Two weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity of attending the 32nd Annual Kopkind Retreat and Seminars in Guildford, Vermont, hosted by the Center for Independent Documentary and Kopkind Colony. I, along with 8 other filmmakers, spent an entire week in the middle-of-nowhere Vermont to depart from my/our usual day-to-day business and busyness to: 1. screen works-in-progress; 2. discuss and workshop them in seminars; and, most importantly, 3. to radically relax, unplug, and commune with the life renewing nature surrounding us. It also gave us an opportunity to depart the all-to-common isolation artists, writers, thinkers, and filmmakers encounter. Isolation, often dark, is important to the process of creating, but light and exposure are necessary, too, to the final picture. My experience there was exactly that — a journey into the light — and I’ll never forget it; it’s embedded in my memory in a series of photos. And the relaxation allowed me space to ruminate on the nature of stillness, sustainability, healing, wellness, and my burgeoning career in film.
Before traveling there, my body had processed tragedy, trauma, and exhaustion over and over again — whether as result of occupying this body, in public space (a.k.a street harassment); ongoing police brutality; feeling the weight of the commodification of black death, black pain, and black suffering via news and social media; witnessing the genocide of black trans women at the hands of gender based violence; and struggling with housing and job instability. The culmination of these things, in addition to creative blocks, overwhelmed me. My body was tense. My mind racing with many thoughts (as per usual). And noise, though occasionally helpful to the process of my being, surrounded me in both physical space and social media. I needed — desperately — a return to myself. I needed to see myself in a different environment. I needed to tune out the noise to hear myself more clearly. So, I happily packed my bag and journeyed towards Vermont. The train ride from Penn Station, NY to Brattleboro, VT was the first of many journeys to occur for me that week.
When I arrived to Tree Frog Farm, the location of the retreat, I was immediately blown away by the deep green landscape and rich imagery consisting of an assortment of flowers, cozy cabins, and a beautiful, eccentric queer home. Although there was no phone service on the farm, it didn't keep me from documenting my excitement with my cell phone, after taking it all in. Because I’m deeply fulfilled by hybrid experiences, and i’m a millennial through and through, the first picture I remember taking was of the sun setting atop the fertile meadow behind the home. Can you imagine that? Like, It really captured the beauty of stillness, of peacefulness, and grounded me, providing a brief escape from tall buildings, crowded trains, and the trashy streets of New York City. It reminded me of my retreat experience as a Boy Scout at the Bert Adams Scout Reservation, in 5th grade, when I attended Peterson Elementary School; the last time I ever remember being outside of a city setting for a long period of time. It was necessary. And I felt a strong invitation back into self — a return. The sight of the ambient horizon sweetly welcomed me.
The first night kicked off with great conversation and delicious food, as would be a reoccurring theme for the duration of the week. Both fed and filled me physically, intellectually, and artistically. I came there empty and with very few expectations other than to plan next steps for No Fats, No Femmes and to get away from New York. I didn't know what would happen. Who I'd meet. But I was hopeful. I had only glanced, briefly, over the bios of folks attending before coming. I didn't remember much, but it was a fun exercise spending the majority of the first night committing names and faces to memory. The rest of the week would go on to be incredibly transformative and moving through a series of film slams, politically charged and emotionally stirring seminars, and once in a lifetime, relaxing fun moments in Vermont -- whether swimming in ponds or streaming rivers, many a nights in the hot tub, under the stars, or showering outside, in the nude, as RuPaul's "Supermodel" and Gloria Gaynor's "I Am What I Am" plays on the sound system. Also, to hear the birds chirping and feel the misty morning dew against my bare feet walking across the grass; and to not be street harassed or encounter any police whatsoever. My body deserved this.
I screened my works-in-progress for No Fats, No Femmes on the second night, and it was the first of many favorite experiences I have committed to memory. I screened my intro and two excerpts from: 1. No Fats, No Femmes: Politics of Desirability Beyond The Bedroom (a cyber panel I organized for the film’s crowdfunding campaign); and 2. Tongues Untied. Screening my work in conversation with Marlon Riggs, on what was unofficially Black LGBT night with Debra Wilson’s Butch Mystique (which I now own, courtesy of Debra), was so important to me. It was magical. I felt him and so many others in the room with me. I often jokingly consider myself a ‘Marlon Riggs’ film scholar because his work has tremendously impacted my own; but, it’s the truth: I don't think my work in film would exist or be possible without him. I consider No Fats, No Femmes the child of Tongues Untied, picking up where Marlon — my brother, my ancestor, my guide — left off. The weapons of choice here: my pen, camera, and an undying desire to challenge and shape public discourse were among the things I picked up. This is evident. And the feedback I received in the seminar reminded me to keep going and get out of my head and my own way. It was especially reassuring to hear that from seasoned documentary filmmakers, writers, and artists.
The retreat ended with a dazzling disco party, a screening of The Peacemaker, James Demo’s latest documentary, and a tasty brunch and bittersweet send-off. The disco party reminded me how great it feels to be in the body. I feel extremely powerful when i am in my body and feeling cunty. Oh how marvelous that is, channeling every bit of Sylvester, Marsha P. Johnson, and Assotto Saint. They were all with me as I twirled and pranced throughout the night, in a barn, where the DJ played exciting tunes and gave an extraordinary light show.
This would come, of course, after watching the documentary. The Peacemaker follows Padraig O’Malley, an international peacemaker, over the course of 5 years as he helps make peace for others but struggles to find it for himself. The film was jarring and pushed me to reckon with how society and social justice conditions us to become obsessed with conflict — that everything around us reminds us of problems in the world, and how much we desire to fix them. It placed so many things into perspective for me and I recognized similar threads in my own life. And I don't want my truth to be that I'm exceptionally gifted at thinking, dreaming and working towards ways to solve problems and conflict in the world without being able to solve those in my own life -- with myself, my family, my friends or those whom I love and care for deeply. It made me question how I am taking care of myself as a young person committed to black liberation and black queer and trans cultural production. I left it wanting peace for my life. I left it thinking about survival. Like, practical ways to keep me alive to do more self work, which I hope will inspire communities of people and/or community building work. I love community building, and will always find it important, but I’ve desired more recently to have my wellness and my family apart of the liberation I fight for, dream of, and think critically through. I’d feel like an imposter otherwise. Over the past seven years, I have lived life and worked away from them, and while I appreciate how distance contributed to my wellness and safety, in hindsight, I’ll never feel good enough doing so much great work that impacts people all across the world away from them. I know it has reached them, in some shape form or fashion, but I want them more apart of this journey.
Relaxation reminded me that life is a journey, not a destination. And I wholeheartedly believe that because so much has changed within and around me. I completed graduate school and am growing into my practice and career as an artist, writer, and thinker (which feels weird); I’m still [re-]considering eating meat; I’ve started walking balls; I now enjoy the taste of Coronas; I no longer enjoy party scenes; Friendships have shifted; My family -- both biological and chosen -- is expanding; I still don't love New York, though I appreciate what it offers my life; I’m feeling a strong affinity towards teaching and Philadelphia; And my desire for life, as I'm growing older, is to simply live a life that pleasures me and not the world -- an authentic, honest life rich with kindness and integrity. I’m only 25 (I know), but with so much death occurring around me, every breath and every birthday feel precious. Every breath and every birthday is important to me. The truth is: my best work will be the work that I do to keep me alive and honest. And that work must start with a more relaxed, less reactive me. That work must include my family, and those immediately surrounding me. That work must include a path towards peace.