Field Notes is inspired by the many independent initiatives worldwide that have responded to the need for critical, considered, and independent writing on nonfiction. To kick off our first issue, Contributing Editor Devika Girish spoke with the creators of two such initiatives: Rooney Elmi, the founding editor of SVLLY(wood) and co-founder of the No Evil Eye microcinema; and Matt Turner, marketing manager at Open City Documentary Festival and founding editor of the Non-Fiction journal.

We hope that their invigorating chat—which touches upon the intersections of form and subject matter in documentary, the mode’s exploitative and colonialist legacy, and the need to create sustainable spaces for writing—functions as a sort of “mission conversation,” in lieu of a traditional, monolithic mission statement.

Note: this conversation has been edited and condensed for length.

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Devika Girish: Matt, you've been working at a documentary film festival for a little while, and earlier this year you started a journal called Non-Fiction. What incited this project?

Matt Turner: I do marketing at Open City Docs, and for a number of years, we've commissioned short texts to go with the films in the program. We thought there was an opportunity to expand that and to detach it from the festival and the prerogatives that come with it. We also identified a paucity of available spaces for writers to write in interesting ways about nonfiction and for artists who make work in that mode to receive serious treatment. The journal itself is quite straightforward, in that it is a biannual publication for nonfiction writing of any kind, on any form of media, new or old, without the usual limitations that might prevent a film publication from taking that writing in more interesting directions—such as the need to write about films that are coming out or included in a festival, or which have a topic that drives what editors think their readers want. We conceived this journal with the specific aim of providing a space for articles that might not find a home elsewhere. And it seems to be going good so far—our second issue comes out November.

DG: And Rooney, your magazine, SVLLY(wood), is not dedicated just to nonfiction, but it gives a lot of space to that kind of work. And No Evil Eye, the microcinema that you've co-founded, has also been a showcase for nonfiction work, especially by Black, Brown, and indigenous filmmakers. I remember attending No Evil Eye's New York screening about a year ago. It was an utterly eclectic mix of works—from shorts made by young directors to films that have shown at festivals. But they were all very engaged with contemporaneous questions around borders and immigration.

Rooney Elmi: Yeah, that was Sequence 01, which we're still touring, and it was on the theme of diasporic reckoning through the prism of landscapes, memory, and migration. I got interested in nonfiction in my early 20s, when I was still a college student. I was a political organizer and it felt bankrupt for me to not engage with works that were also discussing political topics, especially on an international level. I really do think that documentary is producing some of the most exciting work in contemporary visual media. There is a combination of pioneering aesthetics and social commentary that blurs that line between the personal and the political. Both SVLLY(wood) and No Evil Eye don't primarily situate themselves as arenas for nonfiction, but they are guided by an intention to engage with an internationalist cohort of creatives and artists who use the camera as a tool to reflect their own spaces and places. And they often do that through nonfiction.

DG: That makes sense. Even after I ventured into criticism, it took me a while to understand what it means to engage critically with a nonfiction film. When I was growing up in India, there wasn't a mainstream exhibition space or culture for documentaries. That space didn't exist in a robust form even on television then. So, as a critic, it’s taken me some time to understand how to situate documentary outside of the journalistic and the ethnographic impulse and consider those in conjunction with questions of narrative and aesthetics. I'm curious if either of you had a specific moment or film that made the idea of documentary as a distinct kind of cinema click into place?

MT: Like many people of our age, I watched [Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s] Leviathan eight years ago, and through watching that and other films like it, gained an awareness that documentary or nonfiction films didn't need to be made in certain ways. And that the form of the film could be at the center of what the artist was thinking about, counter to the prevailing narrative of documentary as a delivery system for the message rather than an artistic object in and of itself that may deal with a subject or a message.

RE: My exposure to what the medium of cinema has to offer came from going to film festivals, which I find a bit depressing. I discovered that there's so much more you can do with the camera as a tool through films that most people don't have access to viewing. That's another reason I wanted to create SVLLY(wood) as well as No Evil Eye, so that there can be some accessibility and transparency around the films and filmmakers that I find interesting.

I can think of two films that were formative for me: Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson and Brett Story's The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. With Cameraperson, there was this woman who just cut and pasted all these clips from her work as a documentarian and told an incredibly personal story through them. And The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is a documentation of the American landscape by a Canadian geographer. She's making a movie about prisons without ever going inside of one. She's critiquing the carceral state without using the normalized exploitative gaze. And when you finally see a prison at the end of the film... That was a shocking moment for me. I said, wow, you can make a movie about whatever you want and you don't have to be exploitative at all. And there’s also the political urgency of Laura Poitras’s filmography, and the poetic, thoughtful, and reflective mother-daughter relationship in Chantal Akerman's News from Home. Those were important to me as well.

DG: Since you mentioned Laura: Citizenfour was really formative for me, too. I encountered it just when I was starting to develop an interest in cinema, in college. I remember noticing that the film had a breaking news kind of urgency to it, but it delivered that with a formal precision and ingenuity that seemed to arise from the circumstances of production—like how much they were able to film, the close quarters in which they did a lot of the filming, the measures they had to take in order to ensure their privacy and safety, which were constantly threatened. There was a precarity in the making of that film that was injected into the form, and I remember finding that to be remarkable.

RE: I always thought it was very cool that this guy, a whistleblower, just decided: "You know who I'm going to hit up? I'm going to hit up a documentarian to tell my story." That was very important for me.

DG: Rooney, you brought up the word “exploitative.” That's a big concern for me when writing about documentaries. Nonfiction filmmaking has historically been a colonialist and ethnographic mode of cinema. The subject-object relationship that characterized those histories is built into the very DNA of the form. Though of course, you have incredible filmmakers who are subverting those ways of looking, whether it's RaMell Ross or Garrett Bradley. In Cameraperson, there is a scene in which Johnson is talking to a young woman at an abortion clinic, and you just see the woman’s hands. I remember that standing out to me because you could sense the intimacy of the encounter between that person and Johnson, the cameraperson. Their conversation goes way beyond that of a documentarian and her subject: Johnson is genuinely talking to the woman. I was struck by what the camera elides and what it focuses on, how it gives you a sense of closeness while still holding you at a distance. I'm wondering how you both confront those dynamics while watching and writing about documentary.

MT: I think those considerations have to be at the forefront when approaching a film. What can be difficult is identifying those dynamics when they're not centered in the film like in the example you just mentioned. And trying to look deeper than the film object itself to the conditions of its production, or how the filmmaker is crediting or not crediting those who were involved, or what the participants are getting from it. You often see a reticence to address these things or to criticize nonfiction filmmaking because of the sensitivities at play regarding the subjects and the people depicted.

DG: As in the case of the “important” film.

MT: The important film, yes. Or more broadly, in activist documentaries for example, what's being addressed and depicted is generally valuable. But I think writers need to be keener to challenge the method of representing it—how it’s been done and to what end.

DG: Rooney, you and I have talked a lot about the fact that documentary comes from a colonial history of viewing and consuming images of the Other, which is a legacy that is still felt in the formal conventions of the mode and the way nonfiction is written about. I'm curious how you grapple with that in your writing.

RE: If I were to take a historical materialist lens, I would say that there is no way to divest the camera from the celluloid legacy of racism and sexism and turn it into a new technology for us to engage with. I do believe that the camera is an incredibly powerful tool. It has historically been used as a tool of propaganda, of colonialism. There are examples of the camera literally coming into certain countries and continents via colonial film units. But I think cinephilia as a culture has never interrogated that power structure and history, which is something that I'm very irked about. I think the only way to use this tool as a medium for thought, education, reflection, and collective memory-making is to give it to the people who've historically been ostracized from it and who have something important to say. I do think it's our duty to vigorously interrogate history so that we can have a much better future.

DG: I took a class on the “aesthetics and politics of cinema” in college, and that’s where I learnt about the history of British documentary and its central figures, like John Grierson. It was later, in a different context, that I read about colonial film units. And I came across an article from 1941 in Documentary News Letter, a magazine founded by Grierson, which outlined the principles of making films for “primitive peoples.” The author of that article, William Sellers, was the first director of the Colonial Film Unit, and he laid out in this schematic and pseudoscientific way what he believed Africans and other colonized peoples were capable of perceiving visually. He has all these rules: You can't use vertical pans because the African will think that the building is collapsing. You can't have more than two things moving within the frame because they can only focus on one thing at a time.

It was remarkable to me that none of this had been touched upon in the class that I took at an American university about the politics and aesthetics of cinema. We studied anti-fascist films like The Spanish Earth as examples of early political documentary, but we didn’t talk about the parallel colonial history of nonfiction, about the fact that racist perceptions and assumptions about the cognitive abilities of different races of people are coded into the very forms of these films. It makes me wonder, do we need a complete revolution for what making images of people and culture can and should look like?

RE: Hell yeah! I think there's a revolution needed on all fronts but definitely when it comes to the moving image. You're talking about a technology that, like I said, came to certain places strictly on the basis of imperialism. And what I find interesting is that when you give this tool to the natives, to indigenous peoples, to people who have been historically excluded from the big screen or the camera itself, there's an immediate need to reflect their own communities and their own sensibilities. I recently gave a talk about Ousmane Sembène, who is considered the father of African cinema. The films that he was watching had always been racist for him and for his peers. But the second you gave that technology to him, it became a completely different form. I'm very enticed by that. There are so many other examples of when you democratize cinematic technology and resources, they become tools of reflection, education, and emancipation.

MT: Your example of learning about that set of rules and codes and the colonialist legacy of nonfiction makes me think of how many other rules, ways of image-making, ways of writing, ways of circulating film have been based on preconceptions that have mutated but ultimately prevailed through the years and come to inform the ways in which we're reproducing those ideas. How many other founding principles have I missed, have we not been told of, which as Rooney says, need to be interrogated more.

DG: For sure. And I came across that little nugget of history in a class on postcolonial studies, not film studies. How do we make these discussions a part of the discussion of cinema? There are two different impulses, as I see it. There’s mainstream criticism on nonfiction that does not center form enough. It fixates on the content and treats documentary filmmaking as an extension of news or journalism. But then you have this other bias in academia and certain hallowed spheres of film writing where the analysis of form seems to be separated from the ways in which it is informed by its subjects historically. I’m wondering, what is the power of criticism here? Are we just exaggerating our capacities? I grapple with that sometimes. Can writing about films actually do something?

RE: That's a big question. We're all just writing to the wind. Nothing matters. No one's reading anyway. [laughs]

DG: I'll add a follow-up to that. First of all, how can criticism intervene? And secondly, it's important to think of criticism also as a tradition and a practice with a historical legacy of its own. Matt, I was looking at the website for Non-Fiction and you have this great line about treating criticism as a type of creation in itself, not just a response. And that brings up other questions of how criticism is also governed by inequities of who gets to write about nonfiction. What sort of conventions are they using? And what historical assumptions are at play in their work?

MT: To your first question, I would be inclined to shrink the objective somewhat to a less grand question, which has to do with occupying a margin and doing what you can within that space versus needing to push a center to do better. It's something I flip back and forth on. Maybe you try something larger, such as your question of great change through criticism, and you see that that's unlikely, so you redefine what you're trying to do and look at the smaller impacts. Which could be that you write a text and it changes the way one or two people think, which changes the way they make films, which then achieves the larger aims you speak of but on a slower scale.

RE: I agree about shrinking the big questions. I don't ask myself: what is the role of a critic? It's just about having a foundation and intention for what I do. I think using criticism as a tool of promotion, not like a publicist, but by talking about the films that you're interested in, that you want other people to know about, and using your scholarship, your sensibilities, your life experiences, and your realities to do so, is incredibly important. Even if it's just one person who reads it and is enticed by the words and begins to question their own tastes or their own gaze upon cinema.

MT: I watched the NYFF panel that you were on the other day, Rooney, on countering canons and creating alternative ways of programming. I’m wondering if we could talk about that in relation to the economics of writing. When people have criticism roundtables, they talk about what criticism should or could do but without addressing the fundamental question of the limitations imposed by the market. What do we see as other ways to write and how can they be made sustainable?

DG: That’s a great point. There are plenty of independent initiatives, zines, etc., but if we're talking about financially sustainable places, then there are very few that seek out in-depth writing about documentary while also being able to support the people who do that work and the time, energy, and research it requires.

MT: That also speaks to the previous point about the lack of historicity and research in the ways that people watch and understand documentary. If you don’t have the remuneration to do that research, it encourages self-compromise.

RE: There's without a doubt a complete lacuna of spaces and places to talk about nonfiction cinema and also be compensated for your creative labor. When I was starting out, I thought, "There are no places to write. No one is going to take my pitches. So I'll just make my own magazine.”

DG: The panel you were just talking about, Matt, which I helped co-organize—one of the panelists, Ajay Ram, a founder of the Upside Film Festival, talked about how you can celebrate their work for being grassroots and alternative and doing things differently, but it doesn’t translate into a paycheck. There are people building alternative structures, but that's not actually helping sustain them. And institutional funding helps, but it becomes a kind of patronage model of waiting for someone who has the capital to give you the space and the money to do your thing. It doesn't challenge the basic structures that we're talking about, which make it so that certain people have the luxury to write and others don't. So how do we create grassroots enterprises that also can sustain themselves?

MT: I’m thinking of the recent online series organized by Abby Sun and Keisha Knight, My Sight Is Lined with Visions: 1990s Asian American Film and Video. When I saw that, I thought, wow, they've got the full package—even if in a specific set of circumstances with specific aims. They've produced this thing in the way that they intended while still being able to remunerate the artists directly, commission essays, and have it be entirely detached from an institutional model that could compromise those original objectives.

RE: I wish there was a clear, succinct answer to this. Keisha and Abby are two incredible, genius people who deserve every penny and more. But then there’s the question of credibility. You have to have skin in the game or cosigns from institutions to get that level of credibility, money, and press.

DG: Or to even get in touch with filmmakers and writers. You need connections.

DG: This is all reminding me of a conversation I had with Garrett Bradley recently. We were talking about how the pandemic has exposed the unsustainability of all systems and perhaps this is an opportunity to build new structures. And I asked her, "How do you think about filmmaking in this context? Where does filmmaking or art-making fit within a radical reworking of the world? How do you locate your purpose?" Because that’s something I’ve been struggling with. And Garrett told me that one of her friends had said to her, “When you're led by your imagination, the possibilities are limitless in terms of what you can contribute.” Someone needs to do the work of imagining things for others to come in and build them.

RE: Amen.

MT: Exactly.

DE: That really helped me because sometimes it feels like filmmaking and writing about film are operating in a very abstract space, and it's not clear how that engages with the world. But abstraction is actually also necessary because we need to imagine things, we need to explore possibilities that don't exist and therefore have to be first worked out in the realm of writing and art before they can be injected into the material world.

RE: I think sometimes we put too much on our plates. For filmmakers, your duty is just to imagine these new possibilities and put them on the screen. And then as programmers, you carry that in a way that's reflective of your communities or of the times. And as writers, you discuss that. It’s important to acknowledge that we don't have all the answers. I'm not even interested in having all the answers. I think there's greatness that comes out of being honest about that.

MT: And there are spaces to do things differently and people should be implored to try even if it doesn't necessarily work. There are different ways to write and think than those that you have inherited.

RE: And if you feel like there isn't a home for you, just create it for yourself.

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Photos courtesy of Brett Story, Laura Poitras, and Garrett Bradley.

The term “minor work” has been bandied around rather deceptively to describe Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, the latest work by Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke. Structured as a series of interviews with writers from Jia’s native Shanxi province, the film might seem like an unusually ruminative, even rambling, follow-up to the taut thrills and ambitious drama of Ash is Purest White (2018) and Mountains May Depart (2015). But Swimming Out is no less epic than its precursors in its narrative reach. Through interviews exploring the memories of four writers (Ma Feng, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong, each born in a different decade between the 1940s and ’70s), the film attempts a people’s history of China; a sweeping account of the tectonic shifts in culture, labor, and sociality that have rippled through the country in the last half-century or so, gnawing away at the bonds of rural and communal life. If Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is modest, it is so in the same ways that Jia’s work always tends to be. It is granular in its attention to the emotional details that underpin grand narratives, and humble in its regard for the local currents that make up the flows of a national history.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is Jia’s first nonfiction feature in 10 years, and also a deconstruction—or perhaps reinvigoration—of the documentary form itself. Many of the film’s formal flourishes might strike viewers as surprisingly conventional: it consists mostly of writers talking to the camera while seated in restaurants, shops, or other locales; it’s divided into 18 chapters, each titled thematically; and there are interstitial segments in which quotes from the works of the featured writers are read aloud by actors. Yet each of these elements feels loosened from its familiar place in film form, and arranged carefully by a master filmmaker to produce a particular emotion. The chapters—which are often very brief, like flashes of memory—glide along to symphonic music, lulling us into the rhythm of reminiscence. The interviews are where the film’s beating heart lies: the writers’ recollections are so warm and intimate, and span such a range of emotions—grief, joy, mischief, longing, nostalgia, irony—that they seem to invite us viewers into a kind of joyful séance.

The film inspired several questions about nonfiction filmmaking in my mind. On a recent Wednesday, I managed to ask Jia a few of these questions as he Zoom-ed (from across the ocean) through interviews in between smoke breaks and sips of coffee.

What does the documentary mode allow you to do that fiction doesn’t?

I love making documentary films for multiple reasons. The first is the sense of unknown that is different from other ways of making films. Whether in the subjects that I'm trying to capture, or the events, or just the space that I'm using for a particular documentary, on all these different levels, you have a sense of the unknown, something that I can’t plan ahead of time. By making documentaries, and encountering and experiencing these types of unknowns, I’m fulfilling my own curiosity to learn something new and expand my internal references.

The second reason is that as a documentary filmmaker, you need to react immediately, without hesitation to something that’s happening right in front of you using film language. That kind of reaction, or reflex, is very fulfilling.

The third reason is that in China right now, because of the fast pace of development, you also see the fast pace of destruction. In the time span of just one generation, a lot of things that happened in the past are no longer remembered or talked about, almost as if they never happened. I feel compelled to make documentaries because I need to somehow capture those first-hand witness accounts of people who can help us get our memories, our histories, back. It’s almost as if I'm building an archive by making documentary films.

You've made documentaries about painters, fashion designers, and filmmakers. Why writers, this time?

Since 1993, I’ve lived in Beijing, the capital of China. But for the past three or four years, I’ve been going back and forth between Beijing and my rural village. It's the same place where the documentary is set, the Jia family village. I’ve found it fascinating to reconnect with the rural culture, the roots that I come from.

If you look at 5000 years of history in China, it is not until 30-40 years ago that you have this major transformation of urbanization. For thousands of years, we have been living in agricultural and rural settings, and that has informed how we live and how we build interpersonal relationships, and the ways of life that shape us as a nation. Suddenly, in the last few decades, you have waves of young people leaving villages to live in urban cities. And the next generation slowly has completely forgotten or disengaged from their parents’ rural backgrounds and ways of life. For me, this documentary was very much about capturing those memories and histories.

I thought, what’s be the best way to capture that? And I thought of authors. The four that I selected and included in this film were born and grew up in rural culture, and they are key observers of the rural past. Not only do they write fictional stories about the past or about villages, but they also offer their own first-hand accounts of what happened to them while growing up in that environment.

Another compelling reason why I wanted to utilize authors is because I think this is the question we all ask ourselves: How did we become who we are now? That requires that we look back upon where we came from. Just to give you two examples. For the past three or four years, airlines have become a popular means of transportation in China. We all know that we are assigned a seat with the ticket that we have already purchased, but people still try to rush to their seats and get on the plane. I think that has a lot to do with our past and the scarcity of resources in rural areas, which forced people to fight and compete for limited resources. People somehow have that same mentality even now.

That’s maybe a negative impact, but we can also see the positive impacts of the past. A lot of people in contemporary China work from 7:00am all the way to midnight. They're diligent industrialists. I think that’s also rooted in our past experiences, in the scarcity of resources. We still maintain the sense that you have to be very, very productive in order to be successful.

That reminds of something I was really struck by in the movie, which is the relationship between manual labor and art. Both Yu Hua and Jia Pingwa talk about how they fell into artistic occupations accidentally, while doing other jobs—Jia was painting slogans on reservoirs; Yu Hua just wanted to not be confined in an office, and wanted a job walking around outdoors like the employees of the Cultural Bureau. These stories made me wonder: what kind of labor do you consider art or cultural work to be? Especially when compared to agrarian and manual labor?

Writers and authors are manual laborers as well. They have different responsibilities than physical and manual laborers, but at the same time, I see them as laborers, too. There's a phrase that we use in Mandarin: “To use your pen to cultivate.” Just like peasants and farmers use tools to cultivate the land, authors use the pen to cultivate the spiritual landscape. Peasants have to work under harsh elements, like the wind and the sun, to grow crops. For a lot of writers, they also have to take on a kind of spiritual journey that can be very harsh in order to write something great and meaningful.

That's definitely validating to hear as someone who writes for a living!

I need to add something. The impetus to write about rural life has a lot with these writers knowing that, especially in the past, most people in the villages were illiterate. They often had no way of expressing or capturing their stories or memories through words. So these authors take on the responsibility of documenting those stories, whether it’s with a paintbrush or a pen.

And even though they’re writing about rural characters and histories, these writers are very much connected to how the literary landscape has evolved in the past years—internationally, even. Whether by echoing post-modern styles, or something Kafkaesque, or [drawing from] Faulkner or Marx, they are using a lot of different references. [In the film,] we go from Ma Feng, who wrote in a collectivist environment and mentality, to Yu Hua’s individualist way of writing, to Liang Hong, who writes about not just individualist but also extremely personal and private memories and histories. The evolution of the entire global literary landscape can be seen in how these writers talk and write about rural life.

The beauty of the film really comes from the oral storytelling of the authors. They express themselves so candidly and eloquently, which reflects on your skill as an interviewer. What do you think makes a good interview?

During the research stage of this documentary, I approached many well-known and celebrated authors, about eight or nine, as potential subjects. The way I approached it was to not only read their writings, but also to watch everything I could get my hands on in terms of past interviews. And I noticed that sometimes they would be talking about certain issues, and they would stop just when it got interesting. They had clear boundaries for where they would go and where they wouldn’t not go.

I was curious about those unsaid parts of the interviews. It took me a long time to communicate to them what I actually wanted to capture. I wanted them to not just be a talking head and offer some type of political, economic, or social commentary, because I think that kind of commentary should come from the audience, the viewers. For me, the most important thing was for my subjects to talk about the details of their lives back in the day, during their rural upbringing. And I really wanted them to share personal experiences that they hadn’t talked about in public, but which were very meaningful and crucial to understanding the past. As a filmmaker, those were the important things for me, and I didn’t want to compromise on the content of the film.

Out of the 8-9 people I approached, some decided not to participate because they didn’t want to share those things. So at the end, these are the four people who I felt really opened themselves up to the audience, and were vulnerable and candid and brave. I'll give you an example: Jia Pingwa, in many, many interviews that he did in the past, always mentioned that he was forced to go back to the rural village in middle school because of his father. But he never talked about the actual reasons. So while doing our interview, I just asked him directly, "What are the exact reasons? Why did you have to move back because of your father?” And he was gracious and honest enough to share that with the audience. [Jia Pingwa shares in the film that his father was branded a counter-revolutionary and condemned to manual labor.]

I was very moved by the scene you included of Liang Hong’s sister reading her father's letter. It’s not literature, it's a personal letter, yet it feels like one of the most beautiful pieces of literature in the film. Why did you decide to include it?

I have to thank Liang Hong because she provided me with the letter that her sister reads out loud in the film. And she also gave me the idea for how to structure this film, because the way she was talking about her father, her sister, her son—those elements immediately trigger for any Chinese person a sense of familiarity; a sense that these are the exact familial structures that we all know.

So the letter was not only a good way to have a sense of the details of life at that time, in those rural environments, but it also helped me decide how I was going to structure this film—not only linearly, chronologically, but also by finding those 18 chapters or issues that we can all relate to; common experiences that we all share.

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Devika Girish is the Field Notes Contributing Editor. She is the Co-Deputy Editor of Film Comment magazine and a Talks programmer at the New York Film Festival. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Reverse Shot, Village Voice, Sight and Sound, the Criterion Collection, and other publications, and she has served on the selection committees for the Mumbai Film Festival and Berlin Critics' Week.

Stills courtesy of Jia Zhangke. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (2020).

Can I tell you about a woman who, probably five weeks into sheltering in place, when the sky had been as gray at noon as at dusk for days, began to panic because she’d lost her sense of time? She had spent most of that grayness sitting in the same room, looking at the same websites with the same technology, and glancing up at the same featureless sliver of sky. One evening, the imprecision and repetitions that marked her existence caused her to dissociate.

I’d dissociated before, for reasons that were much the same yet totally different, which made the experience even more terrifying. And that’s where my ability to articulate it ends.

As I was taking stock of the one-year anniversary of the pandemic a couple months ago, the memory of this woman vividly returned to me. I savored the bitter irony that homes, which have always been workplaces, had finally gained wider recognition as such, but only because offices were closed. I relived with rage all the times I’d been told that images of domestic interiors are “coded as female”—a statement that is alternately true and untrue, reductive and expressive, and often a wildly sexist, racist, and classist oversimplification of home. I picked through my ceaseless anger, which flowed like a broken faucet whether I was in my coded-as-female space or at my “real” workplace, and where all sizes of disasters, inhumanities, exploitations, and negligences swirled. (The refusal of Western powers to relinquish vaccine patents and develop generics later turned this fury into a firehose.) I realized how badly administered public health measures had disassembled social boundaries to a far deeper extent than covering your nose and mouth with cloth, and how these changes had moved all of us into a kind of exile, wherein we were at home—to be read in the ’90s movie-trailer-man voice— “in a world with a whole new set of rules.

Except that I’m entirely serious and I can’t hide behind irony anymore, even though the juxtaposed sentiments that comprise irony so perfectly encapsulate this moment and its absurdity and cruelty—not unlike the way the blur between cinematic nonfiction and fiction more precisely expresses the realness of what’s being depicted.

The collective yet unspoken sense of not being at home while at home—of dislocation and the experience of disparate feelings at the same time—put me in mind of some of the great female filmmakers whose work has explored the meaning of home while in exile: women who have refused to provide tidy sentiments about or impose certainties onto something as expansive, illusory, and taken-for-granted as the everyday, and who would agree and disagree and hate-that-they-agree with the “interiors = female” formula. I thought of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) and Marilu Mallet’s Unfinished Diary (1982), both by filmmakers from countries in the global South that were brutally reshaped by U.S. anticommunist interventionism. Each film explores how the domestic can be strange—at once your own and not—during exile, and how this uneasiness and non-belonging connect to both the filmmaker’s native and adoptive societies. Though made in very different contexts, these documentaries speak to the unresolved contours of our pandemic experience.

Both films also use deceptively loose, associative structures that reveal them to be constructions—though even after this unmasking, the films’ true shapes remain ambiguous. (Or, perhaps, require more than one viewing and some outside reading to discern.) Surname Viet Given Name Nam uses three major formal strategies, the first of which is cunningly similar to, yet wildly different from, typical documentary voice-of-god narration. Black-and-white found footage (of an indeterminate vintage) of Vietnam, much of it slowed down to the point where you can see the frames flash by, is accompanied by a calm, American-accented voiceover that discusses the incredible feminist poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương, The Tale of Kiều, and other Vietnamese literature. The narrator also examines changing conceptions of national identity, jokes, and folk sayings: how these relate to Vietnamese expectations of women, and how women have been treated in Vietnam throughout history. This narration, whose tone varies from matter-of-fact to unrepentantly militant, and the choppy, difficult-to-parse images that accompany it, are tinged with resentment and bitterness. The overarching argument of the sequence is that there is no place in Vietnamese society where women aren’t likely to be exploited and marginalized. Even in the “women’s city” of the marketplace, they are expected to adhere to Confucian ideals of modesty and patriarchal obedience, and abide by the state’s stringently enforced social controls and food shortages.

The second strand of Trinh’s approach involves testimonies from female doctors and nurses from Vietnam—professionalized caregivers; healers and performers of emotional labor; women who, unlike in the Vietnam War footage Trinh uses elsewhere in the film, are not running from American forces while wearing rags and carrying children. At first, these are presented as straightforward talking-head interviews. The women speak eloquently of the exploitation inherent to socialist and capitalist systems, the difficulties they face when performing their jobs, the Vietnamese government’s repressive tactics—but they speak in English, oftentimes softly, requiring a viewer who is unaccustomed to a Vietnamese accent (or to low volumes) to lean in and listen especially carefully. This sense of import is bolstered but also complicated by the text Trinh inserts before the interviews or occasionally superimposes over the interviewees’ faces as they speak. One can fall into a false sense of security, following the words on screen as if they were subtitles, only to discover that they don’t necessarily line up with what the speaker is saying or what you thought she had said.

This approach, paired with the fragmented nature of the compositions and the use of the frame to truncate objects, is driven home by testimony that first is spoken and then appears on screen as text, attributed to a Thu Van: “There is the image of woman and there is the reality. Sometimes the two of them don’t go well together.” Perception, both cultural and experiential, is upended as Trinh plays with stereotypes. Her interlocutors speak about being Eastern women (with varying degrees of militancy), and sometimes adhere to norms of how an Eastern woman “should” speak. It’s unclear if we even know their real names, or if the women speaking on screen are the same as those quoted in the title cards that precede their appearances. This elusive sense of self, visually echoed in Trinh’s tactic of showing parts of the women’s bodies but never their entire person, ensures that they remain uncaptured by a Western anthropological gaze, which so often leers and patronizes under the auspices of “learning.” Many women allude to spending time in reeducation camps or being relocated, yet their specific crimes against the state or communism are never provided. (The fieriest speaker is a woman from the less communist South of Vietnam who complains about the Communist Party’s treatment of women and its failure to fully adhere to socialist ideals. At one point, her vocal track fades out before she can finish speaking, and the on-screen text reads, “I am a survivor with no society model.”)

The women are elegantly framed and seem to be speaking from inside their homes; a curtain flutters as a doctor tells the camera, “We receive our patients in a cold, large hall, in the presence of the officer in charge. It’s very difficult to establish trust. How can a woman disclose her intimate sufferings when there is no intimacy to preserve professional confidences?” Yet late into the film, Trinh unveils her third gambit when she shows one of her subjects kneeling in prayer on the floor of a room, describing how “Truth is not always found in what is visible. . . . Woman’s liberation? You are still joking, aren’t you?” Trinh then cuts to a close-up of a picture of the Pope and then zooms out of it, revealing it to be part of some religious art. The camera then pans across the room to show black-and-white family photos. For the first time, we’re in a real living room.

During this slow unmasking, the director offers a definition of an interview: “an antiquated device of documentary. Truth is selected, renewed, displaced. And speech is always tactical.” The narrator begins asking the director questions about her process as we learn that the women we’ve been listening to are untrained actresses who live in the United States. Trinh then explores their lives in their own spaces—one of them is the only female and only Asian engineer at a hydroelectric plant; another is seen speaking to her mixed-race son’s elementary-school class about traditional Vietnamese clothing—as well as the confident second-generation immigrant who performs the voiceover. The film’s compassion grows instead of receding: you see how the women struggle with racism, sexism, and poverty in the United States. Capitalist society has served them no better than the communist state they escaped; as Thu Van says earlier in the film: “Between these two ways of exploiting me, it is difficult for me to choose.” Trinh’s decision to fragment her subjects’ lives and testimonies frees them from servicing the ethnographic eyes of a Westerner (who might expect a neat, three-act structure that builds toward a coherent theme), and from illustrating the Confucian model of a woman who has survived communism’s overhaul of Vietnamese society.

Mallet’s Unfinished Diary wrestles with what it means to have two bad choices and be forced to live with one. Mallet, a Chilean filmmaker and author who fled Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, lives in Montreal. She is married to an Australian filmmaker (credited as Michael Rubbo, though his name is never spoken) who only speaks to her in English, and has a son who doesn’t speak Spanish. Over the course of the film—whose fictional sections are shot in the same style as its documentary portions, blurring the two modes—Mallet goes about her everyday routine, caring for her son and arguing with her husband while the camera trails her, and sometimes commuting to work in order to shoot interviews for a television documentary in which a female Chilean exile reflects on her experiences in Canada. (One of these expats is Isabelle Allende, daughter of Salvador, who sits in Mallet’s kitchen and recounts the last time she saw her father on September 11, 1973, and how he asked the bombers to wait for his daughters to leave the presidential palace before beginning the bombardment.) Mallet rarely speaks outside of her house, and is more frequently spoken to. “I feel like I don’t participate in society,” she tells her husband. “Maybe you’ve had enough already,” he responds, possibly genuine in his attempt to comfort her but condescending nevertheless. Her self-professed lack of connection with the world around her (she moves silently through her house, the mall, long cab rides) and her increasingly irksome relationship with her husband are amplified by quiet, aimless scenes. The vignettes of her life aren’t arranged in a way that seems to progress toward a larger story or an argument—a style that mimics male sexual release with its rising action—but are instead focused on sensation and emotion. Mallet and her husband’s push and pull gradually become a part of the film’s form, such as in a party scene where other Chilean refugees gather at her house, improvising limericks about Pinochet and a fellow exile who was deported because he couldn’t produce the correct documents. After it’s over, her husband tells her what she should’ve filmed instead of what we’ve just seen, revealing that what has so far resembled a chronological, fly-on-the-wall documentary is, like any other film, a construction. He insists that she stick to a form more suited to a nature documentary than a first-person account, and she begins tearfully yelling at him.

The most profoundly lonely scenes in Unfinished Diary are the silent dolly shots of the inside of Mallet’s home, with the camera gliding through empty hallways and rooms. At first, they seem to be purely impressionistic images of the ennui of a housewife, but as they’re repeated with increasing speed, they start to feel like the point of view of someone rushing from one room to another, futilely searching for something. Yet the art on the walls—which includes framed movie posters for Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and Lucia (1968), as well as a terrifying print by Mallet’s mother featuring four grotesque heads that represent Chile’s military leaders—makes one wonder if this is the natural state of Mallet’s house or if it has been dressed for the film. As the fights with her husband grow nastier, touching on filmmaking and the impossibility of certain cultures to connect with one another, their house starts to feel less like a prison and more like a place that has lost its purpose and meaning. But then her husband’s final line, which he delivers directly into Mallet’s camera while standing in front of a wall of tribal masks, muddies which parts are fiction and which parts are documentary preceded it into question. “What? Do you want the true situation now or the…? What?” he asks in a bruised, humiliated tone. After a pause, presumably so that Mallet can give him direction, he responds: “And now we’re probably going to get a divorce.” She abruptly, comically cuts away from him, and he disappears from the rest of the film.

Has everything been a lie? Is this her husband, or just an actor approximating her real or imagined spouse? Are these even Mallet’s true struggles? Like Trinh, Mallet shatters any sense of traditional ethnography. Not only has the process of identification been subverted by both filmmakers, but its component parts—on the level of narrative, performance, mise-en-scène, shot composition, and on-screen titles—have become visible to us. Despite the deeply personal and traumatic aspects of what we have watched these women express, we are denied the pleasure of feeling as though we’ve fully understood them or even the parts of their lives we’ve witnessed. This disjunct—the ground shifting beneath our feet yet remaining the same, the estrangement from anyone who hasn’t lived it the way we have, the broken connection to future generations—finds clear parallels in our own demi-exile of the pandemic. Unfinished Diary and Surname Viet Given Name Nam are neither documents of hopelessness nor guides for resilience, but realistic depictions of living without control. Our homes have never been our own, nor will they ever be.

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Violet Lucca is the web editor of Harper’s Magazine and hosts its podcast. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Criterion’s The Current, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Caiman de Cahiers du Cinema, and elsewhere.

Stills from Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) and Unfinished Diary (1982). Courtesy of Women Make Movies.

My first exposure to the late musician Arthur Russell came when I was working as a press intern at the British Film Institute in January 2009. I was asked to burn a DVD screener for the feature debut of the young documentary filmmaker Matt Wolf, entitled Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, which was just about to play at the BFI’s London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Intrigued by the title, I gave the disc a spin, and was quickly enraptured by Wolf’s tender evocation of this enigmatic figure: a gay avant-garde composer, singer-songwriter, cellist, and disco producer who, before his untimely death from AIDS in New York in 1992, left behind an extraordinarily rich, genre-defying body of music.

In the intervening years, Wild Combination’s subject and filmmaker have both grown in stature. Russell’s music, under the stewardship of his former partner Tom Lee and Audika Records founder Steve Knutson, has continued to see the light of day in a semi-constant stream of posthumous releases. He’s been sampled by Kanye West and covered by dozens of contemporary artists; his music has featured in multiple films (including, prominently, Ira Sachs’s 2012 drama Keep the Lights On), and he’s now widely regarded as one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th century.

Wolf, meanwhile, has developed an impressive body of nonfiction work that is distinguished by its sensitivity and thoughtful deployment of deeply researched archival materials. He has made revelatory films uncovering hidden queer histories (I Remember: A Film about Joe Brainard, Bayard & Me, Another Hayride), and keen portraits of ambitious eccentrics seldom understood in their own time (Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, Spaceship Earth). Wolf’s next project sees him take on the complex legacy of Pee-wee Herman performer Paul Reubens in a two-part documentary for HBO.

Arthur Russell would have turned 70 on May 21, 2021. So, to loosely mark this occasion, I caught up with Matt Wolf to reflect on his experiences of discovering Russell and making Wild Combination.

When did you first find out about Arthur Russell? When was your first exposure to his life and work?

Shortly after the compilation [album] Calling Out of Context came out in 2004, my friend, the author Jeremy Atherton Lin, told me about this gay disco auteur who would ride the Staten Island Ferry back and forth, listening to cassette-tape mixes of his own music, and that image really intrigued me. I went to Other Music in Manhattan [a former retail store], and I bought the CD—this is maybe a year after I’d finished college. I started listening to the music and was completely absorbed and obsessed with it. I remember driving over a bridge with some friends. The title track was playing, and I just thought to myself: this is what I care about. This is what matters to me. It felt very clear.

When I started making the film, there was definitely a mystique around him, because he made this incredible music that wasn’t known. He had the aura or reputation of a contemporary artist. It felt like new music that was being made in that moment, not like old music that was being reframed.

And how did the film project flow from this initial revelation?

I did something that now I do all the time as a filmmaker, but had not done before: I wrote a letter to Tom Lee, Arthur’s partner. There’s this thing called the NAMES Project, which lists the executors of the estates of artists who died of HIV-AIDS, and I found Tom’s address; he lived in the East Village. I wrote him this naïve letter, because I had not made a film before. But I wrote it from the heart, about why I loved Arthur’s music, what my intentions were as the filmmaker, and why I wanted to do a project about him. I viscerally remember the answering-machine message that Tom left for me. He sounded so sweet and kind on the phone. The idea that you could write someone a letter and two months later get a phone call and a message was exhilarating to me because this was the first time I had engaged in that kind of process of outreach. The more primitive term is to “gain access,” but really it’s about building a relationship with somebody whom you intend to ask permission to make a film about, or ask their blessing to make a film about somebody who can’t give that permission themselves.

I went over to Tom’s apartment in the East Village. At the time I had no idea, but it was this legendary building that Allen Ginsberg and Richard Hell had lived in. I believe Richard Hell still lives there, and Tom lived in the apartment he shared with Arthur, where much of Arthur’s music was made. We just had a really nice meeting. I think part of why we connected is because I’m gay, and I was curious and interested in understanding Arthur as a gay artist who had prematurely died of AIDS, and not just as a musician. The distinction between “artist” and “musician” can be blurry, but there’s definitely a music-nerd culture that is attached to artists like Arthur. I was coming to this from a lot of interest in contemporary art, performance art, queer history, the history of downtown New York, the intersection of pop and avant-garde music and culture of that period. For whatever reason, Tom gave me his permission to do it. I also had to seek permission from Steve Knutson of Audika Records, who also generously went out on a limb and believed in me.

To what extent did you have an idea of the style of film you wanted to make going into the project?

When I first conceived of the project, I definitely thought of myself more as an experimental filmmaker. I had gone to NYU Film School and had really rejected feature filmmaking by the end of it, because I hated the experience so much. I was in a video activist collective called Paper Tiger Television. I was working with queer youth and homeless queer youth on making community-based media. I was writing criticism for art magazines and was very submerged in the experimental-film and video-art worlds. I just was anti-mainstream filmmaking, then I took my senior class with Kelly Reichardt, which shifted how I thought about filmmakers as artists, and how you can work in a space of so-called mainstream filmmaking and also be an artist.

I remember writing something to myself: “I don’t want cultural material to just be something I care about. I want to know it so well that it becomes part of my life experience.” Meaning: I don’t want to just have a short-term fascination or interest or obsession with something. I want to get involved with it, whether it’s a biography or music or archive; I want to get so involved that it actually becomes part of the story of my own life.

How did the form of the film come together?

When I received permission to work with Arthur’s material, at first I thought: “Oh, I’m going to make a video record. Each chapter will be a different element of Arthur’s life or career. There’ll be a disco chapter, and it’s a video installation on one wall. Then another chapter is [on 1986 album] World of Echo, and that’s a video on another wall. There would be an expanded video-art installation that would come on a DVD.” My collaborators, whom I had gone to NYU with—we were all 23 years old at this time—were like, “You’re making a documentary.” I said, “I’m not making a documentary. I’m making a video record. It’s not a feature film. Everything doesn’t have to fit in the box of a feature. That’s not what I’m doing.”

Did you have a negative perception of what we might think of as traditional documentaries?

Part of me did have this intrinsic bias that documentaries were very conventional and static. But the first thing I shot was an interview, and I had this sense of confidence that I’d done it well. The more I interviewed people, the more passionate I became about developing that process—the artistry and craft of the interview. In time, I started to realize that interviews are not stodgy; they’re an emotionally intense way to reanimate history, and that when you venture to make a portrait of somebody who’s absent, and who is mysterious by nature, the composite impressions of all these different people brings them to life. At some point I acknowledged I was making a documentary, and thought: how can we do a documentary in a way that is about an artist, but from the point of view of that artist?

And how did you attempt to tackle that conundrum?

Part of me felt unsure if I could make a feature-length documentary about Arthur, because there was so little primary-source material of him. But the idea of doing recreations appealed to me because of my obsession with the image of this guy riding the Staten Island Ferry back and forth, listening to mixes of his own tapes. The cinematographer on Wild Combination, Jody Lee Lipes—a very acclaimed cinematographer today—suggested that we buy a VHS camera and play with it, so we did. It had these glitches that created dropouts in the video image, which would become desaturated and then slip into this saturation. I remember going onto the Staten Island Ferry and shooting VHS stuff of the ocean: the color would suck out of the ocean and then seep back in with a cyan look.

Some of the only existing archival footage of Arthur Russell is from a performance he did at [intermedia artist] Phill Niblock’s loft in Soho, and that was also desaturated, VHS, extreme-close-up footage of Arthur—really intimate documentation of World of Echo performances. I wanted my recreations to look like this, so the VHS camera became a diaristic way to retrace Arthur’s footsteps. That recreation became an important learning experience for me, in particular the one on the Staten Island Ferry. The costume designer was Janicza Bravo, who is a well-known director today. She went with me to Tom Lee’s apartment, and I borrowed Arthur’s actual jacket. My boyfriend plays a young Arthur, and she got him this young Arthur outfit. I still have the backpack she bought in my closet. I sourced cassette tapes and headphones that looked exactly like the ones I’d seen in photos. As this process progressed, it became clear that it wasn’t just a construction to illustrate [the] film. It was about tracing the footsteps of somebody whom I could never get that close to, but whom I wanted to get as close to the spirit of as possible.

Something I find notable about your film is that it makes Arthur—who, in his lifetime, was an enigmatic figure who released music under a bewildering array of different monikers—clear and legible, but not in a way that seeks to put him in a particular box.

That is 100% what I learned about how to be an artist while making that film. There are many different sides to us, but the culture expects us to express ourselves as a single person on terms that are coherent and legible across time. It takes a certain kind of bravery and confidence to allow yourself to explore all the dimensions of who you are. In fact, Arthur did that by organizing his different impulses with different monikers, whether it was Dinosaur L or Loose Joints.

As a filmmaker, I like subjects who pursue projects with a level of complexity that doesn’t make sense to people in their moment or in their time—this is true for the archivist Marion Stokes and the characters [who quarantined for two years in an eco-dome] in Spaceship Earth. Part of my job as a filmmaker is to step back and act as a translator, to help create a coherent narrative around multifaceted projects that can’t be simply or neatly summarized; often, the lives of visionary people are narratively incoherent.

I love how you begin the film with a passage featuring Arthur’s parents—there’s an instant foregrounding of the primacy of care and familial love, rather than “here’s this cool musician…”

I met Arthur’s parents, and I thought they were extraordinary: these people from Iowa, from this generation, who were unconditionally supportive of their gay son making avant-garde music that nobody understood. He died of AIDS, and they wanted to preserve and build understanding for his legacy. That was intensely moving, as was the fact that they had embraced Arthur’s partner and maintained a relationship with him. I felt those things, and I trust that if I feel moved by something, then other people will too. I feel so emotionally involved in that film. Honestly, I haven't watched it in a decade, because it’s hard for me to watch it.

I remember the intensity of those feelings. Not only were they feelings that were unique to this subject and the relationships that surrounded Arthur, but for me, it was my first time doing this, and it was so intuitive. The relationships I built were so formative that it’s even hard for me sometimes to listen to Arthur’s music. When I make films, there’s a certain level of intensity in those first visceral connections I feel with subjects, and a sense of urgency to help other people see and feel what I see and feel. For me, what matters most is the emotional experience of my films, and the only way I know how to do that is to have a strong, emotional connection to what I make my films about.

How do you look back on the film from a contemporary vantage point?

In terms of what’s changed, I think the circulation of information about hidden histories, like Arthur’s, is different. Today I would have found out about Arthur on a music blog long before a friend would send me a letter and tell me this mythical story of a gay disco auteur on the Staten Island Ferry. I would’ve easily found Tom Lee’s email and gotten a response quickly from him. The way information is transmitted is just different [now], and so the sense of discovery that I had with Arthur was special.

Clearly, it’s like Arthur was an invisible mentor to me. He taught me so much about how to be an artist and how to exist in the world with integrity toward what you care about, and to be uncompromising. I also learned from Arthur how to exist in a space that’s avant-garde and experimental, but that also aims to be mainstream. I want my films to reach a broad audience, and I want to grapple with complex ideas and mercurial subjects that aren’t assimilated or dumbed-down for people. I think that desire to do something with integrity and complexity, but to also reach an audience and to operate within the language of popular culture, is something important to me that I learned from Arthur.

Listen to a special Arthur Russell playlist curated by Ashley Clark.

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Ashley Clark is the curatorial director at the Criterion Collection. Previously, he worked as director of film programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and he has curated film series at BFI Southbank, the Museum of Modern Art, TIFF Bell Lightbox, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, among other venues. He has contributed writing to publications including Film Comment, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, and The Guardian. His first book is Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (2015).

Stills and photos courtesy of Audika Records and Oscilloscope Laboratories.

The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause.—Emma Goldman

“I’m not going to say who I am. Let other people think about it, let other people judge me,” Cecilia Mangini declared in her last film, Due scatole dimenticate (“Two Forgotten Boxes,” 2020), co-directed with Paolo Pisanelli. “What can I say for certain about myself?” she rhetorically asked. “That I was born on 31st July 1927 and I am still alive. That’s all.”

In an age of compulsive labeling and mass narcissism, Mangini’s words feel disorienting—out of time and place. Her self-negation wasn’t false modesty, though, but the genuine expression of a political and artistic life that belonged to a collective “we” rather than an individual “I.” Born in Mola di Bari, a small town in southern Italy, Mangini moved to Florence as a child but continued to visit her native town throughout her youth. She first experienced the potential of cinema in the postwar period at the newborn film societies, which screened the films that had been banned under the fascist regime. In 1952, she moved to Rome to work for the National Federation of Italian Film Societies, and there she met her future husband, the filmmaker Lino Del Fra, with whom she went on to co-direct several films. With the implementation of laws in the late 1950s that granted financial incentives to exhibitors who screened short documentaries before features, Mangini started directing and producing shorts, a format she would rarely stray from in her career.

An unorthodox communist, Mangini conceived of documentary cinema as a means to broaden our understanding of reality; to extract what its official chronicles withhold. Objectivity had no place in her cinema, for she had learned early in life that the exalted term actually excluded many points of view. When she picked up still photography in the early 1950s she was told that it wasn’t suitable for girls: women weren’t supposed to walk and look around. Public space belonged to men. But Mangini did not yield to convention and went on to become the first female documentary filmmaker in Italy—a distinction she never flaunted. What mattered to her were those in front of the camera, not those behind it. Her films invite the spectator to see the world anew, and to discover freedom where everyone saw oppression and vice versa. Sometimes it was a matter of looking elsewhere, and at other times of looking otherwise, counterintuitively. The title and subject of her first film is a case in point: Ignoti alla città (“Unknown to the City,” 1958). Written by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mangini’s debut was an unsentimental look at the life of street kids roaming the suburban borderland of the Italian capital, then suspended between the ruins of WWII and the onslaught of urban development. Censors asked her to remove a scene where kids steal from a newspaper seller, fearing it would instigate delinquency. She refused.

Insubordination and the autonomy that derives from it, even when enmeshed in the tight fabric of traditional society, is what the director both filmed and practiced. Mangini disclosed those social interstices where women were able to carve up a space of effective independence from the regimentation of their lives. Whether filming a rural farm, a factory shop floor, or the Vietnamese resistance, her camera seized moments of self-determination, be it personal or collective, often both. In Maria e i giorni (“Maria and the Days,” 1959), the titular protagonist, an old woman running a farm on behalf of her truant husband, disproves all the stereotypes associated with her kind. Strong-willed, subordinate to no one, Maria leads a life grandly indifferent to the role society has assigned her. She even practices black magic, the ultimate act of social rebellion for a woman living under the strictures of Catholic rule, which the director renders aesthetically by tinging her documentary with expressionistic overtones. The interiors of the woman’s dwelling are filmed in proto-giallo fashion, a low-angled camera capturing all the expressive potential of colors modulated by the interplay of light and shadow. A Halloween-esque pumpkin sits in her courtyard like an omen.

The pagan vestiges that had survived the Vatican’s totalitarian grip on religious practices captured Mangini’s curiosity, leading her to the work of Italian anthropologist Ernesto De Martino, a scholar of witchcraft, possession, and tarantism. It was one his books, Death and Ritual Mourning, that inspired her next film, Stendalì (1960), which focuses on a “troupe” of ritual mourners in a village in Puglia where an ancient Greek dialect is still spoken. Of these women who professionally stage funeral dirges, Mangini observed: “Their social role, to defend the family from the destructive pain of death and guarantee that mourning won’t be psychologically lethal for them, was of fundamental importance. Because of their function in society, they were treated with the utmost respect.” Far from idealizing the supposed idyll of premodern societies, as had been the case with most if not all neorealist directors up to then, she refused any form of paternalism, both aesthetic and narrative, when looking at her subjects. In Stendalì, rather than insisting on the picturesque exoticism of the ancestral rite, the director conveys the quasi-shamanic power these women exert through their ceremonial craft.

When filming religious rituals, Mangini avoided both secular arrogance and ethnographic romanticism. Her sly, anticlerical eye dwelled instead on the intrinsic paganism of popular spirituality like in Divino amore (“Divine Love,” 1963). Pilgrims flock to a sanctuary erected at the gates of Rome to the Virgin Mary in a religious tumult that would appear ancestral but is actually very modern, having only started after WWII. Through the elliptical deconstruction of the pilgrimage, experimentally edited like an avant-garde short, the director respectfully captures the transport of the faithful but simultaneously exposes the historical contingency of religion. As religious dogmas gave way to that of consumer modernism, Mangini’s cinema maintained the same ability to see past the appearances of society. In Essere donne (“Being Women,” 1965), for example, she denounces the dual exploitation of women—at home and in the workplace—under capitalist modernity with neither pity nor complacency. One of the first films to enter and document the working conditions in the big factories of northern Italy, Mangini’s documentary voices the silenced stances of working-class women squeezed between unpaid housework and wage slavery. While women in the North mostly toiled on the assembly line, those in southern Italy accompanied their daily domestic labor with sewing, olive-picking, and other informal, poorly paid jobs. That the conditions in the industrialized North hardly differed from the “underdeveloped” South says enough about the alleged empowering virtues of gainful employment. “The barely human condition that capitalist society grants workers is not emancipation but the beginning of the struggle for emancipation,” the voiceover enthuses as Essere donne closes with images of women clashing with riot police during demonstrations for better working conditions.

Essere donne was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Leipzig Documentary Film Festival, East Germany’s first independent film festival, by a jury composed of preeminent documentarians Joris Ivens, John Grierson, and Paul Rotha. When its distribution in Italian cinemas was hindered by a bureaucratic move that wasn’t censorship but in name, the director personally appealed to the then minister of culture, a socialist MP, to no avail. (At the time, a Ministerial Commission, of which the film’s producers were also part, was in charge of determining which shorts were worthy of distribution without having to substantiate their choices, effectively deciding what was publicly screened and what was not.) The full force of Italian censors was unleashed on Mangini’s All’armi siam fascisti! (“To Arms, We’re Fascist,” 1962), co-directed with her partner and artistic accomplice Lino Del Fra along with Italian critic Lino Micciché. Entirely composed of archival footage, the film features a voiceover written by the poet Franco Fortini and traces the history of Italian fascism back to its material and economic roots. Most unforgivably for the country’s hypocritical censors, the film confrontationally asserted that fascism was still very much part of Italy’s social and political fabric. Not only did Italy not purge the remnants of fascism from its political class after the war, but its repressive tactics reemerged whenever social conflict threatened to disrupt the established order. Through the use of newsreels, interviews, and historical data, the film reconstructs and denounces the alliance of industrialists and a fearful petite bourgeoisie that ushered in Mussolini’s rule. It demonstrates how, backed by a business class terrified of the workers’ and peasants’ revolts that had shaken the country in 1919 and 1920, Mussolini was called to restore order, not to revolutionize society as he and his followers claimed. Fascism, the film argues, is “the armed organization of capitalist violence.”

A change in the law regulating the production and exhibition of documentary films in Italy contributed to Mangini’s gradual disappearance from Italian screens. Starting in the early 1980s, short films were no longer eligible for state funding; the Venice Film Festival even stopped screening them for a period. She made little work during most of the ’80s and ’90s, except for a TV documentary, Comizi d’amore ’80 (“Love Meetings ’80,” 1983), meant as a sequel to Pasolini’s Love Meetings (1965), a documentary survey of (repressed) sexuality in Italy. She staged a comeback of sorts in the 2010s, when her work started circulating again at film festivals, leading to collaborations with fellow documentarians Mariangela Barbanente and Pisanelli. With the former she co-directed In viaggio con Cecilia (“Traveling with Cecilia,” 2013), a retrospective look at the effects of industrialization on her native region of Puglia interspersed with clips from her previous work. With the latter she made Two Forgotten Boxes which screened at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2020. The titular objects contained negatives of photos Mangini took in Vietnam in 1965 when working with Del Fra on a documentary that was never finished. The director had lost track of them, and their rediscovery occasioned both the film and a reflection on the dynamics of memory: its selective nature and ultimate (un)reliability. Mostly shot in Mangini’s own apartment in Rome, the film sifts through her personal archives and library, offering an almost organoleptic extension of her musings. With the same selfless lucidity, she examines the photos she took during her trip to Vietnam and ponders on the sediments they left in her memory. Also on vivid display is her talent as a still photographer, direct and piercing, generous like very few artists have been with their subjects and muses. At any moment in her filmography, the spectator senses her dedication to her subjects, her genuine interest in their predicament; her artistic ambition is always subordinate to those in front of her camera. Emblematic in this regard is how Two Forgotten Boxes ends; reminiscing on the disappointment of being unable to make the documentary she had wanted to, she ponders in voiceover: “we didn’t get to make the film, but the Vietnamese won the war.” Ultimately what mattered most to Mangini was the collective victory of the Vietnamese people against injustice, even at the expense of her own work.

***

Giovanni Vimercati is a film critic and scholar whose work (often under the pseudonym Celluloid Liberation Front) has appeared in Cinema Scope, Sight & Sound, Los Angeles Review of Books, Reverse Shot, New Statesman, MUBI, The Guardian, Filmmaker Magazine, Film Comment, and others. He is a graduate student at the American University of Beirut and an incoming PhD student at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Stills from Due Scatole Dimenticate (2020), Ignoti alla Città (1958), and Essere Donne (1965).

Some of the last films I saw in repertory cinemas before all of New York’s movie theaters shut down in March 2020 were video works from the height of the AIDS epidemic. In early February, Carson Parish at the Museum of Modern Art curated a series called “Now We Think as We Fuck: Queer Liberation to Activism.” The title comes from the poet Essex Hemphill, who recites it to the camera near the end of Marlon Riggs’s 1989 filmic essay on Black homosexuality, Tongues Untied: “Now we think as we fuck / this nut might kill / this kiss could turn to stone.” In addition to including several milestones of queer cinema, such as Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967) and Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996), the MoMA series also served as a good introduction to the prolific genre of AIDS video activism. Titles such as Gregg Bordowitz’s Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993), Jean Carlomusto and Maria Maggenti’s Doctors, Liars, and Women: AIDS Activists Say No to Cosmo (1988), and Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Inc.’s Chance of a Lifetime (1985) were digitally preserved from their original U-matic and Beta SP tapes by MoMA and held in the museum’s collections.

At the time of the screenings, visual art by HIV-positive artists working at the height of the AIDS epidemic was a topic heavy on my mind. I had just finished editing a project that involved archival material from an AIDS-oriented group exhibition organized by photographer Nan Goldin at New York City’s Artists Space gallery at the end of 1989, called Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. The title of the show produced a sort of semantic panic within me. There is no word more terrifying to an archivist than “vanish,” I thought to myself, and then dwelled on this thought until it became a burgeoning, stoking prod of anxiety. “Vanish” implies an absoluteness that is unrecoverable—a disappearance that leaves no space for mourning, for memory, for any record of an existence. Witnesses—which acquired national attention even before it opened when the National Endowment for the Arts briefly withdrew their funding after deeming the works on display to be “of questionable taste”—showcased visual artists from the Lower East Side who had been personally affected by the AIDS crisis. Many were HIV-positive, and some, like Peter Hujar, had recently died of complications from the virus. All had found their social circle devastated by loss. “WE REFUSE TO ALLOW THE U.S. GOVERNMENT TO LEGISLATE OUR INVISIBILITY,” began the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s (ACT UP) response to the NEA’s withdrawal. “WE ARE THE PUBLIC.”

“Witness” and “invisibility,” along with “vanish,” are terms that crop up with relative frequency in artworks and oral histories from the AIDS crisis. Vanishing begets an empty space waiting to be filled in; it involves “the dynamics of death and replacement,” to invoke the title of the first chapter of The Gentrification of the Mind by AIDS historian and writer Sarah Schulman. When Schulman writes about watching from her stoop as New York’s East Village is overtaken by “toned-down flavors, made with higher quality ingredients and at significantly higher prices, usually owned by whites, usually serving whites,” she is talking about cuisine, but she might as well be talking about art. Photographer and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz and other HIV-positive artists sought refuge and space for art-making in both the Village and the cruising spots of the Chelsea Piers. Their deaths allowed room and opportunity for the “professional” art world to flood in, replacing their lofts and studios with pricey galleries that capitalized on their artistic credentials. In her book, Schulman recounts an anecdote related to her by the dancer Scott Heron about the porn theater on 14th Street and 3rd Avenue that would show AIDS activist videos on a loop in its basement, and where Wojnarowicz likely met his future life partner, Tom Rauffenbart. The building is now a CVS, and while reading Schulman’s book, I realized with a pang that I know it too well: right above that CVS is the college dormitory I lived in when I was 19.

***

The filmmakers in MoMA’s series met in affinity groups within ACT UP and began documenting actions and protests, as well as using their cameras to hold police at the events accountable. The first independent media-making group within ACT UP was Testing the Limits, a collective that formed in 1987 and included Bordowitz, a mainstay among ACT UP’s filmmakers. The group’s work is documented in archivist Jim Hubbard’s 2012 film, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (co-produced by Schulman, who, along with Hubbard, founded ACT UP’s Oral History Project). A good portion of United in Anger focuses on ACT UP’s media savviness and their dedication to documenting and distributing their own images of the AIDS crisis, as opposed to relying on media narratives. This was made possible by the affordability and portability of video equipment, and the immediate turnaround it enabled from shooting to editing.

In the two years after Testing the Limits’s founding, more video affinity groups began to take shape within ACT UP, including DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television) in 1989. DIVA TV member Catherine Gund recalls in United in Anger that cameras were omnipresent within ACT UP to the point of being “an extension” of the activists themselves. These tactics in political video-making were inherited from the radical filmmaking collectives of the 1960s and ’70s—including New York’s Videofreex and the feminist group Les Insoumuses in Paris—who saw the potential for immediate public dissemination of countercultural information in the release of the Sony Portapak, the first portable tape-based video camera. Video also offered the ability to record and critique broadcast media: just as Les Insoumuses remixed media headlines to polemical effect in their 1975 film Maso et Miso vont en bateau, in lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer’s Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS (1986), digitally warped scans of newspapers proclaiming “IDENTIFY ALL THE CARRIERS… HOW AIDS COULD DESTROY AMERICA” attack the screen as a soundtrack of radio broadcasts lays the blame on gays and addicts.

Most of the video content in “Now We Think as We Fuck,” and ACT UP’s ouevre in general, employs a first-person perspective and a sense of urgency. They bring to mind cultural critic José Esteban Muñoz’s proposition that queerness is a constant state of becoming, “a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present.” The videos thrum with the fury, tedium, and communal spirit of filmmakers who knew that the disease might take them at any moment. Philosopher and activist Félix Guattari wrote that Wojnarowicz created art “in order to forge himself a language and a cartography enabling him at all times to reconstruct his own existence”; the same can be said of Gregg Bordowitz and much of Testing the Limits’s work. Bordowitz’s Fast Trip, Long Drop opens with the director filming himself in his underwear as he lies on his bed and waits for his doctor to call him back with test results. “I’m just home… trying to amuse myself,” he tells the camera. The film is a seánce of the self—the autobiography of an artist who believes it will be his last work. It careens between sections of memoir, in which Bordowitz is haunted by the accidental death of his absentee father years ago and tenderly asks his mother to reflect on his coming out; venomously disaffected parodies of the media treatment of people with AIDS, featuring Bordowitz in a hellish faux–talk show where he is commanded to “represent” the HIV-positive by appearing brave and demure; and conversations with activists and friends, including the filmmaker Yvonne Rainer. By the end, Bordowitz explicitly reveals the intention behind the film: “Before I die I want to be the agent of my own history.”

Bordowitz and documentarian Jean Carlomusto brough ACT UP NYC’s video work to the AIDS education nonprofit Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Inc., which broadcast them on public television. Carlomusto became the de facto video editor for the organization. “It became sadder and sadder to sit in an editing room with this material, because as you would look at the material you’d start to think, oh, well, he’s gone, he’s gone…” Carlomusto says in United in Anger. “[ACT UP’s video work] became more and more a record of loss. In that way, the material that had once been so energizing starts to become almost a burden.” This is the impossible dichotomy of the queer video works of the era: they exemplify a moment of boundless creativity, anger, and pure collective energy, but just as immediately became archives of death and mourning. Poet Charles Theonia and writer and artist Theodore Kerr discuss this when speaking of Gregg Araki’s Totally F***ed Up (1993) in a 2016 issue of Dirty Looks zine. Kerr states that “videotape always means AIDS for me… [it’s] deployed as shorthand for doom in gay men’s lives.“ Theonia counters that their “primary association with videotape is a feeling of excitement about marginalized people getting more access to image production.” [1] These thoughts run in tandem: the videos are both memories of the deceased and instructions for a queer future.

***

Almost exactly a year after attending “Now We Think as We Fuck,” I watched the videos cited in this piece—the ones that remain unpreserved—by myself in my bedroom on a small screen. Wading through the thickets of the anonymous YouTube, Vimeo, and Dailymotion channels where they are unceremoniously uploaded in 240p, obscured by soft focus and streaking pixels, I was grateful that someone, somewhere, put in the time to make these works accessible. But it was not lost on me that the works now mirror the conditions in which their makers persevered: at risk. How easy and quick it would be for the accounts hosting them to shut down, for the videos to be deleted by an algorithmic copyright infringement bot that detects a pop song in a scene, for the work to vanish.

The practice of moving-image archiving is slow and multifaceted. It encompasses the inspection of prints, their proper care and housing, cataloguing, creating duplicates, and digitization. Typically, works in a public nonprofit archive are prioritized based on interest from researchers. AIDS video works were not made with longevity in mind, nor were they made for anything resembling financial gain. The filmmakers’ goals were immediate: a need to preserve their existence, which was under immediate threat; immediate accountability from the state; and immediate public education on safe sex. Both the creation of these works and their care and management fall under the banner of what writer and media historian Cait McKinney calls “information activism”—the often unfunded and invisible “unspectacular” labor that makes hard-to-access information available to marginalized communities.

The largest collection of AIDS video work—which includes the archives of Bordowitz as well as the prolific DIVA TV video-maker Jim Wentzy—resides at the New York Public Library. These archives were brought to the NYPL by Hubbard in the mid-’90s [2] from the basements and apartments they were languishing in until then, unduplicated from their unstable Hi8 master tapes [3]. The works in these collections are now around 30 years old, which is coincidentally the estimated lifespan of most tape formats under ideal archival conditions. After this point, the tapes are increasingly “high-risk”: hydrolysis causes the binder around the magnetic tape to develop “sticky-shed syndrome,” an ailment with no cure. At this stage the archivist must consider the prospects of “baking” the tape, or exposing it to high temperatures in order to briefly quell the rot for a last shot at digitization.

The considerable technical challenges of preserving obsolete tape formats aside, many queer archives continue to face political scrutiny for containing material that may be deemed pornographic, or subject to homophobic state legistlation. (East Tennessee’s Voices Out Loud archive, for example, was founded in direct response to Public Chapter 1066, House Bill No. 2248, which defunded the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Pride Center on the grounds that state funds shall not “promote the use of gender neutral pronouns.”) There are also ethical concerns. Are these videos private or public, and thus how accessible should they be? Should the archivists working with the material be queer? How will the taxonomy of the collection’s metadata age in relation to a community that is in a perpetual state of redefinition?

More queer video material is certainly out there, unidentified or unprioritized, and grassroots initiatives are attempting to preserve these works. In December 2019, the New York–based, volunteer-run digitization group XFR Collective presented videos from their residency at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art [4], where they had allowed museum members to bring in at-risk VHS, Betacam, Hi8, and U-matic tapes. The results included PSAs from Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Inc.; protest footage; and Homoteens filmmaker Joan Jubela’s 1993 appearance on New York City public-access show Dyke TV.

“What have we internalized as a consequence of the AIDS crisis?” Schulman asks in the conclusion of Gentrification of the Mind. “As with most historical traumas of abuse, the perpetrators—the state, our families, the media, private industry—have generally pretended that the murder and cultural destruction of AIDS, created by their neglect, never actually took place… They probably believe, as they are pretending, that the loss of those individuals has had no impact on our society, and that the abandonment and subsequent alienation of a people and culture does not matter.” The main risk that AIDS-era video works face is that of being classified as ephemera as opposed to pioneering, pre-gentrification nonfiction cinema. The videos in “Now We Think as We Fuck” and the New York Public Library’s collection are simultaneously playful and furious, hopeful and terrified. They collectively demonstrate a queer cinema not of assimilation or mainstream representation, but in defiance of being forgotten.

***

Mackenzie Lukenbill is an audiovisual archivist and editor from Rochester, NY. Previously, they were the data manager for Field of Vision and a consulting programmer at Newfest. They have contributed writing to BOMB Magazine and Film Comment.

Stills from Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993) image copyright of Gregg Bordowitz, courtesy of Video Data Bank at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012) by Jim Hubbard (original shot of Keri Duran by Ellen Spiro), and Totally F***ed Up (1993).

***

[1] Theonia, Charles, and Theodore Kerr. “You Used to Call Me on My Land Line.” Dirty Looks, vol. 1, 2016, pp. 96-101.
[2] Hubbard, Jim. “AIDS Activist Video and the Evolution of the Archive.” Queer Cinema, ventil verlag, 2018.
[3] Hubbard, Jim. “A Report on the Archiving of Film and Video Work by Makers with AIDS.” ACT UP, https://actupny.org/diva/Archive.html.
[4] “XFR Collective Presents: Queer Gems from our Leslie-Lohman Residency.” Spectacle Theater, 14 December 2019, https://www.spectacletheater.com/xfr-queer-gems/.

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