Difference, I learn—whether gendered, racialized, or otherwise defined through the body—is often enforced by society, defined by those with power, and maintained by law, doctrine, and culture.
Most of us have heard George Bernard Shaw's famous line, "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." Although Shaw's line has to do with revolutionaries, I have heard film students use a variant to chide film and media educators. It goes something like this: "Those that can make films, do. Those that cannot make films, teach." A stereotype of sorts, the film school perversion of Shaw's quote suggests there is but one kind of filmmaking—the kind that takes place outside of teaching. Similarly, it implies that the work of filmmaking isn't also the work of teaching—and that teaching isn't "doing." Yet for better or worse, films influence our views about things even when we don't want to learn or when the filmmaker is not interested in education. Indeed, people often learn about other cultures and countries—about difference—from what they see in movies. We might even say that films instruct us about difference in much the same way that teachers do. They act on audiences in ways that are indirect and direct, didactic and subtle—at times, even revolutionary.
Those of us who teach critical and cultural studies face an equally simplistic charge that we read too much into the films we study. The line I hear early in almost every class on Hollywood film that I have taught goes something like, "It's only a film. It's just entertainment." The point, I think, is to suggest that by critiquing cinema, we give it more power than it actually wields. It also seems to suggest that the process of questioning a film—of reading a film critically, for example—undermines the pleasure we get from being entertained by cinema. I suppose these would be fair charges if moviegoers only rarely watched films. What impact can one or even a few films have on a person's consciousness, let alone culture and society? But, of course, moviegoers do not "only rarely" watch films—none of us do. We have an almost insatiable desire to watch films, to read the stories they stem from and read and view the forms they give rise to. Hollywood films in particular are based on older stories, from novels to other films, and they are often repackaged for television, video games, and other venues such as entertainment and star magazines. Television works much the same way. An example is the life outside television enjoyed by the Star Trek franchise. Star Trek evolved from a low-rated series in the 1960s into an animated series, numerous feature films, and four spin-off television series, along the way engendering a universe of fan conferences, fanzines, and memorabilia. In the course of all this activity, it also created a myth that equates race with alienation.
The point I'm trying to make is that storytelling is an enduring feature of films, and thus it is naive to think that watching films, if only for entertainment, has a value-neutral impact on society and culture. Films are powerful because they help direct our perceptions of each other and of difference. The goal of critical studies is to reveal this power. And that pursuit need not be unpleasurable.
The experience of viewing a film becomes especially powerful when we stop questioning the work of cinema. In fact, films are particularly ideological—engaged in troubling, even ugly discourses—when they intend only to entertain or when we watch them only to escape. Yet many filmmakers are thoughtful artists and storytellers who want to move their audiences to think critically, to feel passion, to experience something unique. At a basic level, watching a movie is not unlike listening to a lecture: it is an active and creative process that, at one extreme, can lead to boredom or, at the other, critical catharsis. The results, and the myriad of viewing experiences between these extremes, depend as much on the filmmaker as on the audience.
Sometimes cinematic catharsis is based on personal experience. For example, we may better understand a friend, a family member, or a personal experience through the performance of an actor in a film. Sometimes it opens up new ways to think critically about society: watching a film may make us question how we think about and treat others. And sometimes the catharsis is about the medium itself, as when a film makes us realize that cinema speaks in a wide array of beautiful languages and poignant dialects. The most captivating films—revolutionary films—speak simultaneously to the individual, our culture, and cinema itself.
Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1988), for example, affected me at all three levels. It taught me something about the diverse makeup of the place where my Puerto Rican mother and Italian father grew up and got married, New York City; the complexities of urban racism; and the way the Hollywood style, particularly cinematography and sound, can be as enlightening and explosive as character and narrative.
The contributors to this book speak to audiences in these ways, yet, like Spike Lee, they are not critical theorists in the academic sense. They are working filmmakers. In their craft and words they demonstrate a desire—a work ethic—directed by a passionate commitment to social change. They might not call it revolution, but their awareness of and allegiance to the pedagogical dimensions of film—including those that entertain us—speak volumes about the power of cinema. Students of film, be it film production or critical and cultural studies, have much to learn from their ideas and experiences. I have.
In giving voice to working filmmakers, this book addresses a series of fundamental but profound questions about the production of difference in film. How do filmmakers deal with the heterogeneity of their own identity when representing the complex identities of others? How do they deal with the history of stereotyping in attempts to construct deeper and fuller representations of difference? More practically, how do filmmakers plan and design films that feature difference? How do they use the tools of cinema, from cinematography to lighting, from sound to editing, to represent gender, race, and sexuality? Why do they elect to work in specific modes, from experimental and documentary to the big screen and television? Toward this end, how do they grapple with the economic pressures involved in filmmaking as they pursue their goal of telling thought-provoking and socially conscientious stories?
In addressing these questions, some of the contributors to this book confront the role race plays in their work and the films that have informed their visions. In the interview conducted by Yuri Makino, for example, Chris Eyre talks about the tensions he faced as a Native American making a film, Smoke Signals (1998), about Native Americans. Eyre had to confront stereotypes behind the scenes at the same time that he had to confront the potential to stereotype the people whose story he was telling:
There is a polarization where people love me for my ethnicity, or they think I'm less than human. I can have dinner with Robert Redford, fly home, and in the air something happens at 35,000 feet, which is the perception that the world has of me changes. . . . Last year, while I was standing in a supermarket with my wife and daughter, a woman looked at me and said, "If you are going to use food stamps, you've got to go to the other line." What is the impetus for you to look at me and decide this is something nice to say?
It is this kind of polarization that informs Eyre's work. The student of film can thus learn a lot about racism behind- and on-screen by reading Makino's interview and screening Eyre's film.
Other contributors write about topics ranging from gender and misogyny to sexuality and homophobia. Some, such as Cristina Kotz Cornejo, talk about how race, gender, and sexuality intersect in their experiences as filmmakers working inside and outside of academia. Kotz Cornejo is, among other identities, a lesbian filmmaker from Argentina who teaches film production at Emerson College. Her essay addresses the matrix of ideologies she confronts when making films that don't always deal with Latinos, women, or lesbians:
The characters in my films struggle to become more fully themselves. Often they must fight to reclaim their lives as well, and to pursue a better future. Long after the film is over, we might imagine, they will continue on this path, a work in progress.
Kotz Cornejo's essay asks us to question many things, including the value of labeling someone as a "woman filmmaker," "a lesbian filmmaker," or "a filmmaker of color." To some, these labels confront the social realities of inequality today. For others, they limit the filmmaker's vision—and in some cases our appreciation of her vision. Kotz Cornejo shows us why, like her films, the answer to these questions is a work in progress.
In addition to questions of race, gender, and sexuality, this book confronts questions of ableism, religion, and war. In a brutally honest essay, Daniel Cutrara, a former Jesuit priest and Hollywood story analyst, addresses censorship and the Catholic Church in his contribution to this project. Cutrara talks about his experience writing a script, Kali Danced, about the sexuality of priests in a story featuring missionary work in India. Jesuit priests have a long tradition of working for social justice and education, so Cutrara elected to write about homosexuality in the priesthood against the backdrop of abject poverty and class warfare in India. In the process, he faced Church censorship and psychic conflict as he struggled through the writing process:
The choices I made . . . were influenced on the one hand by my fears concerning Church censorship and my relationship to the Jesuit Order, and on the other by my fears in regard to my own sexual identity. The struggle with these fears led to mixed results: compromises in my creative choices for the script that I later regretted, and with those regrets the realization that if I was to be free to create, I would have to forsake the Catholic priesthood after nineteen years of religious life, which, ultimately, I did.
We learn a great deal from Cutrara's essay, including what a writer endures when writing about truth in the midst of contradiction and hypocrisy.
As Cutrara's work demonstrates, "filmmaker" is not synonymous with "director." Although this collection features writings by and interviews with a number of directors, it also features the revolutionary work of writers, producers, and actors. Christopher Bradley, for example, talks about his experiences as a gay actor working in films that cast him as a gay character. After a fan of one of his films, Leather Jacket Love Story (1997), saw him waiting tables and shouted, "I saw you naked!" Bradley felt humiliated. Bradley's experience is, of course, personal and in some ways unique, but it raises a fundamental question: What are the political and artistic implications of reducing an actor to his sexual orientation? After all, the task of an actor is to act. The point, I think, is that we do actors a disservice when, whether inside or outside the gay community, we see their performance of sexual intimacy on-screen as natural rather than as craft. Bradley's essay confronts this issue with frustration, humor, and resolve.
Another craft featured in Filming Difference is that of the producer. Producers confront a unique labyrinth of tensions when launching a film, particularly when they aim to make both a difference and a profit. This can be clearly seen in the interview that Kathryn Galan, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, conducts with Moctesuma Esparza, the producer of such Hollywood hits as Selena (1997), Gods and Generals (2003), and Walkout (2006). As a student in the 1970s, Esparza participated in the Chicano movement, a political and, for many, radical effort at social justice and equality. He is now a Hollywood producer with the credibility to get films like Selena made, and he lets us know how he goes about navigating the economic demands of Hollywood while staying true to the politics of the Chicano movement. "I made a commitment," he tells us, "to learn how to make movies that entertained and that also taught me about different aspects of the human condition." Esparza demonstrates that a producer committed to social justice and diversity can work inside the Hollywood system, and in Galan's interview he gives us tips on how that might be achieved.
Producers who work outside Hollywood also face these tensions. Aaron Greer, a producer and director who teaches at the University of Alabama, talks about his efforts to make narrative films that feature the complexity of the African American experience. His film, Gettin' Grown, does not feature sex, nudity, violence, drugs, or gangs. It does not star rappers, basketball players, or even A-list talent. "It is a fairly unglamorous, realistic portrayal of a black child's life in a Midwestern city," he tells us. "By design, it has little in common with any other films in the urban film and video market." Greer faced an uphill battle to get the film made and, once it was finished, to get it distributed. We learn a lot about his plight and, by extension, the struggles many independent filmmakers endure when crafting complex stories about their communities in ways that do not capitulate to sensationalism or stereotypes. Like Esparza, Greer shows us some of the ways we might achieve this worthy goal.
Filming Difference reveals the degree to which filmmakers think deeply about how they go about creating difference on film. These filmmakers are not simply creative decision makers. They are also critical thinkers and cultural practitioners, concerned about their words, their art, and their profession. Some use critical theory to guide their work. John Thornton Caldwell, for instance, confronts questions of authenticity that arise when a European-American filmmaker and academic makes a documentary about Latino migrant workers living in squalor in the canyons of San Diego County. Caldwell, a professor in the School of Theatre, Film and Television at UCLA and author of Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television, offers his documentary, Rancho California (por favor) (2003), for our study. He explains:
In Rancho California (por favor), I decided to shift away from any attempt at creating a pure ethnic space for expression and instead try to articulate the many material layers and symbolic boundaries used by the public to construct and assign race. What emerged, on camera and in interviews, was a very real sense that the rural-suburban landscape in the area of the camps was meticulously managed.
Caldwell goes on to remind us that "filmmakers, academics, and activists owe it to themselves and their constituents to more carefully pick apart the layers of outside interests that commonly broach, exploit, and manage indigenous racial identities in public." In Rancho California (por favor), he picks apart his own interests as well as those of the rich, the powerful, and the political, thereby showing us—his audience and students—how to confront complex political issues about identity and society in the process of making movies.
The potential for radical filmmaking crosses screens of all sizes: from multiplex theaters to regional festivals, from living rooms to classrooms, from network television to HBO. Celine Parreñas Shimizu, an independent filmmaker and critic at the University of California, Santa Barbara, interviews experimental filmmaker Machiko Saito, whose work you are most likely to have seen only at festivals or in classrooms. Like Caldwell, Saito is not Hollywood. She represents sexuality in ways that resist stereotypes about Asian women while offering insightful looks into diverse forms of intimate cinema. As Shimizu, who wrote a powerful book on the subject, The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene, explains:
. . . because Asian Americans are overdetermined by an excessive and perverse sexuality, Asian American women filmmakers find the language and subject of sexuality necessary to their expression. As filmmakers, whether by accident or on purpose, we engage sexuality in order to transform established representation and create subjectivity in terms that demand recognition.
In reviewing Saito's work, the student of film might ask, in what ways do experimental styles work toward a filmmaker's vision to represent sexual difference radically different from the norm? The same can be asked of Shimizu, who also makes films that deal with these issues. In fact, Shimizu's interview with Saito makes headway in answering this question by introducing us to both Saito's and Shimizu's work.
In another contribution by an experimental artist, John Jota Leaños's essay, "Dead Conversations on Art and Politics: José Guadalupe Posada Interviews John Jota Leaños," experiments with the interview style itself while making a political statement about the pornographic nature of war and terrorism. Juxtaposing the infamous images of torture from Abu Ghraib during the U.S. occupation of Iraq with the image of football player Patrick Tillman as a war hero after he joined the army and died in Afghanistan, Leaños builds on the spirit of Días de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations as a way to provoke us to honor the reality of Tillman's tragic death by friendly fire, despite the army's cover-up of these facts in an effort to sell the invasion of Iraq. In reading his historic interview, done with wonderfully ironic creativity, we laugh, cry, and scream in indignation. A new media artist who has turned to narrative film to continue his politics of creativity, Leaños shows us one way to use history, art, and film to confront the nexus of racism, war, and propaganda.
Several of the contributors work in television, from documentary filmmaker Paul Espinosa, whose work on the border has been featured prominently on PBS, to Paris Barclay, who has directed episodes of ER, Lost, NYPD Blue, The Shield, and The West Wing, among other series. Conducted by Kevin Sandler, a professor of media industries at Arizona State University (ASU) and author of The Naked Truth: Why Hollywood Doesn't Make X-Rated Movies, the interview with Barclay is particularly telling for filmmakers and scholars interested in prime-time television. Sandler asks Barclay poignant questions about representation, difference, and the messages he tries to articulate in his work. Barclay, a gay African American man, sees it as walking a very thin line:
. . . it's tough to shove a particular agenda down people's throats; they tend to resist that. It's too obvious, too blatant. So I gave up on that whole concept a while ago, and what I try to do now is show humans that viewers can relate to (even if they disagree with them) so there's some way to get under their skin and maybe provoke some thoughts and consciousness, and in some way maybe shake down the stereotypes we may have of people.
Barclay's experiences, like those of several of the other contributors to this collection, show that difference behind the camera is potentially as diverse as difference on the screen, and that filmmakers working in television deal systematically with similar issues of difference as those working in feature film production. Students of cinema can glean a great deal from Barclay's insights, as he reveals the strategies he used to become a successful television director.
All of the contributions to Filming Difference focus in one way or another on the representation of difference from the filmmaker's point of view. The contributors are working actors, directors, producers, and writers. They discuss identity and difference in detail and with stunning candor, providing readers with insights into the representation of social identity from actual creative decision makers. They address representation and identity in a variety of production modes and genres, including experimental film and documentary, independent and mainstream film, and television drama. It is the contributors' collective hope that readers of this book come to a broad understanding of how a range of practicing filmmakers engage a range of profound social issues.
The first section of this book, Exposing Bodies, considers the diverse ways in which representations of identities are located at the site of the body. Laura Kissel, a professor at the University of South Carolina, takes an in-depth look at how she went about translating her personal experience into political filmmaking. Kissel's chapter, "Disability Is Us: Remembering, Recovering, and Remaking the Image of Disability," traces images of disability across media and into her own work. In the second chapter in the Exposing Bodies section, "'I Saw You Naked,'" Christopher Bradley, who teaches screenwriting at ASU while also working as an actor, analyzes his experiences as a gay man staring in a gay independent film. In the last chapter in this section, Celine Parreñas Shimizu interviews Machiko Saito, the experimental filmmaker whose work often focuses on the pain and pleasure of the flesh. For the filmmakers contributing to this section of the book, the body is the site at which identity is fleshed out.
The second section of this book, Border Visions, focuses on metaphoric and geographic borders. In "Framing Identities / The Evolving Self: Beyond the Academic Director," Cristina Kotz Cornejo tells us how she came to produce and direct her first feature film, 3 Américas. In the next chapter, "Indigenism, (In)Visibility: Notes on Migratory Film," John Thornton Caldwell talks about how and why his films work to confront the erasure of indigenous identity in American society. Finally, my interview with Paul Espinosa, an Emmy award-winning documentarian whom I also work with at ASU, reveals in detail the strategies he uses to represent the border in films screened on PBS. Espinosa also talks about the process one goes through in pitching and making films for PBS, an important insight for all aspiring documentary filmmakers. The literal and metaphoric border becomes, for the filmmakers contributing to this section of Filming Difference, the site of both struggle and hope.
The third section, Global Identities, extends a discussion initiated by Kotz Cornejo to the international dimension of difference. In the first chapter, "Del Otro Lado: Border Crossings, Disappearing Souls, and Other Transgressions," C. A. (Crystal) Griffith, a film professor in the School of Theater and Film at ASU, talks about her journey as an African American filmmaker working in Mexico. Her film, Del Otro Lado (1999), tells "a story about love, friendship, Mexico's inability to deal with the AIDS crisis, and the problematics of U.S.-Mexico border policies." In the second chapter in the Global Identities section, "Faith in Sexual Difference: The Inquisition of a Creative Process," Daniel Cutrara, also a screenwriting professor at ASU, recounts his journey as a writer, teacher, and former priest. The final chapter of this section, "Dead Conversations on Art and Politics: José Guadalupe Posada Interviews John Jota Leaños," is by political artist and filmmaker John Jota Leaños, a professor at the California College of the Arts. We learn a great deal about the connection between creative choices and the politics of difference in relation to history, war, and racism from Leaños's work. In short, contributors to this section of the book see difference as a global representation that speaks simultaneously to local and universal concerns.
In the fourth section of this book, Independent Ambitions, filmmakers discuss the visionary and practical politics of working independent of Hollywood. In the first chapter, "Neither Color Blind, Nor Near-Sighted: Representation, Race, and the Role of the Academic Filmmaker," Aaron Greer discusses the film about black life he "became an academic to make." In the next chapter, "Preparing to Perform the Other: Developing Roles Different from Oneself," Sheldon Schiffer, a professor of film production and acting at Georgia State University, talks about how he directs actors to perform ethnic and racialized roles. In the final chapter in Independent Ambitions, "Cinematic Reservations," Yuri Makino interviews her NYU film school classmate, Chris Eyre. For the filmmakers featured in this section of the book, working independent of Hollywood is key to their creative goals in filming difference.
The final section of this collection, True Hollywood Stories, includes four interviews with established and successful Hollywood filmmakers. Many of the interviewers are themselves working filmmakers. In "And Maybe There Is a Way to Give Hollywood the Kick in the Ass That It Needs: An Interview with Karyn Kusama," Dan Rybicky, a working screenwriter who teaches at Columbia College, Chicago, asks Kusama how, as a woman working in a male-centric profession like Hollywood, she came to make films as diverse as Girlfight (2000) and Aeon Flux (2005). The second interview in this section, "From Selena to Walkout: An Interview with Moctesuma," by Kathryn F. Galan, covers a range of important topics key to conscientious filmmakers aspiring to work in Hollywood. The next interview, "Negotiating the Politics of (In)Difference in Contemporary Hollywood: An Interview with Kimberly Peirce," is conducted by Denise Mann, director of UCLA's Independent Producer's Program and author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover. In the interview, Peirce opens up to Mann, detailing how she came to write and direct a film like Boys Don't Cry (1999). Finally, in the last interview in the True Hollywood Stories section, "Televising Difference: An Interview with Paris Barclay," Kevin Sandler and Barclay discuss the journey a gay African American director took from directing music videos to directing some of the most provocative prime-time television on the air today.
Like many of the contributors to this collection, I teach film and media studies. In fact, I have taught film in departments ranging from Film, Television and Digital Media at UCLA to Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies at ASU. My research focuses on the representation and narration of race in Hollywood film, television, and online media. In addition to writing a book on whiteness in Star Trek, I have edited three books on whiteness in cinema and have published essays on racism in online pornography. I have also worked in the entertainment industry as a consultant, writer, and producer, including a stint at the Sci-Fi Channel. In that experience I came to realize two things: first, media often segregate difference from whiteness in order to perpetuate racism, and second, many filmmakers, from executives to actors, work diligently to subvert racism, misogyny, and homophobia on and behind the screen. They work in documentary, experimental, narrative, and mainstream venues. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Several offer their visions and strategies in this book.
All must overcome the historical and semiotic legacies of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and other dominating social ideologies found in Hollywood film and television. Indeed, what we sense in reading the contributions to Filming Difference is that the history of stereotypes looms large as an obstacle that conscientious filmmakers must endure and overcome. As we watch their films, we can see that some are more successful than others at combating cinematic "isms." We can also see that all of them work diligently to make a difference.
My hope is that the reader of this book will see in its essays and interviews a conscious social agenda. Some of the contributors, such as Kotz Cornejo, Greer, Griffith, Kissel, Makino, Rybicky, and Schiffer, teach film production at major American universities. Their goal is to engage the future of cinema through both education and independent production. Others, such as Sandler and myself, teach only history, theory, and criticism, yet have worked in Hollywood. Our goal is to reveal the critical visions and production cultures of working professionals.
Other contributors are former executives and producers, including Galan and Mann. They bring executive-level experience to our understanding of difference in film. Still others work in Hollywood itself, including Barclay, Esparza, Eyre, Kusama, and Peirce. They work to change the system of Hollywood from inside out. Finally, contributors such as Caldwell, Espinosa, Leaños, Shimizu, and Saito work outside Hollywood. They document social life and experiment with cinematic form, expanding both our appreciation of political cinema and our understanding of social difference.
The contributors are critically astute professionals aware of the revolutionary power of cinema. They think deeply about how to represent the diversity inherent in difference in our culture, and thus to tell stories that expand our consciousness in the hope of making a difference through film. In the process, they challenge viewers and students of film alike.