Zia Anger is the mastermind behind some of the most beautiful and revolutionary narrative films and music videos in contemporary independent filmmaking. She recently directed Mitski's Your Best American Girl video, and has also worked on videos for Jenny Hval, Angel Olsen, and Maggie Rogers. In her narrative film I Remember Nothing, she constructed a narrative structure based on the phases of epilepsy.
A hand grazing across saturated pink wallpaper, the glimmer of a gold sweater paired with shiny red nail polish. These details in Zia Anger's films remind viewers to revel in the daily act of seeing. The task of characterizing Anger's films and music videos is a daunting one, not only because she makes a conscious effort to stray from the very foundations of narrative storytelling that we're so used to, but also because she challenges the reduction that often accompanies the classification of her work and identity. I was introduced to her work a few years ago as a student studying film myself, and every time I watch her videos, I remember the incredible joy in relearning the world through hyper-observant, deeply critical eyes. I chatted with her about the ways in which she disrupts conventional storytelling and the commodification of narrative, filmmaking in a contemporary media setting, and finding meaning in the YouTube comments.
I've been a fan of your work for a long time, especially your music videos! What projects are you currently working on?
Music videos have become more of my passion, but I have mostly started doing them because I make narrative films and they seem like a good exercise to supplement the narrative film work which is always self-driven, mostly self-funded, and totally self-motivated. Right now, I'm working on a feature film which is not shooting or anything, but I've been developing it for a while, and I'm also developing another short film. I get music video requests often, but it's not very often that I take them up. The turn-around on them is really fast, so if I was working on a music video, it would probably have to be done tomorrow or in two weeks, or something like that.
The editing and structure are more predetermined in a music video because you're given the audio track already, which makes the turnaround faster.
Narrative films, if they're your own personal project, are totally self-determined. But music videos are very different in that they're ultimately promotional materials and time is of the essence. Someone is releasing and promoting an album and they're hiring you to do a specific job to get a certain amount of press or a certain amount of viewers.
If you're filming with the artist, you also have to understand to their personality and their tastes.
A music video is the ultimate collaboration. I've been really lucky to work with people who really trust me and allow me to do what I want. They will act into it up until a certain point, but ultimately the music is the driving force.
But with a lot of the artists I've worked with, like Jenny Hval, thematically our work overlaps. We have a lot of the same questions and concerns. So when I'm making something for her, often times it is an idea I've been working on and she was working on, and we work on it in parallel for a while, and then we come together. And the collision of what we're doing usually becomes a really special thing that is not just a promotional tool.
I've learned a lot about doing music videos, and the reason that I do so little is because it's not very fun when there isn't an overlap in what you're exploring. So there's never a point when someone says, "I want this. Can you do that?" There has to be an overlap.
Sometimes it's a sonic overlap. Like, I'll hear a song- the most recent Maggie Rogers video I did, that's not something I would normally do, but when I listened to it and the chorus hits, I was like, "Oh, I know this." I can't articulate what it is, but I totally, viscerally connected to it. With Jenny, our overlap is very academic. We really respond to each other, and our conversations are academic.
In my own personal work, I find myself gravitating towards images of food and makeup and mess, and I have to remind myself, "Don't write about frosting, or lipstick." It captures how I think of femininity as a physical, saccharine, and also gritty, tactile experience. Do you have any images or concepts that you find yourself repeatedly drawn towards?
Even in my short films, I've been recycling the same ideas for 10 years. Not recycling in that I use the same ideas over and over again, but every piece of work, every music video, even if it isn't for the same artists, is building my own mythology.
One of the biggest ideas I go back to is the idea of being haunted by a version of yourself. It's something that 10 years ago I was really fascinated with, and then all of a sudden Instagram came along, and I was like, "Oh my God, this is not just me that has this obsession. This is absolutely everybody's obsession."
I think a lot of people read my work as feminist or feminist-leaning, and I appreciate that, but I don't set out to do that. I've never set out and said, "I'm going to do some really feminist work." Maybe that's because of the way I was raised. I come from a really nontraditional family where gender roles as we know them were non-existent, so in my work I do talk a lot about the patriarchy and the structures of capitalism, but it's not necessarily feminist-leaning, it's just kind of how I've always seen the world or observed things, and me calling that into question.
I read a quote where you're talking about Maya Deren's theory that film allows for vertical, emotional access as opposed to prose's linear approach to narrative. I'm curious about your interpretation of this theory and how you incorporate it into your work. As I was reading that quote, I was also reminded of a creative writing professor who told me that a lot of the writing she admires tries to get away from a structure that mimics male orgasm with a rising action and a climax and a short falling action followed by an ending. Instead, it tries to write in a cyclical way, that more closely mimics female orgasm. I thought all these concepts tie together well- vertical access, cyclical story telling, and reimagining versions of yourself. How do you get away from the idea of one hero who changes over time?
Ultimately the male orgasm idea is hilarious. I've always considered that the Aristotelian drama. It happened before Aristotle, but he was the guy who was like, "There is a beginning and a middle and an end and that is what works." I think that's an incredible model to sell things. For some reason, that is what we as capitalists for the past hundreds of years connected to, but that's not the only way to tell a story.
Think of a kid telling a story. It's filled with lies, and hyperbolic statements, and really fascinating details that they clearly were not there for. But it's a really incredible way to tell a story. Think of Native American storytelling techniques that use systems in nature or animals as the narrative cornerstone. In Korea there's the idea of han, which is the collective unconscious story of Korea. There's not even really a way to explain it to Americans.
All of these different ways of telling stories are valid and easily understood. They're really incredible ways of telling stories, but for some reason, they're not commodified in the way that Aristotelian storytelling has been commodified.
I grew up in a family of artists, actors, story-tellers. One of my moms travelled in a radical mime troupe and did retellings of a lot of different fables and folktales, so I've always had this idea of storytelling. And at a certain point, probably at about 18 or 19 years old, I realized that the three act structure, the Aristotelian structure, the male orgasm structure, was really fucking boring. It was impossible to tell certain stories in that way. For me, it was impossible for me to tell my narrative, my own story in that way.
A lot of the work I'm doing right down is based on diptychs. A traditional religious diptych in which there is literally a joint in the middle and it folds in on itself to be easily carried around. I have a story that I can open up and [display] and the two images that are side by side relate to each other. But also, I can close it and I can put it under my arm and walk away with it. And for me, I'm like, "Oh but what happens when Jesus folds in on Mary and their lips are touching while the diptych is being carried around?" That's where the story is.
I thought specifically of your video for That Battle is Over played interestingly with time and cyclical narratives.
Ashley Connor is my cinematographer and my ultimate collaborator. We've known each other since we were 18. Obviously she shoots other projects, but 95% of my work I've done with her, so I see her has a complete and total peer. I had the idea for the first half of that video, I said, "This is where we end up, and then in the next half of the video, shit starts to get weird." And Ashley's like, "Well what if we just start again?", and it was perfect. That's why we work together, because we're able to play with each other in that way. That was entirely playing with time and a viewer's experience. There's actually an incredible fan video out there where they recreated it shot for shot.
Perhaps the notion of the three-act Aristotelian drama ties in with what you're saying about the oversimplification and therefore commodification of feminism. It's easy to package a feminism that ignores the subtleties of all women and people and makes it into a one-liner. Sometimes it feels antithetical to the notion of claiming your own autonomy to adhere to an ideology that has been really reduced. What's connecting that to the three-act drama is commodification, and that ideas have to be simplified in order to be consumed.
I was also thinking about all the different alternative storytelling modes you mentioned. In Hindi, you can say "Namaste" for both hello and goodbye, and I always think about how people who speak Hindi predominantly must have a very different understanding of time than those who speak English.
That's a fascinating micro-structure. What you're saying right there is an incredible microstructure that isn't necessarily commodify-able in the way we know how to commodify because it doesn't understand time as something that has a beginning and an end. It's really easy to commodify a story that has a beginning and an end because there's a certain amount of catharsis in that. The end is the end. I don't have to deal with this anymore! Whereas when something is endless, it's difficult to put a bow on and put in the world and say, "This is it!"
You can't quantify it, right? You can't say, "Ok, I've made one, so now let me mass produce it into infinity." when the first story itself doesn't have an ending.
That's why I like to acknowledge that my work is constantly relating to itself, that ideas are really fluid, and for me, they move from piece to piece whether it's my own personal pieces or music videos, because I don't like saying there's an ending to what I'm doing. I don't like wrapping it up.
I'm wondering if you you think there need to be new words to describe filmmaking in our current media landscape that is so influenced by social media?
I don't -- I try to call everything moving images. Like, everything. Even the video on Snapchat or Instagram, the ad you see before the YouTube video you watch, they're all moving images. There are so many different types of moving images now that basically the only equivalent is writing. There's what little kids do in school where they write the alphabet out a million times, then there are articles in the New York Times, and then there's the content that's on a website, that's unclear whether a robot wrote it or not, that's telling you about the 10 best face creams you can buy. It's absolutely endless, and I think that it's all moving images. We're getting to this point where they're all really valid because they're all ways of speaking to each other, and potentially ways of speaking to each other that are more relatable than written word, because written word requires the understanding of the speaker's native tongue.
I don't think there needs to be new language, I think [working in moving images] is like saying "Oh, I'm a writer." And then after you say "I'm a writer." you have to describe what kind of writer you are.
The interesting thing about social media is that it makes everyone into an author. Your life becomes explicitly meant for consumption.
It allows everyone to become a creator but also to commodify themselves. Instagram is owned by Facebook. Right now the tools that people who aren't filmmakers have to make videos are cell phones, and that's incredibly exciting and empowering, but the one way we have to show our work to each other besides texting or going through the rigmarole of creating a Vimeo account, is through all these platforms that own our shit once we put it on there. So it's a blessing and a curse. You have this phone in your pocket, but the phone is not democratizing. All of these apps feel democratizing but they're also making a lot of money off us.
It's a tricky balance. Messages do get commodified, but I also think they can get more visibility on social media platforms. I always think about the Black Lives Matter hashtag starting on Twitter, for example.
That's the thing--it's not necessarily a negative. In fact, I often think, "Ok if this is the system we're living in, which is capitalism, then why shouldn't we commodify these things? If everyone else is going to make money, why aren't we allowed to do that ourselves?" Until we have another system, the only way out is through. I have no problem with it, but I think it's an important to acknowledge.
Chance the rapper just dropped a new music video, and he tweeted about it. And in the tweet he told fans to lock their phone screen so they could move them around because the footage was in different orientations. I realized that he was anticipating that everyone would watch the video on their phones. I'm wondering if you think about the platform on which viewers will watch the films you make.
Totally. A lot of that is really practical stuff. Like, why would we go and get an enormous camera to record footage to project on a huge wall when everyone is going to be watching it on the 3 inch by 5 inch [screen of a phone]? Often when you go to your friend's house and they're like, "Let me show you this music video," and they open up their laptop, they just turn the music video on and they don't even blow it up to full size. Or they don't know you can adjust the quality of it down below. I consider it all the time and I think there definitely is a democratization of moving images because we're so used to seeing images recorded in so many different ways. And a lot of it is really low quality by filmmaker's standards, and that's ok. I think the camera argument, which camera you use, how you watch things, is a really privileged and exclusive way of thinking. When you say no, we need to shoot on this camera or you need to see it on this screen, that basically writes off everybody who can't afford that camera or that screen.
I was really interested in your video for Innocence is Kinky and the way you capture the body
You know that's me in it?
Oh wow! I didn't know that! So who did the cinematography for that?
Ashley did it. That was the nascent days of me performing for and with Jenny Hval, which is something I did in the last year, not as a musician, but in a performance role.
Obviously, we were just talking about not reducing work to labels, so I'm not saying it's just about the female body or a specific gaze, but I was curious about this theory, which admittedly has been heavily critiqued, of Laura Mulvey's. She talks about women on screen being subjected to the male gaze of the cinematographer, and of the actors on screen, and then finally of the audience. Obviously, that model doesn't account for women spectators, women cinematographers, and so on. But I'm curious about how your experiences influence how you capture bodies on a camera.
With that video, Instagram girls didn't exist yet. I didn't see these ongoing performances online yet. So what we were doing -- we imagined all of these traditionally feminist and often times problematic feminist performance pieces and then I performed them. What we were really interested in was putting that online. The point of the video was not the video, but the intersection with the YouTube audience. The video was not made by us making it and putting it online, but by us putting it online and people responding to it [often] in really anonymous ways.
[Regrading] the male gaze- I've always worked with Ashley. That's not to say that one gender accounts for the way you see the world at all. I have always felt really good about the way Ashley films things. Whether that's because she films things as a "traditional female," that's not really a conversation that I have. She is able to look at things in a way which oscillates between a traditional male and a traditional female gaze, and to give the viewer an experience that is not Aristotelian. What's really important about what Ashley does is on set, she makes people who are being filmed feel comfortable. It's so easy to alienate people who are on screen, often times because we're commodifying somebody's difference. What Ashley does, is she makes people feel good.
The way you're speaking about not reducing anything to a certain label reminds me of the conversation surround the Your Best American Girl video. As an Asian-American woman, I related to it in a distinctly racialized way, of desiring a white romance narrative that ultimately always feels inaccessible. At the same time, Mitski made a Facebook post saying the song is a love song, and that she wouldn't anyone to miss out on that because they thought it had a different message. I was interested in if you felt the meaning of the video was being taken out of her control and being imposed upon her?
I think that what's really interesting is that we didn't have a conversation going into it about pitting these two women against each other. The conversation was really, "Let's have cartoons of Coachella people." And then what people took out of it was really interesting. I found the hardest part about it was the online magazine people writing about it. When they write about something, they have to give a synopsis of the music video and it's always the most reductive cliché shit ever.
With [work I've made with] Jenny Hval it's like "experimental", "feminist", with anything with Julianna Barwick, it's, "ephemeral", "ethereal", "romantic". With Angel Olsen, it's like, "lonely", "angry". So with the Mitski video what was really interesting is the synopses were really cliché. What I responded to was the people who wrote about it that just reduced it to an Aristotelian narrative, which would be pitting two women against each other.
At the same time, the situation relates to how the the Innocence is Kinky video was made for the YouTube videos. Similarly, with Your Best American Girl, it seems there's one artist conversation and then the video goes into the hands of the online writers and into the hands of the fans. And for a lot of us, myself included, we never see Asian-American women who represent us in the [indie music scene]. So we cling to [racial narratives] in a certain way that maybe changes it the message that the artist intended. The way a fan projects their own narrative onto the video, though, is different than how a magazine might reduce it.
Maybe the idea is that everyone is going to reduce it and that's fine. My hope is that when people do that, they stray away from the beginning, middle, and end idea, and if they do feel catharsis, they examine that catharsis. Yes, everyone's going to find what they want in it, and yes, everyone should be able to view things in their own way, and reduce it to whatever they want to. I reduce everything all the time. But to acknowledge, in that reduction- is there catharsis? Is there anger, is there rage? Is there something that incites something else? To then dive deep into those feelings and ideas and really examine them.
What I find difficult about putting music videos out in the world is that there's no forum to have that conversation unless you're in the YouTube comments, which is notoriously a very difficult place to have a conversation.