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INTERVIEW WITH KYM RAGUSA
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Kym Ragusa in May, 1997.
The first question I'd like to ask you, Kym, is what prompted you
to make the piece? It's really a beautiful and incredibly moving piece.
Oh, thank you.
I wondered if this had been a story you'd heard before, as a child, and that you asked your grandmother to tell. How did it come about?
Actually, my grandmother had told me the story a bunch of times. But I noticed that every time she told me, it was a little different. It would be more or less detailed, or the year would change. There'd always be something that was different. And I thought it would be a good idea just to try to record the stories as she told me. Part of it was to see how she remembered the story because it was something really traumatic for her. And also really pivotal in her life. And I wanted to see at different times, how and why she remembered certain things and not others. And why, at certain times, she would not tell me certain things. She wouldn't be explicit about certain things -- like her relationship with the man she traveled with. Actually, I did it over a period of three years. Another reason was that she has cancer and she's not well now, and so I felt like I wanted to do something for her, and to preserve this part of her life that's really her own thing that she did.
Yeah. Absolutely. So, did you record at various times and then edit the sections together?
Yeah. It's not a true document in the sense that it's not a one-time recording where this is everything that she said. I really messed around with it to try to work in the gaps and work in the places where things were kind of slippery -- to not make it a story that's easily read. Because it was never easily read for me. If that makes any sense.
Yeah. Speaking of slippery, what's interesting is the way you've handled the images. Because in fact, they're kind of slippery. There are things that illustrate the story that you shot, but then there are also these other images of Martin Luther King marches and things like that, slow-downed and reworked and intercut with this other footage. Sometimes it's hard to even recognize what exactly the footage is. It's almost as if it's subliminal the way you read it. Would you talk a little bit about the reasons you decided to introduce that footage this way, and then also how it related to the story for you?
Okay. It's interesting that you say that it's almost subliminal because that's exactly what I wanted. Because I felt like we've all seen this footage before in so many different ways and what I wanted to get at was more of an emotion around the events and a sense of fear and dread that was not specific. In other words, my grandmother, being a light-skinned [Black] woman from the North, hadn't necessarily experienced the things that were going on in those images. She had heard about them, but she was in a privileged position because she wasn't in that kind of danger. At least, not where she grew up. But she had an idea that these were things that were happening. So part of it was to think about how she might have felt taking that trip and having these experiences: that this was a real sense of dread and fear and unspoken danger. It seemed to make sense to try to manipulate the images to give a feeling of that.
Absolutely. It comes across that way. What would be interesting to hear you talk about is the way she told the story to you at various times about the moment when she's in the diner. Because there are lots of hesitations coming up to this point in the story -- about this friend of hers, this male friend, who she's traveling with, who asks her to go into the diner and she seems a little confused by that. And then she gets into the diner and orders the food and things start happening that make her also not quite clear on what the situation is until a certain moment. Did she tell that you in various ways, or how did you come to think about that situation?
It's interesting because that part of the story -- every time she told me, it was pretty much the same. Pretty much that she really couldn't figure out what was going on and she didn't understand why these people were asking her this particular question. And because she was someone who wasn't from there and who was traveling, she imagined herself as someone who was passing through and that that's what they thought she was.
What she did tell me more explicitly was that her friend had been that way before. The story is that her friend had been a driver for a wealthy white man. And that they had taken that trip through the South to go to a place where this white man had a house. And this man liked this diner and he would go in himself and get food for them, for himself and his driver, my grandmother's friend. So, my grandmother's friend knew that it was a segregated place and, in fact, most places were, at that time. But he sent her in knowing that this was the case, and she never really talked about why he did it, explicitly. She talks about the fact that he knew it was segregated but she doesn't say why he put her life in jeopardy, in a sense. Why would he put her in danger? And so I thought that that was really interesting -- this unspoken risk-taking between this man and this woman, a dark-skinned man and a light-skinned woman.
Hmm. Almost as if he was testing something.
Yeah. Testing her or testing the climate at the time. And she never talks about being angry with him for that either. She just talks about how she was afraid for his life. And her own. Once she left the diner.
It was a really brave thing that she did, to blurt out back at them, "Okay, I get what you're asking me . . ." Was your grandmother a brave woman or was this a particular moment for her? Was this something that was typical of her life?
I think that in her own way she was brave. She told me another story about when she was in junior high school; she refused to salute the flag because she had just found out about lynching. And that ended up being a big deal in her school and she almost got suspended and it was a really difficult time for her. I think that she was brave in the sense that she was able to speak out at times about racism and racial violence. But, at the same time, because she was privileged, she often didn't have to think about those things. So, that's another thing that I was trying to say in the piece. She managed to not break out of her privilege, but she managed to put that at risk for a while, I guess. I think that she's been through a lot in her life and she is courageous. But I also didn't want to paint her as some kind of hero, you know.
Right. That's interesting. Some of the other shots in the piece you chose to shoot in black and white. And they're oftentimes illustrative of the text. Would you talk about why you decided to do it in black and white and slow the images down, and about what overall effect that had on the piece?
I chose black and white just because I really like black and white. It wasn't that I wanted the piece to look authentically old; I just like black and white. For me, it's just more evocative. And slowed down because again, I really wanted the piece to be about emotion on a certain level and about some kind of visceral sense of fear or dread, and I felt like it needed to be slow for that to take effect.
Sort of like that weird dream time when you can't quite move fast enough.
Right. And for things that are still happening and you can see that they're happening but it doesn't quite make sense necessarily. And, also, I just feel like we're bombarded by really quick-cut imagery all the time. You know, I didn't want it to be like a television commercial or something. I wanted the piece to create a different space for people.
Well, it has that really interesting way of working with the story because it is really a piece of oral history. It's very dreamy, in a way, and not exactly nostalgic, but the imagery very gently coexists with the text and, in fact, doesn't override it ever. So, I enter into the text primarily. And then the images remain with me in a really strong way. They don't try to overtake or overpower what's actually being said. So, it remains a piece of oral history, primarily. And I think formally, the devices you've chosen really work quite well towards that end.
Thank you. I think that's great that you found that because I do think of it as oral history. And I think of the work that I do in general, or at least the work that I'm doing now, as oral history. And I didn't want the images to explain the story at all. Again, it was more about association or feeling. And also, the whole thing about the dreaminess or the slowness is about how memory itself is so slippery and it really takes time to call things back up. And even when you do call them back up, they're not clear and maybe they're different every time you think about them.
Have you shown the piece around a lot?
I've shown it a little bit. It played at the Charlotte Film Festival . . .
That's right. Didn't you win an award there?
Yeah. It's very exciting. And it showed at Women in the Director's Chair. So that's where it's been so far. And I plan to show it as much as possible. Being on Reel New York is an amazing thing.
Well, we're really happy to have it there too.
It will be really fantastic that a lot of people will see it.
That's great. And it's interesting too because I was afraid for a while that people wouldn't be able to read it, or that it would be too obscure, or that her relationship with this man would be too obscure. But I found that people have been able to get into the story, and if they haven't been able to get particular things, they have gotten other things. Or they've brought their own stuff to it.
Right. I know when I read your own statement about the piece, you said that this was a lover of your grandmother's. I was sort of startled. I thought, "Oh, they were lovers?" Wait! I don't know that I went that far with them. So yeah, there are different things that I think everybody puts into it. But ultimately, that part doesn't really matter.
Yeah. Exactly. And she was really concerned about protecting this friend of hers. Who had since passed away, long ago. It's funny. I have a recording where the first thing she says was "Do I have to name names?"
Yeah, that's an interesting point because neither of them really exists as specific characters. They're very generic, in a way. Not that there aren't details enough about them so that they become actual human beings, people who have existed, but in a way, without those kind of specifics, you've opened up the experience to be one that I think a lot of people would be able to share. I don't know if that was your intention or not, or maybe she had the intention of that, too, without knowing it really.
Yeah. And also I think that she's modest, and she doesn't see herself as a big hero either. And I think that, for awhile, she wondered why I was even interested. I think she thinks of it as this kind of little story, that doesn't really have that much significance.
But it's a big story. So, okay, well, thanks, this has been great.
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