Queer Online Archiving: Notes about Sexile
The relationship between queer cinemas and archives refers endlessly to the question of ephemerality. For decades, filmmakers were scared of the celluloid's flammability as a material that could easily be on fire and, as par consequent, putting at risk the preservation of their movies. That risk has probably been higher with the representation of queer feelings on the screen. It is impossible to determine how many non-heteronormativity cultures have been deleted by film censors or destroyed by homophobic governments. More recently, in the digital era, that fear appears to be less present. Simultaneously, the digital turn has allowed a narrative expansion that could be beneficial for putting on screen of underrepresented topics.
As I will develop further, the possibilities of narrative expansion provided by the network culture could be crucial for creating an archive of Cuban queer diaspora. In that direction, and giving the lack of scholarship about the intersections between queer cinematographic archives and online archival practices, I consider it very convenient for my goal to look at the insights provided from transmedia and digital humanities scholarship. Both interdisciplinary fields of research and practice could provide significant insights into the process of creating Sexile and contribute to a more ethical result: an open archive, not restricted to the space and time of a film production.
I proposed to permeate both the filmic text and the present scholarship that accompanies it with the same sense of search. The blog posts, photo galleries, and discarded videos are functioning as a medium for the film and, at the same time, a repository of its absences, which for logistical or aesthetic reasons, cannot be within the confines of digital cinema. Although they are different textual productions, they share a sisterly relationship that connects them in many ways. I intend that both forms avoid conventional constructions and coincide in an essayistic desire. This is the presence - perhaps annoying for some - of a self, which intrudes on the screen or creates digressions in writing. It responds to emotional stimuli, an attitude that seems to pay homage to the impressionist writing so vilified until today due to its excess of subjectivities.
In this direction, it is crucial to revisit the concept of transmedia storytelling, even though it is not primarily related to the creation of non-fiction content. As Henry Jenkins summarizes in his blog: these new narratives represent a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels to create a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its unique contribution to the unfolding of the story" (Jenkins). Mainly, I find it useful for my project this idea of the links between several media or materials that can work together to construct a particular narrative.
A similar outcome seems possible with the assimilation of digital humanities methodologies or the use of platforms like Scalar, designed for these purposes. As explained on the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture website, Scalar is a free, open-source authoring and publishing platform that's designed to make it easy for authors to write long-form, born-digital scholarship online. It also enables users to assemble media from multiple sources and juxtapose them with their writing in various ways. An excellent example of online scholarship using these tools is Performing Archive... Unfortunately, none of these features have been used for Sexile yet because they did not allow me to use the software. Instead, I will be using a Wix platform that offers much fewer opportunities for these particular kinds of scholarship/social documentation.
Nonetheless, I consider the learnings of digital humanities as essential for my work because, as Matthew G. Kirschenbaum explains, this relatively new field is "methodological by nature and interdisciplinary in scope. It involves investigation, analysis, synthesis, and presentation of information in electronic form. It studies how these media affect the disciplines in which they are used, and what these disciplines have to contribute to our knowledge of computing". (Matthew 1)
Likewise, I have tried to relate my personal experiences to queer research methodologies that I had already explored in my previous films, Masks (2014) and Villa Rosa. Both parts will have to fit together organically⎯ like the matryoshkas I played with in my childhood⎯ , and I think that such an organization of the argumentative corpus is also faithful to the performative structure of the film; in addition to being consistent with a whole theoretical tradition on the limits of the archive and with queer research methodologies that, on occasions, also border on the theory of non-fiction cinema, and digital storytelling.
Some theoretical details
For creating the film, it has been necessary to attend to some of the theorists of the queer archive and its relationship with performative politics such as José Esteban Muñoz; Ann Cvetkovich; Daniel Marshall and Kevin P. Murphy; Alana Kumbier; and Diana Taylor. In particular, I agree with the definition of Marshall and Murphy, who understand these files as a kind of repositories of presences and absences:
Then, the queer archive might be described as a space where one collects or cobbles together historical understandings of sexuality and gender through an appraisal of presences and absences. Indeed, as some accounts would have it, the archive is a space where queer subjects put themselves together as historical subjects, even if done in the context of archival lack. (Marshall y Murphy 2)
Similarly, I agree with the perspective of Alana Kumbier that, in the absence or disappearance of thematic or queer experiences from the dominant discourses, researchers often create their files or databases:
They cannot merely consult an existing archive because records about sexuality, sexual lives, and sexual subcultures- written by participants (and not scientists and doctors analyzing them, or police surveilling them, or anthropologists studying them) have been scarce…as a result, scholars have created their own archives by conducting oral history interviews, assembling ephemeral material that circulated in LGBTQ communities, conducting ethnographic research through participant observation…and "auto-archiving:" writing personal memoirs to document queer histories. (15)
These methods seem to be the most appropriate to investigate what has been understood as the Cuban's sexile. Nonetheless, to do a diachronic and transnational analysis of migration's phenomenon is quite tricky because of the shortage of material. Migration has been understood as something abject in the Cuban national discourse, and, therefore, it is difficult to access data segregated by race, orientation, or sexual identity, or gender.
As Marshall and Murphy indicated in Queering Archives: Historical Unravelings, the files of different sexual tend to be dynamic and evasive. For this reason, it is challenging to find one list of those to level the world, and at the same time is more problematic to search for something that never "existed" for certain groups, social, or movements, as often happens in the context of Latin America.
However, I propose to understand the files queer as one space where one places to live different understandings of sexuality and gender through one relationship of presences and absences for this project. This particular archive may be ⎯ following the theory above-cited ⎯ where the subject queer can be as subject historical, although this occurs in one context of lack archival (2). Precisely, this elusive condition seems to be one of the common limitations in investigating the queer archive, whether for academic purposes or films. Regularly, only testimonies can give us an idea of what happened.
The need for evidence, symptomatic of traditional archives, often can be a problem with historical documents and more poetic approaches. In this process, more than seeking evidence, emerges the desire to grasp what critics as José Esteban Muñoz have identified as ephemera:
Ephemera includes traces of lived experience and lived experience performances, maintaining experiential politics and urgencies long after these structures of feeling have been lived. Queerness, too, can be understood as a structure of feeling. Since queerness has not been let to stand, unassailed, in the mass public sphere, it has often existed and circulated as a shared structure of feeling that encompasses same-sex desire and other minoritarian sexualities but also holds other dissident affective relationships to different aspects of the sex/gender system (Muñoz 11).
The ephemeral nature of these structures queer means that at the same time that they are unachievable, they also are difficult to reproduce or resist the development of traditional methodologies. It is to say; it can be a freer text and, therefore, can satisfy this need, using historical or creative solutions.
Along this path, I would also like to integrate the notions of archive and repertoire raised by researcher Diana Taylor into my analysis, focusing above all on her analysis of performance and its ability to transmit traumatic memory. From his perspective, the repertoire, as a more embodied practice, goes beyond traditional archival limitations, which has a greater dependence on the written text.
The repertoire acts as a memory body (performances, gestures, oral, movement, singing, dancing) and represents a knowledge fleeting and not reproducible. Also, this requires the presence, the people involved in the production and reproduction of knowing. (Taylor 56)
The process of Sexilio has been brewing slowly as much a file as one repertoire of memory culture of the Cuban queer diaspora. My approach has tried to favor the set in camera of certain "irreproducible" emotions or those feelings difficult to transmit only by one text written. Although the act of memory has been the primary mechanism, its performativization transcends any attempt at historicist reconstruction. The camera is focused on the emotions that are experiencing the subject's documentaries while interacting with specific texts or stimuli created by the documentarian. Moreover, that arc of emotions also contaminates me as a participating subject.
In this sense, the work with Nelson D'Alerta and his alter ego Catherine White (the character stage that has accompanied since done several decades) has been fundamental. For example, in the reconstruction of their trauma by homophobia in the context educational ⎯ made during one interview which speaks of how it penalized by the desire to dance ballet ⎯ his gestures were essential to understand his suffering. This is evidenced by Nelson representing the movement of his hands when he danced before the camera. Then that gesture is also reinforced ⎯ already through Catherine White ⎯ by showing a photo of Nelson dressed as a classical dancer and in some quick dance steps in a public space in the city of San Francisco.
All the performances may be useful to give us an idea of the queer acts penalized during the '70s by the police in Cuba. The mere description of the fact would not have the same scope.
Furthermore, although the video of a performance does not share the same degree of presence as when the performer/narrator is present in our space-time, I consider that there is a greater organicity when the performance is precisely created for the filmic device, which becomes more present in the archive of that repertoire embodied by the protagonists. In that way, they both function as a valuable source of knowledge.
In the relationship between trauma and performance, Diana Taylor also points out how their repetitions' nature characterizes both. In its judgment, the memory is often traumatic and based on live interactive performances. (246) From this logic, giving testimony creates a connection between the victims and the witnesses, who in this case may be the filmmakers and, by transitivity, the spectators.
Another standard transmission of traumatic memory is photographs that serve to return to subjects erased by history. The portraits of the disappeared peaked in the streets of Buenos Aires by movements of protest. This is what Diana Taylor calls the "DNA of performance" , which makes it possible to link performative and scientific demands. (250) The use of photographic and video graphic material will be fundamental for the narrative of the movie Sexile but also for the transmedia scholarship I am proposing here, as you could see in the next posts.
Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Henry Jenkins, 21 March 2007, http://henryjenkins.org/. Accessed 10 December 2020.
Kumbier, Alana. Ephemeral Material : Queering the Archive. Litwin Books, 2014.
Matthew, Kirschenbaum G. “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” Debates in the Digital Humanities, University of Minnesota Press, 2012, pp. 1-12. Debates in the Digital Humanities, https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/. Accessed 14 12 2020.
Marshall, Daniel y Murphy, Kevin P. «Queering Archives: Historical Unravelings.» Radical History Review (2014): 1-11.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia : the Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.