[to tell other people’s stories]

Zia Anger gives her personal take on the controversy surrounding David France and his film The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.

Over the festive break, Talkhouse Film is revisiting some of its most read (or listened to) pieces of the year, including this one. Happy holidays! – N.D.

In my early twenties, while attending an interview at a prestigious graduate film program, I remember seeing dollar signs in the eyes of my interviewers as they looked me, the child of two lesbians and two gay men. They saw my upbringing as a film I could pitch, a story I could sell, but I knew it would be impossible to find a way to contain my family’s slippery narrative in a 90-minute structure. For my interviewers, though, this did not matter. They could teach me how to pitch, they could teach me the structure I needed. They could teach me how to make money. In that moment, I felt what might be called a psychic allergic reaction. Though accepted, I didn’t attend that school.

In the past week, since reading Reina Gossett’s reaction to filmmaker and journalist David France’s new film, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, I’ve been thinking a lot about who is allowed to tell stories and why. France was accused, among other things, of being inspired by and poaching archival material from Reina Gossett and her creative partner Sasha Wortzel, who were also making a film on the same subject, a trans woman of color name Marsha P. Johnson. Gossett, a trans woman of color, wrote in an Instagram post of these allegations and the grief she felt upon Netflix’s release of David France’s movie, which she asserted was another example of the “extraction/excavation of black life, disabled life, poor life, trans life.” In a Mother Jones article entitled, Accusations Against Director of Netflix Doc Keep Rolling In, France stated, “It’s been a mission of my career to tell other people’s stories and to put in check those ideas that other reporters might [not be challenging] about themselves. Whether or not I do it right is the question I ask people to judge me on.”

This sentiment is the prime example of a filmmaker in a privileged position claiming innocence. Similar and not unrelated to the capitalist scapegoat, “The zeitgeist made me do it.” And oftentimes followed by floating the idea of a utopian world in which there is a market open to multiple tellings of histories. The reality, though, is that in the history of motion pictures there is always a definitive telling. And that definitive version, historically, has not been told by someone who has lead the marginalized life our industry happily commodifies. This is inarguable. Money talks and what it says is that our industry, both big and small, loves diverse stories but gives very little opportunity to diverse modes of storytelling and diverse storytellers. There is always an excuse for why stories of marginalized people can be told by others, rather than a conversation about why marginalized people are denied the opportunity to tell their own stories.

Right now, we have an insatiable hunger for stories. Stories of all types. As we become accustomed to other platforms where moving images tell stories, the Aristotelian narrative of a normal 90-minute movie is no longer what we most want to see. Why? Because with social media, we can see anything and connect with anything, which has always been the beauty of the internet. Connecting people to each other, especially those that have felt alone or marginalized. And because of this, because now movies have competition, our industry has shifted and the idea of telling diverse stories has become “what we do.” White, cisgender romantic comedies, thrillers, black comedies, whatever-it-is-that-Woody-Allen-does movies just don’t cut it anymore. Because if some teenager is going to sit down for more than an hour to watch something, it better be the most compelling thing they have ever seen. And so, like all great colonizers, the people in our industry have begun to take stories of marginalized people and package them neatly into 90-minute docs, or two-and-a-half-hour biopics, or coming-of-age stories so nostalgic you have no idea when they are supposed to take place.

And this is a crisis in our industry. It is a crisis because there is nothing definitive about a history when that history has been flattened. What do I mean by “flattened”? As someone who grew up in the LGBTQ community – around people who performed with Marsha in the Hot Peaches, around people who were in ACT UP (the subject of David France’s first film) – I have an intimate perspective of the marginalized communities France has chosen to focus his career on. My perspective is similar to someone who was raised in a very isolated community or religion – growing up, it was all I knew. So, in a very holistic sense, I have come to understand that to survive, marginalized communities subvert the very system that oppresses them, and then those survival techniques are transferred to one another in coded ways that people on the outside (even those in observance) can’t see, because it was made so they could not see it.

In the case of Marsha, the Hot Peaches and the downtown scene, they commodified their art by passing the hat so that they could perform on their own terms and tell their stories in their own way, even if that meant only making just enough to survive. Because to be oneself is the most important reason to live. And that should be remembered when telling their stories. Marsha’s story is not just another whodunit tale of a marginalized person. Because Marsha’s story is new to the market, it is, in a sense, a definitive account of the history of trans women of color. Despite this, her story extends long beyond the end credits – it lives within all trans women of color and because of this defies any attempts at any box you try to fit it in – because non-binary defies ideology that is not expansive. It defies a formula that seeks solely to commodify it.

David France decided that he and not Reina Gossett – who, because of systemic racism and transphobia, does not have the same opportunities as him – should tell Marsha’s story, and so flattened its essence. And David France did this, knowingly. This stops the story before it’s over, rips the heart out and stamps on it until it is as thin as a sheet of paper. Like a boring old script or a history textbook. And this flattening, which goes hand-in-hand with commodifying, results in the “decontamination” and rewriting of a history by someone other than the people who actually lived that history. Just as the guys who unwrote the genocide of Native Americans or the enslavement of Africans.

The film industry has long decontaminated – and thus flattened – parts of stories that will not sell. Sometimes in the making of the film. Sometimes in the way the story is told. Sometimes knowingly, sometimes with feigned naiveté. This decontamination may come in the form of whitewashing a character, or demanding a story have a cathartic ending. It may be trying to fit a slippery queer narrative into a traditional 12-hour work day where straight actors and a straight director wax poetically about what it might feel like to not be able to be yourself. Or when a documentary film departs from journalism and the subjects are commodified but you still don’t pay them. And oftentimes that decontamination makes the heart of the story pliable, even detached. And when you have not experienced the story yourself, it is often easy to rip this heart out.

So why flatten the story? Why not allow people to write their own histories? It’s easier to make a film that follows regular conventions of filmmaking and then address inequality within the industry merely in passing, than it is to create according to the spirit of the subject and their story. When one fails to address the spirit in process, it solidifies a pattern in a milieu in which young, predominantly white, predominantly cis, filmmakers – hoping for success and fortune – will be rewarded for determining the history of marginalized people, with no intention of spreading power, sharing wealth or changing the status quo of the landscape in which movies are made and ideas are commodified.

It is a system which allows those who have always had privilege to continue to control the market, to ensure their futures, to flatten and sell all that is special and good and uncommodifiable. A systemic problem, created and upheld by individual makers.

I wonder, what would happen if being a director or producer of movies didn’t have the lure of social and financial capital and instead you were just guaranteed a living wage? Who then would be making films? Would we then deny the people who actually experienced marginalization the ability to commodify their own experiences if these experiences weren’t more valuable than, say, the boring tale of most white cis-gender filmmakers out there?

I think, though, that the core of this is not about individual aspirations but a historical power (both social and financial) that goes along with being white, cis-gender and oftentimes male. You see, if stories of marginalized people were told by the actual people who have been marginalized, it would indict the people and the systems that have used marginalized people for their own benefit, that have marginalized people in the first place.

Still the desire to tell one’s own story, in one’s own language, with one’s own codes and quiet whispers – the desire to survive – will never go away. And in the current market, the desire to have worth and to be able to commodify oneself, is not far behind. But most of these stories of marginalized people are far more complicated than what is allowed, by industry standards, to be put on screen. And if you don’t challenge that – if you don’t care to acknowledge that Marsha’s story is also other trans people of color’s story and so the story should be told accordingly – if acknowledgment of inequality comes only as a footnote and not as action – you’re one of the many colonialists in an industry built on colonizing other people’s stories.

There is nothing definitive in a world in which ideas belong to everyone, but – considering all that we know – in a market that doesn’t follow that logic, the chance to collaborate and create within the spirit of the story should be held as an industry standard.

Zia Anger is a filmmaker and music video director. Her most recent short, My Last Film, premiered at the 53rd New York Film Festival. In 2015, her short I Remember Nothing had its world premiere at New Directors/New Films and its international premiere at Festival del film Locarno. She has made music videos for various independent artists including: Angel Olsen, Mitski, Julianna Barwick, Maggie Rogers, and Jenny Hval; the latter of whom she also tours with as a performer. In 2016, Zia participated in the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriter’s Intensive, and in 2015 she was included in Filmmaker magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” and was made a fellow in film/video by the New York Foundation for the Arts. Find out more at her official site. (Picture by Ashley Connor.)