During a recent conversation with filmmaker, teacher, activist, & visionary Alexandra Hidalgo, I had a chance to ask her about the incredible work she’s doing to move us forward in our understanding and practice of feminist filmmaking. She is involved in many different projects. We moved from topic to topic, becoming deeply engrossed.
I hope you find the discussion invigorating and informative. I have to say that after the conversation concluded I realized we hadn’t even talked about her new film, which screens at Capital City Film Festival in Lansing, MI tonight! So before diving into the conversation, please enjoy this trailer of Teta, the story of Alexandra’s journey nursing her youngest son, Santiago, for twenty-two months.
DBW: Alexandra, thanks for taking time to talk. I’m continually amazed by the range and dynamism of the work you do. There are so many avenues we could explore in our time together here, but I’d like to begin by asking you about this revealing statement that launches your new video book Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition: “At some point in November 2015 I became a footage junkie.” Can you share a little bit about what it is/was like being a “footage junkie” and how it has catalyzed your work over the past few years?
AH: I had made video essays before but never something as long as a video book. For non-academics, let me explain that at least in my discipline of Rhetoric and Composition, video essays use a narrated written text that is illustrated with B-roll and often a soundtrack. Sometimes the narration is combined with scenes from documentaries or films made by the video essay author/filmmaker or by others. Having worked in the genre before, I had a sense that I’d need a lot of footage for the six interconnected video essays (or chapters) that make up Cámara Retórica. I went to New York City in the summer and shot for days, feeling confident that I had most of the B-roll I would need for the video book. I knew I was also going to feature clips from films by women directors and by other video essays published in my discipline, so I figured I was pretty set with the hours of diverse and cool NYC footage I had.
Then I started making the video book, and by chapter 2, I was basically out of footage. I realized my situation toward the end of the fall and tried to get as much footage of foliage as I could while also teaching my courses at Michigan State University and taking care of my two sons alongside my husband, Nathaniel Bowler, who is my frequent collaborator—he calls himself “the reluctant cinematographer.” We went to Ohio for the holidays to stay with his parents and I filmed everything, from parties, to meals, to gift-wrapping. I handed out cameras to my oldest son, my nieces, my sister-in-law, my goddaughter, my best friend. They are all artists and they kindly agreed to let me film them filming. The camera became second nature to me, this other set of eyes that was with me from morning to morning—even my dreams were framed by the lens. I still get that way if I’m filming something on a tight schedule, but this was the most extended and extreme period of merging with the camera I’ve ever experienced. Frenzied, constant creation. Madness of the most generative kind.
DBW: I’m deeply curious about the whole notion of a video book. What inspired you to create this one and what lineage(s) is it a part of?
AH: As far as I can tell, I’m the first person to publish a video book, but as I mentioned above, there are a lot of people creating video essays. The first video essay I ever watched is “The Dancing Floor” by Sarah Arroyo and Bahareh Alaei and it just floored me. Sarah had written and recorded the narration for an academic text and Bahareh had found footage on Youtube that emotionally and intellectually matched the ideas presented by the text and edited them to match the narration’s rhythm. It felt like a vibrant and hypnotic way to engage in academic thinking, a hybrid space between scholarship and art. My dissertation looked at feminist filmmaking and how it engaged with the film and video production of scholars in Rhetoric and Composition. In order to talk about filmmaking in moving-image form, I decided to create something like the experience of watching “The Dancing Floor” but longer. Thus, the video book idea was formed.
In terms of lineage, the direct predecessor and inspiration for the content of Cámara Retórica is Alexandra Juhasz’s 2001 book Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video. Like me, Alex is a feminist filmmaker and an academic, and she went around the country interviewing all these fantastic women filmmakers about the work they were doing and why. Reading the book was a foundational moment for me and inspired the way in which I engaged with the filmmaking and academic stories featured in Cámara Retórica. In a way, the work we’ve been doing with agnès films, the digital publication I co-founded in 2010, is also a continuation of that. We give feminist filmmakers a stage to discuss their work on their own terms. Much of what I cite on the video book to define feminist filmmaking came from Women of Vision and from what we’d published on agnès films.
DBW: I love the practice of “strategic contemplation” you mention in Chapter 3: “A Taxonomy of Rhetorician’s Film and Video Production.” To me that suggests an intriguing blend of focused, planned engagement and open, spontaneous interaction. Does that resonate with you? If so, can you share more about how that functions in your work?
AH: Strategic contemplation is an idea that Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch developed in their 2012 book Feminist Rhetorical Practice: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. I thought it would work well with feminist filmmaking because of its reliance on taking our time and putting ourselves in the shoes of the people we’re studying (or filming) whether they’re alive or dead. Trying to see the world from the perspective of those whose lives and stories we’re engaging with helps us have a more compassionate and thoughtful approach to storytelling.
In terms of spontaneity, because I spend a lot of time thinking about those in front of my camera as co-conspirators in the storytelling, a day of filming often goes in a different direction from what I’d planned because those I’m featuring bring up ideas for topics, locations, or B-roll that end up strengthening the story, even if they deviate from the original plan. Strategic contemplation not only makes those moments possible, but it also helps us sit down and meditate over how what happened when our participants took control altered the course of the film. Strategic contemplation helps us welcome the perspective of others and then figure out ways of crafting our films and scholarship around those perspectives. I’m very thankful to Jackie and Gesa for introducing me—and so many others—to that approach.
DBW: In Chapter 2: “The Principles of Feminist Filmmaking” you explore how principles of feminist filmmaking can impact the effectiveness of digital media scholarship. Elsewhere in the video book you focus on the importance of depicting women filmmakers in the act of creating. I’m interested in how the development of a more robust digital media scholarship practice may expand our understanding of what it means to be a filmmaker. So often the image that comes to mind when people think of a filmmaker is a director working on a Hollywood set—often male, often a white male—creating entertainment product for mass consumption. It’s exciting to consider how work like what you have embarked on can transform how people understand the nature and purpose of filmmaking in the future—and who is seen as a filmmaker. Do you have thoughts on this that you’d like to share?
AH: Well, I’m very honored that you think it may have a chance of changing the way filmmakers are perceived! One of the drawbacks of traditional scholarship is that, although it often has profound effects on the way those who engage with it see the world, it has a tendency to reach limited audiences. Digital scholarship because it is often open-access and easily shared on social media has the potential to reach wider audiences. One of my approaches to the video book, for example, is to let people know which aspects of it I think would be of interest to them. Chapter 2, where I define feminist filmmaking, is, I would argue, accessible and of interest to anyone who enjoys watching films and has an interest in how gender and race shape our experiences.
I hope to continue to make work that has at least some aspects that are of interest to those outside academic circles. When I began digitizing chapters for Cámara Retórica, I tried to find images of women behind the camera to include. I spent hours upon hours combing through YouTube and using every search term I could think of, but there was almost nothing there. Not even women filming with cellphones. I decided to come up with my own images of women behind the camera and to include as many ages and races as I could. I hope that after watching the video book, women behind the camera become more natural for people. We need to get the video book to many different audiences if that change in perception is going to be a little more pervasive. But, as I mentioned above, academic texts tend to have smaller audiences. Your kindness in doing this interview certainly helps!
DBW: Can you share about your work as a scholar and educator in Rhetoric and Composition and how that helps you understand and create film?
AH: I was initially trained in creative writing. I have an MFA from Naropa University specializing in fiction. However, I realized a couple years after Naropa that novels were not going to pay my rent (even if I did manage to get one published). I started to think of alternate income sources and landed—as many MFAs do—teaching First-Year Writing as an adjunct. I loved the teaching experience but had no use for the working conditions, which included over 100 students per semester, miniscule pay, and no health insurance. After a year of adjuncting, I started my Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition at Purdue University.
I was still in love with stories but couldn’t figure out how to tie my unsuccessful novelist career to academic writing. Film made more sense. I’m not sure why. I’m a very intuitive person and recklessly follow my instincts even if what my body is telling me to do doesn’t quite make sense at the time. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing learning to make films in the middle of getting my Ph.D. What I have found, though, is that being able to make films (even in my somewhat self-taught way) has allowed me to publish scholarship that pushes the boundaries of traditional scholarship, which is usually printed words. A fair amount of my scholarly work, like Cámara Retórica, theorizes the experience of making films, exploring the ethical dimensions of filming, editing, and screening our own lives and those of others. Because I spend so much time pondering these issues, I’ve become a more thoughtful filmmaker than I would have been had I not had to combine filmmaking and academia.
DBW: Although we’ve not yet met in person, I’ve enjoyed engaging with you online—watching the generous way you share about your own work, the work of the women in your program at MSU, other women filmmakers, and about your own life. I feel I know your family from the still images, stories, and films you create and share. Which leads me to a question that’s been on my mind. Your films seem so deeply personal and reflective of a philosophical understanding of and evolving commitment to a feminist filmmaking practice. What guides and grounds your process as a feminist filmmaker?
AH: I feel like I know you too, Barbara! I think we both have a desire to make our work in communities and because women filmmakers are not as visible as they could and should be, we’ve decided to create online spaces where those communities emerge. I’ve learned a lot from your work with #DirectedbyWomen and the generosity with which you promote the work of others. For me, it is vital to have fellow activists, filmmakers, and critics like you, Sophie Mayer, Denah Johnston, Danielle Winston, and Marian Evans to exchange ideas with on what it’s like to love, write about, and make films.
I also have a local community of students, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as fellow faculty like Peter Johnston and Jackie Rhodes, with whom I collaborate. And then there’s Nate, my husband and reluctant cinematographer. We have been together since 1999 and neither of us has ever worked on a creative project since then without collaborating with the other. We edit each other’s writing, brainstorm ideas together, hold each other through rejections and celebrate successes. As I’ve become more embroiled in life behind the camera, he’s become my cinematographer. I don’t think it’s the role of his dreams, but he’s got a good eye, a steady hand, and endless patience and he’s the love of my life, which removes quite a bit of tension from our sets. For me, feminist filmmaking is about deep bonds with those you create with and it doesn’t get much deeper than having and raising children together.
DBW: Your two little boys star (or appear) in many of your films—William and Santiago Simultaneous being perhaps the most obvious example. You explore this topic a bit in your video book, but could you share something with us here about how your self as mother and your self as filmmaker interact? What are some of the sweetest moments and perhaps some of the strains involved?
AH: Venezuela, where I grew up, has a long history of mother worship. Most of our Christmas songs, called gaitas, are about the Virgin. Baby Jesus does make an appearance as her miracle kid, but the focus is really on her and on the power of motherhood. Although I’m more Buddhist than anything, the love of the Virgin and of mothers—especially my own!—is something that runs deep through me. I was quite mystified by the way mothers tend to be represented in American film and TV. From Hitchcock all the way to Twilight, mothers tend to range from monstrous, to neglectful, to irrelevant. Once I became a mother I decided to challenge that by portraying the complexity and joy of my motherhood experience and by having my own mother be a recurring character in my work. Much like my husband, she’s a little reluctant about her screen appearances. She does enjoy the final result, though, and is happy to help add another perspective to our cultural understanding of mothers.
The best aspects of the way in which we make films is that we craft them as a family, Nate, the boys, myself, and often my mother collaborate on the films and video essays we make. William, who is five, is very aware of the filmmaking and editing process and has suggestions for us. Santiago, who is two, is beginning to understand the camera. He sometimes wants to be behind it, sometimes in front of it. I love the fact that these very personal stories are crafted with everyone’s input. I do wonder what will happen as they become teenagers. I’m trying to prepare myself for those moments of rejection. I know the boys won’t always want me to tell their stories as I do now. Besides that future drawback there’s the line between living and filming. I have to be careful not to over-film. Our lives are not a story, though I do craft stories out of them. Sometimes I film too much and I know the camera must stay away for a week or two. It’s a tricky balance that I try but don’t always succeed at upholding.
DBW: Exploration of immigrant experience also plays a key role in your work. Your feature length documentary Vanishing Borders gives film viewers access to the lives and activist work of four immigrant women in New York. Are there any insights you can share that have arisen from your work that might help people as they grapple with these volatile political times where immigrant life appears to be facing greater challenges?
AH: We shot Vanishing Borders in 2010 and we didn’t complete it until 2014 because I was overwhelmed with the rest of my life, which included finishing my Ph.D., having and nursing my babies, and getting my job at MSU. By the time we completed the film, life had become more difficult for immigrants with the large number of deportations that took place during the Obama administration, as well as the open racism that arose when people used to white men being in charge were faced with eight years of an eloquent and brilliant black man running the United States.
The decline of the quality of life for immigrants from 2014 to now is astonishing, though. I made the film because I felt that immigrants were often portrayed as abstract threats and I wanted to create a film that would humanize us. However, with the election cycle and the Trump presidency we’ve gone from being portrayed as abstract threats to all-consuming monsters, capable of and responsible for any and every imaginable crime. Muslims and Latinx in particular have taken the brunt of the hatred and misrepresentation. I think that if we’re going to stand a chance, we need to make sure that the kindness, creativity, entrepreneurship, and courage of immigrants also become part of the conversation. And those of us who are appalled by what is happening now need to go vote in 2018 and again in 2020. If people can’t vote because they are immigrants (and many legal immigrants can’t vote), they should try to volunteer with organizations that help people vote. Getting the government out of the hands of racist, sexist forces that come up with notions like alternative facts and use them with impunity is the best way to make sure immigrants have a better life.
DBW: I’ve enjoyed watching agnès films evolve and am personally deeply grateful for the work you and your team do to support women and feminist filmmakers. How would you describe agnès films? Who is involved? What is at the heart of this initiative?
AH: It’s funny because we just had that conversation at one of our staff meetings. Back in 2010, when my friend Caitlan Spronk and I co-founded agnès films, we were called “a website for female filmmakers.” At some point in 2014 Experimental and Fringe Film Editor Denah Johnston and I decided we had enough of an infrastructure to bring in staff writers. One of those writers, the always insightful Moira Sullivan pointed out that the term “female” excluded trans women. We quickly changed our name to “agnès films: supporting women and feminist filmmakers.” A couple weeks ago, Sabrina Hirsch, one of our assistant editors wanted to know what we should call ourselves. Were we still a website? Were we a blog? We decided to go for “digital publication.” So as of right now we are a digital publication that supports women and feminist filmmakers. However, as we continue to collaboratively evolve, that mission will be transformed to meet the needs of our members and audiences.
Besides the two long-standing editors, Denah and myself, we have an editorial team made out of undergraduate MSU students who help us run the publication. Our fantastic team members right now are Sabrina, Elena Cronick, Jessica Kukla, and Hannah Countryman. Because they are students, they are only with us for a year or two. Some of them, like Katie Grimes, stay as staff writers. Besides Katie, our staff writers are Moira, Shewonda Leger, Ruth Novaczek, and Danielle Winston. They come with an array of experiences as critics, filmmakers, writers, activists, and instructors. At the heart of our initiative is getting more stories by and about women and feminists onscreen and then helping them connect with audiences.
DBW: What encourages you most about what you see unfolding for women filmmakers and their work at this time?
AH: The numbers are not encouraging. Since 1998 when Martha Lauzen began tallying the percentage of women involved in film production the numbers have barely fluctuated. As she writes in the 2016 report “women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films [which] … is even with the percentage achieved in 1998.” Of course, if you think about the fact that what we’re battling is sexism and this is a battle that we’ve been fighting for millennia, 18 years is nothing. And yet, because our lives are short, the change feels slow. In a strange way, knowing that history is long and that we’re but a flicker in it is encouraging to me. We’re going in the right direction and that is what matters.
Half of film graduates in the U.S. are women. That means that for the generations that came after yours and mine, Barbara, the idea of women making films is no longer a laughable anomaly. Many of these young women filmmakers will become discouraged by entrenched sexism in the film industry and find different professions. Others, however, will make films in every way possible, from YouTube to Paramount and everything in between. I cannot wait to see what stories they weave and for communities like #DirectedbyWomen, agnès films, Raising Films, and Film Fatales to help them connect with audiences and fellow filmmakers.
DBW: I often ask people to share about a few women filmmakers whose work inspires, delights or challenges them—particularly filmmakers they think film lovers might not yet be familiar with. I am curious about who you might name, but I’m even more interested in hearing from you about some of the ways that you open up to discover the work of women filmmakers new to you. How do you find ways to expand your film viewing possibilities and become a more and more inclusive film viewer?
AH: Well, agnès films is named after Agnès Varda and I could spend hours telling you about how inspiring her work and life are to me on every level. The works cited page of Cámara Retórica is my love letter to women filmmakers from Alice Guy Blaché, to Cheryl Dunye, Sarah Polley, Ondi Timoner, Gurinder Chadha, Patricia Pérez, Rosylyn Rhee, and Karen Skloss. In general, I love filmmakers who tell personal stories and have a bit of a grainy, hand-held, avant-garde aesthetic. The super slick productions don’t connect with me as well because I feel that they create a distance between the characters and myself. That is a matter of personal taste, though. Not a critique of more stylized filmmaking.
In terms of finding new filmmakers, I end up finding many of them through agnès films, either because they contact us about reviewing their work or because someone shares an article about them on our Facebook page. Bat-Sheva Guez contacted us about reviewing her short film “Behind the Wall” and when it came time to select the films we’d screen for the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party last fall, I remembered how enthusiastic the review had been and we ended up scheduling her film, as well as Karen Skloss’s Sunshine. Both of them generously skyped with our audiences after the screening so that we went from knowing each other through online spaces to having a digital face-to-face conversation, which was wonderful. I also often teach the films of women I’ve been wanting to see but haven’t found the time to do so. If I add it to my syllabus, then I’ll make time to watch it, which is a great perk of teaching.
DBW: You and the women of agnès films have been tremendous allies in the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party planning screenings and hosting fantastic Twitter chats with exciting filmmakers, etc. I’m so appreciative. I do hope you’re going to join in again this September. Any thoughts on what you might do? Or stories to share about what you found engaging about the global celebration these past couple of years?
AH: We’re definitely planning on hosting a #DirectedbyWomen screening and doing Twitter chats again this year. I think the conversations we had with women filmmakers on Skype and Twitter were incredibly generative for those who listened or joined in. One thing that we noted from our Twitter chats was how much pull TV has. During our chat with Rachel Talalay and Lily Mariye, (which you kindly moderated), Twitter was buzzing in ways we hadn’t seen for our previous chats. The scholar in me wanted to analyze the particular pull of television today. And the conversation was delightful and enlightening to boot.
Besides our own participation, I’m awed by the fact that you’ve managed to inspire people all over the world to think of September as the month during which we watch films, videos, and TV made by women. Obviously if there wasn’t a lot of concern about how little attention filmic stories told by women get, the initiative wouldn’t be as successful as it is, but your ability to inspire others to organize, watch, and celebrate is admirable. My sense is that 2017 will be even bigger because so many of us are worried about the global shift to the right. We need these stories told by women to bring us back to more compassionate and enlightened ideas.
DBW: Anything else you’d like to share? I know we’ve barely had a chance to scratch the surface of all the things you do.
AH: Thank you for creating #DirectedbyWomen and for your incredibly thoughtful questions. My last thought: Anyone out there who is worried about our political, environmental, and social situation right now should go out and tell stories that help us understand the value of kindness and respect for others, no matter how different they are from us. And please vote and protest and inspire others to vote and protest.
DBW: Thanks, Alexandra. Can’t wait to see what unfolds for you next.
AH: And thank you, Barbara, for this marvelous conversation.
- Visit Alexandra Hidalgo’s website to find out more about her work.
- Engage with agnès films on their website and Facebook group.
- Explore Alexandra Hidalgo’s new videobook Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition.