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“I Keep Thinking about Who is the Most Vulnerable Right Now…”: Michelle Handelman on Isolation and Struggle

In April, as we began to put together the Summer, 2020 issue of Filmmaker, we asked directors, cinematographers, editors and other film workers to send us their thoughts on the quarantine and their own creative lives. The responses printed here were collected from April through mid-June — personal statements that speak variously to individual filmmaking practices, films halted mid-production, politics, art and life. Read all the responses here. — Editor

There’s so much political and psychological upheaval going on right now that it’s hard to narrow it down to a single statement. Where to begin? I was working on a new project at the Rauschenberg Residency in Florida when the pandemic first hit. It was surreal to be on this island paradise, completely immersed in my creative bubble while reading about the death tolls in China and Italy. Since returning to NYC, I’ve barely been able to focus on anything other than checking in on friends and family and figuring out where to get food. 

These last two months have been emotionally complicated, to say the least. There was the initial wave of disappointment as everything started getting canceled. I was set to kick off the 25-year anniversary tour of my film BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes and Sadomasochism at the BFI Flare Festival. I was also finalizing plans for some fall performances and finishing an interview with Beth B and Lydia Lunch to promote Beth’s new doc, Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over. In fact, Beth was one of the first filmmakers I spoke to after lockdown began, and we commiserated, at length, about this cultural coitus interruptus. When everything goes on pause for a year, when suddenly your film is now a year old or has missed its anniversary, what happens then? How are festivals going to respectfully handle this lapse in timing? Of course, all this career frustration quickly fell to the wayside as the severity of the pandemic became apparent and the reality of lockdown weighed heavily. And now we’re looking at an impending race war. It’s a lot more than a “pause.”

Every day in isolation is a struggle. There’s this inner despair that just sits there… What will life look like when we can touch again? When will it end? Will it end? I keep thinking about who is the most vulnerable right now. Trans people, queer artists, people of color, women forced into isolation with their abusers, the incarcerated, people who have already been denied care—the disenfranchised. I’ve been finding it very difficult to create new work in this environment, but luckily my gallery, signs and symbols, forced me to! I just finished a short video called These Unruly and Ungovernable Selves for their online exhibition series. It’s about the discomfort of unknowing that we all find ourselves in right now. I usually work on my projects for years, so having made something so quickly, that deals directly with our current state of affairs, feels somewhat transformative for me creatively. And knowing that I have the privilege of time and money to make art, and write this article, is not lost on me.

I think this “moment of a pause” that the politicians refer to has really been a deflection before the real war starts. The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the inequality in the world, and the country is literally on fire, ravaged by the pain and rage of 400 years of racist oppression. It’s hard to shake off the despair of the horrific killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others who have been murdered because of the color of their skin, but we must get beyond the despair to understand the dangers and psychological terrain that oppressed peoples are forced to negotiate on a daily basis. As we stand, escalating the battle against heteropatriarchal racist capitalism, we know we have been failed by our government, but the protests and this pandemic remind us that we do not fail each other. 

Michelle Handelman is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, installation and performance artist. 

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