August 15, 2014

Spotlight: Claire Kurylowski

Social awareness and sexual harassment through an artist's lens.

How do you start a feature, film, piece of writing, anything really, in which sexual harassment is the topic at large? There's no song and dance, there's no flashing lights--it's a cold and tense subject that every woman (yes, every woman) has had some sort of experience with. There is no beautiful way to render it, because it is not beautiful. But there is a manner in which one can discuss it intelligently, in a way that is both thought-provoking and evocative, with creative renderings and imagery manifesting the very real situations women struggle with daily.

In Claire Kurylowski's short film In Real Life, we are faced with a young woman (played by Arvida Bystrom) toying with ways to defend herself against potential attackers, specifically with lessons she's learned from a YouTube tutorial. Eyes glued to the screen, I couldn't help but recall myself taking similar precautions (I now pause my music every time I walk past a group of men). There is something in this film, in the way Claire discusses these precautions and situations, that feels undoubtedly familiar. Though depicted through an artists' lens, there is nothing idyllic or fantastical about the film, though we are undeniably engaged throughout. With recurring imagery like the color pink reinforcing notions of femininity combined with a pulsing, hypnotizing beat drawing viewers further into the scene, In Real Life is a dynamic whirlwind, both visually stimulating and incredibly raw. 

THE LE SIGH: The imagery (in addition to the sound/music used) displayed throughout the film is really striking--can you explain the imagery of the pink rope the protagonist uses to wrap around her chest? Where did this idea come from?

Claire Kurylowski: I did a photo shoot a few months before the film’s conception with Arvida and a friend of ours with the pink rope and some very stripped down lighting set-ups--flashlights, red bulbs--I was playing around with what could obfuscate, subvert and girl-codify these images of rope play with the female characters portrayed. I was attempting some re-imagining of normative scopic regimes of women in intimate, playful scenes. I aimed to make these images feel like quotidian, less mediated looking moments as opposed to setting them up as deviant or hardcore--with this kind of story in mind that maybe they just found a YouTube video and wanted to try it out. I guess it also has the voyeuristic tastes of a queer female audience considered and I wanted to make images that felt non cis-male authored. The aspect of the girl-coded portrait that came out of the shoot gained traction as I developed the idea for the film, this image juxtaposed in opposition to what the "How to Break Out of Zip Ties" video stands for.

THE LE SIGH: I've read this film is an exploration of the perpetuation of sexual harassment culture--can you go further into this, explaining also what your inspiration was? Whose story is portrayed in this film, fictional or non-fictional?

CK: This was the first time I've approached this topic in my work. At the time I was also at a transitional point with my filmmaking, considering the importance of creating work with social awareness, and the ability to create visibility and to start conversations with films. Examples of what I wanted to start a conversation about were (unfortunately) all around me, in different forms and with such prevalence. I had consistently observed or encountered how sexual harassment is not only commonplace, but the extent to which it is acceptable, unremarkable and often not named for what it is. The YouTube video I featured in the film, for me, resonated this idea of "unremarkableness."

TLS: How did you come across the video "How to Break Out of Zip Ties"? What was your initial reaction to it, and how did you decide to include it in your film?

CK: The "How to Break Out of Zip Ties" video is a tutorial video demonstrating a method of escaping from being restrained by zip ties in a hypothetical kidnapping. I found the video on a feminist website where it was re-blogged shared, legitimately--in order to arm the viewer with self-defense knowledge, as though an upper-handed position of re-gaining control via an escape strategy. However the video suggests its practical ineffectiveness near the beginning. I instinctively questioned the information presented; its motives to instruct on this particular topic felt troubling. Comments on the YouTube video page affirm a new context; pejorative comments sexualize the video’s kidnapping theme and sandwich comments left by women who make genuine responses as to their presumed value they found in the video, e.g. “Interesting and you just never know.”

The sexist comments also reminded me of the term "disinhibited," where via anonymity, grossly applied, elevated abuse is used online because of the lack of accountability of this "trolling"--another interlinked behavior of sexual harassment culture that incidentally had quite a lot of media attention in the last year. Going back to the video itself: I began to consider how much it reinstated a frightening concept of an accountability for the intended viewer’s own safety against the threat of sexual assault. It didn’t surprise me but its message just seemed so overt and disturbing in this form of a semi-jokey video or, the joke that negates its jokiness. I wouldn’t doubt that the authors of the video would be in disavowal to this connection. However the emphasis here is less on their perhaps unrecognized complicit behavior; the authors are not the originators here, just conduits. In using the video as a motif in the film I attempted to draw attention to an aggregating effect of this layered oppression. Whether we view the video as "realistic" is not what's being questioned, it’s the fact that it highlights the spectrum of, and a contribution to sexism.

TLS: Though of course every viewer will inevitably take away something different from their viewing experience, what do you hope the film conveys, and what message do you hope people walk away with?

CK: I think the more that sexual harassment culture and sexism fall under scrutiny in a wider, mass public sense, pushing resistance and acknowledgement of this oppression into a collective conscious, is a positive thing. In previously talking about the film I mentioned that the "Zip Ties" video and women’s thoughts and reactions to this are symptoms and not the problem itself. In the film, the video is acting as a revisited example brought up repeatedly to force its reconsideration, which helps reveal the problem of entrenched sexism further and give this visibility. In addition, the protagonist’s (re)actions accompany this prompting, channeling this cultural contagion.

After the film I had been reading about the idea "talking back" as identified by bell hooks, to be the act of voicing and sharing your story in order to form a dialogue contesting the oppression that caused it, a strategy intended as the beginning of deconstructing this reality of sexism. bell hooks argues that the basic personal power we can all exercise is one which rejects "the powerful’s definition" of oneself and that this "is an act of resistance and strength." From Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, 1984, hooks, b. I think this liberatory ideology is something really important, although it can be the hardest thing to do! I still think often when I tell people about this film, that they might think about how unpalatable the subject matter is, but it’s exactly the fact that if we shy away, censor, or avoid these aspects that they live on and grow in many ways.

TLS: You and Arvida collaborated on this film together--can you explain what either of your roles were and how you worked together (using your individual talents) to create this?

CK: So I got criticized by Arvida for making our relationship sound too formal in another interview! So pretty much in between ongoing work schedules there was lots of eating homemade paleo pancakes, making almond butter and watching Orange is the New Black season one – those was like our hobbies at the time! So now you have some more insider info. I’m pretty sure she also told me to make this film more colorful than my last few films, and I think the sentiment carried further and I’m glad for it! I directed, wrote and edited the film, Arvida played the protagonist and was art director (set dressing design/props)--pushing those colors! It wasn’t a conventional "acting" role/collaboration; we’d previously had fun collaborating on other smaller scale projects.

The choice to work together felt like a fitting progression, mainly on the basis that we were able to discuss the subject matter of the film and feed into each other’s ideas. Arvida has proffered her noteworthy, honest and interrogating responses to sexism, among other topics within her online body of writing on her Tumblr, and various photography and gallery projects. In summary, I knew the synergy of our shared investment in the ideas and our previous collaborating would do a great service to the film, with its important social message at its core, demanding a meditative and sensitive implementation.

TLS: How would you classify your filmmaking style, if it can be classified? How has this been conveyed in In Real Life?

CK: I’ve never really been a fan of anything that becomes too literary or fixated to plots. Perhaps this is something that’s been consistent in my body of work. I don’t think that has a specific terminology, and is rather just a choice, a negation of anything rendered too concrete! Essentially I'm still developing and changing in my filmmaking, nothing feels fixed. I was wondering post-completion how much In Real Life was in fact quite "online-centric," as I had from the start intended it for a primarily online release. I find it hard to objectively pin this down. I think the choice of an exclusively online release definitely shapes image articulation and content, in terms of referencing other online content with immediacy and concurrently – e.g. in the case of In Real Life. The video I feature still exists online and is probably still being re-blogged right now; Arvida as a creative could also be considered to have an extra-textual context– it is not "necessary" to the film’s reading but could inform it. This could award the audience who has experiences of these interlinked references a more expansive viewing experience.

I think with online films, what was almost "aristocratic" or elitist (high finance facilitating production) about filmmaking itself has increased accessibility when applied to online, so the governing aspects of it have altered drastically. Filmmaking still remains relatively "expensive" but access has certainly increased via our digital age. With short films released online, they have the potential to reach a mass audience, with no grossing revenue aspect, and so they inhabit a new position between art and commerce or pernicious consumerism and cultural standing. Additionally, although not strictly a "genre," I lean toward including provocations, reconsiderations, dealing with social awareness and cultural issues, as I mentioned before--the chance to create visibility and start conversations--and it personally matters to me to acknowledge certain under-representations in mainstream media.

TLS: What comes next for you? Films, travel, school, cooking, etc?

CK: I’m currently writing a new short film which I’m pretty stoked about! When I first had the idea I actually designed some music and sound to convey the idea before putting pen to paper. I now like the idea of creating all of the scenes scores in an aural mood boards and writing the script to this. That would be really exciting and a completely new approach for me, the logic or motive being purely that it started this way. I have no formal training in music or sound engineering but my novice abilities/stance worked out for the music design for In Real Life. This time I want to bring a composer on board, so this is next on my to do list!

See more of Claire's work here.

Written by Molly Morris