Reviews Short Documentary

Ourselves, in Stories (2021) – 4.5 stars

Director: Marjee Chmiel

Writers: Marjee Chmiel, Juan Pablo Pacheco, Julia Bande

Running time: 24mins

Frankly, I’ve had a horrible week – tortured by the horrors of a film I reviewed on Monday. In its heaving mass of toxic truisms, its protagonist justified his voyeuristic profiteering by photographing local cases of violence and abuse as “just what it’s like.” But just ‘showing the world as it is’ without comment, and picking up a paycheque for that, is exploitative, with a hollow justification that offers no intention of changing anything. Fortunately for me, the week has been bookended with this: a story of hope, where people not only depict and interpret the world – but also understand that the point is to change it.

Marjee Chmiel’s short documentary, Ourselves, in Stories, starts with a telling quote from award-winning cartoonist Jaime Hernandez. One of the film’s various expert talking-heads, Hernandez notes, “I don’t want to draw spiderman, I want to draw my own characters. This is what I want to do. I was used to going to superhero cons, and alternative cartoons had their section in a little corner.”

It establishes we are going down a different route from the usual culture-wars non-starters around inclusion in media. Representing diversity in culture has, in recent years, been conflated with a rebranding exercise among established intellectual properties. Debates continue to rage as to whether the next 007 should be a Black woman, or if Superman’s son should or should not be attracted to both men and women.

It is understandable that, in a world where we are almost completely robbed of political and social agency – where the state and capital do as they please with or without the consent of us or our elected officials – discussions around the identities of popular culture characters have become so intense. This feels to so many people like the last place they can actually effect any change in something that actually has meaning to them.

But while seeing someone ‘like you’ fronting one of the world’s most popular franchises undoubtedly does something to boost the confidence of young people in search of role-models they can relate to, such cosmetic changes arguably do little to challenge the problematic aspects of established culture. James Bond is an actor for the British security state, and the requirements of that role mean if he were a she, they would still be an imperialist war-criminal. But their new identity might give their actions a veneer of ‘legitimacy’ to the eyes of many viewers simply happy to feel ‘included’ now.

The world of Ourselves, in Stories presents us an enticing glimpse into an alternative form of representation though. Focusing on Small Press Expo (SPX), the US’ premiere convention for alternative comic creators and fans, it takes viewers on a whistle-stop tour of a re-affirmingly vibrant, creative and inclusive industry, built on telling the stories you can’t and won’t find in mainstream narrative comics.

This is a world where artists concern themselves with telling new, daring, personal stories – without the threat of being told ‘no’ by a producer who thinks they are pushing things ‘too far’ to be comfortable for more conservatively-minded readers. That means that, for example, People of Colour are far better represented as lead characters in the stories – but the stories also reflect their everyday experiences in a way the likes of Marvel and DC would likely shy away from. 

One of the film’s title cards quotes a New York Times article from 2020, which states, “Since 1950, only 5% of the fiction books published were written by Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour.” In that context, even when People of Colour appear, they often appear from the pen and imagination of someone who has not lived any of their experiences – and as comic-creator Bianca Xunise notes, this often meant while she wanted to be represented by “a Molly Ringwald” from a John Hughes film, she was expected to see herself in the archetypes of “the sassy friend, or the Mammy character, or the help.”

Creating stories based around her own perspective, however, Xunise is one of a number of independent artists at SPX looking to change that. In one particularly shocking segment, she describes an early comic she made about everyday racism in America. A member of the police prevented her from paying to help “three little Black boys take the train home.” The man threatened her with arrest, and she noted his hand was constantly hovering above his gun – all for simply daring to try and help Black children. Later she recorded the event in a comic – not only putting a representation of herself, and other People of Colour, front and centre, but showing the authentic, brutal reality they face in daily life.

On top of this, SPX also provides a platform for artists who are looking to explore identities you might think are ‘well represented’ in new ways. Explaining their own work, Andi Santagata notes that they wanted to show masculinity in a different light. Speaking on a comic they produced about a teenage demon and his best friend, they note, “I found that in my own life my friendships had been a lot more intense than my romances. A lot of that gets overlooked, especially when that comes to male friendships. When I was going around trying to pitch Jed the Undead, I got told that ‘boys have enough books,’ and I think that’s the exact problem. I think that’s why there’s a lot of toxic masculinity running rampant, because there isn’t a lot of different role-models for teenage boys or young boys to look up to that aren’t this very specific toxic masculine mould.”

According to Santagata, “trying to give those kids who are a little rough around the edges, a little bit masculine, something to look forward to that isn’t upsetting.” From their perspective as a trans person, “I think that’s kind of important” – and at the same time, this provides an important challenge to the narratives which smother people assigned male at birth. Not everything about coming of age as a ‘man’ should revolve around coupling, or building a career, or physical development. Emotional development, and friendship, are every bit as important, if not more so. That is, honestly, a narrative my own youth was spent crying out for.

But I digress, I am supposed to be reviewing the film, not the people it depicts. Even though I suppose that being what I want most to talk about, speaks to how well the film is made. Chmiel’s documentary builds a charming, inviting picture of the universes contained within SPX’s collective imagination. The colourful shots of the convention itself, coupled with the welcoming soundbites from its grandees, paint a picture of a community providing an alternative you never knew you yearned for. For so many people, this is a world you want to be part of.

Perhaps one of the film’s few problems is that it does not do enough to explain how you might actually do that. Perhaps it is something the experts are tired of addressing, having no doubt been asked on every panel they ever sat on, how do I do what you do? Similarly, we might want to ask the organisers that same question – as events where artists can build collective identity and support networks before creating content is something independent filmmakers could also benefit from.

If this is about building an inclusive cultural community, capable of telling unique stories, and distributing them to others, you need to explain how others might do that for themselves too. That is one of the great questions people coming away inspired by this film will have – and unless you can make it to Bethesda, Maryland (even without a global pandemic, that’s a tall ask for those of us in Europe), you won’t be able to ask that question yourself.

At the same time, for a film finally released in mid-2021, the absence of the coronavirus in this story is conspicuous. The pandemic and its lockdowns have decimated the global events industry – and threatened the existence of events and communities like SPX. How has it been impacted? Is there any way we can help? As far as I can tell, the last two SPXs were forced to cancel the conference event, while its awards took place in an online format. But is there any way it is helping its suddenly isolated regulars stay in contact? Keeping the ‘community’ alive?

Possibly it is unfair to blame Chmiel for this lack of information – as SPX’s own website seems particularly guarded on the issue – but it might be worth some kind of note in the postscript at the very least. After all, this film is good enough that audiences will want to help the important work it is highlighting.

As mentioned, this is a review of a film, not a subject, so I am not quite able to stretch to the full five-star evaluation. With that being said, Ourselves, in Stories comes bloody close. An affectionate, grounded and intricate portrait of independent artists, looking to put the world to rights via storytelling – this is everything that the Indy Film segment should also be. If only it took more time to explain how we should get there.

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