Interview with Filmmaker Crystal Kayiza

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From July 11-15, the Circle Cinema, Tulsa’s independent theater and gallery, hosted its second annual film festival to celebrate 91 years. The festival featured a large variety of films, but the best (and admittedly only) one I saw was the film Edgecombe, with a Q&A afterward with director Crystal Kayiza.

Crystal screened Edgecombe at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and participated as a Sundance fellow. Crystal started her filmmaking journey as a student at Jenks High School. It was there she got her first award, a regional professional Heartland Emmy in 2012 for her short documentary All That Remains, which is about Boley, Oklahoma, one of the last all-black towns in America. Since then she has been interested in community portraits that focus on, in her words, “the numerous ways black folks overcome across generations.”

Edgecombe is the latest of her work in this trend. The fifteen-minute film follows Shaka Jackson, Doris Stith, and Deacon William Joyner, three residents of Tarboro, North Carolina, in Edgecombe County. Jackson is on probation and is working at an Applebee’s, and the story weaves his and Stith and Joyner’s individual stories together to show how Edgecombe and its people continue to navigate both systematic and personal struggle.

Crystal learned of Edgecombe while working at the American Civil Liberties Union where she focused on the criminalization of poverty. The ACLU helped her figure out exactly what stories she was drawn to. “It was like a two-year extension of my education,” Crystal says of the work. “So when I left to start filmmaking full time I felt a lot of confidence in my own voice as a filmmaker.”

Crystal was actually my camp liaison when I attended Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain a few summers ago for film, and we both studied filmmaking under our teacher Clifton Raphael, who served as the moderator at the Q&A following Edgecombe‘s screening and guest reviewed on this blog a few weeks ago.

When she came to Tulsa to premiere her film Crystal generiously took time to be interviewed by me about the piece. This is a highly condensed version of our conversation, but I think even in this small snippet it is clear how thoughtful Crystal is about her films, the impact she makes both in front of the camera and behind it, and that she is an exciting new voice in filmmaking. If you’ve ever been curious about documentary filmmaking, Crystal has some unique insights.

You aren’t from North Carolina or Edgecombe. How did being an outsider affect your perspective as you made the film? 

I think one thing that’s important is being really, really aware and intentional about how you take up space and also being super-open to learning and not making assumptions about what your own work should look like. I was introduced to [Edgecombe County] through the issues I was working on at the ACLU. That was my entry point, but just because it was my entry point doesn’t mean it’s necessarily how I should be grounded in the space, right? Talking to Shaka, Ms. Stith, and Deacon Joyner and having their vision about their world inform the end product is part of what really interests me about nonfiction work.

What is it like to become close to the three main characters and then have to move on?

I think there’s this strange relationship built between filmmakers and people in projects. You build this relationship that is so fragile in the sense that it can be super-temporary or lead to really long-term communication.

When I was in the edit, I was very careful to be in communication with Shaka, Ms. Doris and Deacon Joyner and made sure to send them the film before it was screened. The language that is used around describing them is something I’m also very sensitive too and I’ve had situations where I’ve felt that their characters and identities weren’t being portrayed in a way that I think is inclusive or equitable to the story, so also protecting them. There’s a trust and respect that’s built, and part of maintaining that isn’t just during production.

Tell me about your choice to often use close-ups on your characters’ faces.

During the filming, there was a part where I was in a church where a lot of the women worshipping there looked back at the camera. I’m very interested in breaking the gaze between the audience and the people in the film… breaking the myth that there’s no power dynamic between myself as the director and the people that are in front of the camera. I think portraits can be a powerful way to acknowledge that there is a gaze, but it can be reciprocated.

What inspires you outside of filmmaking?

Music for sure. Reading… I think it’s really important to engage with other media, regardless of if it’s something you’re passionate about or pursuing yourself. I just find that most of my leisure time is spent thinking about film. Oh! And yeah, eating. I love food, I’m a huge foodie. When I was in Mississippi me and the Director of Photography would go to all the historic places and ask for [food] recommendations. It’s an important part of production. You can’t undervalue the importance of having a good meal and learning about a space based on what people eat.

What do you want Tulsans who see Edgecombe at the Circle Cinema Film Festival to take away?

The way communities operate are very intergenerational, and are reinventions of previous lives and spaces, and I think that very much exists in Tulsa. Examining the histories that we do and do not talk about is something that is really important to me and something I try to explore in the film. So take a moment to respect and acknowledge [Edgecombe], but then look home and see what histories and spaces we devalue and which ones we uphold.

I’m really excited to show it at Circle. The first time I ever watched indie film was at Circle Cinema, so it’s really exciting to come back home and screen it. Out of all the screenings I’ve done so far it’s probably going to be one of my favorite experiences because showing it in spaces that have really informed your own work is always a really cool experience.

-Madeleine D.

 

P.S,

For those living in Tulsa who are interested in the arts and culture scene, I highly recommend Time + Temp, a monthly email newsletter edited by Liz Blood, former editor of the Tulsa Voice and a Tulsa Arts Fellow. The newsletter typically includes an interview with local artists like Crystal, stories about new sightseeing attraction, two restaurant/food recommendations, and a couple other special surprises each month. I had the opportunity to work behind-the-scenes on the newsletter this summer and saw just how much attention and passion is put into it. You can expect it in your inbox at the beginning of each month, always free. I’ve really enjoyed reading it, and I think you might too. Subscribe below:

https://hi-in.facebook.com/RootTulsa/posts/523108884767090

Documentary Double: Three Identical Strangers & Whitney

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It is the summer of documentaries, and after RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I’m happy to report there are two more excellent films to add to your list. They are very different, but both tell some of the most compelling stories of the year.

It’s difficult to review documentaries because you can’t very well review their subject matter. I can’t review and critique Whitney Houston and her life, so with Whitney I have to think about how the film presents the information it has. How does it tell her story? What kind of bias is introduced? What does the audience take away from the film? In Whitney, we see her entire life, from childhood to rising star, to troubled singer to her tragic death.

Director Kevin MacDonald stays mostly mute during the film, letting the interview subjects- close family and business associates of Whitney- speak, squabble, and accuse. Whenever one person accuses another of something, the accused gets to speak. I don’t want to reveal the biggest revelation the film digs up, but it turns the already somber film into a different piece of work about the artist’s life. It not only searches for answers to Whitney’s pain, but in all of the right moments, simply lets us live in it. Some things don’t have explanations, and I appreciated that the film just lets Whitney speak for herself in some cases, and doesn’t try to connect everything that happened with a reason. That said, as someone who didn’t know much about Whitney Houston before seeing the film, I learned a lot from not only hearing about the events in her life, but also from the various viewpoints on how those events occurred, the responses to them, and the effects on Whitney. The film balanced those two elements thoughtfully.

Walking away from the film, I am left with feeling like I just heard an Old Testament tragedy. A family, broken by addiction and greed and misplaced love, and at the center of it, a girl without a foundational identity and sense of purpose. The film is compassionate to its subjects, but unblinking in its depiction.

Three Identical Strangers is not as fair or compassionate as Whitney to the “enemies” of its subjects, but is one of the best thrillers of the year. What starts out as the lighthearted, human-interest story of three 19-year-olds finding out they are identical triplets, separated at birth, becomes a dark and uncomfortable tale as revelations are made about the circumstances surrounding their separation. The less you know going in, the better, but let’s just say that if you were born in the 1960s and adopted through a Jewish agency, you might come out thinking that you just might have a long-lost twin somewhere out there. It’s a story about nature vs nurture, the lies we tell ourselves to cope, and experimental ethics. The film ends with an angry plea for justice, which means the story of these three identical strangers, if the film becomes influential enough, may not be done quite yet.

Aesthetically, both films make use of talking heads (people looking at the camera as they are being interviewed) and footage from different media sources. Three Identical Strangers also makes use of reenactments in the beginning of the piece, and clips along at a nice pace. It’s not flashy, but it gets the job done. Whitney, while a little too long, is excellently edited. It mixes famous public footage (MTV and talk shows) with home-videos that capture Whitney unfiltered. It includes three montages of Whitney singing, intercut with clips of cultural touchstones that depict rapidly the environment Whitney was in and what the world was using her music to help them face. While neither film tries any cutting-edge documentary techniques (like the rotoscope animation used in 2016’s Tower or the animation from 2016’s Life, Animated) they still get their stories effectively and engrossingly across.

I don’t know why documentaries are having a box-office moment this summer. Perhaps the normal fare is weaker this year. Maybe MoviePass is encouraging people to see films they wouldn’t have considered otherwise. Perhaps, hearing true stories is a cathartic way to remind ourselves that nothing new is under the sun. Real life is crazy and bizarre and sad and beautiful, and we may find more security after we’ve made peace with that than if we only ask art to provide us an escape. Both of these films make the audience have an experience, an experience that draws us closer to fellow human beings, living and deceased. If that’s not worth the price of admission, I’m not sure what is.

-Madeleine D.

The Best Superhero Movie of the Summer: RBG

Meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice and internet meme:
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Many in the larger public can recognize her face, but not the extent and influence of her work. The documentary RBG is here to change that. This sleek doc has interviews with Ginsburg’s friends, children, fellow lawyers, President Clinton, and Ruth herself. It also has plenty of promo-ready clips of her watching Kate McKinnon’s impression of her on SNL (she likes it), working out (I wish I could do 25 pushups), and admiring her own nickname, “Notorious RBG.”

It’s an entertaining look at the life of a powerhouse who is more known for keeping quiet and thinking than yelling. It also makes good use of its interview subjects in illuminating the legal genius behind her strategy in the 1970s to make a legal and moral foundation for ending sex discrimination. This film gives a mini-class in legal activism, and how long-term vision and strategy is necessary to change minds and hearts. So while watching Ginsburg is fun, hearing her speak is even more powerful. The sheer force and precision behind her words remind us all that screaming matches can never stand up to the power of well-wielded language.

The documentary also touches on Ginsburg’s personal life, particularly her beautiful romance to her husband Martin. Martin Ginsburg was a man ahead of his time, supporting his wife completely in her work and unashamed to take on roles typically associated with housewives. It was a mutual partnership that led both to have successful careers and make a mark on American history.

One thing I also really enjoyed in the film was the discussion about the friendship between Ginsburg and Justice Scalia. They were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and would consistently vote against one another, yet had a sweet friendship. This example of personal relationships across political lines shows they are possible and necessary. While the film tries to speak to the Trump presidency, this seems like the most timely thing about it, showing the need to make relationships outside of one’s bubble.

If you know much at all about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then this documentary will not reveal much of anything new except give you more time with the icon. It provides a summary, not a revelation, about her life. It is a little repetitive in the points it hits and refuses to criticise its subject in any way.

But for someone who did not know much about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this was the perfect introduction to her and her enormous body of work and influence. I walked out not only wanting a “Notorious RBG” mug, but also with hope. Hope that individuals can change the world. Hope that institutions can be changed by smart people with vision. Hope that people across political lines can put aside their differences and have relationships. Hope that one day I will find a man as good as Martin D. Ginsburg. So not only is it a film that depicts a real-life superhero, but it leaves its viewers with the feeling a superhero film should give you.

-Madeleine D

Behind the Meat Dress: Gaga: Five Foot Two

Gaga: Five Foot Two

If you don’t keep up with music news, then you might not have realized that last year was a pretty big deal for Lady Gaga.

The infamous singer, known for her elaborate costumes, makeup, songs, and persona, with her army of “little monsters,” underwent a huge brand change in 2016. She performed her nominated song at the Oscars (“Till It Happens To You”), won a Golden Globe for her role in American Horror Story, released her new soft rock/pop country album “Joanne” and played the Super Bowl halftime show this year. And this whole time, she’s apparently been being filmed by a documentary crew.

Right off the bat, it’s easy to write off Netflix and Chris Moukarbel’s Gaga: Five Foot Two (referring to her height) as a nice promotional piece. It is that, to some degree. I don’t personally know enough about Lady Gaga to say how die-hard fans will feel about the image she portrays here. We’ll never know how much of the footage was edited or left out. But what I saw, as someone who just had a public-mass view of Lady Gaga, was different from what I thought I knew about Lady Gaga. Suddenly, it’s not as easy to write off this film.

It is rare to see anyone, particularly a star, be able to show how complicated a person can be. Stefani Germanotta can be Lady Gaga. She can wear the meat dress and the white tee and shorts. She can be hunched over in excruciating pain and still incorporate it into a dance. She can be in a room of people and still seem alone. She can celebrate the LGBTQ community and be a part of a tight-knit Catholic family and love and be loved by them. We are walking contradictions in our own lives, but it seems unnatural to expect that from celebrities, who have to market a personal brand. It’s almost uncomfortable to see them demonstrate that they are like the rest of us, not because they mess up sometimes or are “super relatable,” but because they have as many contradictions and layers in their lives as we do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that expressed as well as it was here.

The doc works because we have such an ingrained sense of who Lady Gaga is, we don’t have to see her “do” that persona. We see her behind-the-scenes personality, then contrast it with our own, and realize the complexity behind that.

And, helping us along the way as we try to figure out who this woman really is, is Gaga herself. She has moments of startling clarity and reflection. She talks about how her insecurities have kept her hiding behind the stage makeup and costumes and elaborate stunts. But in the same scene she gushes over her love of fashion and how she’s trying to find that balance between the high glamour she loves and the more natural image she’s trying to reveal. She voices the anxieties of women in the workplace, how the industry tried to change her, how she tried to rebel against it, and how she knows she’s more privileged than most and how her money helps her cope with her medical problems. She’s thoughtful, and she can say it while shirtless in one scene and backstage smoking in another. She’s many things at once, like we all are.

If you aren’t interested in music pop culture or don’t have any tolerance for celebrity gossip, then this might not be your film, no matter how good it is. But if you are interested in any of that stuff, even just a little, then this is well worth your time. This star-doc is well-directed and put together, but is different from others of its kind.

What makes Gaga: Five Foot Two different is Gaga herself. She has the entire doc on her shoulders, and as she proves, she can carry the whole show.

-Madeleine D