Audiovisual Frames: What Films Can Do: An Interview with Jeff Roy
By Diego Pani (Memorial University of Newfoundland)
*This column also appears in SEM Student News 14.1, Spring/Summer 2018.
Ethnomusicologists engage with media production continuously. Starting from recording music making, using audiovisual technologies pushes our field toward new narrative forms, where audio and video outputs integrate not only into writing but become the very core of research projects. This column provides a space for thinking on the politics of audiovisual representation in ethnomusicological research by exploring the work of researchers who seek to overcome the limits of written scholarly production via documentary filmmaking, photo reportage, audio recording, and online platforms.
|Jeff Roy. Photo by Ryan Ballard.|
I first came across Jeff Roy’s work when I read his 2015 doctoral thesis, "Ethnomusicology of the Closet: (Con)Figuring Transgender-Hijra Identity Through Documentary Filmmaking," where he actively engages his critical use of documentary filmmaking inside Indian trans-hijra performance with the (con)figuration of trans-hijra LGBTIQ+ identity.
Having earned his PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2015, Jeff Roy is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at Le Centre d’études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud at Université Paris Sciences et Lettres. He has worked as a director for several documentaries, including the medium-length Mohammed to Maya (2013) and the documentary series Music in Liminal Spaces (2012–2013), fostering a research commitment deeply connected with his public engagement as an activist for the rights of the Indian LGBTIQ+ community.
I chose to ask him some questions that are strictly related to his audiovisual work, his public role as an activist, and more broadly, how today’s ethnomusicologists can engage with documentary production and the public dissemination of their research results.
|Photo from Dancing Queens: It’s All About Family (2016). Courtesy of Jeff Roy.|
|Photo from Dancing Queens. Courtesy of Jeff Roy.|
Jeff: I think you’re absolutely right. Since film has the power to speak on many levels to wide and diverse audiences, we must be critically attentive to how it represents and impacts the lives of those in front of and behind the camera.
|Photo from Dancing Queens. Courtesy of Jeff Roy.|
Jeff: It largely depends on the film. I’ve made films that have been received positively by activists and scholars from inside the LGBTIQ+ community in India. Some have even won awards at queer and mainstream film festivals in India and elsewhere. But I’ve also made films that, for one reason or another, have been challenged. All of these responses have informed my filmmaking practice in some way. Filmmaking is about opening up dialogue between your collaborators, yourself, and your viewers. When you make films and when you are creating a body of work in general, you are making something that lives and breathes. Your film’s release date is the date of its birth, and you and your collaborators have to nurture the baby throughout its reception. Sorry for the clichéd birth metaphor, but I think I may have a bit of womb-envy.
Jeff: Each film requires a different approach and set of logistics. But it has become increasingly important to me to involve study participants at all stages of film production, including pre-production (script writing, raising funds, planning of budget, hiring talent, scouting locations, buying and renting equipment, and other painstaking labors), production (actual filming), post-production (editing, color correction, sound mixing, more painstaking labors), and audience engagement (red carpet screenings, special events, classrooms, online streaming, and other distribution methods, also known as “the best part”). In my experience, it is important that you and everyone you work with have an idea of where the film is going to go before the first scene gets shot.
Co-produced by Godrej India Culture Lab, Courtesy of Jeff Roy.
Jeff: I think this comes from my training with Marina Goldovskaya, my adopted grandmother of documentary from UCLA’s Department of Theater, Film & Television. She encouraged her students—who she called her grandchildren—to consider the camera as a human character within the narrative of the film. (She is a very important figure in the cinéma vérité school of practice. Consider this an official "shout out.") Humanizing yourself and your collaborators in the filming process tends to become a default position when in the field, since in most extremely low- or no-budget circumstances, you are your own cameraperson, sound person, director, and producer. But, I lean heavily on this approach even with a crew because it signals the presence and perspective of the filmmaker, weakens the objectifying gaze of the camera, and—if shot and edited in such a way—draws the spectator’s attention away from that “object over there” to the lived encounter between two or more people. This reminds me of a quote from Lucien Taylor (1998, 3), who says that if documentation is not, in the end, participatory and self-reflexive, then it is not human.
Jeff: Absolutely, or in queer speak, yass queen. Much of the media attention came as a result of the stature that some of my participants already have in the public sphere—Laxmi Narayan Tripathi (a political figure and reality television star), the Dancing Queens (who regularly perform at Pride events), Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil (whose story was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show), Alisha Batth (Coke Studio India), Alisha Pais (The Stage), and others. In other cases, the films helped to raise awareness about the lives and experiences of people who have a presence in their neighborhoods, community centers, and/or performance communities, but who may be lesser-known on a national or international scale. Much of the media attention that we received became part of the communities’ own efforts to amplify the voices and showcase the talents of those who have otherwise been silenced, sidelined, or shut out of public discourse. As I alluded to earlier, I am deeply invested in what films can do for those invested in their production. This means that the projects I take on must, from their inception to projection on the silver screen, align with the hopes, dreams, values, and practices of those who are involved in the collaborative process of making them.
Music in Liminal Spaces (2012–13) }