Kelly Sears is one of my favorite filmmakers. Using animation as her primary medium, Sears animates cut up and collage appropriated imagery focused on American politics and culture to create interventions of the history found within each frame. In New York City this week, where Sears was in town to screen a body of her work at Anthology Film Archives, I had a chance to ask her a few questions.
Cathy de la Cruz: How long would you say you’ve been operating at the vanguard of non-commercial cinema? What lead you to begin making experimental moving image work?
Kelly Sears: I saw my first hand cranked 16mm camera at Hampshire College and just thought this little apparatus could do so much, all powered by me cranking it! Movies can be made by large teams – or movies could be made by one person experimenting and asking a lot of questions. It was the first time that making films seemed like something I could do as an individual. This was at the time where digital video was taking hold and it was all about progress and technology. I was really captured by smaller, individual experimental films I was seeing in my classes. I’d loved the abstract films, animations, essayistic work and strange narratives that were screened and I wanted to make all of the above. I also took a video class as Smith College and got my first introduction to feminist moving image communities.
In graduate school, I started working digitally, responding and activating material I would find at thrift stores or in the free bin at school. I got into thinking, how can I make this ephemera perform in ways it wasn’t supposed to. And out of that question came works that were abstract and animated and essayistic and fictional. The ten films I’m presenting at the up coming Anthology Film Archives show were made over the past decade.
CD: Your work more often than not deals with U.S. culture and politics. How has this 2016 election effected what you’re working on? And if you’re working on anything new, can you tell us about it?
KS: I hate to evoke these words, but this phrase has come to symbolize something bigger than a slogan. There is an inversion of “Make America Great Again” in the work. We see Post-War versions of America through the space race, intelligence projects and larger institutional settings. The animations may initially look like they’re harnessing nostalgia based on the older, filmic and print source material used in the films. But what’s beneath the films is ultimately rotting. These stories are not places I want to go back to. I think there is a lot of failure in these stories. Progress doesn’t lead to something enlightening. And somewhere in this turn, I hope it reads as critique rather than an embrace.
This year, I’ve started my first feature-length film. It’s still really early, with a script and visual tests. It’s an experimental Western that explores how the echoes of settling and boomtown development have created a present-day West haunted by its early formation. In the film, all the horses mysteriously disappear from a derelict Western town. Deviant weather, sonic disturbances, and fits of machine worship fill the void left by the horses.
CD: You primarily work with archival materials. Where do you find your source material? Are there ever images you won’t appropriate and why?
KS: This is kind of the crux of my practice – to take bits and bits of things and transform them into something else. I appropriate imagery that contributes to our cultural and social imagination. Each frame is a composite of dozens of source materials. I want all these little bits to come together in an integrated and cohesive visual space, so it may not feel like there are many sources in each frame, but there are. It’s not so much about the visuals, but the popular, cultural concepts. The more anonymous and “authorless,” the better.
CD: Your films are often described as poetic. What do you think people mean when they say that, and what does that description mean to you?
KS: I use language as voiceover or text frames in most of my moving image work. I think the poetic allows for metaphor, drifting, and feeling, or rather, the places between those impulses. It’s a way to blend the historical and the fictional. Or the tangible and the mythical. There are a lot of ways to construct these shifting spaces. If I can even get anywhere close to a poetic territory, I’m lucky.
CD: Can you describe your relationship to poetry if you have one?
KS: I got turned onto a lot of new work in college. Chris Marker’s films marked me. The play of the words, diversions, lists, and sensations were an exciting way to think about storytelling. It wasn’t a straight-line and it didn’t lead to any answers necessarily. Mary Austin Speaker, Stephanie Barber, Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, all write words that are both urgent and wandering that I’m inspired by.
CD: Who are your cinematic heroes? What films or filmmakers do you think Weird Sister readers need to check out now?
KS: Since I’m making a western, I’ve been thinking about films that hold a lens to American landscapes to explore underlying psychological landscapes. Some works I’m meditating on right now are Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and Deborah Stratman’s O’er the Land. Both employ a lot of ambiguity in their construction, which gives you space to roam around in the films as you watch them.
CD: You transplanted from California to Colorado to work as an Assistant Professor. How has location affected your film work? Has full-time teaching changed your practice at all?
KS: I think being in a frontier terrain has shaped my newest project. I just hiked a west-bound carriage route over the weekend. The celebrated Western showman, Buffalo Bill grave is here. And Denver’s National Stockshow is referred to as the “Superbowl of Cattle Shows.” It’s not just the frontier, but the performance of the frontier that I see inscribed here.
For my new project, I’m bringing on two recent and awesome graduates of the CU Boulder Film Studies program to help with production design and animation. I’ve never worked with people before on a project and I’m excited to see how talking through these ideas as the film is progressing works out.
CD: In a previous interview on film and feminism, you said that a typical Film 101 syllabus was “almost exclusively white and male” but that you might see a few women filmmakers mentioned in the experimental section. Do you think that’s finally changing? How do you think educators can help to change this?
KS: I teach in a university and I think a lot about what can be done here. Absolutely more inclusive film syllabi are needed. Intro to Film classes must showcase work by women filmmakers, queer filmmakers and filmmakers of color. Period. This is how you show students that filmmaking can be a medium for anyone. If they feel welcome in the Intro class, they will pursue the major. More diverse methods of teaching cinema production are necessary, such as how cameras, software and technical elements are introduced. Be aware of how different students respond. When the cameras are brought into class, some students go right for the cameras and others have a different approach that can be nurtured. Have critiques of work where questions of representation, empathy and agency are at the core. Hire more diverse faculty. Outside of the university, more inclusive granting opportunities are crucial and more encompassing industrial models are required.
CD: Why do you think you use footage of the past to capture current political crises?
KS: I don’t see the distinction really. Legacy is an echo. We’ve been at war for at least fifteen years straight. This is after a history of occupation that continues up to this minute. We are still working toward actual equity for gender, race, orientation, and ability. It’s not past and present, it’s a continuing entrenchment.
CD: I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “uncanny” mentioned as many times about a filmmaker’s body of work than I have for you. How do you feel about this description of your work? Is it accurate? Are you sick of it?
KS: I think that is one word for it, I’m happy to see others though. I also think in terms of unhinged, unsteady, and unsound. I see all of those words as a rejection of the official, the instructional, and as a form of institutional critique. Can we look at the world through a lens that doesn’t reflect a sense of benign progress? Yes. Can we be critical and use humor to figure out a better way being? Always yes.