Apr 10, 2015

Exploring Spectatorship and Defined Roles: Gender Reel at NYU

There are a number of options for watching independent cinema in New York City. Cinema houses that have become New York institutions, like Anthology Film Archives, Film Forum, IFC Center, Film Society at Lincoln Center, and MoMA contribute to a collective conversation engaging New Yorkers on the complexities and beauty of independent cinema. The diversity of locations and the diversity of content shown makes New York a place I am glad to live in. Not only are there a number of cinema specific spaces, but New York also offers a range of festivals with varying focuses from the latest in world cinema to works made by small neighborhoods in Brooklyn. However, despite the number of rich spaces for independent cinema and the variety of festivals, there is still a lack of options for watching cinema depicting representations of transgender identities. Having the opportunity to explore trans realities through the medium of film is not one that presents itself everyday even amid the plethora of cinema spaces in New York. Therefore, I was excited to learn about Gender Reel, a film and arts festival that is focused exclusively on transgender voices, and its collaboration with the Cinema Studies Department at New York University.

Gender Reel is a traveling festival “dedicated to enhancing the visibility of gender non-conforming, gender variant/queer and transgender people, identities and experiences.” Established in 2010, Gender Reel was born out of a frustration for lack of representation of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals in “mainstream” LGBTQ film and arts festivals. Founded by writer, educator, activist, filmmaker, Joe Ippolito, the organization continues to grow under his leadership. Since 2010, Gender Reel has held events in multiple cities across the country and continues to showcase important independent cinema.

This year, back on February 7-8, Gender Reel, in partnership with the Cinema Studies Department at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, organized a two-day series that was free and open to the public. Throughout these two days in February, over twenty programs were curated,  including cinematic screenings, interactive discussions, and filmmaker Q & As. The programs varied in length, scope, and audience participation and were aimed at reaching audience and community members representative of a broad spectrum of identities. "Our department values independent filmmaking and looks forward to a wide-ranging trans-philic audience that includes university and community voices for the study and celebration of transgender art and activism,” said Cinema Studies Professor Chris Straayer.
Image 1: Flyer from Gender Reel at NYU

On Saturday night, I attended the New York premiere of the movie, Kate Bornstein Is a Queer & Pleasant Danger and an accompanying Q & A with filmmaker Sam Feder and the subject of the film, activist Kate Bornstein. This feature film, described as a “documentary portrait” captures the multi-faceted public performances and personal intimacies of “pioneering gender outlaw,” Kate Bornstein.
Image 2: Photo from Interview with Kate Bornstein

If you are not familiar with Kate Bornstein, you should be. It is difficult to describe someone who has had a strong impact on your life, but who you have never met. Kate Bornstein is an author, playwright, artist, theorist, and activist. Kate Bornstein is a champion for those who challenge restrictive normative expectations around binary representations of gender. Kate Bornstein is a spokesperson for self-respect and self-love. Kate Bornstein’s advocates that you be whoever you need to be and do whatever you need to do to in order to make your life more worth living -- “just don’t be mean.”  

Bornstein’s simple yet idealistic messages of challenging gender representations, accepting your own identity, and not being mean have drawn me in for years. This movie was completed in 2013 but shooting began in 2010. I have been waiting to see this movie for five years. In 2010 Kate Bornstein was on a book tour for Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. At the time, I was living in Seattle and went to see Kate speak at one of Seattle’s great bookstores. Elliott Bay Book Company, and again at the sex shop, Babeland. At both of these events, I saw a person with a video camera who said they were documenting some of Kate's book tour with the hopes of making a documentary. I have been waiting five years to see what was captured by that camera. I was thrilled to learn that this movie was playing at Gender Reel and I would finally have an opportunity to see it. 

I arrived at the screening about fifteen minutes late (I know! How could I!? I was coming from another screening that was part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Tell It Like It Is Series). I was directed to a different screening room than I was expecting. The screening had reached capacity and instead of turning the overflow away, festival organizers opened another room and the movie screened in both spaces at the same time. This ability to be flexible reflects the commitment of the festival organizers to its audience members. In the free screening, they are not making more money from ticket sales by opening up another room. They could have simply apologize and point to the full room and the fire code. The flexibility matches the mission of the festival and those who helped organize it. It mirrors the curatorial consideration for the audience. The audience was there to see the programming, and the event organizers did whatever they had to do to ensure that this happened. Embarrassed to be arriving late, I grabbed one of the few empty seats and watched. 

This screening was held not in a traditional theater, but in a classroom at NYU. As a student in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program at NYU, I was watching this movie in my classroom. My classroom where I am both overwhelmed and exhilarated by what I’m learning. My classroom where every Tuesday at 12:30 I take the class, “Curating Moving Images” where I have assigned reading that I should be doing instead of going to the movies! The academic setting of this screening contributed to my overall feeling of distraction, stress and restraint. I felt anxious and uneasy spending Saturday night in school. In this space where my identity is The Student, I felt uncomfortable giving way to the range of my reactions. I held in urges to cry and to laugh. However, somehow, as the movie progressed, I became so rapt up by the story that I forgot that I was in my classroom. The movie paints a portrait of Bornstein through intimate interviews about love and loss, capturing conversations with old friends and lovers, and shadowing public talks. Discussions of gender, identity, suicide, cancer, relationships and pets are weaved together into a substantial representation of Bornstein. As I watched, I expanded the structure of my identity as The Student and let my tears flow. 

There are many aspects of a public screening that impact ones cinema-going experience. It is not uncommon for the space in which you watch a movie to affect your experience watching the movie. In Cinema and Spectatorship, Judith Mayne writes, “Spectatorship is not only the act of watching a film, but also the ways one takes pleasure in the experience, or not; the means by which watching movies becomes a passion, or a leisure-time activity like any other. Spectatorship refers to how film-going and the consumption of movies and their myths are symbolic activities, culturally significant events.” The act of watching is an experience that allows cinema-goers the opportunity to transcend the space of the theatre and individually in a group, take pleasure (or not) in the symbolic representations projected on the screen. When watching a movie, we can become so encapsulated by the moving picture that we forget about our surroundings and yet we each see something different. Despite the appearance of the collectivity of audience spectatorship, we all and each bring our own personal experiences to the screen. 

Once the movie was over, there was a Q & A with Bornstein and filmmaker Sam Feder. This became complicated as there were two different rooms in which audience members had watched the movie. The Q & A was to take place in the main, large room first and afterwards it would be moved to the smaller, run-off room. Our room was asked to wait for ten to fifteen minutes while the first round of Q & A completed in the other theater. Waiting ten to fifteen minutes is by no means out of the ordinary in film festivals. If anything, a wait is expected. However, it is not expected to wait ten to fifteen minutes in the academic setting of NYU. 

Perhaps I was not alone in feeling strongly as if I was in the space of the classroom. NYU Cinema Studies Professor, Chris Straayer went to the front of the room and facilitated the audience through this period of waiting by taking on the role of Professor. Straayer, who helped organize Gender Reel’s collaboration with NYU, teaches classes in the Cinema Studies Department including one this semester called “Queer Studies: Transgender History & Culture.” Straayer valiantly went to the front of the room and attempted to engage audience members as if they were her students. Strayer asked prompting questions about our thoughts on the film, trying to fill the time and prepare the group for the Q & A. The conversation was somewhat strained until Straayer shed some of her role as Professor and became the host of this event. Instead of asking audience members about the framework of the film in relation to the cinematic form of a documentary, Straayer asked audience members for suggestions of a song that we could sing as a group to welcome Kate Bornstein and Sam Feder into the room. To a group of cinema going, non-NYU-students at NYU on a Saturday night, this approach was much more successful. Eventually, Kate and Sam came into our small, run-off room and in complete union we sang, “You Are My Sunshine.”
Image 3: Photo of Kate Bornstein and Sam Feder at NYU from The Dusty Rebel tumblr.

This screening provided a clear example of how environmental conditions under which one watches a movie can impact the movie-going experience. The Tisch School of the Arts states that its mission is “ to help create thinking artists and scholars who are connected to the world and engaged with the critical issues of the day.” The screening being held in a NYU Tisch building established a setting of community learning. The very collaboration between the Cinema Studies Department and Gender Reel highlights a desire to not just watch the programs and immediately go home. Having these screenings inside the space of the classroom begs for the opportunity to discuss and to learn. While it may initially been an obstacle for me to be in the space where my role is The Student, it eventually enhanced my experience. I am student not only when I am in the confines of the classroom. I am student who continues to thirst for education no matter what space I am in.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.