March 18, 2009
March 19 marks the 6th anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
As one small gesture against the ongoing war, I announce the launch of the website for my anti-war video documentary: SCALE: Measuring Might in the Media Age (2008).
My quirky feminist documentary plays the drama of two leftist sisters (Antonia and I) against the big stage of US empire, corporate greed, and media escalation.
You can watch “SCALE” for free at snagfilms.com.
Or see activists discussing scale on youtube.
You could also set up a screening of SCALE with friends, family, students, or colleagues.
The documentary raises questions about the power of activism and media that seem only more pertinent in our hard times. There’s also a discussion guide on the website.
In any case, I urge you to take a minute, an hour, or the day to mark your continued opposition.
United for Peace and Justice calls for action.
April 9, 2008
On May 18, I will give an hour-long invited lecture on AIDS video history as part of the landmark Make Art/Stop AIDS show currently up at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Given an agregious act of censorship on the part of the museum, my plans for the talk have, understandably, changed. Here is my updated synopsis (more on AIDS to come):
Upon the 2008 censoring of yet another piece of AIDS art, this one by South-African artist, Brenton Maart, a gay man of mixed racial heritage, and commissioned (and then censored by) the Fowler Museum for their current Make Art/Stop AIDS show, I decided to tell the history of the AIDS video movement as dependent upon, needing, wanting censorship. Censorship demands an AIDS act; it propels AIDS art. It always has; it still does. I will tell this small segment of art history as one of censorship and its required response: AIDS video dances in retort, it smirks in disdain, it screams in refusal, it misbehaves accordingly. And so will I. While censorship is always harmful, the hurt of censorship in relation to AIDS video is formative, primal. It’s where we began: in the closet, unheard, our lives and loves unseen, disallowed. When we began in the 1980s, there was so much we couldn’t say and show, so then we did: how we put condoms on penises and dental dams on vaginas, how we kissed, who we fucked, how we rioted, what and who we wanted, how we mourned, how our lives were touched by racism, sexism, and homophobia before during and after AIDS. In my talk, I will argue that the history and aesthetics of AIDS video is one of calculated and strategic responses to the censor. I will argue that then and now the art of AIDS video is produced because of censorship’s demands.
November 27, 2007
I recently attended the festival screening of my friend, Ellen Spiro’s amazing documentary, “Body of War,” which she shot and directed with Phil Donahue (yes that Phil Donahue). It was a beautifully made, inspiring, and tear-provoking portrait of one man seriously injured in the Iraq war who returned home to the country he served to become a vocal activist against the war. It is also, explicitly, a film about Heroism, as this young man’s efforts are paralleled across the film by those of Senator Robert Byrd, one of the few politicians in Washington who had the courage (or heroism) to speak up, and vote against this illicit War.
Ellen and I come from the same school of political documentary: we both began in AIDS activist video, and moved into “queer” media quickly thereafter. Although, outside my participation in “The Watermelon Woman,” it would be important to note that Ellen has had a much more successful career, at least if you note the prestigious venues, awards, and airings of her documentaries (all of which have ended on PBS or HBO, I think).
Thus, when I sat in a theater, moved by her filmmaking, and the man’s story it so clearly told, while surrounded by a diverse audience equally aroused, I thought a lot about political filmmaking tactics, and what her film is doing, mine (SCALE) is not, and what that means for documentary and (anti-war) activism.
Baldly stated: her film uses heroism to its greatest advantage while mine deconstructs it. And please do understand me. I LIKE her film; more than that, I’d warrant her film is ultimately more effective for activism–or at least that’s what I’d like to consider here–because it uses tried and true structures, narratives, and feelings to move people. The film is melodramatic (it relies on issues turned into big emotions), simple (it reduces large and complex politics issues to the lived experiences of one person), and believes in the hero (the regular or regal man whose courage creates change). Meanwhile, by comparison, SCALE is distancing (its focus on the media and its own processes as media remind you that the characters are constructions of the filmmaker, also a character), complex (it refuses to come down on what it believes are the correct tactics for the left and instead considers the range of tactics and disagreements about tactics evidenced along Antonia’s tour), and is uncertain about the effects of heroism (or celebrity) on the individual or the movement. Ellen’s film leaves you weeping and inspired, while I imagine, mine leaves you thinking and riled.
And here I am, yet again on these pages, looking at tactics and individuals (on the left; of activism) that are in seeming opposition to each other, even as the cause remains the same, and the goals, and even the analysis. Yet we can not agree, at this time, on what is to be done. Should our films be didactic and emotional, or erudite and intellectual? What is the happy medium, or should we be making them all, letting them speak to each other, and speaking our opposition in the many languages we speak, and the many structures that can hold it?
November 5, 2007
Two weeks ago, we held a summit on the organizing and distribution possibilities of my documentary, SCALE, generously sponsored by a Chicago feminist media and arts organization and attended by a stellar group of hand-picked women activists, scholars, and organizers. I haven’t been able to write about it until this late date because this was a difficult meeting for me. This is not to say that the participants were un-supportive; they were not. But it is clear that SCALE was, for this group at least, not the “activist film” I had imagined or they had desired. The women in the room expressed that they need from documentary just what my sister has wanted throughout this process (and what she has insisted “activists” would want as well): either an in-depth portrait of the activist, Antonia (how she got there, how she stays there, what she fights for, how she does it), or an illustrated version of her book: a film as easier-to-understand condensation of her critically important ideas, first articulated in words, now in images and with emotion. I will attest that this activist film, the one mine is not, is important, and needed, just not the one I set out to, or even am capable to make. This would be a film that would feed and sustain people who are already working against the war and the Bush Agenda and who need more information, already working and need a pep-talk, already activists and need to see more like themselves on the screen for self-sustaining purposes.
The women in the room were uncomfortable with, or uninterested in the film’s sister-tension (the personal nature of the drama) and self-reflection (its focus on the media rather than Antonia’s ideas as expressed through the media). My departures from Antonia’s ideas were understood to be overly “theoretical,” “abstract,” or “obscure.” Complicatedly, however, it is the documentary’s self-reflexive quality about the state of the left, in relation to media, activism, organizing, and the relations between the personal and the political, which most seems to impress those who are moved by the film. This satisfied viewership understands the film as “activist” in how it allows us to see and talk about the left, activism, and the media with a new formal and verbal vocabulary (that of SCALE).
Which is all to say, that the workshop, although of course personally painful for me, was incredibly illuminating both about the film (how and for who it functions), and about a deep, abiding and defining split within the left about the best form and function of information, action, images and ideas in our media age. If you hate the film, you probably believe that direct action and organizing are what matters if we are ever going to make a change in this society; and if you love the film you are probably less convinced that such actions continue to matter, as you are also self-consciously debating where power lies in a society where individual action seems to have been subsumed by corporate control and media, and what that leaves as a possibility for you to do… Is the left best served by simply doing more stuff, louder, more effectively or does the left need to re-group, re-consider, and talk amongst ourselves about what has and has not worked, and what will and will not work as the conditions of power continue to change?
Are pep-talks, feeling good, and getting smarter the only way to inspire activism, or could activism come from self-scrutiny and uncertainty? Does navel-gazing waste our precious time? What do we gain and lose when we don’t speak directly, supplying much-needed information, but rather talk about the state of information itself? What is the use for formal and intellectual complexity about our current state when the current state is itself so bad?
October 11, 2007
On Thursday, October 4, we had our first work-in-progress screening of SCALE fro a friendly audience at the Claremont Colleges, where I teach. Antonia made it, as did representatives of various local anti-war groups, who spoke about their efforts before the screening began.
The most interesting aspect of the Q and A at this screening mirrors a theme of the documentary: its interest in divisions within the left about the form and function of education or information in relation to social change. Many in the audience were there (understandably) to hear Antonia speak truth, facts, and analysis to power, something she does very well, and for which she has a following. While this does happen, in small parts, in the documentary, it is, in fact, not really a documentary about Antonia’s book and its ideas, as much as it is about the concept of scale, and how Antonia’s book, ideas, and experiences trying to sell and impart them demonstrate the contradictions of ramping up numbers, attention, and exposure. Thus, some in the audience were pleased to see a self-reflexive documentary raising questions of tactics, effectivity, organizing strategies, and the role of the media and celebrity in contemporary politics, just as Antonia’s fans thought this was a diversion from the real stuff.
Discussion centered around whether the left should be educating itself with facts, or whether we have already heard these facts; or should we be navel-gazing, and re-thinking strategies, as well as our flaws and strengths?
Finally, the highly personal nature of the questions asked to Antonia and I (rather than political) threw Antonia, and it is seems good she has some practice before the show really goes on the road. People asked her questions she has never heard before: abo0ut her spiritual beliefs or our family. And afterwards, we talked together about how my feminism, and a commitment to the personal, is fundamentally different from her more straightforward commitment to the “political.” This is really another vocabulary to think about the differences in knowledge production, and political strategy raised above, and I am certain that these tensions will define the life and reception of the film.
September 27, 2007
August 8, 2007
Back home after a month in Columbus OH defined, in the end, by the concerns addressed in my earlier posts: what it means to be an artist-on-my-own and how I can be true to my own uncertainties and also my sister’s fortitude. Home again in Pasadena with one-hour documentary in hand, I hope that I may have succeeded. I want to believe that SCALE accomplishes multiple, self-nourishing goals:
SCALE ricoches and reflects between the power and limitations of the small and large. My muddy and sloppy camera reveals complexity and feeling while the smooth operations of Robbie’s camera give the world a gloss that is convincing and familiar. Both have power. And that’s not even going to Oprah.
SCALE links the personal and the political, insisting that what happens between people (emotions, ideas, trust, betrayal, power, kindness) mirrors and combats the largest operations of dominance and control in our world (war, wealth, politics).
SCALE believes that small things, the things regular people do in the space of their own lives and through the reach of their own actions, do have effect. Although the doc would never presume to be able to measure such effect.
SCALE believes that groups of people magnify the power explained above. Although, again, the doc would never deign to calculate the scale of such power.
I hope the documentary can be used for organizing, both naming for people through the awesome words of my sister some of the crimes of the Bush regime, and pointing them towards avenues of action including writing, speaking, demonstrating, and making media. I hope the documentary will challenge people to think about the role of their own activism and action in the media age.
September 17, 2007
July 16, 2007. It has been a really great first week. I have been editing with concentration and fervor helped and abetted by the Wexner’s master editor, Paul Hill. We’ve made huge headway, primarily humanizing the piece by adding more of me. And letting me take some of the emotional slack. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to put in more of Antonia’s amazing optimism and energy, as the story had become more and more about how she was captured by the intrigue of the limelight, and less and less about how she continued to do the hard work of being smart and on and present and committed even for that short while when she also though the book might become a bestseller.
While I am certain I will finish the film, and assured that it will be better then when I came, and close to all I want to say, my real fear at this stage is that I am not a powerful enough artist to kick it up to that final stage that this work deserves. And, of course, this is linked to SCALE because while I have always chosen for my work to remain small, primarily out of theoretical and political and artistic commitments to what happens when real people make small work about and within communities they belong, I have also not expanded my scale because I gave up on the endless exhaustion and humiliation of fund-raising, pitching, and altering my work and self to fill other’s agendas. And then, frankly, as much as I have resisted this waste of time, pulling me from the issue at hand and the pleasure of working, I’ve never been that good or capable at the pitch, the schmoozing. I get self-conscious and embarrassed. I’d rather be aloof, outside this humiliating economy. Finally, there’s always the strong possibility that I can’t get funding—slogging away at grant apps, floundering at meetings with commissioning officers—because I’m just not really good enough.
While my world view—that everyone can and should be able to express their ideas about themselves and their world—supports that everyone, including me, deserves the grace of self-expression, I do also believe in innate talent. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Self-trained in video; never a “real” artist; I hit against a wall that is my innate creativity (or lack thereof), often. Also, of course, I’m too intellectual to be a good artist. And probably too dogmatic, and out of touch with regular Americans, not to mention disdainful of the media traditions that make most people comfortable. I’ve sat here in the small mostly because it’s where I should be: reaching the audience to whom I can speak, a limited crowd interested in the ideas and values that concern me which include
-the relevance of small, personal work and activism and the real voices of real people not pundits
-the fact that getting bigger corrupts, exhausts, and punishes and that staying small allows for an attention to inter-personal ethics
-and the fact that these ideas seem hopelessly out-dated, some kind of nostalgic homage to a ’60s that was never this good anyways, and are downright ineffective against the new kinds of fast, huge, networks of corporate power that rule us.