A Conversation w/ Jen Crothers
The following email conversation took place over the course of a month or so (in the summer of 2014) upon the acquisition of Jen Crothers’ works Blush (2008) and Sissy (2014) for active Video Out Distribution at VIVO Media Arts Centre. Blush, Sissy & Butch Tits (2010) will be shown as part of our first promotional Recent Acquisitions Screening this fall.
Still from Sissy (2014).
Jeremy Todd, Outreach & Distribution, VIVO/Video Out: Butch Tits was your first work in VO distribution (2010). We’ve just acquired Blush (2008) and the recently completed Sissy (2014). Was the trilogy initially intended or was it retroactively developed? How did this larger narrative project come about?
Jen Crothers: The trilogy was retroactive. I completed Blush as part of (the now defunct) Project 8. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn Super 8 filmmaking. Before I had finished Blush I knew that I wanted to make Butch Tits. After I’d completed Butch Tits I felt I needed to round it out to a trilogy. Each film is an attempt to understand myself better. Who knows, maybe it’ll become a quadrilogy or quintilogy if I think of something else to explore.
I felt happy enough with Butch Tits to want to have it distributed. Likewise with Sissy. Not so much with Blush! It makes feel quite anxious and exposed to have Blush shown publicly because I think it’s so rough. Unsurprisingly, I’m my own harshest critic. Other people might not find it as rough as I do. But I think the work is clearly a trilogy and needs to be distributed as such.
JT: It’s interesting to me that each film is an attempt to understand yourself better because, for one thing, I find them very generous in terms of accessibility (particularly through your distinct sense of humour and play, with everything from score choices to performances on screen to editing techniques). I mean you don’t necessarily have to be someone with gender identity concerns at the forefront of your consciousness to be engaged by these works. Do you think about audience at all when you’re making them?
JC: I am definitely aiming for accessible but challenging. The issues may not be universal but I do think there are elements that most people can relate to. Even though the films are deeply personal, I try really hard to not be self-indulgent. I make films that I want to watch but I don’t think of the audience much beyond that.
There is a heaviness to the topics covered in Butch Tits and Sissy. I have presented them with humour but I don’t want to belittle the underlying pain.
JT: Do your curatorial activities reflect this approach to content within your own work somehow? Can you talk about some of your programming projects?
JC: Yes, ‘accessible but challenging’ would be a good way to sum up the films I like to screen. I need to get something from a film if I’m going to screen it. That might be an appreciation of beauty or a sense of wonder; it doesn’t have to be a satisfying plot twist or a well-made political point. But as with my own work I am impatient with what I read as self-indulgence.
At Queer Bodies Film Night I show films that explore issues of gender, race, sexuality, bodies and more. The films are usually under ten minutes and there’s a Q&A/discussion at the end with some of the filmmakers. I like to show local work. There’s plenty of talent in our community.
Reflection/Refraction is an event that I have produced twice with Kristina Lemieux. We choose 5 short films and assign one each to 5 performing artists who then have about 5 months to create a new piece of work that reflects or refracts on the film. Mirrors reflect light back and light travelling through water refracts, it changes direction. Similarly, the relationship between the film and the performance may be very obvious or the audience may never understand. What’s important is that the performing artist has worked through a process of being forced to be inspired by someone else’s work. We both really like creativity that has boundaries placed on it like that.
I also want to note that it’s important to me that events that I program are accessible in other ways too, not just artistically. I make it a priority to organize events in physically accessible venues and subtitle films amongst other things. Accessibility is not binary: there are lots of things people can do to improve.
JT: Your concerns and understandings of accessibility seem to also be evident in how you allow others to participate on camera within the trilogy. How do you “cast”? Is there a kind of predominate scripting and direction involved on your part and/or do the people who appear and speak within the works help to generate the content and form for the final edit?
JC: Honestly, I am a bit defensive of my creative control and I mostly work alone but I definitely appreciate feedback. Before completion, that mostly comes from close friends rather than the subjects. After completion I appreciate positive and negative feedback from anyone and things people have said have definitely had an impact on my work.
I’m willing to interview anyone who embodies the experience I’m investigating and is willing to talk about it. It’s usually through my friendship networks but much comes down to simple practicality — being able to work with my timelines and availability.
Since I shoot on Super 8 the audio and video are separate processes. Blush was all recorded on one day except for one snippet of audio. I knew exactly how I wanted Blush to look. I wasn’t able to achieve my vision but it was close-ish-ish. For Butch Tits and Sissy I recorded lots of the audio before filming. That helped me visualize what I wanted to shoot.
In all projects I have some set questions but I just have a conversation with the subject(s). Audio editing is really hard because I have so much interesting material. One of my frequent criticisms of many short films I see is that they are too long. So I try really hard to keep it tight with the best material.
Super 8 costs about $60 per 3 minute reel (for film, processing, digital transfer, and postage) so to keep costs reasonable I shoot 9-15 minutes. I put people in front of the camera and allow them to move however they wish with a small amount of suggestion/direction.
I can’t remember how I edited Blush but my process since has been to do an audio edit first, cutting the hours of material into snippets andmolding them into a flowing narrative. Then I cut the video to a similar length in a hopefully interesting order. And then of course there are a bazillion tiny things to fix and change.
JT: What has your relationship to VIVO been like so far? Have you and your practice benefited from the centre over the years?
JC: I’m hands on with trying to get distribution so I would often email VIVO staff and say “Could you please send Butch Tits here, here and here. Oh and here.” Alex [Muir] and now Alan [Kollins] have always responded with patience and grace. From the other side, as a curator, I’ve had help from Sharon [Bradley] and Sebnem [Ozpeta] and Alan. I’ve not used the centre for other things but I like knowing it’s there! I greatly appreciate that it exists.
JT: Before you go, it would be great to hear about what you’re up to now. I heard you had a great time in Iceland recently. Was the trip project related?
JC: Iceland was fantastic but it was purely a holiday. I did take over 3000 photos though. Luckily I’m good with the delete key.
I finished a short script recently that I’d love to produce but to do it how I envision would cost a lot of money or an extremely dedicated volunteer Production Designer. I’ll continue to ruminate on that.
I’m going to give learning Processing a go because I have a few ideas that I think need to be programmed. I also have a bunch of other film, photography and animation projects in mind. My ideas far outstrip my skills but I love to learn with a purpose so clearly I need to just pick one and do it!
JT: This has been a very enjoyable and informative conversation Jen. Thanks so much for your generosity and thoughtfulness here. We look forward to your next works at Video Out.