It was inevitable that I would come down pretty hard on these books, but in my frustration I left out an important point: These guides are not "disgusting" works of bigotry. They're unassuming parenting guides right off the "Children with Special Needs" shelf of a mainstream bookstore. They're meant to help parents of autistic adolescents guide their children through the transition into adulthood, and in that regard they're perfectly well-intentioned.
The problem is that a text doesn't have to be overtly bigoted or hateful to exclude and become complicit in the oppression of gender non-conforming and non-heterosexual people.
Susan 15 #1, Shatila Refugee Camp Beirut, 2010
Rania Matar is a Lebanese-born photographer who currently lives and and teaches in Massachusetts. In a recent interview she said, "I was 11 when the war started and like most children was resilient enough to learn to live with it. It just became a fact of life and then things would be peaceful and life would be normal again and we all forgot about the war till it struck again." This take on what constitutes "normal" has led Matar to use photography to explore the everyday lives of women and children as a window into the world at large. Her photography projects in the Middle East has covered refugee camps, Christian Arabs, and a far more diverse representation of women and the veil than Western mainstream media ever feels like portraying. In her new project, "A Girl and Her Room," she is re-celebrating the everyday in a new way by taking portraits of young women in their bedroom, from Massachusetts to the Middle East.
In this, the second part of my email interview with directors Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Dawn Valadez, the collaborators talk about breaking the rules of documentary filmmaking, getting the girls to open up on camera, how their film can be used in classrooms, and their future projects.
The ambitious, and successful, documentary Going on 13 will begin broadcasting on Public Television this September. The 73 minute film (which is in English, Spanish and Hindi, with English subtitles) takes place over a period of four years and reveals the interior lives, family commitments and school days of Ariana, an African American, Esmeralda, a Mexican American, Isha, an immigrant from India, and Rosie, a mixed race Latina, as they navigate crossing the threshold from childhood to adolescence.
Directors Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Dawn Valadez's award winning project is an intimate look at a difficult transitional period for any child; their compassionate study is landmark not only in its ambition but that in it addresses the concerns of a diverse group of pre-teen and urban girls of color.
Moments we get to share include Ariana crying at her mother's wedding, Rosie discovering Allen Ginsberg at a local bookstore, Esme's sister's Quinceañera, and Isha's trip to India. We see them questioning the changes their bodies are making – or what they've heard those changes will be. One schoolmate asks, "Have your parent's talked to you about pube-er-tee? Do you have internal or external bleeding – or something like that?" Another friend says about a boy crush, "They are in love, even though they don't know what love is." A later scene featuring a woefully unqualified male schoolteacher conducting a sex education class makes it all the more painfully clear that our children receive mixed and confusing messages at a critical time, and that girls in particular are in need of female role models and support systems.
But they grow up anyway –with or without it. As Esme wisely puts it, "I'm turning into a young person and I'm supposed to change. I can't stay little all my life. I would if I could, but I can't so I shouldn't."
Co-directors, Guevara-Flanagan and Valadez graciously took the time to answer interview questions by email on their filmmaking careers, finding the girls (and where they are now), the logistics of such an ambitious project, and what they're currently working on. The first part follows; part two will be posted on Friday!