Q&A: pj raval
By Jess T. Dugan | July 6, 2017
PJ Raval is an award‐winning queer, filipinx filmmaker who resides in the red state of Texas. Born to immigrant parents and having grown up in a small, white, conservative town in California’s central valley, PJ's outsider experience has greatly shaped his filmmaking practice. PJ’s work explores the overlooked subcultures and identities within the already marginalized LGBTQ+ community.
Named one of Out Magazine's "Out 100" and FILMMAKER Magazine's "25 New Faces of Independent Film," PJ’s film credits include TRINIDAD (Showtime, LOGO) and BEFORE YOU KNOW IT, described as "a crucial new addition to the LGBT doc canon" by indieWIRE. BEFORE screened theatrically and broadcast premiered as the season finale of AMERICA REFRAMED on PBS, and was recently awarded the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist Association Excellence in Documentary Award 2016. PJ is currently working on UNTITLED JENNIFER LAUDE DOCUMENTARY, an intimate investigation about the brutal murder of a transgender Filipina by a US Marine. UNTITLED is currently supported by Ford Foundation, Betha Foundation, Sundance Film Institute, Arcus Foundation, Center for Asian American Media, Fork Films and Austin Film Society.
Also an accomplished cinematographer, PJ shot the Academy Award‐nominated Best Documentary TROUBLE THE WATER, and is a transmedia artist who collaborates with performance artist CHRISTEENE. PJ and CHRISTEENE’s work has screened widely at film, music and art venues around the world, and is hailed by the Hollywood Reporter as “…something you desperately wish you could un-see.” MmmHmm...
PJ is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, 2016 Firelight Media Fellow, and a 2017 Robert Giard Fellow.
Jess T. Dugan: Hello PJ! Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. Let’s start at the beginning. You began your career working in photography and media installation. What initially drew you to making art? What was your path towards documentary filmmaking?
PJ Raval: Contrary to popular belief, I was not always a model student. In fact, when I first entered elementary school, I HATED the classroom setting and often made excuses to leave class. I’d say I have to go to the bathroom then just walk home much to my parents’ embarrassment. The only school activity that engaged me was Friday art class. Art I truly enjoyed. But as I grew older, art was not encouraged as a subject. Eventually I started “applying myself” and becoming the model high school student to everyone’s delight. I took classes in all subjects but art. So when I entered college I decided to double major, choosing art as one of my majors (and molecular biology as the other!) to re-ignite one of my original passions. I attended the University of California San Diego’s Art Department, which at the time was led mostly by conceptual performance artists and French New Wave filmmakers. At first I studied painting and performance art with amazing women instructors like Eleanor Antin, and eventually my roommate lent me a photo camera and I immediately fell in love with seeing the world thru a lens. This led to me taking photo classes with Lyle Ashton Harris and eventually 16mm film classes with Babette Mangolte. By the time I graduated, I was intrigued by filmmaking as a tool for storytelling. Years later (and after a string of crazy media production jobs) I decided to go to graduate school in film. Funny enough, I mostly did experimental and fiction filmmaking. It was only after working several years in the film industry as a cinematographer that I started making documentaries as a director/producer. There was something about making a film featuring real people and real lived experiences that I found absolutely fascinating and powerful. And here I am several years and docs later…
JTD: Filmmaking- as opposed to other media- is inherently collaborative. Is this something that drew you specifically to make films or is it something you have embraced throughout the process?
PJR: When I was mostly taking still photos I found myself drawn to street photography. I loved photographing people in unexpected spaces and not being able to fully anticipate the outcome – it was dependent on the subject and our interaction. I liked being out in the world with others and feeling like the creativity was a shared experience. So I naturally fell in love with how collaborative filmmaking can be, since it usually involves more people both in front of and behind the camera. For me, film is all about shared experiences, and this communal moment can take place as viewers in a movie theater, but also on set as well. So it really spoke to my interests in building community and collaboration. I also really appreciate how accessible it is as an art form. The average person feels they can watch a movie and take away from it whatever they want. People are more hesitant to walk into a gallery than they are a movie theater. But of course the accessibility of filmmaking also presents a lot of problems in itself such as commercialization and business over content. But that’s a whole other topic.
JTD: Tell me about your film “Before You Know It,” a feature documentary following the lives of three gay senior men. What drew you to this particular group of people, and what was your experience like both making and showing the film?
PJR: I’ve come to realize making films can be a way for me to contemplate on a subject that I may not have a full grasp on yet. The film itself becomes an exploration, a way for me to contemplate and self-reflect. With “Before You Know It,” I was highly inspired by a conversation I had with my mother where we talked about her retiring from working and all the life changes that occur when someone starts identifying as part of the senior population, and even more so the changes in perceptions from others. It’s a large transitional moment for most people because it is a time where one is asked how one envisions the rest of their life being lived out. One can’t escape thoughts of mortality, past, future, and perhaps legacy and what one leaves behind in this world. It sent me personally on the path to start thinking about my own trajectory as I approach the other end of the spectrum. Looking into my own LGBTQ community, I was initially shocked to uncover the sad reality that LGBTQ seniors are twice as likely to live alone or five times less likely to access social services in fear of being discriminated against. Many struggle with isolation as almost all senior communities do, but LGBTQ seniors have additional challenges since many grew up in less accepting times and continue to struggle with understanding and accepting their own sexual identities. And this in and of itself is a contradiction since mainstream society de-sexualizes aging communities, yet LGBTQ seniors are very much defined by their sexual and gender identities.
And this senior population in particular has experienced an enormous amount of change and loss. I was saddened to hear stories from many who saw large portions of their community die off during the AIDS crisis, and since many do not have children, they are sometimes left with little family to look after them into their “golden years.” But what I also found were amazing stories of people building their own communities and families, many continuing to still grow and change and understand oneself despite the common belief of life stopping as one gets older. There’s still much to explore and experience as one ages, and as I struggle with changing times I can only imagine what it must be like for someone who grew up pre-civil rights era and suddenly finding themselves in a world with same-sex marriage and RuPaul’s Drag Race! I’m continually amazed how many young people of all backgrounds identify with the subjects of my film. But it just goes to show all people desire to express who they truly are to the world and hope they will be accepted – it’s a universal human condition we all share and the gay seniors I follow are the most extreme forms of that. They serve as an inspiration for all of us, but they also represent an important history for us to remember as well. Even just talking about it I am moved by thinking about what this population has lived through. Brave souls. Trailblazers. I am in awe…
JTD: You seem to have a wide variety of different projects going at any given time, ranging from feature length documentaries to more experimental short films. How do you structure your overall practice? How do you sustain the longer term projects?
PJR: I’m an odd duck in that I embrace both regularity and irregularity in my life. I’m partly a creature of habit and I like certain consistencies like continually wearing slight variations of black t-shirts and back jeans and boots. I embrace my personal uniform in that sense. But at the same time, I get very bored with repeated actions and so I am constantly looking to make new work and to move on to new ideas after I exhaust my energies on my current projects. Some ideas take on the form of larger, lengthier projects, and some get knocked out much quicker and find themselves in shorter formats. I like to think each project takes on the appropriate form and shape to explore the idea. So diversity here is key. As I get impatient making longer work, I get the satisfaction of making a shorter piece. As I explore shorter, more experimental work, I get something else from investing myself into projects with a longer creative lifespan. It all speaks to different aspects of my creative needs and keeps things always moving forward. In addition to whatever I am working on at the time, I’m also interested in making a body of work. I recently had the pleasure of attending my first Flaherty Seminar where attendees experience watching portions of a body of work from a curated filmmaker. It’s amazing to see how one’s work evolves and changes- the work reflects where they are at the moment it was made and is often a reflection upon what is happening in the world. So I’m also interested to see where my work takes me.
JTD: Much of your work focuses on the LGBTQ community. As a queer artist, do you feel a responsibility to make work that is oriented towards education or social justice?
PJR: As a queer individual, I think anything I make will end up queer somehow, ha ha! It’s unavoidable because for me queerness is all about one’s identity, one’s sensibilities. Being queer is my nature. So even if I tried to make a mainstream romantic comedy I bet it’d somehow turn out queer. It’s in my soul. And since being queer is political, one can’t help but make work that advocates for social justice and awareness. But I don’t consider myself an activist, because for me I still hold old school views of activism. And when I hear the word “activist” I think of people willing to put aside their own needs and often times physical safety to achieve concrete social change. These people live and breathe activism. And even though I too believe in working toward social change, I think I consider myself a filmmaker and artist first. So I’m much more comfortable thinking of myself as an advocate, and the work I make has the ability to start or continue much needed conversations. But lately I have become weary of “raising awareness.” We live in a time where raising awareness is not enough. It is not enough to simply tell somebody about an issue, we need to tell people what they can do about it to make necessary social change or preservation of our rights. We cannot just start a conversation about queer individuals needing equality, we have to be specific and address issues head on in order to make actual change. It has taken me awhile to start understanding that. I had major issues with the “It Gets Better” campaign, for instance, because I felt the message was it WILL EVENTUALLY “get better” one day when you grow up and move to a large metropolitan area and find like individuals. How does that help an LGBTQ youth who is being bullied and bashed now!? It needed to be “It Gets Better RIGHT NOW” and we will create change by demanding safe environments in schools, anti-hate laws to protect those under attack, training and education programs, etc. But don’t tell me “it gets better” LATER, because how is that helping anyone right NOW? Policies get changed when people ask for them to change. And if they don’t then we have to demand change. Abuses get exposed and corrected when people demand justice from their elected officials. LGBTQ rights will always be under attack and we have to keep our eyes and ears on the ball. We can’t forget the individuals and often times youth living in small towns who have NO ONE to help them. As a community we have an obligation to keep our communities safe. It requires us to sometimes look outside of our neighborhood and think nationally, think globally. So for me now, I’m very interested in making documentary work now that asks people to understand how they are citizens of the world. If they see an injustice and do nothing to change it, then they are also part of the problem.
JTD: You are currently working on a new feature documentary, the “Untitled Jennifer Laude Documentary,” which you describe as follows:
Grassroots activists in the Philippines are spurred into action when a local transgender woman is found dead in a motel room with a 19-year-old U.S. marine as the leading suspect. As they demand answers and a just trial, hidden histories of U.S. colonization come bubbling to the surface.
How did you come to focus on this particular story and what has your experience been working on it so far?
PJR: Since I am still working on this film, I’m being very quiet about what I am doing. But I will say in addition to being queer, I’m also Filipinx-American so I very much am interested in exploring my cultural heritage. Having also grown up in the US, I also know firsthand how much history has been omitted and overlooked from the textbooks. So I do have an interest in changing that. That’s about all I’ll say for now! ;)
JTD: What’s on the horizon for you as an artist?
PJR: I’m currently working on “Untitled Jennifer Laude Documentary” as well as a short film that I am co-directing with fellow queer filmmaker Ellen Spiro. A large portion of my film work is also a close collaboration with queer performance artist Pau Soileau a.k.a CHRISTEENE. We have a few new CHRISTEENE videos that we are waiting to release, which I promise to be as equally provocative and unexpected as our past video collection. Recently, we had the pleasure to spend time at an artist residency with Barrett Barrera Projects where we created a new piece inspired by our time spent in St. Louis and all the spaces we got to work in and the amazing artists who we got to collaborate with. I’m really excited to get all this new work out into the world.