Stage & Screen

Total Immersion

Judy Hoffman’s ‘experimental and undefinable’ filmmaking kicks off Cinema 53’s second series

Ronit Bezalel

As the crowd trickled into the movie theater, Britney Spears played on the big screen. The footage, desaturated and shaky, cut between shots of Spears beaming and performing on stage and shots of her anxiously calling someone on her phone. But as the theater filled, the footage cut to an uncomfortably close still of Spears standing worried backstage while concertgoers’ cheers played in the background. What at first appeared to be a glitch quickly revealed itself to be an intentional choice made by the filmmaker—one that evoked an unsettling sadness for Spears’s situation.

The footage in question comes from a 2002 documentary called “Stages: Three Days in Mexico,” directed by Judy Hoffman and screened at Hyde Park’s Harper Theater on January 25. The event was part of Cinema 53, a screening and discussion series curated by Jacqueline Stewart of the University of Chicago’s Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, which presents films by and about women and people of color.

Before starting Cinema 53 in September, Stewart saw “a real need in the South Side of Chicago to show films, and even more importantly, to discuss them,” she said. She had resources from teaching Black film at University of Chicago and working as a curator at the Rebuild Foundation’s Black Cinema House, but had no outlet to share them, and so she created Cinema 53. She now says that she wanted Cinema 53 to bridge the historically fraught relationship between the UofC and the South Side at large, describing the project as an opportunity to encourage “authentic learning between the two constituencies.”

Stewart focused the first quarter of Cinema 53 on Black feminism, ending with a screening of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” followed by a discussion with filmmaker Julie Dash and singer Jamila Woods. There were so many people present that some had to sit on the ground, Stewart explained. Cinema 53 is now in its second quarter, with Judy Hoffman kicking off the new series “Women Make Docs.”

“Judy’s entire practice has been based on the notion of collectivities and the collective,” Stewart said as she introduced Hoffman. Later, as Hoffman discussed her experiences and showed clips of her work, the value she places on community shined through. Hoffman’s filmmaking is unusual in this respect: she immerses herself in the communities she films, and shares her filmmaking techniques with her subjects. But the result is that communities support her, as was clear when whistles and cheers erupted as Hoffman sat at the front of the theater.

Hoffman began by talking about the Spears documentary. She said that she was hesitant to film it at first, but knew that she could make something “a little bit out of the ordinary.” Hoffman saw Spears as “an abused child in the industry, with no real agency… made into a commodity.”

The empathy Hoffman showed for Spears has been a continuous strand in her work since she began filmmaking. Hoffman began her post-screening discussion by relating her first experiences in the Alternative Television movement in Chicago in the 1970s. She assisted French ethnographer and filmmaker Jean Rouch, and learned from him cinéma vérité, a style of documentary filmmaking that showed people performing authentic everyday tasks and avoided artificial and artistic effects.

At this point in the conversation, Hoffman pulled out a large rectangular contraption with a long lens jutting out.

“All of you with your iPhones, this is where it started,” she remarked.

Hoffman was showing off a Portapak, a battery-powered, video recording system that could be carried by one person. It was one of the first devices that allowed people to easily record outside of the studio.

“I wanted to be on the streets, observing, but more than that, interacting,” Hoffman said, and the Portapak allowed her to do just that. She could document the civil rights movements happening in Chicago at the time––but more than that, she could walk with the activists and participate in the movements.

Hoffman noted that she “jumped right into” the movements because she came from a working-class family and is female—two factors that had shaped her experiences thus far, and would continue to for the duration of her career.

During shoots, Hoffman explained, she would often feel uncomfortable with her male colleagues. She remembers finding it difficult to even wear a T-shirt, for fear men would make comments about her breasts. When she carried a 35mm camera, her male grips would tell her that “a guy should be doing this.” Even Hoffman’s use of video over film was gendered––film was seen as an exclusively male field and superior to video, which was seen as experimental and undefinable.

Hoffman immersed herself in these movements, and then also began sharing her Portapak practices with fellow activists. She taught them how to videotape, because she believed that “the media belongs in the hands of the people.” She was fully committed to the activist community.

In the 1980s, Hoffman found community in a different part of the world, with the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation in British Columbia. With them, she created the award-winning documentary Box of Treasures, which followed the Kwakwaka’wakw’s efforts to repatriate their stolen artifacts. After screening Box of Treasures at the event, Hoffman explained why there “appears to be four endings” to the documentary.

Hoffman’s team, a group of “white people from the States,” went to British Columbia thinking the film would be only about the repatriation efforts. But after screening rough cuts of the film to the Kwakwaka’wakw, Hoffman’s team realized they needed to address language, education, and more. There was “a lot of back and forth” with the Kwakwaka’wakw before they “had control for what content was in the film.”

As with her early activist work, Hoffman stayed with community members and taught them video skills. For over ten years, she taught a group of seven or eight young women who called themselves the Salmonistas (after the Sandinistas). One of the girls, Barb Cranmer, went on to become one of the most well-known First Nation filmmakers, winning the American Indian Film Festival multiple times. After Hoffman’s continued interactions with the Kwakwaka’wakw, they eventually adopted her as a member of their First Nation, officially integrating Hoffman into their community.

The community-spirited activism that characterized Hoffman’s filmmaking career seems, in her opinion, to now be dwindling. As the event winded down, an audience member asked Hoffman what she thought of the current filmmaking scene in Chicago.

“It’s changed,” answered Hoffman. “Documentary used to be counter to Hollywood [the mainstream culture]. Now it’s embraced it, part of the apparatus.”

She attributed the change in documentary filmmaking to the change in people’s attitudes towards activism.

“Part of it is the internet. Everybody’s asses are in a chair as we’re all online.”  Things have changed since Hoffman’s involvement with the civil rights movement in the 1970s and the Kwakwaka’wakw in the 1980s––but not too much.

“I mean,” she asked, “Why aren’t we smashing the state right now?”

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