Earlier this year, the L’s Northside Film Festival screened Open, the directorial debut of Jake Yuzna and an award-winning film from this year’s Berlin International Film Festival Panorama. The film, “a queer road-movie-cum-transsexual romance” shot among the queer and trans community in Minneapolis, Minnesota, screens on Friday night at the New Museum, and last week Yuzna answered a few questions for us.
I’ve read that your film was inspired in part by Genesis and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, but I wonder if you could talk a little more about why pandrogyny struck you as something you wanted or needed to explore over the course of a feature film.
I’m very interested in what possibilities still lie out there for humanity. Ever since I was a child, I could not put faith in the idea that this was all there could be. I’m fascinated by those who push the boundaries of the human experience and pave new ground for existence.Genesis and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge are a prefect example of that.I think it is also extremely romantic. To give one’s self over to another so completely that you merge into one. I find that beautiful. It’s very brave and daring, and to me beauty lies in that bravery.
I’m interested in the semidocumentary aspect of any film that draws from a specific scene, as Open does from the queer community in your native Minneapolis, but what are the specific goals and challenges as a writer trying to shape a movie out of it?
For a film like Open, I think it is a necessity to have members of the communities you are representing play themselves. That was the force behind my casting choices. It was my goal to be honest in the emotions and the experiences of individual’s living these lives. Merging real experiences with those I conceived was a method to get to that honesty.
The challenge of working with non-actors is properly guiding them through the emotional toll of performing. It is deeply draining to track down emotional resonance. It can also unlock things within a person they would rather not grapple with. The whole process is very tricky. With a professionally trained actor they have some experience in that. They’ve learned to deal with it. In the case of non-actors it can really be detrimental if you are not careful. Especially if the person is playing a role that so closely linked to their own life.
But there is a wonderful catharsis in this process. It is all a very strong method for confronting elements of one’s soul. And it is the director’s responsibility to make sure that these individuals are safely undertaking the whole process.
As for shaping a film from a community, I think the community shapes the film as much so as the director. That community is the base material you work with, as well as the environment surrounding you as you make the film. It seeps through ever molecule of the project. Films are like children in a way. They have minds of their own. You create them, but they are going to follow their own path. It becomes your role to help guide them as they evolve.
You’ve cited noted queer cinema artists like Gregg Araki and Sébastian Lifschitz as influences on Open; others have mentioned Van Sant, Pasolini… Is there something specifically “queer” about the film’s aesthetic, about that aesthetic generally?
Pasolini? Really? That is quite the honor. It’s funny. I hadn’t thought about him at all when making Open. But now that I’m finished, I can’t stop thinking about him. I have a book of his poetry next to me right now in fact. It is really phenomenal. He really understood delicacy. It’s too bad his poetry isn’t more readily available.
As for Araki and Lifschitz, they where highly influential to me when I was in college. I discovered Araki when I was in junior high and I really went nuts over him. More of his work that came after the New Queer Cinema. Like Doom Generation and Nowhere. I loved his striking characters, vibrant use of color, and startling sets. Plus there was a playful ambiguity to the sexuality in those films. You where never sure if someone liked boys, girls, something in-between, or both. And you didn’t care. That really resonated with me.
Lifschitz was my gateway into a more sophisticated cinematic form. I learned a lot about the trajectory of French cinema of the past twenty years through his work. Which lead me to discover a very quiet and nuanced style of cinema. So I will always have a soft spot for him. Lifschitz’s work is very subtle and beautiful. His films give you time to think and reflect. It is rare a filmmaker attempts, much less achieves that goal. They haunt you long after watching them. I think it was watching a Lifschitz film that I gasped out loud at the poetic beauty film could achieve.
With Open I wanted to achieve both of these elements that spoke to me in their work. Time for viewers to reflect, a subtle use of cinematic form, but exploring character’s that were striking and unquie.
However, I have a large list of directors, writers, artists that inspire my work. It just happens that Open’s genesis was greatly influenced by these two directors. Who knows, my next project could be influenced by Yoko Ono and a rock I find on the street. There are a lot of options.
To answer your question about a queer aesthetic, no I don’t think the film has one. I have a hard time believing such a thing exists. It’s a great term, but a meaningless one. There are so many filmmakers out there that who are queer. If you put all their works together, I don’t think you can create a strong parallel in their works. It would be as diverse as mankind. Any correlations gleamed from such a pursuit would be a kin to a Rorschach test.
You’re also a horror junkie who just curated a series of vintage Italian zombie films for the Museum of Arts and Design. Can we draw a link between your interest in horror films and in the full spectrum of human sexuality? A sense of difference, perhaps? Something to do with the body and its permutations?
I grew up surrounded by horror films. The rest of my family wasn’t really into them, other than my uncle, of course. But I was fanatic. I would force my parents to drive me from video store to video store to get more. I would rent out a smaller video chain’s supply of horror films, and have move on to the next one. I was like a locust that way.
I don’t think there is a link between horror films and sexuality. Not for me anyway. I can find a link between the use of tension in horror films and in my own work. Horror films are more about exploring what you are not supposed to. A forum that is deemed appropriate for gazing into the more complicated elements of human nature.
It’s 25 years from now and Open is screening at your mid-career retrospective. What do you expect, or hope, your film will eventually say about gender and sexuality in America right now?
I see it as more of a time capsule than anything else. Looking at a time when a generation was attempting to move past the gay rights movement of the past fifty years in America. When we began to break away from the models of the past century, and looked for new options for being. Ones that more honestly took into account the limitless breadth of human emotion and experience.
However, Open was made so that the viewer got to fill in some of the blanks. The film should be a unique experience for each person that views it. I’d love to hear how these people of the future complete the film from a perspective of their time.