An Evening with Eve Studnicka: Part One

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One perfect day in November- comfortably cold, cloudy, and with wind that made any long-coated pedestrian look like a noir detective- I sat down for a three hour conversation with Eve Studnicka. Up till then we’d said about a dozen words to each other total, but had been orbiting around one another for a year and a half (it feels like so much longer). Through shared classes and acquaintances we “knew” each other, but didn’t know each other.

I’m not a particularly social person, but the idea of resolving this awkward secondhand acquaintanceship for the sake of content seemed even less viable than normal. From my seat two rows behind and six seats to the right, Eve always seemed like a protagonist amongst side characters. Her personality, charisma, even fashion sense just suggested that we were merely players in her story and that after our class she’d go off on another weekly adventure with her formulaically diverse group of friends.

Nonetheless, I summoned the courage to invite her and she, without second thought, accepted. Not wanting to be left in the dark, asking questions that could easily be googled, I did just that. Through my research I found out that she wrote for her local paper as a film critic at the age of 14, that she’d made three documentaries (more including shorts), and a whole score of information that altered our dynamic from acquaintanceship to stalker/stalkee. (Don’t be a stalker like me, but check out her website!)

Even after sitting down and putting a person to the personality, I can’t quite shake my protaganist-esque impression of her. Her inexplicable and inspirational nature makes it hard for me to cut the interview any more than I have. Unsure of what makes her interesting to listen to, I fear leaving it out. Hopefully after reading/listening to this interview, you’ll understand better than I do. Enjoy!

Interview Part 1: Download Here

 

So you grew up in a small town in Illinois?

Yeah, I grew up in a town named Chillicothe. It’s outside Peoria and it’s one of those places where there’s 17 churches, a McDonalds, and that’s about all you get.

But before that you lived in the city of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, which plays a big part in your life at this point. You just wrapped the Driftless Film Festival there, how did that go?

It went fantastic! So in addition to documentary filmmaking, which is something that I’m really passionate about, my primary focus is film festival administration and event co-ordination. I’m the Festival Director of the Driftless Film Festival, this is our sixth year and it was amazing. We had a wonderful turnout. We had people coming up from Chicago, who I didn’t even know, who’d just heard about the festival and wanted to explore the region. There were young people coming in from universities and in general we had a much more diverse audience, which I think is due to the programming. We had more edgy programming this year than we did previously and I think that was conducive to a younger audience.

It just went super well. We had a bunch of after-parties that were non-traditional. We had a burlesque show and we had a young duo of bluegrass singers called the Driftless Sisters come in. Both those shows were packed so we were really happy with how it went this year. I’m kinda blissed out right now.

I think that the concept of Driftless, a film festival in the middle of Wisconsin, was interesting but finding out more about Mineral Point as a community was really fascinating because it’s this small culture of artsy people in, frankly, the middle of nowhere. You don’t expect that kind of community in Wisconsin or the Midwest in general.

Yeah, you’re totally right. It’s a small arts community, there’s about 50 working artists in this town of 2000 people in the hills of southwest Wisconsin. It’s totally unexpected. It’s a rural farming area so you kind of anticipate this culture of right-wing conservatives, but really it’s this town that was founded by immigrants and gradually became a really sustainable artist community over the last 70 years. My parents were both artists there, so this idea of successful arts platforms in the Midwest is sort of ingrained in me and especially them being something that’s a little bit different and offbeat from the mainstream stuff coming out of New York, LA, or other prolific art communities.

So how does a city like Mineral Point actually survive? It doesn’t seem like that kind of community in the middle of the Midwest would have enough of a draw to sustain itself.

Well I think as Midwesterners we’re bored. It’s very difficult to travel, because travelling costs money, and we have families and things that we need to tend to, so going to seek out art in these other regions isn’t possible in a lot of cases. So to have something in your backyard is amazing, it’s a hidden gem.

A little bit of the history is that during the Depression the WPA was tearing down all these old Cornish stone miners’ cottages that were considered beautiful architecture in the town. There was a gay couple that came into town and started purchasing up these buildings for really cheap and restoring them to their original condition, which became a really successful venture. Artists started seeing that there were all these buildings that were cheap and aesthetically pleasing, which were the perfect place for them to create work, build studios, and to work with their hands to build an environment that was inspiring for them. A lot of those people are still in town today and it’s wonderful to connect with them. I’ve known them my whole life and I’m kinda smitten.

Well I would hope so, you did a documentary on the town after all. So your parents were both artists, how did that influence the way that you grew up and did they particularly drive you to pursue filmmaking?

That’s a whole can of worms. My mom was a potter and my dad was an abstract muralist and painter so they were kinda from two different camps. My mom did more functional art, beautiful pieces but they had functionality to them. My dad was more on the fringe and doing these huge abstract stretch canvases in barns that he had to cut down to even get out of the doorway, really pushing the envelope. Then they had kids. They had me and then my sister when I was three, which was the year we moved out of Mineral Point. As working artists it’s really difficult to sustain a family, but my dad was also an engineer and a mechanic at the time, so he went back to school and got a job at Caterpillar as a mechanical engineer.

Both my parents stopped doing art when we moved to Illinois, but that focus on the importance of art and having it in my life was an underlying current for my upbringing and it gave me that artistic mindset, that open-mindedness about the world. That was all there, but being kind of deprived of being around art in general, I think that pushed me towards seeking it out on my own. There was a long period before I started exploring film that I was just very depressed, lonely, and at odds with myself and the world because there was none of that vibrancy of creative endeavors to make me feel validated or feel like I was doing anything with my life.

So the paradigm you grew up with is that artistic achievement is the best kind of achievement?

Well I think it’s more achievement that pushes you, pushes other people, and that involves collaboration. Achievements that involve mental, physical, and emotional things that frighten you, are interesting to you, or are engaging to you. That’s the best kind of achievement and that happens to be, for me at least, in creative work.

Interesting. So you were talking about being depressed and lonely and I know that for a time you were homeschooled, so how did entering back into the public school system affect your mind or your artistic development?

I never went back to public school actually. What happened is that I started out in public school and then I went to a Montessori school and then after I aged out of the Montessori school my parents decided to homeschool me. That was 6th grade. Being homeschooled was a total journey.

It was a total fucking journey because I started out in Montessori being a very, for lack of a better term, popular person. I was eccentric and weird, and the oldest person in the school. I had this great friend group and it was just this great social experience. Then I became homeschooled and I was very detached from my social group. This was before I had a cell phone, before Facebook was really a thing, and I didn’t have email. So I had no way to get in touch with all these people I met in Montassori, and obviously I’m in 6th grade so I don’t have a car. It was limiting and for the first three years my parents didn’t really know.

My mom was the one who was educating me and my dad would work during the day and then help out at night. She didn’t know anything about teaching and homeschooling; she just had the bravery to do this on her own because she knew this would be beneficial for me. I was a horrible child. I was absolutely atrocious to her for the first three years because I was lonely, insecure, and going through puberty. I didn’t have anybody to talk to about this; nobody who was my own age could be that necessary sounding board for people going through that kind of thing, so I felt really alone. My mom would try to get me involved with groups in the area like 4H or Girl Scouts and that was not my cup of tea but really that’s all that was provided in Central Illinois. Probably around 8th grade I started writing for the local paper as a film critic and that was the turning point, when I started feeling like there was something I was doing in my life that was worthwhile.

It’s really hard to be self-motivated when you don’t feel like the work you are doing is making any impact on anybody, but at that point: when you have a deadline, when you’re being held accountable by somebody else, when you’re trying to impress an audience, when you’re trying to share what information you’ve gleaned from whatever it is you’re studying and watching and learning about; that’s when you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. That’s when the depression starts to alleviate and that’s when things become a little bit brighter. Through that I found the confidence to start doing more production work, I got involved in an art organization in town, and everything just blossomed from there. So yeah there was a very definitive partition between shitty homeschooling experience and the best educational experience I ever could have had and I would never go back and change that for anything. I think being homeschooled is one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Was there any awkwardness getting back into social circles with people or maybe even coming to college and getting back to a full on educational environment?

No, I was so starved for that kind of interaction, so it was easy. It just sort of happened, but I was worried about that. I didn’t know what an academic environment was like that wasn’t in my bedroom. So for a few semesters in high school I took a couple college classes to just make sure I wasn’t going to have a fucking breakdown and be like “Oh my god I’m in a classroom and I don’t know how to handle myself,” which did not happen. I did really well. Coming to Chicago and Columbia, it was like the world just exploded. It was like everything I could have possibly wanted my life to be just started happening. There were all these people, these creative minds, who had done things I’d had only thought of doing or never even thought of. There’s this validation that comes from seeing the things that you want to do being done by people who are doing them well. It was… tremendous.

So why did you choose Columbia?

Man, it is so difficult to explain what I felt when I came to Columbia. It was this inexplicable energy that you aren’t going to get from any pamphlet or brochure or pitch. It was this vibrancy, maybe it was being in downtown Chicago, maybe it the staff and faculty, but I felt like it was a place where I could make my own rules, where I could customize my learning experience to what I needed. I could push myself as far as I wanted, have the resources to do so, and seek out opportunities on my own terms. I could make connections with people who genuinely gave a shit about me, not just because it was their job, and that’s exactly what happened. I can not imagine myself going to any other school because, just from the faculty I know, I could scroll through my phone at 4am if anything serious happened and call upon any number of people to help me.

It’s that sense that college education is not just academic, it’s a transitional period in your life. You are going from childhood to adulthood and it’s complicated, difficult, and scary. I think that a lot of professors I’ve met at Columbia, everyone that I’ve had classes with or that I’ve put myself in constant communication with, understand that and know that it’s not just their job to help me with assignments or information, but to support me as a whole person in my endeavors, inside or outside the classroom, and in my challenges and struggles as a human being. I don’t know if other colleges do that, but I’m very grateful to have found that here.

Wow the way you make it sound, I actually want to go to Columbia. I want to talk about the most recent short you did “Night Smokers of Chicago,” because while I haven’t seen it, it sounds really good, especially after researching it. Essentially you just went around at night, talked to people outside of bars and clubs, and they got surprisingly personal, probably because they were drunk.

Yeah, they got personal because… well there’s something that happens when you’re out late at night, possibly a little intoxicated, but mostly really tired and probably alone. We did talk to a lot of people who were just alone. I think the thing is that you’re a little bit delirious, regardless of any substances or anything at that time of night. You’re tired, your walls are down a bit, and you want to be affirmed by somebody. I think that’s a necessity, a need that’s present in all of us all the time, but we try to cover it up and we try to make it less apparent because we want to be self-sufficient, we want to look strong. That need is to get the validation that comes from telling one’s story to someone who’s receptive, interested, and not obligated to give a shit. I think that’s why people were so willing to be open with us. I did not expect that. I did not know any of that shit before we started shooting. It was a total surprise to hear these stories from people who were just wandering around. I would go up to them and I would say “Hey can I ask you a really personal question while we shove this camera in your face” and everyone, except maybe a handful of people, said yes.

You obviously didn’t expect the response that you got, so what was the idea going into filming this?

I was sitting in the bathtub when I was 16 and I thought “Gosh, the title ‘The Night Smokers of Chicago’ would be really cool to have in a film. I should that.” Then I never did anything with it until I got into a Documentary Projects class. It was at that moment that I realized “Oh shit, I have to make a documentary.” I hadn’t made a documentary in a while, I had mostly been producing Michael Flynn’s art-house/grindhouse/fiction/horror shorts that I had a blast doing, but none of it was really my vision. That title came back to me and it seemed like a really straight-forward process that was going to be challenging in all the ways I needed to be challenged, but not so complicated that it was intimidating. I just kinda went with it from there, assembled the best crew in the whole fucking universe, and just had a blast making this film.

When you are going about a project, what is it you’re trying to do per say? What are you trying to get from your subjects or from the film in general?

I don’t feel like I’m really a documentary filmmaker, because I don’t feel like that’s the focal point of my life. I do love it a lot, and now that I’m doing it more I’m starting to think more about what my intent is as a filmmaker. I think that the intent is to provide a space for people to tell their stories authentically, and that space is for people who typically might not have that opportunity otherwise. I feel like this is a through-line through all the stuff I’ve worked on, but I’m really fascinated by the idea of The Island of Lost Toys. The outsider, the underground space, the places where people who aren’t accepted by the mainstream feel comfortable, accepted, and loved. The interesting nuances of their lives, not in that superficial/sensationalist way, but in the sense that there is a lot of universal truth that can come from people whose experiences lend themselves to vulnerability more than this façade we all assume because we want to make our lives accepted by the world we live in… if that makes any sense.

It totally does. You also do burlesque photography, and I’m bringing this up because I think it relates to your aforementioned need to capture moments of humanity.

Yeah, I like to capture moments of humanity that are not widely accepted as being valuable and you see that a lot in burlesque. It’s a visibility of bodies that is more honest and empowering than what the typical view of bodies is in this culture, which are commodified and very polished images of what humans are “supposed to look like.” You see this in marketing, you see this in media, but you don’t see what people actually look like and that’s a challenge, I’m sure, for a lot of people who go into burlesque. It’s bearing themselves as reality in this world that accepts something else as a beauty standard. I think it’s really humbling to be able to take pictures of those moments where people are exposing themselves and being empowered, creating art and being passionate about what they do, being subversive and defying the system that tells them that this is not beautiful. I’m really honored to do that because I think there’s a tender space in a lot of instances.

To continue on this humanity thread, I saw a small quote talking about your documentary on Mineral Point, Of Some Fair Place, and how you were preserving the stories of the people there. Is preservation of stories/humanity important to you when doing documentary?

Oh gosh, not while I’m doing it, but in retrospect? Yeah. I don’t like losing people, losing things, and even the idea of loss, as inevitable as it is. I find value in so much of the world that is temporary that maybe there is some assurance I get from knowing that because I’ve created something they exist in they’re fossilized forever and I can avoid that sense of loss. Shit man, that was profound.

That’s all for now folks! Check out Part Two! In the meantime, check out Eve’s site, facebook, and instagram! If you wish, you can find me on facebook and twitter!

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The Act of Killing (2013) Review

I rarely review documentaries and there’s a very good reason for that. I don’t watch that many documentaries. It takes either a great doc or a topic I’m very interested in to get me to engage in a documentary and those tend to be rare. However, since 4 out of the 5 Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature are on Netflix, I thought I’d give them a go. First up is The Act of Killing, a debut film for director Joshua Oppenheimer.

The Act of Killing documents the making of a film about the 1960s hunt for Communists in Indonesia, but what’s intriguing is that it’s made by the gangsters who tortured and killed said Communists. Our main subject is Anwar Congo, a man who undergoes shocking personal growth concerning the atrocities he’s committed as he reenacts them for the film. Thats not all to this film as in the background we see the truth behind the corrupt government, ignorant and afraid populace, and the paramilitary groups that rule the streets.

Let me start off by saying that this is probably the most important documentary to come out this year in terms of its subject matter. It’s a topic not previously sensationalized by the media like The Square, a look at something we already had inklings about like Dirty Wars, and it’s definitely not a small film like Cutie and the Boxer (Keep in mind I haven’t seen these yet, these are just broad statements based on trailers/plot summaries). It provides a shocking look into a topic we in the West know little about and it shows it with honesty and with the consent of the subjects. They offer up this info very willingly and their image is like an afterthought, but the image they want is very much the truth of what they are. It’s a brilliant examination of crimes both past and present and how one society can be so fucked over by itself.

On the other hand… this is really slow. It’s very slow for the purposes of letting it’s images sink in, but for me at least the themes and ideas were very basic and didn’t need the considerable time given to them. What really dragged the film down from a story perspective is the plight of the subjects and the making of their film. Watching these blundering fools stumble through filmmaking just isn’t that interesting to watch and only occasionally are important monologues with interesting stories placed over them. These people just didn’t engage me as interesting subjects. Anwar’s growth as a person was still amazing to watch and especially towards the end of the movie do we get a real resolution and feeling of accomplishment, but the whole “second act” is a drag to watch. For me at least.

I would be absolutely fine with this winning Best Documentary, but I think it’s appeal to a mainstream audience is limited. Despite the paradox, I must conceit that you should absolutely watch this movie, even though you won’t really enjoy it. It’s a shocking examination of cruelty and self-proclaimed sadism in the real world. This isn’t a horror movie, or a mob movie, this is real life and I think everyone should see this to understand the kind of dark things that are actually out there. As stated before The Act of Killing is on Netflix Instant.

Exit through the Gift Shop (2010) Review

Despite my fascination with art, it is rare that I actually go in depth with it. That is until I heard an NPR story a few months back about Banksy, a British street artist whose ambitious works of art provide fascinating social commentary. This inspired me to look into the unusual displays of art he had and he’s now one of my favorite artists (next to my girlfriend of course ;). So when I discovered Exit through the Gift Shop on Netflix, I had to check it. Strangely enough, this isn’t a documentary about Banksy, but rather the man who “tried” to make a documentary about him and in the end proved to be just as fascinating on his own.

Thierry Guetta is a man with a fascinating psychological urge to record everything and every moment. In the early 2000s he starts tagging along with his graffiti artist cousin “Space Invader” further and further into the world of street art. As he falls down this rabbit hole he decides to make a street art documentary and that the crown jewel of this film will be an interview with the world famous Banksy. Eventually he gets his chance, and his ensuing friendship with the Graffitist allows him to get the ultimate street art thrill ride. With attention on Street Art rising, Banksy urges him to finish the film, but when he does the result… isn’t exactly pleasing. While Banksy is busy remaking the movie, Guetta is allowed to start creating his own art and from there launches a massive campaign under the name “Mr. Brainwash.” Through his connections Guetta takes the LA art scene by storm, despite his insane business decisions and his derivative work.

Thanks to its unique framing, the documentary works extremely well. It’s told with the thousands of hours of footage Guetta has recorded over the years and is accompanied by interviews with Guetta, his family, Banksy and several colleagues. As we follow this mans life we’re mystified by the fact that no one saw his true nature… not as a seeming documentarian, but as a mentally scarred man. He asks the dumbest questions, he does the most intrusive things, and all around acts insane, but somehow he manages to capture the hearts and minds of the street artists who just want a log of their work. Guetta is a thoroughly unlikeable character in my opinion. He goes from being this naïve, but interfering nitwit to this self-centered exploiter who ignores his family and abuses his friends’ work because he wants to be just like they are. It’s clear once he becomes a “street artist” that he has no artistic vision. What gives the simplistic pop art or the unusually designed street art its artistic merit is not just the image itself, but the thought behind it, the intent. Guetta has no concept of this, simply making changes to pre-existing images (like a studio executive does to a script) and then handing it off to someone else to actually create, loosing any artistic merit for even creating the image itself since it’s not his. Yet somehow… you don’t really hate him. He’s just a goofy man riding on a trend. He’s extremely lucky, but if it wasn’t him it no doubt would have been someone else.

What Banksy wanted from Guetta was an accurate portrayal of what street art was supposed to mean during a time where it was being sold for thousands of dollars. What he got in return was a 90 minute nightmare trailer. Hence him sending Guetta off to do something else. While Guetta’s film failed, I think that this movie does, through contrast, establish what Street Art is supposed to be. We see that the people around Guetta have clear passion and that carries through to the moments in Banksy’s studio where we see the real processes behind the creation of these pieces. However, it’s not until we see Guetta in his studio and at his gallery that this message really clicks. Guetta is almost the opposite of what a Street Artist is supposed to be and by using the inverse of him, as well our impressions from the previous artists, we can gain a clear image of what those weird pieces of Graffiti are supposed to stand for and who the people behind them really are.

Exit through the Gift Shop is well made, but with all documentaries it’s the content that counts and Guetta provides no shortage of fascinating content. The art on screen is beautiful to look at, the artists are fun to watch, and Guetta’s commentary both behind and in front of camera is addicting to listen to, like watching a train crash. The moral of the film is clear and in my opinion an important one that pertains not only to the world of Street Art, but Art in general. If you are vaguely interested in Graffiti, have heard of Banksy, or are just looking for a good character piece then Exit through the Gift Shop is definitely worth checking out.