Moving Image | Emily Drummer • Diya Gitanjali Mark
Diya Gitanjali Mark opens up the program with her recent short:
2020 | 3 min | digital
Diya Gitanjali Mark’s short film, “home” is a reflection on the idea of home, coming from someone who has lived in over a dozen places throughout her life. This is an abstract and sometimes misguided search for belonging in relationships, friendships, and small details.
We are excited to welcome Emily Drummer as our featured filmmaker for this month’s Moving Image program with two of her recent films:
Histories of Simulated Intimacy
USA | 2017 | 11 min | Super 8
“Great obstacles excite great passions; since eros consists not in possession but in wanting, what could stimulate eros more than distance and especially death, itself the ultimate distance?” -John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air Histories if Simulated Intimacy is a sensory essay film that investigates the gaps in time and space produced by the technological mediation of human love and desire. Roving, dismembered voices – messages left for the filmmaker by former lovers, found voice messages made on gramophone discs – hunt for image-bodies, creating a simultaneous presence and absence: a woman carried gently by the flow of a Lazy River; the undulations of a darkened, glimmering dance party; memories and traces of the once massive Iowan prairies. The film explores polarities such as public and private, nature and culture, near and far, bios and techne, producing a space in which technologies of intimacy, separated by historical measurements of time, can coalesce in perpetuity.
USA | 2019 | 16 min | 16mm
Charging scenes of the present with dystopian speculation, Field Resistance blurs the boundaries between documentary filmmaking and science fiction to investigate overlooked environmental devastation in the overlooked state of Iowa. Footage collected from disparate locations—a university herbarium, karst sinkholes inhabited by primordial flora and fauna, a telecommunication tower job site, a decaying grain silo, among others—interlocks to evoke a narrative of present danger and future disaster, of plant expansion and humanity’s retreat. The film rejects the human individual as the focus of narrative cinema, and, instead, adopts the perspective of a symbiotic “implosive whole” in which humans and nonhumans are related in an overlapping, non-total way.
Thanks so much for sharing your work with us. I saw your film Field Resistance during the virtual Milwaukee Underground Film Festival. Your work really stuck with me and I feel like I tried to tell a dozen people to watch it. I am excited to have the opportunity to share your work in a more intimate (virtual) setting. Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Thank you for organizing this event, Natasha. I’m Emily, a filmmaker currently based in Philadelphia.
You mentioned in some writings about your work that you begin with an immersive research approach. I am wondering if you have always been a rather curious person and if filmmaking is a tool to fulfill these desires, or did filmmaking come first?
I came to filmmaking in a fairly circuitous way. As a teen I worked at my local arthouse cinema and loved every minute of it, but being an artist or a filmmaker myself never really felt like an option for me.
I decided pretty early on in college that I wanted to focus on Film Studies and planned to pursue a PhD after graduating. I ended up taking a 16mm film class and told myself it would “enrich” my film scholarship. It was my first experience shooting film. I’d never even shot on a video camera before.
I’ve been obsessed with researching things for as long as I can remember. In high school I spent all of my time learning about movies and downloading music (thank you LiveJournal); in my early twenties I spent an entire year researching women service workers in early cinemas; and in graduate school I started getting into communication theory and environmental philosophy. It took me a while to figure out how to marry these sorts of obsessions with filmmaking, and to find the right form to do so.
At what point do you invite the camera into your process of immersive research? How do you approach collecting images from your fieldwork? Do you go in with a clear idea of what you want to capture or is it based on intuition?
I think each project calls for a different approach. My ideal structure for making is as follows: 1) identify burning set of questions or interests 2) compile a big list of locations that speak to those questions and interests 3) start filming in a pretty free-form way 4) review footage and reconsider initial interests 5) repeat steps 3 and 4 until the film is done. In the beginning I almost never have a clear idea of what I want to capture. That takes shape intuitively once I begin scouting locations and shooting. In the later stages of making a film I’m usually looking for shots that pull everything together to fill the gaps.
The corona virus has made this approach more challenging and has forced me into longer periods of research and pre-production which will likely lead to shorter bursts of filming on-location. Perhaps this also has to do with the fact that the things I’m interested in filming at present require permission and cooperation, which much of my previous work has not.
In both of these films there is a disconnect between the image and the sound, hearing things that exist outside of the image, could you speak to how you approach the sound design and your process of collecting these sounds?
I think the disconnect between image and sound works a little differently in both films. In Histories my goal was to create a sort of dialogue between sound and image, to tease out connections between the visual and sonic. The envelope factory sequence is a good example of that approach. The intimate intonation of private, found voice messages is dispersed across footage of envelope production, shot in extreme close-up – the closest, and therefore, on the face of it, most intimate of compositions. The mesmerizing visual rhythms of industrial production intertwine with the sonic clicks and pops of the voice messages. This moves our attention away from the content of the recorded message and towards the physical material which conveys it, creating a physical, tactile sensation that is exacerbated by the almost biological visuals of envelope production. By connecting decontextualized voice messages with this intimate, visceral view of factory production, both materials – sound and image – are transformed, and technology is imbued with a living presence – it is no longer an inanimate facilitator, but a deeply involved participant in the practice of intimacy.
While making Field Resistance I had a critique with the filmmaker Betzy Bromberg, one of my favorite living filmmakers, who drew a distinction between two relationships to sound and image that seemed to be at work in the film: sounds that “build a world in which things live” and sounds that “emerges from the image itself.”
The first relationship – sounds that build a world – refers to the first part of the film. I sequenced Field Resistance in such a way that loosely suggests a continuous narrative, yet, as I mentioned earlier, I collected the footage almost entirely from different locations across the state of Iowa. The film’s opening sequence alone includes footage from an Iowa City branch of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a university herbarium, and two separate USDA operated greenhouses. None of the sounds were recorded on location. All of the synchronous sounds are foleyed, the radio program is borrowed from the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting, and the science fictional sound effects were made in collaboration with my friend Philip Rabalais. When stitched together, these elements create the illusion of spatial unity, of a mysterious ecological research center somewhere in the state of Iowa.
This dynamic shifts in the final sequence of the film when, as Bromberg said, sound emanates from the image itself. Blades of grass ripple in breezy semitones, yellow flowers emit a vibratory ringing, lotus lilies roar forebodingly. Through speculative sound and image pairings, the film suggests the lived experience of non-human, non-narrative life. Extreme angles, macro and microscopic proximity, and slow motion work together to produce an ambient anti-world that asks viewers to question their human position.
You describe Histories of Simulated Intimacy as a sensory essay film. I was hoping you could speak to that a bit, how do you play with these ideas within your filmmaking process?
The sensory essay is a term I began using a few years ago to describe the kind of work I’m interested in making. At the heart of my work is an interest in the ways in which the contemporary world blurs the boundaries between the natural, the technological, and the human. For me, making art that responds to these conditions means blurring the boundaries between genres and mediums, destabilizing the distinction between scholarship and artistic production, and, perhaps most importantly, a personal engagement with my surroundings, human and non-human, animate and inanimate.
The “essay” part of the sensory essay is borrowed from the literary essay, a textual form in which, as Theodor Adorno wrote, “thought does not advance in a single direction, rather, aspects of the argument interweave as in a carpet.” In other words, the essay, and by extension, the essay film, doesn’t just present an authoritative argument, but preserves something of the process of thinking. The “sensory” part of the “sensory-essay film” is concerned with the creation of physical cinematic spaces which explore intuitive, pre-verbal understanding. In other words, to preserve the process of feeling.
If the traditional essay embodies the process of thinking, then the sensory-essay film enacts the convergence of thinking and feeling. It allows me to tease the border between rationality and irrationality, to blend intuition and critical thinking.
I watched Histories of Simulate Intimacy a few years ago, and rewatching it now, I definitely feel like it hits differently, your film foreshadowed current events. I know this is kind of a board question but I am wondering how have your ideas around technology and intimacy changed in the last year?
Watching Histories during a global pandemic certainly does land differently than it did a few years ago. Right before the pandemic started I was in the early stages of a film about the happiness and wellness industries and the ways in which these markets capitalize on our emotions and biometric data. Texts like Eva Illouz’s Cold Intimacies: the making emotional capitalism, William Davies’ The Happiness Industry, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die led me to think more seriously than ever before about the often invisible ways in which technology exploits us.
Ultimately I had to put a pin in the project because I was so disturbed by how, in the absence of human-to-human contact during those early months of the virus, I became even more addicted to my phone and to tracking my own data. I think I’m finally getting ready to pick it up again. I’m not sure if this is because isolation has become my “new normal” or because there is an end in sight.
What were some of the things you were reading or listening to that inspired/informed the thinking behind the creation of Field Resistance?
Texts that inspired me include writings by the media scholar John Durham Peters’ (especially The Marvelous Clouds and Speaking into the Air), Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology, geneticist Daniel Chamovitz’s pop science book What a Plant Knows, Iowan ecologist Cornelia Mutel’s Beyond the Emerald Horizon, Joy Williams’ The Quick and the Dead, miscellaneous scientific articles. I’ve included a playlist of music I listened to while making Field Resistance. Some of it is more immediately relevant than others, but I think it captures the mood of the project pretty well.
I grew up in Iowa, you were able to capture a lot of things I experienced and thought about in ways I never could totally articulate. Can you talk about how the landscapes of Iowa influenced your practice?
I do think this film speaks to people who are from Iowa or who have spent time in Iowa in a really special way. I’ve had a number of Iowans write to me after seeing the film and express the simultaneous joy and mourning the film raises for them.
Usually I respond to this question with some basic Iowan environmental history. Between the years 1830 and 1910 Iowa lost 97% of its prairie, its predominant ecosystem, to industrial agricultural production. Less than 0.1 percent of the original prairie remains, scattered in small pockets across the state. At present, nearly every acre of Iowan land has been privatized.
Aside from the environmental devastation and corn-soybean monoculture, I really fell in love with Iowa: the landscape, the people, the amazing thrift stores, the vibrant art community in Iowa City. I was lucky to meet some amazing Iowans (like the landscape ecologist Elizabeth Hill, previously of the Conard Environmental Research Center, and the lichenologist Katie Thompson) who taught me about the complexity of prairie ecosystems and as well as the algific talus slopes of the Iowan Driftless Region. These vibrant and fragile ecosystems are still flourishing in some areas, though they are obviously incredibly threatened. A soil ecologist I interviewed recently told me that despite years of industrial agriculture, Midwestern soil is still some of the richest in the country, which surprised me. I had assumed that a century of monoculture would have depleted the soil past the point of no return. This resiliency is inspiring to me.
What are some practices outside of filmmaking are you drawn to?
I’m often in awe of the writers in my life. I made a lot of friends from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I lived in Iowa City and enjoyed attending readings at Prairie Lights and taking poetry and nonfiction writing seminars. Books like Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, Nathalie Leger’s Suite for Barbara Loden, and Roee Rosen’s Sweet Sweat have all made me think much more expansively about nonfiction as a form: taking liberties with it and ultimately just having fun with it. I also take my daily walks and my Iyengar yoga practice very seriously!
What are you working on/reading/watching now?
I’m writing a proposal for another Midwestern film right now that I can’t say much more about at the moment. I’m making a film in collaboration with my friend Anat Dan about the now evacuated Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) oil refinery site. And I’m picking up where I left off with the film about the happiness industry.
I have a weekly film group with some friends that started during the pandemic. It’s a good way of staying tuned in to the amazing virtual programming that’s been happening recently. We recently watched some short films by the Argentine filmmaker Eduardo Williams that inspired me in a big way. I also loved Maya Kosa and Sergio da Costa’s Bird Island, which screened at this year’s Art of the Real at Film at Lincoln Center. All of the work I just mentioned is loosely “docufiction,” which has been an ongoing interest of mine for the past few years.
I’m also reading Anna Kavan’s weird science fiction novel Ice, Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, and a book by the botanist Jack Harlan called The Living Fields: Our agricultural heritage.
Thank you again for sharing your work and time with us. I look forward to listening to your playlist accompaniment. If anyone has any further questions for you, how can they find you?
Thank you for all of the amazing questions! My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org