On a Dimly Lit Path
On a Dimly Lit Path shows a couple as they navigate uncertain times.
Janaye Brown's video work explores perception of time, fragmented narratives and the unseen. Brown has exhibited at venues and film festivals including New York City’s Studio Museum Harlem, the Dallas Video Fest, The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada and Shulamit Nazarian in Los Angeles. She has participated in residencies at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University and Crosstown Arts among others. Brown received her MFA in Studio Art from the University of Texas at Austin in 2013 and her BA in Cinematic Arts and Technology from California State University Monterey Bay in 2010. She currently lives and works in Shanghai, China.
Interview questions by Cara Kuball
1/ On a Dimly Lit Path feels like an outline of a narrative, a nice analog to the neon pieces you incorporate, which are outlines of three-dimensional forms. I'm curious whether you started with a narrative in mind and then stripped it down to its bare elements, or if you started with the three story elements (and three neon works), and built a narrative around them?
I began making this piece by coming up with the idea for the three LED signs. The images I chose are of objects or movements that represent the passage of time. From there I was searching for a narrative to connect to these LED timekeepers. I wanted to speak to the ideas of anticipation, slowness and anxiety, themes that often appear in my work. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that I landed on the three-story elements and overall narrative. I often work this way, using a gesture, action or visual as a starting point and then build up from there. The idea of loose storytelling appeals to me because it allows viewers the space to bring in their own ideas and experiences to fill in the gaps.
2/ Your video features a multivalent use of neon signage. Please share more about the neon "signs": how and why neon? Do you make neon pieces yourself? Were they made just for this video, or did you form the video around existing neon pieces?
These kinds of LED signs are prevalent in Shanghai. They are cheap, easy to customize and easy to produce. I’ve always been drawn to them and the fact that they often adorn shops, restaurants and bars that come as quickly as they go. For years I had been interested in doing a piece that involved custom neon signs and the approachability of these LED signs helped to make that happen.
To produce the four LED signs seen in On a Dimly Lit Path I worked with a company I found on Taobao, an online marketplace somewhat similar to Amazon. My husband, who is also an artist, helped me to create the specific designs I had in mind for the piece. I sent the designs to the company and three days later I received the finished product. Each sign is made with a clear sheet of laser cut plexiglass and LED light tape. When hanging in a storefront, the plexiglass tends to fade into the background and the LED lights shine bright. This effect is something that I wanted to capture on video, as well as being able to use the signs to light their corresponding vignettes.
3/ You really capture a feeling of shared domestic isolation--or perhaps I am projecting this, writing questions for you as I approach the 1-year marker of staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic. It does make me curious about whether this was a work inspired by pandemic-induced lifestyle shifts within the last year, or if it was germinating before COVID-19?
Before the pandemic I had the idea for the designs of the LED pieces, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity I wanted to use them. I knew the piece would be vignette-based (as much of my work is) and I knew I wanted to use these signs to tell a story about a couple. While in quarantine, it was hard to see beyond what was happening in my life from day to day. Eventually the narrative made itself clear to me, I could connect the LED signs to these small moments I was experiencing within my domestic space, using them as visual title cards for each scene. I couldn’t escape the feelings I was going through, and making this video was a therapeutic way to help find some control and optimism about the situation at hand.
4/ One of my favorite aspects of video is how it can disarm and disorient by shifting our perceptions of space and time; your use of neon as a 2-D line image that shifts into 3-dimensional space as the couple exists in space with the neon pieces does this so subtly elegantly. I'm curious about your artistic practice outside of video making, if you also make static objects and images, and how these interact with 4-D creations?
The final scene was important as it allowed me to bring the LED signs into space and give them more dimensionality. When you first see the LED signs they sway, hinting at their objecthood, but I wanted to activate them more. I was thinking about this scene in the Twilight Zone episode “The Four of Us are Dying” where the main character walks down a street surrounded by many neon signs that act as visual cues to temptation. I loved this idea and wanted to use it as a starting point for the final scene. In On a Dimly Lit Path the couple, blanketed in darkness, would be able to walk past the LED signs and what they stand for towards the unknowable, unseeable future.
I don’t usually make objects or images outside of video, but I often will become infatuated with a particular thing and find a way to include it in a video. This is the case with the LED signs, but I’ve also done this with other things for example a tiled floor, a kite and gummy candy. I’m more interested in how to capture these things in a time-based format than having them exist on their own. I studied both film and art, so sometimes these proclivities come out naturally in the work as I appreciate other art forms and glean inspiration from them.
5/ I'd love to hear more about your scoring process--in this work, you incorporate and blend what seem to be found sounds into an ambient score. Did you make both the music and soundtrack yourself or in collaboration, and how did you approach the scoring?
The sound design is a combination of a score I composed and found sounds. Like many others I’ve found great solace in music during the pandemic. The score was inspired by these long, ambient, meandering songs I was listening to at that moment like B.E.F.’s “Decline of the West” and Röyksopp’s “Shores of Easy”. These songs (as well as many others) helped me to process the intense feelings I had at the time and to have some kind of optimism for the future. I wanted to create a soundtrack that did precisely this while also helping to tie the imagery together. I don’t usually compose songs for my work, so it was a fun challenge. The found sound effects helped to activate the LED sign imagery (waves crashing, a person breathing, the metronome sound) and I liked how they melded with the score.
Amina Maher (b. Tehran, 1992) is an Iranian queer filmmaker whose works deal with themes of social taboos and gender-identity in relation to violence and power structure. She began her cinematic activity as the main protagonist in Abbas Kiarostami's "Ten” which featured the real-life relationship between Amina and her mother. Her first short film was Sweet Gin and Cold Wine, followed by Orange. Her multi-awarded short film, Letter to my mother, was part of the competition at numerous international film festivals such as 36th Kasseler Dokfest, 35th Lovers Film Festival, 34th Mix Milano Film Festival and 26th Cheries Cheris, LGBTQIA+ Film Festival, Paris. Among numerous reviews, the film was described as a means for survival, a way to stand up and to understand – a fearless and strong examination that touches upon the centre of the pain and dares to look precisely. َAmina currently studies her MA in directing at Babelsberg University Konrad Wolf
Interview questions by Eleni Tongidou
1. In the film there is a depiction of your life in the past, present and in the subconscious. In regards to the latter a symbolically rich vocabulary is employed. What were your references/inspirations for creating your imagery?
I am not scholar but a free thinker who enters to the darkness of unconscious to visualize the honest emotions where there are different rooms of traumas in this darkness. In Letter to My Mother, I open the door of one of them, and visualize this trauma. I would love to freely experience and use any different types of imagery that could visualize the story, that could also visualize shame, guilt and what happens in the unconscious, which can open doors to new discovery. Therefore, in a complex montage, I used different types of imagery: 1. Metaphorical and poetic imagery such as shaving 2. Re-creation such as waking up from the nightmare. 3. Dream scene or Nightmare imagery such as the nightmare with boobs and penis. 4. Fast sequences of recalling a memory/trauma 5. Archive 6. Documenting reality or filming in real time such as the skype Conversation with the therapist. I want to free my mind from boundaries and limitations. If I really and purely struggle to free myself from the shackles of normativity and the shackles of taboos and traditions, then I cannot accept boundaries and limitations for telling stories. This must happen both in form and content.
In Letter To My Mother, the shaving of my body became a metaphor for exculpating myself from traumatic events. It became a metaphor to overcome my fears, to be able to stand up, speak out and understand. In the film, simply I shave my whole body and only then I look directly to the camera and break my silence that I had been raped. Before that I cannot talk directly to my mother, only my voice-over narrates, starting with shaving my face and telling my mother that I hurt myself. When I enter the bathtub and I start to shave my body, my voice over narrates that I feel guilty that I enjoyed it. It continues, I feel shameful, talking about it. Then there is a long silence. When I finish shaving, I overcome the shame and fear to break my silence and speak out to the camera, directly and loudly.
Similarly, dressing as a woman became a metaphor for freeing myself from the patriarchal patterns and heteronormative masculinity from one side and from another side to relive the darkest parts of my experience. I struggle to free myself from the vicious circle of being either a victim or rapist. And then I ask this question, why a victim wears a female dress, and the rapist is hairy? In my whole life, I have constantly struggled to not be part of this circle. I aimed to explore this metaphorical imagery and poetic style. Shame, guilt, and the psychological consequences of the abuse was explored through abstract and metaphorical imagery.
For me it was important to think about how to represent shame, guilt, and repression. I asked myself to tell the rape story, is it enough just to say that I was raped and what rape has done to me? For me it was not. I wanted to visualize the anxiety, repression, and psychological consequences of rape. In other words, I wanted to enter to my own aspects of psyche, how do these nightmares and self-destructive thoughts look and feel? I asked myself is this a traditional investigative documentary movie that I show the court which could not take place? These stories are also interesting, but I am tired of censoring myself and my pure feelings. I believe this narrated format which can be considered to be auto-ethnographic experimental, documentary or hybrid in form is a means to engage with and explore the most private aspects of one’s psyche. I was more interested in psychological aspects of the story. When it comes to the discourses of human rights such as the rights of the survivors of rape, these psychological aspects are often not considered or understood enough. Issues of shame and blame may never be fully resolved, and I undertook this project with the awareness that it must be approached intuitively rather than prescriptively. These difficulties were a central part of the project and were dealt with as such. For me sensitive topics such as sexual violence and abuse must be addressed accurately. Without considering important subjects such as psychological consequences of abuse and violence, the film cannot shed light on the issues of justice and power which are not usually considered enough in different discourses of human rights such as the struggles of queer identities and the rights of survivors of rape.
2. The film navigates the vast yet fragile space between self-exploration and family politics within a sociocultural frame. What personal intentions did you set on your social compass to communicate to the wider audience?
For me art is the best alternative to revenge and the most humanistic way of revising injustices. I realized that I have to say "No" to both shame and revenge. And that was my way of survival. I felt able to give an insight to my experiences and to create art and life out of them. I felt the power to break taboos and push boundaries both social and personal and I felt the necessity of that. As we all know, sexual topics have been always repressed globally and there are numerous unreasonable taboos with which we deal regularly. When you make an auto-ethnographic film, you must be able to dare and witness, to even lose and give away. What is usually referred to as "life" I have already lost; I allowed it; I wanted it to be lost. I film only because this drive to film has become a necessity for me.
3. You are wearing many hats for the making of this film. I found interesting that whilst your mother could remain an off-screen character, she indirectly appears in the film. That enhances the element of volatility for the viewer, who also gets to know you in that significant age. What stood behind the decision of incorporating those scenes?
Well, the film is a letter to the mother, it is about sharing dark childhood experiences. It is important to see that child, to see the past of the grown-up body full of hairs that are being shaved. It was important to hear the dialogues of the mother and child. The film Ten is the document of our past. I did not know the camera was on recording me. So, it is a document to observe my childhood and the relationship of my mother and me in the car driving in Tehran. And it had also a very nice contrast with the scene where a blond woman wears make up and we talk in English.
4. A beautiful metaphor of wearing a new skin and the process of metamorphosis were at the core of the narrative. Was the making and/or completion of this film in some way a form of catharsis for you?
Well, only in some ways, yes. I released the repressed emotions through making this film. It was a means for survival. It caused me to understand myself and my society better. And that requires honesty, personal observation and analysis that came through my filmmaking techniques.
5. Are you currently working on new projects? What are your plans for the future?
Yes, I have a short film in post-production. We are at the early stages of financing and development with my first feature film which is again an auto-ethnographic movie, dealing with the themes of gender-identity and rape culture from one side and again the battle between justice and power from another.
Playlist by Amina Maher
Miss Psychorama 1986 is a satirical horror movie shot in the style of a live TV special, written and directed by Jenny Plante.
Jenny Plante is a filmmaker and artist from New Hampshire. She has a BA from Keene State College and an MFA from Massachusetts College of Art both in film/video production.
1. How did you develop the film concept?
I am kind of obsessed with tracking shots so the first thing that came to me was a camera following a woman. The original concept for Miss Psychorama was a woman walking home alone at night being followed by a TV host trying to tell her she has won a prize. The woman, feeling she is under threat, kills the host but new TV hosts keep popping up until she manages to get home where the final host is waiting to tell her she has become Miss Psychorama 1986. This idea eventually morphed into horror directors forcing a woman into auditioning for a part she does not want. I liked the idea of the actress having the upper hand.
2. Your work deals a lot with referencing other films. With Miss Psychorama 1986 there is this tongue in cheek reference to late night commercials and 70’s 80’s slasher films. Can you tell us about the importance of film/pop culture in your work?
Film history and pop culture drive all of my work. My favorite part of the filmmaking process is the research- probably because I have the most control over this aspect- and there is always a film, an event, or a moment in time that I can refer to for guidance or to satirize. I most admire filmmakers with an encyclopedic knowledge of film history. They know where they came from and this knowledge generates a great amount of energy that can go into their work.
I also love mashing together references that don't necessarily go together. For MP1986 I looked at the work of many great horror directors but also sequences from COPS and football game instant replay. For the commercials I'd watch hours of 1980's ads for perfume and phone sex hotlines.
3. How was the production of the film? Can you describe the process of casting and securing crew? I know you dealt with a complete DIY production process. We would love to hear about the highs and lows of making a film in a DIY format.
The production of the film was a process! Everything was done piecemeal because I did not have the budget or the free time to get everything done at once. Over the course of three years I would do some casting, get some costumes, find a location and shoot a commercial. The main part of the film was shot in one day with one day of rehearsal with an all female crew. It was important for me to create the opposite sort of set to what would have been done in the 70's and 80's horror films I was referencing. I managed to do quite a bit of casting from a local drag show. Shema, who plays Miss Psychorama, I found on Facebook accidentally.
My sister helped me with nearly every aspect of production: costume, set design, props and she acted as my assistant director. There were many days and weeks when I wanted to give up on the project because it was taking so long but she never let me quit. I am very grateful for that. The last hurdle I faced was the pandemic hit right when I was about to finish filming the director montages. I waited a few months and then rewrote nearly all of them to be filmed outside safely. I know that a film will never happen the way I want it to happen so I am always prepared for a plan B, C, D and so on.
4. Two of your films Miss Psychorama 1986 and All of Them Bitches, deal with male directors treatment towards women actors. Is there a connection between the two films? Do you see the two films as part of a series?
I actually have three films with that theme. The third film is called "Tippi At Squam Lake." I definitely think that it is an obsession of mine. You often hear of how directors treat their actors and crew poorly on set all in aid of getting exactly what they want. I really don't believe things need to be done in that way. People don't need to feel violated all for the sake of art. Because of my interest in this I have made a sort of accidental series. I think all of my work could be viewed in succession and have a very clear throughline. I also think that when you examine how these directors treated women you find there was a strong level of obsession. My obsession comes from understanding theirs.
5. Are you working on any projects now? What are you working on?
I am working on several ideas right now. I took a few months to mentally unwind from MP1986 but am ready to jump back into research. Three of the projects will examine white supremacy in culture. I have largely ignored this subject in my work and realized I really can't and shouldn't any more. I don't want to make films about white women protagonists any more. There's plenty of that to go around. I'm also beginning work on a feature length script which will be a satire of the 1978 film "The Shout." It isn't like anything I've ever done so I am excited to see how it turns out.
Jenny's music playlist for Miss Psychorama 1986:
Beneath the Remains is a coming-of-age mystery about a teenage metalhead and her search for her older sister, who has disappeared in the humid summer of their marshland home.
Dina Fiasconaro is a Baltimore screenwriter and director. Her early work was influenced by her immigrant family’s stories, and her current projects continue to center female characters and explore thematic threads related to psychology, gender roles and marginalization within the context of family dynamics. Dina was a finalist for the 2019 and 2018 Baker Artist Award and her films have screened at a variety of national and international venues and film festivals, including the Baltimore Museum of Art. Dina has honed her work at MacDowell, Dorland Mountain Arts Colony Residency, Stowe Story Labs, Saul Zaentz Innovation Lab and GrrlHaus Cinema Seminar. She has an M.F.A. in Directing from Columbia University, and a B.S. in T.V., Radio and Film from Syracuse University. She is a Professor of Film and Moving Image at Stevenson University, a member of Film Fatales, and founder of the Baltimore Women’s Media Alliance, working towards gender parity in the film industry.
1. What was your inspiration for your film? I know that the idea was based on a short story. How close was the film to the novella?
This film is one sequence from the longer novella written by my friend, Terence Hannum (which I also have in development as a feature film). In reading the novella, I felt an immediate connection to the main character and themes of isolation, stillness, otherness, marginalization and frustration. Parts of me, also that age in the 1990s, were very much Gabby (the main character). One of the first things I did when optioning the novella was to get permission from Terence to change the gender of the two main characters from male to female, so the original sequence from the novella was a male character getting a haircut from his friend’s older sister. Since one of my missions as a female director is to tell women’s stories, I thought it would be an interesting “experiment” to swap genders and see how the story still worked. I was pleased that doing so helped to shatter certain stereotypes, like women riding BMX bikes or being into metal music. It’s rare to see female teen metalheads at the center of any film (except Malmhaus, which was an inspiration for the film), and I was interested in exploring the music, rituals and community from a female perspective.
2. There’s a feeling of uncertainty throughout the film. As a viewer we are left waiting for something to happen or some clue to where the missing girl is. But yet it’s never resolved. This isn’t the beginning of the story, or the end, or the climax. It’s almost an in-between state where the main character is having inner growth on where to move and evolve and move next. There are no adults (or parents) in the film and the two other characters don’t seem to be that worried of the girl's disappearance. Was this intentional to have a feeling of no resolution and uncertainty?
Yes, the lack of resolution was very intentional. This short essentially functions as a concept short for the feature version, so I wanted to take a portion of the story that could be left open-ended, without a distinct resolution, and with room for character and story development beyond these 11 minutes. These characters are young women floating through a liminal space of teenhood, trying to make sense of the world without much oversight or direction (hence the lack of adult characters), and here, we meet Gabby mid-story as she takes a break from the search for her missing sister and finds solace with her friend’s older sister, who becomes a fleeting substitute for her own. This sequence gives us a glimpse into Gabby’s headspace; she doesn’t say much, but she is processing a lot, and there is a lot of subtext in her interaction with Jessica (her friend’s older sister).
I’m attracted to other films like this, ones that don’t bang you over the head with exposition or on-the-nose dialogue. Audiences are smart and can piece together the information themselves. It’s satisfying (to me) for an audience to leave a film with questions lingering, as long as they aren’t completely lost or confused. I know that this can be frustrating for certain viewers since the common expectation is beginning, middle, end (which the feature version does a better job of), but I was willing to take that risk in favor of overall tone, mood and setting.
3. One of the first things I noticed about your film was the pink sky. Especially the pink sky in contrast to the neutral, natural tones of the environment. How did you decide on the coloring of the film and reason behind the pink/red sky overtones?
The colored sky was 100% influenced by the film Mandy. I wanted to add a feeling of otherworldliness, that perhaps there are supernatural forces at play here. The sky intentionally moves from light pink to dark purple, not only to show passage of time, but to track Gabby’s emotional arc throughout the film, as she is revitalized in her pursuit of her missing sister. This is juxtaposed to the muted, earthy color palette – greens, browns and of course, black. This world is decaying, depressing and relentless, but also full of vitality and perseverance.
4. Music (metal) plays a big part in setting the stage for the feel of the film. Can you describe the connection to music and importance to the story?
Author Terence Hannum is also a musician, known for his noise-metal band, Locrian, which is described as an "eclectic mixture of black metal, electronics, drone, and noise rock" and “dystopic and apocalyptic.” Terence’s music and writing coalesce seamlessly in the novella, and metal was infused into the characters and environment. Gabby and her friends would most certainly listen to Locrian “in real life”, and metal music is what they use to define themselves and make sense of the world with as alienated, isolated young women in the 90s. Since headbanging is a symbolic and ritualistic aspect of metalhead culture, I also hyper-focused on those moments in the story centered around Gabby’s hair/haircut, fortified by the soundtrack from Brooklyn metal band Thurn & Taxis.
5. What’s next for you? Are you working on any new projects?
Yes! I have two features in development – this story and another dramatic feature film. I am basically just waiting for some money to fall from the sky so that we can move into pre-production on one or both. I was also invited to MacDowell for a writing residency in February, where I will research and develop a new feature narrative script. So – I’m writing a lot and will hopefully be able to direct one or more in the future at some point, once the stars align for me!
Dina's playlist for Beneath The Remains:
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