What compelled you to make this piece? How does this work address issues that are important to you or close to your heart?
Tomboychik is a series of intimate video vignettes depicting the fierce love
between Malverna and Sandi, 88 and 22, grandmother and grandson. The two
playmates dress up drag-esque to arrive at a moving portrait of a woman's life
and the struggle with gender and sexuality across three generations.
TOMBOYCHIK originally started because I moved back to Brooklyn to live with my
parents after college. I was returning to the same house, the same
neighborhood that I lived all my life, except now I had "come out" as gay --
and I was stuck in Brooklyn. This was not the trendy Brooklyn
that all Manhattanites had found cheap rent in. I never intended to make a
video, just do an oral history of my grandmother who lived 5 blocks away. We
had a traditional grandmother-grandchild relationship, but I had never known
this "Tomboychik" Brooklyn boygirl side of her until all these stories came
spilling out about her tomboy childhood, jumping trucks, wearing slacks, and
pushing boys who wanted loving into puddles. We became playmates together, me
trying on her wigs, trying to teach her how to use the camera, and I felt we
were as queer as can be, given our 66 year age difference. My grandmother had
this 19th century view of sexuality in which you could be butch/femme, drag
king/queen, but as long as you married and reproduced you were normal. The
video emerged as the camera became a springboard for these conversations.
Besides finding my place as a gay man in my gender-bending family, I think it
was also a way of the third and first generations bonding and ganging up
against the second -- in this case my parents -- who are the sweetest and best
people, but whom my grandmother and I found ourselves dependent on. A month
after we finished filming, my grandmother had a stroke and began losing her
memory, and she died a month after I finished editing the piece. In
retrospect, our time together was like the magic golden hour, like when the sun
hits the bricks at 5 PM and everything is radiant, precious, and fading.
Screening TOMBOYCHIK at festivals and museums became the way I grieved for her
death. I used to stand up and cry during Q & A's. I remember once I was
sitting at The Jewish Museum on the floor in this dark room where TOMBOYCHIK
was looped with other videos, listening to these people I didn't know around
me, above me, laughing with her, and she was so big, larger than life on the
screen, that I was overwhelmed, the memory of her rushed back, and I found
myself hysterically crying on my friend's shoulder outside. At first, I was
superstitious and thought I caused her death by stealing her image and soul and
taking it into Manhattan, the borough she hadn't stepped foot in in 7 1/2
years. The timing of her illness, the closure of her life after the filming
brought us together was destiny, and maybe not treating her like an
invalid and a burden, somehow helped free her to die. Now I think TOMBOYCHIK is a living memorial to her ferocity of spirit and await the day when Nana and
I'll hopefully meet in some Jew heaven. She hadn't seen all the tape, only
part, so I don't know if she'll press her lips to my neck for ten seconds and
call me "loverboy" or call me a "good for nothing tramp."
TOMBOYCHIK was done as a bargain basement piece -- it started out just as an
oral history, just me playing around with the family camera -- no lights, just
the camera sound - and I had no idea or intention or notion that it would
eventually make its way to festivals, museums, or television. Maybe that is a
lesson learned; that you don't have to have alot of money and resources to
make video. That media should be a space of play without the pressure of
career moves. That you should draw from deep love.
How does living in the New York metropolitan area affect your work?
| From TOMBOYCHIK.
My grandmother and I were Brooklyn boygirls, born and bred. Tomboyhcik could
not have been made anywhere else. Now I am working on a feature-length
documentary called TREMBLING BEFORE G-D about Hasidim and Orthodox Jews who
are lesbian or gay. I have been
shooting for three years in Brooklyn, London, Israel, and Los
Angeles. Living in New York City has been a stimulus to thinking through a
live, contemporary, post-Holocaust, queer Judaism in a vivid way. I just
returned from filming in Jerusalem for four months and while that is a
religious and political jolt, and was religiously and personally invigorating,
it does not have the same kind of New York City art/media rush. I thought about editing
in Israel, but the New York City quickness, the sassiness, the refusal to let you be
sentimental or muddy-headed, especially the incredibly supportive
independent/ documentary/ Jewish/ Orthodox/ Hasidic/ lesbian and gay/
political community -- sometimes embodied in the same people -- seemed important to keep one's ideas and work fresh and honest. The anonymity however, the way people fade in and out and disappear, the emphasis on end results and success and not process and growth, the style politics is refreshing to escape. To live and work here I need to escape and return. Because I travel so much, I feel as if I inhabit a wandering waystation for world travelers but look forward to my New York City bed.
In including your work in REEL NEW YORK, do you think your piece in any way pushes the medium of television, or the viewing audiences' expectations of that medium?
TOMBOYCHIK was done on my family's home video camera, so in some ways
technologically it seems close to all the "reality-based" shows on Fox or
NBC and the promise of spontaneity and amateurness without the props. Except
that instead of showing "Cop's Greatest Kills" or "Sheriff's Greatest Chases,"
it's an intimate valentine to my grandmother. Women are never powerful in
those shows, and everyone is a
perpetrator or a victim. And it is so filled with shame and the viewer gets
off on that, because he is made to feel on a moral high ground. Here my
grandmother and I are in our own world, we make our own rules, she is a
charmer and a diva, and gay adolescence and queer old age are somehow free to
What about access to the tools of production and post-production?
With TOMBOYCHIK my grandmother and I filmed in three rooms -- her kitchen, her
family room, and her bedroom. With TREMBLING BEFORE G-D, I am shooting in
Brooklyn, London, Los Angeles, and Israel. My budget is probably 250,000 times
that of TOMBOYCHIK's. The geographic scale, the intensive research, the
fundraising efforts, the techonology are of a different universe. But they are
equally close to my heart and my relationships and collaborations with the
people I film remain primary -- in their surprises, trust, honesty, and humor. The hand-held intimate quality of the work also has carried over as I
switched from Video8 to Digital. I also edited and shot TOMBOYCHIK myself while
with TREMBLING I am working with an Editor, Assistant Editor, and Cinematographers, so it has been an opportunity to explore collaboration on many fronts.
Why did you become a film/video artist/maker?
| From TOMBOYCHIK.
I didn't grow up wanting to be a film/video maker. Honestly, I fell into it. But
it is a visceral, emotional attachment now and it would be hard to pry the
camera from my hands. My video work since TOMBOYCHIK -- from TREMBLING to
videos I did about the Christian right wing -- has been accountable not just to
personal exploration, but to the urgency of collective weight. It is where the
process of building a movement is inseparable from the film process and one
has to be both director, messenger, and matchmaker.
Do you feel the New York independent film/video community has changed in recent years? Do you find support living and working in such a large community of artists?
I am too young to know if it has changed. TOMBOYCHIK was my first video and it
would not exist without the help of a number of independent film/videomakers --
Rea Tajiri, Yau Ching, Shu Lea Cheang, Ela Troyano, David Schulman, Karim
Ainouz, Jim Hubbard, Jerry Tartaglia, Robin Vachal -- and now its eternal video
distribution life with Video Data Bank. People let me edit on their decks and
sleep on their floors. Now with TREMBLING BEFORE G-D and its
different scale of production, that willingness to extend support because people feel
passionately about what you do has not diminished. Also, I feel an obligation --
that's not a burden but a pleasure -- to be a mentor to the interns/production
assistants who work with me on TREMBLING, to help other people's work come to
fruition, to move as a movement of disparate makers united in thoughtfulness
Do you have any interesting behind-the-scenes stories about the making of this particular work?
Don't tell my parents it is on TV. Enough said.
I made TOMBOYCHIK under my parent's roof, but behind their back, with
their camera, and co-starring their mother. Remember -- I was young then.
It had its New York premiere at MIX: The New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental
Film/Video Festival which was held at New York City's performance space, The Kitchen.
After the screening, this 60ish year-old lesbian came up to me and said in
a big Brooklyn accent, "Hi! I'm R. I knew your grandmother. I run a pesticide
business. Here's my card." She went back to our coastal Brooklyn neighborhood
and told everybody. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, at
Temple Beth El, a woman's grandson approached my parents and inquired, "So I
hear Sandi made a film about your mother." (She had died the month before).
"Oh," my parents said, surprised. "It played at The Kitchen," I heard. My
parents looked at each other and asked, "Whose kitchen?"
Of course when the New York State Council on the Arts awarded TOMBOYCHIK a
Media Distribution Grant, things in the household changed. For my parents, The
Government had legitimized this work and given me a check. I heard my Mom on the phone brag to a relative, "You know, these young people today have things they want to say. Messages they want to tell society."