By Joy Yi
As part of GWU’s King Week, filmmakers and graduate students at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design Mimi d’Autremont and Alexandra Dietz presented the first cut of their films “Anyone Like Me” and “Your Way Back to Me,” films about the intersection of deaf culture & football at Gallaudet University and grief & feminism in a Native American family, respectively. A panel discussion with the filmmakers and subjects of the films followed.
The following transcript from the discussion has been edited for clarity and brevity. The panel was moderated by Bailey Edelstein.
B: What are your opinions about the representations of people with disabilities or Native Americans in the media? What are the stereotypes?
S: There are a whole bunch of people within a minority. I think the biggest thing with disabilities is that if you’re Deaf, everyone thinks you’re the same as every other Deaf person. I can communicate with my voice by talking, for example, but there are a lot of Deaf people who are full ASL.
K: Just to add on, I think disability and Deaf are way different worlds. As far as Deaf goes, most people don't even know to say Deaf. Most people want to say 'hearing-impaired.' There's an array of vocabulary.
B: What about you, Alexandra?
A: Apart from the rise of the Standing Rock movement, Native Americans are fairly nonexistent in the media. And then, the way they're portrayed in the media is pretty problematic as well. I think about the #NoDAPL movements and rallies I've been going to and there would be masses of a thousand, but there would be a crew of filmmakers and photographers that are fixated on man with the headdress or the woman with the drum. There aren’t many depictions of the rest of the crowd that are everyday, identifiable people. I think one must recognize there is a way that mainstream media pigeonholes and likes to portray Native Americans. And in our culture, our society, there is definitely a way that we like to consume Natives as well. I'll let Dot talk about the stereotypes because she's about that.
D: Well, once I moved to Washington, D.C., I was just slapped in the face with the Washington Redskins logo everywhere. To me, that's so hurtful. If you were to place another minority in that mold - a poorly depicted version of them - and put a racial, hurtful term, that wouldn't be okay. There's so much misunderstanding and exotification of Native Americans. I think a lot of that has to do with media. You tune into the Victoria's Secret fashion walkway, and they're up there wearing these giant headdresses made in China, and then you tune into the music festivals and all the girls there are wearing headdresses. And you know Halloween, everybody's wearing Pochihotty and Chief's costume. It's everywhere. I really wish people would just stop. It's hurtful. It's not a cool costume. It's not cute. It's not a trend. That's who I am. That's my culture.
A: Being Native American is not about checking a box on your college applications so that you sound more interesting. It isn't about the drop of blood quantum that you might have. It is about whether you are raised within the ways and the spirituality. And also whether you are subject to the objectification and mistreatment that is very prevalent and still rampant in this country.
B: So, I'll segway there with Alexandra and Mimi answering as to how film could be used to bridge cultural divides.
M: I wanted to play with the idea of accessibility. There are various Easter eggs through the film, and if you understand ASL, you probably understand more of what’s happening here. I didn’t translate everything that was signed. That’s one way I wanted to play with the understanding of hearing people. I wanted other people to be able to get into the same experience as Hard of Hearing people.
B: I think good stories definitely break those stereotypes and break those assumptions. Ali, maybe you can speak to the same question which is how can film, in general - maybe tying from your film in particular- be used to bridge cultural divides? This is a culture that you don't come from.
A: Yeah, I think it's a little bit different because this is my family. And (Dot and I) we've been together for almost four years. And so, I had a lot of access to them. I don't actually think that my film is going to deconstruct stereotypes. It's actually not about stereotypes and about addressing all those stereotypes. It's about grief and loss and I made it that way because I think we can all identify with that. We all know what it's like to lose a loved one. I feel like so many documentaries that are made about Native Americans are about ceremonies. And I know, yes, the first fifteen minutes you guys saw a sweat. But it's a lot more layered and a lot more dynamic. And most of the documentary is just about the everyday life of a family dealing and emerging from that grief and carrying on tradition. So being Native American is really just the foundation of the documentary.
B: What challenges did you have working in a community and culture that you weren't a part of?
A: Maybe a challenge was that I'm a really loud person. And I worked for the Cheyenne Arapaho TV. I was doing interviews with elders. And so I had to learn about how to pay respect. You bring tobacco offerings, you are to be seen and not heard a lot of the time and that's out of respect for elders. And learning about the hierarchy within the tribe. And you know - I don't know if you guys noticed - I'm white. So, I think that attached to me is the history of colonization. And it isn't so much that that is the only issue except for the fact that also white privilege today still plays a big role in taking, appropriating, mistreating Native Americans. It's never been resolved. It's not recognized. And so, I think it wasn't hard as much as it was really important to validate that skepticism. And so I think that like with any documentary, it took time and patience and good energy in order to create a relationship and trust outside the family also.
B: What did you learn while filming? Why did you want to tell this story?
M: I learned a lot about football. I actually started to watch an NFL game every week this fall. There's no announcer at Gallaudet, so sometimes it's hard to tell what's going on. I've tried to pick up as much ASL as I can but I'm not very good at it. There's a duality of learning how to focus on a language that is entirely visual. I naturally talk with my hands and I had to learn to put my hands down. I thought I probably shouldn't do that. I might say something really offensive with no idea. But it was fun to learn the ins-and-outs of cultural respect and trying to definitely be quieter. I had these two very big things where I had no experience with and no knowledge of and but I've been there for well over a year now.
B: Shelby and Katie, what's it like being on the other side of the lens?
S: At first, it was really awkward and weird. Now, it's weird not to be on camera. We actually have a couple funny stories of me being mic'd up. There would be inappropriate conversations that would happen at various times, and Mimi could hear everything. It was funny. Anytime Mimi was around, everyone kind of changed how they talked to me because they didn't know if I was mic'd or not. I guess the first couple weeks or the first interview was confusing, not knowing do I look at the camera. Do I look at Mimi, this or that? I naturally move around when I talk. So sitting still and not changing where I sit because it makes it twice as hard for everyone. But Katie, she hates being on camera. She doesn't like being the center of attention most of the time. I guess I'm just used to it now.
K: Don't take this the wrong way, Mimi. The first few months Shelby was like, "Yeah, this girl is following me around and filming me?" I was like, "Should I be concerned?" I had never met this girl. And he was texting her all the time. So I was like hm. Then I met Mimi - and lo and behold, she's pretty awesome. But, yeah, I never quite warmed up to the camera.
M: The first time I met Shelby, he asked me point blankly if I could photograph his wedding. And I was like, who are you? Now, it's all pretty chill. We talk about vegan food a lot.
B: Thanks for sharing. Dot, what was it was like to be on the other side of the camera?
D: Well, I agree with Shelby. It was a little weird to be in front of the camera and getting used to that. I have a very big problem with the way that my voice sounds. Even now, she'll (Alexandra) be editing and I'll hate the way that my voice sounds. It's weird. Sometimes, I say ‘Wow do I really sound that hickish?’ And she'll say 'Yes, you do.'
A: No, I never say that. That never happened.
D: But, I've gotten over it all. I think I've become quite natural. But I guess also with my family too, they're not used to being on camera. So they would have to remember if they are doing an interview to repeat the question back to make it make sense and to not look at the camera. Especially with the kids. The kids were all over the place but they got better quickly actually.
B: Looking back at this experience, how do you think you'd view this experience?
D: I'm really happy that Alexandra chose - and I'm honored that she chose - to do this project on my family and I. Going through loss is such a hard thing to deal with especially two consecutive years back to back. So I guess in a way, I didn't necessarily deal with it head on because I am from Oklahoma and my whole family is back there. And after my dad and grandma passed away, I flew back to Florida to live my life. So, this documentary has allowed me an opportunity to really face all those emotions head on and also understand how my siblings are dealing with it. They're each dealing with it in different ways. And if anything, I think this documentary is really going to shed some light for my siblings and I and into each other's feelings and how we are really dealing with it all. Also my mother too and her perspective and what she's dealt with the divorce.
I think this documentary is going to bring us closer together and a lot more understanding of one another because we're not really emotionally vocal family so I think this will kind of just be like "Here. Here's all the words and all the feelings." I think it'll be really great.
You can view the “Anyone Like Me” trailer here and the “Your Way Back to Me” trailer here. Alexandra and Mimi's work is currently being displayed at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design until February 12, 2017. Both full length documentaries will be completed in Spring 2017.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
Alexandra Dietz is an independent multimedia documentarian born in Detroit, Michigan. She earned her BFA from the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. In 2011, Dietz received the Fulbright India Research Fellowship, and in 2013, launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund her photo documentary project on the diverse lifestyles within Key West. In 2015, Dietz moved to Cape Town, South Africa to photograph ten women as they transitioned out of a life as a sex worker. Dietz is currently working on a project documenting a Cheyenne family in Oklahoma as they grapple with sudden loss, while pursuing a Master’s Degree in New Media Photojournalism at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, DC.
Mimi d'Autremont is a Washington, D.C. based multimedia journalist originally from Portland, OR. She is a second year New Media Photojournalism Graduate Student at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design. Mimi is the current President of the Corcoran Association of Photojournalists (CAP). Her work has previously been seen in a New York Times web feature video, Slate, Studio Theatre, and the GW Hatchet blog. Her work will also be seen in an upcoming exhibit at the United States Diplomacy Center called "Faces of Diplomacy." www.mimidautremont.com
ABOUT THE SUBJECTS
Katie Giles, Shelby's fiancé, is a full time graduate student at Gallaudet earning degrees in International Development and Social Work. She is Hard of Hearing and was raised with knowledge of American Sign Language and Deaf Culture. She is a swim coach at Gallaudet.
Shelby Bean is an assistant coach for the Gallaudet football team, the Bison. He is Hard of Hearing and before coming to Gallaudet to play football had no prior knowledge of American Sign Language and Deaf Culture.