Swing and Sway

Writer/filmmaker Lauren Feiring debuted her short film Oscillare earlier this year at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.  The experimental documentary, which got rave reviews from those attending the screening, follows Alyson Bowles who has been in the process of transitioning from male to female for the last fifteen years.  We talked with Lauren about the inspiration for this gorgeous and stirring work on the eve of its next screening in San Francisco.

The Recollective:  This was your first short film.  What prompted the decision to use Super 8?

Lauren:  I wanted the film to serve as a prism of Alyson’s experience. With Super 8 in its present form, the audio and film has to be recorded separately. These discordant elements can then play off of one another. The audio never quite matches up with the film. I thought this would further the sense of disconnect that Alyson confronts daily. The only moments where the two seemingly meet are when she is with her son. Their relationship is perhaps the most important and restorative thing in her life.  She is also, from what I witnessed, fully present when she is with him, and not as distracted by the pressures and finances of transitioning. So, the format itself enabled me to convey the dissonance between her internal world and her external reality, as well as the moments of respite.

Another reason for choosing Super 8 is that it is still a pretty accessible format.  It was my intention for Oscillare to embody the burned out, sun-bleached quality of the Inland Empire. I wanted it to look like a cassette tape left to melt in the backseat of a minivan in countless super market parking lots.  I wouldn’t know how to capture this kind of light digitally, and Super 8 is still relatively cheap.

The Recollective:  What type of audio recorder did you use?

Lauren:  I used a little H2 Zoom, which was teetering on a cardboard box and a couple of phone books during the interviews.

The Recollective:  What drew you to Alyson’s story?

Lauren:  Alyson and I met at church when I was thirteen. We would sneak out of the teen group and smoke strawberry bidis in the parking lot. We became very close and spent weekends together. Her family and high school administrators forbade her to dress as a woman, but on the weekends among friends, she could be Alyson. After I left the Inland Empire, Alyson became a symbol of resilience for me. She didn’t succumb to cynicism despite years of oscillating between transitioning and killing the “female” part of herself. She retained her crass sense of humor, and her penchant for dancing in the street while wearing high-top Reeboks with a miniskirt. I wanted to honor this resilience, humor and courage and simultaneously create a portrait of the Inland Empire.

The Recollective:  What were the biggest challenges or surprises when it came to producing Oscillare?

Lauren:  I had expectations about what type of story would be told. These expectations, or my agenda, unraveled once Alyson and I were face to face. I reformulated the project based on specific nuances of her journey. I think both of us were surprised by the revelations that emerged from her stories. The most poetic of which I tried to represent on film as a sort of visualized free association.

Our time together in California was very limited due to unexpected circumstances (I was living in Durham, North Carolina when I made this film). We had one night and one afternoon to do all of the interviews and shooting.  By one night I mean that we started at midnight and passed out around 4:00 am with the recorder battery completely depleted and Alyson’s menthol threatening to scorch the couch. There was a barking dog chained up in the hallway and intermittent gunshots.  It was 110 degrees.  Classic San Bernardino. So I suppose the challenges I faced were typical -subjects who become unavailable due to forces outside of their control, the cacophony of San Bernardino, or any place, interrupting pivotal moments in the interview. It became a process of adaptation. The film reflects and incorporates this chaotic discourse.  Obviously I’m drawn to a very human, almost clumsy, variety of grace.

The Recollective:  It seems like the film is as much about a place at it is Alyson’s specific journey.  Can you talk a little bit about that relationship between the subject and the setting?

Lauren:  I see the Inland Empire as a physical manifestation of Alyson’s emotional landscape. The relentless commuter flux, the labyrinthine tracts of housing, and the fluctuating crime rate dictated by the economic booms and busts of Los Angeles all echo Alyson’s pendulous journey.  Beauty is rendered all the more visceral with neglected orange groves intoxicating the air and smog tinting the sunsets plum.  Like Alyson, it contradicts the waste from which it emerges.

The Recollective:  What has the response been to the film thus far?

Lauren:  Alyson was worried that the film would be too experimental for her, but she loves it. I think she was surprised by her eloquence. She hopes to show the film to those in her life who do not accept her as a woman. That is really all I can ask for-that this film be useful to her and that it honors her humanity through the articulation of her story. The reaction, at least those communicated to me, from anyone who isn’t Alyson, has been positive as well.

The Recollective:  Where will Oscillare be showing next?

Lauren:  It will be screening at the Frameline Festival in San Francisco this June.

The Recollective:  Are you working on any new projects?

Lauren:   I am working on a short documentary about the songs my grandmother wrote and recorded. She grew up in silver mining camps all over Mexico. After the depression hit, she and her family had to move to the states. She became a teacher in various border towns across Texas and wrote bilingual songs to help children learn English. The songs, to me, are pure gold. I am drawn to the contrast between my grandmother’s mythically adventurous life in Mexico and the mundane, dusty border towns she later inhabited. She drew inspiration from very normal, domestic situations.  Someone would drop a pencil, for example, and a little gem of a song about prepositions would emerge. Educating through music became her life’s work, and also a way in which to hold onto her cultural identity. I am moving to Mexico this summer to, among other things, gather B-roll.

To learn more about the Frameline Festival or buy tickets to this years screenings go to http://ticketing.frameline.org/festival/film/detail.aspx?id=2631&FID=49.

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7 thoughts on “Swing and Sway

  1. As usual Lauren speaks with an eloquince and grace that is hard found. That said let me state that I was honored to be the subject of her first film, and of all the things I expected to see when presented with the final cut the last thing I expected was to be brought to tears of hapiness to see that somebody actually gets it.

  2. This is wonderful! I remember our CDS intro course together, loving this topic, and the beautiful prose Lauren used to speak about Alyson and life in San Bernardino. I am so pleased to see this come to fruition. I can’t wait to see it.

  3. Pingback: London Calling | The Recollective Blog

  4. Pingback: Fall 2013 Syllabus | CDS Introductory Seminar in Documentary Studies

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