Feminist Pedagogy in Medias Res

by Michelle Cheripka

In film, we are often taught to begin the story in medias res—in the midst of things—without thinking of ourselves as filmmakers in those same terms. We must have accounted for all potential problems that could lie ahead to make the filmmaking process efficient. We must have the answers—if not now, then by the time the picture is locked. I didn’t fully understand the extent of what this meant until I started working with Frances Negrón-Muntaner at the Media and Idea Lab at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race in 2012.

At the core of Frances’s work is a feminist pedagogy in which the process itself is integral to creating knowledge. She describes filmmaking as research, emphasizes communal learning practices and problem solving, and sees a fluidity in both people and forms of knowledge. As an editor at the Media and Idea Lab, my first project with Frances was to assist with the feature-length documentary War for Guam, about the effect of World War II on the people of Guam. Frances and I would meet to review a cut, she would give me notes about changes she would want to make, and then I would implement those notes before our next meeting. I spent the time between sessions embarrassed, frantically watching YouTube videos and Googling how to create certain visual effects or texting another editor for help when FinalCut Pro did something unexpected. It took several editing sessions to realize that the notes and their implementation were more than items to cross off a list but, instead, were part of a far more involved process. It was not only okay for me to learn as I went along; it was necessary. And my learning expanded beyond editing techniques. During our sessions together, Frances explained how the history of Guam has been repeatedly omitted in discussions about World War II and continues to be overlooked as the United States exercises modern-day neoliberal colonialism in Guam. She admitted that some of the aesthetic choices she made (i.e., filming interviews against a mustard yellow background) had been a mistake. And she revealed how the subjects of the documentary came to trust her only after she told them that she was Puerto Rican—not American: she, too, knew what it meant to be from a colonized place. From these conversations, I grew to understand the stories better and how they might merge together, and I also came to know Frances better—as a filmmaker and a person.

Frances entrusted me with access to footage of deeply personal, sometimes painful, interviews, and I felt a profound sense of responsibility in listening to them and continuing to learn the editing software well enough to be able to amplify what was being said. During this process, she repeatedly offered me the opportunity to contribute to a project that could expand a narrowly articulated historical narrative. She would ask me questions that weren’t aimed at leading me to the “right” answer: she genuinely wanted to know my thoughts about cinematography, such as how a sequence might affect the meaning of the film. These interactions reflect Frances’s views about hierarchy. Hierarchy involves describing ourselves as nouns—in this case it could be student/employee and professor/boss—and then placing those nouns in relation to one another vertically. Frances’s pedagogy, which disrupts hierarchy, was a creative choice that entailed standing on uneven terrain together, being open to change, and viewing yourself as a participant in changing the world around you. As a result, I’ve come to understand my relationship with Frances and my start in collaborative filmmaking in terms of vulnerability. It is profoundly destabilizing to be in a perpetual state of in medias res, of being unsettled and willing to change and asking questions that leave you open. As an eighteen-year-old, I found this simultaneously empowering and terrifying—eight years later, it continues to be. But this vulnerability is also a necessary part of creating meaningful collaborative experiences and communities.

Starting at the Media and Idea Lab, I learned within a feminist pedagogy and have continued to bring that ethic to my work. Since graduating, my film and research projects have continued to center around personal experiences of systemic issues—how people are in relationship with one another and the world around them. In 2017, I founded Visible Poetry Project (VPP), a nonprofit that pairs thirty poets with thirty filmmakers to transform poems into short films, prioritizing artists who are typically underrepresented in traditional film and publication. Every year, VPP releases one video daily in April, National Poetry Month in the United States. The project emerged from the idea that I wanted to create and watch films that make you feel as if you are reading a poem: poems are genre-defying narratives of intensely personal and raw experiences; they often use the bare minimum of language to amplify intense and heightened emotional experiences. Films, by contrast, tend to be collaborative and accessible in a way poetry is not. By translating across mediums and by pairing artists from different ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, and sexual backgrounds, the creation of these films became opportunities to bring the entirety of oneself—in all its messiness and vulnerability—to an artistic collaboration. I understood how to collaborate in this way, as well as how to encourage other people to do the same, because of Frances’s ability to articulate the many beginnings that are possible when we are in medias res.

Michelle Cheripka is a writer, producer, and activist currently based in the UK. Her research projects, photography, and film work focus on personal experiences of systemic issues. She is the founder of Visible Poetry Project, a nonprofit that pairs poets with filmmakers to transform poems into short films.

Michelle’s independent film work has screened in festivals and venues in New York, London, Los Angeles, Boston, Beijing, and Rotterdam. She has also worked with producers at Universal Television, Wolf Films, Marvel Studios, STX Films, and the Columbia University Media and Idea Lab, among others, on a variety of television series, commercials, documentaries, Facebook Live series, and feature films.

Michelle holds a BA in English from Columbia University, where she graduated magna cum laude and an MPhil in the Sociology of Media & Culture from University of Cambridge, where she conducted research on visual and narrative representations of climate change in fiction film.