Doing the Work: Abigail Severance, CalArts

Doing the Work is a series profiling key recipients of HFPA Philanthropy

A beloved professor and now the interim Dean at California Institute for the Arts (CalArts) School of Film/Video, Abigail Severance is not your typical academic, even by film school standards. For her, it all started in the ‘90s in San Francisco when the queer culture was booming, and Severance discovered artistic expression through photography and poetry. “Sometimes I feel a little silly that it didn’t occur to me to use filmmaking a lot earlier,” she chuckled.

But the medium didn’t really matter. Her personal curiosities and artistic nature were fostered by a “culture that was alive and vibrant and performative – aggressive even – really sex-positive … and really the first moment when queer men and women were working together”. AIDS activism and the celebratory LGBTQ scene marked the discovery of a different kind of filmmaking than what you would normally see in mainstream cinema.

“Stepping into an art scene at the time that New Queer Cinema was unfolding was really radical. Filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Pratibha Parmar, John Greyson were accessible to us in a tangible way – they would come to the festivals, present their work, go to events, talk to people. They opened up so that queer storytelling could be subversive, lush, and could even challenge the notion of what a cinematic story is.” Challenging narrative stereotypes especially was fundamental to queer aesthetics, she explained, but she would rather call it “bent”. That term “encompasses queerness but not necessarily all LGBTQ,” she explained. “There was an important moment in the late ‘90s when gay cinema became more acceptable, it got more funding and mainstream support, which was great but it meant that it also veered into more conservative storytelling. So the word ‘bent’ emerged in my practice as a sort of way to identify what was interesting to me about queer aesthetics – things that were underground, not seen as much, kind of subversive, kind of asking you to push beyond an Aristotelian understanding of drama.”

Nevertheless, Severance could not altogether ignore the ‘Aristotelian’ model of filmmaking. She went to UCLA film school in 1999 after making a short narrative film and having worked in San Francisco as a camera assistant for 5 years. Even though learning the cinematic conventions can be quite helpful in one’s journey of becoming a filmmaker, for Severance the choice remained a hard one. “When I started film school, American Beauty had just come out, and everyone was going crazy over the plastic bag shot. While 50 people in the experimental realm had already made that film, the radical idea was to include it with narrative”. And she concluded: “I just think that this narrative/experimental division is false”.

“What’s underneath this division is commerce. If narrative and experimental are framed so that the experimental goes to the gallery or some obscure film festival, while narrative goes where the funding is and where the jobs are, then both sides of the equation suffer.” 

What Severance loves are the quirky little things that spell out the individual touch in film, be it ‘experimental’ or ‘narrative’, like the opening sequence of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma with the tiles and water washing over them or shots of planes in the same film with no reference to the story.

Yet, early on, she too was seduced by the dream of starting a bright directing career in the industry. After graduating from UCLA, she did the rounds of meetings, writing screenplays, showing her films.

“I hated it. The conversation would always come back to “who’s the talent for this role, who’s the main character, do these characters have to be gay?” Meanwhile, “I’m beginning to teach, and in the classroom I see students making really weird s—t that’s cool. Then, I’m in meeting after meeting and labs that are kind of drilling in that Aristotelian model. Don’t get me wrong, the three-act structure makes a lot of sense, but it’s a paradigm – a scaffolding for what I would call an experienced, lived-in, embodied relationship to cinema’.

“Teaching for me is one of the best ways to practice being a filmmaker because you are immersed in the language, the challenges, the puzzle-solving”. Filmmaking for Severance is a constant inquiry into art. And those conversations that interested her didn’t happen in her industry meetings or even at UCLA. They were happening in independent film festivals and in her classrooms at CalArts, where she started teaching only a year after graduation. This is where she found herself both an artist and an educator.

Her aims as an administrator and a professor emerge right out of her philosophy as an artist. “How can we be more engaged with mentorship programs that help students that have disadvantaged backgrounds? That is as much about outreach as it is about internal examination. Whom do we have on our faculty, our staff? If those faces are not diversified, if those experiences and practices are not from a multitude of perspectives, there is no way we can change who’s coming to CalArts. My other goal comes from my experience as a teacher. Many of us want to address violence, abuse, oppression. Is it necessary for us to reenact and show explicitly abuse and trauma and violence in order to tell stories about them? I’m really deeply involved with trying to figure out, what you could call ‘restorative aesthetics’. What are ways we can still engage in these really important topics without causing trauma in our audience? And this is not at all about censorship, it’s about engaging with the students about what representation really is.”  

From 2004 to about 2014, while teaching at CalArts, Severance was trying to find her own narrative voice. She knew she didn’t belong in Hollywood but, at the same time, she didn’t want to give up filmmaking and just teach. Instead, she tried to form a working space where she could still create even if her work was funded differently, by grants or by bringing her costs down. Her creative output from those years resulted from this exploration. But in the last eight years or so, her interests have shifted to what she calls a “hybrid form of filmmaking” that includes documentary, fiction, and formal elements.

When Donald Trump was elected, her artist warrior instincts resurged: “It seemed like the only intervention that I could think of other than going to protests and writing letters, was to engage with imagination. One of the things that this election revealed to me was that we are completely out of touch with our sense of what’s possible. We think it’s red or blue, Republican or Democrat, male or female, gay or straight – we have fallen into this painfully binary world. So I was looking for ways to work really differently than ever before. Maybe I don’t need a script, maybe I don’t need actors, but I want bodies on screen, so how do I get there?”

Somehow the border wall became a symbol of this stark division among and within Americans. A short narrative film about the border, We the Devoted, was born out of such contemplations. Severance experimented with developing the story collaboratively with the performers and creating the script out of workshops. Her plan for a feature film project funded by a Fulbright residency at Ireland’s Cork University, however, was suspended due to the pandemic.

Looking ahead, Severance is still grappling with yet unformed possibilities. “I’ll be really frank,” she admitted, “2020 threw me for a loop”. Covid-19 didn’t only change her schedule – it changed her, forcing her once again to search in the dark. But that doesn’t matter to her. “I’m striving to open a conversation about what’s in front of us and what could be different,” she said. “For me, a cinematic way in is to connect to you physiologically – meaning body, mind, soul, all of it. Those things are not distinct from one another. What happens to your body happens to your mind, whatever sense you have of the universe, your soulfulness, spirituality, whatever you want to call it. I’m not religious but I believe there is some sort of transcendent, elevated experience that we can have in cinema that pops open the mind, pops open the heart, and says ‘oh these other things are possible’.”

“The thing that I’m striving for has a religious term, which is communion, a sense of sharing something that’s deep and has implications of possibilities”.  Her kinetic mind and constant effort to break barriers and subvert conventions contains a touch of genius.  After all, Severance and Aristotle share a common ground: “I’m still looking for the same thing that he was looking for – an elevated understanding of existence”.