I read the article, and I thought about what mothers do to try to protect their children. I thought about how mothers carry the weight of the deaths, and the fears that must latch in their throats with the constant flowing of blood. I thought of a mother reading this article about Fay Wells, hearing the news about Trayvon and Tamir, and what actions would she take to keep her sons safe, even if it seemed slightly absurd. That’s where New Neighbors started. We got home and I stayed up the rest of the night writing the short story. Rewrote it back in the States. Rewrote it again for a staged reading for a Black Lives Black Words showcase at the Guthrie. But it was always intended to be a film.
Did you envision the project as a grounded in the politics and demographics of a specific place, or did you intend for the film to be broadly representative?
I don’t know if the story or the film is so much about a specific locality. It’s not intended to be landlocked. It’s more about race and class than it is about place, even though I think it carries a little bit of different places I’ve lived. There’s a little bit of Crystal Lake, Illinois in there. There’s some Fargo in there, some South Bend. And obviously a good deal of Minnesota in there. If it did have a locality, it would be the Midwest that these places represent. But I was more interested in the relationships between the characters, and the classism and racism that often exists in quiet, comforted Midwestern suburbs, even when it’s not acknowledged or tries not to reveal itself. This is part of why I kept the camera close to the characters—to reveal enough to give the texture of the neighborhood but focus on the interactions between the neighbors and the tensions underlying the situation. I also tried to carry this tension into the camera style and movement.
New Neighbors addresses the violence faced by Black Americans through the depiction of restrained, and even terse, interactions between neighbors. Why did you decide to focus on the subtleties and racial dynamics of day-to-day interactions?
I think with the news cycle and social media, we’re inundated, sometimes even overwhelmed, with the issues and the headlines. But I was interested in how these issues manifest themselves in interpersonal relationships. How are these issues displayed, what is the coded language that is used? What is the toll that it takes on those involved? We work, we take stands, we protest, we fight for justice and equity, which are more so public demonstrations of our beliefs and politics but what are the day to day negotiations? How do we carry our fears and prejudices into our daily actions and conversations?
I was also interested in exploring how those with privilege engage with those seeking equity. There are those that are skeptical, even reactionary, and hold to their prejudices; there are those that stay at a distance that enjoy the benefits of Black genius but don’t want to engage with us or our struggle. And those that attempt to have a conversation, attempt to establish connection but may also be too self-satisfied with that attempt, and do nothing to really further equity and justice.
Did you seek to capture parts of life that are frequently ignored by the media?
Too often the representation of Black images is tailored by the media to perpetuate stereotypes and become supporting evidence for particular narratives about Black life. Much of my work lately tries to counter these narratives and create new representations that reveal our diversity and complexity. This is not a type of story you often see in dealing with these issues, and the action the mother takes is unique in itself. But I also wanted to make clear that the family belonged in the neighborhood not only because they have a right to, but because they are as affluent as others in the neighborhood. Still a lack of class difference does not guarantee acceptance, because regardless of their affluence they are still the other; they must fight for the acknowledgement, and acceptance, of their belonging.
Finally, I wanted to show that beneath the teenage angst of the sons, and the stress it causes the mother, this was a loving and bonded family. The father may not be accompanying them because he is working, but he is present in their lives. They also have a wider family network to call on. Though within a limited framework, I wanted to show a complex family dealing with complex issues without reverting to tired tropes that Black stories are often burden with.
Somali-born politician Ilhan Omar made history on August 9, 2016, when she became the Minnesota DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) candidate for the Minnesota House election, defeating District 60B’s long-serving incumbent in the primary. If elected, Omar will be the United States’ first Somali-American legislator. Omar is the subject of filmmaker and former public defender Norah Shapiro’s in-production […]
Somali-born politician Ilhan Omar made history on August 9, 2016, when she became the Minnesota DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) candidate for the Minnesota House election, defeating District 60B’s long-serving incumbent in the primary. If elected, Omar will be the United States’ first Somali-American legislator. Omar is the subject of filmmaker and former public defender Norah Shapiro’s in-production documentary Time for Ilhan. Screened at the Walker on Thursday September 15, 2016, the film is part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program, I connected with Shapiro to discuss the film. This is the first interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher, Karl Jacob, Dawn Mikkelson, and Keri Pickett.
Before becoming a documentary filmmaker you worked as a public defender. Did this experience shape your perspective about local politics?
I’m not sure how much my work as a public defender shaped my perspective about politics, although interestingly, there are many people I know from those days who have risen to great heights in local and national politics (i.e. Congressman Keith Ellison, Mayor Chris Coleman, and many others). I have been politically active/aware since as long as I can remember: I did an internship in high school with St. Paul Mayor George Latimer; I worked for the Mondale/Ferraro ticket in college, volunteered for Paul Wellstone’s magical campaign, and have been a devoted Democrat all my adult life. I actually think it was my politics that led to my becoming a public defender in the first place, which then made me even more aware of disparities, inequities, and the importance of who the decisions makers and power brokers in our society are. My politics also clearly influence the subjects I’m interested in as a filmmaker.
You began this project before Ilhan Omar won the DFL primary on August 9. What inspired you to begin work on this project? At the time did you strongly anticipate that Omar would be participating in the November 8 election?
I began this project at the end of 2015. My inspiration came in part as a result of a long simmering desire to make a film about the local Somali community, combined with the suggestion by Ilhan’s sister, a longtime friend, that I meet with her to talk about her upcoming race in District 60B. After meeting first with Ilhan, and then with a few key staffers, she decided to grant me access and to allow me to follow her campaign. Although I of course hoped she would make it to the race in November, in some ways that was immaterial, because what I was certain of, was that she was extraordinary, and that regardless of the outcome of this particular race, this was a story I wanted to follow and tell.
Could you speak more about the historic nature of this election and primary?
I think Ilhan’s win is seen as historic for several reasons. The obvious one is that she will be the first Somali-American legislator in the country, and the first Muslim woman legislator in Minnesota. It’s also historic in terms of the never-before-seen multiracial coalition of African immigrants, liberals, and university students that resulted in unseating the state’s longest-serving legislator, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, after having been in office uninterrupted since 1972. And in the current political climate around immigration, as a former refugee and new American, her rise to office in this climate is clearly also enormously significant.
Much of the film focuses on the nuts and bolts of the political process, depicting campaigning and the slow work of building support. What did you hope to reveal by focusing on the on-the-ground efforts of volunteers and campaign managers?
The clip that I am showing for Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices is a 10-minute scene cut out of what will end up being well over 300 hours of footage by the time we complete production. We are still in the production phase, which I anticipate will go at least through January of 2017. This is to say that the film in its entirety is not even close to being assembled. In fact this is the first and only scene edited so far. That said, I chose to cut a scene out of the convention day for a variety of reasons, including the focus you mention on the nuts and bolts, as well as on-the-ground efforts, in order to show how steep the mountain is for any newcomer to challenge an incumbent. The teamwork required and the incredible passion and devotion of Ilhan’s staff and volunteers, and how herculean the effort is at this level of state politics to break in. Also, I felt what happened at the nominating convention offered the opportunity for a full dramatic arc without having to set up a lot of back-story, and had some great moments of vérité footage as well as a really nice opportunity to see Ilhan in action.
Did you think of your relationship with Omar and her campaign as material that you wanted to include in the film? Or did you always intend to keep yourself strictly behind the camera?
I have actually thought a lot about this. I definitely think of myself as separate and independent from the campaign. That was part of the understanding I established from our very first meetings. It’s a question that I found myself having to address at various points throughout production, largely with the other candidates—i.e. clarifying that I was not working for the campaign, that the funding for the project was 100-percent independent of the campaign. That said, I will confess that there have been moments when I wish I was part of the campaign, for example, in terms of what I could have provided in terms of fantastic footage. And I would have absolutely loved to dive in as a member of the communications team, but very intentionally did not, for the sake of the independence of the film. It’s a fine line to walk, and unlike in journalism, it is up to the individual filmmaker to conduct themselves in a way that is ethical, honorable, and truthful, maintaining enough distance and independence to ultimately tell a story that is not a commissioned, propaganda piece, but also allows for developing the relationships, intimacy, and trust that result in the kind of access necessary to be able to ultimately create a satisfying documentary story that has depth, authenticity, and intimacy.
I definitely intended as much as possible to keep myself behind the camera, but I see that as a completely separate question from that of independence and ethics. It really is more of a stylistic, creative choice, and maintaining independence from the campaign is a separate question. Whether a director appears in the story or stays behind the camera, their footprint is always there. There is no such thing as an objective documentary, given all the choices, inclusions, exclusions, the way the content is woven together, where a story starts and ends, to name just a few of the almost infinite variables.
This year there has been tremendous focus directed towards the presidential election. What do you feel is lost when national elections dominate the news? Did you hope to raise awareness or interest in local elections with this project?
I wanted to raise awareness about an extraordinary candidate’s attempt to enter the political sphere and about the barriers that would need to be overcome in order for her to win. Frankly, I will not be at all surprised to one day see Ilhan on the national stage, but the local level is where almost all politicians start, and I wanted to document her attempt to enter the arena. I am a huge fan of Marshall Curry’s documentary Street Fight, which follows now-Sen. Corey Booker’s attempt to become Mayor of Newark, New Jersey. I saw Ilhan’s story as offering a lot of similarly compelling storytelling opportunities, for a similarly charismatic and brilliant rising political star at the beginning of her career. I definitely was also interested in showing what is involved at the local level, not to mention the opportunity to present a positive, stereotype-busting portrait of a Muslim immigrant woman in politics, particularly in the shadow of the rhetoric in the presidential arena coming from the Republican candidate.
What specific stereotypes did you set out to discredit? Do you think the national focus on the presidential election neglects the diverse coalitions that engage in the political process every day?
There are negative stereotypes abounding in our popular culture at the moment, about immigrants and refugees, and especially about Muslims and Muslim women in particular, as being oppressed, without agency, without voices, to name a few (just look at Donald Trump’s attacks on the Kahn family). I believe that the rhetorical vilification of Muslims in the current presidential election cycle is contributing to an already hostile environment for Muslims in America, with consequences that are increasingly becoming not only discriminatory but also violent, with an unprecedented rise in hate crimes against Muslim, including Muslim women, since 9/11. Additionally, in pop culture, and certainly in American films, Somalis—including the Minnesota Somali community—have often been portrayed as violent extremists.
Independent of the question of stereotype-busting, the film’s exploration of the Ilhan campaign’s on-the-ground, local, and grassroots–level operation and strategy, and the folks who are involved and welcome, will also offer inspiration for viewers who might feel that American democracy, for example at the presidential level, is beyond their reach and inaccessible.
In 1990 Madonna released her hit single “Vogue,” a highly stylized homage to New York’s underground ballroom scene and an accompanying music video featuring choreography by legendary voguer Willi Ninja and José Gutiérrez and Luis Camacho of the House of Xtravganza. The single buoyed voguing into the mainstream, acquainting millions of Americans with modes of dance and performance innovated by LGTBQ […]
In 1990 Madonna released her hit single “Vogue,” a highly stylized homage to New York’s underground ballroom scene and an accompanying music video featuring choreography by legendary voguer Willi Ninja and José Gutiérrez and Luis Camacho of the House of Xtravganza. The single buoyed voguing into the mainstream, acquainting millions of Americans with modes of dance and performance innovated by LGTBQ African American and Latino performers, while granting only minimal credit to its pioneers. The hit single also severed voguing from key cultural context including the fact that Madonna likely originally encountered ballroom at a fundraiser for AIDS research.
That same year some of the dancers who inspired Madonna, including Willi Ninja, appeared in filmmaker Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, a portrait of New York ballroom that focused on the houses of Xtravganza, Ninja, and LeBeija. The documentary expanded beyond the act of voguing to capture ballroom’s other categories, including “realness, and the lives of its participants.
While introducing terms like “voguing,” “throwing shade,” and “fierceness” into the popular vernacular, these depictions of ballroom culture ultimately did little to spread sustained awareness of ballroom’s extraordinarily political history and even less to redirect urgently needed social and economic resources to its participants.
Yet, despite appropriation and parody, ballroom culture has also remained a vibrant site of community-building and support. Central to this world are houses, self-made social units that function like families, share names frequently adopted from fashion and mythology, and give emotional support to their members.
While New York still remains the United States’ most well-know site of ballroom, communities have also developed throughout the country and abroad—including Minneapolis where, since 2010, the scene has been spearheaded by Fatha Jazz Bordeaux. Surveying ballroom’s past and future, Fatha Jazz reminded Crosscuts that while visually spectacular, the ball is only a fraction of what ballroom is all about—and that its most vital elements are the intensely supportive network it creates in the face of societal abandonment.
In conjunction with the Walker Art Center’s July 21 Cinema of Urgency screening of KIKI, Fatha Jazz Bordeaux sat down with Crosscuts to discuss ballroom as a historically rich site of creativity, support, camaraderie, and political dissent.
Many popular culture representations of ballroom—from Paris is Burning to recent depictions in the news and media—have drawn increased attention to ballroom, walking, and voguing. But these depictions only offer a glimpse into the ballroom and the communities that engage there. What do you wish more people knew about ballroom?
People know ballroom for the performances and actual balls that happen, but a lot of people don’t know that ballroom encompasses all of the things that make up a culture: it has its own language, its own public and community figures, its own history and ancestors. The ball itself is only about 20 percent of ballroom.
I’ve seen ballroom save lives. As someone who works in social service, I know that relationships are so important as it is to have strong connections to a community and positive role models. For me, it stopped me from feeling alone and isolated while trying to navigate my life as an LGBT person of color. I was at a point where I wanted to kill myself for being so different, for being outside of the norm. It showed me that there are people out here like me who are doing the things that I want to do and are able to do it as their true and genuine selves.
A lot of young LGBT people and LGBT people of color do not have access to positive imagery. We see statistics that say that LGBT people are flourishing, that they have higher incomes, but those statistics exclude communities of color. When you look at communities of color, especially transgender communities, the disparities are so incredibly wide—the bottom of the bottom with regards to income and access to resources—and when the mainstream appropriates our culture they always show drug use, alcoholism, promiscuity, and negligence. A news story about a ball in North Carolina showed a transgender woman throwing a table and people fighting. My house, the House of Bordeaux, strives to provide a different image, to show young people you can be fabulous and fierce and not engage in risky behavior.
Appropriation also often doesn’t give proper credit. It steals language, faces, and imagery from the community. One of the things I teach my house members is how to protect themselves, legally and financially. If people want your intellectual property, they should pay you for it, so you are benefiting from it just as they are benefiting from you.
Do you mind speaking about some of the history of ballroom?
Ballroom emerged in response to a history of oppression. It’s as much a response to our state of being as Black Lives Matter or the NAACP. People might shun me for saying that, but ballroom was a response to an epidemic. It was a response to people being isolated, belittled, discriminated against, not allowed to participate, not being seen as human beings, being deprived of opportunities, and having to deal with extreme neglect from our communities.
It emerged in response to youth being forced onto the streets because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression and in response to communities that should embrace young people allowing them to die.
Ballroom has so many ancestors, and I am constantly learning about individuals who made huge strides. Willi Ninja. Andre Mizrahi, who revolutionized vogue after Willie Ninja. The Houses of Avant-Garde, Andromeda, and Aphrodite, the houses that helped develop ballroom in the Midwest. There are also many living legends that haven’t had the opportunity to be honored as they’ve paved the way, Jack Mizrahi, Tommy Avant-Garde, Dr. Ayana Christian, and Aisha Prodigy, to name a few.
Though balls differ depending on the city and participating houses, some characteristics frequently reoccur. How are balls usually structured?
Most Balls start at 2, 3, or 4 am, and being late is almost part of the fabulousness of it. If you show up on time you might be there before the promoter. Originally this was to ensure the safety of participants. I remember going to balls in Chicago at a community center that started at 2 am, after the straight event was cleared away. However, sometimes if you did an event at 2 am you risked crossing paths with the preceding straight event, and sometimes there were altercations and the use of homophobic slurs. Starting later also accommodated the schedules of community members and major ballroom figures who worked in clubs and as drag performers or as sex workers. It allowed people to join the ball after they got off work—to handle their livelihood and then engage with a community of peers and mentees.
Balls are typically structured like a competitive fashion event with categories. The categories are typically listed in advance in promotional materials, and some categories such as Vogue, Realness, and Runway regularly reoccur, as well as various fashion categories.
I think that Realness is the most responsive and unintentionally politically charged category. It is a category in which people compete based on their ability to “pass” in different roles: gender roles, gender-specific roles, roles in society. For a community in which people are regularly told they aren’t masculine or feminine enough it’s empowering—it’s an act of taking back.
When you think about Butch Realness or Trans-Man Realness or Femme-Queen Realness (a term that refers to women of trans experience) these categories allow people who have been discriminated against for their gender identity to come to a place where their identity is celebrated. In a society that says I can never be who I am, ballroom says you can, that you have made it, that you can compete and win as your gender identity, and provides validation. It’s still a competition, and you have to have a thick skin, but I’ve seen ballroom connect people.
Realness can also include other roles: Executive Realness is a category I particularly love. It’s not as famous outside the ballroom because it’s not one of the things that the mainstream can easily appropriate. In this category, you pass as an executive and it empowers people. It features LGBT African American and Latino American men who have not been accepted or represented or perceived as executives. Men who were told they were too flamboyant for that world. This category says: “Yes, these men can look and pass as an executive just like you; their identity does not disqualify them.” The category of Schoolboy Realness does the same thing: it shows that you can pass as a high school or college student.
For a long time voguing has been the most well known component of ballroom culture. What does voguing mean to you?
In a way voguing is our political campaign, it’s the thing that makes us socially acceptable and the category that’s most easily digested by the mainstream. It’s the biggest part of the ball, and that’s okay. I love voguing. It is a beautiful art form that encompasses dance, movement, and athleticism. Voguing is a sport that requires dedication and tenacity. I know people who vogue and train six to eight hours a day.
Madonna put a face on it with Willi Ninja in her music video, and now you see vogue everywhere. You see Beyoncé do fallouts and see performers from a wide array of backgrounds, including youth dancers and cheerleaders, incorporating vogue into their routines. It’s the most recognizable piece of ballroom, and even though it is sometimes appropriated or made fun of, it’s incredibly significant and is something that a lot of people take inspiration from.
Houses provide support and networks within the ballroom community, and are a central part of balls. How would you describe the structure of houses and the role that they play in ballroom?
A lot of the roles in ballroom mirror “mainstream society.” Houses are a family dynamic with a twist. They have mothers, fathers, and kids or children. The mother is usually the most revered person in the house and the nurturer of the house; they may have the most fashion sense and make sure that the wardrobe and different elements of performance are in place. The position is not gender-specific: just because you are a female-bodied person or a female-presenting person or a person with a female identity does not mean that you have to be a mother. There are many male figures who are house mothers.
The mother of my house [the House of Bordeaux] is a male figure who presents as male and identifies as male. He is the house mother. He is the one that my kids are able to talk to about deeply personal problems; he is the one they go to first for advice and nurturing. The father of the house is the disciplinarian—the one to make sure that people are governing themselves according to house rules.
Adults can be the house’s children. The children are not a specific age. Instead, the term describes your maturity and role in the house. They look to the parents for support and advice. They become like your real children, and you give them guidance as they navigate the world of LGBT and identity and connections.
You are the father of the House of Bordeaux. How would you describe your house?
The House of Bordeaux is family first. A lot of houses are centered solely around ballroom, but mine is not. I want Bordeaux to be a network that has visibility and an impact in the community that we are active in. Our pillars are education, sexual health and awareness, and leadership. I’m all about leadership development.
I run my house to focus on community building and relationship building. We have a strong commitment to education. One of my house rules is that you have to have a high school diploma (or be working towards one) or a GED. When people want to join my house but do not have these things, their brothers and sisters help them. I see the education as a requirement instead of a barrier.
I see each house member as a walking representation of Bordeaux. In my house we talk about Bordeaux Behavior as how you behave in public, how you interact with people, and your appearance. When people say they are a Bordeaux they align that with an individual who helps get jobs, helps community networks, and strengthens local businesses. We are building an enclave and purposely choose members from across professions and backgrounds. We have someone ready to go to med school. We have educators. We want to have our own businesses. We branch out of our family into industry. We want the logo to be associated with more than the social aspect of our lives. I always tell people, “I don’t want you to have spent five to 10 years as a Bordeaux and have nothing to show for it but some trophies.”
Before moving to the Twin Cities you lived in Chicago. What were your initial experiences with the ballroom scene there?
From youth until young adulthood ballroom was my life and my community. It was a safe space to come out. I came from a very religious background and grew up in a community in Chicago that often felt very homophobic. My grandfather was a minister, and I didn’t see positive images of Black LGBT people. I actually didn’t know Black people were gay until I went to high school.
I was introduced to ballroom by one of my friends, and I saw people who went to church with me and lived in my neighborhood and grew up having the same experiences I did. It was a community where we could be ourselves and connect and have camaraderie. The balls were not even the main part for me—it was the family, the community, and not feeling alone.
After moving to the Twin Cities you spearheaded a local ballroom movement. Tell me about some of the balls you planned here.
In 2010 I went to a ball for Twin Cities Black Pride. It was [the organizers’] intention to host an event that would bring the community together. I thought about the ballroom scene in Chicago and how you could learn how to vogue and do runway, but how they also had an educational component: help with homework, testing, and assistance with resumes. After beginning to navigate the youth networks in the Twin Cities, I approached Jason Jackson at the University of Minnesota. At the time he was involved with a group called Tongues Untied, and we decided to throw a ball that would connect young people to support organizations, educational resources, and agencies. He introduced me to William Grier of the Minnesota Youth & AIDS Project, who is now Mother Couture Bordeaux.
At Pride that year we hosted a pre-ball on the Power to the People stage. I found people who had done ballroom before and brought them to the stage and let other people know that anyone could do this. That is one of the things that I love about ballroom: that if you have the willingness to learn, almost anyone can do it.
When you hear there is going to be a mainstream runway show, you think of a particular body type, particular faces, and the ability to connect to high-end fashion. This is all completely disregarded in Ballroom Runway, which is the category I walked in. It doesn’t matter if you’re tall enough or slim enough; in fact, you are celebrated for being a person outside that body type. There are lots of major ballroom categories that are filled with plus-sized people. It is all about the craft of runway. That was an element of ballroom I really wanted to bring to the Twin Cities, to transform it from a spectator city to a performing city.
In July 2011 we hosted the Candyland Ball at Café Southside. Over 100 people showed up, and we had to expand to a thrift store space. All of the Bordeaux prospects helped me get the store ready for the ball. My balls are dry events (no smoking or drinking) because I want youth and teenagers to be able to come into a safe space and engage with adults and community organizations. It was a major success, so I partnered with Twin Cities Black Pride to the host Black Cinema Ball in September at the VFW on Lyndale.
In December I hosted the Safe Sex Ball for World AIDS Day at the Heart of the Beast theater and worked with the Minnesota AIDS Project, Youth & AIDS Project, African American AIDS/HIV Task Force, and Sisters Camelot. All of the categories were related to protection and safe sex. One category was to be the face of a safer sex ad campaign.
Ballroom here was a community that was developed on the foundations built by ballroom leaders, by drag queens and houses. Teaching balls have allowed the community to grow together and learn together. Since the Twin Cities ballroom community was so young and so small it was able to begin as an inclusive ballroom. It is one of the most culturally and socioeconomically diverse ballrooms I have ever encountered and brings together so many people: professors, social workers, youth, homeless youth homeless adults. It was my vision for Twin Cities ballroom to show the best parts of ballroom to unite communities without wrongful appropriation.
One of the fights that ballroom constantly faces is the inclusion of female-bodied participants and masculine-identifying participants who are not cisgendered male, the inclusion of butch-identified, female-bodied persons, men of trans experience, women of trans experience, and cisgender women. As a cultivator of ballroom and a female-bodied, masculine-identifying person, I wanted to create a community that included me.
The House of Bordeaux has faced so much discrimination, but since Twin Cities ballroom emerged recently without the same history, we were able to create a space where more people were celebrated in the ballroom scene.
The image of ballroom has been misappropriated and misused, but I think there is still a great need for it. People are starving for it. Look at where we are now. Look at the recent events unfolding. It’s a way to engage a community that is hurting, that is angry. Ballroom brought so much joy and so many positive outlets for people. It’s pertinent for it to resurface at a time such as this.
Released in 1983 during Reagan’s presidency and Ed Koch’s tenure as mayor of New York City, Lizzie Borden’s futurist, science-fiction feature Born in Flames (1983) imagines political activism ten years after a “social-democratic war of liberation.” The film was shot using somewhat guerrilla documentary techniques, includes found footage from international news and is set to […]
Released in 1983 during Reagan’s presidency and Ed Koch’s tenure as mayor of New York City, Lizzie Borden’s futurist, science-fiction feature Born in Flames (1983) imagines political activism ten years after a “social-democratic war of liberation.” The film was shot using somewhat guerrilla documentary techniques, includes found footage from international news and is set to music by Red Krayola and the lesbian rock group The Bloods. Unconcerned with technological advancement or alien worlds, Born in Flames uses the conceit of a “future” to expand the political imagination, considering both the limitations of progressive rhetoric and the possibilities of ongoing activism. Featuring performances by Adele Bertei, Florynce Kennedy, and Kathryn Bigelow, Born in Flames was described by Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna as a “blueprint for feminist change.”
Despite the alleged revolution, Born in Flames’ New York remains plagued by racism and gender inequity and is tightly controlled by a government that labels any dissent as counterrevolutionary. The film focuses on the intersecting stories of four women’s organizations: pirate radio stations Radio Ragazza, Phoenix Radio, the armed coalition the Women’s Army, and the establishmentarian editors of the Socialist Youth Review.
Born in Flames was Borden’s second feature, completed after Regrouping (1976), an experimental documentary about feminism, and before Working Girls (1986), a frank depiction of a day in the life of a sex worker that won Special Jury Recognition at Sundance. Recently restored by Anthology Film Archives, a 35mm print of Born in Flames screens at the Walker on April 30 as part of Downtown New York: 1970s and 1980s Art and Film. In her interview with Crosscuts Lizzie Borden discusses independent cinema, feminism and political filmmaking.
After attending college at Wellesley you moved to New York during a period of intense artistic creativity. What attracted you to filmmaking?
I initially wanted to be a painter but had studied art history, and felt I knew too much about it, so everything I did felt derivative. There was a vibrant art scene downtown at the time and I met some amazing artists, such as Joan Jonas, Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra, Vito Acconci, Trisha Brown, and Yvonne Rainer, although I felt that women artists, particularly performance artists who used their naked bodies in performance (such as Carolee Schneemann and Joan Jonas) weren’t taken as seriously as male artists.
While artist-filmmakers such as Vito Acconci were making films in Super 8, I became seriously interested in filmmaking after I saw a retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard’s work. I thought it was amazing because I was writing criticism and painting and Godard’s films showed that you could tell a fictional story along with an essay or agitprop at the same time. I can’t remember exactly when I saw Battle of Algiers (dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1967), but that was also a huge influence. I didn’t want to make a documentary because I wanted to have more control, although everything I’ve done has resembled a documentary in some way.
There has been recent interest in science-fiction as a rich basis for exploring race, gender, and political power and a renewed interest in works such as Born in Flames and the writings of Octavia Butler that do precisely that. What was the inspiration for Born in Flames, and why did you choose to set the film in the future?
Everyone was collaborating in those days. I met Kathryn [Bigelow] and Becky [Johnston], who were in the Whitney’s [Independent Study] program at the time, through Vito Acconci; Becky was one of his interns. They both used my loft, which I’d turned into a kind of working space: Becky for a film set; Kathryn borrowed my car for her first short film, The Set-Up (1978). Through Kathryn, I was tangentially involved with the group Art & Language. I was reading a lot of Marx and Emma Goldman and thinking about communism and anarchism.
I began to wonder: even if there was some kind of social democratic revolution, would a “woman question” still exist? Would women still fight systematic discrimination? I was also becoming politicized by feminism—the second wave—and increasingly alienated by the art world, even though there were female artists, such as the Guerrilla Girls, protesting male dominance. At the same time I was questioning my sexuality. I became more and more disturbed by the lack of diversity, not just in the art world, but in the worlds of performance art, music as well—the whole downtown “scene.”
So creating the premise—a world after a social-democratic cultural revolution—emerged from these circumstances. I didn’t want to attempt to write a script, since I wanted to discover what different voices of diverse women would say. I needed to draw women into this “fictional” universe. I found Jeanne Satterfield, who plays Adelaide Norris, at the McBurney YMCA, Honey through a woman I pulled out of a lesbian bar. I went uptown to find straight Black women with kids. Hillary Hurst belonged to a lesbian performance group. Most of the women were non-actors, although some had some theater experience. Some of the men were performers—Ron Vawter, who plays a FBI agent, was a member of the Wooster Group. Eric Bogosian was from theater and appeared in his first film role. And Mark Boone, Jr., who since went on to star in Sons of Anarchy. But most of the key women play themselves—Adele, Honey, and especially Flo Kennedy. What I loved was bringing women together from different worlds. Now I wish I had been able to draw in more Latinas and Asian women, but I think the language barrier was too daunting then.
Had I gone to film school I never would have made the film because they would have said: You’re crazy—you have a premise but not a plot. It’s not a documentary; you don’t know if you’ll ever find your story; it’s impossible. But I worked in a dialectical way, responding to the material I shot, “writing” on the editing table, and a story emerged with each group being faithful to its own language. It’s part documentary, part fiction, within a fictional pseudo-science-fictional world that looks like documentary but isn’t.
Born in Flames is unique in depicting, multiple, occasionally conflicting interpretations of feminism. What goals framed your depictions of gender and feminist activism?
I wanted to show images of women who stood for positions without psychoanalyzing individual women or creating psychological portraits of them. Instead it’s about how groups are pushed to act—from peaceful protest to more violent acts. But I wanted the women to have personality at the same time, not just be figureheads delivering rhetoric. Hopefully this worked, and to the extent it does, it’s because women like Adele, Honey, Jeanne, and Flo have personalities that shine through. But the film is definitely agitprop rather than psychological. It’s about collaborating toward a shared goal—a radio station working with a newspaper and the Women’s Army, etc., so alliances can be formed to tear down barriers.
You worked on Born in Flames for nearly five years, and the film is truly independent in its mode of production, financing, and distribution. How did you go about making the film?
Born in Flames ended up costing $40,000, but I never had that much money at one time— I made it in increments of $200. I would rent cameras and Nagras for $25 at a time until I eventually bought a camera and Nagra for the duration of shooting. Ed Bowes, who plays the editor of the Socialist Youth Review in the film, helped set up the “action scenes,” like stealing the U-Haul trucks. He taught me to do a three-light set-up so I could shoot some things myself in my loft. I had a Steenbeck editing table in my loft, which I rented to NYU students for $25 per 8-hour shift and everyone used it. I remember Amos Poe and Deborah Harry passing through at one point. Downtown New York was like the Wild West, a stage set. The graffiti, the burned-out buildings. And it wasn’t hard to find people to help. There was a real community in terms of getting equipment and people to help shoot. But in terms of story evolution, that took time, the “story” grew slowly as I edited and pieces were added. I’m just so grateful that Adele, Honey, Pat Murphy, Jeanne, Sheila —the key players—had the belief and patience to stick with it for so long.
When Ulrich Gregor, from the Berlin Film Festival, saw it at my loft on the editing machine, he said if it could be done by the time of next festival—a few months away—it would be included. So I finished, or I could easily have gone on for another year. I was kind of relieved, Berlin was the exactly the right place for it. Then it played at the Women’s Film Festival in Sceaux and won the first prize, which was phenomenal.
The film has an incredibly powerful soundtrack. How did you connect with Red Krayola and The Bloods and engage them in the project?
Mayo Thompson (the leader of the band, Red Krayola) was involved with Art & Language, so I asked him to write a song. He wrote “Born in Flames.” I loved the title so much, I used it for the title of the film, which I was originally going to call “Les Guerilleres” after the book by Monique Wittig. Adele [Bertei], Isabelle in Born In Flames, decided to sing “Undercover Nation” in the film, and I ended up using it a lot. Adele was part of the downtown punk scene. I’d known her for years before making the film. She’d been in Beth and Scott B’s movies and performed at the Mudd Club, CBGB, and many other clubs. Various other tracks came from here and there.
I didn’t want Born In Flames to be a boring art film, so I wanted a driving, rhythmic track to run simultaneously with speeches, so they didn’t have to be listened to. I hoped the words could work subliminally. The film is about a multiplicity of voices, so even if you hear some words it’s enough. The message, such as it is, is about the need for action.
Born in Flames was recently restored by Anthology Film Archives and has screened regularly. What do you think about the film today?
I’m just happy it is being seen by a younger audience. In the screenings where I’m present, I see both young people and people who may have seen the film when it first came out. I want to hear from the younger generation about why the film interests them now. Perhaps it is because many issues addressed in the film haven’t gone away. Economic issues, Sandra Bland, the murders of black men, women’s issues, gender issues, etc. Maybe the film resonates in ways I’m not aware of… I’d love to discuss them. Things haven’t changed as much as they should have—in some way are worse. I live in West Hollywood, which is the closest to the Village as you can get in terms of a good neighborhood for the LGBT community. But in Hollywood, a mile away, when Tangerine was filmed, a transgender assault happens every couple of months. I’m incredibly angered and saddened by the fact that it has been more than 30 years since I made the film and there’s even more rampant police brutality, increasing homelessness, poverty. The jails are a mess, drug treatment centers are non-existent, abortion is inaccessible in places, suicide is up… I could go on and on. It’s been decades and we need to fight harder than ever.