Filmmaker Victoria Campbell
Maybe I should just write flat. Maybe I should use this intro as a kind of picture frame...and get out.the.way. Because it’s all here. The fullness words - this dimensional scenescape from Ms. Campbell. These dreamystill images from Kara Taylor. There is not much for me to do other than pull back curtains and hand over mics. I guess I will at least say that of those who indeed couple adventure-vision with a depiction of humanity - our shared circumstance, Victoria Campbell is exemplary. She can’t help herself. She’ll be on planes. She’ll wear her disguises. She’ll press flesh and outline her scripts. Her fingers will always press record. And she’ll come home and tell us about and bring us. And Kara will tell that bring-telling. Teams in their places. A n d .... Action.
Who is Victoria Campbell and how does she fill her days?
It's a fluid answer, somewhat existing in a continuum. Currently I am a student trying to get NY State certified to teach English to 6-12th grade. I love teaching and felt it was the most viable way to earn my living while making art, films & video art and various projects. At the same time, I am pushing out my film 'Monsieur le President' which will have a big screening at IFC in April so I am attempting to do a little social media daily to get the ball rolling. I am still figuring out this mad hatter world of social media. My mind can't always adjust. So between school, film pushing and also editing a new film I have been working on, I am fairly busy. Yet I still must must find long, loose hours to daydream- my favorite thing to do and really when the best ideas come to me. Some get stranded out to sea, but many remain and are found in my work, my vision, the way I see the world around me.
What were you like as an Art Child? When did you first see your creativity as something to pursue beyond home?
I was insanely dramatic. I grew up on an island, so it was a perfect little bubble of magic land for me to indulge all sorts of reverie and such. I often walked the woods near my folks house and spoke with the trees. I would make up very intricate stories - almost soap operas - where I took on each voice of the characters and wove these intricate stories of love and betrayal and scandal. To this day the trees and I are still quite close. I can tell they remember me...
I liked writing too, little stories and poems. I was a theatre kid and also a kid who got into lots of trouble. I was a great liar and a bad thief, but I managed to get into a fair amount of trouble. Luckily, I kept getting caught and found proper outlets of art etc. Otherwise, I am quite sure I would have turned into a delinquent. As a kid I had a burning desire to move to NYC. It was such a dream. I knew I wanted to act, to make something which would make people feel really alive, full of emotion. My family is like Chekhov a bit, dramatic and roaring with emotion. I knew in my gut I wanted a big life, giving energy out to people, to make them feel more alive. More free. And I have gone that direction.
Tell me about the first days after the Earthquake - about your journey down to Haiti.
My friend Abby and I - she is a photographer and performance artist- went down to the Dominican Republic with bags of medical basics to bring over to Haiti. We were in the Dominican Republic about a week after the earthquake. We made our way by bus to Port Au Prince dressed as nuns in order to ensure getting over the border. They were being very strict about letting people in due to the fragility of the resources and the disaster. We knew we had to go. We arrived into what seemed like Dante's inferno... There were bodies all over, sheer chaos, fire pits, people with bibles preaching wild-eyed all night, rows of sleeping people on streets at night, mountains of rubble and smoke and ash filling the sky. We found a hospital in great need of our medicine and our hands. A nurse trained us immediately how to dress wounds and tend to the sick. We, in turn, worked non-stop with all sorts of serious wounds, catheters, amputations. It was insane to become an instant nurse. Yet I realized how at ease I felt with the human body and helping people feel okay - less scared. I felt so deeply connected to Haiti and Haitians... We are all so utterly connected as humans. All the trappings and external defenses were gone. We were all just human, together, cracked wide open. It was really the most amazing feeling I have ever felt - that brief period. All the sudden life becomes so clear and pure... You have a sheer sense of why you exist. Then, after that, life picks up and gets murky and diffused a bit with the regular trivialities etc. But I do try and remember that time, that heightened sense of feeling so alive / so part of everything - and everyone.
Fade in Gaston. Did trumpets sound when Le Président entered in?
Yes perhaps that was the tooting horn that I heard when he first drove up with his fedora and his motorcycle. Indeed, he is quite a character full of layers. I knew he was a hustler at first glance, yet his sheer drive to get help for his crushed neighborhood from foreign doctors was impressive. He was not going to leave without medical supplies and doctors for the neighborhood. And he did just what he sought to do. We all came in trucks to help his devastated neighborhood, and he found people to help long after the crisis teams left the country. He knew he wanted to help and also, probably, for his own ego to have power and acclaim for doing what he did. Yet I saw him work his ass off - I knew behind the facade of the hustler was a man who did care and saw how utterly impossible and corrupt his country is. He had humor over it and also reveled in being the "president" of his little slum neighborhood. He was a mix of sorts - took himself seriously and yet also knew it was all a sham and could laugh at it - hmmm the best villains or heroes.. Right?
How did he grow his hard work into an organized health clinic NGO? How long did it take? How impressed were you?
Gaston started in 2010 after the earthquake and grew his small health clinic into a real viable neighborhood, community place over two and half years. A school was in the works. Jobs were created for rebuilding houses - a whole set-up in the mountains to bring medical supplies in return for vegetables and fruit grown by the locals there. He was really quite extraordinary in all he managed to do. I was very impressed - he was so effective and driven. he would be up at crack of dawn making sure the clinic was open and the nurses were ready. He wanted free health care for his neighborhood, and really cared about the ailments. There was a great deal of suffering post-earthquake. Many older people had trauma with their lungs, breathing, anxiety, panic attacks. Gaston truly wanted these people to be cared for - to know there was a net there for them. When I saw that, I felt he was an amazing man - deeply compassionate despite perhaps his haughty tendencies of swagger and bravado, which were often more of a humorous nature.
How did the the locals respond to his leadership?
The locals treated him like a king - they gave him full respect and called him "Monsieur le Président". It was a bit absurd to watch to be honest. But they were in awe of him and proud. He is also a voodoo priest, so he had that power already and sway over his people. He is quite educated and clever, so the neighborhood people held him in high esteem.
When did you see this as a story you must tell? Did you ever put down your artist lens, or did you bring that with you from day one?
Initially I wanted to just film the voodoo ceremonies. I had no intention of making a good samaritan/earthquake PBS-type story. I wanted to make something experimental -on par with Maya Deren's Haitian voodoo film work (her work is actually stored at Anthology in NYC). Yet when I realized the story was shifting and Gaston had changed drastically as a character and a man, I knew I had to document the story more closely. Hence I started to sift through old footage, looking to see if I had enough to create a story. When Gaston shifted, I think I was less interested completely in the artist lens, though I always film in my own kooky way. It's the nature of how I work. I am a one-woman band: I do sound and filming alone because I know that is how I can ease into different worlds and situations without problem. The major work was in editing room, choosing the story, but also every frame which conveys my voice and vision. That was also quite key and vital.
Tell me about how your relationship with Gaston grew over those years. How deep did that river run?
People often assume we were lovers in the film. We were not. More like brother and sister. I felt very close to him, and always safe and protected with him. He would pick me up on his motorcycle when I would arrive in Haiti, and it felt very close. We could talk about anything. I also shared any money I had freely with him. Anything really. He let me film very private voodoo ceremonies. And I felt immediately accepted into the neighborhood through Gaston - not [just] this white American lady with a camera. So for two years we were really close, and then it shifted and I felt a schism, as if he became too big for his britches.
In the film, there is a Shakespearean sense of breakdown and betrayal. Epic. Did you find that in real time or in the editing room?
The breakdown and betrayal was really found in the editing room. I had to truly construct a story from footage I did not necessarily have. As I mentioned above I did not set out trying to make a story on Gaston, so when the betrayal happened, I knew I had to do some serious work to make the story I made. Thus it was an arduous long process. I was at grad school at SVA (School of Visual Arts) for documentary film, and my classmates and professors were paramount in helping me create my film. It took many workshops and all night editing sessions. But alas, I came out with something pretty decent.
Voodoo practice is depicted throughout. Kudos on that respectful take. Was it simply coincidence with the story's dramatic turn, or is there still some dark mystery there?
I am fascinated by voodoo and wanted to tell that story through visuals more than the Gaston story. I felt the two were interconnected - the betrayal and the power he wielded as a voodoo priest. He used it as a weapon, much like any dictator can use superstition and religion to control the masses - to bring about fear in the masses. Well, Gaston was clever in that arena.
He managed well to do that with his neighborhood. So I wanted to illustrate the belief people have in the other world - the voodoo spirits. I also have deep respect for the creativity and splendor of voodoo ritual and ceremony. It is wonderfully powerful to watch and be part of. My heart was always madly beating - this abandon of the spirit and body you see in the dancing. I loved that most. The sheer will to believe and surrender to your beliefs. Quite something......There is mystery as with any deep faith. It's so all-consuming and requires such abandon of one's reality. I do love that aspect. I mean art can also be the same thing. You have to surrender to something other worldly and not realistic - something borne out of your imagination - which has no prior form. And that takes courage and faith and a certain degree of delusion and belief in magic.
You were the artist as storyteller, but with a journalist's access. Talk about pushing those boundaries.
I do think it's an interesting mix to be both journalist and artist. I did not want to appear as a journalist really, because I feel I have little platform to be a voice on Haiti or the aid situation. My aim was to tell a small human story which we see happen all over the world, everywhere - it's human and accessible. Those stories to me put the meat on the bones of history, and I wanted to tell my little one. People often ask me at the Q and A's about aid and the Clinton Global Foundation down in Haiti, and I tell them I don't have the platform to answer those big questions on aid. I am not a journalist. I am an artist who told a little diary story of sorts. It is part of something bigger, but it's part of the human story of murky actions / emotions, connections, sadnesses, small time hustling - and people getting folded in the mix without seeing the sad consequences ahead. I wanted to make sure my story was not a moral one or taking sides. Nothing is black and white. It's about personal stuff: disappointment, the failure of people and the reverberations of that in a small town - a small town in a big world...
What did this time and story mean to you, personally? How will it inform what lies ahead? Indeed, what lies ahead?
For me the story was very personal. I was so connected to Haiti for about two or three years and had gone down to film without too much of a mapped-out story in mind. Yet I felt I must honor my footage and make something from that time - that deep experience. That trip showed me how to break out of fear and really connect to people in dire moments - about life and being alive, and what truly matters.
I remember hitting the tarmac in NYC, and I swore to myself I am going to do everything with a 100% heart. To really never censor myself. To live big and love big and never hold back until I die. What is the point of living half-assed? What is the point of not really loving? Or of living in fear? All that stuff seemed absurd, trivial, in comparison with living big and adventurously and with courage. And of course passion and heart. I like big-spirited people who march to their own drummer. [Those] not living within the lines. This story confirmed that - the experience, the characters I met, the fear and sadness and joy and tragedy of it all mixed together.
The film I am editing now is about a transgender Ukrainian who is in conflict with his gender and feels [the need] to be a warrior and woman all in one body. Again, nothing black and white. More [a story] of confusion and humor and love. I hope all my work has humor, love, absurdity, stillness and sadness. I love Fellini and Chekhov - big spirits and hearts. You feel deeply you're part of the big human circus when watching their [films]. I hope my work has the same affect on people… Indeed, I will make stories like that in the future.
Kara Taylor is a painter, photograper and gallerist, living on the Island of Martha's Vineyard.