It seems we’ve reached the nadir of the Obama years.
For better or worse, his presidency has both altered American history as we know it and provided a stoic backdrop for momentous situations. The last few years in particular have been a watershed moment for many things. Among them would be the explosion of conversation around digital activism, privilege, feminism, and the importance of telling and preserving the stories and future of those whose voices are not elevated in popular and mainstream culture, as we know it.
Okay, that was a mouthful. But seriously: 2014, and 2015 have seen * a lot. *
In a way, that’s kind of how I came to meet Isis, founder of Sistah Sinema, an Oakland-based organization that is both a grassroots movement and a network of queer women elevating, screening, and discussing films about and by queer women of color (WOC/QWOC.)
It was a rainy night in West Oakland. A good friend and I had moseyed down for a screening of the film Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde. The film itself chronicles the impact of the I Am Your sister conference in Boston, with a specific focus on the trials, tribulations, and lessons learned during the event. It’s a bit dated, because video tech ain’t what it is now. But the unity, difficult discussions, and insight into the contemporary activism of the conference is priceless. Definitely search it up and watch it if you haven’t already. Following the film, there was a great roundtable discussion about it and how it related to everyone’s current struggles/aspirations.
Following this screening, I reached out to Isis to get the full story on Sistah Sinema and hear the women behind it speak on the organization and their own journeys to it. While I didn’t get to catch up on record with Isis here in Oakland, I did get to chop it up with a couple of her affiliated sistren. What follows then is a collection of info, answers, and questions conducted via email and otherwise. This particular interview has been in varying states of limbo (for a variety of reasons that are my primarily my fault,) so it’s with a glad heart and open mind that I’m posting this, in two parts.
What’s your background? Geographically? Professionally?
Ayana Obika, Richmond SS Manager: I was born and raised in Richmond, VA. I attended Hampton University, earning a degree in Political Science. After graduation, I returned to Richmond and spent a few years working as a legal and administrative assistant, where I realized that I wasn’t cut out to sit behind a desk all day. I later enlisted in the U. S. Army, serving as a Flight Operations Specialist.
Upon completing my enlistment, I again returned to Richmond and served in the Army National Guard for 6 years. During that time I also attended Virginia Commonwealth University, earning a degree in psychology. Then I worked in Waldorf, Maryland as an event promoter and manager for a private club and theatrical troupe. During this time I also earned a certification in aromatherapy, returning to Richmond to open an aromatherapy business with 3 locations.
After 5 years of running 3 shops and dealing with the stress of having employees that didn’t love my business as much as I did, I shut down all of the stores and took a position in a local costume shop, managing the costume sales division and teaching clients how to apply theatrical makeup. After 5 years of that, I enrolled in massage school, earned my certification in massage and also a certification in wellness coaching and opened a massage and wellness business serving over 300 clients.
During the time I was in massage school I also became one of the founding board members of a girl empowerment organization called Camp Diva, after serving for 10 years as chair of the events and fundraising committee and seeing the organization through a merger with the number 3 girl empowerment organization in the U. S., Girls For A Change, I decided to step down to devote time to the business that I started in 2011, Gratitude Rising Events, with a mission to create and manage events that entertain, educate and engage. This year I launched All About The Journey Wedding Concierge, with a focus of serving the LGBT community. I also currently serve on the boards of the Richmond Business Alliance, the Gay Community Center of Richmond and Project Yoga Richmond. Whew! I know it’s a lot. But my philosophy is Just Do It All and Do It With Passion! 🙂
India Pierce, Durham SS Manager: I am a Cleveland, Ohio native who currently resides in Durham, NC. I hold a B.A. in Women and Gender Studies and a M.A. in African and African American Studies. I was on the path to obtain a PhD but decided to take a break from that dream so I could explore other interests. Since then I have enjoyed serving as the Program Coordinator for Duke University’s Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. Outside of work I explore topics around performativity, race, sexuality orientation and gender identity/expression. This spring I began a photography project that explores those topics. My goal is to showcase gender non-conforming people and explore the language they use that shapes their lives and understanding of self. I tend to have my hand in a few different cookie jars so I am sure I am leaving things out lol.
How did you come to be involved in SS? Founding your own chapter?
AO: In 2010 I created a 2 day women’s film festival as a fundraiser for Camp Diva. I was having so much fun putting it together that I asked the director if she thought I would enjoy it as much if I was getting paid to do it. Her answer was, “Of course you would.” So 3 months later Gratitude Rising Events was started. Initially, my plan was to create mini film festivals for different non-profit organizations as a way to raise funds and awareness. However, I kept being hired to create and manage other types of events.I really wanted to create an LGBT film festival, so I started doing research and curated a list of films that I was interested in screening.
One click led to another and I ended up at Sistah Sinema. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, but I knew they had access to some of the films that I wanted to screen. So I reached out to Isis and last year I became the Sistah Sinema Richmond Brand Manager. And, since I had been active in creating other events in the LGBT community and I have a group of QWOC friends, I had a circle of support to kickstart SS here in Richmond.
IP: My first introduction to SS was back home in Cleveland, OH. I randomly heard about the group from a friend and attended a screening about Audre Lorde. Afterwards there was a wonderful conversation, and I remember thinking to myself “where has this been all of my life?!”
Fast forward several months, I moved to Durham and one of the first things I did was look to see if there was an SS chapter near me. Much to my dismay there wasn’t, and, being new to the city I was having a hard time finding queer communities of color.I missed the community that I had in Cleveland and was determined to create it for myself. After being in Durham for about a month I started on the journey to bring SS to Durham. I look back on that time and I think that I must have lost my mind because I was trying to adjust to a new job, hadn’t even fully unpacked, and was already starting a new project.
What does SS mean to you?
AO: For me, Sistah Sinema has allowed me to present the community with an alternative to the club scene, especially for women who for whatever reason have out-grown that scene. Even though there are a large number of QWOC here in Richmond, it is often difficult to connect. There’s only one lesbian bar in Richmond and the vibe doesn’t really speak to QWOC. So unless you know someone that is hosting a house party or get together, you may not have the opportunity to really connect with other QWOC.
Sistah Sinema has filled that gap, providing a space for meaningful dialogue and relationship building. I host my screenings in a restaurant with a private room, where we can order food and relax, watch the film and fellowship. At my Sistah Sinema screenings I have the opportunity to share information about things going on with the organizations I serve on the boards of, and also advocate for QWOC to join and demand a seat at the table of those organizations too.
IP: SS is such a huge part of the happiness that I have found in Durham. Being the Brand Manager for SS Durham has opened up so many doors for me and introduced me to people that it would have taken me a while to meet. In many ways my decision to start SS Durham so early on in my stay sped up my introduction to the city. It forced me to get out, meet people, and put myself out there in a way that I would not have otherwise done so quickly. I call SS my passion project, as it continues to give me direction and purpose outside of the other things I do.
Echoing what Ayana has said, the most important thing that SS has done is provide me with an overwhelming sense of community. I am so thankful for all of the people that support SS events in Durham. The city has welcomed me with open arms and I will be forever grateful. Nevertheless, SS is bigger than us (me and Ayana,) SS is a network of people all around the world who are committed to bringing forth a vibrant collection of queer experiences. Ayana and I are so excited about moving SS into its next chapter of success.
What’s the process of selecting and presenting films at SS?
IP: In the past, Isis Asare selected the films and would ask for input from City Brand Managers along the way. She found films that covered a wide range of topics and genres, and connected with the filmmakers and distributors to acquire screening rights to show each film nationwide.
Moving forward Ayana and I will take a similar route in finding films to screen in addition to attending LGBTQ film festivals around the nation for new films. Soon we will release a call for films, where people can suggest films to us. Overall, our goal is for each of our films to provide a meaningful opportunity to learn, laugh or simply be entertained.
What was your introduction to queer cinema? And if you identify, did it affect how you felt about yourself/help you understand yourself? Positively? Negatively?
AO: I had to think about that. Then I had to laugh. LOL. It was via Netflix before they started streaming, when they only mailed DVDs. I discovered the LGBT genre, and my ex and I ordered every movie they had. We would just binge watch them. And shortly after that we got LOGO and we watched the same 3 movies about 20 times.
I had come out about 3 years before that, so I was just hungry for anything I could see or read about queer people. The only thing was there were no queer black or brown people in any of those movies, except for Paris Is Burning and they were all men. I guess then, it was a positive experience for me to see queer people on screen.
IP: I didn’t come to the realization that “queer cinema” was actually a genre until I was well into college. Prior to that I just happened to come across films featuring queer characters and was thrilled that someone was creating something that spoke to a part of me. I remember watching films like Bound, Set if Off, To Wong Foo, The Birdcage, and Stranger Insider. Seeing these representations helped me to expand my perception of what queer people could look like, act like, and how they lived.
I was used to my experiences and those of my friends’, which were somewhat monolithic in nature, so it was nice to step into a different world through cinema.These films were definitely positive depictions regardless of whether or not I could see every part of myself represented. They provided me with a level of visibility that I didn’t see in my neighborhood. They were the places I escaped to in my mind. I laughed, cried, and felt for those characters in a way that nourished me.
How do you feel about the representation of queer stories in more mainstream media?
AO: Well I have to go back a little farther than Pariah and mention The Color Purple. I read the book before I saw the film and I felt cheated by the way the relationship between Miss Cellie and Shug Avery was down played. Then we had to wait 26 years to see another QWOC on the screen. My friends and I drove 2 hours to DC to see Pariah, twice! We couldn’t stop talking about it. I also watched and still do watch representations of queer people on the small screen i.e., Queer as Folk, The L Word, Will and Grace, Modern Family and even now Empire, but overall, those characters don’t reflect me or any of my close friends.
IP: I appreciate that there are more stories being represented in mainstream media. Visibility in and of itself is very important. However, mainstream media is a numbers game. It’s all about high profit margins, and as long as that is the focus, what we see in mainstream media will be limited. Mainstream media has to reach a pretty large audience and often with that comes a bit of sanitizing of queer experiences. I appreciate all of the shows that are working towards queering mainstream media, I am just concerned with the amount of queerbaiting that I see happening without any real intention of addressing issues that matter to the queer community or providing dynamic portrayals of queer people.
Queer cinema has almost always been tied directly to the underground film circuit.Given that, do you prefer indie produced (and/or queer produced) media vs. more mainstream presentations? Is there room for balance?
IP: I do not have a preference. I believe that they are both necessary because they reach different audiences. And at the end of the day it is important to me that queer stories are being shared as far and as wide as possible.
AO: I tend to favor indie produced film. However, I do tend to follow certain directors/writers of mainstream presentations. They have a track record of producing quality and thoughtful work. Like Ang Lee, Ava DuVernay, Kasi Lemmons and several others. I agree with India, that it is very important to me that queer stories are being shared far and wide and often. And I am encouraged when we are authentically portrayed in the mainstream.
Agency is a big part of owning one’s own experiences/authoring one’s own history. How do you see cinema as a part of the toolbox to queer agency, both in culture and beyond?
IP: I believe that cinema is a large part of everyone’s queer agency. From the production team to those who participate in its consumption, everyone benefits from queer cinema. I see it as more than a medium of communication, to me it is a world of possibilities where filmmakers can engage in radical self-discovery.
AO: Cinema in general is so much a part of our culture. It is a tool of the modern day griot and when the stories are told, we all want to see ourselves in the story. I believe that it is certainly empowering for everyone involved in the creation of queer cinema as well as the audience, no matter whether they are queer or straight. And I most definitely see cinema being one of the tools by which queer people enable Kuchichagulia, (my favorite Kwanzaa principle) or self-determination: owning and claiming our experiences and indeed, telling our history.
Part II drops tomorrow.
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope