TS: Tell me, because I just feel like your plate is very full. I know how hard it is to make television, film, moving pictures. It’s more complicated in a technological way – more equipment, more to carry, more people involved. I know you’ve made a film [associated with] “Boulevard.” What was it?
KG: It was an installation, “The Believers.”
TS: That’s right. So you already made “The Believers.” And what was that, 20 minutes?
KG: It was a looping nine minutes. It was an installation using three screens, and the video was a continuous loop, which probably made it seem like 20 minutes.
TS: Was that thrilling to have another element in the mix – now you’re making a full-length feature?
KG: I wanted to encompass the totality of what was going on. To make something out of all the amazing, unexpected relationships and experiences that surround the pictures. It’s really the stuff of life, the memories that you cling to. Which is actually, funny enough, the ordinary moments. My motivation behind making the work, which had everything to do with uncertainty, was having faith in what might unfold. After working all this time, I really just reached a point where I thought, “Really? Is this all I know how to do?” This is getting a little –
TS: If I see one more white wall –
KG: Exactly. I’ve visited everywhere in the Central Valley – up and down the 99, to the border and up the coast, and I kept revisiting this one neighborhood. It’s a very small, peripheral neighborhood in Modesto on South 9th St. – locals refer to it as The Nine. I initially photographed a few people there for “The 99” work. I became friends with a few people on The Nine and they inspired me to make something new, to make another kind of portrait—a portrait of a place.
TS: A film portrait.
KG: Yeah. The film is called “The Nine.” I also needed to be a beginner again. I needed to risk complete failure. I’d been making photographs for so long, and “The Boulevard” and “The 99” work took quite a while to make. I was ready to unlearn what I knew.
I keep a quote by Philip Glass in my notebook that says “The work I did is the work I know, and the the work I do is the work I don’t know. And it’s the not knowing that makes it interesting.”
So, making a film was like setting up a nearly impossible task for myself. This was brand new territory for me, and I knew almost nothing.
TS: There’s a bit of flying by the seat of your pants.
KG: I’m always flying by the seat of my pants. Even though some of the work might look formally repetitive, the process is always filled with uncertainty. I’m always going somewhere I don’t know, finding my way around, never knowing who I’m going to meet. Usually I think, “There’s no way. I can’t do this anymore. It’s not going to work.” The process is full of variables and uncertainty even if the pictures formally look quite—
“I’ve visited everywhere in the Central Valley –
up and down the 99,
to the border and up the coast,
and I kept revisiting this one neighborhood –
locals refer to it as The Nine.”
— Katy Grannan
KG: And they are deliberate. But the making of them is filled with unknowns. And this kind of filmmaking is about responding to real life coming at you full speed. You never know how things will unfold, so you need to trust the process.
The degree of collaboration is greater, too. I’ve been working with Hannah Hughes, who was just out of college when she began helping me with the film. She’s a very talented photographer, so at some point I said here, take a camera and let’s film this thing together.
We’ve also collaborated with and relied upon an entire community – we’ve relied on their interest and participation for nearly four years. With this level of commitment and time and energy on all sides, there’s a lot of give and take. And nobody’s just giving and nobody’s just taking. That was something I thought was really important to address in some way—the complicated nature of the artist/subject relationship.
In the film, Hannah and I are addressed a lot and obviously our presence affects everything. I’m also asked direct, difficult questions regarding my intentions and our relationships. Am I there only in the service of my work? Of course, the answer’s no. I’m there because I’m deeply compelled – I see my friend Heather in every single person on The Nine.
And of course I’m also there to work. I’m making a film. I’m committed to this film, and yet I struggle with what to reveal or withhold – I don’t want to betray anybody. And at the same time, I’m making a film that embraces paradox and an uncomfortable complexity, because that’s what life looks like. It can be beautiful and horrible at the same time.
I want to convey all of the qualities about people that made me go there in the first place and inspired me to make this film. But I also don’t want to be false – I can’t be too polite because it’s not a polite place. People are way more complex and interesting than that. One of the women in the film, Kiki, told me how she thought I should make the film. She advised me to show what the place really looks like, not…
TS: Sanitizing it.
KG: Yeah. I thought it was such a brave thing to say. It’s something I’d really been struggling with. I don’t want it to be that familiar story of blight and heroism or blight and pity. And it’s not a film about addiction or what people do to make money. It’s a portrait of a complex place that’s also at times very familiar, even ordinary. The film uncovers what’s beautiful and resonant, and at times this seems like an impossible task. It’s like going into Purgatory and trying to find something shining, almost holy.
And you’ll recognize something of yourself in people, even though the world of The Nine might appear so utterly different from your world. Essentially, though, what we need and value, and what brings joy to our lives are quite similar – they’re the small victories. Not the epic drama, but the moments that are easy to overlook.
There’s a lot on The Nine that is utterly familiar. There’s also enormous hardship. More often than not though, there’s a lot that’s very wonderfully ordinary.
TS: There’s also a lot of resiliency in that community that I don’t think is apparent at first glance.
KG: Right. And they’re not hiding their lifestyle. They don’t have to pretend. Some people have returned to their families, but feel like they don’t fit in with that perceived normalcy, or with people they think are well adjusted, well behaved, polite.
They find The Nine to be their comfort zone because they don’t have to pretend. And there’s something to be said about that, having come from a much more stoic background where you don’t share your hardship with anybody – there’s this perception that you’ll be burdening people with your problems.
Another thing about the Central Valley is that it appeared to me to be without delusion. In the past, I was interested in a kind of delusion – delusion as a survival mechanism and an inventive reimagining of a person’s world. You can see that most clearly in “The Westerns” and “Boulevard,” which were made in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Central Valley could not be more different. I found it to be a relief in a way.
TS: You’re not able to delude yourself as easily there.
A naturalist, author and activist who worked to preserve the wilderness of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range.
KG: John Muir described the landscape as an endless carpet of flowers, abundant with elk and birds – an Edenic landscape. It doesn’t look anything like that now. It has it’s own quiet, expansive beauty, but it’s also been devastated by aqueducts, irrigation, pollution and poverty.
TS: It’s a dust bowl.