“Can I live? Can I live? Can I fucking live?” This question, asked by infamous reality TV star Joseline Hernandez, opens Ja’Tovia Gary’s new short film The Giverny Document (Single Channel). It’s a sly referential jest that succinctly encapsulates the connective tissue between her employment of Black meme culture and continued exploration of Black women’s bodily autonomy.
In the film, Gary poses a simple inquiry, “Do you feel safe in your body?” to various Black women around the intersection of 116th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Manhattan. Doing so helps crack open a long overdue dialogue among the multigenerational, transnational assembly of participants. It carefully weaves these scenes with shots of Claude Monet’s historic gardens in northern France from Gary’s 2017 short Giverny I (Négresse Impériale). The juxtaposition of the exclusive gardens and the bustle of Upper Manhattan makes for a metaphorical voyage of double consciousness. Where is home? Is it within the body, or amongst landscape? Both, or neither? What systems, visible and invisible, affect how Black women navigate places and spaces? Viewers are left interrogating their own relationship to themselves as Gary excavates the interior lives of a population whose safety isn’t always guaranteed. She also intercuts viral videos, performances by Black icons, and remixed footage of police violence, making for a hyper-textured audiovisual piece disengaged from traditional story structure.
(Single Channel) also forms the middle portion of the Giverny Document three-channel installation, which will be exhibited in early 2020, in addition to the film’s continued festival life. Alongside her role as the current Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard and a founding member of the New Negress Film Society, Gary has recently relocated to her hometown of Dallas while in production on a new feature documentary. The Giverny Document (Single Channel) was awarded the Moving Ahead Award at the Locarno Film Festival in August, and recently had its North American premiere at the Camden International Film Festival, where it received a Cinematic Vision special jury mention. I sat down with Gary in Camden to discuss the film and unpack power, process, and progress.
Hyperallergic: Ethnographic filmmaking has a particularly violent history as a tool of colonialism and xenophobic propaganda. But in Document, you’re actively flipping that legacy on its head. How did you come to hone such precarious territory?
Ja’Tovia Gary: It’s weird, because I don’t know if I’ve ever been called an ethnographic filmmaker. Which is really fascinating, because do we call Black women filmmakers ‘ethnographic’? Usually we are the ethnographic objects or subjects, but I am using ethnographic tools and techniques in some of these works, along with ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’ techniques and language.
I was watching so many documentaries for years. I grew up on historical documentaries, stuff you see in school, like Eyes on the Prize. Then as I got older, I began to watch all different types of documentaries on the internet. This was also how I began to configure a kind of political stance as well, by learning about different spaces, events, and leaders in the world, folks who are pushing back against power. I dropped out of college, where I was studying acting, and kind of flitted around for a few years waitressing and auditioning. Then I went back to school for Africana studies and documentary film production, which was a way to merge my interests in history, Black culture, and film. How can I begin to tell the reality of blackness from my very particular and specific lived experience? It’s not some random executive who has no connection to the community but has all the access and money and power. How can I begin to claim some of this power around narrative, voice, and representation for myself and for the people I know? That’s what documentary gave me.
H: Much of what makes your work so singular is in the edit. You’re literally chopping and screwing the archive. I’m curious to know more about your role in post-production. How do you harness control in such an unruly stage of creation?
JG: I call myself a director who edits, but I’m probably an editor who directs … The idea of handing this over to someone else is so foreign, so counterintuitive. For me, that’s where the real making takes place. So my process is sourcing footage from everywhere, whether that be the internet or some image I’m creating myself or a collaboration with a DP or an archive. But the actual process begins once we sit down at that hard drive, because it’s important for me to have that level of control.
Some people completely disagree. They believe you need to bring somebody else in to do that work for you. But at this point in my practice, it’s important for me to have that control, because I’m developing a language that’s specific to my voice. I can mimic other people’s voices, but I won’t have the same inflection or timbre. I want my own voice to be very clear. So for me, the edit is paramount.
H: Since you take up space as both editor and director, is the image as clear in your head as it is on screen?
JG: I feel like sometimes in the very beginning it’s not, and I’m okay with that. The clarity comes as I’m working through it. When I sit down every day and turn on the hard drive, the clarity begins to work right as you’re putting things on the timeline. Sometimes you have to see things in experimentation as a kind of beta testing before you can move on to that next step.
In fact, An Ecstatic Experience (2015) was a sketch for this [upcoming] feature. The idea behind it being ‘Can I make a conceptual experimental film with seemingly no story, no linear narrative?’ The concept was transcendence as a form of resistance, this kind of spiritual transcendence that black people have been tapping into for centuries. There’s a part of me that you have no access to, and that’s also a form of resistance. So putting these seemingly disparate pieces — the direct animation etching around Ruby Dee’s face, or a montage of church folks catching the spirit, or youth in Baltimore smashing the window of a police car — all of those things felt like ecstasy. So I put them on the timeline to see how they may end up together, and that’s when the clarity begins to emerge. And in that process, you’re asking yourself questions that we’ve been discussing at the festival. ‘Who’s this for, and what am I saying to them?’
H: You invoke violence using a very particular methodology. I’m primarily thinking about your usage of Diamond Reynolds’s infamous Facebook live recording, but instead of showing Philando Castile in his last moments, you supersede his image with animation and clips of Fred Hampton. Can you talk more about reimagining Black trauma?
JG: There’s a very thin line that one has to walk. I am interested in utilizing contemporary and historical archives that depict the violence that befalls Black people, because I’m having a conversation around that. I’m thinking through the state’s sovereignty on violence, and how repeated arbitrary violence has been used against Black folks in particular as a life-sustaining practice for the dominant culture. There are things that I’m trying to say around those ideas, but I’m also very conscious about not wanting to re-traumatize Black people.
I’m glad that you see it as a philosophy, because that’s very much what it is. I’m practicing refusal. In the case of The Giverny Document and Giverny I, I utilize Diamond Reynolds’s video, but I withhold Philando Castile’s body. We only see Diamond’s face, a police officer, and a quick glimpse of her four-year-old daughter. It was important for me to center Black women. Not that I want to erase Philando Castile, God rest his soul, but I wanted to talk about the proxy violence that happens when a Black man is shot. He’s got a mama, a fiancé, or a girlfriend, or a wife, or a baby. He’s got people that he used to work with, he’s got friends, and many of these people are women, [and they] have to deal with the aftermath.
I’m not interested in showing that dead body. Black people know what that looks like already; we’ve been seeing that for millennia. It’s a dehumanizing tradition that the media perpetuates, and that Americans perpetuate when we share these videos. Folks think they’re raising awareness by sharing this as an act of resistance or consciousness-building, but I argue that it’s not necessary to share those videos, especially not the moment of death. I believe we can mobilize around ending state violence without circulating snuff films … There’s no need to simply reproduce those [violent] images without a critical engagement of them and their histories. There must be a treatment of the material. Once you show us repeatedly in these positions of anguish and on the receiving end of violence, that’s what we become in people’s minds, which makes way for repeated violence to occur with continued impunity. We’re shaping perception with media, so we’ve got to be very careful.
In [The Giverny Document], you never see or hear a gunshot. You see the aftermath of what has happened, and you have to deal with that. Over Philando Castile’s body, I [superimpose] a flower effect I created by plucking petals from Claude Monet’s garden and fixing them to a clear film strip, like Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight. It serves as a glitch effect that appears as a box around me, or sometimes taking up the entire screen. When we switch into the Facebook live video, sometimes [the effect is] creating bars across the screen, gesturing to ideas of captivity. It’s a little portal whenever we’re switching between the two worlds, the world of the garden and this waking nightmare Diamond Reynolds finds herself in. It’s another way of achieving an intertextual play and advancing this act of refusal. In the Giverny works, the onus is placed on the audience. You’ve got to fill in that blank. So you have to situate yourself in relation to state power and its violent legacy toward Black people. What are you used to seeing in this scenario? The viewer is activated.
H: There’s a very direct insertion of yourself into the film, but half of that is through the prism of a persona. What was the process behind that? Is that woman in Harlem Ja’Tovia with a wig, or a character?
JG: I would say all of [my appearances] are various prismatic representations of me, personas I’m adopting. I definitely wanted to wear a wig, because since I shaved my head, there’s a very bold and stark reception I get from people, so I wanted to kind of tone it down a little. The hairstyle is representative of the 1960s; not a full costume, but a modern variation of that style. The woman-on-the-street interviews are a direct reference to Chronicle of Summer (1961), about a woman walking the streets of Paris asking people ‘Are you happy?’ This gives way to so many different conversations around class, labor, love, and death. It’s technically the first cinéma vérité film, but the original definition was not ‘observational cinema,’ but rather an attempt to uncover some truth with whatever techniques were available. I wanted to get back to that definition, trying on different tools, formats, and modes to arrive at some sort of idea of the truth.
I also wanted some distance between [Harlem] and the garden, where I’m bald, to invoke different subject positions and illustrate how varied Black womanhood is. There’s a kind of trickster spirit that I possess, where I’m shapeshifting a bit. In some ways, I’m putting myself in the work, but donning costumes or personas is an attempt to distance myself from the audience a bit so that I can maintain who I am in reality.
H: You’ve been very transparent about the intent of this film, which is explicitly made for Black women. With the hope of Black women walking away with the feeling of affirmation.
JG: One thing James Baldwin said about Malcolm X is that he corroborates our reality. He lets us know we’re not crazy because he’s speaking what we may feel. He’s making plain our lived experience. We’re not crazy because [Malcolm’s] up there saying that thing that we’re all living and having to contend with. I want to corroborate Black women’s reality. Some of us feel safe and some of us do not, but within that spectrum, there’s grief, there’s relief, there’s whimsy. There are feelings of anxiety and apprehension, but also faith and trust. Our inner world is layered and super vast, and I want us to be able to see that depicted on the screen, witness Black women having these interior moments.
H: You’re excavating the interior lives of these women. Some of them easily answer the questions, while others ponder as though they’ve never been asked.
JG: Which is crazy, because safety is a fundamental consideration. Some people can’t even imagine what it means to not feel safe. We saw a kid flying a kite the other day here in Camden. I just thought, ‘Wow, how many times do we see kids flying kites in Bed Stuy?’ This carefree notion of knowing that things are already taken care of, you don’t even have to consider your next move. You can breathe easy. There are times when I walk into a space and the air is tinged with something, and I know if something happens, I can leave through here or through there. I’m plotting it, just in case. Some people don’t have that reality; I wanted to speak to people who do.
H: Are there other filmmakers you see your work in conversation and/or community with?
JG: Only recently, people have started to see a connective tissue between my work and Arthur Jafa’s. I hesitate to call him a mentor, but he’s been a helpful and considerate presence in my practice. [There are] folks like Christopher Harris, Kevin Jerome Everson, and Cauleen Smith, but also young Black women directors like Shirley Bruno, Sophia Nahli Allison, Jenn Nkiru, and Tchaiko Omowale. All of these artists are really stretching themselves creatively and and doing work that I admire. I really do feel like I’m in conversation with Julie Dash, even though I haven’t made a [fiction] film yet, because we both talk about about Black feminine or feminist subjectivity.
I also see myself in conversation with these older white guys from the past, like Brakhage or Len Lye, who were using direct animation techniques throughout their practices. However, my use of direct animation takes the practice further, in my opinion. I’m not just concerned with formalism above all; there’s a message. I don’t want to say that I’m having a more rich conversation than they are-
H: You can say that if you want.
JG: *Laughs* I think they stop at a certain point. I’m building on what’s already there and moving it forward.
H: In terms of exhibition and distribution, how do you aim to reach your target audience?
JG: It’s a tough question that I’m working out, because it’s important to me, and also because really promising Black and brown filmmakers are often stifled by the limited distribution methods and frameworks available to us. Not a lot of my work is online, and I won’t say that I’m disappointed by that, but it’s something that I want to rectify. That’s not how I want my career to be, where the work is kind of exclusive and inaccessible. And I feel like it has been, since it largely plays at festivals and within the art world. I’m able to eat and have a livelihood [because of that], but that’s not really how I want all of the work to be.
There’s a three-channel installation version of The Giverny Document that will live in the museum and gallery space. The single-channel version will continue to play at festivals, with the goal of eventually putting it online, whether that is through a streaming company or a platform like YouTube or Vimeo. Even though I’m having what can be perceived as an art world moment right now, I want to make sure the people I am speaking to have full access to the work. So I have to connect with opportunities for informal exhibitions and screenings, and be very deliberate and direct with the audience I’m trying to build around this particular film. I want to lean into that singularity.