Notes from the Field: Ja'Tovia Gary
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
In our 'Notes from the Field' series, we speak with artists, filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, programmers, writers, and thinkers working across the spectrum of art and film, hearing about the ways in which they are working towards creating new ecosystems for the creation, circulation, and consumption of moving images. For this special edition, Keisha Knight speaks with artist and filmmaker Ja'Tovia Gary (introduced more effectively below) in an extended conversation presented in three parts, titled collectively as 'The Rocking Chair'.
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Where to begin? I met Ja’Tovia Gary in Boston, Fall 2018; she was starting her Radcliffe–Harvard Film Study Center fellowship, and I my Ph.D. We were introduced by a mutual filmmaker friend, Theo Anthony, who I had met while living in Baltimore and Ja’Tovia knew from the Flaherty Seminar. The drone of this institution made us both feel strange to ourselves and filled us with a host of complicated, and often dissonant, feelings. By then, Gary had already received acclaim for her 2013 music video for Cakes Da Killa’s “Goodie Goodies,” the attendant documentary short about the rapper, Cakes Da Killa: No Homo, and her breakthrough 2015 short, An Ecstatic Experience, where her vigorous etchings surround the actress and poet Ruby Dee. The Giverny Document (2019), presented as both a single-channel and three-channel work, further raised her profile.
In the devastating summer of 2020, I was dissatisfied with the conversations around Blackness and representation in film and thinking a lot about how art and film speak to each other, as well as how film industrial distribution practices so often constrict and make conservative the possibilities of expression. I felt driven to reconnect with Ja’Tovia, as someone who is vigilantly aware of the micro- and macro-repercussions of her work from conception to circulation, to talk through her process and think with her about the state of art, the state of film and how Blackness works into all of that. I was on my balcony in Dorchester, Mass.; she was in Dallas. This is the conversation that emerged.
Part 1: Visibility
Keisha Knight: You’re playing with form, with so many different things, while also thinking about the structural implications of what you’re doing. I feel like that’s a unique positionality as someone who’s visible. I don’t know who’s doing what in their basement, and I hope people are doing a lot, but in terms of being able to actually sustain yourself through your filmmaking practice …. Maybe this is where we should start the interview? I don’t know. What do you think, should we start?
Ja'Tovia Gary: Yeah. I mean, I thought we had already started.
OK, this is my interviewer voice. In terms of you making space in the world in a visible way with your practice, which really negotiates film language and form, I guess I wonder a lot of things. I wonder how you came to this public-facing practice. I wonder what it takes to sustain it. I also wonder how your negotiation between the film world and the art industry works into making the space that you make.
The interventions into form and the experimentation all came first. I didn’t have an entry into the art world until the work was there. I don’t descend from a line of famous or noted artists, I had no special connections, so a lot of what you’re seeing comes from a kind of necessity. I am a Black woman, as you know, and not a lot of people are handing Black women millions of dollars to create films. I mean, there are a certain few who’ve managed to wiggle their way in by means which are unknown to the likes of me, but a lot of the experimentations in form came from what some may call material lack.
I was working with the materials I had at hand and feeling very much constrained by my MFA program. They had a very narrow view of what nonfiction documentary filmmaking could and should be, in terms of what they were willing to include in the curriculum. Fortunately for me, I had access to a professor, Michel Negroponte, who was a really interesting and transgressive figure while I was there, who really impressed upon me that I didn’t have to follow the rules—that this was film school, and experimentation and curiosity would serve me more than blind obedience.
I could do really whatever I wanted, basically, and in order to do that I might have to move beyond what was being offered at my program and supplement my education on my own time via various readings, screenings and workshops. I took it upon myself to seek out experimental works and techniques that were not necessarily being taught in that program at the time. So, I was being met with a sort of resistance, and this was my response to the resistance.
It’s annoying to think about that way, to think that a lot of my work has been in response to resistance, but it really is what it is. I preferred to respond to resistance in this wayward and generative way rather than to have bowed down. This, in many ways, is a theme for much of my life.
It brings up the question of precarity, right? Which seems to be such an animating force in unique visions.
It’s because if you are denied something, you have to get creative on how to fill in the blanks. You know that you want to do your project, that you want to move forward despite the perceived lack or actual material lack, so it spurs in you a kind of creativity, an ingenuity that folks [who] have all of the latest gadgetry and million-dollar equipment may not call upon because they are resting on the fact that they have all of the toys, you know? Just think about these young people in places like Nigeria and other spaces in the global south right now who are making films and staging these massive productions just with the materials around them. It’s mind-blowing, what they’re doing with what are perceived to be rudimentary tools from our point of view here in the U.S. In many ways, they are light years ahead.
So, yeah I think that we definitely have to think about what it means to come from a place of perceived lack but having a surplus of creativity, a wellspring of creative genius, particularly as a Black person. I mean, I descend from enslaved people who would later go on to create worldwide definitions, styles and expressions of popular music. That’s the tradition: Starting with nothing. Then, the next thing you know, folks all over the globe are talking and walking like you.
How did visibility find you?
It’s weird because I have this kind of tug of war with visibility. Part of me is like, I want my face in the sun and the wind at my back. I’m a Leo: Give me my flowers while I’m here. Cue the applause. But the other part of me is just like, wow, I see what happens to the highly visible. They nailed Jesus to the cross; you see what I’m saying. Whitney Houston was this amazing performer, but now she’s remembered as a drug addict. They’ve attempted to erase her genius and how she made them feel.
I see what happens, what this world—particularly a lot of these systems and “industries”—can do to a body, a mind, a life. As a result, I’m still a bit nervous and quite wary about a certain level of visibility. But what happened was, I made An Ecstatic Experience in 2015 and had already made Cakes Da Killa: No Homo as a grad student, and his accompanying music video for the song “Goodie Goodies.” The music video had some viral success. The actual film I put into festivals. This was something I was really proud of, so I had a little bit of caché. But An Ecstatic Experience is what really did it.
The film played at a number of festivals, but it also started making appearances at museums. Black Radical Imagination, the initial collective, was comprised of Erin Christovale, who is currently a curator based in L.A. (she works at the Hammer), and Amir George, who is a filmmaker and programmer. They organized yearly screening series and put An Ecstatic Experience with several other films as part of this traveling program. So, the film would be at MOCA LA, ICA Boston, a number of museums but also universities, more than like 10 or so events around the country and Canada. So, the work is getting a lot of mileage and visibility within a particular world; the “art world” is now seeing this. I don’t know how the Whitney initially caught wind of the film, but Chrissie Iles at the Whitney (she’s a curator there) saw the work somehow and decided to put it as part of a screening series that was a companion to her show Dreamlands.
OK, I saw that.
As part of the exhibition at the Whitney, there were multiple screenings across a few weeks where they showed a bunch of short experimental films. So, that was An Ecstatic Experience’s first entrée into the Whitney. Then, the Whitney decides that they want to acquire this, so it was my first acquisition. I knew nothing about it. I’m calling people like Simone Leigh, Cauleen Smith—people who have sold things—asking, “What does this look like? What is this process?” And right when they bring this thing in—it’s now 2016, 2017—they decided to place it into a show they were organizing on protest. It was very much in response to what was happening all over the country—protests, uprising, Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City. In fact, those were the conditions in which I made the film.
I was working for Ken Burns at the time, an assistant editor on this Jackie Robinson film. I would leave that job and come home and etch for hours on end on film footage around Ruby Dee’s likeness—you know, on the surface of this 16mm film. So, Black Radical Imagination, the Whitney, these things began to bring a lot of attention to that particular piece. I also screened it at Theaster Gates’s Black Cinema House in Chicago. Jacqueline Stewart helped organize that. I screened alongside Cauleen Smith and Kevin Jerome Everson. So, I’m also screening alongside people I’m obsessed with. In all of this, I’m like pinching myself, “What is going on?” But that’s when the visibility around this particular work and interest around my practice in general began to kind of bubble.
Part 2: Blackness and Spirit
What do you think it is about An Ecstatic Experience that demanded that space?
That’s the thing. It’s very accessible for some people even though it’s an experimental film, you know? A lot of people find experimental films “difficult to watch.” Many of them are. To me, I feel like my films are difficult to watch, but for some reason, with An Ecstatic Experience I think the length and the emotional resonance that the work triggers in the viewer—particularly the kind of frenetic energy that’s brought about through the etching and the painting on the surface of the film, and also through the edit—can pierce through any resistance that people may have around not really caring for or watching an experimental film, or not really being interested in the content of this so-called Black “identity” art.
Totally. That idea of piercing makes me think of this idea, that there is a source that can’t be bought. We can call it spirit, we can call it lots of things. It’s a source that completely resists a certain type of colonization. That piercing that you’re talking about seems to be a very generous offering. It’s allowing you to really feel this kind of source. I’m wondering how conscious you were—because I know you have a connection with these ecstasies, you’re comfortable with possession. This knowledge that we as a community share but also keep hidden for real reasons—this spirit knowledge is allowed to exist within the film. I wonder what the process of making the film was, given what you were channeling?
My process is very instinctual, it’s not “A, B, C, D.” In fact, I had been working on that film, not knowing that I was working on it, maybe six months prior. It was composed in various pieces according to what I was going through, what I was feeling. I was making a number of sketches while I was still in grad school. I cut the opening montage early, thinking it was going to be a part of a different film; I was seeing what it might look like to have a kind of rhythmic, emotional, but also an intellectual montage. Already, this concept around resistance as transcendence and transcendence as resistance was in my mind. How can ritual be a form of warfare, of fugitivity, escape, of restoration as well? Thinking about our history of convening and going to a different place, a lush harbor, someplace untouchable or unknowable to the outside world, if that makes sense.
Yes, it makes sense! Did you feel a sense of violation, in a way, or nervous when this did start to get that visibility?
I definitely felt a bit of nervousness because this is the realm of the art and film world, and they’re not neutral. These are often hostile spaces. I don’t know if every viewer is getting the intricacies of “A Black Radical Imagination” when they’re watching this. I think that because they’re human beings it’s affecting them on a subconscious level, in a way that music does. The impulse as a human being is to attempt to apply meaning, even if there are series of images, sounds, colors that we might not understand immediately—because of the structure, because of how music is used and because of the intercessions that I’m making in terms of my relationship to the film surface. This mark-making: I’m imbuing the surface with a kind of human energy, my own life force. The things that I’m feeling or going through or considering are being brought to bear on the material. I’m marking on this surface through time.
Three months it’s taken me to mark this shit up, to be delicate and deliberate. I think they’re feeling humanity there, but I don’t think that everybody is able to access what Black people are necessarily accessing when they’re watching. I see it when I watch the audiences watch it. I see the difference between a Black audience—and this is going to probably upset people, but it is what it is. If I show this shit in a room full of Black people, it’s going to feel like we’re in the church. People are going to start vocalizing. There’s going to be a kind of palpable wave of emotion, of response. I’ve seen it. I felt it.
Have you screened it in the church? Have you screened it in places that are neither art nor film?
I screened it in some cathedral in a European country, but I’ve never screened it at a Black church.
That would be interesting.
Right, exactly. Actually, that’s a goal now.
Does this kind of knowledge transfer happen in more normative and traditional filmmaking forms? Or does it really just have to do with the intention of the director?
I think that it’s kind of my knowledge or embodied experience: histories and embodied knowledge. I don’t think it’s happening as often as people think it is or say that it is. I’m sure it can, but is that every filmmaker’s intention? I’d wager no. Like, everything that’s called Black cinema out in the world is not Black cinema. It may be a film with Black people in it. It might simply be a film with a Black director. I don’t think having a Black director means that you have now made a film that can be considered Black cinema.
Why do you think that is? What are the forces that are organizing that? People want to think because there are Black bodies in the film, this equals Black cinema. Done, check, moving on.
Yeah, I think that the industry is doing this because it’s always been lucrative to sell Blackness, whether you’re selling it back to Black people or whether you’re selling it to non-Black people. And when I say the industry, I mean independent space, too. Even though that sounds counterintuitive and maybe oxymoronic. Is oxymoronic a word?
Yes, it’s a word that I love and am, I think. But yeah.
I think that it’s always fun to make a cute little list of the up-and-comers. That’s content creation. Maybe it provides the actual publication with some sort of allegiance from the actual creator that these people are the big thing at the moment it gains eyes from a different demographic. So, there are multiple reasons why people are doing these things, but I think we have to be a little bit more precise and discerning when we are examining, defining, naming what Black cinema is. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes or anything. I do think an experimental form is necessary, but I think it is …. I’m trying to be polite here ….
Yeah, I think you have to be doing something different with your structure. I think you have to be transgressing the normative form, like the Aristotelian form. I think that it’s hard to bring a “Black Radical Imagination” or, as [Arthur] Jafa says, “Black visual intonation” into a structure that is overwhelmingly European and Western. You can, but you would have to break it, at least in part.
What does it mean to get your film in front of many eyes at the expense of knowing that it’s being profited off of by loads of different people?
Like, what is the inherent tension between making something like this? Very Black, non-traditional, and in many ways kind of transgressive in and of itself, knowing that it’s being profited by, you know, industry actors?
Can I just say, what about ambition?
I mean, it’s definitely complicated. I think I understand what you’re saying. We’ve agreed that I’m making these interventions, and that there’s a lot going on, and that it is very Black, etc. But then, there’s the fact that we exist within a white supremacist, patriarchal and capitalist context. As much I am intervening in form and attempting to say whatever I want to say and be as free as possible, there is the fact that there’s money around the work. I never even considered it happening when I was originally making An Ecstatic Experience. Like I told you, this acquisition from the Whitney came randomly, and I had no idea how to process it—physically, emotionally, logistically. I had to reach out. But at the time, I definitely was excited for it. You know, I needed that money. I don’t necessarily make films that I know will go to every living room across the world or will stream on every laptop. I’m not making million-dollar deals, and so far have not had to compromise on what I put in my work. There is no executive telling me to take out this and add that. But I’m making things in the hope that the work will reach as many people as possible, while also understanding that the nature of the work and its production methods might inhibit wide distribution at this time because of certain structures of power.
This is why I made the choice to place The Giverny Document specifically online for a time. It’s almost like a mixtape. You know: Make something for the street and just release it. The three-channel version is how I will continue to pay my bills, eat food, to make other work. A lot of money generated will go back into other work. So, this is my way of attempting to circumvent capital on my end and maintain some level of integrity within the current construct, which demands my labor and is hellbent on extracting value from it.
This is great. It’s like aboveground and underground in one vision.
Part 3: The Rocking chair
Can you speak a little bit about what you’re doing now?
What I’m doing now? I’m rocking in a chair my great aunt gave me.
I was wondering what that clicking was. I just imagined you typing. But you’re rocking, rock rock …
Last I heard, you were going to Dallas to shoot what’s going to be your first feature, right?
Yeah, and I’m glad that you said that because people are calling The Giverny Document a feature, and I don’t really like that. People are calling this 42-minute film a feature. I’m like, I don’t feel like it is. It’s not a feature. Doesn’t feel like a feature. It feels like a kind of mid-length, meandering meditation in several movements.
Yeah. From the distribution point of view, it’s not a feature. But I am wondering, is that something that’s still in progress? And how is this moment affecting that?
Yeah, I recently recommitted to the edit and began collaborating with an editor, which is a new process for me. I usually edit all of my films, but [I] have help for the feature. I took a break for a while because of everything. I was having a really hard time working because of the pushback against the global rise of fascism and the insistence on Black death, and our insistence on life. I actually have not shot in a minute, and shooting is going to be on hold because I moved back here to be among my mother, her cousins, my great aunties and a bunch of elder people. I’m not going to put these people at risk just so we can keep on schedule. Everybody’s schedules have turned upside down, and I’m really leaning into a recalibration of pace and slowing down the process. But like I said, I have to be committed to the edit process, so I’m in the edit three days a week, several hours over the course of those days, and really working towards getting a structure out at this moment because that’s what the moment allows.
I can’t go out and be all up in people’s faces with a camera, but I can work in my home. I got the full setup here, and I’m excited about what is going to be revealed. It took me a long time to come to this place, but I think in this place of quietude, vulnerability and slower pace, I am excited about how things will begin to unfold. What will be made visible to me in the process and in the footage—about myself, my relationship to my family, who are also my subjects and collaborators.
When I talk about the process of this film, I also have to talk about a therapeutic process. Being back in therapy is a huge part of this process: video journaling but also the written journal. This is a personal, interior practice of looking at the self. And a huge part of this particular film is not just looking at the film on screen, but the banal, every day. Like, “How are you feeling today, or what are we working on in therapy?” You know, that type of shit. That’s very much a part of the process.
How are you keeping motivated? Whole? Whole is really the word that I want to use right now because it’s a struggle to keep focused—myself included. It’s a struggle to keep focused on the questions and the spaces that we want to open when there’s so much around that is taking up space and attention. So, I’m guessing that these practices that are incorporated in your film are part of that personal practice, too.
<Static white noises flows in the background. Creaking of rocking chair continues.>
Yeah, they’re overlapping because the film is personal in the process. The process is so internal, so care is a huge part of my entire project. Not just this particular film, but all of my films.
I think a lot about Christina Sharpe’s assertions around care work and care ethics and how we extend that into our creative practices, not just our relationships. I won’t talk too much about it, but I organize Black women around mental health. It’s a very quiet, behind-the-scenes thing and that was born out of, again, the need and a feeling of lack. I want to be able to talk with people around these things, but also there’s a time for play, meaning I create art for myself.
Often, there are certain practices and expressions that are not connected to the art world or film world at all. It’s just me attempting to try to reconnect with my childhood self. I was a child artist. I took it very seriously, even then. So, the practices that I do here in my home remind me that I am that girl, and she is still me. I’m learning how to play the piano, which was also something that I did as a young person. But I stopped abruptly when I was 10. I also have a spiritual practice, which is very much in tune with the project. The spiritual practice is West African–derived and earth based, and there’s a process of ancestral veneration that is a hallmark of this tradition. I’m talking to them and seeking their help, petitioning them, thanking them, praising them. Attempting to listen and be led.
This is a huge part of this particular film because this project is ancestral. We’re talking about the dead Black people in my family, the Black people in my family who are still alive and the Black people in my family who have yet to be born. So, they’re an integral part of the creative process and a huge part of the spiritual practice, and spiritual practice also mandates a certain amount of time at the altar sitting quietly in a meditative state. This process has also involved slowing down and refusing a certain amount of labor that has been imposed upon me as a Black woman in this country.
Certain people really aren’t getting their emails answered. Certain people are getting their emails answered at a very deliberate and delayed rate. There are certain things that I’m passing up that people think that I should be taking, jumping at and clapping over. There’s a certain amount of refusal happening right now because I’ve got to prioritize my health and my ancestral mandates.
<Moment of pause and reverence for ancestors. For these two living Black female bodies, spirits in motion. In dialogue.>
Yeah, like opening up that space, honoring that space. Do you ever think that you would be able to make a film that wasn’t about yourself?
I definitely think that I will at some point. I’m interested in adapting Black women’s literature. So, yeah, those things won’t be about me. But, I mean, ultimately at some point, these things are going to be about me, are they not?
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
My artist’s statement is that film is information. Film shapes the way I feel about art, audience and authorship. You know, agency, subjectivity, positionality. And so, it’s not about me, but it is about me. So, maybe, the answer is yes and no.
Gratitude to Rahel Neireine for offering her attention and labor to helping bring this piece to life!