Interview with 2nd Year MA Film Studies student, Priyanka Das"/>

With host Stephanie MacDonell

Stephanie: Hi Priyanka!

Priyanka: Oh so we are starting (laughs). Hello, how are you?

Stephanie: So what are you drinking?

Priyanka: I’m drinking espresso, because I want to go crazy (laughs). Coffee gives me too much energy, I get fidgety!

Stephanie: (laughs) So what are you working on? What’s your project right now?

Priyanka: I’m going for the comprehensive exam rather than a thesis as my final project. I have two different categories: theory and history.

For the history section, I’m looking at Iranian cinema and Egyptian cinema. I’m mainly focusing on post 1979 films, after the Islamic revolution in Iran. I want to compare how Islamism was structuring…kind of sculpting together the cinema cultures…and how they were affecting each other. I’m looking specifically at Middle Eastern and Islamic film that I find to have a queer subtext. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been explored as much and very little scholarship exists. I recently screened Atef Hetata’s Closed Doors and Youssef Chahine’s Al-Mohager. Both of these movies are dealing with politics and culture in the 1960s and 70s, before the Islamic revolution happened. So there’s this inner reflection. I find that these films are dealing with homosexuality but in a very…bashing way. Homosexuality always exists as a negation. I can be critical about it but that also gives it its visibility in these films, considering a country like Egypt where Islam has been so dominant. So within these circumstances these films are still being made and giving some kind of voice and, whether negative or positive, I feel that this is a good start to have people at least talk about it – like me.

Frankly speaking, I’ve always been interested in Islam, because coming from India where twenty or thirty percent of our population is Muslim, I grew up with a lot of people from Islamic backgrounds. That always fascinated me, how living in a diaspora like India, which is a secular country, and how they are practicing it and how Islam in India and Islam in the Middle East is very very different because of the state involvement and the governmental religious power. I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been considering my films. It’s been difficult because some films I want to see are hard to find.

For the theory I’m looking at Queer Feminism, I’m looking at combining queer theory and feminist theory because I think they go hand in hand, they aren’t the same though, but they are like soul sisters (laughs). I’ve been reading Eve Sedgwick’s Tendencies; she says in the introduction that in the 20th and 21st century any kind of study, if we do not corporate queer studies, than the study is incomplete. It is kind of impossible to do now. Queerness, to me and many other people, is not just about sexuality. Combining queer with just sexuality is very reductive. Queer is anything outside of heteronormativity; it incorporates different identities within its structures.

As Sedgwick says, the way we are going in our postmodern culture, we no longer have a direct link to history or how to evaluate a situation based on the past. Like the other day, you and I were discussing, Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” and how multi channeled that piece was and how it would be unfair to oneself if we do not incorporate queer theory and the multi layers of the situation, which is where queerness exists.

So going back to your question that is what I’m doing for my project. I’m not coming up with any type of question as I would with the thesis but I’m work towards a mastery of the field. So this is what I’m going to flaunt to people (laughs).

Stephanie: That’s interesting. It also seems like you are looking at a connection between queer films that have a religious and state context as well.

Priyanka: I’m also looking at cinema from countries where state and religion are not necessarily separated. Not all, of course, but many Islamic countries are like this. So in order to express yourself or find a space for different kinds of bodies – what I call queer bodies – bodies that aren’t governed by dominant ideals, who can find their own voice and their own understanding of the world and perform it in a certain way. Those kinds of spaces are, kind of, given by the state. So when religion and state are combined, you can’t talk about queerness without religion. So I’m thinking in order to find space for a queer body one needs to figure out where the state and religion stands, how they are combining, and in this where a queer body can navigate to. In order to create an alternative line of existence, you need to define the dominant line itself…so you can break it.

Stephanie: Whenever I work with Queer theory, my mind always goes to Lee Edelman, who we read in Film Theory II. I remember specifically because I did a presentation on him (laughs). But he did an aggressive reading of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, a film not traditional seen as queer cinema. But he was looking at how the heteronormative line was being broken through the bird attacks…the progress of the hetronormative storylines like the romance between the two main characters and their future. Do you find formal elements like that in the films you are working with? I guess my question you find these films doing something else in their text to discuss queerness?

Priyanka: The few movies that I’ve watched, I think, they are very explicit. There are characters that do identify as queer, however, the narrative can become very mocking. You gave a very nice example with The Birds but I haven’t found anything metaphorical within the form…yet…mostly it is very explicit. For example, one scene shows two men looking at one another and then the next scene one is naked in bed and the other is walking around the room with his shirt off and they gaze at one another. Mostly it’s the interstices between shots where you can perceive that something happened just by the looks between the characters, we as an audience can wonder.

Stephanie: Yeah that reminds me of a conversation I was having with my students in my Cult Cinema class. We were incorporating the ideas of figural poetics to the screen. We were looking at how the image, no matter what the narrative or sound is doing, creates a consciousness outside the film. For instance, we can see two men onscreen together and that image can create a queer reading in itself.

Priyanka: And with the films I’m looking at, many things are involved in the image. For instance, the lack of budget within the pre Arab Spring era of Egyptian cinema. The images aren’t clear and clean, they are something raw and grainy. Those kinds of things are actually very affective; it has a sensual element to it. Like you say, two men together and the gaze asks for a queer reading. The graininess gives a sensual reading rather than an intellectual reading of the image. And I think that is very interesting how these third world countries are dealing with this kind of thing, especially with government operations.

Stephanie: So you are looking at the economy around the film’s production and how this creates a form that subverts in a way censorship, government, and heteronormative filmmaking.

Priyanka: Yeah, the form creates a different kind of national cinema. It isn’t like a national cinema where the filmmaker is saying, “this is what Egyptian films look like,” or advocating for state interest. They are coming up with a new form of making movies and that can be identified as a national cinema. You know I just started and I don’t think I have in-depth knowledge yet but I’m very interested in how filmmakers are transforming and playing with cinema.

I’m also critical as well…because formally, text wise, it is breaking the Western normative way of making cinema but not content. In a way these films are doing it but I cannot concretely say they are. I think we are on our way there but it is more of a journey than a destination right now. So for me both the sub textual and contextual reading of the image is very important. I was talking to my advisor the other day about Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist, a movie about radical Islam, and the anti-hero is coming from this ghetto without an education or bourgeoisie taste. So this alienation is why he joins the Islamic group because that was where he felt home, where people accept him, it doesn’t come from a political stand point it comes from the sense of belonging and that group gave that space to him. So the film looks at the association with radical Islamism with terrorism. But in the end it was a bourgeoisie family that gave him an “understanding” of love. To me, it is a western take on radical Islamism. Something that is outside of society, never with privilege, always coming from circumstance. So the message is if you know how to live your life, get a good education, and a good job then you will be saved. So they are trying to navigate their viewers to a certain way of living, which I think is a very Western way of looking at certain political problems. So it’s interesting to me about how this filmmaker – who is from Egypt, whose film released in Egypt – has a very Western way of looking at the crisis. It feels like its geared towards a Western audience. After the 1980s, especially in Egypt and Turkey, what they call national cinema was swept under the rug, and navigated towards an Independent Art House cinema. That means that their cinema’s circulation was with the international film festival circuit. So most of their audiences became Western. In order to get the funding from different countries, the content needed to be more approachable to an audience who don’t live the same experiences or experience the same crisis. That’s why a lot of the movies are like that because of the economic and monetary circulation. I’m very skeptical about this approach.

Stephanie: I’m going to transition us a little bit to talk about you as a filmmaker. So you started off as an MFA but are now doing both the MFA and MA track. How’s that transition from being a filmmaker to scholarship?

Priyanka: I really don’t see much of a difference. Previously I’ve done more application based education and not really academic based. Then when I came here I started taking a lot of film studies class and I really got into it. This idea that one comes from criticism and one comes from the heart, I really don’t buy into that! I don’t know what that means…coming from the heart. So I decided to explore film studies.

When I make movies it’s less of a story and more of an image or sound formation. I don’t think in terms of narrative continuity and I think in a relational way. When I make a project, an inspiration can come from anywhere, but when I think about it…I create films in a critical manner.

Stephanie: I think filmmakers and scholars are really doing similar things. We are taking something we see in the world, exploring it, and then applying it within our work. And your work can be a dissertation or a film.

Priyanka: Yeah! We need the same thing: we need an idea. So what do you do, you find an inspiration. You go out in the world and find a relational, a spatial, a temporal image and that can strike your imagination so you begin brainstorming and researching. I think they are the same because I don’t think about filmmaking as storytelling, I think of it as an idea. Sometimes before I make a film I will read critical theory and get ideas from it. But I will also watch plays, look at paintings; I even do stupid stuff like dance by myself in my room and talk to myself….

Stephanie: Yeah, I do that too when I’m writing! (laughs)

Priyanka: (laughs)…and I can be my best listener because I talk bullshit. I can be the best listener of my bullshit (laughs). And by doing all this different kind of stimuli I can figure out how I can craft my film and the same with writing papers.

One difference I find…because I’m at the beginning of my academic career… is when I’m screenwriting…I feel like I have more freedom. That’s the only difference I feel but with the MFA/ MA track…but I want to bridge that gap. Because with film I can go as experimental as I want but when it comes to academia I always have a problem with structure. I feel like you have to follow a certain kind of structure.

Stephanie: Especially during the beginning.

Priyanka: These beginning stages, yeah! I love scholars like Sedgwick and Marguerite Duras. They have these temporal and emotional vectors. They can play around because they have so much experience with scholarship. When they experiment they can write it so simply but with power. But I need to follow this certain structure, which feels very confined, but I have to do it.

Stephanie: It’s like that old saying, you have to learn the rules before you can break them?

Priyanka: You know, like filmmaking came very naturally to me and I’ve been doing some form of art – like painting or photographic stills – since I was nine years old. So over this period of time I have created that comfortability…that friendship. But with academia…it’s so new to me, I’m like, “Priyanka! You have to learn structure!” But then I think my brain doesn’t work structurally. It’s very hard for me but in a way it is also very good for me. So I’m learning it. That the biggest difference but I’m kicking my ass to break it! To smash the gap! (laughs).

Stephanie: For one of my seminar papers, I was writing for Erin’s Transnational Queer Theory, I was looking at the way camp style creates this temporal and spatial queerness to film and that’s the reason why camp style and queer films work so well together. I was arguing that camp does similar things that queer theory does within cinema but through space and temporality.

Priyanka: Camp also does this with excess, no? So much excess breaks a fundamental foundation.

Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. I was working with Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” And I loved it because it was so experimental the way she wrote it as just a list. And I was thinking about how she was experimenting within a Postmodernist style of scholarship while discussing a postmodern style. I want to write something like that, to change form to fit with content.

Priyanka: Seriously! I feel like I need to really push it, this is my time to really break the rules, but in order to break the rules I have to learn them. The other day in class we read Helen Cixous’, “The Laugh of the Medusa”…I love that name, any type of vices, I’m attracted to vices. Her virtue, no, it doesn’t work for me . (laughs)…that article is so powerful. I really like that…where I feel so much passion. Sometimes scholarship is too cold for me, I can’t work with it.

Stephanie: Yeah, I’m working with Critical Race Theory for my thesis. A lot of the writers I’m working with, like Fred Moten and Houston Baker, Jr, were originally or still are poets. So they take a lot of their poetic language and put that passion into their theoretical work, which is so powerful.

Priyanka: I really like it when you can read something so deeply. For me, I can sense a connection – like a virtually…I am hearing them and they are hearing me. It’s a relationship that I can build. That’s why I like reading; it makes me feel like I’m not a lonely scholar (laughs). That kind of relationship with an author comes from that kind of passion, if it is too cold and just being factual or trying to pursue THEIR idea…that doesn’t invite me, I’m just reading their words, but I’m not in a conversation with them. That what I mean by passion, like what you said, this poetic element is a conversation.

Stephanie: We are running out of time. I’m going to end with a question I ask everyone: have you seen anything recently you want to discuss?

Priyanka: I watched Damien Chazelle’s La La Land! I don’t know (laughs). I’ve seen the movies that inspired it like Jacque Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort and Gene Kelly’s Singin' in the Rain. I’m going to be honest…I think it’s a very white washed movie. I don’t like saying something with such conviction because I’m a very doubtful person. I always doubt my own thinking, but for me the movie was very convenient for its audience, like they made the movie just for audience appeal. It is nice to go with friends and laugh around. And I like Emma Stone…oh she’s nice.

Stephanie: Thank you Priyanka!

Priyanka: Thank you!