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About the Book

Lucid Dreaming is an unprecedented global collection of discussions with documentary and experimental filmmakers, giving film and video its rightful place alongside the written word as an essential medium for conveying the most urgent concerns in contemporary arts and politics.

In these long-form conversations, film curator and arts journalist Cohn draws out the thinking of some of the most intriguing creators behind the rapidly developing movement of moving-image nonfiction. The collection features individuals from a variety of backgrounds who encounter the world, as Cohn says, “through a creative lens based in documentary practice.” Their inspirations encompass queer politics, racism, identity politics, and activism.

The featured artists come from a multiplicity of countries and cultures including the U.S., Finland, Serbia, Syria, Kosovo, China, Iran, and Australia. Among those Cohn profiles and converses with are Karim Aïnouz, Khalik Allah, Maja Borg, Ramona Diaz, Samira Elagoz, Sara Fattahi, Dónal Foreman, Ja’Tovia Gary, Ognjen Glavonic, Barbara Hammer, Sky Hopinka, Gürcan Keltek, Adam and Zack Khalil, Khavn, Kaltrina Krasniqi, Roberto Minervini, Terence Nance, Orwa Nyrabia, Chico Pereira, Michael Robinson, J. P. Sniadecki, Brett Story, Deborah Stratman, Maryam Tafakory, Mila Turajlic, Lynette Wallworth, Travis Wilkerson, and Shengze Zhu.

Can nonfiction film be defined? How close to reality can or should documentary storytelling be, and is film and video in its less restrictive iterations “truer” than traditional narratives? How can a story be effectively conveyed? As they consider these and many other questions, these passionate, highly articulate filmmakers will inspire not only cinema enthusiasts, but activists and artists of all stripes.

320 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-232-0 • E-book 978-1-68219-235-1

About the Author

Pamela Cohn author photo

Author photo by Darren Irwin
space after caption

Pamela Cohn is a maker, producer, educator, arts journalist, curator and festival programmer based in Berlin. Among recent and ongoing projects she’s played a pivotal role at DokuFest: International Documentary and Short Film Festival in Prizren, Kosovo; Sebastopol Center for the Arts in California; Scottish Documentary Institute, Edinburgh; her own screening series in Berlin, Kino Satellite; True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri; and the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam. She has been a regular contributor for Filmmaker and BOMB Magazine, among other publications.

Read an Excerpt

from LUCID DREAMING

A CONVERSATION WITH JA’TOVIA GARY

In 2016, Ja’Tovia Gary attended the Terra Summer Residency program in Giverny, France. While there, she made a short film called Giverny I (Negresse Imperiale) in which she situates herself right inside Claude Monet’s glorious gardens. In some scenes Ja’Tovia wears a brightly colored dress, blending into the electric and flamboyant colors of the surrounding flowers and trees. In some instances, her face is completely obscured by a brown box she drew and animated over the video. In an effect similar to the moth wings in Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), the boxes are made of petals and leaves from the garden that Ja’Tovia then affixed to celluloid. In the short film, the materials are abstracted into patterns and colors when light passes through. In other scenes she is naked, a reclining nude in repose, distinctly not blending in, an image to be consumed by the spectator – out of place, out of time. Juxtaposed against the filmmaker’s presence in the bucolic setting of the gardens are selections from video phone footage recorded by Diamond Reynolds in July 2016 in Minnesota – posted as a live feed on Facebook – as Reynolds’ boyfriend Philando Castile lay bleeding out in the front seat of his car. Castile had been shot at point-blank range seven times by a police officer after being stopped for a random check.

Ja’Tovia works with a purposive oppositional gaze, a bid to re-frame and re-tell modern historical incidents from a Black perspective. When I spoke to her in February 2019, she had just returned home to Brooklyn from Paris after launching her first solo exhibition, Tactile Cosmologies, at galerie frank elbaz. In this discussion, Ja’Tovia talks at length about this idea, explaining that it’s always at the forefront of her consciousness when making work.

In early 2019, Ja’Tovia was a featured artist in critic and writer Hilton Als’s latest show at David Zwirner Gallery in New York, a wide-ranging and hugely imaginative exhibit taking on the myth of American writer and intellectual James Baldwin. Ja’Tovia’s film An Ecstatic Experience (2015) was part of the section of the show that Als called a “universe of pure metaphor”. Made with archival footage, An Ecstatic Experience is Ja’Tovia’s first experimental work, and the foundation for the style and substance she’ll use, in part, for her début feature film, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, currently in production, its title echoing Baldwin’s 1985 nonfiction book about the Wayne Williams Atlanta child murders that took place in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The evidence of things not seen also references the definition of faith from the New Testament’s Epistle to the Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. Conceived as documentary memoir about her kin in Dallas, Texas – those still alive and those that have passed on – Ja’Tovia’s creative mission is to explore the resonances and vibrations of the interior and exterior ancestral legacies that have been passed on to her and her generation.

PC: Are you able to work consistently at this point on the making of The Evidence of Things Not Seen? There’ve been several things happening simultaneously for you.

JG: It has been a bit scattered lately but now that I’ve gotten the solo show up in Paris, the film becomes the priority again. I applied for the fellowship at Radcliffe with the film project but I was already working on the exhibit so had to foreground the three-channel installation in France. [Ja’Tovia was a Fellow at the Radcliffe-Harvard Film Study Center in 2018-2019.] But I was able to shoot in December with my grandfather for the feature film and I also had a shoot just two days ago. I’ve been working with a DP who lives in Brooklyn and he’d come to Cambridge to check in with me and brought his camera. I also checked out a Panasonic VHS camera from 1993 from the equipment room at the Film Study Center. So now we have this really amazing VHS footage as well and that’s really exciting because the film is meant to be a kind of mélange of various formats and textures, footage from various different cameras reflecting the different time periods I’m working in and revisiting.

PC: As a maker that works consistently with archival footage, what is it about using that material that captivates you, that helps you form a way in to personal content?

JG: Even my earliest works as an undergrad have archival footage in them. It’s a weird kind of impulse that has always been there. Largely it began with my love for the way the material looks. It’s textured, soft, otherworldly. There’s a ghostly quality to the imagery. You’re looking at footage of people who might have long since passed, places that have changed or no longer exist. As someone who’s really interested in the metaphysical, the immaterial, the numinous, I find archival footage and objects from the past incredibly evocative. The material is loaded, super charged with time, a kind of residue. Using the footage allows me to layer contexts and experiences, make connections across time.

With the feature, I’m really blessed because I have this footage of my family that dates back to the early 1960s. My great-aunt Mae had a bit of money and purchased a Super 8 camera. In many ways she’s one of the family’s earliest documentarians, and more generally she fits within a tradition of Black women documenting Black communities right alongside folks like Zora Neale Hurston. Sure, these are home videos, but what happens to the camera when it’s held by Black women gazing at their communities? They become the timekeepers. My mother showed me a VHS tape that this footage had been transferred to, an hour-long tape that included a number of members from both sides of the family. There are also people from the church, close friends, neighbors, people from Texas, Arkansas and California.

I see my maternal grandfather and grandmother, both of whom passed away when my mother was a teenager. I see my great-grandmother. I knew her but she’s long since passed away. I see aunts and uncles when they were young people. Viewing this footage, having access to it felt very affirming. It was powerful to see this visual representation of family and community, this evidence of people who are now ancestors that I had never met before but of whom I’d heard stories and feel deeply connected. I also see folks I grew up knowing as elders or grown folks and now I’m looking at this footage seeing them as babies. It was a really moving experience.

Working within the archive allows me to merge these images of the past with contemporary imagery so that we can begin to re-establish this connection across time and space with those who have come before us, with events that have occurred in the past but influence our present day realities. A lot of what I’m exploring is very relevant today because these are age-old concerns, whether it’s about family, love and redemption, state violence, the abuse of power. It’s important for me to insert myself into this conversation and insert people like me and people in my family line into this conversation. The archive is not objective nor is it a neutral space. It is filled with gaps, deliberate erasures and ruptures. I want to make sure that I’m able to have a presence there and bring my own subjective experience to the materials.

PC: You speak a lot about the spectator, the audience members you want to engage with. In your film Women’s Work profiling Brooklyn-based artist Simone Leigh, she says that the viewer or spectator of her artwork is what activates the artwork. With the freshness of this newly discovered family archive, can you talk about your relationship to the audience for your own work?

JG: What I’m about to tell you is something I also just spoke about in this talk I gave at Radcliffe the other day and I’ve said it before that. I knew it was going to get an interesting response, particularly from the audience at Harvard. I’m talking very specifically to Black people. Oftentimes, I’m speaking specifically to Black women, Black queer folks, Black young people, Black men, or those who have passed on. Sometimes I’m speaking to a future me, someone not yet born. The works I’m creating are interior conversations I’m having with Black folks. That doesn’t mean that white or Asian or Indigenous people can’t access the work or learn something from it or have it resonate on an intellectual or emotional level. But this specific audience is important to keep in mind because that shapes the conversation. It shapes what kind of imagery I’m going to put into the work and how I’m going to structure that imagery. It also lets me know what to leave out. I don’t have to worry about speaking, as Toni Morrison said, to the invisible white person over your shoulder. I can speak directly to you. Whether or not white people are transformed by my work is not my concern.

I’m often urged to be “universal” because all storytellers are supposed to be universal. But we only get to the universal by being extremely specific. If I tried to speak to everyone or water down what I want to say then no one would want to watch it. It wouldn’t be worth it. You wouldn’t care. An audience of Black women is not a small range of people. It’s a huge population that’s incredibly diverse, millions of human beings from different countries and generations and ethnic groups. It lets me know what kind of story I need to be telling and how to tell it. Keeping the audience member in mind is important. I’ve had to suspend belief and put myself in the shoes of random white male directors my entire life in terms of making anything for a little Black girl from Texas, you know? I’m sure they’re happy that I’m watching and I so love good films. I like the work of Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson. I like the work these folks are doing. But they’re not really concerned about whether or not their work floats my boat or whether or not I’m being transformed by their work.

In my short experimental film called Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) where the footage of myself and that of Diamond Reynold’s video is juxtaposed I don’t show Castile’s body and that was very important. I don’t show dead Black bodies in my work. It’s not necessary in order to get the work across. It’s not necessary to show a dead Black body in order for the work to resonate with people emotionally. It’s, in fact, re-traumatizing and it’s a violent act that’s been in practice in America for decades going all the way back to photographic postcards of gruesome lynchings that were then circulated and sold as souvenirs. So I withhold this. This is a deliberate act of refusal. How do I know to withhold this? Because I’m talking to Black people. My audience doesn’t need to see Philando Castile bleeding out in his car after being shot by the police. We already know what this scene looks like even if we’re not looking at it. Why? Because we’ve seen it so many times before in so many different iterations and time periods. Now folks have to sit with the sound only, the audience has to do a bit of work now to fill in that blank, which means they have to contend with their own personal relationship to state violence. I don’t need to re-traumatize Black folks in order to make some sort of statement. So, thinking of my audience, being specific about who they are keeps me grounded and focused and on task, so to speak.

During my time as a student, observational filmmaking or the vérité mode of filmmaking was the primary technique taught at SVA. I’m not sure what the curriculum is like now. I graduated in 2014. Fortunately for me, in my undergrad program I had learned that there were several modes of nonfiction filmmaking. Yes, you can make an observational film but you can also make a film made entirely out of found footage or a diaristic personal film or a lyrical experimental film. So I already had a very expansive view of what a documentary could be going into the MFA program. This made me a bit of a problem in the eyes of the institution because I did whatever I wanted.

I decided to use archival in an early graduate school assignment, even though the point was to do a very basic exercise for grasping the techniques they taught us for interviewing, lighting, and cutting. So, yeah, I got that part but I’m also going to throw in some ethnographic material from the past because I wanted to make a statement in the film about Leigh’s work. That what’s happened in the past is still very much at play in the present, this conversation between Black women’s labor practices now and Black women’s modes of labor from the mid-twentieth century. For them that was a bit much because here was someone who wasn’t that interested in following directions. That issue could take precedence over whether or not the work was going to be supported, you feel me?

But also fortunately for me, I had professor Michel Negroponte. He attended MIT and he studied under a lot of the forerunners of American cinema vérité. He was supportive of my engagement with the various modes and techniques of documentary filmmaking, but he’s also really interested in experimental forms. He saw my interest and he gave me this long list of works to watch and books to read. So then I wasn’t just being exposed to the curriculum that espoused this focus on cinema vérité and observational filmmaking. I was also learning about Trinh T. Minh-ha and Nina Davenport and doing my own research on William Greaves, St. Clair Bourne and Marian Anderson. We were not exploring any Black folks’ work either in that curriculum, by the way. So I had to go and expand my education while I was in grad school, to go outside that space and take various workshops and base my research around folks who were working in nonfiction – but not necessarily observational filmmaking.

It’s important for me to interrogate notions around objectivity because of how it hides or mystifies imbalances of power in crafting the narrative while positing a certain fundamental truth. As a filmmaker, I’m the one holding the camera. I’ve chosen the subject and collaborators. And I’m making all these decisions and not a single one of them is neutral. The moment you decide who you’re going to shoot, that’s a decision. The moment you decide where to place the camera, that’s also a decision. Standing in front of someone with a camera and walking away with the material and cutting it how I see fit includes a great deal of power and responsibility. How can I call myself objective? How can I say that I’m simply observing? I’m creating the terms in which the observation occurs and also deciding what parts of that observation are going to be seen by others. What’s going to be representative of the observation? I reject that observational filmmaking is the truth being presented.

I’m really influenced and inspired by Black feminist thinkers like bell hooks. She wrote a seminal essay called “The oppositional gaze” and it’s a strong grounding principle for a lot of my work. She talks about Black female spectatorship going back to the very beginning of television. There weren’t a lot of Black people on TV in the beginning and those that were there were these over-the-top caricatures. When everyday Black people saw this on television, we were engaging with a very critical gaze, with skepticism, parsing what we saw and not being accepting of everything that was being presented to us as truth and as fact. We saw these images as distortions that came from the white imagination. When I’m thinking about watching work and making work I’m making it from an oppositional gaze, specifically from a Black feminist oppositional gaze. This is a powerful space from which to create and a powerful space from which to gaze at the world. I have a very clear point of view. I’m not attempting to mask my position. In fact, my position is the point of departure.

PC: You made a very powerful piece in 2015 titled An Ecstatic Experience, a multi-layered video where you hand-draw animations over the images of the actress Ruby Dee’s face. What was your point of departure in making this piece?

JG: What Ruby Dee is reciting is a slave narrative from Fannie Moore. In the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project interviewed formerly enslaved people as an oral history project, taking down memories and experiences of enslavement. Here, Ruby Dee is doing a dramatization of one of these stories of Fannie Moore’s where she talks about her mother’s experiences on the plantation.

PC: As an actress Ruby Dee imbues those words and that story with her own reading or interpretation as your drawings are placed on top of Dee’s image expressing your own non-verbal commentary. As the director, animator and editor you’re, in turn, imposing something on this story. It’s a beguilingly layered work.

JG: Layering is definitely the active word. While thinking about making the film I watched this footage repeatedly. It’s about a thirty-minute long reel and I pulled out the Ruby Dee portion. I watched it over and over and also recorded it on my phone so I would always have a digital reference at hand. I wanted to become really familiar with what was being said and what was being emoted or transmitted before I began. There’s the actual narrative and then there’s the recording of the narrative and then there’s Dee’s interpretation of the narrative as performance. On top of that is my response to all that. These etchings or mark makings are evidence of my emotional response to what I’m seeing and hearing inside of the frame.

Most of that was deeply intuitive but the intentional part of it was that I knew there are twenty-four frames a second so I wanted certain things to be held longer and I knew I wanted to alternate between patterns. Dee’s got a deeply expressive face and I respond to that, to the look in her eyes or how the top of her lip curls or how her eyes start to water or when she shakes her head. There’s a point where she glances upward for three seconds. In the narrative, she talks about captivity, fugitivity, escape and transcendence. She talks about moving beyond a normative state, beyond the body. Those marks I made are my attempts to communicate what it means to be trapped or to break out, to cut loose. You see a box around her head for several seconds and that repeats. You also see a halo around her head because I wanted to venerate her as an ancestor.

I believe deeply in venerating these folks who have come before us, giving them their due. How often are you seeing Black people with halos around their heads? There are moments where she’s behind prison bars because she’s talking about being a bonded woman. Engaging with the archive is my way of having a conversation across time. What am I transferring through this mark making? Alongside the artistic work, what sort of spirit work is occurring in this meeting of materials and ideas?

PC: Your next project is a feature that needs to sustain a longer narrative arc, a project with larger breadth and scope. In other words, this longer piece will have its own language. Is it daunting to think about sustaining that over the course of a feature-length film?

JG: It’s a daunting prospect, definitely. I will need to carve out this language as I go. Each project is quite singular, meaning the form is determined by the materials, subject matter, collaborators, etcetera. There is no formula and no two projects are the same, even if they’re related or somehow connected. With this project I want to invoke something that has not been in a lot of the films that I’ve made up until now. There’s a silence or stillness, a quietude that will be in this piece because that happens when I’m sitting across from my grandmother or my 85-year-old grandfather. There is a self-reflexive imperative with this work.

Rhythmically, we’ll need to expand temporally but there will also need to be expansion in how I work with the material in terms of the edit. How long do we sit with things? How do we modulate and mediate the material? That’s what I’m exploring every time I turn on the hard drive. It’s a hugely daunting task because this is my first feature and I am trying to go against the grain in terms of how story is laid out. I’m trying to present a new form that borrows very much from the past. It’s also really about being in it. That’s something that’s been revealed to me and something I’ll have to face.

PC: You’ll have multiple storytellers within the film. The complexity of that is very exciting. But in order for these fragile time-based projects to work, I think the deeply personal place from which everything is conveyed must be transparent to the spectator. When you look at this array of voices, do you have a sense of personal narrative that can include all those voices and your own specific ways of responding to them within the film?

JG: I do have some idea of narrative, yes. But it will be more impressionistic. A series of moments that are relational in how they’re placed will communicate their importance. This series of impressionistic moments should act like memory or the telling of fables or tales. What comes before those moments and what comes after will be what give those moments power. It’s not an Aristotelian three-act story structure per se; it’s more circular or cyclical and I’m always looking towards Black music, the Black jazz aesthetic, blues, and gospel. These musical expressions that are historical and deeply connected to Blackness and spirit are core formal models. It’s helpful to consider that and to consider how memory works in how I want to structure the film. I’m interested in capturing what I felt at a specific moment or what my mother says she felt in a certain time period and then communicating that to the audience. In what ways are our memories inconsistent? How does memory shape the stories around us, the people we love, our sense of time, our connection to history?

PC: As you’re going through this archive and figuring out what to add, what stories are bubbling to the surface that took you by surprise or that perhaps convinced you that you needed to change course? Are your family members, both here and gone, speaking back to you in ways you didn’t expect?

JG: I am constantly surprised by my family, both the living and the dead [laughing]. They’re always kind of dropping these bombs on me [laughing]. You think you have an idea of who these folks are and then they tell a story that completely rearranges your reality. Sometimes I’m completely terrified, other times I’m delighted and gratified. I’m trying to remain open, courageous, curious.

PC: You grew up in a certain place and then left. In some ways you’re extremely far from those origins. When you look at your own story, do you think of someone in the future being as surprised by you as you are by your ancestors? I find the most beautiful aspect of these family stories is the way the maker is somehow taken captive by the other stories that surround his or her own.

JG: I would hope that future folks that are a part of my line are surprised and inspired by the type of life I lived, the things I’ve left for them. I mean that’s the whole point, right? For someone to see this work and be moved, to feel reflected, affirmed, emboldened. That’s my hope. That’s how I felt when I saw that first Super 8 home-movie that my mother gave me.

It’s strange because I don’t necessarily see my family as subjects. I do see them as collaborators. I mean there’s definitely still the power differential that I spoke about before. I’m collecting these stories, conversations and confessionals. I’m editing the film. I’m not discounting that. But in many ways it is really up to them. Are they willing to meet me in this place? What are they willing to share? What are they willing to give and receive? I feel I’m at their behest somehow, that I’m in service to them.

I can say, as we’re making this, that one of the things we’re really grappling with is the notion of trauma, the kind of trauma that can be passed down or imprinted in genetic material. I am looking for repeated behaviors and patterns. How did my behavior in the relationship with my first serious boyfriend that I was in love with mirror that of my mother and father’s very tumultuous marriage? How does my grandmother’s trauma affect me in my life? Does anyone else in my family struggle with mental illness in the same ways I do? Who else is touched by fire and is sometimes manic? Who is anxious or completely depressed? How many deal with alcoholism and addiction and how does it affect their children? How does my father’s relationship with his father impact my relationship with him?

Some would call it epigenetics. My mom calls it a generational curse. How do we get to the root of these patterns that seem to repeat? Are we stuck or doomed to be in a never-ending loop or can we free ourselves? If there’s generational trauma, is there also generational wisdom that I can access by uncovering these stories? Can I excavate the actual source of these wounds and also discover the antidote? These are all narrative concerns as well. It’s not just about getting in these people’s business. It’s not about getting my mom to tell me all of the dirt about my dad and having my dad tell me all of the dirt on my mom. Who am I in relation to these people and can I free us up a bit to breathe and not be bound and constricted so much by our past and the violence of that past? And yes, it is also for the folks yet to be born. It is concerned very much with the future, as it’s very much concerned with the past. How can I venerate the ancestors and leave something for the folks who have not yet been born?

PC: There must also be echoes in terms of the world as it was then and as it is now. In that mirroring we see how much has actually not changed or has not progressed. There has been a constant socio-political loop in my lifetime that dismays and alarms me. This personal way of investigating the families and societies we’re born into and the things we’re given can also be somewhat of a minefield. Clues can easily be misread and messages misunderstood, particularly by those we trust to tell us the truth about the world and our place in it. This goes back to our conversation about the collective archive and all that’s missing from it.

JG: The film is certainly about the larger world and as I mentioned before, because it’s so specific, it is about everybody else, you feel me? When people from the organizations that have supported the work ask me if this is going to be universal, I say to them: You know, everybody has a mama. And if they don’t, they feel some type of way about that. Everybody has a first love. I don’t have to go out of my way to make this universal. This is a story of a woman self-actualizing. This is a story of an American family.

While we’re looking at this one family, we’re also looking at the arc of history. I’m talking to my grandfather, a man who grew up under some of the most egregious forms of white supremacy in Texas. When he was a boy, he was taken to the hospital to get his appendix removed. And they decided to stash his body in the basement until he died. He survived because his mother worked for a white woman. She petitioned that white woman to intervene on his behalf. Stories like this emerge. We’re also talking about the history of the United States. We’re talking about the human condition. To be alive means to suffer. To be alive means to struggle. To be alive means to be in love. To be in love means to be hurt or to be ruined by that love at some point. It is about the intimate, the hidden interior. That’s the only way we can get at something larger.

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