In collaboration with my institution’s Center for Women and Gender Action, my library partially funded bringing filmmaker Russell Sheaffer to campus for class visits and an open screening of his film Masculinity/Femininity.
Russell is an Indiana University PhD student and filmmaker. His 2014 film Masculinity/Femininity was an official selection at Inside Out, the LGBT Film Festival. Shot entirely on Super 8 film, Russell asked filmmakers, theorists, and artists to create performative works that examine normative ideas surrounding gender and sexuality. Included in the film are responses from prominent queer scholars and artists such as Jack Halberstam (a visiting scholar to Denison last year), Barbara Hammer, Carolee Schneemann, Susan Stryker, and Sophia Wallace.
Russell’s visit was an overwhelming success. The director of the Center for Women and Gender Action had her student workers promote the event and guide Russell around campus between his three classes – one on exploring masculinity, one on the history of cinema, and the last covering queer theory. About 30 students and faculty had round-table conversation over dinner with Russell before heading to the screening. There were well over 100 students and faculty at the screening and about 20 students remained afterward for a talkback with the filmmaker.
The inspiration for the film, Russell said, began when he questioned how to visualize what queer theory does in writing. He wanted something else (dare I say something more?) from the queer theorists and film scholars he was reading. Like a classic anthology of theoretical essays, Russell’s film moves from one artist scholar to the next. While most of the scholars had about five minutes of screen time, some felt like they went on forever and others you wish could have continued performing for hours (much like reading queer theory).
Using 8mm film is analogous to the conversations about gender norms. It’s laborious; he can only get about 2 and a half minutes of footage per reel, IF the film even captures the shot. This means there are continuous visual interruptions and the image is granular, unclear. As an artist and former art teacher, I welcomed hearing another artist encourage students to consider medium and how it pertains to context. The content of Masculinity/Femininity is experimental and unpredictable. The medium is too.
Russell was an excellent speaker. He had immediate rapport with the students; he is funny, intelligent, and, most importantly, radical. I think his film may have made some students (and faculty) uncomfortable while it simultaneously assured and encouraged others. Also, he has great hair.
This was a tremendous opportunity for the library to collaborate across departments. A film screening and discussion focused on breaking gender norms exemplifies research as a conversation, not just a classroom lecture. It brings complicated and controversial issues to campus through a safe and welcoming venue. As the liaison to all the relevant academic programs, it was important that I was involved in this conversation. It repositioned the liaison librarian in a collaborative role as organizer, activist, and networking agent.