My movies were included in the inaugural New York Feminist Film Week, which took place March 7-12, 2017 was curated by Sofia Varino and Joy Schaefer at Anthology Film Archives. I was asked participate in the Saturday afternoon program called “Feminist Film Genealogies Roundtable” I wrote these notes down because I thought I would go completely blank in front of a large crowd. (I did have these notes in my hands, but then forgot to read them. Anyway, here they are.)
This discussion make me have to really think about where I stand in the flow of women who make films, and what part feminism plays in them. Already this week I’ve learned so much. Thank you Joy Schafer and Sofia Varino for including me.
I am from a working class Irish-American family. The men and women in my family work at physically demanding jobs in canneries, factories, shipyards and railroads. Family decisions were based on survival, with limits and conditions that are very real. Maybe that’s why in my artistic practice I feel very comfortable with limitations of technology, time and money. I fele that limits can make work very present and real. My family didn’t have a television until the 1970s, so I had a childhood of imagination play, games and family stories.
The grown-ups would sit around and tell and re-tell family stories and legends. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that all those different stories I heard were all variations of just a few stories, but told from different perspectives, and modified to suit the purposes of the person telling it. The stories were told in a lighthearted, (often inappropriately sexy) way, to keep people listening and laughing. I like to think that holding all variations of a story as equally valid, and none necessarily true, is part of my work.
Once we got a TV, we loved to watch Sesame Street, so of course I LOVE Jim Henson and his Muppets. My mom still has a crush on Gene Kelly, so I have many treasured memories of watching his musicals on public television. I was also fascinated by late night programs of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films. My brothers and I would secretly watch Monty Python, too.
Fast forward to being a young softball dyke, coming out in 1985, during awful years of the AIDS crisis, and my worldview had not prepared me at all for how serious and sad everything was, especially for queers at that time. When I tried to watch movies or TV, there was nothing available that had anything to do with almost all my gay male friends dying. There were definitely NO moves about my life nor my softball dyke friends, most of whom are working women and Women of Color. So I gave up on movies, and didn’t bother watching many. Also, I didn’t know about film festivals. Somehow, though, someone had me watch Rachel Talalay’s “Tank Girl.” That made me interested in watching movies again. Happily right then those fabulous Australian films were popular, like “Muriel’s Wedding,” “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “Cosi,” and “Strictly Ballroom.”
In the 1990s, I had many smart, university-connected girlfriends, and they’d take me to films like Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” and “The Watermelon Woman,” that were shown on campus. I also have old-school East Village friends who showed me a bootleg VHS tape of Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” and I decided that I could and would make my own movies. (Haynes directed “Carol” and I directed my parody of “Carol” using his own style,)
So around 1998 I stared making silly short movies with Faggotgirl, my butch dyke superhero action figure of myself. My friend Nathalie lovingly transformed a Barbie doll into me, complete with boxers and A-shirt, boots and ballcap,, cropped blond hair. It is genius. Faggotgirl and I would dress alike and take photos of ourselves living our regular lives, but our lives were made extraordinary by centralizing ourselves as “what’s normal” and making anybody who saw us have to name what THEIR discomfort about us was. We felt just fine as we were.
In my movies, I try to distill my story to its most simple form, which lets/makes the viewer have to make up part of the story in their own mind. I like that kind of co-creation, and I trust the viewer to make it fabulous. Being a working class girl I was taught that I Must Prioritize How To Be Most Useful To Men, and not ever to think that I have a creative brain and my own way to solve problems. I still struggle to feel confidence about my voice and my truth. I think making humorous movies gives me an excuse if someone criticizes my work. I use the technology (now 10 years old) and materials I have available. I feel it is feminist to work with the limits of materials and money, and let them guide me, rather than stop me. My mother did the same thing with sewing our clothes from scraps and reused fabric, and she came up with triumphant, original stylish designs.
When I lived in Austin, Texas, for a couple years, I was asked to become a member of The Austin Project, led by Sharon Bridgforth and Dr. Omi Jones. TAP is a collective of women of color and allies who are activists, artists and/or scholars. Our work was made in and because of the communities where we lived. We met at least once a week to talk, write, and sometimes perform. We worked in what Dr. Omi calls the Theatrical Jazz Aesthetic, which she describes as a Black southern tradition of creation. It is about collaborative listening and responding in the moment, simultaneous truths, virtuosity, and prioritizing multiplicity rather than singularity. The process of creation is as important as the outcome, and ease of duplication is not a goal, being present is. This became my definition of feminism, and I am deeply grateful for that time with them. Through TAP I learned from Bridgforth and Dr. Omi, and also Daniel Alexander Jones, Helga Davis, and Split Britches’ Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw. Because of The Austin Project, I worked on short films with Sharon Bridgforth and Laurie Carlos (who recently joined the ancestors.)
This might be why most of the people in my artistic community are Women of Color performers, like my sisters YaliniDream (Yalini Thambynayagam) and JenDog Lonewolf. I am often asked to support their productions either at the performance space or by documenting it. I think all these years around stage performers taught me to be a ruthless editor, and not waste the audience’s attention with back story. I consider it a liberatory practice for myself, and so maybe a feminist one, to plop myself down in the middle of the story and to remain the center of it. I try to own my truth, usually imperfectly and always incompletely. I myself am a work in progress.
I made a movie about my experience as a patient in a psychiatric facility, but other than that one I use inanimate objects to humanize situations. That brings up the question of Bodies (like the theme of the program Wednesday night of the NYFFWeek). Faggotgirl lets me, and everybody, go do shit that needs to get done. When I use Fisher-Price figures to stand in for people, it gives enough distance to empathize, but can expose harmful ideologies. I like to think of it as a way to help people watch themselves. James Baldwin said his work was to be a Witness, and I like to think that the characters in my movies gives me, and the audience, an opportunity for what my friend Paula calls “collective ethical witnessing.”
My hope for feminist film is in support of a movement toward justice, My hope is that a wider variety of women’s lives will be seen on screen. The future looks bright for feminist film, especially in my Do-It-Yourself corner of it. I won an award for “Weirdest Film The Judges Ever Saw” at the Austin Gay Lesbian Film Festival’s 2004 “My Gay Movie” competition, and continued to lord over that festival for the three years they held it. I have shown my movies in the UK and at GenderReel in the USA for about 5 years. In 2013, Theresa Heath-Elul and Tara Brown of the Wotever DIY Film Festival in London took a chance on a Faggotgirl movie, in which my action figure of myself tries to use the NYC subway. It was well received, and the WDIYFF has become my strongest and most enthusiastic supporter. I’m so grateful to them. In 2015, I was a featured filmmaker in the WDIYFF, and they included me in a program they curated at the British Film Institute. That year they also featured me in a retrospective program that included Bev Zalcock and Sara Chambers of Barrelstout (Pitbull) Productions and Val Phoenix. I was fortunate to be able to hang out with them and talk about what we are doing. The UK and US Trans/GNC communities have dynamic festivals showing original and necessary stories that mainstream festivals don’t show. I hope that will change. In my travels to the UK, I’ve collaborated with Jac and Angie of Looking At You Productions, and at their kitchen table I’ve had great conversations with Other Soren filmmakers. There is a great festival in Brighton (and now traveling around Europe) called “Women Over 50 Film Festival” that requires all films shown to be made by or featuring women over 50 years old (a demographic I’m now part of.)
So now I have 20 years of work, short movies about immigration, disability, gender, mental health, and of course picking up women.I make the movies hoping that one day I can show them in my town, like having an open bar some evening at the tavern and running them on the sports screens. I don’t want to embarrass working class people, I am making my movies for us. I want us to survive until there is no more oppression. I want to do my part to reduce the harm that we are doing to each other until that day comes.
I love my family of filmmakers, performers and academics. We take a hard look at the world and ourselves, and push each other to go deeper and more courageously. We are okay with things being messy. We know that we hold contradictory truths even within ourselves, and that we are all part of systems of oppression in one way or another. But we will keep trying to speak up and learn. We think about, celebrate and collaborate with each other, because our stories aren’t the ones on the screens or in the books. We question that way things have been, with determination and love. We hope to change everything, and to have a good time doing it.