"The Most Lesbian Thing": Talking with the Filmmakers of The Ladies Almanack
The Ladies Almanack is a book published by Djuna Barnes in 1928, a knotted and decorated calendar-record of Natalie Clifford Barney’s Parisian salon, and a film directed by Daviel Shy and produced by Stephanie Acosta. (Daviel and Stephanie are my friends; we went to the same graduate school and Stephanie and I were neighbors for a long time. I read in support of the film at the Leslie Lohman Museum in New York, and my bed is in a deleted scene.)
What I love about this film -- this entire project -- besides my friends’ beauty and burn is how it demands more from nostalgia. Shy and Acosta adore Barnes and work her into their daily lives, but instead of making her a straight valentine they’re building a giant prism. They’re illuminating, holographing, intersecting, holding space and seeing difference outside of capitalism and across generations. They hopped on a plane to meet with Hélène Cixous about her role in the film, found themselves assisting on a sex-positive short film in French, and ended up casting all those people in the Almanack too.
Significantly too this movie is being made without financial security on anyone’s part. For me this makes it even more real and urgent, particularly because many collaborators are in their thirties, at least, and know the sick-feeling of working like hell and still not making rent. (If you would like to buy Jessica LeMaster’s tarot cards to support the film, you can.)
In my life I have never known a project that is both so solid in its politics and so tenderly open to the future, and the lives we need to survive as ourselves. I feel that besides making a film, Shy and Acosta are doing work towards new language about affect, money, eros, and home. I want them to be famous for this. I want to watch this movie, which will defy linear narrative and solo definitions just like the book that inspired it, and then I want to watch it again and again.
Daviel, Stephanie, and I talked about the Alamanack across a spectrum of media in early summer 2015, after they’d returned from filming in Paris and just before filming started in Chicago.
Why make a film together?
STEPHANIE ACOSTA: Daviel and I are both multidisciplinary, but she is first and foremost a filmmaker. I think all her work has a touch of the cinema in it. And I would say the same is true of me. Everything comes back to performance in some way or another. Maybe it's about first languages.
This film was introduced to me through its zygote self: the film within the film contained by Shy's thesis, The Tyrant. My partner James Tate was Assistant Director on the project, and I did some consulting and art direction but at the time I was also focused on a multi-part series for my own thesis work, Unintended Structures 2014. So I met this writing through the eyes of Daviel's excitement, which is a pretty great door to walk into anything through.
Around that same time I think I read the whole Ladies Almanack in my studio, across the hall from Daviel. I asked her to let me know if she wanted to make that film. She told me the whole wish: the dream of Cixous, and Myles narrating; everything. And I was like, OK. If you want to make that film, I'd produce it. She grabbed my arm in that grip she has, where you know you should be crossing the street or listening close, and said, “Really?!!”
One moment I remember clearly: we were lying down on the grey wood slats of her studio floor like kids, and she talked me through the whole thing, and I just thought, Man, that would be so great. I bet if we did this with everyone we wanted, they would want to be in it too. Then I reminded her I didn't know squat about raising money, and that I had produced a lot of my own work, large scale and all, but production wasn't really what I did. Anyway, we started then, I think. In my mind it started then.
DAVIEL SHY: I was struck by The Ladies Almanack because it is the most lesbian thing I’ve ever read. This was no Well of Loneliness, bargaining for acceptance from some unseen father, though it was published in the same year (1928) and featured one of the same models (Barney). Barnes’s book is funny and stylish and sexy and bizarre. It pushes conventions of style and propriety, but from the perspective of those in the know. It is a giant unapologetic wink. Barney’s circle was certainly not the only lesbian game in town, for instance Claude Cahun and Gertrude Stein chose very different ways to be queer artists in twentieth century Paris.
But Barnes was smart in choosing Natalie Barney as a way to speak about the “condition that is woman.” Natalie’s group is set apart for their unrelenting female-centricity. Natalie as a locus is interesting, ‘cause she didn’t want to convince anyone of anything. She just made trouble and fun by putting everyone together and stirring. This film is like that: unrelentingly female-centric, but otherwise incredibly diverse. My own lesbian-centricity has been met with occasional resistance, but welcomed resistance! I am told that my interest is too narrow, but I think sometimes the focus has got to be narrow, even as the audience is broad. I run a monthly movie night called L.M.N.O.P: Lesbian Movie Night Ongoing Project. Strictly lesbians onscreen, but anyone can be on the couch. Politically speaking, maybe being on that couch is what makes you a lesbian?
In 1976, Hélène Cixous wrote, “Knock the wind out of the codes. We will rethink womankind beginning with every form and every period of her body. The Americans remind us, We are all Lesbians; that is, don’t denigrate woman, don’t make of her what men have made of you.” I hear echoes of Cixous in Barnes, even though chronology would say the reverse. But reading is outside of chronos and we, in 2016, will be readers of this film.
ACOSTA: For me these are moments when people thought the revolution was over, when things seemed on their way to safe homogeny. And yet these are also moments rife for real revolution: for the hard uncomfortable and necessary means of making community not just images. I think today there are huge communities who are not waiting for permission, and these moments are moments when we can build our own worlds and push through, and try to rectify the attempted erasure.
This is a multi-generational project rooted in identity and different kinds of lives and art-making. How do you bring people together? How do you keep everything sincere and relevant?
SHY: I could say it’s like a dream: you were there, and so was my aunt. Fannie Sosa, Poussy Drama, and Heidi Loukoum stretching on the couch and then Josefin [Granqvist] arrives, tall in space-silver Lawrence of Arabia costumes. Only it isn’t a dream, I mean I dreamed this last night, but I woke to realize this is my life. There is nothing separate from this.
It is important to talk about resources. My astrologer told me to think about myself as a resource to others. Once we truly realize that we are each other’s resources, desperation melts away. This production has a wealth of resources attached to it; an infectious energy of women and others respecting each other’s work. That is all it is. How did you get Eileen Myles? Well, I read her books and liked them, and I began to write. I wrote a part for her, then I wrote to her. For some it may be a name that gets them interested. For Barbara Hammer, one of my favorite filmmakers and a huge supporter of this project, it was the name Djuna Barnes. Djuna’s work is of course the frame and the glue of the project, but the work has many centers. The wealth began with them -- Barnes and Barney and Brooks and Colette, etc. -- recognizing it each in other.
Natalie wasn’t, in my opinion, that great of an author. But she was well aware that her life was her work of art, and she fought, advocated for, and supported the work of her friends until her death. Her character teaches me constantly about the amount of ego needed to be of any help to others. A selfless person is useless on any team. Each one in this project remains herself, brings herself, and we recognize this being as the greatest contribution. We organize around no common interest save our individual selves in togetherness.
ACOSTA: Hybridity is definitely at the heart. These characters are combinations of the real life women, their characterizations in Barnes's text, and the real live women who play them today. Some characters are more today, some more then; it depends on who is playing. We aren't casting actors, though many of our cast has training and experience in that realm. And then you have our narrators, who are based on theorists then read by yet another voice removed. Helene Cixous is the only one who plays herself; as narrator, she is a sort of pinpoint or lynch pin.
Neither Daviel nor myself experienced Barnes’s Ladies Almanack without voices we already had in our heads, so inevitably we are making a film that is the experience of reading it. Of pulling in the history and the people we know, to access and try to decode what she is trying to tell us.
What I continue to say that for me, it's like creating the dream table I'd like to sit at. I am inviting people I am inspired or excited by, to sit down and talk through some realities, shared and dreamed ones. And we have done that. This film is the best party I have ever been to. This cast is the table I hope I sit at in the next life.
Our deadlines have shifted a lot. They change because someone like Cixous says yes, but only if you can come during September. So we do that. But that trip leads us to new cast members, to filming Baby Love Your Body, and to a scouting trip that made the reality of our March filming in Paris possible. Every shift leads us bigger. We have really let the women in the script and on the ground be guides. Prioritizing the voices we want to hear over logistics has been a big part of keeping this thing true. And keeping our funding as restriction free as possible has let us make our movie our way.
When you believe in what you are doing, it's easier to champion it. I made a rule early on, and we say it out loud a lot: NO ONE should have to be talked into this project. If there is even a twinge of disinterest, I say THANKS and move on. But if there is excitement at the idea, then I know a yes is hidden in that excitement, so I keep talking. It's not about pushing. We just knew that somehow, if they heard what we wanted to do, they would want to do it. Or maybe we just hoped that was true, and once a few started saying yes, more and more did.
I mean, Guinevere fucking Turner?! I almost passed out when she said yes, and she's been such a huge supporter and now, a friend. I adore her.
SHY: I remember the first time I shared the script. The Luce Irigary character in the film asks, “Would the words we publish turn to solids in our mouths as others read them? Nourishing a secret hunger, proliferating on contact with the tongue?” The answer is Yes. There was something in that moment that made it real outside of myself: April 2014, I arrived in Paris for the first time. I met a woman named Josefin Granqvist who was in town working and would leave in a few days -- so if we were going to talk about the film, she warned in a text message, it would have to be soon. We met up at a cafe in the Marais. She was carrying an astronaut’s costume she bought for her nephew. I was carrying my film binder. We drank tall glasses of citron pressé and I held my breath while she read the whole movie in her lap, next to me, the happy hour idlers crowding the sidewalk around us. Josefin is now an intrinsic member of the cast and crew: she plays Djuna Barnes. But none of that was known yet. All I knew for certain at the time was that her reading brought the film into its next phase. That cool evening just before my 30th birthday, it became real.
How did your friendship start? And once it did, why work on a long-term art project together? Are there parts of your solo practices that you miss?
ACOSTA: We were both attending SAIC for our MFAs in performance [a two-year program], so we knew each other, but we weren't really friends that first year. The next summer we both decided to go to Prague for a course called Abandoned Practices, lead by Lin Hixon, Mathew Goulish and Mark Jeffrey. Daviel was Teaching Assistant, and I asked her if she wanted to share a room, because otherwise I wasn't sure about this crew and didn't want to end up with a crying twenty-one-year-old. The day I moved in I went a bought a cactus, like I usually do. I tend to need something living -- a plant, a cutting, something -- and I also use smells a lot. Incense, and in the winter, boiling cloves. These things are usually free or inexpensive, and they make a space mine. I'm convinced these gestures remind me that my space and self come with me, and so I try to inhabit the space with scents, smoke, and living things that keep shifting. They are not solid, and they take spaces and make them environments. It helps me do the same. She seemed to really like that.
We spent the next three weeks discovering we were variations of the same person, Daviel and I, and I am not exaggerating. Not just part where we are both small directors who are loud and political. Having the same strange musical in our heads because it was both our favorite when we were kids. Loving the same obscure '90s music, the same poets, arguing about social politics in the same way. I don't know how we are like this: she comes from a pack, I am an only child, she's Jewish, I’m Cuban-raised-Catholic. We’re both witches now really.
That day on the grey slats, I didn't know I'd be working on this for years or that it would change my life. But I have, and it has. Once we really bit in, there was no going back. Once I invested there was no releasing. It's mine -- not all of it, and it's born of Daviel's brain, but it's mine too, and I mate for life when it comes to art.
I've been able to keep creating things separately from the Almanack; we both were, for a while, but now we are more focused up. Still, it takes so many elements to make this film it's hard to miss much. Every aspect of this project has brought me some joy, even if through tears.
SHY: After living together in Prague, we spent the second year of school in adjacent studios, working, drinking whiskey, yelling over the curtain, or crying on a sand dune because we found each other. In two years we'd be on a plane to Paris looking out the window at the half moon. On the plane back home a month later, the moon would have migrated to our hands, tattooed by house-call in Fannie Sosa's living room, and there would be no turning back.
Stephanie is the first person I really let into my creative process. I wrote and incubated the film inside of me for about a year before we took this trip together. At first it was difficult and terrifying, but it also it was an incredible relief to stop carrying this world alone. And as the project grows, my ownership over it decreases and loosens, which I think is healthy. After all there are more films in me waiting to be made, and now I can't imagine working without this team.
As for solo work, I am always writing. I have always been a filmmaker, but claiming the title of writer and historian in the past few years have really allowed me to make the types of films I need to make, namely: heavily researched experimental narrative. For me, this is the only way to describe a story that refuses the three-act structure, proscribed character arcs, and a straightforward plotline but contains a story nonetheless, with dialogue and events that are equally important to the formal elements, words, and materiality of the film.
What is the most beautiful thing you’ve experienced so far? The most surprising? The ugliest?
ACOSTA: Beautiful, surprising: the people. This cast and crew; these magical interns, though I hate to call them that; these inspired painters; these heroes and poets. Everywhere I turn, someone is joining us and with that action changing my life. I spoke with Hélène Cixous about death; I sang and danced with Nessa Noorich, Soa De Muse and Fannie Sosa; I have made deep friends and been inked with these people. That's why I say we aren't just a movie: we are a movement. I am not trying to be cheeky. We didn't build a cast, we built a network and the work and thoughts coming out of that will be creating for a long time after the Almanack is done shooting.
The ugliest thing is the money, but that’s not surprising. It’s been hard; we are making a film that lots of people want but no one wants to fund. We have received some really generous and supportive grants, and individual gifts through direct communication with our networks and audience. We have tactically not used some well-known methods, and while that has been tricky, ultimately we have been able to stay uncompromising.
With every private note that comes with the rejections saying, Well I mean, I love it, we get it, but you know... women... and poetry... and lesbians? They won't get it but we love it.I just think, OK, even through you won't help us make this I am making this for you too, so you can be reminded once again that you aren't the only one that wants this story. And we keep moving forward. So, not that ugly. Just the usual problems with capitalism.
Because I am a nut for color and texture: what is your favorite costume?
ACOSTA: Ah! This is impossible. I love everything Fannie Sosa wears, but I also swoon over all the choices our Djuna, Josefin Granqvist, makes for the cast. She changed the look of this whole thingthrough her private collection of fashion objects, and through friends. And then there's the robe Natalie Clifford Barney wears, which has astrological signs embroidered in gold on green velvet; this woman could take the world wearing nothing but that robe. I am also in love with Deborah Bright as Radclyffe Hall, she was on fire in that outfit... but we haven't shot Colette's masquerade garden party scene yet, and I am making jackal and wolf masks for that so... the costumes in this film are a large platform for the hybridity. Did I mention Dolly Wilde in rust and coral? Ugh, she's a beauty.
What did you have to teach yourself?
ACOSTA: Everything? I mean, we aren't working within the usual systems, so everything was somewhat familiar and somewhat impossible. I'm a director; I went to a conservatory, I ran a performance group for over seven years, and so I know how to talk to a room and produce a thing and make it happen. But asking for funding and support has been a big lesson, and I had to learn to do it in a way that felt right to me and to the ethos of the work, because you can't have one energy making and another funding behind the scenes. I mean, you can, but in this case it felt like that wouldn't be a good fit. I have learned that you need to define for yourself what you will and won't give, and you have to build partnerships and teams around you that agree and support that ethos. Because everyone is going to sacrifice something for this thing, somewhere along the line, so we need to all believe.
So I had to learn to be patient with the rejections, but I don't know, I have also really learned how not to hide from being proud of our work, and my own work, and to say this is valuable, no matter how many times you erase it. We are real, and this shit is fucking good.
It's also hard for me not to be the one pointing the camera, which is probably why I decided to do a little behind the scenes film. I needed an outlet that was mine for interpreting the whole of this experience. I've learned to keep making room for new threads, or I've learned how to do that with greater success and joy.
SHY: I don’t always think I’m a compassionate director. Part of this is that I’m also the director of photography, so I’m squinting into this tiny hole, watching humans, objects, locations, and light coincide to outdo my wildest hopes. Each frame I’ve imagined twice, once when I wrote it and again when I drew the storyboards. But there is nothing to prepare me for seeing it in the moment through that little hole, holding my breath and pulling the trigger. From this place of elation, it is hard for me to remember that the humans, both in the frame and on the set as crew, need to know what I see, what I want. So I have to slow down and communicate. This comes naturally if something is not right: if it’s too dark or I need a chin to turn toward the camera, if the person holding the light is in the shot, etc., but most of the time, very little direction is needed. That is when I run off alone, thrilled into the hole, and down the eighteen seconds for five feet of film. I am learning to curb this trigger happy-dash. With help from Stephanie, the rest of the crew and the incredibly patient and talented cast, I am entering this second phase of shooting with hopes of being as aware and present to the room outside the camera as I am to the tiny room within it.
When have you had to say no?
ACOSTA: When people who didn't want to work on the film initially saw who wasjoining us and tried to work their way back in. Thanks, but no thanks. Or when someone asks if we can afford... well, anything, and I have to say no. This is a hard thing to talk about, but we are a fully volunteer based project; there was no other way. That includes location donation, everything. The money we have raised pays for the bare minimum of what can't be donated, like flights and film stock.
SHY: From its inception, before I even began writing the script, Stephanie and I agreed on a few values regarding how we were going to do this: one, bigger is not always better, and two, every aspect of the project has to follow the logic and integrity of the whole. So you could say we began with “no.”
Sometime in 2013, I stood in a used bookstore reading a collection about indie films in the '90s, and I found a chapter on Go Fish. Some asshole at MGM wrote this chapter saying if it weren’t for him, Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner would still be in a cafe in Wicker Park, waiting to be discovered. As if this incredible classic Troche and Turner wrote and made were his accomplishment. So we get to inherit the films, but also the lessons of the tribulations from our cinematic predecessors. In the 90s, a distribution deal with a major studio was a necessary evil for getting independent films seen. Today we have more options. It was important to say no to the idea of corporate help from the jump, even though it was never offered, because this is the beginning of what I hope to be a life-long career, and I want to make every decision with longevity and integrity in mind. We are making decisions about what kind of people we are going to be in this economy.
What’s the connection between the Almanack and Baby Love Your Body? (And who came up with the phrase “khuntry klub?” Because it is amazing.)
ACOSTA: I heard “khuntry klub” first from Fannie Sosa, and I use it all the time -- Daviel and I arrived in Aubervilliers, outside of Paris, in September on the day before they shot Baby Love Your Body, a project by Sosa and her collaborator Poussy Drama. I hadn't heard about it before that day. They had the whole crew, cast, and everything, but no one to shoot it.When they took Daviel and I over to check out the space, I offered to film it, and that's how I ended up holding that camera for that whole lovely trip. Almost everyone who worked on that piece ended up in the Almanack. The vibe, the beautiful energy of everyone was just too inspiring. We just started casting one by one, and suddenly they were all in it!
I should also say I love the goal of sex positive discussions for children. People feel all sorts of things about this video, but I think some want to react instead of searching inside for why they think it's so bad to talk about consent, to sing about loving your body and respecting private body engagement. Like, why is that so scary? Is it because we are talking about female bodies as bodies with agency and sensory experiences that are self-contained? Is it strange to talk about female bodies without putting them to use for other’s pleasure or gaze or life? The discussions around this work made me a much bigger advocate for this subject. When we were making it I was just, oh this is fun, but the reactions made me realize how important it is. Those two women and the School of No Big Deal are life changers.
Daviel wrote this on Facebook: filmmaking as a form of seeing from the standpoint of desire instead of power. this is the path to a place where capitalism cannot use us. When did that become fact for you?
ACOSTA: I would read an elevator manual if Daviel wrote it.
SHY: I wrote this sentence because I think photographic apparatuses are falsely assigned as phallic symbols in our culture. Making a film, as I said earlier, is building a world. Or sharing a vision. It does not have to be about colonizing and subjugating. Our language, a tool of patriarchy and oppression itself, is built to hide the radical potential of any given activity. We do not “take” a picture, we do not “capture” the subject of a photograph. She is not yours because you pointed a camera at her. The truth is, she cannot be captured. Imagine the potential if we changed the language? If we said, “How well you noticed that subject” or, “You witness beautiful pictures.” Then we would begin to uncover what film can really be: this is the path to a place where capitalism cannot use us. Our attention is everything. If we continue to turn our attention to one another, we will be dismantling the power of the capitalist racist patriarchy with, as Marilyn Frye writes in The Politics of Reality, “the mere flick of an eye.”
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a working writer and editor in Colorado, and a poetry teacher at the women’s jail there too. Her book See You in the Morning comes out from featherproof in October 2015.