What does it mean to represent someone else? Must we only endeavor to represent stories and people with whom we also identify? Of course not—but recent debates in art and literary circles reflect a growing sense of responsibility among artists who represent minorities or otherwise underrepresented communities. At the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival’s panel on women directors at CCA, filmmaker Maisie Crow eloquently addressed the issue of representing those whose life experiences don’t match her own. Her documentary Jackson revolves around the last remaining abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi. Crow gained access to those involved with the contentious issues surrounding abortion rights in the Deep South, including the director of the clinic; a white, upper-middle-class pro-life activist; and April, a struggling African American woman, who by the end of the film is pregnant with her seventh child. The specific history of racism and fundamentalist Christianity that pervades the South, combined with Jackson’s small population, produces fraught relationships among those portrayed in the film; the people fighting to shut down the clinic are also the people who take on the responsibility, albeit in a hollow and tokenized fashion, to “save” those who have effectively been prevented from choosing abortion even if they preferred to have one, as April did. The film itself is a story about how the deprivation of medical services to disenfranchised communities has very real consequences for individuals, but at no point does Crow disregard the subject position of the people she represents. During the SFIFF panel, Crow explained that she was careful to consult with her subjects and to conduct research to better contextualize their particular histories. Such preparation might seem obvious, but it’s often the case that artists, writers, and filmmakers seem to take for granted the idea that because they obtain the technical and monetary resources to tell a story, they are automatically entitled to tell it.
Must we only endeavor to represent stories and people with whom we also identify?
Many of the most memorable films from the festival were those that dealt with this problem of representation—works that achieve evocative and meaningful portraits of people and of communities that might not have the means to tell their own stories otherwise. Kivalina (dir. Gina Abatemarco) used stripped-down methods in an effort to let the subjects speak for themselves, without the trappings of interpretation from outside sources. The film forgoes voiceover and intertitles to depict the film’s eponymous Alaskan shore village, which is slowly and very literally falling into the ocean. The US government’s neglect becomes clear after watching for over an hour this isolated community as its inhabitants repeat the same actions: hunting, killing, and cleaning the seals and fish that are their main food staples, struggling to gather enough potable water to survive, meeting with government agents and explaining to them that their situation has not changed, that they still need help, that they have been waiting for years.
To Keep the Light (dir. Erica Fae), whose protagonist is a composite of the many underrepresented female lighthouse keepers on the coast of the eastern United States during the 19th century, seems in some ways a direct response to the sentimentalized or flamboyant portrayals of historic figures that populate Hollywood films—many of them brilliantly embodied by Meryl Streep (Isak Dinesen, Julia Child, Florence Foster Jenkins). Fae’s character Abbie is stoic, though not shy, but almost pathological in her resistance to showing emotion, especially after events unfold that would cause the average person to collapse from trauma. She seems to exist only to fulfill her nightly obligation to oil the gears and clean the glass of her Maine lighthouse. The high finish of the polished glass, lovingly filmed in magic-hour light, has the presence of a minimal sculpture, which I couldn’t help associating with the fact that Donald Judd’s daughter, Rainer, was a producer of the film.
In my search for LGBTQ subject matter at the festival, I found myself back at CCA for King Cobra (dir. Justin Kelly), the festival’s sole queer feature-length film. With a cast including James Franco and Christian Slater and a flashy plot summary including Internet porn and murder, I figured I was in for yet another tragic portrayal of gay love gone wrong. To my total surprise and glee, King Cobra was easily the most joyful film out of the dozen I saw throughout the festival. It seems to be a harbinger, I hope, of a new era of LGBTQ representation in film: it celebrates non-normative features of gay male life (promiscuity, pornography, conspicuous consumption) rather than condemning them and thus relegating the narrative to moralistic, deeply heterosexual standards. The only other film I’ve seen that achieves the same sort of unabashed empowerment for its gay characters was, strangely enough, Todd Haynes’s 2015 film Carol. (King Cobra will return to Santa Fe for its theatrical release on December 9 at The Screen.)
Plenty of other films at the festival dealt with questions of representation; in truth, representation is at the heart of every film with human subjects. It has become valuable to me lately, though, to think about and even to judge such works of art or films in terms of their own sensitivity toward empathic representation. It’s an important metric and one that, I think, often trumps even those well-worn artistic goals of aesthetics and self-expression.