Moving Image 11-29-2005

Making Justice: An Interview with Teresa Konechne

Shannon Gibney sits down with local filmmaker Teresa Konechne, creator of the award-winning documentary "This Black Soil," to get her thoughts on the rewards – and challenges – of making art that is intrinsically tied to social justice.


Konechne, a 2005 Bush Fellow in film and video, discusses her current projects, the process of filmmaking, the rural diaspora, and the difference between communication and connection in art and culture below.

SG: As a filmmaker, what are the questions you’re most interested in, and how did you arrive at them?

TK: I want to explore how we can utilize film as a tool, a really valuable tool to activate people – to bring people together and to activate them into some kind of action. How can we make the . . . film process transparent enough that the process is actually part of the tool?

So, for example, . . . [I’ve written for some films] proposals about bringing various community people together . . . to advise us through the whole process of making the film. Not only that, but those advisory sessions were about communicating and in some ways implementing some kind of change within [all the] communities for understanding and compassion.

So, to talk about racism as a rural White person who doesn’t believe that they are racist. Well, I know as a rural White person, and dealing with my own racism, that racism exists, period. You can’t grow up here without it. But what we have to get past is the blaming, shaming thing of it and say, “OK, what is White privilege? What are these issues that can help us get beyond the blame, get beyond the shame?” Claim it, and then move on. Let’s do work around it. I’m not going to feel bad that the society I grew up in is racist; I’m going to work on trying to change it.

So, I’m really interested in film as a mechanism for social change. And it really starts with the day you start filming, or the day you start conceptualizing the film. It’s not just about the product, it’s about the process.

Because to be really realistic and truthful, every filmmaker knows that even by asking one person one question that they’ve never thought about in their life before changes them. And they’ll never be the same after that. So to acknowledge that, and not only acknowledge that, but capitalize on that and think about just how to do this…

I don’t know that I’m qualified to be doing such in-depth work on that level, you know? But I feel like the experience that I’ve had has really prepared me for doing this work in a way that [doesn’t happen] that often. It’s being done by some filmmakers, but not that many.

Mostly, filmmakers prefer to be the fly on the wall. But they don’t really think about how their work affects their subjects.

SG: Why do think that’s so prevalent?

TK: I think it’s just the idea of what film is, that it’s the product and not the process. Because as an audience member, you only see the product. And I think that’s what we’re taught to think about – the product, and not how important the process was.

If you talk to filmmakers, they’ll acknowledge how incredible it was to make the film and all these other things.

SG: When you talk about the process, what does that mean to you? What is the process?

TK: The process of filmmaking is doing the research, conducting the interviews, making initial contact with potential interviewees, your rapport, how you deal with people. Then how you put the thing together, the kind of thought that goes into that process. And that’s why having an advisory board to inform that process [is so important].

So it’s in the editing process where I feel that there’s such an opportunity to make the film no only more authentic in a kind of community-based way, but really something that’ useful before and after.

SG: Can you talk about your specific projects, and what you’re working on?

TK: I’m working with White Earth Land Recovery Project, that’s Winona LaDuke’s organization. And I’ve already produced a 23-minute legislative piece that was meant to hand to legislators about genetic engineering wild rice, the sacredness of wild rice, and why they need to pass legislation to ban genetically engineered wild rice.

Genetically engineered wild rice hasn’t happened yet, but there’s the whole cultural concern that it’s not just about changing wild rice. That’s certainly a big part of it. But it’s utilizing any part of wild rice, even in other plants, some traits that they might want in some other kind of rice, that’s really sacrilegious. It’d be like taking part of you and putting it in a cork. You just don’t do that, because everything is sacred, and everything has its concentric circles, everything is connected, and all life should be left the way it is.

So I’m making a longer piece now…hopefully…that will be more culturally-based, more community-based. It should be a kind of social change tool, to activate community people to write their Congress people. I’m trying to speak to both a local audience and a broad audience, that this is unjust, that indigenous peoples’ lives are being destroyed everywhere in the world, and have been for millennia.

Knowing how racism works, I don’t want people to think, “Oh, it’s those whiney Indians again.” So I’m trying to show the Maori in New Zealand, I want to show the indigenous in Hawaii who are fighting the genetic engineering of their sacred taro root, to show that it’s all over. This is not an isolated case. That’s one of the pieces I’m doing.

[Another piece I began work on but had to shelve for now, on the Chai Vang case, showed me that I can say, ] “You know, White people just don’t look at community the same way other people do.” And that’s why it’s so hard for me to try to get embedded in communities to get myself known and trusted, because I think particularly rural communities are inherently distrustful of outsiders.

There’s this distinct lack of anything going on around this tragedy. There was one big, public funeral service, and that’s about it. There were a few other things – dedication to a park and stuff like that – that a few people went to. I mean, this is six people that died out of a community of 8,000. So, it’s a tough project – really tough. We’re dealing with race, we’re dealing with denial, we’re dealing with absolute tragedy.

One guy said to me, “Why is it that the liberals are siding with the Hmong? He killed them.” A lot of people who aren’t knee-jerk reactionaries are having a lot of conflicts inside right now. And it’s true, I have a lot of connections in the Hmong community. Why is that? Why is it that my immediate response is not really thinking about the tragedy? Well, because I know how racism works.

SG: Can you talk about the project that you actually got the Bush Artist Fellowship for?

TK: This is my favorite project. I started it in 1993 I think, after I read this play. I was in an MFA program in scenic design, and I read this play called Trifles. Fifteen pages, written in 1915. It’s about rural women, about this farm woman who allegedly hangs her husband. We never meet her, we just meet the nextdoor neighbor, and the wife of the investigator. And they’re looking through her stuff, and they’re seeing how the stitches on her quilting are becoming very erratic, and they say things about how the house is so quiet because they weren’t able to have children. And how he wasn’t a very nice man, and she used to sing like a bird, but he really killed that in her, and then they found her canary with a broken neck in the cage with the door ripped off of it.

And the men are just like, “Oh, those are just trifles. What they’re finding are just trifles.”

It was really devastating for me to read, because everybody I knew was rural farmers. And it really contextualized my mother’s life. Because she was town girl, and got married to my dad, moved out onto my dad’s farm, which was in another town in the country, and never saw her friends again. She lived in one of those 1960s trailers you pull behind your car to go camping in and had two kids. Then she moved to a farm and had two more, and then moved to the farm I really grew up on.

SG: Sounds lonely.

TK: Yeah.

So I just started going back and interviewing farm women and rural women. I really just fell back in love with South Dakota, the world I grew up with, and really started this very personal journey. And then my parents sold the farm. They live in town now.

I was with this high school friend this summer, and we drove into the farm for the first time in four years since we sold it, and I was bawling the whole time. I was really, really needing to connect with that land again.

In 2002, I quit my teaching job in Virginia and spent some time there traveling. I really knew I needed to continue this work – not only because I think it’s important work, you know these voices are not heard. But also because I needed to explore the rural diaspora. I think that’s a new term, but I think it’s appropriate, because so many of us had to move because there was no other choice. There are hardly any farmers anymore, and there are very few jobs in those areas.
So the project is also about exploring this idea of going home, but really about exploring the idea of making home home, and how we as rural people bring our rural aesthetic, our rural landscape, our connection to the seasons – how do we bring that to urban centers? How do we transform our new environment or not? What effect does it have on us to not be there anymore?

This is also for me, it’s kind of a reclamation of my health. Because I felt when I was working in Virginia, I got really sick. So this film is a really conscious effort to regain my health. And I absolutely know in the deepest core of my body that it’s connected to this work and doing this work.

SG: Can we go further back, to where your life as a filmmaker started?

TK: I spent five years in an experimental film program at the University of Iowa, at Iowa City. So I had never even thought about any of this stuff, but through an amazing set of coincidences ended up taking a class there and they really liked my work. And when I left a program there in scenic design, I was like, “What am I going to do now?”

And I had already read this play Trifles. I had already been seeing this wacko video art, and I was already in theater, and installation was the closest relationship to what I was doing, so I just asked if I could come into that program, and they said “Yes.”

For the first year, I just took classes. We only had two classes – video art, and then just a critique class. So I started making video art, but I never got trained to do anything.

When I got the job in Virginia, and the This Black Soil project [a documentary Konechne released last year that tells a story of a small, impoverished African American community in Virginia that successfully fought off the state’s plan to build a maximum security prison in their backyard] came to me by talking to Kathy Wixon the first week of class, literally. I told a friend of mine in Iowa I was moving to Virginia, and she said, ‘Oh, you have to get a hold of this guy, because I met him on the back of the bus in Haiti. You have to meet him, he’s doing really great political work.’

So I did, and they convened a meeting the first week of classes. And she told me about the Bayview community, and as she kept explaining it, I kept thinking, ‘Sounds like the reservations in South Dakota – the isolation, the poverty, environmental racism. You name it, it’s similar.’

So that’s how the whole project started, by her asking the community if they were interested in me doing a documentary with students, even though I had no clue what to do. I had never made a documentary at all. I’d dabbled in some experimental work, but I knew nothing about camera work. I mean, I was a complete mismatch, but I knew I needed to do that project. I knew that that’s the reason I was there.

SG: So many of your projects seem to be centered on mainstream culture’s complete disregard for what people want, what they actually need to be happy and feel fulfilled.

TK: I think that’s why we’re in such desperate straits right now as a global community, because of our disconnection. Whether it’s to land, culture, to family – you name it, across the board. Most of us in the dominant culture, the dominant country, have really lost this connection.

I’m in this class right now at the Powderhorn Wellness Center for reclaiming and reconciling White European history, and it’s really about reclamation of our traditions that were lost 500 years ago, when Christianity came and really destroyed the matriarchal, the Goddess, the connection to land. I mean, all of that stuff has been lost for so long.

I think there’s a real surge in where we are as people, that a lot of us are feeling the need to go back. I noticed a lot of my friends are all moving home now, over the last three or four years. I did. And it wasn’t a conscious thing. It was just the need to be in a place that . . . we’re spiritually connected to.

I don’t think of it just as a Native American thing, or just as a people of color thing, or just as an indigenous thing. I think of it as all of us are really searching and struggling to return, and really seeing that the world is just getting so far out of control… The disconnect between science and traditional knowledge, for example, is getting so much broader. They used to be so much closer; they kind of balanced off each other. Now, they’re so disparate in where they are and how much legitimacy they’re given. I feel that as humans, we’re just feeling that, that these things are right anymore.

SG: That’s interesting to me, because I was just watching Charlie Rose last night. They had this guy on there, talking about broadband, wireless. And I saw some book in the bookstore the other day, all about how the world is being “flattened” by technology.

So interesting to me to hear you talk about from your point of view, as an artist, as a filmmaker, a lot of stories that are coming to you and moving you right now are stories of disconnection. And simultaneously, I’m seeing all these other stories about how we’re more connected than we’ve ever been before. What do you attribute that to?

TK: Well, I think they’re talking about the human connection, which is a very tangible connection. We can monitor it, and evaluate it, and all of these other things. The connection I’m talking about goes down, not across. It goes down to the earth, it goes down to our ancestry, it goes down to our history, it goes down to the center of where we all come from.

So, I agree – of course, there’s more communication between us. But that doesn’t mean we have more connection.

SG: What’s the distinction for you there, between communication and connection?

TK: Connection for me is really on a very energetic, almost subliminal level, whereas communication is what you and I are doing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re connecting in various other ways. And I think that that’s probably because of the disconnect, because we’ve lost that ability in many ways.

I think for artists it’s different, because we tend to live in the internal a lot more, we tend to live in the intuitive a lot more, and that’s a lot of what I’m talking about.

So I think we have more ability to communicate technologically, but I think we’ve lost so much of our ability to connect on various levels.