Interview By Konnie Sutherland
Deborah Stratman is an experimental filmmaker and multimedia artist who engages with complex socio-political questions. Her films often explore the effects of systems of power and generate dialogic spaces surrounding the self in relation to American society. Her work utilizes ambiguity to avoid taking on the form of explicit social criticism while still investigating an abundance of irresolvable questions. It is in such ambiguous and mysterious spaces that her work resides while simultaneously eliciting emotions as different as disgust and wonder.
She has worked in film since 1990 and is currently based in Chicago. She continues to produce new work while working as a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
I’d like to start with some basic questions about how you came to make the films that you currently do. What kindled your engagement with political filmmaking. How were your politics formed when you were younger?
When I was a kid, my politics were informed by my parents and the lefty Catholic religious communities they belonged to. Not liberation theology exactly, but very progressive compared to most of Catholicism. My mom is/was a social activist. She’s advocated on behalf of homeless rights, inner city kids, northern Irish kids during the ‘Troubles’, equal education, health care, etc. She and my dad have worked in all sorts of volunteer capacities ever since I remember, most recently on behalf of Syrian refugees. So tolerance was a big undercurrent of my childhood.
What made you want to make films?
That I can dip into any theme I want. Though I guess that’s true of most art. You can be an armchair specialist, digging into an infinite number of topics and landscapes and cultures and concepts. I initially was drawn to the mechanical / technological mediation of cameras and lenses and chemistry and electronics. I like working with intervals, pressuring time, structuring rhythms. I like a medium that allows me to manipulate sound. And I like the populist, non-material nature of film. That it can’t be trafficked on the market the way other art is.
Were you engaged in any subcultures when you were a kid that encouraged the type of art that you currently create?
When I was teenager, I was heavily influenced by punk, glam, delta blues and no wave. Alternative music in general and the DIY communities those scenes foster have always been an important touchstone.
Do you have any major political or artistic influences that you would care to share?
My own early films were not political. They were more phenomenological, observational, mythical. I was influenced back then by the poetics, metaphysics, structural forms of filmmakers like Sidney Petersen, Robert Nelson, Peter Kubelka, James Benning, Hollis Frampton. Lots of fellas.
I think the first political films that made a real impression on me were Jon Jost’s. They operated outside of the conventional doc or narrative structure which was more or less all I’d been exposed to before that. I’m thinking in particular of his early essay films and independent narratives of the late 70s and early 80s.
I saw Maya Deren’s work, and Gunvor Nelson. Maybe something by Germaine Dulac. But that was about it when I was an undergrad. We weren’t exposed to many female filmmakers.
It was only later, after watching work by Agnes Varda, Barbara Loden, Chantal Akerman, Danielle Huillet (w/ Jean Marie Straub), Lizzie Borden, Betzy Bromberg, Su Friedrich, Shirley Clark, Chick Strand, Ana Mendieta, Peggy Ahwesh, Barbara Hammer and Trinh T. Minh-ha that I got properly radicalized into the subversive socio-political work that cinema can do.
In relationship to Untied, I want to know what your preliminary and post production process was like.
I had the material of the barking dogs and driving on the salt flats as part of a sort of ‘archive’ I keep of images that weren’t shot with any particular film in mind.”
The idea came after I found some archival reels – of the tightrope walker, the image of the prone child. So I started with optically printing those (so I could cut them into the negative I’d shot myself). Then I started looking through my own footage and other found images to shape the film. I found the fight scene (with Catherine Deneuve and Burt Reynolds… at least I’m pretty sure that’s who it is) and used that to practice on the contract printer, making a loop that printed brighter each pass. The last things I shot were the static lamp, and the scene of the couple fighting in a stairwell through the peep hole.
I knew I wanted a simple aggressive sound that signified a lost connection, or something being finished. So I just recorded the sound a landline makes when you leave it off the hook – you know, when the line is dead. Not sure phones even still do that anymore. I guess that’s why you’re asking if I composed it?
Sound design in my case basically means collage. I do now and then make some sounds from scratch, but much more often, I start with a ‘found’ sound, which might something I record in the world, sound clips from other films, bits of music, snippets off the radio or scanner, etc. So for me sound design is a process of juxtaposition and layering rather than composing in the traditional sense… where you hear something in your head and then produce it on an instrument.
After first viewing O'er the Land I couldn’t help but notice your masterful use of minimalism and short interviews as a mode of critiquing late capitalism and exploring its effects on our perception of the continuously fabricated "American dream," our place within an imperialist society, and fetishization of the systems or objects that create/reify toxic American ideologies. Would you care to elaborate on these themes?
O’er the Land came out of thinking about what we lose in the name of freedom, what freedom means to Americans, and how freedom, and thereby nationalism, is iconically represented. It seems to me that there is a fundamentally oxymoronic and peculiarly American relationship between ownership and freedom. Freedom is often construed as freedom to own or freedom to consume. Ownership buys us freedom. Which means we end up in this position of having to defend what we own, our national borders, our personal possessions, in order to defend freedom. This all seems absurd to me… that anyone could own freedom. To me personally, freedom is more existential - a willing sublimation of ego, a relinquishing of control.
I guess I came to make the film as a way to process what it means to live in the middle (or perhaps end) of American Empire. To live in the nation that polices the globe. Where the Department of Defense is the largest contractor on the planet, and the largest institutional consumer of energy worldwide. (If the DoD were compared to a country, it would rank 21st in World GDP.)
Along the way, I thought about iconic representations of freedom and nationalism. That’s how I started collecting scenes - high school football games, French-Indian war reenactors, RV sales lots, border patrols, etc. I often found myself thinking about all the various theaters of war, and how we are seduced by spectacular expenditure. There’s something truly exhilarating about these displays of force. I find myself horrified and enthralled in equal measure.
I couldn't help but feel that certain movements elicited a sort of complex existentialism. What inspired you to create this project and what imagery you had in mind when you first started?
The thing I had before anything else was Col. Rankin’s story about ejecting from the plane at 48,000 ft. It was the seed.
After I started editing, I got a better sense of what was still missing. For example, I only knew I needed the waterfall (something natural, but with the same power as the anthropic displays of annihilating force)... after I’d gotten the footage of the machine gun festival. Ditto all the forests… didn’t know I needed those until after I started assembling the film and realized I needed more cooling / contemplative scenes. Spaces without human traces. But also usable as scenes that moved from east to west, following the trajectory of white (& male) manifest destiny.
What was the interview process like and was it difficult to get folks to open up?
As far as interviews go - I would always just tell people I was working on a project about iconic representations of ‘freedom’ and everybody was more than happy to elaborate on what that meant to them.”
How do you see this film in relation to the body of your work as a whole i.e. topic, form, execution? As a maker who has only just begun producing media, I am especially curious as to how the making of this film informed your later works and if this piece holds any specific significance to you in relation to your development as an artist.
O’er the Land fits into a category of films I have made that I would describe as essays. I’d include From Hetty to Nancy, In Order Not To Be Here, The Illinois Parables and possibly Hacked Circuit in that list. These films represent a small percentage of my work overall, but I think because they are extremely deliberate in their formal execution, they tend to be taken more seriously than some of my more “conversational,” experimental, portrait-based, poetic and/or found footage films. I personally don’t value the essay films any higher than the others. To me short films like Ray’s Birds or The Magician’s House or Untied or Musical Insects are just as refined and exacting, even when they appear slight or casual or off-hand.
I am curious to hear your thoughts on the current U.S. political climate specifically in relationship to your work and identity as an artist.
I’m a socio-political being. I can’t avoid it seeping into my daily consciousness. I’m very interested in hierarchies and infrastructures of power, how they play themselves out, make themselves readable, how they’re enforced… often through casting themselves as ‘convention’. So yes, politics seep into my films, if not always in obvious ways.
How do you feel that the work that you have made in the past interacts with the Trump era or even just U.S. politics as a whole?
I don’t know. I just respond to the circumstances of when/where I’m alive and we are a culture that leverages fear as the great motivator, so that’s shown up a lot in my work.
Considering the current state of U.S. politics, do you have a strong vision/sense of the art you intend to make in the future? If so, what might that be? Maybe you have already begun a project that you feel relates?
My vision… I don’t know. More tolerance would be cool. Becoming a better listener. Accepting the stranger, not trying to assimilate - but rather being comfortable with a community made richer through difference.
I want to keep taking risks, breaking habits, paying attention.