Filmmakers Ja’Tovia Gary and Stefani Saintonge will visit Indiana University on Friday, September 4, for a free film screening event at the IU Cinema. The award-winning directors are members of the New Negress Film Society, a self-described “collective of black woman filmmakers whose priority is to create community and spaces for support, exhibition and consciousness-raising.” Their visit will include a public conversation moderated by IU Professor Terri Francis, who is currently teaching a course in The Media School called Black Women Make Movies: Race, Gender and Representation.
The New Negress Film Society was formed after the success of a 2013 film screening in Brooklyn entitled I Am A Negress of Noteworthy Talent, the first show organized by the artists who would become the bedrock of this daring collective. (The name of the event, along with the group’s eventual moniker, was inspired by the work of contemporary artist Kara Walker and Alain Locke’s 1925 essay, “The New Negro.”) Since then, The New Negress Film Society has added new members to aid in its mission to showcase bold and compelling films by black women.
The New Negress Film Society Short Film Program at IU Cinema will include screenings of the following works:
Afronauts (2014, 14 min.) dir. Frances Bodomo
You Cannot Haunt Your House at Will (2014, 12 min.) dir. Dyani Douze
Cakes Da Killa: NO HOMO (2013, 13 min.) dir. Ja’Tovia Gary
An Ecstatic Experience (2015, 6 min.) dir. Ja’Tovia Gary
Savage (2012, 16 min.) dir. Kumi James
Seventh Grade (2014, 12 min.) dir. Stefani Saintonge
La Tierra de los Adioses (2013, 27 min.) dir. Stefani Saintonge
Ja’Tovia Gary’s documentary short, Cakes Da Killa: NO HOMO, won the Audience Award at the 52nd Ann Arbor Film Festival. The film is a portrait of a young, openly gay rapper from New Jersey whose lyrics and performances mobilize queer identity politics and challenge dominant ideas about black masculinity. (Gary also directed and edited the striking music video for Cakes Da Killa’s 2013 single, “Goodie Goodies.”) Gary holds an MFA in Social Documentary Filmmaking from NYU’s School of Visual Arts and is currently in production on her first feature, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, “which uses non-linear filmmaking techniques to interrogate notions of the self, Black American religious traditions, family, nostalgia, ritual, psychoanalysis, and memory.”
Stefani Saintonge recently won the ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Discovery Award for her narrative short film, Seventh Grade. It tells the story of a young girl’s coming-of-age in a thoughtful and troubling examination of adolescent sexuality. (“I wanted to explore what [it’s] like for women to deal with your body becoming a sex object,” she told ESSENCE.) Her documentary, La Tierra de los Adioses, was named Best Latin American Short Documentary at the Festival Internacional de Cine en el Desierto. Saintonge—who is a producer on the forthcoming short film, Macho—earned her MFA in Documentary Film Studies and Production at Hofstra University.
Dyani Douze is also expected to be present for the screening and corresponding Q&A. Her 2014 documentary short, You Cannot Haunt Your House at Will, meditates on architect Pierre Chareau’s Mason de Verre (“House of Glass”) in Paris, France. Other films rounding out the program include Frances Bodomo’s Afronauts—a visually stunning work about the Zambia Space Academy—along with Kumi James’ Savage, a short narrative film about the complex relationship between a white school teacher and a troubled student in a predominantly black Brooklyn high school.
In anticipation of their upcoming visit, the BFC/A spoke with directors Stefani Saintonge and Ja’Tovia Gary about their work and involvement with The New Negress Film Society.
BFC/A: First, I would like to hear from each of you about how you came to belong to the New Negress Film Society. Can you talk about what being a part of this collective means to you, and how your work relates to its mission?
JG: The idea for the collective sprang from a screening exhibition organized by Kumi James in the summer of 2013. The program featured works by Black women filmmakers including Nikyatu Jusu, Nevline Nnaji, Frances Bodomo, Kumi James and myself. We titled the event I Am a Negress of Noteworthy Talent, which is a nod to fine artist Kara Walker who mounted an exhibition / multimedia project of the same name. The screening itself was an incredibly affirming and validating experience, and to have the community come out and support really thoughtful, creative and non-traditional works by Black women filmmakers was extraordinary. Kumi and I were definitely interested in sustaining that moment and creating something lasting from that experience so we began to think about forming a collective. We met that same weekend with a few other filmmakers from our community and began to sort of plot out this project. Nevline Nnaji, Frances Bodomo, Kumi and myself went on to become the founding members of the New Negress Film Society. Since then we’ve welcomed Dyani Douze and Stefani Saintonge, two incredibly talented filmmakers and multimedia artists.
For me the existence of these sorts of spaces is integral, particularly for artists who belong to communities that have been historically and continue to be marginalized and silenced. These gatherings, this coming together is foundational to the creative process for a number of reasons. They allow for discursive moments to grapple with ideas and concepts, opportunities for collaboration and enrichment; and provide sustentation during times of experimentation and even failure. As I get older and grow more in my practice, the need for support, not simply material support but an infrastructure and community, becomes more and more vital. The collaborative nature of filmmakers necessitates this need, so I’m very glad we are able to continue to come together despite geographical distance and in some instances ideological differences and find commonality in our creative pursuits and personal strivings.
SS: I met Ja’Tovia when both of our shorts screened at New Voices in Black Cinema last year, and we’ve been friends ever since. Through that friendship, I came to know more and more about the New Negresses. Ja’Tovia and Kumi [James] finally asked me to join a few months ago.
I had been looking to join or start a collective since I started filmmaking, because you realize early on film is collaborative. There’s no way around it. You need a network, which is the disadvantage facing blacks and particularly black women in this field. Having a collective organizes the support and allows us to pledge to each other as fellow talented creators.
New Negress is all about concrete support and exhibition. It’s invaluable to have these women who I admire as artists working to ensure each other’s success. It’s important to note our politics as well. We’re not simply talented black women filmmakers, we’re radical talented black women filmmakers and our work reflects as such. Mainstream black cinema has been lacking in radical thought as of late, which makes our work even more imperative.
BFC/A: Ja’Tovia, I’m interested in the route that brought you to explore the politics of gender and sexuality in hip hop culture. Is this something you had been thinking about for some time before starting work on NO HOMO, or did it come more directly from your exposure to the music of Cakes Da Killa? (For those who haven’t yet seen the film, I am hoping you might also speak here about how you understand Cakes as an exploder of heteronormative power structures.)
JG: It’s funny because I didn’t initially set out to explore those particular points of tension in hip-hop. I was originally drawn to Cakes as a person and a dynamic performer. I reached out to him after I encountered one of his music videos, CUNTROVERSY, on Tumblr, and was immediately transfixed by his undeniable skill as well as the way he sort of effortlessly traversed the gender spectrum. His style and delivery are very 90s era New York City hip hop, very gritty, almost hyper masculine, yet his content was unapologetically homoerotic. His performance skills are that of a seasoned veteran. So he magnetized me almost instantly. His way of being felt like a really radical gesture, a subverting of this very rigid gendered landscape that hip-hop precipitates.
In many ways I’m ambivalent about hip-hop. My relationship to it is very complicated and I think this has a lot to do with my position in society as a Black queer woman. So, I’m drawn to this very rich and expansive expression, yet repelled by it. At the same time, I find the music and the culture a non-stop source of inspiration. I still see hip hop as this sort of usurping of power or a creative way of asserting and affirming the self and community, so it is still rife with generative and inspiring elements, even I find it debasing at times. Which is why I’m glad I got the opportunity to complicate some of the more problematic elements of the culture in making Cakes Da Killa: NO HOMO. And why I think artists like Cakes, who whether they are intentionally or overtly political or not, are opting to radically disrupt the status quo. Not just in terms of gender performance or sexuality, but also in regards to content, style and art making in general.
BFC/A: This question is for Stefani. You take us to two very different places in La Tierra de los Adioses and Seventh Grade — from rural Mexico to an American middle school, respectively. But while the settings vary, both films engage issues related to adolescence and community among girls and women of color. Can you tell me about how you see these two films interacting with each other? Are there a set of critical questions you bring to bear on your subjects, regardless of genre or geography?
SS: Community and women interact with each other in strange ways. Women form the foundation of community. They do most of the grunt work, but for them the rules are strict and the benefits less. With La Tierra de los Adioses, I managed find a community of mostly indigenous women who, despite the lack of men and total absence of white people, the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as bell hooks calls it is smothering them. But they rebel in small ways. In Zapotitlán Palmas, where La Tierra de los Adioses is set, the women weave bags, sow fields and cut palms gaining some semblance of independence from their husbands abroad. There’s a part toward the end of the film when the two girls, Lupita and Belen, say “I’d rather go to school than marry some good for nothing bum. And all day sweep and cook. Or watching over a crying baby. ‘Oh I’m pregnant again!’” I understand their frustration with the trajectory for women in the town, but I do think their mothers deserve more credit for running a community, raising their families and supplementing their income all on their own.
In Seventh Grade the rebellion is much more overt. The community is clear and the rules these young women have violated—even though they’re new to the girls—are ones we’re all familiar with. That’s why I think Seventh Grade resonated with people. It features adolescent girls, who are usually portrayed as powerless if at all, cleverly resisting patriarchy.
So both films focus on women’s roles in community, and I tried to be critical of those roles by showcasing women who find ways to resist.
BFC/A: Ja’Tovia, I understand that you are interested in doing some research at the Black Film Center/Archive during your visit to IU. What materials or collections are you looking to work with while you’re here?
JG: Yes, I’ve actually been excited about visiting Black Film Center/ Archive ever since I found out about the space a few years ago. Stefani and I will be quite busy during our short time here, so I fear that I might be too ambitious with my research and viewing goals. But that just means I have to plan a return trip in the near future.
I’m really interested in screening Jessie Maples’s Will and Julie Dash’s Four Women also The Fullness of Time and Drylongso by Cauleen Smith. There’s also Zeinabu Irene Davis whose work I’m interested in viewing and learning more about. Additionally, anything and everything by William Greaves, Madeline Anderson, and St. Clair Bourne are on my list. Greaves is a bit of a guru for me, so I’m on a mission to view all of his films.
Collective or collaborative movements like the work from filmmakers involved in the LA Film Rebellion and the Black Audio Film Collective are also points for interest for me. Like I said, its quite an ambitious list, there’s a lot I’d like to explore. Ousmane Sembene, Isaac Julien, Menelik Shabazz the list is really endless. A lot of these works are difficult to access, so for me, entering a space like this is really overwhelming, in a good way.
BFC/A: Finally, I am hoping to get a sense of how the New Negress Film Society has evolved since its inception after that first screening event in Brooklyn. How has the collective developed in terms of mission, strategy and scope in recent years, and where do you see it headed in the future?
JG: Moving forward we are really focused on collectively supporting the films of the individual members as well as coming together and collaborating on shared projects. We want to continue to remain productive and get our work out. So recently we’ve been combining our efforts to bring individual works to fruition. Kumi and Stefani are helping me produce my feature documentary, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, and I will be serving as editor on an upcoming short film that Stefani is directing. Exhibiting and highlighting the work of Black women filmmakers also remains central, so we are excited about future programming opportunities in Brooklyn and beyond. Keep an eye out for the Negresses. We’re very excited about what lies ahead.
SS: I’m a recent member, but from what I understand, we’re moving toward supporting each other’s work directly. Kumi and I are helping Ja’Tovia with her feature documentary, The Evidence of Things Not Seen. I’m doing a short for ESSENCE Magazine and Ja’Tovia will edit. So we’re heading toward more direct and creative collaboration rather than just exhibition.
BFC/A: Thanks to both of you for taking the time to answer these questions. We’re all tremendously excited about your visit and the New Negress Short Film Program.
JG: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the opportunity to share the work in this setting and to be in conversation with you.
SS: Thank you for having us and for all you’ve done to organize this thus far. It’ll be interesting to see how our work is absorbed in an academic setting. These questions alone have already challenged me go deeper with my art. I appreciate it.
Ja’Tovia Gary and Stefani Saintonge will be speaking as part of IU Cinema’s Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture Series at 3:00 PM on Friday, September 4. The screening will begin at 6:30 PM, followed by a Q&A with Gary, Saintonge and Dyani Douze. (Both events are free, but the film program is ticketed.) Gary and Saintonge’s visit is made possible by a generous grant to the IU Cinema from the IU Women’s Philanthropy Council. The event is part of the cinema’s Directed by Women programming, which encourages cinemas and audiences “to appreciate the richness and variety of what women filmmakers bring into the world, become aware of the enormous outpouring of motion picture creativity by women on the planet, and expand global opportunities for screening and streaming films directed by women.”