Q&A: Rob Fatal
By Roula Seikaly | February 14, 2019
Rob Fatal is a Queer / Latinx / Native American filmmaker, writer and photographer whose work explores de-colonial aesthetics and the queer archive. Their work has been screened at film festivals worldwide, including the British Film Institute's Flare Festival, Fringe! Queer Film and Art Festival (London), Toronto Queer Film Festival, and First Nations Film Festival (Chicago).
Fatal spoke with SFC contributor Roula Seikaly about Open Your Eyes, Vato, an essay and photo project that examines the Chicano male fear of anal penetration, generational trauma induced by colonization, and the redemptive potential of consent and pleasure. Read an excerpt from the essay below the images.
Roula Seikaly: What is the origin of this project, and how does it relate to your overall body of work?
Rob Fatal:The essay portion came from my time at CCA in my MFA program, I was working on a multi-chapter Chicano film thesis, where I was studying Chicano archetypes, and this was one of the chapters. I put it away for four or five years and I stumbled upon it one day as I happened to be reading bell hooks’ The Will to Change Men, Masculinity and Love. I saw that there was some overlap there, but I had to sift through a lot of me being 28 years old and in pain, angry and reactionary, which is what the first draft was all about. It was tough to re-read. It took me learning nonviolent communication, learning restorative justice to translate it. I saw what 28-year-old me was trying to get at. And I was like, “okay, let's let 33 year old Rob jump in and try to help out”. And so I picked it up from there and just started working it and working it over and over and over again. It was like trying to get a piece of clay that had hardened to soften up so that you could work with it once more. I was trying to make this more molten and fluid again.
In terms of the subject matter, it's a lifelong struggle to understand cinematic violence, violence I had just experienced throughout my life, I was also struggling to understand my own gender as a recently out gender fluid person, and trying to understand the nuances of my sexuality and why certain sexual acts felt really scary for me in certain contexts, especially after the assault I had just been through in 2011. For me, revisiting this essay with a new perspective and new emotional processing tools and a more developed photo and writing practice was trying for something better to process this all with. So I went back to the writing, which is something that's very intimate and dear to me. It still took a really long time to have the words for all I was experiencing and feeling.
RS: I know you primarily as, as you've mentioned, as a visual muralist, a filmmaker. So coming to your work more from a cinematic perspective, this series is decidedly photographic. One of the questions I have was with why that medium as opposed to film as opposed to video. Why photography in this particular moment or for this project?
RF: Photography is the root of cinematography. And my last two documentaries were so much about narration, me as the narrator, and so that's what essay writing has felt like. It's still in the vein of storytelling albeit with still photos instead of cinematography. Thematically this work is in line with my other films: it still deals with cinema and self-referential cinema critique. Like my other movies, it's this mix of narration and very aesthetically sharp cinematography, in this case photography, that's rooted in these old Catholic oil paintings that I was really obsessed with as a kid. And then personal narrative, as this larger conversation in the Latinx and Indigenous and Chicano communities.
So all the elements are still there. I feel, because it was already an essay, I was thinking of, Oh, how do I turn this into a documentary? How do I turn this into a movie? And I was like, “well it doesn't have to be. I should hold off on movies for a second and just focus on this. I try to follow my gut now and not try to turn everything into a movie. I try to really listen to what kind of media each topic is calling for. This just felt very organic that this was written storytelling and since the words on the page are really static, I felt these foundational, static photographs are great to go back to. So much of this essay feels like going back to my roots in a really foundational way.
RS: It seems your process leads with storytelling, and then you add visual components. Is that a fair description? What else informs your process?
RF: For this project absolutely. It was storytelling first and then I felt like there were images and themes that I wanted to explore that the writing in this essay couldn’t do alone. The photos allowed me to show the process of Chicano men [cis, trans, or people assigned male] embracing our butts and bodies in a way we were taught not to. That’s why these photos are intertwined with this essay completely and can’t stand alone. The photos serve as a tangible representation of the healing, growth and de-colonization work that is at the core of the essay’s story.
RS: How do you approach your photo subjects? Are these friends, acquaintances, partners? Could you describe your working process with them?
RF: Yeah, for finding the models and collaborators for these photos, it started with friends who identified as Chicano and male [cis, trans or assigned male]. It was first a call out to about 15 friends, of which two answered. Friends are where I feel the safest. Because the condition for being a model for this essay is that you must read the essay. Even if it was an older draft of it, you must read the essay, because I don't want people signing up for vanity portraits. I don't want people signing up because they're like, “oh yeah, I'm your homie and I'll do this solid for you”. I want us to all at least be in conversation about this essay. Even if they don't agree with everything, that's totally fine, but we all have to have some kind of cultural or personal investment in this.
Once I had a couple of portraits that I really loved, including a self-portrait, I went on Instagram and started sharing the work for the first time about a year and a half or two years ago. I put out a call for models and I got a couple of new interests. But I also saw a lot of people sliding in my DMs really trying to sexualize the project, cruise me or flirt. And I was like, “ya, that is not what this project is about at all.”
I think sometimes people get this project twisted—because I have worked in the pornography industry, a lot of my art has an erotic tone to it. The first part of the essay is about me getting fucked in the ass for the first time, and that scene to me is really hot, you know? But the subtext of that is a lot deeper and more intense than what most people think about when I call this a photo essay about “anal decolonization”. Also, the old title of this was kind of more funny.
RS: What was it?
RF: It was ‘Give Me Some Chon-Chon,’ which is a line from ‘Blood In-Blood Out,’ which I briefly referenced in this essay. ‘Blood In-Blood Out’ is melo-drama like a telenovela. Sometimes its so over the top it’s funny, but it's such Chicano canon. That line “give me some chon chon,” is from a scene where this white Chicano kid Miklo is in prison and he thinks he's getting in good with the Mexican mafia. And this dude Popeye, who's his mentor suddenly throws Miklo into a cell to rape him, and Popeye says the line, “pinche white bitch, gimme some chon-chon.” I know they were going for high drama in that scene, but for me and a lot of homies it comes off as kinda hilarious. Hence why a lot of people I know quote that line and many others in that movie for a laugh. But that was the title of the essay when it was 28 year old me writing it. I was always goofing around because I was trying to hide my feelings, I was using comedy and sarcasm as a coping mechanism and a way to compartmentalize. So soon into redrafting this I was like, “Ya, I have to change this title because I think when I put this model call out on Instagram, people are going to think I'm joking.”
RS: It’s not humorous, but there's something about it that I could see others responding to it in that way.
RF: Yeah, finding and connecting with the audience emotionally in a more accurate way with both my words and photos is so important. Once I got the first two portraits completed with me and this other model Lito, I was like, “oh my god, this is the tone.” When I saw these first two butt portraits fully realized, then that made me go back and rework the essay, to fit this butt portrait tone better. Then they started speaking to each other in a dialogue.
I will say this, unfortunately, none of the models so far are straight cis-gender men. And for me, that was important to find that because that’s who I think this essay has the potential to impact the most. I had a couple of them interested but they backed out. I am guessing some were too shy, maybe thought it might be gay or sexualized, or are shy about their bodies. All the reasons. It was funny because I even told these straight cis guys I approached to model, “Nudity is not required. You wear whatever you want. Wear your jeans or underwear. We could shoot at a grocery store, night club, your house. Whatever you feel the most comfortable with. It's supposed to be a portrait of where you're at with your relationship with your ass and your body right now and I will meet you there.”
RS: So you put those potential environmental scenarios in front of your models, but so far everyone has wanted to be photographed at home?
RF: In homes, but not always in the models’ homes. One model was at my house, my portrait was at a friend’s house then two models were photographed at their apartments. But I think the idea of a homey, private space has been important.
RS: How does the negotiation proceed from there? You mentioned the word ‘collaboration.’ That's much more lateral than top down as far as direction or choreography are concerned.
RF: Oh yeah collaborating and consent is very important to me with photography especially around such a delicate and potentially painful issue like body de-colonization and personal history. So for example I just shot a few days ago with a friend Andy. So I went to his house and he showed me spots in his house he felt the most at home or comfortable. We assessed lighting and then out of that found the most ideal spots for photos. Then for the actual modeling in front of the camera I just asked him to be in the space in the ways he felt the most comfy. He then would look at the photos and tell me which ones he liked and which ones he felt didn’t represent him. Then we would try new things. He would also give great feedback like, “hey I feel like you are directing me too much on these.” So then I would know to step back and just document Andy in his space instead of trying to compose a shot which is my filmmaking director side coming out. So with all my models it’s been a very consent-driven process to create.
RS: Do you get into conversations with your collaborators about what brings them to this project?
RF: Yes, why they are interested in this project, or what they're connecting with. I never want to force a conversation because I know there may be a lot of vulnerability shooting these photos. I like to just listen. I'll bring up the essay as a conversation starter usually and ask them their thoughts, critiques, points of connections, to the essay, shared or differing cultural history, etc… But I do find that conversations about our lives as people raised Chicano do bond us a bit during the shoots, at least enough for trust to take place in the photographic process. I try to remove that hierarchy of photographer/subject and let these people I’m working with know that they have total control before, during and after these photos are taken. And at any time they can chose to not want to participate or scrap all the photos we’ve done. They will never be forced into participating if they don’t want to. Again, enthusiastic consent is the cornerstone of this project.
RS: Where do you want this series to live? Do you see it as a project for the academy given the influence of postcolonial film and Queer theory in the essay, and who is your audience?
RF: I think because I'm a multifaceted person, I feel my audience and the places it lives will be multifaceted. So, it could be a zine or published article, a show in a gallery or it could be a live reading with projected images behind me. Ideally for me I’d want to find a medium between zine, filmmaking and performance where I can engage with the audience, where I can break that fourth wall of viewership with cinematic audience and an onlooker and interact. There's an excitement to me of engaging with the people that are hearing this and seeing this.
But I want to make sure that always these photos are centered, because they're not an afterthought.
RS: We talked around the topic of how does this live; a book, an exhibition, an academic project. Is it important that you, and audiences by extension, to see this work through theoretical lenses such offered by bell hooks, Julianna Snapper, cinematic history and contemporary filmmaking?
RF: Theory is one part of the story. As a storyteller, I pull and build stories from so many different areas including theory, Chicano cinema, my own family, folklore. I don’t want to prioritize this as a theory-driven paper even though people like bell hooks, Homi Bahba and Jose Esteban Munoz are very important to this work. This work is supposed to be accessible to so many kinds of people and I often find that heavily academic writing does the opposite of that. I want this work to connect and spur discussion in someone’s own home and in their own mind and in their own personal relationship as much as I would like it to create conversation in academic discourse.
RS: The last question I have is about your assault. Would you have taken on this project if you had not been assaulted? How does that lived experience factor into this project?
RF: Yeah, I would have definitely still written this essay whether or not I was sexually assaulted. I don't know if that assault is any more deeply revelatory than any other shit I've been through in my life. Not to say my art is my therapy. My art isn't my therapy, but it is something I use to get perspective on my life, or to take little snapshots of things or to figure out how things piece together and connect in my life and in the world around me. So, whether or not the assault happened, all the conditions for this essay still existed: I was always taught to fear being dominated by other men, I was always taught to fear homosexuality, I was always taught, and this is my Chicano culture speaking, I was always taught about being macho, being masculine or being the top, having people fear you as a form of power. I got firsthand experience with that on a much more personal level when I was assaulted. So all of this stuff was still there. I mean, it just may have maybe taken a different form or the ending probably would have been a little bit different.
All images © Rob Fatal
"As a child, watching the brutal rape scenes in American Me and Blood In Blood Out were horrifying, but for some reason were vernacular and awkwardly hot. It was the only access I had to images of Chicano men like me engaged in sex with one another, particularly with cholos. Cholos are hot. Some are impeccably groomed, uncompromisingly fashionable and fucking muscular. They have perfect hair, perfect handlebar mustaches. They wear leather, khaki, white tank tops, pristine shoes. Some cholos even dress in suits. Their cars are beautiful, their tattoos are beautiful, and their offhanded violence is beautiful in its own way [namely the kind of way where it is not directed towards me]. Cholos made me excited in a way my young self did not quite understand. In them I saw wild, chaotic power. But for much of my youth, kicking it with cholos in and around mi familia, they were exclusively presented to me as “straight” even as I watched them thrust balls deep into another man in Chicano cinema: The reason for this being that the unspoken rule of my culture as I was raised [I dare not pretend to speak for even a majority of Xicanxs or Chicanos] was the guy getting fucked was the joto, not the guy doing the fucking."