South Hadley—Upon entering the dimly lit Gamble Auditorium at Mount Holyoke College, I was greeted by the pale, red glow of the exit sign. A large, empty white screen hung at the front of the auditorium and leaned slightly forward towards the half-filled rows of seats. The film we had arrived to see, Ricerche: Three, was shot and produced one and a half year’s ago on the school’s campus at the top of Prospect Hill; a group of thirty-five students make up its cast. Among the audience were a handful of the film’s stars, several of them my friends and classmates. Below us, the director of the film, Sharon Hayes, stood at the podium. While currently an associate professor of art at Cooper Union, Hayes is first and foremost a multimedia artist who “appropriates, rearranges, and remixes in order to revitalize spirits of dissent.” She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014 and has featured work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and premiered Ricerche: Three at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.
In true Pasolinian spirit, the topic of Ricerche: Three is sex, sexuality, and identity. The tone and format is modeled after Pasolini’s 1964 documentary Comizi d’amore, titled in English, Love Meetings. Post WWII, Pasolini traveled through his home country of Italy and interviewed Italians of all ages, classes, and genders about their sexual mores. While the specific problem being addressed in Comizi d’amore differs slightly from that of Hayes’ query, the intention is the same—to confront “the sexual problem” of the day, in this case, 2013.
The film shows Hayes’ interviewing the group of thirty-five students, microphone in hand. Clustered together, the subjects had arranged themselves according to level of acquaintance with one another. At random, she asks a series of questions regarding sexuality and allows whomever to chime in whenever they feel inclined. There appears to be no agenda or sequence to these questions. “Is sex important to you?” asks Hayes as whispers and giggles escape from the cast. “Are you sexually different from other people?” It is remarkable to see how the climate shifts during this discussion over the course of the thirty-eight minute film. The range of topics is vast and oscillates from religion to sexual promiscuity to education. The initial awkwardness among the students falls away after a few short minutes. For the most part, they are eager to answer Hayes’ questions. Tension builds among two of the more outspoken students, and at one point, the group approaches the threshold of a shouting match. Hayes’ doesn’t intervene. It is diffused by the cast themselves, and any discomfort is eventually broken through laughter.
Being a Mount Holyoke student gave me a strange insight into this film that I would imagine viewers from outside our MHC “bubble” wouldn’t quite grasp. After being abroad for a year, many of these faces that I remembered seeing around had graduated, changed hair, or in some cases, gender, since the film was shot. I knew these people, and even if I didn’t know them well, I had been privy to some part of their histories merely by being present within the tight Mount Holyoke community. However, I admittedly wrestled (and still wrestle) with all the different categories of gender labels and sexualities that exist, and, at the time of the film’s production, was less concerned with what it was these students, acquaintances at best, were experiencing.
Behind the discourse of gender and sexuality, moves a strong undercurrent of misrepresentation. One participant, an international student from a conservative background, said, “once I go outside MHC, people come in with one muddled meaning of who I am. They question my legitimacy.” Another participant, a trans-man, said, “my parents don’t know, so only here am I “he.” In the real world, I’m still “she.” In these two examples, the participants had to deal not only with the ignorance of what their identities meant but also had to hide them in order to avoid backlash from family and friends. Sara Amjad from Pakistan, another conservative culture, later used religion to continue the discussion. She spoke of straddling the identities that we construct for ourselves, why we construct them, and how these identities often clash with one another. In my notes, I had scribbled “Maxine” in the margins as it reminded me of a book I had to read in my first college English class, Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. Kingston writes, “I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.” To push this one step further, it seems that we must find a way to recognize and accommodate the paradoxes within ourselves.
In my opinion, it was these constant and repeated revelations of multi-gender and multi-identity expressions that characterized the film. While I knew many of the cast, the film, for me, was not about the people and their opinions but rather, how they carved and shaped their identity— how they reconciled their multiplicity and fell into the “human tendency to impose logic” upon themselves— before our very eyes. As humans, especially twenty-somethings, we often talk about “soul-searching,” or the search for who we are. After this film, I couldn’t help but wonder if that question demands multiple answers.
Estefan, Kareem. “SHARON HAYES: There’s So Much I Want to Say to You.” The Brooklyn Rail. 6 Nov. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://brooklynrail.org/2012/11/artseen/sharon-hayes-theres-so-much-i-want-to-say-to-you>.
Heffernan, Kay. Review: Sharon Hayes, ‘Ricerche: three’. Victorian Visual Culture blog. 13 December 2014. Web.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. New York: Knopf, 1976. Print.