Saturday, December 11, 2010

A movie for the movement, not for the class

In my Visual Research Methods class we were given assignments to create movies.  For the activists in the class (and there were a lot of us!) we came upon some issues of audience and purpose.  Before this class I was experimenting in making movies for "the movement"; basically capturing actions and activism of different movements I am involved in: the student movement, the immigrant's rights movement, the undocumented student movement, the feminist movement, the queer rights movement,  the anti-racist movement, the worker's rights movement, the media justice movement, the global health movement and every combination and connecting movements.  But in making films for this class I was to make films based in the film and media theory we were learning and my audience was my professor and my classmates.  Things I was doing such as putting up video clips with my "voice" coming across as text between clips asserted myself as the voice of authority, and putting music to the images is a manipulative tool to incite emotions.  I needed to push myself to create self-reflexive films as well as to think about the ethical consequences of revealing people's full names, legal statuses, and locations.  At one point I had to make an ethnography and I was challenged to do so without doing it on a group that necessarily trusted me.  This pushed me to think about what should be done in terms of relationship building before filming people.  However, my work for class still differs from my work for the movement.  I would not place text on video or photographs for a class project, but I would for an educational video.

This brings me to what I am posting here: Eddie, an organizer for the a local day labor organizing center asked me to make a film of this years actions that the Day Laborers have been involved with to show at a recent event.  The funny thing is that afterward everyone was asking me to please put it on the internet.  Many of these people were part of or associated with the people who were considerably "concerned" over my video "Una Mirada a los Invisibles" being on the internet for fear of inciting Minute Men backlash.  I was wary and decided against it.  My video was then shown on Pitzer College's campus (and I was notified about 10 minutes in advance) at one of their weekly Day Laborer/student "Encuentros" and the next thing I know I am being asked to please put it on the internet so that the organizing center can put it on their website.  I finally decided to do it.  Since its on the internet I thought I might as well share it on my blog for all to see, so here it is:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Part 1 (of 10). Introduction: Meet Dreamers Adrift

   I am writing this paper about digital storytelling vis-a-vis a particular digital storytelling project called Dreamers Adrift, which according to their social media site is: “A creative project ABOUT undocumented students, BY undocumented students, and FOR undocumented students.” Elsewhere on the site it says they are “4 Undocumented College Graduates speaking up for themselves and other undocumented youth.” The ways in which they “speak up” is through videos they make collaboratively and host on Youtube, then spread on the internet via a website, a Facebook page, word of mouth and its electronic equals, sharing and reposting. The collaborators in the project are DREAMers, a term used by those who fall into the groups who would be affected if the DREAM Act were to pass. The DREAM Act would provide a road to citizenship for undocumented youth who entered the country before they were 16 and either attended two years of college or did two years of military service. It was first introduced in 2001 but has failed to pass thus far even though it has undergone recent changes to become more appealing to bipartisan support.

Meet Julio, Deisy, Jesus and Fernando (pictured above), graduates of California State University Long Beach and the creative minds behind Dreamers Adrift. This picture was drawn by Julio, a prolific artist who spends much of his time and energy drawing for “the movement,” most of which is specific to the DREAM Act passing. These 4 believe that the act will pass, maintaining that, as the top right corner of this website screen-shot says, “The DREAM Lives On...” and as Jesus’s voice says at the end of the following video, “the DREAM Act is alive, the DREAM Act is alive.”

This video is a great way for the Dreamers to introduce themselves; it is called Día de los Sueños, a video for Dia de los Muertos with a DREAM Act twist.

This was the first collaborative video made by Dreamers Adrift, though Jesus made three videos in video-blog format before this one, the first of which was posted on the Dreamers Adrift Youtube on September 30, 2010.

Part 2. Some history of the Project

As I said, Jesus made video blogs first. Here is an example of one in which he links Arnold voting down the California DREAM Act to capitalism.

But he found himself wanting to do more than a video blog:

        As Jesus said, there was “something missing” in manipulating ones own image which led the project to become collaborative.  This is reminiscent of the thoughts of Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas who rejected the idea of directors and called for collaborative filmmaking in order to make cinema of revolution.   Less than three months later, the foursome have created five more videos, are in post-production on one more, and uploaded Jesus’s graduation speech at the 2007 Chican@/Latin@ graduation.  But looking further back, these four were members together of FUEL CSULB, a campus organization for AB540 students.  After all four had graduated, Fernando and Deisy in 2009 and Julio in 2010, they created a collaborative digital storytelling project along with three other people called 1.8 Million Dreams.  The project was named for the 1.8 Million DREAMers in the US, all of which they aimed to have tell their story via audio, video, photo essay, essay, poem, or artwork.  This project had complicated issues which is what spurred many of the DREAMers to leave, to run adrift.

    When I asked the Dreamers what the name “Dreamers Adrift” meant, Jesus said that the name “describes our situation, as well as our exit from the 1.8 Million Dreams project” and Deisy added that after graduation it “felt like we were drifting in some sort of limbo.”  Their narratives describe their “situation,” a word I have come to recognize as being a synonym for “undocumented.” However, the videos do more than tell their stories.  But we’ll get back to that.

Part 3. On Digital Storytelling

    Digital storytelling is a broad term that brings what is private and personal, usually stories and narratives, into the public; many times on a global scale, in mediated forms. This includes but is not limited to Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and blogging. Before webcams, video and digital cameras, and laptops were widely affordable or accessible, the traditional digital story was when an outsider with technology such as voice or video recording devices came in and recorded stories of usually underrepresented populations. This has largely changed and many of these unheard voices and stories represent themselves without the need of another person facilitating the recording.

       Today, digital storytelling is created in line with our re-mix culture as it often takes things that are already produced such as images and sounds to help people tell their stories.  There are institutions such as The Center for Digital Storytelling which assist people in creating their digital stories according to very specific guidelines in terms of length, form, and purpose, and then there are more DIY forms which are unmediated by institutions.  But in general, there are not that many models of digital storytelling and people tend to use the same structure over and over again, usually making photo slideshows with voiceovers or they talk to a webcam, their stories often confined to conventions specific to their topic.  For example, a typical digital story on being “hapa”, mentally ill, “coming out” or being “AB540” will often follow certain respective narrative patterns which one can decipher with a little Youtube or Blog research.  

Here is an example of an AB540 Digital Story created by 1.8 Million Dreams:

Part 4. On the 1.8 Million Dreams Project

  The 1.8 Million Dreams project was much like the traditional digital story and basically identical to the institutional digital story in that the group would come in and capture the person’s story of being undocumented using expensive, professional equipment and uploading it to their website. Unlike the traditional and institutional forms however, the project members were not exactly outsiders as four out of seven of them were also undocumented and 1.8 Million Dreams was not in fact an institution. It appeared that 1.8 had two goals according to their website: to “serve as a resource for those currently working on undocumented student issues at the state and federal level” and “to empower the current 1.8 million undocumented students across the United States by putting a face to the number.” They believed that the storytelling process would benefit the specific students and that the captured stories would also help to further immigration reform.

Their videos are formulaic. They were created in an interview format, with the interviewer out-of-frame and asking the same open-ended questions to each subject: “how did you come to this country”, “how was it growing up and going to high school in the US”, “what were struggles you have faced” and “what are you doing to help pass the DREAM Act?” This formula in many ways mirrors the typical AB540 testimonial in which students were coached to talk about their lives and the struggles they faced as a student.

Here is a little more on that:

Part 5. Breaking Form: Dreamers Adrift and Fluidity

The new project of Dreamers Adrift has somewhat abandoned the typical AB540 narrative, the so-called “sob story” and adapted a much more fluid expression. Here Deisy talks about the differences between the projects.

The fluidity of the Dreamers Adrift project manifests in that one day they are using personal voiceover narratives, the next they are telling a creative story and acting, they are creating a short documentary of a political action, and, most recently, using stop-motion animation, all the while changing roles in terms of who is holding the camera, coming up with the ideas, and hosting the filming.

Here is their stop-motion piece:

Part 6. On Ethics and Digital Storytelling

There are often ethical issues in digital storytelling projects. Traditionally this referred to when Western, privileged experts/professionals captured Third World images, thus owning them. But this power dynamic and issue of ownership continues. In the 1.8 Million Dreams project, the project members are the owners of the images of the subjects, many of whom were friends with the members. These images are on the internet, available to be seen globally, basically forever. Larry Friedlander discussed how the idea of ownership has changed in a digital age. “In a networked world all texts can be appropriated, so the very notion of proprietary authorship becomes problematic (Freidlander, 182).” These images are vulnerable and available to be used in any way that a viewer decides. But the subjects trusted the project members, and signed waivers stating that they understood the risks. What they didnt’ know was that the 7 person so-called collaborative project faced problems when one of the members, the “artist-expert ” and filmmaker, a US citizen, did not allow anyone else to handle the equipment, or have or edit the material.
       This caused the members who were DREAMers (and were also subjects in the project) to feel like they were not in fact collaborating but working for the expert. John Hartley says that “the expertise of the filmmaker or documentarist when coupled with a ‘parallel’ intelligence from the lay population can result in new and compelling stories that do credit to both parties (Hartley, 205).” This I believe was the idea of the project, to couple art, creativity and aesthetics with the personal expertise of the subjects for “the movement.” But the artist-expert was concerned about having their name, like an auteur, on the videos, and having them be consistent with their vision, and this is what caused the Dreamers to run Adrift. And by abandoning the formulaic, standardized film-form of 1.8, they were able to create self-made media not limited by these conventions or video-art standards which demand expensive equipment and programs.

The Dreamers discuss the problems with the previous project:

         I would like to focus briefly on some ethical dilemmas that the Dreamers discussed in the above video. Jesus describes the confusion he felt that the artist-expert said he wanted to help AB540 students’s voices be heard meanwhile not listening to the AB540 voices in his own group. “Giving voice” has been a historical project of Digital Storytellers, but not all of these storytellers do this with the sole intention of social change. I will discuss this concept later in the paper in terms of both voice and visibility. Related to this is the emphasis on art as being in the hands of the camera-holder. All art is created via collaboration and is a bottom up phenomenon. Artists could not create what they are creating if they did not have other art as models; it is silly to place so much weight on a single artist’s name at the expense of having help and sharing credit.
        Another issue discussed was the publishing of the confidential, anonymous videos on public pages, basically “outing” people to their social networks. This brings up the issue of who owns your right to publicity. Though someone might own your image, you own the right to guard that image and control its use; the image should not be placed anywhere you didn’t agree to. A final issue I will end with on the previous project is that the artist-expert maintained the name, the footage and the project even though the idea was created as a group and the footage taken together. This is something that may or may not be considered an ethical issue, but I find it disrespectful and a misuse of power.
         In terms of the current project there are no longer issues of owning others’s images or the power-imbalance of the “expert” and the “layperson.” But a critique that comes up in digital storytelling often is “self-exploitation.” This is something I will not argue either way, it is just something to think about. Lastly, something that affects most all user-generated digital storytellers is the issue of corporate control of the internet including Facebook, Blogger, and Youtube-two of the three of which are owned by Google. Within this corporate framework are issues of censorship for reasons of copyright, flagging by anti-immigrant users, and rigid limitations such as time limits on Youtube and page limits on Blogger. Again, this is not something I have an answer to, more of a responsibility I feel I have to point it out.


Part 7. Julio's DREAM Act Art

Julio stated in an interview that his anger turned into creativity and he began making art for the movement. Here is a slideshow of that art.

Part 8. On Visibility

     I mentioned earlier that I would be discussing visibility and voice.  Communications and Media scholar Nick Couldry succinctly defines digital storytelling as “the idea that each person has a voice and a story” and cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner defines narrative as “a central mode of human thought and as a vehicle of meaning making” (Couldry 58, Erstad and Wertsch 28).  James Wertsch says that narratives are important cultural tools which help people to form their identities both collectively and individually.  (Erstad and Wertsch 29)  In telling their stories, Dreamers Adrift are really telling counter-narratives, creating representation for the underrepresented, and using identity politics.  But the Dreamers are not telling their stories with the purpose of forming their identities or to make meaning of their lives, they are telling their stories as part of the project of “remapping and renaming (Shohat 290).”  Ella Shohat describes this as when “the Third World and its diasporas in the First World rewrite their own histories, take control over their own images, and speak in their own voices (ibid.).”
    Central to the politics of digital storytelling is that it employs the transformation of the private into the public which can go hand in hand with the feminist principle of making the personal political.  Similar to the public/private concept is what bell hooks describes as “coming to voice” or “moving from silence into speech as revolutionary gesture (hooks 12).”  She goes on to say that in speaking,  “one moves from being object to being subject.  Only as subjects can we speak.  As objects, we remain voiceless-our beings defined and interpreted by others (ibid.).”  This is an important part of self-representation, remapping and renaming, but it is important to note that digital storytelling does a whole lot more than speak, it makes one visible.  The following video deals with the dangerous and high-risk issue of becoming visible as undocumented.

       Audre Lorde said that the "visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength (Lorde 42).” As Deisy, Julio and Fernando described, the visibility of “undocumented unafraid” students was powerful because of the power in numbers and also because of the exponential power inherent in inspiration. I am often asked how I am able to spend my energy on activism and volunteerism knowing that so many people don’t care or are lazy. My answer is always the same: because I also know that the people who do care are working harder than I am and risking more. Undocumented activists have everything to lose and they are my s/heroes. But while I am looking to them, they are looking to eachother. As Julio described, if he is deported he is at less risk than queer activists from other countries. Visibility in the context of Dreamers Adrift was both motivated by visibility and an expression of their own for the purposes of inspiring action. Lorde also uses the rhetoric of voice but adds to it as she believes in the “transformation of silence into language and action (Lorde 40-44).” It is not enough to solely raise one’s voice. Digital storytelling is based on the notion that every person has a voice. But where does that bring us?

Part 9. On Cinema as a Catalyst for Change

I think Dr. Alex Juhasz said it best, that visibility alone is a neutral condition. For it “to have meaning, impact, or power (beyond the indisputable pleasures of self-recognition), it needs to be connected to specific social change goals and to a real community, it needs to do more than provide information or images.” What Dreamers Adrift do is create movies to serve as catalysts for change. They make them to be shared, to spur action, education and consciousness raising. This brings to mind Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas’s call for “Third Cinema” which argued that film should be used to inspire aggressive revolutionary activity. Dr. Juhasz attests that just as there is “Third Cinema” that there is “Third Tube.” I argue that Dreamers Adrift find themselves in this category as Third World people in the US creating cinema of revolution. I realize that they are calling for liberal rather than radical change in this project, but the dream does not die if the DREAM Act passes, it would just provide more inspiration and FUEL.

Part 10. Conclusion: Watch the Science of Dream. Then do something.

       This is the video I got to watch get made. As new as the Dreamers Adrift project is, they have gotten a lot of press attention and positive viewer feedback and had one of their videos featured in an online news article on the DREAM Act. Yesterday the DREAM Act passed in the House of Representatives. This is something the Dreamers have been fighting for for almost 10 years and it is the first time it has passed. Today it goes up for a vote in the Senate and I am happy to know that not only does the revolution not end if the DREAM Act passes, but that the undocumented activists who have fought all this time are feeling so validated by the House vote that even if it doesn't pass, as Jesus said, "the DREAM Act is alive, the DREAM Act is alive."

One important thing I learned about digital storytelling that I would like to end with is that it is not meaningful unless it is in the context of social change.  Self-made videos for the movement are great examples of ways to skirt the ethical issues of capturing others images, creative issues such as being confined to rigid formulas, and non-revolutionary issues such as being created for the filmmaker's personal expression. These self-made videos for the movement are part of Third Tube, they are digital cinema of revolution.

Last thoughts? Watch movies. Make movies. Be inspired. Make change.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Having fun while making a Digital Story about Digital Storytelling


The "paper" I am working on for my final for Visual Research Methods is about a project called "Dreamers Adrift."  Dreamers Adrift is a Digital Storytelling project which has very systematic and traditional origins (a former project called 1.8 Million Dreams) but has evolved into a more fluid form.  The project's goal is to pass the DREAM Act.  I was lucky enough to meet with the 4 memberof the group and watch/film one of their film sessions.  This video is something I threw together to demonstrate the amount of fun we had!  I look forward to really exploring their project for my final.  For now, check them out!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Guest Post by Azol Luna: Las Velas en tus Ojos

This is a poem written by a friend who is shy, so I wanted to share it on the internet so that others can enjoy it.  

Las velas en tus ojos
tu cara risueña y dulce brilla ante las tinieblas
como si su luz iluminará el gran poder del mundo
y toda la esperanza escapara un apagón
mientras tu sonrisa roja casi sangrienta derrama la inocencia desconocida
los labios tiernos guardan el gran misterio
tal como los ángeles protegen a lo ignorante con sus voces pasivas
y en tus ojos compasión
las velas en tus ojos queman con gran fulgor
murmullan lo inalcanzable

Saturday, November 20, 2010

It Takes a Village to Rape a Woman: a Workshop. 2008.

This video was of a workshop presented at the 2008 LA Social Forum by the my two peers/colleagues and I when we were on the board of the Women's Studies Student Association of Cal State Long Beach. It was graciously recorded and edited by the amazing visual artist Ricardo Silva ( The workshop is about reframing violence against women as a men's issue as well as explaining the concept of a rape culture.    Looking back on this video I am really excited about having the workshop recorded by a volunteer visual artist and realizing how much time and energy he spent on this.  I am also watching my 2-years-ago self and wondering how different the workshop we created might look today or if it would look different.  I remember that this was the first time we presented it so it did look different every time afterward depending on the audience, especially in relation to the media examples.  We actually never did the Tom Leykis, Howard Stern, and Rush Limbaugh example again because it was such a big topic and hard to reign in the discussion in relation to censorship, morality, normality, and consumption.  Discussing Beyonce and Usher in later workshops was a much easier example because it was less overtly about rape and more about gender.   Another thing about this video that bothers me is remembering the random Socialist guy who came in late, talked a bunch, actually answered  his phone during the workshop and tried to turn our conversation into one about socialism.  We were aware that the LA Social Forum was a Socialist space, but it was just rude to infiltrate our workshop and divert our thesis.    I wanted to post  this video on my blog more in terms of adding it to my body of work and less in terms of the Visual Research Methods class, though presenting a workshop and putting it on the internet is certainly using visual methods.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The 10th Annual Day Labor Cup: An Ethnography


Day Laborers & Futbol, an ethnography

Our assignment was to make an ethnographic film. We employ long takes and traditional observational methods such as using diagetic sound, not using voiceover or dubbing for the translation, and not using music in order to allow the viewer to make their own assumptions about the event. We are also of the school however which does not believe that observational footage can ever be 100% objective and are aware that the choices we made in the filming and editing processes were loaded. We discuss our assumptions and ideas of what the film means within the film in order to show that we were both just observing "to see what would happen" and editing based on what we took away from the experience.

Filming posed to be a huge challenge. I remember last Spring semester the documentarian who made "The Garden" about South Central Farm gave a documentary workshop at Pitzer College. This is before I ever picked up a video camera and was looking for some sage advice.  What I found instead was perplexing.  The filmmaker said that it is imperative that you not be involved in the community/activism that you are filming basically so that you can more shamelessly film what was really going on without feeling responsible for portraying the community/movement in a negative light.  He advocated catching them when they don't want you to, this being something you would not do if you were from within.  I remember feeling uncomfortable with this idea, as the only reason I wanted to film was to document what awesome actions are always taking place, many of which I am involved with.  The reason I am telling this long story is because I found it difficult to film something that I am involved with not because I wanted to be shameless, but because I literally wanted to be involved and not glued to my camera, viewing the event with the kino-eye when I preferred to use my actual eyes.  

Another challenge, which I discuss in the film was the fact that we were unsure while we were there of how we would be framing the film and whether we would use interview or not, so we attempted to interview some players.  However, most of the players I only knew superficially or not at all.  Luckily my friend that teaches ESL with me and worked the last 2 tournaments was there and was very helpful in acting as the anthropologist who had a pre-existing rapport with the men.  Even still, the camera in all of its daunting power, or maybe it was just me in all my whiteness, or I suppose it could be the two of us together, turned many of the guys off from speaking with us about the tournament.  When Sam would say for example, "hey, let's interview that guy," I grew sheepish.  This brings me back to the filmmaker for "The Garden" who told me to be shameless.  I just couldn't do it.  However, by the end of the long day, we actually did have a good amount of footage of the games, the ceremony and a lot of interviews, including of ourselves.  

The experience of being at a Day Labor Tournament was loaded down with camera equipment (however light in physicality) and I was torn between my activist self who just wanted to talk without the invasiveness of the camera, and my graduate school ethnography self who wanted to document the event and share it with my classmates.  I am finishing up a promotional film for the corner I work at which includes much of the footage we didn't use here and it makes me feel good to do that.  It is also great practice in thinking about audience.  For example, this film has English subtitles and the film I am making for the corner has Spanish ones and this film has long takes and no music and the other film has short clips and music overlaid.  As much as our group went back and forth about what our thesis was and how the film should be framed, once Sam and I did the final edits the first thing I said was "high five!"  I think in a typical ethnography there would not be a discussion afterward, but we felt that discussing our experience of the event would help to illustrate the "encounter/clash" between us the filmmakers/graduate students and them the participants/day laborers much like an accompanying article would.  

I have to say, and I am completely biased, that the scene where they are swearing in, is my favorite scene in the film.  However, though I am not sure it quite translated onto film, one of my favorite moments in person was the moment of silence.  I both felt the pain of the group and parts of the crowd as well as their discomfort of being quiet so long.  i think the discomfort of the long take of silence translates but I don't think the pain does.  

Being at the tournament and witnessing the ceremony provided a view of how community is promoted by the organizers by creating a space for critical thinking, education, communication, camaraderie, and affinity amongst the familiar backdrop of soccer.  Throughout the discussions within the group of what the film is about, we always centered around community: soccer and community, politics and community, the day laborers as a community, and the event as a unifier.  Though the ideas are for the audience to interpret, I think through our editing and discussion that at the very least we were attempting to show that the soccer tournament was establishing and maintaining community and unifying people with affinities.  

I really enjoyed working with more people, it took off a lot of the pressure of doing all the filming, translating, brainstorming, and editing by myself but it was also difficult with such a large group to manage time.  I think that if I were to make another film with a group it would optimally be with one other person.  This was an excellent exercise in recognizing all the various elements in filmmaking such as sound (which admittedly, we could have used some help with) and light (what to do on a gloomy, rainy day? I have no idea, but now I know to find out).

The experience of the event and the filmmaking was positive overall as I came away with a lot of new thoughts in my head.  I also came away having learned a lot from the players, my colleagues, the readings on ethnography, and from the practice of being there and experiencing the event and the people.  I think in this particular video, since it is completely in English (though I am prepared to do it again with Spanish subtitles - when I have time!) the film was made for the benefit of ourselves the filmmakers and for our self-education and for the education of our peers.  What they learn however, is up to them.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A discussion on the film "Machete"

On Machete (Rodriguez, 2010)

When my best friend asked if I'd seen Machete yet, I didn't really think twice.  She loves gore and action, so a Rodriguez film is right up her ally.  I replied, "no, haven't seen it..why?"  She then proceeded to explain that the film's main character is a day laborer and that they basically fight anti-immigrant people who I gathered were based on the Minute Men.  She also said that Michelle Rodriguez was in it and super hot and revolutionary.  I was floored.  A movie that actually portrayed day laborers?  And not as some joke?  I had to see it.  After watching it once in the theatre with a friend in the immigrant's rights/AB540 movement, and having the best experience in a theatre I had in a while (i.e. sudden urges to yell at the screen, laugh inappropriately loudly, and exchange knowing glances with said friend) I knew I wanted to write a blog about it.  But I hesitated because I wanted to get input from at least one day laborer.  Finally, one night it just perfectly worked out-my brother and his friend, also both  immigrant's rights activists, stopped by to hang out and I asked them if they had seen the film.  They had my same reaction, not knowing the film's premise, thus being disinterested.  Once I told them they had me look up showtimes immediately and we found a screening at the Drive-In Theatre in Montclair.  I suggested we bring Jose and the next thing I knew we were all sharing popcorn on a blanket in front of the big screen.  The experience differed for Jose partially because At times I had to translate dialogue, but generally the film is so exaggerated and action-filled that it was obvious what was happening.  Other than that, watching the three of them watch the film was super enjoyable because the movie depicts some cool shit.  For example:

1. A badass, impossible to kill, quasi-mythical character who is a day laborer
2. Said character is played by Danny Trejo, a former drug addict and convict who became a film and television actor, but usually as the villain and never the lead role
3. The film revolves around corrupt, anti-immigrant politicians (um, hello Joe Arpaio..) and "border vigilantes" (hello minute men) basically waging a civil war against undocumented people
4. The leader of the "revolution" on the side of the immigrants is a woman!  Michelle Rodriguez plays Shé, a female homage to Che Guevara, but in a cool, mythicized, taco truck vending, border crossing assisting kind of way
5. The film portrayed hilarious tropes and stereotypes that only people who live in states which border Mexico could understand.  Pachucas, low riders, hydrolics, paleteros, minute men, day laborers, taco trucks, "homies," and loads of culturally Catholic paraphenalia littered the screen as what felt like inside jokes for those of us that got them
6. Cheech Marin was in the movie!  After Born in East LA (Marin, 1987), Cheech's film that parodied the high occurrences of deportation of Mexican-American US citizens at the time and ended in an all out charge of the border, he has been high on my list of cool media makers.  
7. The existence of a "network" of workers, documented and undocumented, who all communicated and supported one another.

 But the movie was also super exploitative.  It began as a hilarious fake preview between Rodriguez's and Tarantino's Grindhouse (2007) double feature, Planet Terror and Deathproof, respectively.  It was meant to complement the nouveau-"B" movies  and be a spoof of 70's exploitation films.  But because it received such positive feedback (partially because of the preview's mention of Arizona, which was the center of controversy over SB1070 at the time) Rodriguez made it feature length.  Some problematic (And yes, I know that the over-exaggeration is meant to be a joke, but parody still perpetuates what it is parodying) features of the film were:

1. The sexualization and sexual exploitation of ALL the women in the film.  The white women, the nurses, the ICE agent, and Shé were all treated as sexual objects by the camera angles, the characters, and their secondary character statuses to the roles of the men.  And this might seem obvious, but huge breasts, tiny waists, big butts, flawless skin, and long flowing hair describes every female character. 
2. The extreme and graphic violence.  Did you watch it? I'll give you a hint: intestine.
3. "The revolution" ended after the minute men/network battle
4. Lindsay Lohan.  I don't care what role she played, this movie was too badass to let her be a part of it
5. Machete's lack of politicization. Sleeping with an ICE agent? Ew.
6. The cringeworthy scene where Jessica Alba's character  Sartana gives a speech to the day laborers and says "we didn't cross the border, the border crossed us!"  This is messed up for many reasons. a) Ms. Alba has made comments in the past that she doesn't know why everyone refers to her as Latina b) This is the first time she has played a Latina role c) Her character is an ICE agent.  When did she become part of the "us" that the border crossed?  d) She is not cool enough to say that classic immigrants rights tagline 
e) The scene seems out of place-Luz/Shé is the revolutionary,  Sartana is not even close

And something I'm ambivalent about: Steven Seagal as a Mexican drug lord.  Feeling weird about the brownface and Seagal's Spanish, but then liking the dying scene.  So funny.

The conversation I filmed was the second segment as my brother, his friend, Jose, and I had a good talk in the car on the way home and then my friend came and I taped round 2.  There was a lot to say, but I chose 5 minutes of some of my favorite critiques from the over-an-hour worth of footage I captured.  

As a positive addendum to my critique of the body sizes of the female characters, I would like to share some re-imaginings of Shé  and  Sartana by a talented Long Beach artist named Julio Salgado from a series he calls "Chubby Girl Art" in which he makes famous women "chubby." 

Luz/ Shé 

  I hope you like the discussion and please, if you haven't seen Machete, watch it and comment!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Una Mirada a los Invisibles

Video Essay: Una Mirada a los Invisibles

The assignment was to show visual culture and as filmmakers we were to work within communities with whom we were already working.  For this reason I thought of the jornaleros (day laborers) I teach English and computers to on the a local street corner.

Near the end of the film, one of the jornaleros who I will just call Jose, asks me why I am interviewing them.  I found the question a little uncomfortable, which is what I was hoping for. Filming a population that is in constant danger if made visible is a tricky thing, and though many of the guys were happy to help me just because we trusted each other, being asked “why are you filming us?” is a more than appropriate question.  Of course I had explained to everyone by email and in person what the project was, and Jose already knew, but asking me again I believe was his way of reminding me that (whether I was holding the camera at the time or not) was indeed filming them.  By answering, I was literally “writing” my thesis statement, but instead of placing it at the beginning so the audience knows what I am attempting to convey I placed it at the end.  I am then reversing the standard essay form and explaining my intent as a filmmaker which erases or at least influences the interpretive possibilities.  This will challenge “readers” to “see” what they saw, see my intent as the filmmaker, and to question my privilege along with the subjects in the film.

Aside from the form change, creating a visual essay rather than a written one enabled me to create something to be shared among a wider audience.  This is one way that the theory is able to turn into practice.  This video can be used for educational purposes or promotional purposes (i.e. volunteer recruitment), and the actual act of making the film created a dialogue among the corner community.  Were this to be a written essay, even if it were in Spanish, it would only be accessible to those who speak the language of academia.  This video, being in English and Spanish, can be shared with a larger population of people.  Another thing about making a video essay rather than a written essay is that it is a lot of work, but the work is very different.  In being different, I was motivated to learn in a fresh sort of way.  Putting this video together has already given me incredible appreciation for film form and peaked my interest in being more playful the next time around.  

Catching the uncomfortable was an important part of capturing the humanity of all of us.  Just as Jose made me uncomfortable, I believe I made who I will call Pancho uncomfortable when I talked about sexual harassment, and our interaction is meant to make the viewers feel a twinge of something as they wonder what will happen when he defensively says he wasn’t trying to make me uncomfortable when he called me pretty and when he brushes off sexism meanwhile taking racism seriously. 

Though I explained the concept of the video to the guys, the conversations were organic and I took a lot of footage to be able to select the parts of conversations which were appropriate for the film.  Many times I asked questions expecting certain answers and was reminded that this is a naive method of research.  For example when I asked one of the men if he feels that he is in a community, I was expecting him to talk about the jornalero community, the immigrant community, or something like that and he instead saw community as the dominant and himself as on the outside.  His answer was a teaching moment and forced me to think about the terms we use in grad school and the meanings attached to them "on the outside." 

The title of my film was created by Jose, as he is a poet.  It literally means “a look at the invisible.”  The title is the thesis, in short.  However, the title doesn’t quite convey my role as subject in front of the camera.  As I stated in the film I am sometimes too visible, and my presence as a filmmaker is also visible.  However, the title is also about power-the truly invisible character which we attempted to make visible in this movie. One may literally and corporally see the men and me: see our gender expressions, the color of our skins, interpret our class positions.  But what I hope to bring “into the visible” is the power relations that decide these divisions.  As one of the (anonymous) men said in the movie: we as human beings all feel the same emotions, “the same pain,” and ending these divisions would ultimately mean ending the power structures which aim to victimize and separate us. 

After "finishing" the film it went through a series of peer reviewers (Dr. Juhasz and a Pitzer professor) and I ended up making several edits and moving footage around.  Since my brother, his partner and I invited Jose to see Machete (for another blog post I'm ruminating on) I showed the video essay to Jose afterward and asked him what he thought about it.  He thought it was very interesting and was adamant about taking all my footage and all the other footage that people have taken over the years and making a documentary and we had a long talk about the complicatedness of making a film for a a wider audience.  I included footage of his viewing practice and his reception to indicate the participatory and consensual nature of the film as well as the agency of the subjects.  I just hope that the setting-change isn't too distracting.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Visibility pensamientos

"...and that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength." Audre Lorde

When i was thinking about my visual project and my thesis of visibility vs. invisibility I thought of the famous Audre Lorde quote listed above.  I emailed my brother, my most trusted translator, and asked about translating her quote in the best way for my video on the guys.  Instead of translating it he said he wasn't sure that the quote really applied to the jornaleros in the way it applied to queer women of color (whom Audre was referring to).  I thought about this and just kind of dropped it.  Then tonight I saw a woman who is running the queer women of color collective I am interning with post the same quote on facebook and it made me think more about the difference between being "visible" as an undocumented person (which to a large percentage of the population makes you a criminal and/or a terrorist) and being "visible" as a person of color or  queer or a person with one breast (which Audre also theorizes about in terms of visibility), or being a woman.  I have a dear friend who was running a very respectable, political and highly artistic website consisting solely of videos of AB540 students "coming out," becoming visible, showing their faces, revealing their names and their legal statuses.  In this case, Ms. Lorde's quote can work; the students are politicizing themselves by making themselves visible and fearlessly confronting the risk of being "outed."  In the case of the men that I filmed however, my intent is to show them representing themselves and being visible while not putting them at any risk by revealing their names, legal statuses or locations.  So though I agree with my brother about the quote not applying in this particular case, I think it can apply to undocumented people whose visibility makes them incredibly vulnerable, but whose fearlessness can inspire and motivate people in ways that those who have the privilege of not being at risk just by existing can not. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dear Billy/Asher/Seth, I am Sorry

The month of September has proved to be particularly deadly for queer teens.  First Billy Lucas, 15, hung himself in his grandmother's barn, prompting gay journalist Dan Savage to kickstart a video campaign aimed at preventing teen suicides by telling teens that "it gets better" after middle/high school.  Unfortunately, Billy's death was shortly followed by the deaths of Asher Brown, 13, who shot himself, and now Seth Walsh who hung himself on a tree, was found and brought to the hospital, and died Tuesday after 9 days on life support.  For my job at the Queer Resource Center, an undergrad student and I compile a weekly newsletter.  I put him on the task of writing a blurb about Asher Brown (this was earlier today, before the news of Seth came out) and he came across the above image.  The image struck me; my heart sank.  I have been invested in the issue of queer teen suicides and have began publicizing the It Gets Better project so that students in Claremont can participate, but watching the motivational videos, and seeing photographs of the dead teens smiling on the news articles was a stark contrast to a huge picture of a noose.  When the student showed me the flier, he looked up at me expectantly, he was excited about what he found and was seeking approval.  I sort of glanced at him and said he could go ahead and attach the file to the newsletter and walked away.  Why didn't I get as excited as him?  It wasn't until later that I decided to re-look up the picture in the comfort of my home that I realized what made me so uncomfortable.  Had I forgotten that my father had committed suicide by hanging?  I wasn't old enough to understand yet, but knowing that my mother found him in the garage still brings a very vivid image into my mind when I am triggered, which I am realizing I am.  I am interested in suicide because my life has been affected by it and I truly feel for the families who go through that pain, particularly in cases that are preventable, such as bullying.  

Something that has always been hard for me about Christianity and Christian values is that suicide, like "homosexuality" is a sin.  If for only these two reasons, I know and have known that the Christian value system and my own are starkly different.  It pains me still to hear anyone use this rhetoric, even though I don't believe it.  For example, I very much disliked the film Wristcutters for portraying people who committed suicide as being in purgatory/hell.  The huge difference between my father and queer teen suicides is that he was not "driven" to suicide, he was simply depressed.  The youth that are depressed and die as a result of harassment are in hell in life, and see death as a more pleasant alternative.  Those responsible are not 2 or 3 kids you can name from school, but a homophobic and hateful society of parents, administrators, students, and community members who punish difference; they are complicit in murder.  

As a post-script to this blog, 18 year old Tyler Clementi, another queer teen, committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.  That makes 4 this month.  I suspect that the beginning of a new school year is one of the hardest times for young queer students, and hope that we have seen the end of this string of violence.

As a post-post script to this blog, a fifth and final queer suicide happened before September ended.  

Raymond Chase, 19, hung himself in his dorm room at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island September 29.  September is now over and I can only hope that October does not bring us anymore of these deaths.  

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Searching for QWOC on Reality TV: a Time-Suck at the Least

Some people consider reality television a version of cinema vérité or “truthful cinema.” Others dispute this, arguing that it is casted and staged, while others argue that some reality shows are “realer” than others and some more technologically advanced and creatively designed. As Queersighted blogger Dave White’s “film-nerd husband” said in regards to the newest season of Project Runway: “Are the Maysles in charge now?" Now, discussing cinema vérité as “real” and “reality” TV as manipulated creates a problematic as all documentaries are manipulated in a variety of ways, but if there is such thing as a scale of reality then there is certainly a lot of wiggle room for both documentary film and reality television.

A fun and depressing study of television, cinema, advertisements, and magazines is to look for commonly underrepresented people: fat people, Black people, queers, especially lesbians and transmen, Latin@s, Asians/Asian Americans, women in nontraditional roles, etc. Dr. Alexandra Juhasz has more recently begun the scholarly study of YouTube and shared this student-made video on Black representation on YouTube. Check it out.

Blacks on YouTube

Zulema Griffin
Much in the vein of VannaBlack4u’s search for Blacks on YouTube, I would like to do a quick rundown of reality TV in search of queer women of color. Because there is a much more noticeable lack than plentitude of QWOC on reality TV I would like to mention a few shows that have queers or women of color. We all know that Bravo was the home of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as well as TV specials about lesbians and gays such as Great Things About Being Queer, and Out of the Closet. But in my scrutinous search for lesbian women among the gay man/straight woman constancy in Project Runway I came across some interesting information. For one thing, it turns out that in season 4 there was a white lesbian model names Marie Salter. Secondly, remember Zulema Griffin from Season 2? Her character arc ended after she shocked her colleagues by stealing another designer’s model (sweetheart fashion professor Nick Verreos) just to get herself and the model eliminated in that episode. Well, it turns out that throughout the show she was an out lesbian with a partner but that information was completely edited out and she was portrayed as a single woman. I managed to reach behind the Tim Gunns and Michael Kors’ to reach a QWOC but unfortunately only the few of us looking can find her.

Another strange gay-erasing edit on Project Runway was the budding romance between Daniel Feld and Wesley Nault as documented by blogger Allison Kilkenny who chocked it up to homophobia. I am pretty sure most people consider Bravo a gay male TV station rather than queer or LGBT, but there is no denying that Top Chef has had its share of lesbian contestants, Preeti Mistry and Ashley Merriman of season 2, Lisa Fernandes and her partner Jennifer Biesty of season 4 and Jamie Lauren of season 5 were all “out” and Jennifer and Lisa’s relationship was a storyline rather than being erased.

Tila Tequila and the cast of a Shot of Love
My research on the subject of QWOC on reality TV is largely based on my consumption of advertisements and certain shows and on the advice of my Facebook network. No one knows reality TV better than my hometown friends and student colleagues in the media studies department, and they made to sure to point out that VH1’s dating shows are “pretty diverse”. Since they have more dating shows than Pandora radio has commercials (zing!) I will only mention a few.  Flavor of Love actually has women of color as contestants, and a Shot of Love with Tila Tequila featured a queer woman of color as the bachelorette who dated both straight men and gay women. I’m not sure if anyone has seen Bad Girls Club on Oxygen but it also features lesbian and bisexual women, mainly in party and club-scene environments. Brandi, Kayleigh, and Flo (from different seasons, not sure which as I do not watch this show) were out as lesbian and bi and Cordelia, a straight girl, suddenly becomes jealous of a female housemate’s boyfriend. According to commenter BAngieB, Cordelia acts “the way the fake-gay girls act on TV” adding that “If Tila Tequila is a lesbian, I'm a sparkly unicorn.” This brings up the oh-so-relevant point of “fanwhoreism” and lesbians as titillating ratings increasers. Can we ever forget the awkward Sandra Bullock/Scarlett Johannson or Madonna/Brittney Spears kisses? But there is a difference between gay characters played by straight actors, the contrived celebrity kiss, reality shows about queers, and reality shows that feature queer and questioning characters. Often the queer or LGBT communities shame questioners, saying they are just following a trend, and straight people and separatists pressure bisexual or queer individuals into “picking a team/side.” Therefore I will say that many people look down on New Jersey Housewife Danielle Staub who has of-late been insinuating that she is lesbian and Tila Tequila who has recently been self-identifying as lesbian rather than bisexual. For an example of bisexual pressure, see this clip from Bad Girls Club which unfortunately ends in violence.

Bad Girls Club Flo and Amber fight

The Cast of the Real L Word:
Tracy is to the far left and Rose is in the wine colored tank
I would like to briefly mention that Logo TV has brought us such queer goodies as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Gimme Sugar (QWOC!!!) and Transamerican Love Story, but unless you have access to more than basic cable (which I don’t) looking for QWOC is harder. VH1 and Logo also paired up for a dating show called Can’t Get a Date in which contestants represented a variety of sexualities. The Real World and America’s Next Top Model have brought us a few gay, bisexual and transwomen, some being QWOC, but I would like to end with The Real L Word (which is being called a “docu-series” by the way) as it shows lesbian relationships rather than just featuring gay characters and some of them are actually WOC! So Rose is supposed to have been the inspiration for Papi in the L Word which makes sense because both Papi and Rose have no depth and seem pointless. She is billed as a “sexy Latina” and a “flirtatious firecracker” (um exploitation much?) while Tracy is never discussed as a WOC but speaks to her mom in Spanish. And whether Sara (a love interest of Whitney’s, and she rolls the “r” every time!) is a WOC is a mystery to me, as well as Natalie, Rose’s girlfriend who is either a white girl who dresses a little on the chola side or a bleached blonde WOC. So yes, there is QWOC representation, in moderation and sporadically, on reality television, but you really have to look and within that small pool there are other issues such as butch/femme/genderqueer diversity, size and class diversity and as is always at issue in reality TV, a lack of self-awareness, reflection and critical (in this case queer) thought.

Espie Hernandez, 16.  One of the filmmakers of Mariposa
But I would like to end on a positive note. Reality television is made by rich people. Even the lesbian and gay producers such as Ilene Chaiken and the boys over at Bravo are upper crust. And as hard as it is to look for QWOC on reality television, I urge readers to look elsewhere. There are amazing QWOC filmmakers out there, whole organizations and film festivals devoted to them in fact. One notable group is the South Central based collective ImMEDIAte Justice which mentors and helps young QWOC to empower themselves to make films. One such film was shown at the Human Rights Watch film festival last year and is definitely worth a watch. This is an example of a community strengthening itself from within, placing tools in the hands of those without access and allowing young QWOC to become autoethnographers rather than only to-be-looked-at. The film is called Mariposa. See for yourself!


Thursday, September 2, 2010

My new addiction: Drop Dead Diva

When my mom and sister, both chick-flick aficionados, told me to check out a new show on Lifetime called Drop Dead Diva I was initially skeptical. Lifetime: Television for Women has not really been my favorite channel over the years as it generally seems to have a bunch of melodramatic made-for-TV movies which sensationalize violence against women. Recently, however, Project Runway, a favorite guilty pleasure of mine, has been exclusively on Lifetime, so maybe the channel wasn’t so bad. DDD piqued my interest when I heard that its storyline follows a skinny white blonde model that dies and returns immediately as what the blogosphere has generally dubbed a “plus size” white brunette lawyer. I am a huge fan of the 1978 film Heaven Can Wait in which Warren Beatty plays a professional football player who comes back immediately as a millionaire that was killed by his wife and her lover. Magical realism and death are always interesting to me: I loved the show Dead Like Me and the movies Death Becomes Her (1992), Chances Are (1989), and even the 2001 remake of Heaven Can Wait starring Chris Rock, Down to Earth. I decided to give the show a go and immediately realized: this show has Margaret Cho in it! Now, feisty Asian assistant trope aside, Margaret Cho’s involvement in anything gives it all sorts of street cred. One of my favorite glory stories is that me and my friends got to be on the opening clips of her movie Beautiful which was filmed in Long Beach, Ca. I’m shouting at the camera: “Long Beach feminists for Cho!” I was pretty pleased that the editors chose to put us in even though we used the F word. Beautiful, like Drop Dead Diva, is about accepting and appreciating beauty that does not necessarily match up with the unreasonable and impossible expectations set by the media. Cho, like the main character of DDD Jane/Deb (Deb being the skinny model inside), had mainly struggled with her weight as a source of negative body image, so being in DDD is really perfect for her. Cho has also notoriously been both an icon and an activist for the LGBT community and openly identifies as queer or bisexual.

A common problem for minority actors is that they recieve jobs based solely on their look, in this case, Brooke Elliot for her size. The show is what some are calling “fat positive,” though terminology such as fat (another important F word), overweight, and plus-sized are often argued as placing thinness as the normal/default. Jane was advertised as a size 16, though there is a great comments section conversation in which many women said she has to be at least a 20. Whatever her actual size, the show is a mix between a courtroom drama and a feel-good reincarnation story which finds ways to mix law, fat positivity and actual facts about weight in every episode, namely Season 1’s “The Dress.” Jane argues in the courtroom that “the average woman is a size 14” and “66.3% of all women are considered overweight by the AMA” in her attempt to make a high-end clothing boutique carry plus sizes. The same episode tackles the very contemporary issue of Girls Gone Wild and consent considering the recent ruling of a Missouri court that basically said that being in a bar is consent even though the woman said she did not want to show her breasts and was then assaulted. (someone pulled her shirt up on camera.)

When Deb first becomes Jane, the rules of immediate reincarnation are set: Jane/Deb has both Jane and Deb’s intellect, but only Deb’s memories. Thus, Deb, whose history is portrayed as an airhead model, receives the brain of a legal theory expert without having to study at all. In the beginning of the show I wondered if it would follow the storyline of Heaven Can Wait. Warren Beatty, after becoming the millionaire, immediately begins training to be a professional football player and eventually plays again. Would Deb/Jane get skinny and become a model again? This question is answered through the initial story of Deb’s old best friend Stacy who pressured Jane to go on a strict diet and exercise regimen. But what Jane eventually does is accept her body and encourage Stacy to do the same. This then became the beginning of the NOW-esque Love Your Body theme that continues throughout the show.

Though I find the show incredibly entertaining, it would be irresponsible not to mention that the cast is largely white, the characters who are not Jane (Brooke Elliot),  Terri (Margaret Cho), or a judge character played by Rosie O'Donnell, are super skinny and that most characters are also upper class. Though there was a fleeting gay assistant character (how’s that for a stereotype), the issue of sexuality has not been much-addressed aside from Jane’s pseudo-virginity in her new body, Kim (Jane’s skinny and catty colleague) and Parker’s (a partner at her firm) promiscuity and Terri’s boisterous man-crazed attitude.   Though the show has its soap-opera type moments, its Legally Blonde meets Warren Beatty storyline and its white heteronormative cast of characters, I think it brings something new to television and is worth a watch.