Intimate Images: The World within a Memory
Even though I had never formally made any kind of video work, in the spring of 2018 I decided to take professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner’s class, Video as Inquiry. I am not a punctual person, but I always rushed to that class, partly because I enjoyed it and partly because the great demand meant that there were more students than desks.
In one of our first classes we screened American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s Bathing Babies in Three Cultures, a film that juxtaposes footage of a woman from New Guinea bathing a small group of children in a river, two different white american women each bathing a child in a bathtub, and a Balinese woman bathing her child outdoors in a small tub.1 Although Mead’s narration adopts the voice of a detached observer, a voice of objective authority, the footage became a canvas upon which she projected her biases about the meaning and significance of different cultural practices. Watching this film in a room full of other students of color, I remember some of us struggling to hold back laughter at the blatant white supremacist descriptions. And after the laughter there was a lingering sense of anger and discomfort—a feeling many of us were familiar with: the discomfort of seeing black bodies, indigenous bodies, immigrant bodies, as a backdrop for narratives that justified violence against us.
After weeks of exploring the different methods in which our visual culture upholds dominant structures of power, it was time for us to make a film of our own. I remember feeling paralyzed at first. The paralysis faded when we were assigned to watch Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim.2 I was fascinated by the way a story was told through seemingly mundane anecdotes: each ordinary scene opening up reflections about family, work, and memory. Although she is often describing her father, her descriptions are deeply intimate, and through them a portrait not only of her father but also of herself emerges.
After thinking long and hard about all the big existential questions that plagued my nineteen-year-old mind, I decided to do something simple: a piece exploring a memory I had of my mom and dad getting into a heated argument over which jacaranda trees were more beautiful: the ones in Mexico City, where they had grown up, or the ones in East Los Angeles, where they had migrated in their twenties, and where they had raised me and my brother.
I recorded a call with my mother during which I asked her about the argument and, of course, the conversation unraveled into a meditation on her experience migrating to the United States. I became fascinated with the way talking about a tree could unveil the stark difference in what she and I considered to be our home. Inspired by Friedrich’s work, my portrait of my mother also became a portrait of myself.
Although I have not continued working in film, I hold what I learned in professor Negrón-Muntaner’s class close to my heart in my current work in narrative audio journalism. When I conduct an interview today my eyes are open, searching for that person’s jacaranda tree: something close, intimate, and small that opens up an entire world. Rather than using any storytelling medium as a canvas onto which I project my preexisting ideas—fitting a person’s testimony into what I think the story is about—I try my best to be present with the person sharing their story with me, attentive to the moments that are both big and small.
1 Birthing Babies in Three Cultures, directed by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead (New York: New York University Film Library, 1951), 10 minutes.
2 Sink or Swim, directed by Su Friedrich (New York: Outcast Films, 2005 ), 48 minutes.