A Conversation With Joanna Sokolowski & Kate Trumbull-LaValle (OVARIAN PSYCOS)
I met with co-directors Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle on Sunday, March 13, 2016, to discuss their collaboration on the new documentary Ovarian Psycos, about a “feminist all women of color bicycle crew” in Los Angeles, for which I also wrote a review. Here is a condensed digest of that conversation.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed
Hammer to Nail: I saw your film via online screener before the festival. How did the premiere go last night?
KT-L: The premiere was great. We had our subjects Xela de la X, Andi Ramirez and Evie Martinez in attendance and I think that made it really special. The Q&A, in particular, was really strong. I think the audience was excited to meet the women and engage in what their relationships with their mothers are now and how it was to…Our DP [cinematographer] was up on stage and he was like an eyesore because he’s this skinny white guy, so there were a couple of questions about, you know, how was it in terms of their relationship with us, the filmmakers, and also our DP, and then Xela started talking about her current work, so it was great.
HtN: Speaking of the DP, you must have had more than one [camera] operator, at least some times, right? Or was it all him?
JS: The majority of the footage of the bikes, which is what you are probably referring to, was shot on roller blades. When we first started production, we were trying to think of the best way to shoot bicycles. Should we mount GoPros?…but we wanted a better quality than a GoPro. Should we sit on the back of moped?…but we wanted to be able to get really close to the women. And the DP, Michael [Raines], actually used to be a great roller-blader. In fact, he’s a really incredible roller-blader, who can do tricks, which never came in handy in his adult life, ever, because…why would it? Except in this one circumstance. So we bought him a pair of roller blades off of Craigslist and it worked perfectly, because he can get really close and get really low…he can get towed by a bike. He can shoot the feet…stuff you could never do on a bike, stuff you could never do with a stationary camera. And so it looks a lot more dynamic…because it is a lot more dynamic and it didn’t require a four-camera shoot or anything like that.
KT-L: He was the only operator. He was the guy.
HtN: And what camera did he use for the shoot?
JS: We shot, in the very beginning, before we had funding, we shot on a Canon 5D Mark II, and then we graduated to the Canon C300 and then at the end, we shot on the FS7. The C300 and the FS7 match pretty well. And the footage you see at the beginning and end of the film was shot on the RED.
HtN: So the stuff with them riding towards the camera…
JS: Yes. The super slo-mo is on the RED.
HtN: I love the Ovarian Psycos’ slogan, “Ovaries so big we don’t fucking balls.” Is that what caught your attention first? What drew you to the subject?
KT-L: The name alone: Ovarian Psycos. I don’t think we knew their tagline quite yet. Just the name. Someone mentioned it, and I thought, this is insane. Who are these women and what are they doing? And Joanna and I had wanted to make a film together, so we sort of pored over everything we could find on the internet about the Ovarian Psycos, and that’s when we found out about their motto, “Ovaries so big we don’t need fucking balls.” And they had a hand sign – they have a hand sign – at one point it was called a gang sign, but they refer to it as a hand sign now. You know, just their aesthetic. They have fallopian tubes on the masks, it’s just all part of how creative they are, how political they are, how fresh they are. You know, they’re drawing from all of these cultural and political influences and making them they’re own. So, the slogan is just…it’s the brainchild, mostly, of Xela de la X. I mean, all of them have participated. I think Joss the Boss created the hand sign, but Xela, really, helped shape the look, the politics.
HtN: And she’s such a dynamic presence in the film. As is that talking-head expert you have…
KT-L: Maylea Blackwell?
HtN: Yes. I love her. How did you find her?
KT-L: So, she works at UCLA, and she wrote a book called ¡Chicana Power! that we used. We were looking for advisors on the film, early on. We got a Cal Humanities grant and it was a requirement for the grant, but we also knew that the women were working in a neighborhood that had ties – close connections – to the Civil Rights movement, the Chicano movement, often considered the birthplace of the Chicano movement, and I had worked on a film previously about the Chicano movement during the 1970s. So we knew that we needed some help with getting historical and contextual information about what these women were actually doing, and so Maylea Blackwell came on as an advisor as part of this grant from Cal Humanities and we showed her parts of the film and decided that it would be a good idea to interview her. She’s kind of a punk, herself, in a lot of ways, in her early days, and so I think her interview was really helpful in contextualizing, especially for an audience…some people who see the film get it, and it’s kind of second nature, and others need a little help in understanding the connection into Zapatismo, the connection to the Civil Rights movement or Chicana feminism, so she was really helpful in putting those things into perspective.
HtN: She’s a great content expert, I have to say. She does a really good job of, as you put it, contextualizing it. So, as we know, your film takes a turn: after you thought it was going to be about one thing, there’s a major plot development – not to be spoiled here in this interview – and when that happened, did you just roll with it and start filming other things? Or did it take you some time to regroup and readjust.
JS: Yeah, we were really blindsided. We thought that we were going to make a film about one thing, and then it changed really dramatically. Kate called me and told me the news, and I think I wanted to sit down and faint. But pretty quickly it became such an integral part of the film, and it really shaped the story of the film and affected the lives of the women so much, that it was almost like a gift to the film, which is an odd thing to say. But that’s one of the beautiful parts of documentaries, that there’s no way to plan for it, and often real life is so much more interesting than anything you could have planned for, so it was really ultimately such a benefit to the film, in a way, because it gave it so much more dimensionality, because…that’s what life is.
KT-L: And I think it was the moment when we realized that this film isn’t really about just Ovarian Psycos as a collective, or their work…that their work takes place on the bikes, but also really in their daily lives, dealing with very relatable experiences, like being a mother, or being a daughter, being a sister, and so while we were really losing it when we found out…(laughs)…oh my God, is this film over? Which was a real concern, in the beginning, when we thought, our main character is changing, and I don’t know if this film will survive the direction that we’re going…it took a few months to come out on the other side, and I think it really helped, like Joanna mentioned, to kind of shape that this is really about characters and women and daily life.
HtN: So Xela – one of the many characters in the film – is very emotionally exposed here. Did you have to convince her that it was all worth it? Or was she secure enough with you that she could roll with everything?
JS: I don’t know if we’ve told this story before, but when we first met Xela, she came off so strong – she’s an MC, she has just a really powerful presence – so when we first met her, we thought, maybe she’ll never open up. Maybe we’ll never get to know more about her, on camera or off. And I think the day after we said that, we filmed one of the most powerful interviews in the entire film. Maybe because she’s an MC, maybe because she’s a mother, maybe because she does this work, she is so emotionally raw and so open, and burns so bright, that it did not take much to become really close to her really quickly, because it’s also such an integral part of her motivation to do this kind of work. She wears it really on the surface, I think, as a benefit to the women around her who are motivated to work alongside her.
KT-L: Yeah, I wish we could say that it was just because we were so wonderful, such wonderful filmmakers, we were able to draw this out of her, but it’s not true…
KT-L (cont.): She knows that her personal experience is what is connecting the issues of violence, the issues of abuse. That personal experience is the way for people to understand. She uses that in her music, she uses that in her work – her activist work, in Ovarian Psycos – I mean that’s really the heart of what she does. She understands it can be transformative to share and to not be afraid, and to speak what people are ashamed of talking about, especially when it comes to violence and abuse and rape. So, it was surprising…how raw and open she got so quickly.
HtN: Speaking of mothers and daughters, I think it’s great that you’ve named your production company Sylvia Frances Films, after the first names of both of your mothers. Were your mothers filmmakers, or did they inspire you otherwise? Can you talk about that decision?
JS: They’re just incredible women that we love.
KT-L: Yeah, I mean, I’m close with my mother. It was also…we formed our production company while we were making this film, which is a film about mothers and relationships with women. My mom is Mexican-American…I present white, I am white, my Dad’s from Iowa, and is super Swedish…(laughs)…so she grew up on the border and my grandmother and grandfather are from northern Mexico and so, especially doing this film and doing the work that I’ve been doing the last few years, my mother’s stories about growing up in San Diego on the border have really shaped my worldview and I just love her. She’s strong and generous.
JS: Like Kate said, when we set out to make this film, and we set out to make the production company, it was really about trying to create strong stories with women at the center – at the center behind the scenes and at the center of the stories – in the films, and so it seemed like really a natural fit, that it would be named for them.
HtN: How long did you film for, on this movie?
KT-L: Four years.
HtN: So I think that we definitely need more films by women, about women, so keep up the good work. What are you doing next?
KT-L: We’re in development on a film…we live in Los Angeles, and the subject of homelessness has been a huge issue. In the last couple of years, homelessness has spiked in Los Angeles. So we’re interested in working on a film – more of an experimental documentary – about homelessness and women. So we’re still in the very early stages, but I think that we’re really interested in pushing the genre of documentary and maybe doing something more collaborative with our subjects. That’s what’s on the horizon.
HtN: Well, thank you very much. Best of luck to you both!
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)