• Matt

Notes from the Field: Ja'Tovia Gary

Updated: Apr 27


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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An Ecstatic Experience (Ja'Tovia Gary, 2015)

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.


<Laughter.>


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 complicated.


Yeah.


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?