2020 Writers Conference Featured Films
All events are free and open to the public.
Although the UND Writers Conference has included a "Film Festival" since at least 1998, how the films were selected, and why, hasn't always been clear. Each year, we ask participating authors to select a film that they think speaks to the Conference's theme, that has influenced their work in some way, and/or that they want those in attendance to see. When possible, we will provide an answer to this long-standing question, along with a synopsis of the film.
Wednesday, March 25
|2:00 p.m.||Paris is Burning (Dir. Livingston, 1990, 78 min.) selected by Roy G. Guzmán
Location: 300 Merrifield Hall
|6:00 p.m.||13th (Dir. Duvernay, 2016, 100 min.)
Location: 300 Merrifield
Friday, March 27
|2:00 p.m.||Combat Obscura (2018, 70 min) selected by Matt Young
Followed by discussion with director Miles Lagoze
Location: 300 Merrifield Hall
How Were These Films Selected?
Paris is Burning (1990), directed by Jennie Livingston, is a documentary following the lives of drag queens
in Harlem during the 1980s. Drag balls are explained to be a place for those who don’t
feel they have one elsewhere. The infamy that one can receive from walking, or performing,
at a ball and winning trophies is akin to winning an Oscar for this community where
the outside world gives them no opportunities for that type of success. Oftentimes,
a ball is a place for people to have a moment of glamour in a life that has been so
unforgiving—with gay children being kicked out frequently or running away due to feeling
unsafe in their homes, many of the girls who walk have no housing or food to eat.
The documentary also describes the dialect of the Harlem drag world, with drag queens
elaborating on their experiences and the history of acts such as “voguing”, “reading”,
and “mopping”. Many people also explained that they belonged to a “house”, which includes
others in the community and has a found family dynamic, with house mothers and fathers
taking care of their children who lack support from their biological parents. The
categories of balls expanded and changed over time, so that essentially everyone felt
they had a place there. There were even categories in which a queen would dress as
their straight counterpart, or embody the rich, straight, white American ideal that
they felt they could not fit into in the outside world. Essentially, drag balls were
a place where one could embody any life they desired to. Outside of this community,
most of the girls hustled to survive, which sometimes included sex work. Some girls,
many transgender women, were murdered due to the danger they had to subject themselves
to in order to make money. The hatred directed towards gay men and transgender women
was magnified by the outbreak of AIDs, which the drag community worked to raise money
for in The Love Ball, which was sponsored by the Design Industries Fighting Aids (or
DIFFA) and raised more than $350,000 for research and housing for those who were homeless
and affected by AIDs.
This film was selected by Roy G. Guzmán who explains why they selected this documentary:
"A lot of my work explores Black and Brown queer and trans identities, communities, and artistic expressions. Jennie Livingston's documentary, Paris Is Burning (1990), about the mid-to-late 1980s drag ball culture in NYC, has become a go-to text for me that reminds me of what ancestry and heritage look like for marginalized people, while also pointing to the spectrum of BIPOC possibilities and survival strategies in a necropolitical heteropatriarchy. The oral histories gathered in this documentary linger in my academic and creative preoccupations."
~Synopsis provided by Sav Kelly, an undergraduate majoring in English and Sociology.
'When the 13th amendment was ratified into law on December 6, 1865, it abolished slavery, with one key caveat: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” More than 150 years later, that exception has proven much more than a mere footnote to history. More African-American men are incarcerated, or on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, and the United States, which accounts for 5% of the world’s population, counts nearly a quarter of the world’s incarcerated people.
To understand how we got from there to here, look no further than Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary 13th....The film draws a line from the ratification of its titular amendment to mass incarceration today, making pit stops at significant moments in history, from the depiction of black men as a threat to white women in The Birth of a Nation in 1917 to the thinly-veiled racist appeals of President Reagan’s Southern strategy in the early ‘80s.'
'Some viewers might be surprised by some of the people who are interviewed in the film, like famous conservatives Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. How did you decide on this particular group of talking heads?
It was important for me to make sure that we included people on both sides of the aisle, so to speak. I know what I think, but I’m interested in knowing what everyone thinks. Everyone who I asked to be in the documentary said yes, and they were included because I wanted to hear their side of the story. I was eager to sit down with them and pick their brains. I spoke with every subject for two hours, and the most intriguing parts of those conversations are in the film.'
This film was selected by the UND Writers Conference director, as she thought it would help inform the discussion surrounding the work of Reginald Dwayne Betts.
Combat Obscura (2018) is a firsthand documentary directed by former United States Marine Miles Lagoze. The film compiles footage taken by Lagoze and others during a deployment to Afghanistan, where Lagoze served as a combat cameraman — a videographer for his unit.
The film follows a Marine unit as they conduct combat operations, capturing day-to-day interactions with Afghani civilians — and insurgents — as the young veterans balance intense moments of fighting with long periods of downtime. But the beauty of the film is in its authenticity. In an interview with Task and Purpose, Lagoze argued “There’s been so many fake depictions of the war, that it’s worse not to show what it was actually like.” The rough footage and shaky shots don’t just mirror the average infantryman’s home video production — they were literally shot alongside the same personal productions. This approach succeeds in lifting the veil so often seen in military-themed movies — visions of nationalist achievement and self-sacrifice for the greater good — and giving viewers a peak behind the scenes, where young Marines take drugs and applaud when American bombs land on the wrong targets. Or, as Lagoze says in the same Task and Purpose article cited above — “People are really sick of the hero worship and stuff like that. [These Marines] were in a fucked up situations. This is more real.”
But perhaps the greatest achievement of the film is its ability to condense an entire six-month deployment in Afghanistan down to 70 minutes. The conversations between Marines, the fighting, the downtime, the drug-use, the jokes, and even the deaths of brothers-in-arms are edited down into a beautiful and gritty narrative that does not inspire or uplift — it merely displays combat experiences with an honesty that will leave viewers disgusted at some moments, horrified at others, and left questioning every war movie they’ve ever seen.
~Matt Eidson is a graduate student in UND's Department of English.