Kathryn Ramey

UNEDITED INTERVIEWS WITH KATHRYN RAMEY

Can you talk a bit about your background and what led you to filmmaking?

It isn’t that my background necessarily led me to being an artist but that it prepared me to do little else.  My father was a frustrated artist and an adventurer.  Like many of his generation, he’d gotten his college degree (the first ever in either side of my family) because of the GI bill.  By the time he was a junior in college he had four children so he switched his degree from the arts to engineering.  He supported our entire family of eight with a government job building dams and power stations but what he really wanted to do was draw and paint and explore the world.  My mother didn’t go to college until they divorced when I was a teenager and she was in her fifties but she was also very literary and appreciated beautiful things so I grew up valuing adventure and the things you did when you weren’t earning money more than earning money J sounds like the life of an artist.  In any event I grew up with a father and mother who were both shutterbugs and a grandmother who shot regular 8mm film.  My father made slide shows of our many adventures in the great outdoors and frequently he would have title cards so that it was like watching a documentary of our excursions.

We used to rent super 8, regular 8 and 16mm films from the public library. I remember watching planet of the apes on Super 8 as well as many varied documentaries. I knew how to handle a camera and projector at a very early age.

We never really had a single television that worked until I was 7 or 8 years old.  Until then we had a stack of TVs one that did sound and another that had a picture (albeit black and white).  We would switch the channels so that they were on different channels and watch them that way.   My grandfather bought us a color TV sometime in the mid-70’s but after a year or so my brother blew out the speakers trying to rewire them somehow so we were back to two TVs.  What was good about this was that even though there were only 6 channels with the division of picture and sound we had many more options.

I always imagined that I would be a scientist but as I grew older and things got weirder I just couldn’t keep up with the academic side of things.  It’s hard to stay in school when you don’t have a home to live in.  That was when I was drawn to art.  I loved drawing and painting but was a terrible renderer.  Somehow I found photography and then in college, film and that was it.  It was clear that in film I’d found a good marriage of art, science and adventure.

Can you talk about a moment, a film, a screening that really inspired you to become a filmmaker?

When I first started making films I wanted to be a documentarian.  Although one of my earliest film memories (outside of Fred Astaire movies) was of Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” (watched late night on TV somehow) I really thought that I wanted to make social issue documentaries.  Films that mattered.  I suppose this is because I began making films while an undergraduate at The Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington and that I was heavily influenced by the social justice oriented education I was getting.  My first film was about women in a labor dispute in a coal mining district in Virginia  Seriously.  I was Harlan Countying / Mother Jonesing it all the way!  Then, while I was editing this film (called We Won’t Go Back:  Women in the Pittston Strike) I saw a film that changed my life forever.  Peter Rose’s The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough.  I’d already seen some experimental work, Trihn Minh-ha, Michel Snow etc… but Rose’s film broke me.  I wanted to make films that beautiful and profound.  My next few pieces were gestures toward experimental practice, optical printing hand processing.  I moved to Seattle and started programming films at 911 media arts center.  And then I did what every art kid dreams of.  I moved to new york city and then went to graduate school.

What is the genesis of Fall?

The film is an aesthetic response to the metaphysical rupture that occurred when I had my first child.  I grew up rough in many respects.  Never alone but always lonely.  Being pregnant was the first time I really felt un-lonely.  It was a tragic but necessary moment when I realized (at the 28th hour of excruciating labor) that the only way to get this baby out of me was to let go.  Completely let go of everything.  Of the wholeness I’d felt being pregnant.  Of myself.  Of everything I knew.  It was an existential crisis. I loved my new child but where once there was two that were one there were now two separate individuals. As an artist the only thing I know how to do in these moments is to have an aesthetic response.  So I picked up a camera (a 35mm hand wound job that my friend Joel Schlemowitz had loaned me) and started cranking away.  Later (after breast feeding was over) I hand processed it all and a film just spilled out.  The film really traces the passage from the me before the birth to the two of us after after bookending the story with the myth of Icarus (me- flying too close to the sun) and Plato’s cave analogy (my child coming out of the womb).  It is about attaining the ultimate knowledge – the knowledge of self.  I have to say I didn’t really know myself until I became a mother.  This isn’t to denigrate those who have chosen not to bear children or who can’t, but that for me surviving natural childbirth and all its rigors as well as the ripping away of that burgeoning consciousness from mine made me realize that I was a strong and distinct person in a way that I had never realized before.

What were some of the film’s influences?

Besides the myth of Icarus and Plato’s Cave analogy I would have to say Su Friedrich and Gunvor Nelson.

Can you elaborate on the process of making (title of film)? How important is the process to you?

This was the second film in which hand processing featured prominently.  It gives the film a fragile visceral quality that helps elevate it to the mythic. I think anyhow J

Can you contextualize Fall in relationship to your body of work overall. Does this film relate to themes that you typically explore or is this film a departure?

I have made a couple of really personal films and hand processing has been a big part of my tool kit for a number of years so it is clearly of a piece with that.  I originally conceived of Fall as the first in a series of films about children and family and mothering but I haven’t made anymore yet J

How does your point of view as a mother and a woman inform your filmmaking? (Some women have felt that if they were to be taken seriously as filmmakers they had to be “closeted” mothers or choose between the two. Is that something you have encountered?)

Being a mom makes me a better filmmaker.  There is less time to fuck around.  I have to have my shit together.  Yes, I get those sideways glances… oh you have kids?  You must not be a serious artist.  But there are so many young women filmmakers having kids and young musicians and artists with children that it seems as though that trend is reversing a bit.  Yes, it is easier to get things done when you only have yourself to worry about, duh! But I used to gaze at my navel A LOT  more when I was just me.  Now I don’t even know what my navel looks like.

Does your role as a filmmaker inform how you see yourself as a mother?

Sure.  Because it is such a big part of my life and my husband also makes films, my kids are sort of stuck with it.  My oldest son has started to shoot with me and loves to handle the bolex.  But more than the fact that I am a filmmaker, in terms of my kids, I am a mom that WORKS.  This is the big deal.  A lot of their friends’ moms don’t work or have part time jobs.  They are proud that their mom works.

Did you have reservations about including your kids in the project? Can you share a story about the process of working with your kids?

Ha ha.  I’ve never had reservations about putting my kids in my work as long as they were willing.  I have seen other work – Brakhage – Rosenblatt – where I thought their inclusion of their kids was a bit weird, but by in large my kids are working with me and if they don’t want to they don’t have to.  I never have them perform – they are usually holding a camera if they are working with me.  I guess that is the difference.  Still there was this one time when I was shooting time-lapse  with my son Amiel.  We were on a road trip across the country and he was a bit tired.  We were outside of Laramie Wyoming and we’d been at this one location for some time.  It was mid-summer and the no-see-ems were in FULL EFFECT.  Ami was cranky and finally I let him sit in the car.  When I was finally done I get  back in the car and he points to a tree and says “MOM you see that tree?  I have as many bites on me as that tree has leaves!”  Five years old and he says this to me.  Hilarious!

How do you balance teaching, making films, your family, life, etc? Can you share a day in your life doing this balancing act?

I don’t know.  It’s 9pm and I’m sitting at my laptop writing this to you while my husband folds laundry.  We were up at 5:30am – I’ve done all kinds of different work today from conversing with my publisher, working on audio for my next film, answering questions from my chair and responding to students, making breakfasts, lunches and dinners and this was a slow day J.

We have shared the rationale behind putting together the Kid on Hip program. Do you have any thoughts on being included in this group of films as a screening program?

I am delighted to be involved.  

How important do you think a subjective mode of storytelling is in media education? How do you use subjective storytelling in your teaching?

Hmmm – as an anthropologist I’d have to say objectivity is a pretense necessary for some types of scientific inquiry but impossible in any real day to day experience such as filmmaking.  Objectivity is something we have to PRACTICE.  Subjectivity is something WE ARE.   Understanding the difference is hard work that is essential to media education.

What are the important messages to convey to women filmmaking students?

My dad had four girls and two boys and we all learned how to fix the car and mow the lawn and I treat my students the same way regardless of their gender. There is nothing – no skill, no awareness – that is the province of once particular gender.  It is your experience moving through the world that defines you and that is so much more than what plumbing you have.  If I find girls who are intimidated because they have somehow (still) absorbed weird societal expectations about who and what they can be I work hard to disabuse them of said expectations vis a vis art making/ film.

Does your point of view as woman and mother affect the way they you see your work in relationship to technology?

Hard to know.  I’ve never not been a woman.  Being a mom didn’t really change the way I felt about filmmaking except I became more serious.  Less time to mess around.

Do you think there is a relationship between choice of technology and development of concept? Can you explain the relationship between technology and concept in Fall?

See the question above regarding the evolution of the idea.  Fall was the first time I’d shot 35mm – it was a new camera etc…. Everything was new.

How do the different changes in technology expand or contract the storytelling possibilities? Can you give an example of how changes in technologies have changed the way you approach telling the story you want to tell?

Mixing sound digitally is SO much easier than mixing mag.  Otherwise no.  I still edit on  a flatbed.

In your opinion, are there particular approaches to filmmaking that academia does not value as highly? How do you think this way of thinking affects approaches to media education?

It depends who you ask.  Academia is so diverse now.  People study porn (in my department!) and are taken quite seriously.  I think film/celluloid can be looked down upon a bit these days but that is just because everybody is in love with HD.  Yes, first person films are frequently dismissed but they are just as frequently embraced.  Power and influence and what is valued when/where are fluid.  Make what you love and somebody will love you for it.

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