Ashley is amazing. I use her films in my work, we sell them at the Tool Shed, and I’m proud to say that she was one of the first Tool Shed employees after we moved the store in 2008 who really helped get us off the ground. This interview is great.
INTERVIEW WITH FILMMAKER ASHLEY ALTADONNA
How long have you been a filmmaker? What got you interested in filmmaking?
I have been making films since 1999 when I was going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I originally wanted to do something in sound design or musical engineering but couldn’t get into any of the classes I wanted to take. I took an intro to filmmaking course and was hooked. Seeing work by avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton completely blew my mind as to what a film could be. After seeing a copy of Jennifer Reeves’ “Chronic” I thought, “Okay, this is what I want to do!”
The film program at SAIC was exciting but, at least in the time I was there, very unstructured. They gave us 16mm cameras and told us to go make something. It was liberating to be handed those resources, but I probably wasted more than a few rolls of film just learning to use the equipment. Eventually, living in downtown Chicago started to take its toll on me. A bunch of my friends were going to art school up in Milwaukee. I found out about the film program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and moved to Wisconsin in 2000.
The film department at UWM was a lot more rigid. I don’t think we were even allowed to touch a camera until the second year. I learned a lot more about theory and practice for which I’m grateful. Unfortunately, it was around this time that my issues with my gender dysphoria were starting to boil over. I couldn’t concentrate on my coursework. I was completely stressed out and frustrated. I was put on academic probation my after my first semester. I came out to my parents as transgendered at this time, and briefly started seeing a therapist. However, it wasn’t until my last semester, five years later that I actually began to deal with my gender identity issues. I would recommend film school to anyone interested in pursing filmmaking, but trying to come to terms with your own gender identity while you do it can be a lot to take on.
A lot of your work like your films Whatever Suits You and Playing With Gender is based on your identity as trans. Do you feel like being trans has given you a certain amount of inspiration?
Being transgendered has really given me a lot of direction in my work. I often struggled in school to find an idea or subject matter that I wanted to make art about. Consequently, a lot of my films from that period lacked a personal connection. You can sort of tell I was just “going through the motions” as a director. Being trans has inspired me immensely. I was motivated to make my film “Whatever Suits You” after learning about the Seattle Transgender Film Festival. That entire project happened so organically because I was emotionally invested in the subject matter, me and my transition. Nearly all my films since then have dealt with exploring gender and transgenderism in one way or another. My film “Playing With Gender” was my way of trying to explain the concept of gender and transgenderism to my friends and family. It was my attempt to give them a reference point. The unique experiences we have as trans or genderqueer/gender-varient people are rich with topics to explore and discover through our artistic mediums.
Do you feel when you make a movie about being trans it pigeonholes you as a “trans filmmaker”? Is that necessarily a good or bad thing to you?
For me the idea of being a “trans filmmaker” or “trans artist” is a double-edged sword. On one hand it has opened a lot of doors for me to show my work and given me opportunities I might otherwise not have had. On the other, a lot of times people can’t seem to get past the trans issues to actually evaluate the work on its own artistic merits. I have been to several screenings where I’ve done Q and A after the films, where not one member of the audience has asked me about filmmaking. Instead it’s been the usual barrage of inquiries about my sexual orientation, biology and which bathroom I choose to use.
What are your thoughts on todays “trans cinema”? Is there such a thing? Is it like “queer cinema” or is it something different?
I feel trans cinema, like the rest of trans culture, is slowly coming into its own. Trans culture has been lumped together with queer culture for so long that a lot of people don’t often distinguish between them. I think within the last 20 to 30 years transgender art, theory and society have begun to carve out a space all their own. As artists, writers, and filmmakers it’s important to create that culture and fight for it.
What would you say to young trans artists and filmmakers on making art?
Keep creating and sharing. For years mainstream society has dictated what it means to be queer or trans. You see this with mainstream TV shows and movies like “Transamerica” where trans people are either pathetic victims or deceitful deviants. We need to make and share our own stories, ideas and experiences to counteract these misleading stereotypes.
Bodies Of Work Magazine looks to celebrate the trans / gq / gv artist and writer. Do you think we’ve got a long way to go or are we there?
Again we’ve come a long way, but every time I hear about another transperson attacked or bullied, or denied the same rights and privileges, I know we’ve got to do more.