Frances Negrón-Muntaner: Inside the Laboratory

by Siena Sofia Bergt

I was drawn into Frances Negrón-Muntaner’s Media and Idea Lab because the title of her course offered during my final semester at Columbia University—Video as Inquiry—intimated that the class might open up room for discussion of some of the many blind spots I’d unconsciously cultivated over four years of ostensibly “historically oriented” film studies lectures. The workspace she created completely exceeded that hope: by the last session, my classmates and I had gained language (aided by our professor’s own exceptionally incisive wit in the face of systemic frustrations too demoralizing to encounter unarmed by humor) to describe not only what was missing from our screens, but also what was being communicated in—and by—those representational absences. As Frances frequently reminded us, filmmaking is a selective process: removal, lack of representation, is a choice. But, ultimately, what stuck with me most from my time in the lab was the memory of the last day we gathered.

We had voted collectively to spend the remaining class budget on several takeout pans of black beans and cumin-yellow rice to split during that final afternoon. We all took our time piling up paper plates before sitting down in our usual circle, mostly quiet out of nervousness about the screenings. The plan was to watch the videos we had developed, alone or in groups, over the past several months—with only five minutes in between to ask questions of the filmmaker(s). Although it was refreshing to think of breaking the academic fourth wall by sharing a meal (especially one filled with flavors nostalgic for so many of us) at the end of the rigorous creation process, the pans were still mostly full and had long since stopped steaming when we finally got up to leave. We’d run over the end of the period by nearly two hours, and almost every student had chosen to stay.

Most of us had made autoethnographic films, but the styles and approaches we utilized were so markedly—so exhilaratingly—different that within the first few minutes we already found ourselves raising more questions for the creators than could possibly fit into the available time. One classmate had interviewed her parents about the aspects of Mexico the couple missed most since moving to California; instead of showing their faces, she focused her camera on the moving shadows of offscreen bougainvillea branches. The shot was stunning, its dreaminess viscerally memorable. Frances paused to compliment the image’s externalization of the internal: it created curiosity around the space left unseen. My own short, Degradations: Re-visions of the First, Lost, and Native* Werewolf Movie, was a collage of silent and modern Hollywood found footage cut into a loose narrative about the experience of discovering that the first-ever “werewolf movie”—a silent short lost to a storeroom fire—had featured an Indigenous female lead. I fabricated a pseudo-glitch halfway through, as if the projector were malfunctioning, to move away from the montage of mostly black-and-white images and allow full-color (and Native-made) images of Indigeneity to unexpectedly explode from the pixels. Frances seemed to understand the joy I experienced in using that moment of absence as a point from which to claim power. And another woman, who did not sign up for the class but worked as the professor’s research assistant, made an exploratory project about her relationship to the idea of Indigenous dance as a methodology of healing—a seed that she is even now growing into a longer film and future piece(s).

To this day, I and many of my former classmates have remained in touch and are sending that former research assistant contributory footage of ourselves dancing for her to incorporate into her still-evolving film. I’m not sure if Professor Negrón-Muntaner has yet learned of this ongoing expansion of work gestated in her lab; but it is because of her labor that we are now collaborating to bring our images and stylistic approaches to a screen from which they’ve historically been absent. And, ultimately, that vulnerable act of filmic self-foregrounding points to the most fundamental lesson to come from her class: when we begin with an eye to the images that aren’t being shown and work to bring them forward, the results will inevitably be more diverse, raise more questions, and provoke more engagement.

Even after holding the screening room hostage for so long from the next group of students, something felt a bit unfinished when we finally paused to cede the space. There was still much more left to ask, to show, and to watch. And it was a joy to feel that the implications of Frances Negrón-Muntaner’s class quite literally could not be contained within the classroom.

Siena Sofia Bergt is a filmmaker, writer, and native of Agua Fria, New Mexico. She made her first feature, OPIA, while attending Columbia University, becoming the first student in the school’s history to complete a feature as an undergraduate. Her explorations into marginal, rural, and uncanny storytelling modes have elicited stylistic comparisons ranging from Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Paramo to Samuel Fuller’s film Shock Corridor. Having begun her career as a theater director and trained under late cult filmmaker Ted Flicker, she views film as a means of producing direct confrontation between characters, artists, and audience.