Experimental director discusses history of independent film
By Annie Mose
On Feb. 27, IU Cinema welcomed experimental filmmaker MM Serra as part of their Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Series.
“Anything you ever want to know about the American avant-garde is stored in her brain,” said Russell Sheaffer, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture.
Serra not only makes films, but works to preserve them. Serra is the executive director of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative. With the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, Serra acts as a curator and historian, making sure independent media is not forgotten.
Noelle Griffis, another doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture, introduced Serra. Griffis said the works of Serra are “bloody, rough and alive.”
“I think MM’s work in particular is really incredible in pushing back on ideas of genre, ideas of sexuality, everything,” Sheaffer said.
The lecture began with a showing of Serra’s most recent short film, “Enduring Ornament.” Serra made the film, which includes manipulated footage from 1940s peep shows, with fellow Film-Makers’ Coop member Josh Lewis.
“The fact that we can show films in their original format in this beautiful screen and appreciate the content and visual aspects is great,” said Megan Brown, a doctoral student in film and media studies.
Serra’s films are graphic, but she defines her genre of film with the term “art core.”
“Art core was coined to describe explicit films that resist the commodification of the body that is enacted by the sex industry,” Serra said.
Serra spoke about the history of the New American Cinema Group, a movement of independent and avant-garde filmmakers in the early 1960s.
“Any opportunity to be able to come and experience alternative counter-cinema is a good thing,” said Alex Swanson, a doctoral student in film and media studies.
The group of New York artists was what Serra calls a “counter-cultural” movement against Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code.
“It was not just people picking up cameras, it was political,” Serra said.
She played films by New Cinema Group members including Jack White’s “Flaming Creatures,” “Christmas on Earth” by Barbara Rudin and “The Male GaYze” by Jack Waters. All of these films have been banned from screenings on more than one occasion.
As a part of the New American Cinema Group, Serra said she has access to a “diversity of identities.”
“Films approaching the body from an alternate aesthetic viewpoint, not as a brand or part of the marketplace,” Serra said.
Serra’s real name is Mary Magdalene, a name she said she was embarrassed of in her childhood, but that she later realized gave her freedom to take risks and explore issues and topics.
“It’s important to bring filmmakers whose work is really pushing that mainstream boundary,” Sheaffer said.
Serra teaches at the Media Studies program at Parsons The New School for Design.
She played a short film, “Untitled XXX,” by one of her students, Heather Loughran. The silent film was banned from the student gallery because the three-channel video showed multiple angles of a couple having sex.
When asked by an audience member what drives her work and what advice she can offer to aspiring directors, Serra said, “I always tell my students it’s about perseverance, hard work and curiosity.”
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