DIY FILMMAKERS: CATHERINE GUND SAALFIELD’S “HALLELUJAH!”

[ TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF, WHAT'S YOUR BIO? ] ^ I’ve been making short educational and organizing videos for over ten years including work that’s been shown on PBS and cable TV. Most of it focuses on HIV/AIDS and the religious/radical right. With Hallelujah! some of that stuff comes together in a kind of outrageous way. I’m also a writer and I used to run a video production program at a queer high school in NYC. ^
[ SO, WHAT'S YOUR FILM'S STORY? ] ^ “Hallelujah!” is a documentary about Ron Athey. Raised by his grandmother to be a Pentecostal minister, Ron Athey was speaking in tongues by the age of ten, a heroin addict by seventeen, and a performance artist by twenty-three. Hallelujah! presents Athey’s life and work, spending time with him on and off the stage. An HIV-positive gay man, Athey practices sadomasochistic ritual as a personal religion, using it as a means of transcendence. Although he has become sober and rejected the church, his current work is still full of religious iconography, and he performs self-flagellation and blood-letting on stage as theatrical autobiography. As Athey says, “There are many ways to say hallelujah!” ^
[ WHAT DREW YOU TO YOUR SUBJECT? ] ^ Ron was born under a prophesy that he would be a minister… and then he found a different calling. I’m intrigued by his use of religion as an indoctrinated person, the contradictions, the false promises, the interpretations. The symbolism would mean little to me outside of its use by real people. So in this case, I’m totally involved with Ron’s spirituality, Ron’s contradictions, Ron’s explanations, Ron’s survival. He has managed to create an art form that is the opposite of AIDS. Whereas his disease betrays and destroys the body, beyond control, Ron’s performance demonstrates extreme and precise control. ^
[ BUDGET, SCHEDULE, STATUS? ] ^ It was made for a relatively small amount of money and then we bumped the video up to 35mm film which brought the total to around $100,000. It took two years to make because I had taped the performances in Mexico City long before I considered taking the piece to scale. I received funding from the Jerome Foundation, The Peter Norton Family Foundation and the Estate Project for Artists Living with AIDS. ^ Artistic License Films opened the movie in Los Angeles and NYC in December. It plays at the Castro on Wednesday and Thursday this week (February 10 and 11). Then it’s scheduled (so far) to play in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Hartford, Miami, Houston, and Portland this spring. Ron’s been doing solo performances in each location, although I think he’ll stop after San Francisco, Chicago and Boston. He hasn’t performed in the U.S. for almost four years. ^
[ DID YOU HAVE TO SACRIFICE ANYTHING BECAUSE OF THE BUDGET? ] ^ No one was paid on this film except for tidbits here and there to get us through a week. We got all our coffee, snacks, tokens, and cigarettes paid for by the production but that’s because those things make people really happy and cost comparatively little money. Also, if we had had more money, we wouldn’t have had to edit in the middle of the night, but I had an infant at home who I napped with in the daytime so it worked out. Also, we shot on HI8 video and then bumped it up to 35mm but we probably would have done that regardless of budget since it takes a little camera to get the range of material I shot. I guess stylistically and because of how Ron and I live our lives, the film was made exactly as it should have been. ^
[ WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE MAKING THE FILM? ] ^ I loved it. I loved working with Ron and with my editor Aljernon and with my excellent intern who’s also named Cat. And it has given me an excuse to spend more and more time with the folks who perform with Ron who are definitely like a big family. ^
[ ANY CRAZY SET ADVENTURES? ] ^ One day I was contemplating how to design the title sequence on the phone with my girlfriend and she said someone should get a cutting of “Hallelujah” in her skin. I laughed and said maybe someone could get the word tattooed. At least the title wasn’t “Pleading in the Blood.” No one would want that on their arm. We laughed more and hung up. A few minutes later Intern Ms. Cat offered to get the tattoo on her lower back; “…as long as I don’t have to have the subtitle ‘Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance.’” Very cute. The next week Stephanie Tamez gave Cat the biggest “HALLELUJAH” that would fit above her pants line. We began referring to Cat as Associate Producer. ^
[ WHY DID YOU DO IT? ] ^ I wanted to see what this film would finally look like, what I would learn about Ron Athey and his work. I wanted to know why I found this material so fascinating when others found it horrifying, disgusting, sickening. Here I took a calculated risk to listen to him, to discover what I did not know, to turn up the unexpected. The final piece became a form of wish fulfillment for me, one in which I committed myself to a vague task and ultimately felt energized by Ron’s lessons. ^
[ ANY ADVICE OR PEARLS OF BRILLIANT FILMMAKING WISDOM? ] ^ Make movies about something you care about because they’ll be better if they have some heart.
[ WHAT NEXT? ] ^ Something about art and children. This movie was about art but you wouldn’t want your kids to watch it.
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Posted on February 8, 1999 in Interviews by
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