In 2006, her 45-minute short Cartography of Ashes was produced in collaboration with the San Francisco Fire Department and with support by the Exploratorium. Cartography of Ashes marked the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, recounting the destruction of several city intersections in the quake's aftermath. Narrated by Bay Area firefighters, Cartography of Ashes combined oral history, folklore, journalism, and experimental storytelling to recount tales from the great firestorm that destroyed San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. Completed in April 2006 for the 100th anniversary of the disaster, Cartography boasted its world premiere at the 50th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival where it was projected outdoors onto a firefighter's training tower at SFFD Fire Station #7 in the city's Mission District. In August 2006 the film had its East Bay premiere at the Oakland Museum.
"Cartography of Ashes" - The Legacy of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire from Dolissa Medina on Vimeo.
During my visit to San Francisco in December 2014, I had the welcome opportunity to attend the world premiere of Medina's latest film The Crow Furnace at Other Cinema, Artists Television Access, as part of "Califas Visions", a group showing of the Caca Collectiva.
As Medina describes it, "The Crow Furnace is a narrative poem-essay about San Francisco, urban displacement, and the spectacle of loss. Two protagonists from different times, the Fireman and the Singer, become stranded in a purgatory state after death. They embark on a quest to find their last known locations in the now-unfamiliar city. In the process, they journey through time and place, encountering an itinerary of sights and objects pertaining to the city's history of catastrophic fires—from the real, to the cinematic, to the supernatural."
The Crow Furnace was then awarded a 2nd Prize by the Black Maria Film Festival and sent on tour throughout the United States, returning to San Francisco at the Roxie Theater.
Dolissa and I met up shortly after the film's premiere.
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Dolissa Medina: After Cartography of Ashes, I went to graduate school. It seemed like the right thing to do because I had reached a certain plateau. I was self-trained as a filmmaker. I mean, through a grant I received, I took a lot of amazing classes with BAVC (Bay Area Video Coalition) and Film Arts Foundation, but I didn't really have any formal training in film. I thought by going to graduate school that it would help fill in some of the blanks. I ultimately chose an arts program, not a film program, because I was less interested in film production than I was in a fine arts background, which informed conceptual issues. UC San Diego had that kind of program and offered me a Fullbright, which was great. I also applied to some other schools like the Art Institute of Chicago and Temple, got into those, but at the end of the day for various reasons I chose UC San Diego.
Guillén: What made you so strong? You're acting like getting accepted into these universities and getting a Fullbright is nothing; but, those are notable accomplishments. What worked for you?
Medina: My writing skills. I know what I'm good at. I'm a good writer and I can articulate grant proposals. I've written grants for other artists and they've been successful. Because of my journalism training, being able to be succinct but also poetic, I think I have a knack for articulating artistic visions and presenting them to people. The funny thing, though, is that I'm less confident about the product that comes out of it. I know I can talk a good game but at the end of the day when you finally make the piece of art, you hope that it speaks to people.
Medina: I came up with that "spectacles of loss" line in graduate school, but in terms of the writing I owe a lot to people that I've worked with who helped me hone my script, which initially was actually the weakest part of the film. Jaime Cortez was very helpful with feedback, as was Angela Reginato (who did Polvo). One of the tricks that comes out of art school is that sometimes a project gets too abstract or conceptual, speaking within a small niche. The version of The Crow Furnace that I completed in graduate school is very different from the version I showed at ATA. Between the graduate committee screening and the new version, the film went through a rehash. I took a lot of feedback from what my committee told me and wrote an actual story. I'm happy for that.
Though my talent is writing, I was rebelling against writing. Since I was very young in the first grade, I've always been told I'm a good writer. I've always felt confident about it as a journalist and an essay writer. Not so much as a creative writer. Fiction is hard for me. When I later became interested in film, another reason I was more into experimental film was that it gave me the freedom to experiment with visual language, images, and editing syntax and structure, but through visual language. I became less interested in just writing. A lot of my earlier films are experiments with sound and image and not so much an actual story. So for the longest time I was rebelling against language.
The first part of my life I was a writer, really into writing, but having this idea of who I was supposed to be—a creative fiction writer—which I never was. I've never been able to write creative fiction. So then I went into experimental sound and image, not saying very many things. Now, I'm at a point where I'm trying to bring them together. That's an interesting trajectory even in terms of how I've developed creatively and also what's been happening with media and technology. When I learned to make film in early 2000, I cut it on film. I'm in love with celluloid. I love its organic quality. I love touching it, slicing it. But now everything's digital and we experience images in a different way. I would argue in a cheapened way. Images are much cheaper now and in the future I will need to use my writing to comment critically on the images being used to tell a story.
Guillén: Celluloid has a captured quality to images that digital disavows in its fascination with flow.
Medina: It's funny because I started out as a journalist, took a break and went away from that career—I had opportunities to be a newspaper person but I was too limited creatively—so then I started becoming a filmmaker making arty, experimental films; but, ironically, in the process journalism changed through the web and people who were journalists had to learn film production. Journalists are now also purveyors of image, sound and production. My skill set caught up. At the end of the day, I'm interested in creating these poetic works that are informed by journalism.
While I was in graduate school I also worked on a film about Selena as part of a series of small studies. I experimented with installation art, which was a total failure, but that was okay because that's what graduate school is: a chance to fail. That's also why I took a chance with The Crow Furnace, because I wanted to make a narrative film and work with actors, which I'd never done before.
Medina: [Laughs.] Oh gosh. I was making it up as I went along!
Guillén: I ask because it's amazingly layered and achieves a textured hybridity. It is a found footage documentary. It is a romance fiction. It is an experimental play of light and sound. All these elements are at play and their cohesion is achieved in the narrative voiceover, which helped my eye wander around the images on screen to understand how you'd structured them. In gist, it's not mise en scène, it is montage, and the creative act is in the way you have assembled, edited, and placed the images together. At what point did the script come in as we now know the script? Were the images visual ideas first that then served a subsequent conception?
Medina: Most of it was this 30-minute series of sequences that I was interested in editing visually, coming together with sound design, and there were certain lines that stayed with the project from its earliest versions, such as the one you quoted earlier—"All skylines frame spectacles of loss"—where I said, "That's it!" It's the kind of line you can only write if you are writing it from a certain distance, from being an exile. At the time I was in graduate school and I naïvely thought I would be able to move back to San Francisco after graduate school. What I discovered was that I left and I couldn't come back. The economic conditions won't let me. That was heartbreaking and a lot of that heartbreak and that sense of loss, sadness, mourning and grief for a city that has died went into the story. I can envision the film as a eulogy for San Francisco, but at the same time—because it took many years for me to finish it—I became increasingly aware of all the changes that were happening in San Francisco.
Thus, the line about spectacles of loss is speaking openly to a wide phenomenon of economic shifts and inequalities, changing communities, let alone a changing skyline. I hate the condos that have gone up in your neighborhood. I was up at Dolores Park at my favorite spot and the condos block the view of the Bay Bridge. That's arrogance. It's like they're saying, "We're hoarding this beautiful view for ourselves. We can afford to pay for this view at the edge of the water, but nobody else gets to see it." It'd be very easy for me to make a film that shows my anger and bitterness, but my main reaction is one of incredible sadness.
Medina: It's an old story. That's why it was important for me to say that what was happening in San Francisco was not unique, especially now that I view it from the perspective of living out of the country in Germany. I came of age in San Francisco. I became an artist in San Francisco. I lived here for 17 years. It's the city of my youth. I'm not mourning a lost youth as much as I'm mourning the possibility that was San Francisco.
But I have to be realistic. When we complain about people coming here just to make money, we have to remember who was coming here during the Gold Rush just to make money? Who was being displaced then? That's what I wanted to get at through these different sequences and having characters speak over time and space to these historic cycles and that—if anything—San Francisco is the paragon of that kind of story by being the edge of the Earth, the end of Manifest Destiny, perched on the edge of destruction; this myth of the face of fire and gold and destruction, rebirth, and then destruction again.
That's why I was so happy when I found the Jack Kerouac poem "October in the Railroad Earth", wherein he wrote: "...and across rains they've come to the end of the land sadness end of world gladness all you San Franciscos will have to fall eventually and burn again." That was it! I found this after I'd finished the graduate version of The Crow Furnace. The graduate version was more esoteric, abstract and mystical, drawing a lot from my interest in Jungian psychology, alchemy, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Those references are still there and are, in essence, the layers you're observing. I recognized that only a few people would be tuning in on that and—in order to get people more engaged or to help them understand—I needed to add another layer to guide the story—"This is a story about a man and a woman"—it's simple, but sometimes you have to be literal and spell things out.
When you make experimental films, you get used to things being vague and conceptual, but—if you want to have a broader audience—you need to make your message clearer and you need something to anchor it. Since the images are such a collage, you need a calm narrator as a voice of authority, telling you what they want you to see, and guiding you through that. Again, this is something I learned from working with my colleagues, getting the help of other writers, and I hope this will stay with me and help me when I start on my next project.
Medina: Not necessarily. It's actually never revealed how they died. I hinted, but I decided that it's okay if people try to figure it out on their own. I could tell you, if you're really curious, but it doesn't really matter.
Guillén: What matters is that they're ghosts.
Medina: They're ghosts, yeah.
Guillén: Why is he a fireman and she's a singer? Where did that come from? Was that detail shaped from the found footage?
Medina: I always knew that I wanted a fireman to be one of the main characters, which goes back to the Cartography of Ashes project. In lots of ways Cartography of Ashes was—maybe not so much a study for this film—but a predecessor. When I made Cartography of Ashes, I actually made it knowing I was going to be working on The Crow Furnace. I was interested in looking at the history of San Francisco from fire because it is an interesting history as to how many times San Francisco has burned down and been rebuilt. That's part of the myth of San Francisco. The most logical voice for that was the fireman, right? I used a lot of found footage from the '50s on fire safety where the fireman was something of a hero archetype.
Medina: Various places. I'm part of an artists collective that has a huge archive we've collected over time. Myself, I've got a lot from Ebay. Also, I rely on Craig Baldwin, a local San Francisco filmmaker.
Guillén: Did you use Oddball?
Medina: I didn't use Oddball, but Stephen Parr was so generous. We premiered a work-in-progress of the film a couple of years ago at Oddball. He gave me the faith to show it and to get feedback. That was even before I was submitting it to my committee. The comments made me realize I had a long way to go. Finishing the film was also like a mourning process because I was trying to let go of San Francisco.
As for the singer, one of the early incarnations of the story played a lot with the Orpheus story with its ghosts and spirits and walking through the land of the dead, with San Francisco being the underworld. I feel like a ghost when I come to San Francisco.
Also, the song that opens the beginning and closes the end of the film is by local musician Paula Frazer (of Tarnation). She's awesome and I've been so inspired by her song. One of her lyrics says, "Follow time, like a ghost." I wanted that to inform the film too.
So originally there were a lot more references to Jean Cocteau's Orpheus, but I wanted to play with gender and have Orpheus be a woman, and a singer. Her character remained a singer, though the Orphic elements came and went. I don't know if you caught that the motorcycles represented Death? There are a lot of film references. It's an art school project so it's informed by talking to a lot of other artists and filmmakers.
Medina: You can see it all there. Vertigo. The Towering Inferno. Chris Marker. I wanted to have that conversation. I like how Marker engages with the city of San Francisco. I like how Hitchcock was looking at Vertigo and the psyche of time, memory and obsession: the dark side of romance.
In a nutshell, the singer stayed as a singer. Neither have names, which is great. Both characters are aspects of me. In retrospect, another reading of it or another way of interpreting it would be that I see both of them as being representative of the old San Francisco: the fireman represents San Francisco's working class protecting the city and the singer is the artist, and both groups of people are currently being pushed out of the city.
Guillén: Another parallel alignment you've created, which interests me, is the story of the phoenix, San Francisco's symbol, but you've substituted the phoenix with crows. I loved the image of the sparks from the streetcar rails setting the crows on fire, but why this substitution?
Medina: I had a poetic flash in my head and so I'd have to say it was from the unconscious. As someone interested in Jungian archetypology, and the crow's mythic associations with being an intermediary, a messenger, between heaven and earth, it worked for me. You expect to see a phoenix on fire and—though not necessarily a cliché—it is expected. You don't expect to see a crow on fire. It's a strong visual. Also, I was influenced by alchemical woodcuts and—in terms of the codes or symbols of crows on fire in the alchemical process—it's meant to define a certain stage.
Medina: That's right, the nigredo. The idea that this darkness is the beginning and, through that, transformation. For me, that's what San Francisco is about. It's going through this nigredo. I was trying to have the film mirror the stages of alchemy, and it kind of did on an unconscious level, but the film was for me about black, red and white and black is where it all starts.
Guillén: My private reading is that crows, along with ravens, are associated with Merlin in the Arthurian mythos and Merlin, for me, incorporates the process of time moving in two directions. Though your film depicts the effects of savage progress, there is an equal momentum in the film diving back, as if trying to reverse the processes affecting San Francisco. And didn't you actually do that? Having the construction of the tower go back and forth? So that's how I read the crows: as a temporal signifier of moving back and forth, of history moving back and forth.
So what is your intention with the film? What do you want to do with it? Where do you want to show it? How do you hope to frame it?
Medina: I hope that it's well-received. I showed it to some people in Berlin because I was curious how its local specificity to San Francisco would play elsewhere and whether it would carry over to other audiences. They dug it. That made me happy that people who had never even been to San Francisco could relate to some of its scenes. I started this project before there was so much media attention on everything that was happening in San Francisco and my hope is that the film will allow me to be a part of the conversation. What artist doesn't want to be a part of the conversation? We need to talk about how artists are responding to the changes in cities. San Francisco is the perfect example, though everyone will find these changes in their own cities. But there's something about how these changes have happened in San Francisco that has captured international attention.
There are a lot of artists responding to this reality who have left the city and become economic exiles, or who are still struggling to be here, and I would like my film to be seen by a lot of San Franciscans and hopefully inspire contemplation about what it's like to be living in a city that's going through these radical changes, how do we experience that history, and what is our personal relationship to it?
Guillén: Did you have animation in the film? Did you animate some fire?
Medina: No, that's actually leader film that I worked into the film. I love to see leader. When I was digitizing a lot of old films, I loved watching the leader run out. There's so much beautiful color in those leaders, including the orange-yellow effect, so I ended up manipulating it because it had that feeling of fire.
Guillén: My final question: can you speak to your preference for found footage filmmaking? Who your influences are? Why this has become one of the main tools in your toolbox?
Medina: Definitely. Coming of age as a filmmaker in San Francisco, there was a strong tradition of found footage. Craig Baldwin, he's my guy. He's so supportive and great. I was so happy that I was able to premiere The Crow Furnace at Other Cinema. It was the perfect venue for it. I'm also inspired by Jay Rosenblatt's work.
I'm a filmmaker who's actually not very good at shooting film. I don't think I have the eye for it. But I do love editing, and juxtaposing images, and I feel like there are so many images already out there, why should I make more? There's also a historical element to it that I like; the collected memory aspect of found footage. That's why I like to work with it.