Dreams of a Better Future
In coordination with Level Ground, we’re covering the artists who are presenting groundbreaking art at the Level Ground Festival in October. Leslie Foster is the director of Level Ground’s artist-in-residence program. Below, he writes about his own experience as a Black and queer experimental filmmaker.
If there’s one thing I love about being queer (and let’s be honest, it’s impossible to really just pick one thing), it’s the permission we are given (and have taken) to be expansively strange, to see the structures around us, smirk, joyfully subvert them, and then subvert them again.
If there’s one thing I love being about Black and queer, it’s that I have a legacy of incredible resistance and hope on which I can build. It is a legacy of people who refused to stop building in preparation of futures they would not see and could not fully imagine.
I can trace my artistic lineage to the queer, trans, Black, and Brown folks who steadily worked to reframe and dissolve countless binaries. Forced into the margins, we have used the edges of society to construct our reality and it is beautiful. In his book “Cruising Utopia,” queer, Cuban American artist and academic José Esteban Muñoz stated that queerness’ time is “a stepping out of the linearity of straight time.” We are the builders of futures that have left the binary far behind. And as creators of better futures, we need a language, a way to leave signposts to future generations. As a closeted, queer film student, I found the language to express my otherness in experimental films and video art.
We, the marginalized, have never been able to sigh and wish for the “good old days,” with the blindness of white, cishet culture. The erasure of our predecessors by those who dream of a halcyon past is inherently dangerous to us.
As someone who has now been creating experimental films for over a decade, I’ve struggled to find a pithy way to encapsulate the universe of avant garde filmmaking for curious and slightly confused viewers, especially those who see it as an arcane and frustrating genre. I don’t mind that struggle, I think that both queerness and experimental film should always be adjacent to the intangible--it keeps us exploring. I have however, settled on describing the genre by contrasting it with narrative film. Narrative films, whether they are documentary or fictional, are prose, experimental film is poetry; and like poetry it can range from the prose-like to the wildly abstract.
The website “Elements of Cinema” describes experimental film in this way:
Imagine a movie that is neither narrative nor documentary. What remains? Chaos, disorder, incoherence … An amalgam of ideas forced together by the filmmaker without any regards for characters, structure, or theme. The vast majority of avant-garde films are not screened in theatres, aired on TV, or sold in discs – they are not mainstream and have no commercial life whatsoever.
Sounds pretty queer to me.
The poetry of visual language felt like a gift to me when I first began film school. All the emotions that had been impossible to quantify, the worlds no written language could capture, suddenly had a vocabulary, a way out of my chest, and they poured out.
Maya Deren, the mother of American experimental film once said that avant garde filmmaking was valuable because ”a camera not only records or reflects reality but creates and conveys new experiences of time/space relativity, such that the projected stream of images unveils a reality intuitively known but capable of being witnessed only through cinema.” That is an incredible gift for our culture, a culture of people who have often felt their truth long before the adequate words were available. We have the chance to create pocket universes full of potential; seeds ready to be scattered across the world. Spend time in Jenn Nkiru’s celebration of Black pasts and futures in her piece “Rebirth is Necessary” or revel in Rachael Cantu’s exploration of non-binary love in the music video “You’re the Most”: you can feel the possibilities ready to blossom.
But to be LGBTQIA+, to be a person of color, and certainly to be a queer person of color, is to be erased from the future, from the time/space reality of our world, in most popular imaginations. Muñoz writes, “The future is only the stuff of some kids. Racialized kids, queer kids, are not the sovereign princes of futurity.”
Well, I demand more.
Muñoz continues, “Utopian and wilfully idealistic practices of thought are in order if we are to resist the perils of heteronormative pragmatism and Anglo-normative pessimism.” We, the marginalized, have never been able to sigh and wish for the “good old days,” with the blindness of white, cishet culture. The erasure of our predecessors by those who dream of a halcyon past is inherently dangerous to us. We don’t have the luxury of that blithe nostalgia, we can only move forward, creating visions of better tomorrows, whether or not we live to see them.
Dystopias exist to mirror and magnify past horrors as futures to be avoided. They are necessary, but in a world where popular culture cheerfully hawks doom without relief, we are in danger of becoming so completely dispirited that it is difficult to find a way back. Balance is needed, instruction manuals for queer futures are required, and experimental film is an incredible vehicle for those guides. Dark times require a special kind of hope. Those of us who are queer know dark times intimately and are gifted at weaving sensual, joyfully defiant resistance in the midst of despair. And in its sensuality--much like the sensuality of those of us who are Black and Brown, those of us who are trans--it is perceived as frightening. “Does my sexiness upset you?” Yeah, it sure does upset folks, Dr. Angelou (rest in power). I want to be a part of creating work that delights in what Muñoz calls “the sensuous intersectionalities that mark our experience” as queer folks. Read that phrase again...isn’t it delicious?
We have the tools that allow us to create hope for the generations of queer, trans, Black, and Brown folks who come after us. These tools allow us to subvert the normative world, breaking down binaries and oppression. We may not be able to live in the world to come, but we can strengthen its foundations.
Experimental film is liminal and disconcerting and sensual; it is hard to grasp, challenging, and delightfully subversive. It is a beautiful deviation, a shift from the comfortable, a language built on the deep pulse of emotion in our guts. Like poetry, we feel it long before we have the words to understand it. It allows artists to escape the boundaries of narrative storytelling and examine raw metaphor, dream, and theory. Far from being an isolated, arcane bubble of the art world, experimental film has the ability to influence culture in a powerful way. You may not know the artists’ names, but you know their work. Look at the creative camera work in 90s-era music videos that became film standards. A beautiful, little-recognized truth is that the advent of music videos gave multiple generations a quiet education in the vocabulary of avant garde visuals.
Despite Elements of Cinema’s insistence, a whole genre of experimental films quietly infiltrated the mainstream and public consciousness. I remember watching MTV as a child with rapt attention, entranced and disturbed by the strange worlds created by Chris Cunningham and Spike Jonze. Lady Gaga pays homage to experimental film standard Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle” in her video for “Bad Romance,” while Kanye, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, and Janelle Monáe continue to create groundbreaking, experimental visuals that should be on display in the Louvre. How many of us watched Lemonade or “HUMBLE” with wide eyes and felt the world shift?
The generation of directors that includes Lucas, Zemeckis, and Spielberg were deeply influenced by the film art of Maya Deren, Arthur Lipsett, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, and so many others. Ralph Waldo Emerson describes language as “fossil poetry.” That is, poetry drives the formation of language, leaving behind its relics for colloquial speech to use as it continues to push forward. That which poets invent slowly embeds itself into the strata of language. I hope our generation of artists weave visions of better futures that will work their way into the bedrock of narrative and popular film for years to come.
And speaking of better futures, Janelle Monáe’s recently-released visual album Dirty Computer, is such a perfect illustration of queer futurity in film form that I spent the entire day it was released just smiling to myself. It may have dystopian trappings, but a thread of sensual, subversive utopia is our lifeline during the film’s darkest moments and it is what ultimately wins out. If you want a tangible way to process how queer artists can use experimental film, watch it immediately. I can’t think of a better illustration.
We have the tools that allow us to create hope for the generations of queer, trans, Black, and Brown folks who come after us. These tools allow us to subvert the normative world, breaking down binaries and oppression. We may not be able to live in the world to come, but we can strengthen its foundations. Let us leave mile markers for those who arrive after us; let us inspire them to continue building what our own foreparents began.
H. Leslie Foster II is an experimental filmmaker who has lived in Los Angeles for a decade. As an artist, he strives to create work that is beautiful and uncomfortable. His love for storytelling is inspired by a childhood spent in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. His desire is to create art that constantly challenges power structures, amplifies those whose voices are so often unheard, and quietly subverts in ways that are aesthetically powerful. He loves throwing tea parties in the gray areas. With over twelve years spent as a professional filmmaker, he is happiest when applying his knowledge in collaboration with other artists in order to tell unique stories.