Blogs Crosscuts

Urgent Cinema: Women Veterans and the Lasting Impact of War

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 […]

Remy Auberjonois. Blood Stripe. 2016.

Still from Remy Auberjonois’s Blood Stripe, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

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.

Urgent Cinema: Firearms in the Rural North

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 […]

Karl Jacob. Cold November. 2016

Still from Karl Jacob’s Cold November, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

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. BullockMahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan FisherDawn 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.

Urgent Cinema: Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher on Bureaucracy and Statelessness

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 […]

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Still from Mahmoud Ibrahim (at right) and Nathan Fisher’s Travel Documents, 2016. Image courtesy the artists

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.

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Still from Mahmoud Ibrahim (at right) and Nathan Fisher’s Travel Documents, 2016. Image courtesy the artists

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.

Urgent Cinema: Seeking Complex Representations of Black Life

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 […]

Sha Cage (center) in E.G. Bailey’s New Neighbors, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

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.

Urgent Cinema: Norah Shapiro on Ilhan Omar’s Campaign

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 […]

Norah Shapiro. Time for Ilhan (working titles). 2016

Still from Norah Shapiro’s Time for Ilhan (working title), 2016. Image courtesy the artist

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.

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Still from Norah Shapiro’s Time for Ilhan (working title), 2016. Image courtesy the artist

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.

Carmen Herrera Right Now: Alison Klayman’s Portrait of the Artist at 100

Collected by major museums worldwide—including MoMA, the Walker, and the Whitney, which opens an exhibition of her early paintings next month—Carmen Herrera is the subject of Alison Klayman’s new documentary, The 100 Years Show. But such acclaim wasn’t quick in coming: it was nearly seven decades into her career when the Havana-born, New York–based painter, then 89 years old, sold her first […]

Carmen Herrera in Alison Klayman's The 100 Years Show. Photo courtesy the artist

Carmen Herrera in Alison Klayman’s The 100 Years Show. Photo courtesy the artist

Collected by major museums worldwide—including MoMA, the Walker, and the Whitney, which opens an exhibition of her early paintings next month—Carmen Herrera is the subject of Alison Klayman’s new documentary, The 100 Years Show. But such acclaim wasn’t quick in coming: it was nearly seven decades into her career when the Havana-born, New York–based painter, then 89 years old, sold her first painting. Klayman, best known for her acclaimed 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, says the film emerged from her interest in both Herrera’s signature minimalist style and in “how she stayed committed to her artistic practice without external validation or acclaim for so many decades.”

Filmed in the two years prior to Herrera’s 100th birthday in 2015, the film features an interview with Olga Viso, the Walker’s executive director and a friend of the artist, as well as footage of a Herrera sculpture in the center’s permanent collection. In advance of the Walker’s September 8 screening of The 100 Years ShowViso connected with Klayman to discuss the film’s aim of capturing “Carmen Herrera right now, looking back at 100 years of life and art.”

How did you first get interested in telling Carmen Herrera’s story?

I met Carmen for the first time and began filming her in the fall of 2013, when she was 98 years old. I was introduced to her through some folks at her gallery, who also work with Ai Weiwei. Even though you might not think of documentary film as having a “casting process,” it’s actually so crucial. Meeting Carmen left me convinced that it would be an enriching experience to make this documentary, and that she was compelling enough to “star” in a film.

What compelled you to make the film following the success of your previous documentary about Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei? Are there any parallels to observe between these two artists as subjects?

In my mind it made sense to go from Ai Weiwei to Carmen Herrera because I wanted to take on new and different storytelling challenges, and also to focus on a woman artist next. Carmen Herrera’s story stood in contrast to Ai Weiwei in many ways. She found her breakthrough style before Ai Weiwei was even born and was creating art in this vein for decades outside of the public eye. She was never seeking to make a political statement and in the present doesn’t leave her house. What inspired her minimalist style, and how she stayed committed to her artistic practice without external validation or acclaim for so many decades, were questions I wanted to explore because I found them personally very challenging. (I still do.)

But I think there are parallels between their stories as well. Both artists were impacted greatly by periods of artistic development while traveling abroad from their home countries. Both clearly rejected the validity of one-party Communist rule. Both were inspired by New York, yet continue to express something unique about their Chinese or Cuban identity in their work. Both also have an excellent sense of humor and like to joke around a lot.

Carmen Herrera in Alison Klayman's The 100 Years Show. Photo courtesy the artist

Carmen Herrera in Alison Klayman’s The 100 Years Show. Photo courtesy the artist

To make the Ai Weiwei documentary, you followed Weiwei for several years in advance of his controversial arrest and detainment by Chinese authorities. You similarly followed Carmen during the course of a year and a half leading up to her milestone 100th birthday. Yet in Carmen’s case, the film revolves fully around one location—the artist’s New York apartment/studio. Did the reality of the single set shape the structure of the film or your approach to the story?

It seemed achievable to give a strong sense of place for The 100 Years Show, not just in tracking Carmen’s biography through Cuba, then Paris and finally New York City, but specifically grounding it in that studio/apartment where she has lived since the late 1950s. Truthfully, I was nervous about it at first, and it was part of the reason I didn’t put pressure on the project to be a feature-length documentary. I wanted it to be as long as it felt it should be in the edit, even though distributing short documentaries I learned is much harder than feature-length ones. It was liberating to have this approach, though, and I think it served the film well. In the edit, my editor and I found it moved really nicely at a 30-minute running time without ever becoming too claustrophobic for the viewer. Carmen does not chafe or feel confined by her situation. She loves being in her home right now, day in and day out. So it is fitting that the film is rooted but never feels stuck.

Music is an important element in the film. You employ it to mark critical evolutions in Carmen’s life and artistic practice, as well as emphasize the interplay of her Cuban heritage with her American and European experiences. Would you discuss the musical choices you made and their orchestration if relevant?

I love this question, and I’m so glad the music felt notable while watching the film. From the beginning, my plan for the score was to work with two composers: Ilan Isakov, who scored Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and Edgar Gonzalez, a Cuban hip-hop artist and music producer. I thought the music for the film needed to demonstrate a mixture of Latin and classical influences—like a Cuban Woody Allen film soundtrack. I wanted the most Cuban-influenced tracks to come at exuberant moments, so the percussion could really drive those cues. By employing cumbia rhythm, tres guitar, heavy percussion, and other instrumentation choices, I think Edgar achieved a really energetic yet elegant sound. He did the recording and mixing in Havana. Ilan’s cues, recorded with musicians in Philadelphia, were influenced by Latin rhythms but also had a strong classical, sometimes jazzy feel. I kept an eye and ear out for the score’s overall cohesion and chose a few licensed tracks including the 1931 “Cuban Love Song” by Ruth Etting to round out the sound, and I think the music really serves the story.

Carmen Herrera in Alison Klayman’s The 100 Years Show. Photo courtesy the artist

It’s a funny story how I met Edgar—another example of how one project leads you to your next one. I worked with the NGO Roots of Hope to make Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry available with Spanish subtitles in Cuba via underground USB distribution. They introduced me to Edgar and his friend Yrak in Miami a few years ago, and Edgar told me how Never Sorry was popular among the artistic and musical communities in Havana. We connected and always hoped to collaborate on something together.

I think you beautifully captured the sharp edge of Carmen’s wit—as well as her deep optimism. Was this a priority?

100%. She is funny and optimistic, so it was a priority for me that the film embodies those attributes as well.

What other principles were important to you in approaching Carmen as a subject? Or in conveying her personality and spirit?

I spent so many mornings with Carmen and my camera, all in an effort to let her words and her daily routine populate the film. After a while I widened the focus by interviewing curators (including you), gallerists, and longtime friends who could help put her work in context. Like in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, I think the audience’s connection to the personal is enhanced through greater understanding of the wider historical context.

At 101, Carmen’s long life provides such rich threads of content to develop. You could have spent 30 minutes alone examining the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and its impact on Carmen’s life, or explored the exclusion of women in the art world in the 1950s and 60s, but you address these topics quickly and succinctly without belaboring these subjects. Is this purposeful? Why only make a 30-minute film?

This isn’t a film about the Cuban Revolution or women’s role in the art world. It’s a film about Carmen Herrera right now, looking back at 100 years of life and art. I wanted it to be engaging, emotional, and enlightening for audiences, bringing them along every minute.

Olga Viso visits Carmen Herrera in her New York apartment, June 4, 2015, just days after the artist's 100th birthday. Photo courtesy the author

Olga Viso visits Carmen Herrera in her New York apartment, June 4, 2015, in the day’s following the artist’s 100th birthday. Photo courtesy the author

Carmen’s late husband Jesse Loewenthal, who was a passionate champion of her work, features prominently in The 100 Years Show. Was this a difficult balance to strike in a film that asserts Carmen’s individuality and a more of a revisionist feminist viewpoint?

I thought about this often, but ultimately never saw a real contradiction in portraying Carmen as a strong artist while also depicting her love story with Jesse and acknowledging his support of her work. Artists of all ages and levels of fame struggle to build and sustain their careers, and narratives that emphasize individual genius alone don’t tell the full story. In reality, everyone has to find a way to pay for food and shelter and needs sources of emotional support and inspiration—whether their work hangs in museums or they create in obscurity.

What is next on the horizon for you? Are you continuing to focus your documentary work on artist subjects?

My plate is very full at the moment. I am in production on several documentary projects, including a feature called Empty Orchestra about the invention of karaoke in Japan. I’m also developing a few scripted projects, a film and a series. None of these are artist stories, but I know I will always return to this subject. It is a precious opportunity to examine an artist’s practice and life story and find meaning in it that informs my own work.

 

The Wars on Drugs and Terrorism Intersect: Do Not Resist’s Craig Atkinson on Police Militarization

“They need to stop giving these boys these toys, ’cause they don’t know how to handle it.” These words, spoken by a young black woman on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014, set the tone for Do Not Resist, a documentary film by Craig Atkinson. The woman’s comment was recorded just after a phalanx of riot-geared […]

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy Vanish Films

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy Vanish Films

“They need to stop giving these boys these toys, ’cause they don’t know how to handle it.”

These words, spoken by a young black woman on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014, set the tone for Do Not Resist, a documentary film by Craig Atkinson. The woman’s comment was recorded just after a phalanx of riot-geared officers marched through clouds of tear gas to clear demonstrators out after curfew. The shooting death of Michael Brown by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson not only sparked new debates about the use of lethal force by police, but it also led to a nationwide discussion on the increased use of military-style weapons, equipment, and tactics by law enforcement officers.

In conjunction with the Walker’s August 18 screening and panel discussion around Do Not Resist, Minnesota Public Radio reporter Brandt Williams connected with Atkinson to discuss the film and the questions it poses, in small town city councils and in the halls of Congress, about the militarization of police departments. Law enforcement officials say they need better tools to protect themselves and the communities they serve from danger. But does the police force in a town of under 30,000 people need a 24-ton, mine-resistant vehicle? Why is the federal government using the same airborne surveillance technology the military uses to spot terrorists for domestic disturbances? And what is next?

Brandt Williams: The film opens in Ferguson after Michael Brown is shot and killed. We see storm clouds brewing, and the police are armored up as protesters go by. Have you ever been in that kind of environment before?

Craig Atkinson: I’ve shot other protests and protests that turned into police exchanges, but this was our first opportunity to see the military equipment that had been given by the government.

Williams: In that first scene, you got some up close and personal video of these officers, including one scene where, after one night of activity, it’s almost like they’re athletes leaving a playing field, where they bump shields together. How did you get that video?

Atkinson: That all was taking place on the street. What we found was that the media that showed up in Ferguson would leave around 10 or 11 pm to go home and follow these stories, but we didn’t have any other deadlines, so we were able to stay out with the officers until 4 or 5 in the morning. And because not many other people were there, we just put ourselves in a very close position. By simply waiting until the end of the exchange we were able to get material that a lot of people haven’t seen before.

It was interesting to go home the next morning and watch the news, and the accuracy of what we found being portrayed was very different from what we saw waiting until the end of the night and seeing how things played out. It was an eye-opening experience to see the discrepancies between what actually took place and what was being reported.

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Williams: In the film, you go from Ferguson to a scene with Dave Grossman, a well-known police trainer. Your father was a police officer, right?

Atkinson: Yes. My father was a police officer for 29 years outside of Detroit, and he was actually a SWAT officer for 13 of those years.

Williams: How did you father feel about policing, and can you compare the type of policing he did with seeing Grossman using terms like “superior and righteous violence” and saying, “You are men and women of violence.” Did your father feel like he was a “man of violence”?

Atkinson: It was quite surprising to attend a Dave Grossman seminar. We arrived at a place in our project where we thought it would be good to show how police were actually being trained. Grossman is the number-one trainer in America, not only for US Special Forces, but also for law enforcement across the country. He has taught at West Point, and his books are required reading at the FBI Academy. What we found during the six-hour seminar was language I’d never imagined our domestic police forces would be receiving. Things such as: “You’ll get sued at some point in your career. At times you can be sued for not using deadly force. If you stand by when there’s an active shooter and not use deadly force, you can be held for dereliction of duty. But don’t be afraid of being sued. Everyone gets sued; it’s just a chance for overtime.”

Things that were getting a chuckle from the crowd were really conveying a message to police officers that it’s fun to use deadly force. It’s something you might actually enjoy. It’s this whole mentality of controlling a city, rather than identifying as partners and protecting and serving a city. A young officer in a police academy, 21 or 22 years old, receiving this type of messaging, I think it’s going to have an influence. An officer could be coming into the police academy and identifying as someone who’s supposed to protect and serve, or as a peace officer, or someone who’s there to aid the community in a time of crisis, rather than coming in as “a man or woman of violence.”

Williams: I was also struck by the type of training that Grossman does. Is he affiliated with the Bulletproof Warrior training?

Atkinson: Yeah. Bulletproof Warrior training is a Dave Grossman creation. He says he teaches 300 days a year, and he’s been doing it for 18 years. Someone recently pointed out that the officer that shot Philando Castile had attended one of these Bulletproof Warrior training classes. When I went through this six-hour class and heard the rhetoric of fear that Dave Grossman communicates, it automatically signaled an area we should start looking into to find answers about why police officers are responding in violent ways to very mundane actions.

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Williams: The film also touches on the Defense Department program that’s responsible for distributing military equipment to police departments. I was curious about the case in Concord, New Hampshire, where the city council was voting about the BearCat [a Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck]. Did that police chief give a reason for why he wanted this BearCat?

Atkinson: He cited the fact that there’s a growing threat of violence. He actually used language that identified a local protest group that was speaking out against the BearCat. He wrote it into the original grant proposal saying there are protest groups that we need to be cautious of and prepared for. The group protested the chief, and he took that language out of the grant proposal he submitted to DHS.

There are two major sources of funding for police equipment. One is the DOD program, the 1033 program, that’s been going on since 1997, and that’s the one that transfers surplus military equipment to law enforcement. The other one is the Department of Homeland Security grant. That’s the one that’s given $34 billion since 9/11 to local police departments to purchase equipment. In New Hampshire, you had a police chief submitting an application for a grant to Homeland Security, which then authorized a $250,000 grant to purchase a BearCat, which he took to the city council to get a vote on. It’s very hard for elected officials to not vote for something like this, because it’s ultimately proposed as something for officer safety.

Making this movie, we’d hear departments make claims time and time again that all this equipment was for officer safety or to fight terrorism, but in three years of ride-alongs we never had an opportunity to see it used on terrorism or anything like that. On a day to day basis, the equipment was used to raid houses, oftentimes for low-level drug offenses. Obviously, there are times when we need this equipment. Look no further than Orlando, where you had an active shooter situation and the BearCat was used to puncture a hole in the side of the [Pulse] nightclub to allow people to escape and eventually kill the person on the inside. Other opportunities abound where you might need the equipment. But what we kept finding was they’d say it’d be used for terrorism and they turn around and use it for drug search warrants, which were about seizing assets and where other motives seemed to be in play.

Williams: The use of MRAP [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected] vehicles: you have these massive, 24-ton pieces of military equipment built to protect people from IEDs, and in the film we see one rolling down the street of some town in Wisconsin. Was there anything that surprised you about these examples? Did you ever just shake your head at that?

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Atkinson: The entire project we were shaking our heads! We repeatedly saw instances that seemed completely excessive. One can make the case that a BearCat, which was design on an F-250 truck chassis and designed for domestic roads, would make sense for a law enforcement vehicle. But the MRAP is like 45,000 pounds, and some bridges in Fallujah would crumble under the weight of them. The max speed is 45 miles an hour. There was one police department in California that had picked one up from an army depot, and they were never told that the max speed should be about 45 mph because of the weight of the vehicle. Well, an officer was taking it back to the police department on the freeway, going 75 miles an hour. All four tires blow out, and he runs off the side of the road and hits a pickup truck in the oncoming lane and nearly kills the driver. There are these situations where you think, My god, why would we need an MRAP, that is designed solely to resist an IED. Why do we need it on the streets of Wisconsin?

Williams: Another part of the film that struck me is this kind of dark turn, looking toward the future of law enforcement–using tools and technology that a lot of us feel like we only see in science fiction. I was reminded of movies like Minority Report or the Terminator movies, when they’re talking about unmanned drones that can make decisions to take out targets without a human [involved] or predicting who is going to commit crimes. Where did you start hearing about this type of technology?

Atkinson: We discovered it in about 2014, when everyone started focusing on the military hardware coming back: the tanks and the weapons. We looked at the history of the program, which had been going on for 30 years, and realized: all that equipment was already out and it wasn’t coming back. The MRAPs were not coming back in. All the other equipment that was gifted to law enforcement wasn’t coming back in.

So I was like: even if they make reform, what’s coming next? And what we saw was a lot of the surveillance technology that was returning from Iraq and Afghanistan was making its way back. What we saw was people that would retire from the military and go into the private sector and take the technology with them, essentially. We saw technology companies approaching law enforcement and suggesting tools to use, oftentimes making them sign nondisclosure agreements so police personnel couldn’t inform the community of what they were actually using. It was private companies approaching law enforcement, offering very high power tools, and law enforcement would start using them without any policy directive on how they’re going to be deployed or what rules they should be governed by. So it was very much like private companies were dictating how the police were policing in their own communities.

We saw this throughout 2014, and we realized what we really were filming was the transition between the war on drugs and the war on terror as it related to domestic law enforcement. Because the war on terror has been fought, and is being fought, with a lot of technology—surveillance technology, obviously. We know all about the vacuuming up of the email communications of the entire web for defense companies and security agencies to analyze at a future date. Well, we came across technology providers that were taking the same IBM platform that the NSA uses to gather up all our communication and offering it to law enforcement for a $1,000 a year subscription. It’s the exact same platform the NSA uses. That may be very effective in fighting terrorism, but there was no policy in place to govern how local law enforcement, which doesn’t have the oversight that the maybe NSA even has, were to use this technology on local populations.

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Williams: The Philando Castile shooting here in Falcon Heights in July was very unique because we had live video streaming from the scene right after the shooting. During protests in the wake of officer-involved shootings of African Americans, there has been a lot of the use of Twitter and other social media to get the word out about the conduct of officers at these demonstrations. It seems like there’s almost a technology race between folks trying to document police and police trying to control that particular message—from social media to body cams. When you talked to law enforcement officials, did they talk about using social media and other technology to control their message and how they’re portrayed?

Atkinson: A lot of the younger officers are very technology-capable and adopt technology quickly, and older officers across the country are very slow to react.

Obviously social media has played a huge role in a lot of the protest community being able to get their message out. One thing we saw that I want the protest community to be aware of is the fact that a lot of these police officers are gathering up all the Twitter communication and analyzing it and putting algorithms on it. They’re creating sophisticated models in order to create accounts and influence the discussion that’s happening on Twitter. There are comprehensive ways to influence a Twitter discussion by botting and using your own discussion feeds to interject on a conversation that’s already happened. We saw police officers going online and interacting with protesters in a way that you would consider to be trolling, and the only goal was to keep them from doing their protest duties. The person would be consumed with having to block accounts or deal with racist posts on their accounts and having to delete posts, and they’d spend hours of their day dealing with these trolls, when in fact it was police officers on the other end trying to influence the discussion. I don’t know if it’s individual officers who are doing that or if it’s a top-down approach.

You mentioned body cameras. They have been looked to as a panacea to fix policing. But one thing we realized is that technology companies are already figuring out how you could have a body camera relay back to the squad car, which would have wifi that would relay back to the department, and you could have real-time facial recognition in all of the police cameras. This solution that was thought to give citizens police oversight, and to protect officers against wrongful claims against them, now a technology company has stepped in to provide a solution that would give a significant advantage to the police department.

Williams: There was the discussion in the film of the FBI conducting surveillance flights over Ferguson at the request of police. Most people may figure, “Well, I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I worry if the police are searching. They’re just looking for the bad guys.” Do you get a sense that people’s attitude has changed about, or do they just not realize the reach that law enforcement has these days?

Atkinson: I think that mentality is starting to shift a bit, because we’re beginning to understand the breadth of data that’s being collected. Look no further than the insurance industry. Previously, in order to be the biggest insurance company you’d have to insure the greatest number of people. But with the data that the industry has been able to collect on patients over the years, they realized that computer-modeling technology could help them figure out who’s likely or unlikely to get sick. So the idea is to insure the people who were unlikely to get sick and _not_ insure the people who were likely to get sick. Date is being collected and analyzed more and more in ways than give a significant advantage to corporations who own the data, against the very people they collected date from. But users are constantly giving data to corporations, and they’re getting some services, but the number of services that they’re getting are by no means the same value of the data that they’re contributing. Google, Facebook, they all turn around and use our data in ways that generate significant revenue for themselves, and oftentimes it can be a disadvantage for the users who are the ones that provided the data in the first place. This is happening across the board.

So think about big data entering policing. A lot of the statistics that are being analyzed are from Comstat. Dave Grossman says in footage that I didn’t include in the film, “Every police chief in the country knows that you can make the crime data say whatever you want it to say.” Police officers have known for years that they’ve been fudging the numbers on this Comstat data, because it’s an accounting technique where you account for certain crimes one way instead of another, and it makes it looks like the crime rate is going down. It’s been happening over the course of the last decade that Comstat has been used across the board to gather police statistics. My fear is that if you’re using this Comstat data, which I feel is compromised, to analyze and do significant deep studies on, and then go out and determine whether someone should be let out of prison or not or to predict if a child is likely to commit a homicide by the age of 18. Those predictive analytics may be very helpful, but if they’re based off of data that’s inaccurate, I think we’ll find ourselves in a situation where there will be more unjust predictions than just. We need to figure out whether this data we’re putting into police predictive models is sound, reliable data. Or are we just finding the answers that we’re already looking for?

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy Vanish Films

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy Vanish Films

Williams: In the film [FBI director] James Comey speaks to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, stating, “Monsters are real.” Do you get the sense who these monsters are? As you mentioned, a lot of the equipment isn’t being used to fight terrorists; it’s being used to serve search warrants to find weed or guns.

Atkinson: When Comey mentions that in the film, he’s referring to terrorists like ISIS. When I speak to police officers, they say they’re preparing for terrorists. The thing is, when we went out on a day to day basis, it wasn’t terrorists. It was local citizens, often in low-income neighborhoods. Police officers may have the best interests and may truly feel that monsters are lurking—and quite honestly some of these officers do have to go up against situations where things become extremely violent and there are active shooters and it can seem like that—but I think there needs to be a separate application of force standard for local communities versus having this level of equipment that you keep saying is for terrorism applied in the exact same way.

Williams: Looking at the events of last month, we saw police officers shot in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and in both cases the assailants used high-powered rifles and military training. How do shootings like this change the discussions around the militarization of police?

Atkinson: Quite simply, I think it’s a reminder that there are incidences where you absolutely need this equipment. It very clearly illustrates that police officers are oftentimes put in positions where they need to have a significant amount of protection.

Williams: In Dallas, the police used a robot with an explosive on it to kill an assailant. Had you heard about this before?

Atkinson: No, that was a first. The thing with the Dallas shooting was that in the hours before they used the robot, the police had released photos of another individual who was at home and saw his face on the news. He wasn’t a suspect; he’d been home all night. Well, he ran out of the house and found the nearest police officer and identified himself, and he was taken into custody and later released. I’m not saying the person in the Dallas shooting wasn’t the proper guy and didn’t end up getting what he deserved. I’m saying it’s a new threshold we’re crossing when we’re basically offering a summary judgment on this individual, sending in a robot with an explosive to kill a guy. What if the guy who was misidentified was the person who was accidentally killed by the robot? It’s a scary threshold to cross that we’re using summary judgment in the filed in a very new way. How many steps away is it to have a robot make a decision for itself?

Williams: What are the key questions you hope people who see the movie come away with, and do you think this should lead to a larger discussion, not only about the militarization of the police, but even their role in crime-fighting today?

Atkinson: Hopefully the film opens up the discussion about training. There are a lot of young officers who come in to do what the profession is presented as—to protect and serve. And I think these young officers are highly impressionable. I’m hoping we identify ways to give them the tools they actually need the most in the field. When I’d go on ride-alongs over the last three years, more often than not we were being called for domestic violence situations or for people having mental health crises. More often than not, they need to be able to de-escalate the situation. I saw them, often times, grossly unprepared for de-escalating the situation. However, if the situation turned into violence, they were very well equipped to handle that. One, I hope the film starts that discussion.

Two, no matter who gets elected in the next presidential election, I think the discussion is going to move toward federalizing the police force. That is something we need to be cautious of, because look at who has provided the equipment to law enforcement that has created this environment of over-militarization. The federal government. I think it would be the wrong choice to turn around and hand law enforcement to the influence that has gotten us away from the community policing model which we all thought we were operating on, before events like Ferguson woke us up to the fact that we’d gone a different direction.

Unstaged Events: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera Gets a Hip-Hop Score

Though distinguished by native tongue and nationality—not to mention nearly a century—filmmaker Dziga Vertov and musician Spencer Wirth-Davis have a lot more in common than might be immediately apparent. One is a legend of his craft, a technical pioneer whose kinetic stylized montage influenced the course of cinema, while the other boasts a comparatively modest […]

Though distinguished by native tongue and nationality—not to mention nearly a century—filmmaker Dziga Vertov and musician Spencer Wirth-Davis have a lot more in common than might be immediately apparent. One is a legend of his craft, a technical pioneer whose kinetic stylized montage influenced the course of cinema, while the other boasts a comparatively modest resume, as one of the more prolific and sought after beatmakers in the Twin Cities. Yet their equally innovative methodologies demonstrate a shared spirit of formal experimentation, a patient willingness to seek out the most elemental, potent iteration of their chosen craft. A veteran of the Twin Cities hip-hop scene who makes instrumentals under the name Big Cats, Wirth-Davis will perform his original score to Vertov’s silent ode to city living Man with a Movie Camera on August 22, in the final installment of the Walker’s Summer Music & Movies 2016: Living on Video series (local punk favorites Bruise Violet will open the outdoor event in Loring Park). Although the two artists work in different media, their output is more than complementary. Rather, their pairing marks a strange sort of cosmic collision, a meeting of two artists whose practices speak in eerie parallel and attest to the enduring questions confronted by one making art in an increasingly technologized world.

Still from Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Photo: Photofest/©Amkino Corporation

Still from Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Photo: Photofest/©Amkino Corporation

Born Denis Kaufman in the city of Bialystok in the Russian Empire (located in modern day Poland), Dziga Vertov adopted his professional name (the surname derived from the Ukrainian verb “to spin” and the given name an onomatopoeia referring to the noise of a camera crank turning) shortly before becoming a filmmaker. As Vertov described it in remarks to the Association of Workers in Revolutionary Cinematography in 1934, his first encounter with filmmaking came not as a director, but as an actor. In a short clip shot outside of a Moscow summer home, Vertov jumped one-and-a-half stories from the top of a grotto to the ground below. He described his amazement, upon later watching the footage, at how the scene, shot in relative close-up, provided a hyper-detailed study of the moment’s emotional minutiae: in turn revealing fear, indecision, resolution, and, finally, surprised self-satisfaction, as the actor prepared for and successfully completed his leap. Seduced by this quality of representational precision, Vertov embraced a seemingly paradoxical approach to art-making in which effect and technical manipulation were treated as tools to be used in the service of realism, the mode in which Vertov believed the cinema enjoyed a particularly privileged position.

Accordingly, Man with a Movie Camera delivers a bounty of special effects, which although no longer novel, still stir up an easy feeling of wonder when paired with Vertov’s images—unstaged, everyday vignettes, in settings ranging from the city street to the movie house. Split screen and double exposure create kaleidoscopic cityscapes and action-filled visual collages; slow motion grants athletic feats awe-inspiring clarity; stop motion animates a movie camera, extending its legs to totter around the screen before settling down to the ground like a dog to sleep.

Yet the defining stance of Vertov’s career—and equally the conceptual impulse that brings it into dialogue with Wirth-Davis’s work—was his antipathy to cinematic narrative conventions. Part of the core cohort associated with the seminal period of Soviet cinema—alongside the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin—Vertov’s first filmmaking experience came producing newsreel propaganda in support of the Red forces during the Russian Civil War, a practice that continued following the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. In ’22 and ’23, Vertov published a series of manifestos, calling for a revolutionary cinema to match the nation’s new social order: one purged of “foreign matter—of music, literature, and theater.” This fundamentally socialist project advocated a specific model of documentary filmmaking, termed “Kino-eye” by Vertov and the other members of the “Council of Three” (Vertov’s wife, the film editor Elizaveta Svilova, and his cameraman brother Mikhail Kaufman). Rejecting the narrative and psychological forms inherited from literary precedent, with Kino-eye Vertov sought to create a more perfect record of real life—a goal he considered only possible through the medium of film, with its capacity for capturing the lived moments of regular citizens from across the Soviet state.

“Kino-eye plunges into the seeming chaos of life to find in life itself the response to an assigned theme,” Vertov wrote in the 1929 essay “From Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye.” “To find the resultant force amongst the million phenomena related to the given theme. To edit; to wrest, through the camera, whatever is most typical, most useful, from life; to organize the film pieces wrested from life into a meaningful rhythmic visual order, a meaningful visual phrase, an essence of ‘I see.’” In the wide-eyed early years of cinema, this goal was more than symbolic. In “WE: Variant of a Manifesto,” published in 1922, the “kinoks”—as Kino-eye’s acolytes referred to themselves—stated a lofty intention: finding a “film scale” by which to “organiz[e] the necessary movements of objects in space as a rhythmical artistic whole.”

Still from Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Photo: Photofest/©Amkino Corporation

Still from Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Photo: Photofest/©Amkino Corporation

While the kinoks arguably never realized such a scale, Man with a Movie Camera’s metered approach to montage is surely as close as they came. Vertov’s last silent feature, the film did not use the intertitles that were typical of the era, fully committing itself to a steady visual rhythm that suggests nearly beat-by-beat tracking for a would-be accompanist (indeed, live accompaniment was entirely the norm in this era of silent film). Funded by the state-sponsored Ukrainian film studio VUFKO and shot in various cities throughout the Soviet republics, the film depicts a day in the life of the proletariat denizens of the newly created state, Vertov’s fast-paced editing careening from setting to setting according to free-associative symbolic or visual links. Thus, a scene of a shampoo bath in a hair salon abruptly cuts to a woman washing laundry outdoors in a tub. This transitions to a shot of the lathered neck of a barbershop patron before the barber’s straight razor is replaced by an axe-blade being sharpened in close-up on a stone wheel. The images are deliberately quotidian, dated by their time and place, but striking in their naturalism (the kinoks placed a premium on realism in their filmed images, employing techniques ranging from a hidden camera to subject distraction to catch their “players” unawares). Athletes in action, crowds milling about in the street, bathers lazing casually along the seashore. Even as his subjects approach more existentially weighty territory—with stops in marriage and divorce courts; footage of a young man being loaded into an ambulance, seemingly mortally injured; even an onscreen birth—Vertov’s evasion of narrative and his and Svilova’s dynamic approach in the editing room retain the flesh-and-blood realism of the lives depicted on screen, the clumsy novelty and indelible hopefulness of a swiftly modernizing world.

If Dziga Vertov imagined a cinema for the future, that future is assuredly Spencer Wirth-Davis’s present. Though the political promise of the Soviet Union slowly devolved, leading to its dissolution in 1991, Vertov’s radical aesthetic vision proved prescient of contemporary trends in art and technology—particularly in Big Cats’s chosen field of hip-hop.

Hip-hop has always been a technology-driven musical genre. One finds its origins in the manual vinyl effects of dance party DJs in 1970s Bronx, New York, who employed twin turntables to blend and extend the drum breaks in funk, R&B, and disco records. With the introduction of samplers, drum machines, and increasingly sophisticated scratching and mixing techniques, hip-hop production quickly evolved from this party scene into a coherent genre in its own right, characterized by its complexly layered sonic collages. More recently, popular access to the internet, coupled with the widespread availability of laptop production software, have made it increasingly easy for artists to make and release music, letting seemingly niche acts like Odd Future and Lil B (among so many others) gain a toehold in the musical mainstream.

Big Cats’s transformation from hip-hop fan to working producer follows a similar trajectory. Though he had studied music from a young age—playing the bass in youth orchestras and jazz bands from age nine through high school—Wirth-Davis’s interests began to shift when he discovered hip-hop in his early teens, initially through the Bay Area turntablist group Invisibl Skratch Piklz, which he found on the internet. Piqued by the group’s sound, he began to explore the hip-hop community that had quietly started to gestate in the Twin Cities during the ’90s and early 2000s, centered on the Rhymesayers Entertainment record label. Immediately interested in the craft of turntablism, Wirth-Davis found inspiration in locals like DJ Abilities and his various emcee affiliates (Eyedea, Slug, et al). It was out of this creative community that Wirth-Davis’s first major hip-hop project, The Tribe & Big Cats!, took shape. Having graduated from the turntable set to the MPC, Wirth-Davis teamed up with local rapper TruthBe Told to put out a series of releases in 2010 and ’11 that coupled lush samples with nimble, biographical raps.

Throughout his affiliation with The Tribe & Big Cats!, Wirth-Davis maintained a traditional approach to production, in which short clips of music are lifted from other artists’ records and looped to create a repeating musical pattern, complemented by drum tracks and instrumentals. But when he was named the recipient of a sizable McKnight Artist Fellowship in 2011, he chose a different technique for the resulting record, For My Mother, released the following year. Tapping into his background in classical music and jazz, Wirth-Davis wrote a series of original compositions, which were then recorded in studio sessions involving more than a dozen musicians on live instruments. Approaching the resulting masters as he would another artist’s record, Wirth-Davis assembled the final album from samples extracted from these studio sessions. The final work inhabited a space of conceptual tension, with its deliberate composition and instrumentation process yielding a mass of material that was immediately put under the blade, becoming the raw ingredients of software-assembled electronic loops. It’s a process he has since repeated, both for solo projects and collaborations with rappers Toki Wright and Homeless, with an increasing emphasis on organic, improvised instrumentation, rather than the more structured—and more expensive—studio sessions of For My Mother.

Spencer Wirth-Davis, aka Big Cats. Photo: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

Spencer Wirth-Davis, aka Big Cats. Photo: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

“This process, once I did it, made a lot more sense for me. Having a background as a musician, knowing and working with a lot of musicians, this actually ended up giving me a lot more freedom than sampling other people’s work,” Big Cats said before a recent gig at First Avenue’s 7th St. Entry, opening for D.C.-based rapper Oddisee.

“If I have 30 minutes of sample material to pull from that’s all in the same vein or around the same idea, that gives me a lot more to work with than if I have these three seconds that I’m going to pull from a record,” he added.

Out of these sessions, featuring a fairly stable roster of musicians, including Eric Mayson, Lydia Liza, Nelson Devereaux, and Miguel Hurtado, Big Cats builds instrumentals that are both atmospheric and percussive, naturally suited to scoring a film (especially one as saturated with the mechanical rhythms of industry and transportation as Man with a Movie Camera). Today, Wirth-Davis’s sound is as indebted to the classical, jazz, and rock music he studied and played growing up as it is to the hip-hop culture he discovered as a teenager. Noting the repetitive quality inherent to classically sampled hip-hop production, Wirth-Davis aspires to make sampled music of a greater tonal range than is typical of the genre, creating soundscapes that match the sonic peaks and valleys of a film score. Samples drop in and out of the mix with regularity, and his music is stretched temporally, relative to most hip-hop production: its emotional peaks and valleys arriving minutes apart, rather than landing repeatedly within a sample that stretches for only a few seconds before it is looped.

“It’s okay to have quieter moments and it’s okay to have moments where there’s not necessarily a lot going on. But then to couple that with really loud, in your face, bass-heavy, energetic moments,” Wirth-Davis said. “Watching a film, you’re going to have moments where the music is barely there, and it’s just a bed under whatever’s happening. And then you’re going to have moments where the music really needs to accent whatever’s happening in that scene.”

While for Wirth-Davis, this method has more to do with function than theory, his experimentation with sampling processes provides an interesting contemporary counterpart to Vertov’s Kino-eye, a conceptual stance that championed authenticity in an art medium built upon a foundation of illusion. Vertov’s film craft strategy was rooted in the voracious documentation of “unstaged” life, an amassing of exhibits for eventual deployment in the examination of an “assigned theme,” a topic to be approached through direct examples—a sort of visual sampling—which, when strategically compiled through effect and editing, create a rhythmic approximation of a thing with its own visual logic. Big Cats’s plan for his Man with a Movie Camera score is strikingly similar: acclimate to the mood and rhythm of the film, assemble his team of studio improvisers, and, finally, write and experiment his way to a trove of raw musical footage to be whittled down into a series of perfect loops.

What’s striking about these two artists is their peculiar, even paradoxical, commitment to the “real” in their art—the lengths to which each is willing to travel in the interest of capturing his version of truth, even as their very methods seem to undermine such a pursuit. Vertov decries the illusive conventions of narrative, but peppers his films with indulgent visual spectacle. In the sound films that he made during the latter part of his career, he advocated an “unstaged sound” to match his “unstaged cinema,” lugging audio recording equipment into the field along with his cameras to capture the true sounds of his socialist subjects. Yet he made no argument as to coupling that sound with the onscreen image, allowing for both synchronous and asynchronous audiovisual pairings—the latter a jarring interruption to cinema’s seemingly objective eye. Meanwhile, Big Cats places a premium on improvisation and instrumentation in a genre built on the artificial repetition of extant material, building electronic tracks out of live improvisation, only to take them apart again in largely unrehearsed concerts featuring a set of musicians endlessly reimagining their own sampled selves. He chooses the total freedom of composition, yet remains loyal to the stylistic and sonic tropes of vinyl sampling (preferring, for example, to sample full band mixes, rather than single instruments, to retain the accidental “artifacts” that arrive as passengers of a sampled melody or drum part—a traditional, but now unnecessary, textural quality of classic hip-hop production).

These may seem like impossible positions to assimilate, and perhaps they are. Yet, in a cultural landscape where musical pitch-correction technology serves to distort vocals rather than polish them and the source of record of our contemporary social lives comes with a built-in set of artificial photo filters, their work strikes a transcendent tone. In a world where parole officers play drug lords on wax and our children’s most vivid coming of age narratives play out in picturebook tableaux, one finds terms like “real” and “artificial” to be equally apt descriptors of the same phenomena.

On August 22, Big Cats and company will improvise their way through an unrepeatable series of repeated loops, one of an infinite set of variations on a composed score that will only ever exist live. An unstaged event—as Vertov would have it.

Close-Up: The Walker Remembers Abbas Kiarostami

Martin Scorsese once praised Abbas Kiarostami as representing “the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” Responding to those words several years ago, the Iranian director replied, “This admiration is perhaps more appropriate after I am dead.” Sadly, it now is: Kiarostami passed away in Paris on July 4, 2016 at the age of 76. In celebration […]

Abbas Kiarostami, 1998. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Abbas Kiarostami, 1998. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Martin Scorsese once praised Abbas Kiarostami as representing “the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” Responding to those words several years ago, the Iranian director replied, “This admiration is perhaps more appropriate after I am dead.” Sadly, it now is: Kiarostami passed away in Paris on July 4, 2016 at the age of 76.

In celebration of his legacy and commemoration of his passing, the Walker presents a memorial screening of Kiarostami’s 1990 film Close-Up tonight, July 28. The film was screened at the Walker in 1998, as part of  the Walker Dialogue and Retrospective series. Occurring shortly after the director won the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for his feature Taste of CherryAbbas Kiarostami: In Retrospect welcomed the director as the series’ 25th guest.

But Kiarostami’s visit almost didn’t happen, as Bruce Jenkins, Walker film curator at the time (now a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), recalled to me in an email:

One of the distinctive aspects of the Dialogues series involves the financial wherewithal to support visits by major international artists. Wim Wenders had come to the Walker from Germany; Jane Campion flew in from Australia; Chen Kaige traveled from China; and the Quay Brothers—Timothy and Stephen—made a rare trip from London to the Twin Cities. But no visit seemed to involve more planning or more problem-solving than one that brought the extraordinary Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami in February 1998 to the Walker.

The invitation had been made a year earlier and while it was received positively, the arrangements for his travel to the US were to prove both complicated (because of governmental restrictions) and costly. Since there was no official US presence in Tehran, travel visas could only be obtained abroad. Kiarostami had been able to do this in the past at the American Embassy in Paris, but a recent negative experience convinced the filmmaker that this was no longer a viable route, and he proposed canceling the trip.

That’s when we contacted Joan Mondale, who having recently returned from Japan had rejoined the Walker board, and asked her advice and help. Mrs. Mondale quickly got her husband Walter, the former ambassador to Japan (and vice president), involved. While neither Kiarostami nor the Walker ever learned the exact nature of his intervention, Kiarostami was given his visa in Paris without incident and flew from there to the Twin Cities, a bit baffled perhaps by the VIP treatment he had received en route to his Dialogue at the Walker.

At the Walker, Kiarostami discussed the entirety of his career—including Close-Up—with Richard Peña, then program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chair of the selection committee for the New York Film Festival. A blend of documentary and fiction, Close-Up depicted the sensational real life event of Hossein Sabzian fraudulently impersonating the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and lying his way into the life of a Tehran family. Speaking to the Guardian about Kiarostami, Makhalmabaf observed: “He changed the world’s cinema; he freshened it and humanized it in contrast with Hollywood’s rough version.”

Initially panned by Iranian critics, Close-Up—which was notable for its destabilizing use of realism, puncturing of the fourth wall and curiosity about small moments and secondary characters—eventually brought the director to international acclaim and is now widely celebrated as a cinematic masterpiece and ranked by BFI as one of the greatest films of all time.

Telling Peña about his first film, Bread and Alley (1970), Kiarostami noted that he opted to work with a non-professional boy and dog after unsuccessfully trying to find a seven year-old professional actor. The film was the first of eight shorts produced for the Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun) and aptly anticipated a career-long interest in portraying the seemingly mundane texture of daily life with humor, sensitivity and an eye for detail.

Ballroom Is Not for Sale: Fatha Jazz Bordeaux on Twin Cities Ballroom

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 […]

Fatha Jazz Bordeaux, Motha Couture Bordeaux, Gia Marie Love, Sara Jordenö, Semaj Bordeaux & Company and others at Walker Art Center July 21, 2016: Photography by Angela Jimenez

Fatha Jazz Bordeaux with Motha Couture Bordeaux, Gia Marie Love, Sara Jordenö, Semaj Bordeaux & Company and others at the Walker Art Center, July 21, 2016. Photo by Angela Jimenez

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.

The House of Bordeaux. Photo courtesy Fatha Jazz Bordeaux

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.

A community member participates in a Vogue Performance at the Walker Art Center July 21, 2016. Photo by Angela Jimenez

A community member participates in a vogue performance production at the Walker. Photo: Angela Jimenez

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.

 

Semaj Bordeaux & Company performs at the Walker Art Center July 21, 2016: Photo: Angela Jimenez

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.

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Community member, ballroom participant, and the Twin Cities’ first Butch of the Year, Cartier Bordeaux lost her life to gun violence. Photo courtesy Fatha Jazz Bordeaux

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.

Fatha Jazz Bordeaux: Photograph courtesy of Fatha Jazz Bordeaux

Fatha Jazz Bordeaux: Photo courtesy the artist

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.

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