Filmmaker stops by UC San Diego to talk freedom, dreams and ‘being OK with where you are’
Tourmaline focuses her work on Black queer and trans people and ‘what do we have already that we want to make more of?’
For filmmaker and activist Tourmaline, the concept of dreams and freedom can mean many things. “Sometimes it’s about being OK with where you are right now,” she says.
Tourmaline, a transgender woman who identifies as queer, focuses her work on Black queer and trans people and communities.
She discussed her career and showed some of her short films — including one that is in progress and hadn’t been screened before — during a talk April 6 on the UC San Diego campus in La Jolla in partnership with the university’s Black Studies Project.
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Tourmaline’s parents were involved in what she described as “analogous to the Black Panther Party,” a Black power organization active in the United States between 1966 and 1982.
She said early organizers in the civil-rights movement “created Freedom Schools [alternative schools for African Americans that operated in 1964 in the South] to generate momentum and focus around what was wanted and desires for the kind of world we might inhabit.”
Three questions often were asked in the Freedom Schools, she said: “What does the dominant culture have that we don’t want; what does the dominant culture have that we do want; and what do we have already that we want to make more of? So much of my work as an artist is about that third question.”
In her films, according to UCSD, “Tourmaline creates dreamlike portraits of people whose stories tell the history of New York City, including gay and trans liberation activists, drag queens and queer icons Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (in the film “Happy Birthday Marsha”), Miss Major (in the film “The Personal Things”) and Egyptt LaBeija (in the film “Atlantic is a Sea of Bones”).
Tourmaline said her process of filmmaking centers on “dreaming and question-asking, speculating” and combines narrative, fiction and non-fiction elements, as well as different types of footage such as artistic interludes, found footage and scripted work, to create stories about real people and events.
“Collaging is one of the first mediums I found my stride in,” Tourmaline said. “It helped me understand who I was. … In the early 2000s, a lot of my friends were dying and I was getting really burnt out. It was really intense. I didn’t have the space to figure out what I already had that I wanted to grow. In those moments, I took continuing-education art classes and collage was one that spoke to me. … It was something I always came back to.
“When you look at filmmaking, the edit is really a collage. So that sense of weaving and being in it and remembering who I really am hits me. It offers something fresh and new every time.”
She said she was inspired by events such as the Stonewall riots of 1969 — also called the Stonewall uprising — after New York City police raided a gay club.
“Stonewall was a pivot,” Tourmaline said. “You can’t go from feeling powerless to a place of joy. But you can go from a place of powerlessness to wanting revenge … then to uprising and rebellion as a path to who you really are.”
Thus, she said, focusing on events of the past “has helped me remember who I am.” ◆