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Family Secrets

A Dialogue between Sandi Dubowski (Tomboychik)
and Mindy Faber (Delirium)

Transcription from phone conversation

Sandi: I think these two tapes work well with each other.
Mindy: Yeah I think they work well too. Many times there is this arrogance that film and videomakers have that you're the master of your material and you're in control, and controlling every bit of this information that you are presenting to people, and that the videomaker is the one with the intellectual capacity to read the subject. And what happened in Delirium was the power and authority of the director or, in this case, the daughter, is subverted in this one moment where the subject, my mom, demands the camera and turns the lens and the questions back on me. And in your tape you set that up from the very beginning. I think for many viewers it is very disarming for the director to announce from the beginning that he is willing to relinquish power and control and give the subject the power, even symbolically, to read or interpret her own life, even if that means shaky camera movements and low lit, unfocused shots. But for me this happened because my mom made it happen, and I in fact ended up asking for the camera back where you set up Tomboychik from the very beginning by giving your grandmother the camera. I wonder how conscious you were of this while you were making it because it seems to have this anti-polish or anti-mastered quality.
Sandi: It really just started out without me having very much technical training or equipment and being too impatient to wait to get it before I made a work. But I wasn't making a work. I was just making this home video with my grandmother. It just started out as this chronicle of my family history, but when that family history started surprising me, it became a video. Because I had no idea what was going to come out of my grandmother's mouth ‹ we had the traditional grandchild/grandmother relationship. I never knew that she thought of her gender in that way.
Mindy: Oh you didn't?
Sandi: No, no idea.
Mindy: But, why were the wigs there?
Sandi: Well it seems like it was shot in a day ‹ like it was just a trip to Grandma's. But it was shot over six months. So when she started telling me this history of her life and how she used to fight like a boy and push the boys into a puddle if they tried to get too fresh with her, it stirred my fantasies about having this completely queerified family ‹ this gender bending family. So, I started pushing it further by bringing the wigs and also playing with my own gender with her. I couldn't really come out and say it ‹ the words 'gay man' had no meaning for her. The wigs were just a way for us to have the queerest relationship together. And she loved it because she was so performative.
Mindy: Yeah, I know what you're talking about. When you watch Tomboychik at the end there is a desire, at least on my part, for you to come out to her and to push it further. But I think you are coming out as who you are in a way that only makes sense within your particular relationship through the process of making that tape. I understand this because the ways in which I first started worki-ng with my mom developed as a way of communicating which I couldn't do unless the camera was on. There is something about family life that is so coded and pre-determined and the thought of actually talking to her about how I felt was impossible. But when the camera entered the picture and I took on the role of setting up scenes and she became the actress, then this whole other kind of dynamic was made possible that allowed for communication, collaboration and dialogue. And it wouldn't have happened necessarily if the camera wasn't on.
Sandi: Because it is so true with your mom that she is such a savvy performer. She is so camera sharp and my grandmother wasn't.
Mindy: Oh I don't know ‹ I think she is camera sharp, actually. I think to you she is your grandmother, but to other people she's a charmer. And I think she is performing to a certain extent. Also remember that you may have worked six months with your grandmother but I started working with my mom in photographs and videos when I was a teenager, and she has gone from being inhibited in front of the camera to being very performative. This was a process, because the more we worked together the more she wanted to collaborate, and it shouldn't have surprised me that she would finally seize control of the camera after my constant probing about why she took everything out on me during my childhood. It was a logical step or a natural progression for her to do that. Because the fact is that she was being scrutinized by me armed with the camera, and her ability to finally break through that power relationship was born out of a long process of becoming familiar and comfortable. But you do it so instantaneously.
Sandi: But I do it instantaneously in the editing, because I did have an agenda. I don't want this to be a portrait of a pathetic old woman. I wanted her to have power from the start.
Mindy: There is something else that is interesting to me ‹ the fact that within the current field of media art and specifically within the area of queer media which has been very active for a long time now, Tomboychik still stands out as something very unique, because while there is a great deal of gay/lesbian work addressing the body and sexuality, there is very little work about family sexual history.
Sandi: For me the tape comes from living away from New York for four years and coming back to my neighborhood and my family now as a gay person. When I left four years before, I was straight. And upon my return I felt a need to queerify those institutions and those things that were rampantly hetereosexual. I'm so tired of the gay agenda these days and I just have no need for it.
Mindy: What is the gay agenda?
Sandi: Peter Friedman and I were speaking about the different generations in gay media. He felt that his generation was about creating a gay ghetto, while I felt the edge now is about leaving that gay ghetto and coming back to our communities and meshing our gay and lesbian sexuality with all the other identities that intersect it. My grandmother and I are Brooklyn boygirls, born and bred.

{A break in tape occurs here}

Mindy: Somehow I think that there are these very strict gender roles that our society defines as normal. And the more strict we are about these gender roles, the more false and unhealthy it is because people's needs are not really being served by these falsely constructed definitions. But I do think we need to understand the social and political context of people's lives in order to understand why they make the choices they do, rather than naming and blaming and risking further polarization.
Sandi: There is this part in Delirium where you talk about your social memory instead of personal memory and it's interesting how you take your localized family situation and talk about it in terms of madness, hysteria and how patriarchy defines that.
Mindy: Right, because from the very outset of the tape I announce my impetus for making the work was my frustration and anger at the fact that my mother blamed herself for her illness. But as a child growing up in that situation, it was so clear to me that this was a societal issue. And yet we live in a society that is so focused on the individual. And mental illness especially is always defined as an individualized problem right down to your DNA and genes. And the political structure is left off the hook. So it was very important to me to make this link, because in my mind personal memory and social memory were in the same camp.
Sandi: I wanted to explore ‹ and I think this is why Tomboychik is really different from other gay tapes that explicitly state "this is who we are" ‹ I wanted to explore the ambiguity about what happens when you wind up returning to your neighborhood where things just aren't clear cut. And I just think of my grandmother and how she had this 19th century view of sexuality in which you could be butch/femme, drag king/queen, but as long as you married and reproduced you were normal. My grandmother even told me that she didn't think she was a woman until she gave birth to my father. It was those little moments of undefinability of identity politics which were most interesting to me, and that's why I didn't want to include any theory or any text and just wanted to leave our footage raw.
Mindy: There is a certain way in which you don't need to introduce theory because your grandmother speaks the theory. There is something to be said for theory being formulated from art, events and communications rather than art replicating theory itself. I need to have a sense of discovery in video as a maker and as a viewer where the political agenda is not wholly decided from the onset. And that is something about Tomboychik that is really wonderful because you are right there discovering on par with you and it is not overdetermined where that discovery will lead you.
Sandi: With Delirium it's the playfulness that keeps your tape from being dogmatic.
Mindy: Primarly in my mind was this desire to strike a balance between emotion and theory and try to achieve this delicate tension between serious critique and playful humor. I was very conscious of audience and not really willing to relinquish any audience, I guess. I have always wanted to be able to show my work to people like my mom, and most audiences do respond whether they are initiated into the language of video or feminism or not. It's the subject that sustains interest.
July 1, 1994

The End (of Phone Conversation)
To: Mindy Faber
From: Sandi DuBowski

Dear Mindy,
Here are a few things that I had scrawled notes about, but didn't talk about in our impromptu interview ‹ which was really great. I hope it came out on tape. There are also a few things I can't remember if we discussed, so maybe when I look at the transcript I may add some more if that's 0K. Also included are some excerpts of more prose-y writing I had done after coming back to NY from visiting Nana in the hospital. Let me know if any of this is worth including. There was a course, at school‹ The Work of a Work of Art. Is our essay The Home of A Home Video?
I made Tomboychik under my parent's roof, behind their back, with their camera, and with their mother.
It had its New York premiere at MIX, The New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival, which was held at The Kitchen. After the screening, this 60ish year-old lesbian came up to me and said in a big Brooklyn accent, "Hi! I'm Ronnie. I knew your grandmother. I run a pesticide business. Here's my card." She went back to our coastal Brooklyn neighborhood and told everybody. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, at Temple Beth El, Dottie Schiff's grandson approached my parents and inquired, "So I hear Sandi made a film about your mother." (She had died a month before.) "Oh," my parents said, surprised. "It played at The Kitchen." My parents looked at each other and asked, "Whose kitchen?"
I hadn't been home for a few days. There were piles of tapes around, some reviews, evidence of emergency trips to the post office, but unless my parents snuck behind my back, they still haven't seen the tape. Independent media is not their world. The closest they came was when my father yanked my mother out of the theater after 10 minutes of My Own Private Idaho (probably because he got turned on by the blowjob scene).
But when the New York State Council of the Arts awarded Tomboychik a Media Distribution Grant, things in the household changed. For my parents, The Government had legitimized this work. The Government had proclaimed its blessed authority with a fat check. Despite the gay movement's "Marketing Moment!" and Christian Right propaganda (those two-person childless households making over $75,000 a year!), my parents associated homosexuality with downward mobility if not outright poverty. But then, I heard my Mom on the phone brag to a relative, "You know these young people today have things they want to say, messages they want to tell society."
If anything, the message of Tomboychik is oblique, ambiguous. Rather than being an academic project of reclaiming lost family sexual history, it's a chronicle of how Nana and I fell madly, fiercely in love over six months before she died, in all its wacky drag-esque gender-blending ways. Our relationship in its intimacy is central. Its small and poignant moments build into an intergenerational, queer message, rather than a message that dictates our moments.
The studio at 594 Broadway was an alternative home. The Airwaves Project ‹ ShuLea, Rea, Ela, David, and Kathy helped me visualize an active media community and provided me with the editing resources and advice which made making videos possible. Rea's friend was editing at the studio on the same system I had edited Tomboychik. I had just showed her Tomboychik the night before. She fell in love with my grandmother, her wink, the purse of her lips, the beret cocked over one eye. I called my answering machine and got two messages from my aunt, with a very shaky voice, "Sandi call me at Nana's. Something terrible has happened." No one was home. I called every hospital in Brooklyn. An hour later, my aunt arrived back after a long walk around the block. Nana had died. Five blocks away from my house, for five days, my aunt had watched her die, projectile vomiting on the wall, bleeding, unable to eat. She didn't call me because she wanted to protect me. I didn't get a chance to say goodbye. I was ensconced in my new home, one hour by D train away, with Nana trapped in a visual coffin. Eject, Rewind, Play. Eject, Rewind, Play. I'd avoided visiting for awhile. I was so busy editing, I said, but really I was scared of facing the truth of the hey hey girl's decline, and her eventual end. I was superstitious. I thought I caused her death by stealing her image and taking it into the borough she hadn't stepped foot into in 7 1/2 years. We had shot from September to January. In February, she had her first stroke, lost her memory and slurred her speech. In July, she died. Now I think Tomboychik is a living memorial and await the day when Nana and I will meet in some Jew heaven. She hasn't seen the entire tape, only the sections I showed her in the film, so I don't know if she'll press her lips to my neck for ten seconds and call me "loverboy," or call me a "good for nothing tramp."

I don't know why I grieve, bent over into the ground. It's not like she's there. For a time, I imagined she hid in my belly button, maybe curled in stray lint. On the day before the funeral my mother noticed a red spot on the ceiling in the family room. Aunt Miriam, Nana's sister, was lying on the couch, her position of the past 40 years, a schnorrer on a divan, expecting to be served. Mom got a sponge mop and I got a stepstool. But I claimed the spot was Nana clinging to the ceiling, the red of her blood refusing to leave the room. Mom snapped, "That's crazy," and Aunt Miriam just lay there weary for no reason. I climbed the stepstool to examine the mark and tried to fight Mom and the mop from wiping it away. I grabbed the handle and caused a smear of dirt, but at least prevented her total disappearance. Nan clung like a bug, or a bat, through the shiva period, watching her family gathered around her, even if she was 1/1000 of her original size.

To: Sandi DuBowski
From: Mindy Faber, Video data Bank

Dear Sandi:
I just finished your letter and the part about how when Nana died, and you thought you had caused her death through video. My mother didn't die, but she came as close as you can get. Within 12 hours of completing post production on Delirium, I got word that mom was in the hospital barely surviving pulmonary edema and was being prepared for quadrupal by-pass surgery. I flew down to Kentucky immediately. I was unable to watch or show Delirium to anyone else until my mom was released from the hospital several weeks later. At that moment, I thought mom's heart attack was punishment for my selfishness. But my mom assured me that it isn't the freezing of a person into a visual image that causes death. She told me as she lay in her hospital bed before surgery that the videos "we made together" freed her to die knowing that she was leaving something important behind "besides having kids." I was never quite sure until that moment
how important these videos had become to her. I think it is also possible that your Nana was freed up to die by the making of Tomboychik and by the importance you placed
on seeing her and hearing her stories. She must have known that ‹ in you ‹ she had a way to live on.
You also spoke of making a video behind your parents' backs with their camera and their mother. I, too, have always felt naughty when I made videos and photographs with and of my mom, because the process revealed family secrets and violated taboos of loyalty and privacy. But I also knew that I needed to show Delirium to every member of my family when I was done because even if it was painful, knowing they would see it would force me to stay honest. You asked me what scenes did my mom generate? In some ways this is like asking at what points did you as a videomaker, relinquish control or perhaps remain honest? This is somewhat difficult to answer. I have always worked with my mom in a fairly controlling way. I set up scenes and ask her, like an actress, to perform the roles. But I justified this by thinking of these scenes as way to initiate a dialogue with her although I was probably more interested in indoctrinating her with feminism than in really listening to her. So again with Delirium I had certain preconceived ideas which were informed by various feminist and psychoanalytic writings, and I began to script in my old familiar way based on these ideologies that I sought to illustrate. But my mom had become a video veteran by now and no longer contentedly and unquestioningly performed the script which I provided. She questioned the why's and how's of everything and continuously offered her suggestions throughout the taping process. The struggle to be honest and relinquish control for me was just that ‹ a struggle.
€ I taped a three hour interview with my mom, but was dead set against using any of that footage until I realized I absolutely had to a week before my final edit session.
€ When my mom asked for the camera during one of our last shooting sessions the scene before she seized the camera was supposed to go like this:
Mom: I'm simply incommensurable with the world.
Mindy: But why did you take it out on me?
Mom: Oh Mindy I just taught you the female role of submission like all mothers do.

But instead of saying this last line she demanded the camera and said as she pointed the lens at me:
Mom: I never took anything out on you. Your'e a perfectly normal little child. I took everything out on me.

I think this scene became one of the most powerful and critical moments in the tape and her assertiveness at departing from the script forced a different structure for the tape. The ending that I had already decided upon and did end up using actually falls flat once I take the camera back because I reimpose this stubborn but simplistic conclusion that her mental illness could be read as a rebellion against patriarchy. Her own reading ‹ that the only real pain suffered here was by her and any rebellion present was internally directed against herself ‹ is a much more complex and painful expression than the one I wanted to present.
With Delirium I felt like I began to learn to use video as a way of listening as much as telling because the subject was my mom .