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Interview with Talena Sanders – CAMIRA Prize at Play-Doc Festival

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CAMIRA was invited to take part at the international film festival Play-Doc held in Tui, Galicia. The festival (artistic director: Ángel Sánchez, Víctor Paz programming and Sara García), in addition to its competition and a focus on the French documentary filmmaker Claire Simon, has organized some interesting workshops about programming as criticism, managed by the director of the Doc-Lisboa Cíntia Gil, the director of the Festival de Cine Europeo de Sevilla José Luis Cienfuegos and critic and filmmaker Gabe Klinger. The CAMIRA award, awarded by the jury of Clara Martinez Malagelada, Pamela Cohn and myself, was awarded to Talena Sanders’ Lihaona (2013). Below you can read my conversation with the artist and filmmaker Talena Sanders.

Starting from your experience at the last edition of Play-Doc (Tui, Spain), in which you won the CAMIRA prize: how was it?

My experience at Play-Doc was wonderful from the start. Since Tui is a small village, so it was a good setting for meeting other filmmakers, writers, and programmers. There were a lot of opportunities for conversation and sharing. The overall feeling was warm and inclusive, which was helpful for me, as I can sometimes be reserved or shy at festival. It was great to be surrounded by adventurous filmmakers and audiences, people who were interested in work that challenged and expanded upon traditional documentary form. I also had the opportunity to learn about the new Galician film movement and see some interesting new work being made in Galicia, an opportunity I’m not sure I would have had in the US. It was such a positive experience throughout!

And how was your experience as scholar, cinéphile, filmmaker when you were involved in a festival?

Watching lots of others’ work in a festival makes me feel more free to experiment in my own work. I see the formal risks they take, and it excites me all over again about the possibilities in cinema. I always leave a festival feeling more encouraged and more motivated to get back to the studio. In a festival day, I find I am constantly re-evaluating my own priorities, formal preferences, and sense of documentary ethics (even if the films I’m watching aren’t in the documentary genre).

The conversations I have at festivals with other filmmakers and scholars help shape my pedagogy. Spending long hours thinking through new work with other people from around the world illuminates new ideas to communicate concepts about cinema and storytelling to my students. I still have so much to learn about film and filmmaking – until 2010, I considered myself a gallery-based artist and was most engaged in navigating and learning about the contemporary art world and art history. A festival feels like an opportunity to feast on the world of ideas and approaches to making moving images. And it’s all the more exciting that I can often talk with the filmmaker about their process right after I’ve experienced their work. I become a student all over again, it’s a lovely thing.

You said you consider yourself as “gallery-based artist”, what’s your idea of relation/relais between art and cinema? It’s ages that we know that art (modernism, postmodernism, or both) is also involved into industrial, commercial “stuff”. Today, in a certain way, it’s easier to recognize relations between art and cinema. Many talk of “moving images”…

I started out working in with installation that moving image elements, and moved from there to thinking of myself as a video artist.  I thought about making work in loops, work that people would walk in and out of whenever they felt, so my sense of construction of work was about that experience – the hope that I could build something that could communicate meaning at whatever point someone walked into see it.

I still make installation work now, but over the course of the past 4 years I’ve become more and more focused on the theatrical setting – the idea that you have a (mostly) captive audience, they sit in the theater and (mostly) they don’t leave for the duration of the work. I’ve enjoyed re-calibrating my editing process to think about how films can build over finite periods of time, with the experience not of looping but of a definite start and end. Editing and production process in general, that is.

In structuring Liahona, I feel that there are 2 viewing experiences – the first 50 minutes, before my personal story unfolds are one viewing, and then once you learn the point of view of the maker, you have a second experience of remembering and re-contextualizing what passed before.

I think of myself as a filmmaker and interdisciplinary artist now. Lately, I have not incorporated moving images into my installation work, but I know I will return to working in that way in the near future. I also shoot still photography, do some performance work, and have made some attempts at social practice work.

For the moment, I’m more focused on filmmaking (also interesting to me to see a shift to referencing “artists’ moving image” lately), but some ideas and investigations seem better suited to still photographs, or to a gallery installation with physical objects.

I’m very interested in material culture, identity, and history, and sometimes I want to work with physical, 3-dimensional objects and interrogate the history and nostalgia that can magnetize to materials.

Here are some installations I worked on at the same time as I was editing Liahona – these dealt with other aspects of the Mormon experience that felt important for me to address, but I didn’t find a cinematic language for these issues and experiences:

http://talenasanders.com/section/349845_Return_to_Virtue.html

http://talenasanders.com/section/337282_Wilford_Woodruff_Sr_Cabinet_of.html

http://talenasanders.com/section/376903_Dressed_In_White.html

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Considering yourself as an artist and filmmaker, what are your sources of inspirations outside the filmmaking field? You have just sketched something about objects and history that can magnetize the materials. It’s interesting, in Minimal Art the object push the viewer to explore the space around and the perceptual consequences of this situation, turning the environment into a field of perception. In Joseph Beuys there’s a different operation: he works on materials like they were fossils and minerals, and he used them inside his “rituals” to “save” these materials.

It’s interesting for me that you bring up Joseph Beuys – he was definitely an early influence for me – I was most interested in his concept of social sculpture, but found so much richness in all of his work. In art, I’ve gone through a few different phases, with an interest in public art, social practice/relational aesthetics, installation, and performance.  I’ve found inspiration in Nari Ward’s work, especially his work from 2003-2007, his use of materials and vernacular objects. I was lucky enough to be a part of the crew for a work by Mika Rottenberg, Squeeze. The way that she activated the materials, props, and sets in that project was a huge inspiration for me – these odd, absurd settings full of meaning, the large scale of the production for an art piece, and her absolute confidence in directing the project.

Some of the feminist performance artists who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s were important for me, including Carolee Schneemann (well before I knew anything about Fuses). Ana Mendieta was a huge influence, and I still feel a bit of something spiritual when I encounter one of her works in a museum. My interest and admiration of the work of pioneering female performance artists is referenced in Liahona – through my presence in costume, enacting re-enactments, and the briefest moment of rebellion in the wedding section, where I am walking away backwards, facing the camera nude, having walked out of a wedding dress I had on in previous shots.

Another important influence, in thinking about my interest in material objects and installation – Eva Hesse. I’ve made a range of work that draws influence from her use of space and materials – wall-hung installations of flexible materials, textiles.

Ann Hamilton has long been a favorite!  I also draw inspiration from the work of friends – a textile and installation artist, Gabrielle Duggan, another textile artist, Ellen Molle, Lisa McCarty, especially her emulsion drawing polaroids and hand-built cameras, and Robert Beatty, musician and artist, multi-faceted and multi-talented friend who creates amazing sculptures, installations, music, videos, collaborates with Takeshi Murata, working out of Lexington, KY.

In a certain sense, in Liahona there’s an usage of landscape as medium that magnetize history, as if that landscape could coalesce with the history but at the same time there’s also a resistance. Capitalism turn everything (also the habits of Mormons) in its procedures, rules, games, but that landscape seems to resist. I had this impression.

Yes, totally.  Capitalism and Mormonism have a close relationship. To support a large family, you need to be a high earner.  With the Mormon atomic family values – the husband as the bread winner, the housewife/stay-at-home mom dynamic, there is a lot of pressure on Mormon men to succeed financially. The identity of the Church is very American – suburbia, 1950s family values, lots of consumption. Big families require rampant consumption, and it’s the duty of Mormons to have as many children as possible.  In Utah, the Mormon church recently opened a multi-billion dollar shopping mall directly across the street from its main temple and world headquarters.  Stores are required to be closed on Sundays, because the Church owns the mall.

Something that is amazing though – no matter where you go in Utah, there’s still that epic landscape. You are standing in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, and there’s a snow-capped mountain range behind it.

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The landscape does resist its manifest destiny, though it has been somewhat conquered in some ways. The early Mormon pioneers struggled to understand how to grow crops in the desert, and there is related mythology that has become woven into the fabric of Mormon identity.

There are still large swaths of Utah that remain uninhabited. The land isn’t really able to support the kind of population growth that has occurred. Various environmental pollution studies have named Salt Lake City as having America’s worst air quality.

This is due to inversion-cold air from the mountains forms a sort of dome over the Salt Lake valley, trapping in the air from the city.  The pollution from private cars and industrial waste can’t escape. In the winter, when you drive down from the mountains into Salt Lake City, sometimes the pollution is so thick you can’t see the city until you break through the layer and descend into it. To me, that’s a kind of rebellion – there never should have been so many people living in a place like this, and the only reason they do live there is because of the prophet saying “This is the place”. to those faithful pioneers.

As they say, they made their bed, now they have to sleep in it, and breathe in the toxic fumes of their own consumption. The landscape is amazingly, breathtakingly beautiful, and very harsh. Unforgiving.

Toni D’Angela