CampbellX and her 'Stud Life' feature
I was very excited when I saw CampbellX’s Stud Life in New Zealand’s Out Takes Film Festival programme. I’ve been longing to see it. And wanted to see it for the first time on a big screen because when I’ve seen some of Campbell’s earlier work online it’s seemed very cinematic. Too cinematic for my laptop.
An actor, cinematographer, curator and writer, Campbell's directed BD Women (1994), Viva Tabatha (1995), Ragga Gyal D'bout! (2006), Legacy (2006), Fem (2007), Paradise Lost (2007) and Broken Chain (a collaboration with writer Mark Norfolk 2008). She also collaborates with other directors, including Cheryl Dunye and Lisa Gornick.
For me, Campbell is also a visionary. Her Radical Film Manifesto has inspired me and her social media practices have provided me with models to follow. And as I write this on Mothers Day, I'm reminded that there are diverse definitions of 'motherhood' and that we need to keep track of our filmmaker matrilineage; Campbell's certainly in that lineage as far as I'm concerned.
Campbell was the first woman filmmaker I knew of who crowd-funded for a feature and who built a strong community around that. The tagline for her Blackman Vision site is the breathtaking ‘when the lioness can tell her story, the hunter no longer controls the tale’. I love Isis Asare's Sistah Cinema interview with Campbell and two actors from Stud Life, T'Nia Miller and Robyn Kerr. It's embedded below – comprehensive, beautiful, illuminating and inspiring. I strongly recommend it as the go-to watch, especially if you're a filmmaker yourself. But here’s a little Q & A as well.
Q: You’re a writer of fiction and non-fiction, a curator, and have made non-fiction short films. What drew you to long-form work and to fiction? Why a feature film rather than a novel or a webseries?
A: I love the accessibility of the moving image and the ability to tell stories with pictures and sound. I love to work with actors and the collaboration with different team members to create something bigger and better than my screenplay. There is also something to watching a movie in the cinema with an audience sharing a collective experience. We as humans still have the ancient need within us that craves storytelling around a fire. The fire has just been replaced by the silver screen or the glowing TV set/computer screen.
I would love to do a webseries some day. I think there is something to be said for short episodes which people can carry around with them on their hand held devices. It is rather reminiscent of the way Charles Dickens told stories and I quite like that.
|T'Nia Miller and Robyn Kerr |
photo: Paula Harrowing
Q: You’ve said that Stud Life is a homage to Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It and Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies And Videotape. You’ve also referred to it as a rom com. What drew you to comedy and what aspects of She's Gotta Have It and Sex, Lies And Videotape are you especially paying homage to?
I am not really drawn to comedy. LOL. It just happened that what I wrote made people laugh! She's Gotta Have It was a film where Spike Lee took a risk to tell his own story and used some monologues with people talking to camera. I used the same device but updated it for the 21st Century by making the lead character use vlogging on YouTube. With Sex Lies and Videotape am inspired by the self reflexive way of documenting oneself. In Stud Life it is done using photography. JJ (the stud lesbian and lead character played by T'Nia Miller) is a wedding photographer so that is her job, but she is also documenting her life with video and photographs. The actual wedding photographs are taken by Del La Grace Volcano.
Q: In an After Ellen interview, you said
I try to create a Black queer aesthetic which means I reject the white LGBT way of looking at Black LGBT culture in particular and Black culture in general. And that is a challenge because I am going against the grain in many ways.What does a Black queer aesthetic means to you?
A: A Black queer aesthetic means a way of telling stories and using certain images that go against the grain of a Eurocentric heteronormative transphobic vision. So in my films dark-skinned women will be represented, masculine females, trans people, fat women, older women etc. All those people generally erased from dominant Hollywood studio based cinema. Stud Life is a story of friendship between a Black lesbian and a white gay man. Both demographics that are normally pitted against each other. I refuse to play by those divide and conquer rules. Through my films I want people to see the humanity of LGBT, QPOC and women and realise that our stories are universal. We have been brainwashed to think only straight white male imaginings represent the entire human experience! Filmmakers like Tina Mabry, Dee Rees and Cheryl Dunye have a Black queer aesthetic in their filmmaking.
|Who did you wake up with, your lover or your best friend? Kyle Treslove and T'Nia Miller|
photo: Paula Harrowing
Q: Part of your storytelling, according to the interview with Sistah Sinema, is about playing with form and content, fiction and documentary. I loved it when you said something like ‘We’re here, don’t forget us, don’t forget us, never forget us. We have a legacy'. And I loved hearing about the role of Del La Grace Volcano’s work in the film, about writing his images back into history, through the wedding photographs and images on the wall. It will enrich my viewing to go in with that info. Can you write a little bit about how and why you did this? You also included London queer iconic figures – celesbians, celebtrans – including NZ’s Stella Duffy for similar reasons, I think. But those of us who live outside the UK may not recognize them so it’d be good to know about them so we can engage more fully with their presence.
A: I am impatient with our now as LGBTQI seeming obsession with the culture of celebrity as created by dominant mainstream media. They choose people who are safe and often do often not challenge a capitalistic notion of what success means irrespective of sexual orientation, age, gender presentation, ethnicity etc. We have people who have been contributing to LGBTQI culture for decades and without their work our culture would have been much poorer. Because they are not on the cover of Vogue or Elle Glamour does not mean their contribution is not valuable. In addition there are people in the film who are our allies and came to support the making of this film and we appreciate this as well, as allies often get left off the list. Stud Life is an archive within a film. :-) It's like the graffitti on the mainstream wall to say “we were here!”
The Kiwis in Stud Life are Stella Duffy who is an amazing writer, and is one of the polyamorous couples.
And Nikki Lucas who is a DJ in one of the club scenes runs Liberte and Habibi.
Mzz Kimberley is a transwoman who is in the first wedding scene, she is an amazing performer. One of the bouncers in the club is Topher Campbell who is a writer/director and filmmaker and one of the founding members of Rukus! Federation an archive for Queer people of Color in the UK. Naechanè is a transman musician and is the person Elle is dancing with in the club initially and is her fuck buddy. DJ Misty B is the other DJ in the film who plays in the legendary gay club Heaven.
Kathleen Bryson who plays the drunken Leila is a filmmaker and writer.
In the polyamorous wedding Julie McNamara who has the transman lover is a playwright and the transman is played by performance artist Lazlo Pearlman.
Doña Croll in the barber scene is one of our well known and revered UK Black actresses and we were blessed to have her play a cameo role in the film. She is a wonderful ally and super supportive.
Paula Harrowing who took the production stills and provided that epic photo which is now our poster image was a club promoter for legendary club nights and is now a fashion and film photographer.
The wedding photographs were taken by iconic queer photographer De La Grace Volcano and his early photos are on the walls of the apartments.
The sex toys in the film were provided by Babes n Horny who make bespoke sex toys, as well as Good Vibrations.
We were blessed to have Mick Clark as our music supervisor who was responsible for signing Soul 2 Soul among almost all the other numerous soul acts in the UK. Our wonderful music in the film came from Be Steadwell who is also a filmmaker and musician, EvOn the Music Bully who runs LGBT Underground which promotes LGBT underground musicians and Potential Productionz who promotes up and coming artists. Zemmy came with love and support, Star AKA Fresh provides the first song you hear in a club in Stud Life.
Cleis Press and Alyson Books were so supportive to us, and we were lucky to have Lulu Belliveau as one of our producers who was one of the originators of Quim magazine There is an image from one of my own previous films and the photo is taken by Laurence Jaugey-Paget.
Elle's beautiful clothes were provided by Gisella Couture.
|T'Nia Miller and Robyn Kerr |
photo: Paula Harrowing
If you do a Google search 'lesbian sex' the majority of what comes up in the first page is pornography created for a straight male market. Lesbian sex and sexuality has been overwhelmingly appropriated to be used as a sex toy for a heterosexual male gaze. It thus reinforces the widely held idea that 'lesbian sex' is not real sex as there is no bio-cock involved. Gay male sex and sexuality does not suffer from this theft. So this is not an issue about homophobia. It is clearly about the need for women's sexuality to be controlled and confined within a heterosexist and heteronormative paradigm. This rigid framework dictates what 'real sex' is and what a 'sexy woman' should look like.
Stud Life uses a dark-skinned masculine woman and creates her as the one who is sexy and potent yet is also subverted by her vulnerability. She is a stone butch aka 'touch me not stud', a specific lesbian sexual expression. Her femme lover is aggressive in her own love of pussy and she is not afraid to make that known. The sex scenes in Stud Life are not classic (white) 'girl-on-girl' action much beloved of mainstream representation. There is a BDSM scene around trust and control and another intimate scene where body boundaries are discussed. These sex scenes will not be in any mainstream porn movie any time soon.
Stud Life also features a blow job and internet sex with gay men. It is a film about London queer life which would not be complete without that Internet hook up, now would it?
Q: I love it that Del La Grace Volcano writes ‘I believe in crossing the line as many times as it takes to build a bridge we can all walk across’ and think that may be a good description of your work too, in all its facets? Is that partly what drives your work, including your choice of characters? At the very end of the Sistah Sinema interview you say that you wanted to move away from ‘straight’ drama (in two senses?) to portray queer bodies and coloured bodies away from ‘issues’. Can you write a little bit about that?
A: I think there is a reading of the Black body in films as an 'issue'. We are supposed to represent a problem that has to be solved, sympathized with or rescued by the white viewer. Nobody in Stud Life actually wants or needs to be rescued. They are all living their colorful and crazy lives and enjoying it. It is a story about love and friendship that happens to be dominated by LGBT people of all colours and nationalities as well as by straight characters too. The scene in the barbershop is telling as it goes counter to the narrative that ALL black people are homophobic because our culture is innately so. Every human being can relate to at least one character in Stud Life and has done so, from the feedback I have received from various screenings.
|Campbell & cast doing a Q & A at LLGFF|
Q: Is Stud Life partly about the way ethnic and racial diapsoras in London combine with the diasporas of queers from their heterosexual birth communities?
A: Stud Life is setting the record straight about London! No pun intended. Heh! It is saying London is about diversity. London is full of people who come here to escape the provincial narrowness, to be around other immigrants, to be meet other queers and to participate in a cultural life not possible anywhere else in the UK.
25% of London is comprised of ethnic minorities where it is 8% for the whole of the UK. So it is interesting when you see films set in London there is an ethnic cleansing going on when you rarely see people of colour unless the film is labelled ‘urban’. This happens whether the film is LGBT or not! In Stud Life I wanted to queer the ‘urban’ experience and put some racial diversity into the LGBT filmic experience.
Q: You’ve referred to London slang in Stud Life. Can you talk a little bit about London slang, the linguistic influences on the film?
A: In Stud Life people talk in patois. It is street slang really, a mixture of Cockney and Jamaican Patois and depending on the area there may be Urdu, Gujerati words or Arabic words as well. In the future I am guessing there will be words from Eastern European languages.
There is a common perception among LGBT people and dominant society that when someone comes out they lose their ‘ethnicity’ or run away from it to the land of G.A.Y. a place which is assumed to default to white Eurocentric western values. Many LGBT people resist this – irrespective of their cultures of origin – and are familiar with immigrant origin food, language, nuance and music. These LGBT people are to be found in Black LGBT clubs and neighborhoods where some of them grew up. Seb (the white gay best friend played by Kyle Treslove) is such a person. He is completely at home with black culture.
London is also a place where you will hear different accents and languages. You can go for a day in some places and not hear a pure Cockney accent. This is rarely seen in films. East London where the film is shot is a high immigrant area and I had to be faithful to this experience.
Q: How did you raise the money for Stud Life?
I did crowdfunding doing IndieGoGo to kick start the shooting of the film. Subsequently we had some private investors who believed in my vision. I now notice there is a trend where celebrities are using crowd funding and raising millions. I wonder what impact that will have on people who are trying to do something that is not celebrity led.
Q: Crowdfunding seems to be a perfect fit with your Radical Film Manifesto. Is there anything you’d add to your manifesto, which when I first read it felt much more radical than it seems now (maybe because your vision’s been influential and helped to change the ways many indie filmmakers think and work)?
A: I think that my manifesto is radical if you haven't the confidence to make a film and need to even imagine making a movie. I should update it to be a radical Black queer manifesto maybe.
|Take 02! |
photo: Paula Harrowing
The rehearsal period was very important to be able to shoot within 10 days. I also had to be very flexible when I got to a location and couldn't film what I wanted to do or had planned for because of the very very changeable weather in the UK!
I learned that actors are awesome beyond awesomeness and I respect their craft even more than I did before Stud Life.
I also learned that people who work in the film industry are very supportive of projects that have vision and passion behind them – whatever your gender or sexuality.
People in the community of East London – shopkeepers, cafe owners were very very supportive and helpful and I would shoot there again.
And I would love more shoot days on my next film please. Though everyone always wants more even if they have 100 days. Heh!
|Campbell and T'Nia Miller|
photo: Paula Harrowing
Q: Many filmmakers now do their own ‘agenting’. You don’t. Why not?
A: We are distributed in festivals by the Film Collaborative. I think it is hard for filmmakers now who do not have a ‘name’ and I mean like Spike Lee or Kathryn Bigelow to ‘agent’ themselves. You still need some backing from distributors to help sell your film. That may change in the future. But there is a lot of competition for eyeballs. To raise your head above the parapet of internet and cultural noise needs serious time, effort, authority, profile and networks.
Q: When you spoke about creating a queer aesthetic, you also said
My films challenge minority communities out of their comfort zone…Usually people get angry with me when they see my work or they cry. I always try to give visual pleasure through the use of colour and I steal from fashion, pop promos and old movies.Do you create your films primarily for ‘minority’ communities, or are you looking more broadly? Stud Life had its world premiere at Fusion in LA and has been on the move ever since. What have you learned about its audience?
A: I create films for everyone. Whether ‘everyone’ comes to see the film depends on people's assumptions about using Black queer subjectivity and also not using a white male to tell the story. I think as minorities because we are so under siege we want to see images of ourselves that show how amazing and wonderful we are to counter the unrelenting negative messages that are given about ‘us’. However you will not really find images of perfect bourgeois lifestyles in my films unless they are subverted. Some people find that enraging. My characters are complex – loving and messy, beautiful yet ugly. Stud Life has moments of laughter as well as pathos and people all over the world have laughed and cried at the same spots in the film. So I know it has a universal message. And people of all genders, sexualities and nationalities recognise something of themselves in that story. It makes me realise it is OK to create characters like in Stud Life who would never make it on to a role model list. Somebody else also must have recognised this as Stud Life won the Independent Spirit Award at the Screen Nations Award.
Q: In one article you state that pride means having self-love for your LGBT self and then embracing others who are different to you with compassion and patience. I think that of all the filmmakers I know, you engage with social media most effectively because you embrace others with compassion and patience. When you were on Facebook as an individual, you enabled some discussions that I loved and the Stud Life Facebook page is wonderful, a welcoming, loving, space. It seems to me that your generosity in social media is of huge value in and of itself. But has it made a difference to finding the film’s audience? As a filmmaker, what do you get back from your investment of time and energy online? Also, you have your finger on the pulse re the constant shifts in social media – how would you advise other filmmakers to make best use of it? Where’s the next exciting platform?
A: Aww thanks.
I think social media works well in conjunction with good old fashioned off-line marketing. People still rely on the tried and tested outlets to hear about things. They still use newspapers, TV, radio, billboards to judge whether they should go and see something or not. Stud Life sold out in many of our film festival screenings. However festival audiences are self selecting in their love of cinema. We will see later this year the impact social media has had on our sales.
Basically what would be great is if the people that are ‘othered’ joined together to create a radical film audience who financially supported film outside of the mainstream by demanding they are shown in cinemas, on our TVs, downloaded them legally, and spread the word. We can only show there is an audience for films like Pariah, Alice Walker – Beauty in Truth, Kiss Me, Mosquita y Mari, to name a few, if we part with our money and vote with our feet!
I love the conversations on social media. But there is nothing like IRL communication. Sometimes we get seduced by ‘like’ and think it means something more. Malcolm Gladwell is very critical of social media as an agent for change. I used to disagree with him but having seen United in Anger about the history of Act Up and protest pre Internet, I am re-thinking this. Social media is fantastic but has to be followed up with other forms of communication.
As for the future platforms, I notice the queers have colonised Tumblr and have just invaded Pinterest so watch this space.
Q: Andrew Murphy, the Toronto Inside Out program director, says that finding quality lesbian-themed films remains a challenge. He stated the other day
There seems to be a default into the women has to be crazy or psychotic or she kills her partner or she kills her husband and goes to a woman and always goes back to a man or ends up in prison…I think we’re finally getting out of that a little bit. A good example is our Women’s Spotlight Gala – Reaching for the Moon.
A: I would like to see more films with older women, more films with women of color, more stories about lesbians which are not driven by a heteronormative capitalistic agenda. More films made by women, written by women. Is that really too much to ask?? And in the Western world we bang on to the Global South countries about how liberated our women are! Really?! Then why we are still relying on men to tell our stories and create our realities? Think of the reverse situation where stories are told from a predominantly female perspective. If it sounds preposterous and one-sided why do we continue to sustain a male driven model?
Stud Life showed at Inside Out and was very well received with a sold out audience. It was also highly recommended by reviewers there. I think we have to ask ourselves some long hard questions about lesbian representation in cinema period. I am personally tired of it being used as a plot twist, or vehicle for titillation in mainstream movies. Dominant movie culture still has a way of pathologising lesbians and over-sexualising bisexual women – Andrew Murphy is right. However many lesbian filmmakers have changed the face of lesbian representation in movies, look at Tina Mabry, Cheryl Dunye, Dee Rees, Yvonne Welbon, Michelle Parkinson to name a few.
Q: Are you developing another feature?
A: I am indeed developing another feature. Can't say more than that! Watch this space. :-)
Q: This isn’t the ‘what happened next’ that is mentioned in the Sistah Sinema interview?
A: No. LOL.
Stud Life site where you can download or stream it
Stud Life will be available on DVD in July, through Pecadillo Pictures.
Blackman Vision site
CampbellX on Twitter
Sistah Sinema site
Sistah Sinema Google hangout with Isis Asare, CampbellX, T'Nia Miller and Robyn Kerr
CampbellX 'Stud Life' Q & A, at OutFest.