An Interview with Filmmaker and IU Student Russell Sheaffer
I’ve been a student here at IU for going on three years now, and I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Russell Sheaffer as a fellow Communication and Culture (CMCL) PhD student. It didn’t take long for me to discover how willing Russell is to help others experiment with media and explore interesting issues using it. What I didn’t realize was the extent to which he would go to do that. While at IU, Russell has been very involved with media and the Indiana University Cinema in particular. Some of his involvements include being an organizer for the Underground Film Series, a programmer for the Iris Film Festival, partaking in experimental performance pieces with filmmakers like Josephine Decker, and screening several of his own films, works that have gone on to be shown at prestigious venues like the Tribeca Film Festival, Inside Out Film Festival in Toronto, and more.
Currently living in San Diego, Russell has been busy with a number of exciting projects. These include making and producing several films, traveling with his 2014 film Masculinity/Femininity, and launching The Magnifying Glass grants program in collaboration with several festivals, his experimental production company (Artless Media), and IU’s Center for Documentary Research and Practice to get, as he says it, “micro-grants into the hands of people who have stories of social injustice to tell.” His work seems to know no boundaries, and his goal continues to be one of helping others and promoting experimental media as a way to do so.
KJ: So you’ve worked with the Cinema a lot in the past. Could you possibly pick one experience that was your most memorable?
RS: They were all great…. Being able to explore and experiment is so fundamental to how I work and it was something—is something, not past tense, very present tense—but it’s something that Jon [Vickers] and the Cinema were so open to helping foster in all of these different avenues.
I don’t think there was one moment, or a couple moments, that are like, “Oh, it was great when somehow I convinced Jon we should bring buckets of dirt into the Cinema and unearth them on stage. Because, on the surface, that’s insane.” [October 2014’s Jorgensen Lecture with Josephine Decker.] Or, it’s not, “Oh, it was great when the Cinema was able to rally support to strike a print of a painted film on 35mm.” [Sheaffer’s own film, Acetate Diary, screened at the Cinema in 2013, and was then, with the help of the Cinema, accepted and shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014.] Or, “to be able to sit down and do a screening of a rough cut of a weird experimental doc in the Cinema.” [Sheaffer’s 2014 film Masculinity/Femininity screened at the Cinema in 2013 as a work-in-progress before it’s official release.] I think it’s all of those moments together. [They] are proof of the Cinema’s ability to foster experimentation…in a way that’s great on it’s own.
But, I mean, being able to lug a bunch of dirt into the Cinema was pretty spectacular.
KJ: Yeah, that performance piece with Josephine Decker just seems like one of those things that not everyone’s going to be so open to. You know, bringing such non-traditional material, like, really non-traditional material, into the Cinema space.
RS: Yeah, totally. It was really wild. And so much of that piece, in particular, was about not really knowing what would happen. Which I think is terrifying in it’s own way—especially from an administrative point of view or a programming point of view…. Josephine had never touched film before, like physically never touched movie film before; we really didn’t know the specifics of what was going to happen, but we came up with this idea where we would bury film in the ground in different stages for six weeks, bring all of that dirt in to the Cinema, and [Josephine’s] first experience touching film would be when it came out of the earth. And then we’d make a film with the audience in the Cinema over the course of the 90 minutes – and that would be the Jorgensen…which, I imagine, from an administrative point of view, takes a lot of guts to be able to go, “Yeah, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I don’t know what the film’s going to look like. We’re definitely going to jam the projectors that we use, and it could be a complete failure, it could go terribly. Or it could be a really exciting experience where people get to come up and unearth film, and figure out how mechanisms of film-making work over the course of 90 minutes.” Which I think is more like what happened.
KJ: What about Masculinity/Femininity? You showed it at the Cinema before it was officially released in 2014. How did showing a work-in-progress in that venue contribute to the final project?
RS: It was really instrumental, actually. The way that film came about involved a huge amount of test screenings. I would cut, show it to a group of people, get feedback, cut, show it to a bunch of people, and get feedback. And all of those ones that I was doing on my own, all of those test screenings, were with people that I knew, that had a sense of what the project was about, who had some sort of background in my general sensibility.
The wonderful thing with the Cinema was really being able to do something very similar, being able to show a cut to people and to get feedback, solicit responses, but from people who maybe had no idea what they were walking into, definitely [didn’t] know my sensibility at all, maybe [had] no idea who those people in Masculinity/Femininity are. And that totally changes the dynamic. If you don’t know who Tom Waugh is or you don’t know who Barbara Hammer is, you know, you get something very different from that movie.
So it was hugely helpful. I took a ton of notes out of that screening. Somebody sent me a two-page long essay as feedback afterwards. I didn’t meet them during the screening, they didn’t come to say ‘Hi,’ I don’t think they said anything during the Q&A, but then they sent me this really important, personal response. And those are invaluable pieces of feedback, I think. Especially with strange, experimental feature work. And it really shifted some things about the movie based on that feedback.
KJ: What has Masculinity/Femininity’s life been like after its release?
RS: We did the Cinema screening and then it premiered at Inside Out, which is the queer festival in Toronto, and had a really great response there…and then it wandered around the US and Germany screening at festivals and that cycle has pretty much completed at this point.
I decided that with this film I really wanted to have control over how it met the world. [For a] previous film of mine, we went through much more traditional channels and a distributor came on board. With this one I knew I wanted to be able to curate how the physical object would look, how it would play, what sorts of things would go along with it, and I really wanted to have a book component as well. So we went through and wrote out each of the performances, in their entirety, so that when the object found it’s way to the world it was the film along with all of the unabridged performances—with all of the different elements on the DVD—so it could be teachable but also have the unabridged performances in actual written book form.
At this point, the life cycle for Masculinity/Femininity is much more about getting it out to individuals, [and] also getting it to universities and in educational situations where it can be a helpful tool for thinking about gender, certainly, but also for thinking about experimental media-making.
KJ: You’re actually showing Masculinity/Femininity on October 20th in Mississippi, right?
RS: Yeah. I think, as is evident [recently], this country and certain people in this country are having really intense conversations about gender and discrimination and bodies… And because I think the film speaks to a lot of those issues, it is somehow still having group screenings out in the world over two years later. Which is great.
This one on the 20th is happening thanks to the Oxford Film Festival, in Oxford, Mississippi; the Sarah Isom Center [for Women and Gender Studies] at Ole Miss [is] screening it at the university. I did a lot of these kinds of screenings at universities earlier in the film’s life, and they’re some of the most incredible conversations, I think. Students’ ability to engage with the film, and really have meaningful, super challenging conversations about gender after watching the 88 minutes of Masculinity/Femininity is so wonderful.
KJ: I’m so glad that that is still happening; because these are the conversations, as you pointed out, that we need to be having.
RS: It seems crazy…I started making Masculinity/Femininity in 2011, and the amount of things that feel like they’re different from 2011 to now are… I mean the list is astronomical. It feels like there have been so many victories regarding laws about gender and sexuality in the last five years. And yet, so many of the conversations that people are having feel like the same crazy, idiotic, discriminatory conversations.
KJ: Right. These conversations have been going on for a long time, and perhaps something else needs to happen in order to create real change. It sounds like you’re doing a lot of exciting stuff to help with this.
RS: Good things, hopefully. Right now, I’m trying to do everything I can to enable other people to make socially challenging work, so I feel like I’m always scrambling around, trying to figure out “how do we, as a community, keep making more things? How do we get other people to keep making more challenging work?”
That was one of the big things when I was making Masculinity/Femininity. Almost everybody who shot that movie or did sound for that movie were grad students (many from CMCL), some who had very little experience shooting film or video or recording sound. So much of the project was about taking people who study gender, who theorize gender, and having them do on-camera performances; and taking people from the grad program, who usually write in a scholarly way, and have them make media; and see what happens when you totally switch around all the rules and get people to do things in disciplines that they’re less comfortable with.
KJ: Well, it sounds like that’s a huge part of what you’re trying to do with all of these projects and events that you’ve got going on, trying to support others in their explorations of media, and the world around them.
RS: I mean, those places and projects where people feel like they’re allowed to speak from their own experience, but also learn from the people around them, the people who are living different experiences than they are, those are such important situations to foster in any way that we can, whether that’s in a class, or a study group, or a film, or a screening, or whatever, a workshop…a café.
Masculinity/Femininity is currently available through Kanopy, an online library streaming service, which IU, along with numerous other educational institutions, has access to. It is also available in physical form from Artless Media. MM Serra and Monika Treut, who appear in Masculinity/Femininity, have both visited IU Cinema to deliver Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lectures.
The Unburied Experience: Visceral Filmmaking experience took place at IU Cinema on October 3, 2014 during Josephine Decker’s Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture.
Katherine Johnson, currently a third year legacy PhD student in Communication and Culture, studies film and media, genre (particularly the Western), gender, and performance. She has a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and has been obsessed with film since the beginning.