Updated: Jun 29, 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 edition, Rahel Neirene speaks with Jessie Levandov, the co-founder of Mala Forever, a digital collective and home for radical feminist queer storytelling and community based storytelling. Jessie is an award winning filmmaker, creative director, and educator. She’s committed to storytelling as a tool for social justice, and served as the longtime program director of Youth Documentary Workshop at New York’s Educational Video Center. Rahel and Jessie talk about Jessie’s work, the importance of community building, connection, and creating together.
Sentient Art Film: I want to know how Mala Forever was started. What were the intentions, and what has the journey been like?
Jessie Levandov: Our journey is something I've been thinking a lot about recently. Mala is three years old, and in its fullness now, but the seed of Mala was planted when Nina [Reyes Rosenberg, Mala Forever co-founder] and I met. We were 18 then, and we're 34 now so the dream of Mala has been such a guiding force in our lives. All of the wisdom, experience, and knowledge that we've both acquired on our different journeys leading up to this point has been so powerful and important. It is a reminder that you can't skip steps in your process; everything that we do along the way is important and impactful. We're always arriving; there's not one single point of arrival.
Starting Mala felt like a culmination for us. We were kids in film school when we met, and, like moths to a flame, we immediately gravitated towards each other. It was a very masculine, cis, straight dominated space, which was a reflection of the film industry at that time. This was 2005. We were these two radical feminist queer misfits. I grew up in Boston, and my hometown was not a space where I felt belonging. It was not a space where I felt affirmed to be my fullest self. So when we found each other, we found home in each other. We both felt this lack of belonging in this space that we're in. and also the toxicity of the film industry and the ways that that was manifesting in film school.
We knew that we wanted to start a production company when we were 18. It's taken many different forms since then, but the throughline has always been the same which is that we wanted it to be a home for radical feminist queer storytelling, and for community based storytelling. Mala means bad girl in Spanish, and the forever part is a pact that we made to be our most fearless, bold, radical, authentic selves together. It’s also an acronym for: Make Art, Love Always. It was a commitment to ourselves and each other to create transformative, healing, radical work, and to uplift other people.
We wanted to create an organization that created work in all of the different spaces that folks engage with and work in. We're a film studio, and we make films and TV. We’re also a creative agency. We do a lot of mission aligned work with clients, organizations, independent artists - from music videos, fashion films, to movement based media. The community based wing of Mala is where all of our digital magazine projects were born from. This is where we build out programs to direct money and resources and support systems towards different artists and creators. This has taken a bunch of different forms and will continue to take different forms depending on need.
What you were up to before Mala Forever? Has film and digital media always been something that you've loved growing up?
Growing up, I didn't always know I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I was always a storyteller and I always loved being transported by films. Going to the Hollywood Express video store every Friday night was like discovering all of these worlds to be transported to. I loved to write from a young age, and I loved music, and then later had the opportunity in high school to explore photography. Film was kind of like a merging of these different forms of communicating that were physical and visceral. Then I had the opportunity to go to film school and I'm so grateful for that. It was a really different time digitally. It was 2005, before Instagram or Facebook. I had a flip phone and we were shooting at 16. I remember I had a teacher who was like: “yeah, in the future, everything's gonna be shot on digital” and I didn’t understand. It's wild to think about how much technology has changed and how that's formed the ways in which we make and share stuff.
I have been connected to the Allied Media Project since 2010, where I have been in community with media-makers, healers, activists, artists, community workers, educators, youth workers, herbalists - all these folks who are using all these different mediums to make media. Community based work movements really reframed the way that I thought about storytelling and filmmaking. I had been doing a lot of community based art programs as a facilitator and educator in shelters with young people and with queer elders, and Allied Media really crystallized this.
At that time, I started a web series, Signified, which was a queer web series that profiled queer artists and activists in the United States and Latin America. I did that with one of my best friends who is an incredible filmmaker, and for many years we were documenting folks’ work and lives through the lens of this project - which acted like a digital archive. Then I started working with young people by facilitating youth media programs, before stepping into full time work as a teacher and facilitator. I was teaching high school students at Educational Video Center, which is a nonprofit arts organization that empowers New York City based young people to tell their own stories within social justice movements and issues.
In 2018, I stepped away from my role at Educational Video Center to start Mala. Our team is myself and Nina, and Sana, who I met through my work with EVC. Both Nina and I quit our jobs. We were like: “if we don't do this now, we're never going to do it”. That was scary and hard, but we took a leap of faith together and it's been such a really transformative, powerful journey.
I love that it has been in the process for over a decade. When you plant the seed of something that you want to create, you take time with it until you realise: “oh, this is the perfect time”. I did the same thing with my creative work at Door to the Cosmos. I was thinking about it seven or eight years ago, and I was like: “this is what I want to do”. I want to create scents, and tell stories that revolve around scents and plants, but I was so scared about doing it. I had a mentor at the time and she said: ‘if you don't do it now you're gonna keep planning and waiting for the perfect moment. Right now is the perfect moment’. So I was like: “okay, cool.”
Yeah. There's all this pressure for something to be a fully actualized thing, but as we grow our work grows. The containers for our work shape-shift with us.
What does it mean to center community in your work? What are some of the challenges that come with that?
It's something that I think about a lot. Three things come up for me. The first is process. The second is the lack of separation between the work that we make and the lives that we live, which are sandwiched in-between media-making and community movements. The third thing is distribution, whose work gets honored, seen, distributed and uplifted, and how.
The way that I approach filmmaking is a very intimate, spiritual process. It's like a profound exchange of energy, and something that requires a lot of care, intention, and trust, and presence. In traditional film spaces, historically, there's such a top-down power structure. There are the people in charge, and then the worker bees who are making it happen. So we are asking: “well, what does it look like for everyone to be involved?” What does it look like for everyone involved to feel safe, honored, uplifted, and cared for? How can we make sure that we're creating in a context that's truly collaborative, and honoring all of the different labor that goes into production. From the folks who are cooking the food, to the production assistants, everyone is important. That process of care and grounding in community based approaches and practices feels important in resistance to the incredibly toxic, harmful capitalist industry where people are disposable and seen only as capital. Our stories are seen as capital and thus, our lives are seen as capital too.
The other thing that I have been thinking about is the connection between community based media making and community based movements. Yesterday, I watched an incredibly powerful talk that was hosted by Allied Media Projects called Palestine Will Be Free. It was a conversation between Palestinian, Black, Jewish, Asian American, and Indigenous folks who are doing food justice and land reclamation work. It was hosted by Steven Satterfield, who said something that really struck me and I've been thinking about it since. He was speaking about the connections between displacement on land, and displacement in media and culture, and how culturally both of these things are a way of reclaiming our power and reclaiming our presence in history. He talked about uplifting stories that have been obstructed intentionally by people in power, and said that that liberation is rooted in land reclamation. Reclamation is rooted in origin, in reclaiming the power of our narratives collectively. So just hearing that literal connection, and seeing him in conversation with Amanny Ahmed, who is a Palestinian chef, and then thinking about land, displacement, and storytelling, I thought of how I do this too all the time as a young queer person who didn't see stories that reflect my experience. So many folks have these experiences of not seeing stories that feel like they speak to the core of our beings. Then I thought about all of the stories and folks who have been intentionally lost or erased, and also the stories that have been passed down. There's been so much loss and also so much resilience, and stories can be such a good vehicle for that.
I’m thinking about what it means to stay connected with the land. So many displaced people become disconnected from the land, or sometimes forget where we come from. It takes a lot of intention to not get lost in it. Here in America, by talking to friends who are from different places, I realise how fast things move here. We have to intentionally make time to reconnect with the land. The best part of me moving back to my hometown was connecting with the land. In that, I realized that this may not be where I want to stay.
In my 20s, I didn't really see as much of my own story reflected in things that I would have read, or seen in film or in any type of media. But in the last several years, that has shifted. I share myself with people, and I’m more vulnerable. I realise that I'm not the only one who's been through the things that I have. When I read Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, that was the first time where I could really see myself.
Having more queer writers and creatives sharing stories and being heard has been the most beautiful thing for me and my growth. It's kind of a paradox, too, because I'm about to be thirty-five this year, and I'm still discovering parts of myself. In the society that we live in, it’s important to have it all figured out, or be able to put it into this controlled container. Finding space to not feel alone has been expansive. I think that building community is the most important thing, and I think being disconnected from the land - which is how colonialism works - keeps us from being able to have those connections often. What does it mean for us to make that space for youth now? What does it mean to let them know they’re seen, held, and cared for?
What a beautiful thing it is to feel like we're still discovering ourselves and coming into ourselves. I hope that we feel that forever.
It's a journey. It's beautiful. I think with community work, when we do things in a true collaborative way, I think that it's very anti-capitalist. I told a friend of mine that I was going to be coming up to New York, and they said: “I have a camera, so we should shoot some things while you're up”. Prior to the conversation, I was thinking: “how am I going to document all of these things if I don't have a camera?” Then friends say: “oh, no, I got you, let's do it’. I love how we show up for each other and make that space.
Yeah, with community, we can show up for each other, by sharing resources, or by uplifting each other's work. When things are made with chosen family, in spaces where we feel safe, then there is room for us to be vulnerable. There's room for that true creative exploration to happen, which is where so much discovery and spiritual connection is possible. It's so healing.
Yeah, it is very healing. Can you talk about what it means to center femmes in the work that you do? What does it mean to center femmes, non-binary, and trans folks in the work, and how does that happen?
I mean, that desire to center femmes, and queer folks, and trans folks, comes from just being who we are in the world and being in community, and in love, with all of the people that we're sharing this time and space with. It comes from wanting to empower folks who have been historically marginalized. We all want and need those stories, so we want to support folks in telling their own stories like our survival depends on it - because it does.
We're in this present moment of representation being something that's happening, but tokenization comes with that too. When people have time, space, resources, and support to tell their own stories, we get to be our fullest, most authentic selves. We contain multitudes, and we are so much more than our identities, whether that be in terms of gender, or race, or sexuality, or something else. We're all humans who have our own unique experiences and perspectives.
This is born out of a lack and a need, but also a desire for abundance and a recognition that it’s already there. There's this scarcity mentality, to be the first trans filmmaker, for example, as if there can only be one. Is there really only one? No, there's so much more! There's so many resources out there, and through networks and community, we can all support each other in making work instead of competing. The way that we're set up is to compete for grants or resources, but how can we build our own mushroom network and do it in a different way where we're not waiting for permission, or money, or validation? We can just do it ourselves, and we're better off doing it ourselves. It's better when it's in the hands of us.
Yes, I also think about how folks who aren't in community with us focus so much on pain. That is a huge part of the tokenization process. No, there's way more than that, and it's important to acknowledge whatever we are feeling, whether it be pain or pleasure - not just the hard stuff, the beauty, the questions we have, and what we want to share around our life experiences.