Written by Anneliese Hartling
Elliot Montague is a trans experimental and narrative filmmaker who has been making influential queer work since the late 90s. From experimental shorts to fictional narrative films to collaborative installations, Montague explores themes of gender, queer narratives, family relations, rural landscapes and the shortcomings of language via various medias. Elliot’s work has shown internationally, at festivals such as the Tribeca Film Festival, the Media Arts Festival in Osnabruck, Germany and the Paris Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival.
As an educator, Elliot has taught film and video all over the country, and focuses a great deal on youth mentorship. Currently based in Amherst, Massachusetts, Elliot is a visiting lecturer at Amherst College.
This interview was recorded on November 3, 2017 via a phone conversation between myself, in Santa Cruz, CA, and Montague, in Amherst, Massachusetts.
AH: To start, how did you get into filmmaking, and what ignited your interest in experimental and narrative modes?
EM: I got into filmmaking very early on, and what initially sparked my interest was my uncle having a VHS camcorder in the late 80’s, something my family could never afford. And every time we visited him we would always play with this camcorder, reenacting different stories or America’s Funniest Home Videos, which was really popular at the time. I ended up doing a lot of in camera editing when I was a kid, and I discovered that I just loved it! And then, a little bit later, in my last years of high school my family moved and my new school had a video production program which shared studio space with the local news station. So, I ended up taking this class and I found really old film equipment that they were just going to throw out; like Super-8 cameras and 16mm projectors. I kind of just taught myself how to use this stuff, and I got the art department to fund this little Super-8 film I made. And, with that film I got into Hampshire college, and I knew that I wanted to be doing film right away, so I was pretty focused the whole four years. Hampshire, especially at the time, was transitioning from film to video, so there was still a lot of active filmmaking happening. We were learning with sync sound 16mm cameras, editing on flatbeds, but we were also starting to use a lot more video at the time-I think Final Cut Pro was just coming out. At that time, oddly enough the video and film classes were separate, and it wasn't integrated until more recently. So, I really just dove into it at Hampshire, and was really self-motivated and just knew that this is what I wanted to be doing. I also did photography, and did a lot of hand processing there, but it was certainly not focused on the industry or anything like that; it was more just kids doing projects of their own, and not really learning how to work on a set. So, that’s kind of where I got my strong experimental background from.
AH: That’s really cool that you sort of just stumbled into those resources so early on.
EM: Yeah, I was very, very lucky. That’s actually the only thing I remember about high school. I would probably fail the GED if I had to take it now honestly.
AH: So, while taking this feminist experimental film class, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about access to the film and video world, and I am curious where and how you, as a trans maker, found a space to begin your film practice? And, I guess I wanted ask where/how you found comfort in making highly personal work?
EM: When I started filmmaking, it was a really interesting time in terms of awareness of trans people. At the time I was at Hampshire, no one there was really out as trans; some folks were out as genderqueer. For me, I was uncovering some really painful things that had happened in my childhood. With Through the Skin, I was making connections with my anger and experiences being pathologized as a mental illness. When I was going through puberty, it was so traumatic for me - I was so angry. A doctor mis-diagnosed me as bipolar and medicated me for it. So I was kind of doing a lot of work around that with my film. I was actually initially going to do a narrative film for my thesis but then 9/11 happened. Hampshire and many of the students there, including myself, were really being challenged in terms of how we were engaging with our own privilege, specifically around race and nationality. And, so I remember going home for a week and really thinking about how I wanted to relate to my own filmmaking and my privileges of storytelling at that time. So I decided I wanted to make a highly personal piece, and I knew that it had to do with my queerness, and I knew that it had to do with the healing. I was trying to deal with my own childhood, and it became this vehicle for me to work through conversations with my parents. I was very lucky to receive the support I did at Hampshire to make such personal work. I now try to open up that space to invite my own students to be able to do the same with their work. I see students now and ultimately the pieces they make are about themselves, whether it’s direct or not, and in my classroom I really try to foster spaces for students to feel safe and challenged. It’s the power of empathy, of the personal narrative and listening to other people.
AH: I am curious if you identify as an experimental feminist filmmaker maker? And, what do these feminist and experimental identities and practices mean to you?
EM: I identify as a lot of things, like right now I have three jobs. I think I’m absolutely a feminist, but I don’t use that word in my artist’s statement-I think I just use trans. I’m very cautious of the relationship I have to male privilege that I’ve moved into since I transitioned, and I feel very aware of that. I think my feminism comes through in the way that I work with students, the way I make my films, and the way that I approach the world really. In the last few years, I’ve really been challenging myself around intersectionality; as much as I am a feminist, I am an anti-racist person. I don’t use ‘feminist’ to describe my practice, but I definitely identify as that, and I think the work that I do as a filmmaker does foster a lot of dialogue around the genderqueer body, the feminine body, and an experience of a trans-masculine body. Though, I identify predominantly as a queer filmmaker, I’m interested in queering femininity or feminism, and queering the usual trajectory of coming out stories. I’m definitely a feminist, but I think it goes way beyond just being a feminist. I want to be thinking a lot about allyship and intersectionality, and how movements are overlapping right now, which is very exciting, and how I’m processing that though my own storytelling and teaching.
AH: What is your process like? Do you have a similar process for each project, or does it vary from film to film? How has your process evolved over the course of your career?
EM: It’s certainly evolved, I mean I’ve made so many different films; films that are collaborative or not collaborative, films that have come from different genres and styles, hybrid films, and I’ve taught all different backgrounds and approaches to filmmaking. Right now I’m in the development stages of a film, and I am doing a lot of writing; I’ll put up butcher paper on the wall do a lot of free writing and exploring, just trying to put it all out there. It’s a matter of where the energy feels like it’s going, and not really trying to figure out where the connections are at this early stage. Then I focus on refining down, funneling in where the commonalities are, and where the shape is, what the shape is. There’s this birth and death that keeps happening with the piece where you’ll have all this writing, this pre-production work, and it’ll be amazing, and you’ll shoot it, and it’ll be the death of the script and the birth of the footage. And then the footage looks great and you’re so excited and you start editing and it becomes this other thing and then the original footage just kind of falls away and you have this other piece.
Pretty much every project I have done all the work so I’m really interested in making something now where I could relinquish some of the control, or maybe just let other people's’ creative processes in. I would love to work with a DP and a writer, but it’s tricky when you’re doing something so personal. For me experimental work is easy in a way because I can have complete creative control and it can be on my own time. So I’m kind of struggling right now with figuring out this next piece, if it’s gonna be experimental narrative, or if it’s just gonna be a narrative with more fantastical elements. I want to push myself beyond experimental film, and I’m thinking a lot about story within experimental film, the importance of having some sort of narrative or something that the film is grounded in; something that invites the audience in and allows them to participate but doesn't give too much. It’s a really tricky balance. But yeah, I’m kind of at that development stage, where I’m trying to figure out how experimental this will be, or how much of a scripted narrative it will be, and also how much I want to involve other people in the process.
AH: That’s so interesting, yeah I feel like there’s kind of a safety in the experimental form, at least that I feel when I’m trying to do highly personal work, because I have so much control over it, and maybe a distance as well?
EM: Yeah, I also think about how things have shifted so quickly between these two generations, and the amount of media saturation that this younger generation is now exposed to and how it’s that much harder to get people to actively watch something for more than 4 minutes. And also that there’s just so much media out about identity and about white trans bodies, and then questioning, “How is mine going to be any different?” Right now, I’m thinking a lot about pregnancy and ghosts, and I moved back to an area where there’s a lot of history for me. I just recently saw The Fits and taught it in my class. I watch a lot of films about adolescence, but I really appreciated how brilliantly done this film is in the way it uses the unknown and the fantastical. I’m actually watching a lot of films right now that have fantastical elements and are pretty queer even if they don’t identify as queer films; films that create these worlds where the magic or fantastical is subtle but believable. It’s interesting because I do see a lot of that happening in other media, like Stranger Things, which a lot of my students are really interested in. Maybe it is a way to reimagine our own worlds.
AH: Ok, let’s talk about Through the Skin...While viewing this film, your use of multiple formats, sources and technologies evoked a sense of social nostalgia for me, recounting past eras, and intergenerational understandings of queerness. What was your intention in integrating multiple formats and various found footage in this project?
EM: Well the various formats goes back to when I was talking about Hampshire and the common practice of using multiple formats back then. Super-8 was really cheap, way cheaper than it is now, and 16mm was something that I was trained in, and not terribly expensive. And I love the tactility of 16mm, being able to hand process it and manipulate it. Then video was becoming more and more available and it was really cheap. I really liked how accessible it was, but it felt maybe too hyper-real, whereas I liked how film had this distancing effect. Starting Through the Skin, I don’t know if I had a clear vision of what I wanted, and I did a lot of figuring out as I went a long. But it was certainly a reflection of a process of talking to my parents, of journal writing, and it was nostalgic; it was really just looking at a moment, or moments in my life and it was looking at documentation of my life which–my life, or our lives, weren’t documented as much as lives now. And, they were documented in a much more analog way; it felt more precious, and it was what I had access to, so I worked with this. I think the different formats were a way for me to engage and kind of ground myself in my body, because I wasn’t grounded at that time. I was really depressed, and I didn’t know what was really going on with me–I didn’t have a lot of answers. So I think filmmaking was a way for me to feel somewhat grounded in myself. Whether it was hand processing the film, cutting on the flatbed, mixing this with video, or using multiple sources, it just made sense at the time, trying to cobble some sense of something together. It was also just time too–where technology was at that time.
AH: Yeah I think I sometimes forget about that part, forget to contextualize works. So, in Through the Skin, how do you feel your performance pieces function in the narrative and interact with the rest of the film?
EM: I think they were a way for me to make sense of something. Film is such a visual language, and there’s no getting around that. And it was a way for me to look at and face some sort of reality that I was avoiding for a long time. Mind you, nobody around me was getting surgery, nobody was even talking about it, no one was going on hormones, these were not really things that I even thought were really available. So, it was a very lonely process, and this was a way to maybe work through some of the trauma of it. Performing in the film, I was mostly alone, and I was very angry, though it was very therapeutic. But also, I edited this piece, and I only chose images I was comfortable with, and I think it’s very easy to frame images a certain way, and make yourself look a certain way. It’s the same as how I used to think about the mirror, where I would edit what I would see when looking in the mirror, which is also a form of self portraiture. So I was able to edit these performances to a certain extent, but I also did leave in parts that were uncomfortable for me at the time. I think in the last shot I’m half-nude, which was me trying to reckon with and really embrace the discomfort of my gender and the body that I was in; I wanted to suffer through it, or I wanted to be comfortable, but I don’t think I actually was. I did wait a while to go on T and have surgery, and I’m glad I waited, but these performances reflect that discomfort and that indecision.
AH: In Well Dressed, you examine “three key bodies in transition: the erotic “cruising” body, the transgender body, and the pregnant body.” Why did you chose to examine these specific bodies, and what are the relationships you understand to be between these bodies?
EM: For me, they’re all bodies in transition, and they’re all bodies that I have had, or had a potential of having. And, they’re all seen as different genders, even though they don’t have to be. In Well Dressed, I was really interested in pairing, and in my relationship to other people’s bodies as reflections of potentials of my future bodies. Don was the pregnant person in the film, and she was my first pregnant friend. I grew up around a lot of pregnancy and kids in a really gendered way, and it felt like a gendered thing, and it still is, unfortunately; pregnancy is highly feminized. With the trans body, represented by my friend Fischer who had already transitioned at this time, I was sort of representing this thing I didn't have yet but really wanted, and I was kind of living vicariously through Fischer. And then with the cruising body, I think it was also this thing that I didn't have but wanted. The cruising body, for me at that time was very cisgendered, and was very easy to occupy for some of my gay male friends. But for me, I knew I couldn’t, because I was trans and people would be freaked out. Again, this was only 11 years ago, but it feels like so long ago, because so much has changed! So, it was looking at all these potential bodies that were latent inside of me, and all these interactions. I was working with ideas about these bodies and how their identities are not linear. Trans narratives used to be very linear and I think it’s kind of shifting a bit now, but back when I was making this film, I was trying to disrupt that a little bit. A lot of my friends were transitioning and they were like, “My parents are fine with it, as long as I then start dating women and tell everyone I’m a boy, or I’m a man.” And now it’s really wonderful, I see a lot of friends transitioning in other ways, like people getting pregnant, which I think is a way of transitioning too. Also, Well Dressed had a lot to do with performativity, and thinking about how cruising is performance. And transitioning can be performativity as well, because whether you like it or not, people are noticing and you are performing gender and people are receiving that performance and attaching their own meanings to it. And the same with pregnancy, how it becomes this public body in a way, where people will think they can just comment on it, or touch it. Certain boundaries get disrupted within these three sectors, and I was really interested in how these three different realms could co-exist together.
AH: In Mainstay, I really enjoyed how accessibly and eloquently you touched upon the complexities of understanding queerness in the normative family structure (and in the normative cis-het patriarchy). In certain moments–like when Brendan asks if Fischer’s lover only liked him because he became a man, or when Fischer navigates a sexual experience passing as a cis man–I felt like you were really engaging with the complicated interactions between queer bodies and cultural assumptions that exist because of heteronormative power structures. How do you think placing a queer body within a familial structure/ rural setting reinforces, subverts, and/or transforms the normative narratives typically existing in these landscapes?
EM: I’m interested in rural landscapes; they are my home. Both Fischer and Brendan are from Maine. Fischer is trans and we met because people in the town would often mistake us as the same person. Brendan is my youngest brother who came out as queer when he was 13, but then took it back for some time because of how scary it was to be young and out in that part of Maine. (He then came out again on the first day of shooting the film, he felt safe having the support of a mostly queer crew and cast.) Maine is an interesting place: I remember thinking a lot about gender being really utilitarian in Maine. There’s a lot of butch women who I would just think are queer, but they're not. They're actually maybe lobster women, or they're chopping down trees, and maybe they are queer but they don't identify as queer. It is so fascinating to me and made me really rethink my relationship to my own gender. But back when I was making this film, I felt very connected to that area because of the nature. I could be anonymous within it at times and found solace within that alone space. I lived there for a year after college, working in my dad’s video store, and I was very much in the public eye then. I think I gathered a lot of material for Mainstay then, knowing a cross section of the whole town, and seeing queerness in this other way that I wasn’t used to.
So Mainstay is all about trying to locate home and losing a partner who understood this character completely. And I think this film is also about Fischer and his brother reconciling their relationship... and there was so much going on behind the scenes. Brendan had come out as gay when he was 13, and then he took it back, because he got scared. He then came out again on set when we were having pre-production meetings at the very beginning, so the space of filming actually became a lot more about him and his journey; he was working through the vehicle of this character. And so it became a pretty personal piece in terms of my relationship to him. And Fisher brought such a sense of groundedness to the film, as it was a reflection of our relationship as well as him playing this surrogate to me, which allowed me to play out these situations/conversations through these different scenes that I’d wish had happened. I remember being really interested in the layers of passing– whether it’s a gay man passing as a straight man, or a trans person passing as a cis person, I was really interested in those moments that occur that could potentially shift the power dynamics. So I was interested in these moments of confusion and suspension, and moments of ambiguity, set against a rural, desolate blizzard, where you’re trapped and the landscape itself becomes its own character that holds these secrets.
Most of the films I like to watch are usually set in a rural environment where the noise settles down and you’re looking at the relationships of a person to their surroundings, allowing the subtleties to become more noticeable and powerful. I’m not sure if I was intentionally trying to subvert heteronormativity; maybe, but I guess I just didn’t think about it in that way back then. The characters are all grieving, and I actually lost a partner who I’d been with at Hampshire the week I started graduate school. So that film was so much about grief: the grief of losing a partner as someone who understands you. And a lot of it is about the loss and grief of transitioning that I think a lot of trans people feel if you’re letting go of things that have caused you so much pain for so long. I remember when this partner of mine died, how I was so quick to relate it to transitioning, of letting go of this former way of relating to myself– even just the fact that I wasn’t going by the same name, and how that was so sad to me, but also necessary.
AH: Do you want to talk more about working with your actual family members on Mainstay ?
EM: Sure, okay this is some Maine transphobia for you: I actually tried to cast the mother character, and I couldn't find anybody that would work on a film like this. So I decided to just use my mom and she took it on last minute, and she was incredible about it. On the other hand, I really did write the parts specifically for Fisher and Brendan. We rehearsed like you would rehearse with any actor. I realized I was working with non-actors, but it was okay because my brother Brendan is kind of a natural performer, so I wasn’t worried; I knew that something would come out. And with Fisher, I knew him so well that I knew what nuances to capitalize on. And the two of them had a relationship too, so I kind of just worked with the energy. Brendan was this younger queer kid who was looking for an older queer sibling, and he looked toward Fisher for that. So I think there was a lot of naturalism that happened there. You know, I wish that I had done so many things different, but there were so many beautiful things that just happened. It was a necessary film, and it was such an amazing experience filming in two blizzards and at my house and it became a sort of rare piece of personal documentation.
AH: In your performance Wrest, how do you feel the combination of multiple medias speak to the theme of transformation this project explores? And, maybe do you just want to describe the process of making this collaborative piece?
EM: Yeah, so I got a project grant to do this piece, and I worked with a composer, Jules Gimbrone, and a dancer, and we brought in a lot of other people to work on it– musicians, dancers. The first iteration of it was a live multimedia performance where I had three films being projected simultaneously on three different screens, and then they all interact with each other alongside live music performance and live dance, which I was also in. It was performed for three nights in New York, and then based on that I did single channel films based on footage, which Gimbrone scored. The piece was challenging for me because of thinking collaboratively, and thinking about filmmaking in this really different way. It was a really important project in that it made me critically think about editing and performance, performance scale, and performativity of the body on film vs. live. I got really into installation at that time, and it was really exciting for me to think, “How is this gonna go beyond just the computer screen that I’m staring at? How is it gonna exist?” But then also thinking about performance and how it just happens, exists, and maybe you have documentation of it but it’s not the same as making a film, where it’s intended to be viewed over and over again. I really liked that challenge though, and thinking how I was approaching filmmaking, characters, costuming and temporality as well. The thing that interested me thematically in the beginning of that film was Joan of Arc, and it obviously progressed beyond that, but I was interested in the histories of gender nonconforming people, and the roles that they played within their own societies at the time. I think I was trying to locate myself in a particular history with that piece.
AH: So, what are you currently working on? I know you already discussed the project you’re thinking through right now, but maybe you could talk more about that, or more about teaching?
EM: Yeah, I’m teaching a foundational class, and it a pretty exceptional class with an amazing group of students at Amherst. I’m really trying to bring in a lot of works that they wouldn't see otherwise, but also some films they have seen which we can talk about critically. I’ve shown mostly queer work. A lot of the foundational classes I took, we watched a lot of work by older white men; the classics, the epics... but there’s no need to learn from them. I’ve shown a lot of Charles Burnett and one of my favorite filmmakers Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who made Tropical Malady, which is a big influence on my work. In the Spring I’m going to be teaching this advanced documentary class, and I want to focus on works about personhood, and justice and social justice.
And, for my own work, I’m coming back to this part of the country (Western Massachusetts) where my white ancestors settled and colonized in the 1600s, and there’s so much specific and deeply painful history here with genocide and post-colonialism. So, I’m thinking a lot about dead ancestors and my relationship to these people, who they may have been and what this means for me to live here now as a white person. How am I challenging my own privileges and holding myself within this history accountable?
I have been looking at a genealogy book of my family and found an ancestor that looked very similar to me - in fact a lot of the women in this particular photograph appeared very gender non-conforming. I’m thinking my film may be an experimental narrative about trans pregnancy and gender nonconformity and ancestral ghosts that take the physical form when needed. I’m interested in going beyond death, and the grief of death, thinking about the possibility of spirits being a part of the everyday world in a way that isn't necessarily melancholic. So I am looking at a lot of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's work and gathering a lot books about ghosts and spirits. Right now I’m still doing a lot of reading and thinking about how I want to approach making this film. It's a very exciting time.
Portrait of Elliot Montague
For more information about Elliot Montague's projects, honors, screening history and contact information visit his website: http://www.elliotmontague.com/.