Queer/Art/Mentorship: How Mentoring Emerging Queer Artists Helps Them... And Me

Why join Ira Sachs and Lily Binns in Queer/Art/Mentorship? Because what Werner Herzog and Alan J. Pakula did for me when I was just out of college was simple. They said (though not in these exact words), "You go, girl!"
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Twenty years ago, after seven years of filmmaking, I finished a film called Paris Is Burning, about the Harlem drag balls and the dance known as "voguing." At the time, I hadn't a clue that anyone aside from me would want to see the film. I didn't think it would be a hit or go on to have a "long tail." I knew one thing: a fashion subculture that had more to say about mainstream America than mainstream America had to say about itself was a story that needed to be told. And it took seven years of fighting to get it done.

Fighting? "Aren't you being a bit of a drama queen?" asks the reader. "You're saying making a film is like pushing a big rock up a mountain?" Yes! That's what I'm saying. "And why is that?" Well, it's hard to make things that don't look like other things that have already been made. You have to find the resources, and you have to convince people you're not crazy for wanting to do it! It helps to talk to people who've been there. I mean, it's your rock. But they can encourage you not to let go.

People did that for me. When I was 22, I wrote a letter to director Werner Herzog in Munich, and a few weeks later he happened to be on his way to New York. In a Chinatown restaurant, he urged me to "steal a camera," as he'd done to make Aguirre: The Wrath of God. (I rented.) My uncle, the director Alan J. Pakula, who made films like The Parallax View and Sophie's Choice, also encouraged me. Actually, at first he discouraged me -- telling me, with love and candor, that film was hell. But when I persevered, he cheered me on. From these guys I got neither training nor funding, but a kind of thumbs-up.

What I didn't have, mentor-wise, was anyone who looked like me. Once, at my public high school, a filmmaker from France, Diane Kurys, screened Peppermint Soda. A film about girls! Directed by a woman! When I started directing in the mid '80s, 7 percent of films in release in the U.S. were directed by women. Now it's 5 percent. This stat should be moving in the other direction, by far more than 2 percent.

So why join Ira Sachs and Lily Binns in Queer/Art/Mentorship, a new group that pairs and supports advanced-career and emerging, queer, working artists in New York City? Because what Werner and Alan did for me when I was just out of college was simple. They said (though not in these exact words), "You go, girl!" Right now, I'm mentoring Edward McDonald, a veteran who left the military under Don't Ask Don't Tell. He works in both fiction and nonfiction and is making a documentary about two men having a child through surrogacy. It's a queer story I've not yet seen. Another Q/A/M film mentee, Hima B, is chronicling the lives of San Francisco sex workers, using compelling storytelling techniques from hidden cameras to animation.

I'm looking forward to knowing their work, and also to hearing their thoughts on my own work in progress, Earth Camp One, a memoir -- with animation -- about how I lost four family members in five years. I'm now three weeks into an ambitious five-week fundraising campaign for that film through Kickstarter, the website built to "fund and follow creativity." Talk about pushing a rock up a mountain and needing my community for support! So while I'm the mid-career artist and they're the emerging artists, Edward has already successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign for that documentary he's shooting. As someone who's made five films, I have much to offer, and also much to learn from engaging with a community of artists from different backgrounds and generations.

No matter who you are or what you're doing, there's no formula (although in the arts, a bit more European-style public funding would help, but that's another blog post). We've all got our rocks to push, but one of the blessings of queer identity and queer life is having what James Baldwin called "a capacity for experience." And having community. Clearly that's not just an LGBT thing. Q/A/M is not about knowing in advance who people are, or what stories they need to tell. It's about being open, the same way the best filmmakers, like sculptors, find the figure hidden in the stone.

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