Chantal Akerman in "Tell Me"

Interview: Nellie Killian on Creating the Space to Listen with “Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories”

Naturally this past fall, when Nellie Killian actively began putting together “Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories,” a series of films starting at the Metrograph in New York this week, she started by listening.

“One thing that struck me in a lot of the conversations that have been happening with more intensity over the last six months is this refrain that you have to listen to women, which — of course, but it’s almost like this expectation that a woman’s going to tell you about a traumatic event that happened in her life when you haven’t listened to her when she wants to tell you what happened last weekend,” says Killian. “So I thought it was important that [the series] wasn’t all movies about trauma or specifically women’s issues. I wanted there to be movies about everyday life [or] where women talk about friendships, relationships and jobs. It’s not just listening to women when they have some urgent, horrible thing to tell you. They’re never going to tell you if you’re not listening to them generally.”

Following the reckoning that has commenced across the culture, but particularly in the film industry after the sordid sexual harassment and abuse of many of its most powerful men came to light, “Tell Me” arrives when the raw power of hearing women speak about their experiences is likely to resonate even more and while Killian has put together a rare opportunity to see a big-screen presentation of shorts from Agnes Varda (“Reponse De Femmes: Notre Corps, Notre Sexe”), Chantal Akerman (“Dis-Moi”), Lourdes Portillo (“Conversations with Intellectuals About Selena”) and Barbara Hammer (“Audience”), rarer still is the chance to see films such as Michelle Citron’s “Daughter Rite” and Julia Reichert and Jim Klein’s “Growing Up Female” given a platform that can elevate distinctly personal testimonies about seemingly ordinary lives and personal travails to the realm of the profound. The series doesn’t only celebrate the diversity of female experience but of expression, veering from invigorating experimentalism to the transfixing intimacy of simply sitting across from someone with a camera, allowing the voices of the films’ subjects to come through loud and clear.

As it happens, “Tell Me” also marks the return of one of the most exciting voices in repertory film programming today in Killian, overseeing her first series since she parted ways with the BAMCinematek last summer, following the landmark “One Way or Another: Black Woman’s Cinema, 1970-1991,” which resurfaced a number of underseen independent films from African-American filmmakers. Currently a consulting programmer for multiple festivals and a visiting instructor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Killian took time out of a busy schedule to talk about approaching the Metrograph about a collaboration on “Tell Me,” expanding the conversation around the importance of women’s perspectives beyond moments of trauma, and how she unearths such intriguing cinematic gems.

A scene from Chick Strand's "Soft Fiction"How did this series come about?

Several years ago, there was a new restoration of Chick Strand’s “Soft Fiction” that played at the New York Film Festival and I’d seen it before, but watching this beautiful restoration of it, I thought it’s too bad [that] this movie is 54 minutes and won’t get a run like a big restoration does [because] it’s a movie I really wished people had seen. I started think there were a number of movies similar to it that had this interview format where women are able to talk to other women and give these accounts [of events in their lives]. There is something really interesting about the dynamic. This is 2014, but I started thinking of ways that there could be a series around that general idea, and in the last six months or so, I just started thinking maybe it’s not too broad an idea, giving women space to talk and actually listening to women tell stories, whether they’re about trauma or their feelings about laundry. [laughs] It’s a good time to put [that] in focus and that’s what got me refocused on it this year, doing research and finding other movies that could fit into the program.

Were there any themes that emerged that you were surprised by?

I went in with a pretty open mind. There were a number of movies that I hadn’t seen before, [when I was] starting to research this in earnest, that I was really pleasantly surprised by [as] just great films. Something that is central to the conception of the series is that a lot of these movies were made with these political objectives and originally, I had gone into it thinking about the space that opens up between a female subject and a female director in terms of what the female subject is willing to say [and] where the conversation goes and what topics the director is interested in that might not come up otherwise. A lot of [these films] did have a male cameraman [and] weren’t female exclusive sets or anything like that, but I was really thinking about that dynamic between the filmmaker and subject.

As I was doing the research, something like “It Happens to Us” [presented itself]. It was shot the year before Roe v. Wade passed and the movie went around as this organizing tool around reproductive rights issues and was shown to groups of women who had gone through their own experiences of trying to obtain illegal abortions. The larger context [was that] these women were willing to tell these stories and going on camera to do it because they know they are connecting with other women [for a film] being used as a community building tool, and a number of movies like “The Woman’s Film” or “Janie’s Janie” had this consciousness raising aspect. [These are] consciousness-raising groups, talking about their experiences and the movies are used as a prompt for other groups around the country as women share their stories with each other, like adding more voices to the chorus, realizing things that you thought were like a private struggle you had are actually something that are shared by a lot of women around the world. This idea that [these films] really provided something to female audiences came into focus for me.

Camille Billops & James Hatch's "Suzanne, Suzanne"Had you backpocketing ideas for this since 2014?

Like with a lot of programming, you see things over the years and sometimes they fit into a vague idea you have of a series or you connect things in your mind before you really have an overall theme for it. I’ve been interested in women’s experimental cinema and political documentary filmmaking and I had seen a lot of these movies in different contexts. I had seen a number of movies that are in the festival I saw when I was working on “One Way or Another,” the black woman filmmaker series a year ago, and then it was just going to see restorations of feminist work – the Barbara Hammer movie, Chick Strand’s movie and I was interested in the work of Third World Newsreel and New Day Films, so I’d seen a number of those films, but it didn’t all coalesce around a theme until I started working on it this year.

Are these films as difficult to track down as I might imagine?

Because I have had an interest in a lot of these types of movies and worked on series like this over the years, I’m pretty familiar with archives I can go to and people I can reach out to who can give me suggestions. A big source for that is the New York Public Library, which has an incredible ethos towards what they collect and I came to them with a list of things I wanted to see that I knew were in their collection. I told them the idea of the program and the librarian there, Elena Rossi-Snook, had a huge list for me of other suggestions. You can go into the catalog of something like Women Make Movies and see the variety of things that they have supported and distributed over the years and [then there was] just good old fashioned research.

I was looking up one movie that I don’t even know if it made into the series, but I was trying to find a little more information about it in Google Books to see if it had ever been mentioned and ended up finding an article that was about early experiments in feminist Portapak documentary filmmaking. And That’s how I found Cara DeVito’s movie “Always Love Your Man,” [which] was listed as one of these early feminist portapak documentaries. You’ll start reading about one movie and then I found a festival of feminist film of feminist video art that I believe was at the Public Theater in the late ‘70s that also had a number of interesting titles. You end up going down these rabbit holes of finding people who have done the work before, either writing about these things with a similar thesis to what you’re going for or people who have put together the series and then you just keep on digging. The best part of programming to be able to do that research work, I think.

A scene from "Chris and Bernie"How did you go about putting together the two shorts programs — “Six Portraits” and “Four Films About Mothers”?

Honestly, there’s so many shorts including a lot I wasn’t able to include in the program and it really comes down to the flow of the program. It just so happened that once I hit upon what I thought were movies that went together and informed each other, then figuring out what that really meant came afterwards. “Four Films About Mothers” are really these films about domestic life and mixing work and duties as a mother. “Chris and Bernie” and “Joyce at 34” are really [about] women in the ‘70s figuring out new ways of approaching these things and while they still have ambivalence and frustrations with their situation, they are able to approach it from new directions, trying to figure out what works for them. ”Always Love Your Man” is the filmmaker’s grandmother and “Clotheslines” has a number of interviews with older women who are really talking about a different situation where they were more trapped in situations they were in, and it’s interesting to see these movies together as a continuum of women talking about their experience of frustrations at home over the course of many years.

In the “Six Portraits” program, there were so many incredible movies that were just portraits of women who lived interesting lives. In something like “Betty Tells Her Story,” you have this portrait of this woman just telling this very personal story about a dress that she bought and lost, and “Keltie’s Beard,” it’s just a woman talking about the pride she takes in her beard and it is just a smaller scale portrait, but in “Yudie,” you get a full life story of Yudie, the subject of the movie. Again, there isn’t really a throughline, but I would say all the women in “Six Portraits” are just really cool. [laughs] They’re all really different and hearing them talk, they’re all fascinating. There’s so much more I wish I could’ve included. [Ed. note – Killian has since posted links on Twitter to films she couldn’t fit into the series here.]

A scene from Claire Simon's "Mimi"Are there any other films you’re especially excited to present?

There are two that are maybe a little bit less well-known. “Mimi,” the Claire Simon movie that’s playing the first Friday at 8:45, is an incredible documentary by Claire Simon, who is a documentarian whose work is really underscreened in the United States. It’s a beautiful, really engrossing portrait of the filmmaker’s friend Mimi, where she’s walking through her home town, and you just are on this journey with her as different sites or things that they encounter jog her memory and she just tells these all these stories about her life. It’s a movie that should have a much bigger reputation in the United States than it does. And Stanya Kahn is an artist who I’ve presented in different contexts over the years who makes a lot of really incredible video work and these two video portraits [“Kathy” and “Sandra”] are a little bit unusual for her. One is of her best friend and one is of her mother and again, there’s a real intimacy [with] her talking to these two women that she loves and knows so well and you get into that rapport of talking to a friend. While they’re circling back to different issues, it really does feel like you’re just sitting in the kitchen with these two women, immediately pulled into this really intimate dynamic between them.

I’ll also say “The Salt Mines” and “The Transformation” was a movie [project] that I had never seen before and it’s a fascinating documentary. ”The Salt Mines” came out the same year as “Paris is Burning” and it’s a portrait of homeless trans Latino women living outside in Manhattan’s West Side, and it’s interviews with all the people living in a parking lot for decommissioned garbage trucks and you get to know the various residents of this makeshift community. Years later, the [filmmakers] come back [to make “The Transformation”] and one of the women that they had interviewed in the original movie has moved to Texas. She’s taken up with these Evangelical missionaries who have come around to where these women live and try to convert them and the woman from [“The Salt Mines”] is now living as a man in Texas, eventually hit bottom and had to avail herself of these evangelical Christian charities, but the condition was she had to transition back. It’s a really interesting movie following this person’s life and the situation they find themselves in with their identity and their survival.

I’ve heard rumblings that the Metrograph screenings may only be the first stop for this series. Are there plans to take it on the road?

Yes, I’m talking to a number of venues. I think it’s going to be a long tail, just because of the way most organizations that can do a larger series like this work. They’re booked a year in advance, but I think in the next year to 18 months, it’ll be at a number of cities around the country.

“Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories” runs at the Metrograph in New York from February 2-11. A full schedule of screenings is here.

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