A meditation on Black mobility and the terror of moving through space, time, and collective grief.
Maria centers the frame as a Black woman, graphic designer, and city-dweller. Her anxious thoughts and plants surround her apartment. After witnessing a murder of a young boy, she finds her mental health struggling as she compounds all the violence and death she has witnessed over her thirty-something lifetime. She explores death and murder in the present, historical, and the crippling fear of her impending death. With the help of a therapist, she unpacks the individual, collective, and generational trauma. The beloved community appears throughout the film, keeping her connected to life. Maria’s sister and community lead the day-to-day caregiving and support. The community comprises an ex-lover, friends, a weed hookup, a spiritual advisor, her mom, grandfather, and solid girlfriend relationships. Each character engages in conversations about food, love, sex, oppression, violence, parenting, healing, global experiences, and advice on healing from grief
Full portfolio at mariaaj.com
In Elephant, I explore the witness and frame grief. I hold to the light collective truth and honor the community's role as witness. Throughout generations, the community is often the keeper of an unacknowledged history and truth. When we speak of deadly acts of racism, the community guides our understanding. Despite public calls against social uprising and movement building, the community leads us to action. Elephant illustrates a community keeping alive the names, stories, lives, events of resistance, and each other.
Lightly scripted, Elephant allows participants/actors to speak from their own experiences. We defined new terms of working, adjusted to artists' needs and capacity. We strived for a higher level of care and intimacy to work, creating a new language for the process. Self-care became especially important for me as I researched a collective history that spanned generations of racism in the Bay Area. I had to pace the work accordingly.
In Elephant, documentary blends with fiction storytelling to discover a conversation on collective grief. I investigate the shape of Black grief by asking participants to share experiences within the story's frame. We created the film while living Black lives.
The breath became an apparent ritual in the process, and a thread weaved throughout the edit. Elephant collaborated with a community of color, queer, Indigenous, and generational San Franciscans, with racial violence experiences. The breath reflected how we showed up to the set, how we began performances, how we ended the work with constant breath awareness.
Centering a Black woman in the frame as witness was a push against the mythical rock-solid-ever-enduring-resilient Black woman. A vulnerable character leads the story struggling with mental health and looking for answers – a new way to move through the violence. Maria creates a pathway to healing informed by community, ancestors, and self. Through her character, we also observe the Black mundane: daily life, simple daily acts, natural Black bodies, rituals, self-care, silence, and everyday conversation.
Plants are a character illustrating natural resilience. Politics are not centered but weaved throughout community conversations. Food, self-care, spiritual pursuits all become a box of tools to move through the grief. The feel, look, mood, vibration, mise-en-scene begin my articulation with "The California Black Aesthetic." CBA considers the palette, frame, temporal, the history of the Black Migration westward, and those deferred dreams of palm trees. Growing up in San Francisco, I saw the light bounce off the hills and fall through the fog on Black skin like a soft veil over the lens. We know nothing of seasons, only moderate temperatures; the sun falls on us in the crisp winter and the cool summer. The San Francisco/Bay Area is a place of two bridges, a peninsula, the Pacific Ocean, and ancient trees. Nature is always in the background of every frame. It is the birthplace of the Black power movement and substantial economic inequality. CBA is a compositional consciousness* investigating the idea that history is always present. Black consciousness must move through with that understanding.
Home, in Elephant, expands on a feeling of roaming because of constantly forced migration. The main character does not feel safe in her city, in front of her house, or in her own home. There is a visual assault on spaces that Black people occupy: indoor space, outdoor space, home, church. Black mobility is contested in the United States. The question for the main character is one of home. Does America have a home she can feel where she can feel safe?
* Compositional Consciousness is the work and thoughts of Amanda Vigil.
M is a visual storyteller working in cinema, writing, photography, and public art. There is a fictional and documentary narrative hybrid approach grappling with stories of our memory. Wired magazine called M a "filmmaker provocateur." PALM TREES DOWN 3rd ST. won the Adrienne Shelly Award, and it was called "a masterpiece" by Film Threat. 2017. The award-winning
sci-fi MOONLESS was reviewed by Stigmart/Videofocus13. Obsidian Theater Festival produced and staged A METAPHOR IN 3 ACTS in 2020.
Published scripts, poetry, plays, and fiction can be read in Forum Magazine and Obsidian Literature Journal.
M can be found on unceded Raymaytush land of the Yelamu people named by settlers as San Francisco, kicking around the fog.
There is a parable of the Eight Blind Men and the Elephant. It illustrates the parts that are necessary to understand the whole. The parts are only pieces of the truth – perspectives of truth. Each truth is only but a tiny sliver of the whole truth. In reality, we'll never fully obtain the entire truth, but we can get close – very close if we work together. Racism and oppression can only be understood by society once all the pieces come together to make them visible. But whose pieces? Do we recognize community truth gathering the same way we recognize the truth gathering of authority? Community protests in opposition to the established truth – the truth authority. Community makes what has been omitted visible.
We have lost many names over the years, like Timothy Charles Lee. A young man who was hanged in Concord, CA, in 1985. Little Timmy Lee is my inspiration. I was only six at the time, but my family and community remembered the murder over the years as an anecdote. "Don't travel alone. Don't travel too far outside of your neighborhood. Don't fall asleep on the train." Lee fell asleep, missed his stop, and ended up 30 miles from his home in the middle of the night. It was through community that I learned the truth about his murder. The most important thing I learned was that his death was connected to other deaths of that time and reminiscent of many deaths along the Bay Area's transit corridor. I undertook the act of remembering and witnessing while I crafted Elephant. Once we collect all the buried, shameful, ugly pieces, we can begin to see the shape and size of racial violence. Until then we are all ignoring the elephant in the room.
ELEPHANT began as a collection of clips that explored my mental health issues and depression after a string of murders and violence around the U.S. At the time, violence and death eroded every conversation, screen, and newspaper headline. For me, death became a deep unchartable sea. More and more recluse, I did not leaving my apartment. I obsessed over news headlines and white papers concerning racism. The hate stepped out of the closet, and the apathy went viral. This was a creatively impotent time that probably lasted years.
The parable of the Eight Blind Men and the Elephant teaches us to collect the whole piece-by-piece through narratives of those with lived experience, memories, and wounds. We must protect our roles as storytellers and witnesses to do truth-gathering work.
The art process healed. Through my space, place, and community, I shaped a truth through the people around me. I unearthed my apathy. I rebuked my hyper-aggressive/hypermasculine traits from my years in the success-driven world. My character and I are trying to undo, examine, and move towards harmony with the universe.
Like me, the main character, a vulnerable Black woman, takes time out, vocally and visibly, using radical and necessary acts of self-care in a time of political and social chaos. The character pushes against the Hollywood stereotypical "Black superwoman." Dispirited, nuanced, complex, mentally exhausted, the main character takes a resting pose instead of the strong warrior pose.
ELEPHANT wraps a holistic approach to every aspect of cinema. I desire to challenge linear storytelling and the traditional structure but not alienate the viewer. It became necessary to throw out the traditional movie-making frameworks and allow my participants an art space to do vulnerable work. We ate, cried, hugged, witnessed, and finally showed up for art. The film has a basic story and outline but a nontraditional script. Collaboration and improvisation uncover each scene. Using performance art, we explore the line between organisms and inanimate objects. The main character must reconcile her space, home, body, and place in this world. She spiritually cleanses the space. Through Elephant, I created a process that asks how do we reflect on the most resilient machine, the organism – the person. Nature, human, animal, or universe, how do we obtain harmony with the universe over conflict?
I intend to begin a conversation and circle to discuss the trauma in our communities. Each story in the film has an entry point to discuss the impact of trauma, loss, and mourning in terrorized communities.