In Conversation With Filmmaker Adinah Dancyger

The filmmaker, writer, and director discusses her intuitive process and the therapeutic catharsis of learning about yourself through your work.

In Conversation With Filmmaker Adinah Dancyger

Adinah Dancyger is an intuitive filmmaker—even as a director, she allows her own stories to unfold with a subtlety that ends up feeling close to the nuances of real life. It’s testament to her grace: though her stories are profoundly personal (and never stripped of this quality for the sake of universalism), with the force of her gentle hand, they become mediums through which viewers might emphasize and, sometimes, relate. Her first film, Chopping Onions, featured her own grandmother and depicted the language and cultural barriers encountered by first-generation American children and their relatives—and the unexpected tenderness in the spaces where they overlap (Dancyger is the daughter of immigrants from Poland and Korea).

Glittery music videos, Mykki Blanco’s recitation of Zoe Leonard’s “I Want a Dyke for President,” irreverent shorts of Dancyger herself: everything is imbued with both the urgency and sensitive awareness of someone who’s lived in that unique border between cultures, between telling stories and hearing them. Ahead of two upcoming films—Girl Props, a collaborative work with India Menuez and Victoria Cronin, and Cheer Up Baby—we spoke to Dancyger on the phone about listening, catharsis, and the inherently troublesome nature of sharing yourself with the world.

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What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a short film called Cheer Up Baby. I wrote it about a year ago; it took me a really long time to write. I kept revising, and shot it in late May. It’s put me in a cave and I’ve been very busy with it.

Like all creative people who work collaboratively, I’m sure you’ve more than one chosen medium—how did film become your favorite?

My dad was a composer and photographer, and as I got older, I discovered his artistic past life. I was looking through hundreds of photographs he’d taken, and felt really enlightened by that. I grew up with my parents telling me stories all the time. I would come home from school or a night out, and they would tell me insane, incredible stories. They both emigrated here—my dad’s Polish and my mom’s Korean—and grew up in an intense political time. They have such a knowledge about life, and though I’m sure all parents do, there was something so intense about all of these stories. I didn’t know what to do with them, processing them at age ten.

In middle school, I became friends with a few girls who were creative and hyper, and I was really inspired by their energy. We used to make little videos, whether it was on Photobooth or a camera. I eventually went to a high school where I felt really uninspired—there wasn’t a true art program, and I felt really silenced. Being in the city, I met so many other creatives and so many young people doing great things. A couple friends founded a collective, and as we were figuring out our dynamic, I was taking pictures of my friends, which led to me taking pictures and documenting what we were doing.

I wasn’t a great academic—I wasn’t very good at writing the perfect essay, so I tried to find ways to get out of that through creative projects. One of my biggest realizations in high school was writing a film essay about Godard. I watched all of his films and felt like I could connect and talk about it. I realized I loved photography, I loved writing, and maybe there was a way to put those things together—so I said, “I’m just gonna be a film major!” It was, progressively, a collection of interests and personalities that led me to realize I really love storytelling. That’s what it is: I like hearing stories, telling stories.

­I like hearing about your parents—my father is Polish-American and my mother is Puerto Rican, and it feels very New York to have these kinds of stories.

As I was growing up, I was lucky to meet other people who had foreign parents or a foreign household. I felt like I lived such a strange cultural home life—I was eating Korean food and hearing Polish and didn’t feel like I knew how to speak English perfectly. I had this double consciousness of the two different strains of history in my blood, and was always wondering, “What do I do with this?” I’m still figuring that out, which is why I like making work about it. I’m exploring and embracing that a bit more.

As a kid, I thought, “This isn’t what my friends are like. I want to be part of a more homogenous community.” I always felt like I had one foot in the door and could choose how white I wanted to be or how Korean I wanted to be whenever it benefitted me, and that was such a difficult thing to be ingrained with: this sense of having to adjust to a greater thing. More kids are mixed now, and there’s so much more globalization, but that was not my reality at the time. I almost want to take back that shame and guilt, and I find I can do that through film. I also want to celebrate and embrace my parents’ stories. As I continue, that’s a larger goal—figuring out how to internalize these experiences that are extremely human and can be from any culture. I think that’s what I’m most interested in: how to relate these very specific moments in a specific culture to a broader, universal perspective.

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I had this double consciousness of the two different strains of history in my blood, and was always wondering, “What do I do with this?”
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How much is filmmaking therapeutic for you, in terms of helping you to move through certain experiences? Is it cathartic?

That’s exactly how I feel about it. Before I realized it, my first few films were very much a way for me to process, work through, and take control of questions I had. When you do anything through film, it becomes something else, a way of making peace with an idea or making fun of yourself or addressing a question you want to share and answer with other people. This is why I like making films—to try to answer questions and explore other ways of coming to different conclusions about them. With filmmaking, everything is such a farce, because there is so much manipulation involved, but that’s what makes it therapeutic: bringing it through these layers of transition to come out with something you didn’t initially expect or intend. Then, you somehow get to cope with that in a new form.

I feel like all my projects have been really different, but they do all involve a sense of pain. Chopping Onions was something I felt I needed to make, almost to apologize. I was able to say, “This is an incredibly personal story, and I’m being very honest about this sort of tension that existed in my past.” If you can talk about it, then it feels you’re ready to confront something you weren’t ready to in the moment it happened. In the writing process for Girl Propsa movie that I co-wrote and co-directed with friends and artists, Victoria Cronin and India Salvor Menuez that is still in progress—it felt like I was injecting parts of myself that I know exist, but are uncomfortable to talk about. It’s an important part of making work—to take criticism, to realize, “I’m not the best at whatever I’m doing, but I’m trying to work through these things.”

For me, it feels like a very earnest attempt to be a bit more vulnerable or truthful through making things that are a little bit hard to watch. Sometimes there’s an element of needing to suffer, which I know sounds so cliché—but I tend to be most creative when I’m not feeling so complacent. I was feeling very creative when I was in Prague for a couple months, where I didn’t talk to a single person for weeks and had this incredible sense of loneliness and silence. I didn’t really speak the language and had so much time to think and observe. It was frustrating and at times scary, but I was feeling so inspired by this weird, dark place, so I did a lot of writing as well. My new short film is based off of an experience I had in New York City, and I felt I needed to make peace with it through this project. It was a difficult thing to write, but I needed to write it.

It’s also sort of masochistic to make work in general—it’s vulnerable and self-obsessed and very painful. You’re putting yourself on the line when you’re telling a personal story and trying to make it relatable to other people. You have to be really exposed. And when you’re making a film, it involves other people, and everyone else’s voice is heard—I like to hear everyone’s voices in a project—so it leavens like bread and it becomes bigger than you expected it to be. It’s something else, something that involves the rest of the world. How do you involve the rest of the world when you’re making something so personal?

Taking these stories that are so personal and transforming them into something other people can empathize with is important—as masochistic as art-making can be, its ability to be shared can help other people.

It’s a way to make you feel like you’re not alone. If someone else can do that with your work, you’ve done your job. It’s a really nice feeling. When I showed Chopping Onions, a Chinese exchange student came up to me after and said, “Thank you for telling this story.” I did not expect that. It’s nice to finally be able to share things because it grows such a different life once people see it. It’s so relieving to have an audience that says, “I hate it” or “I love it,” and then you move on. I used to be so concerned with one project, but some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten is, “You do this one project, and then keep moving.” I don’t think it takes away from the emotional process of what you’ve done, but in order to survive, you have to put it down, learn from it, and do it again, keep trying to learn from your mistakes.

That’s your real grandmother in Chopping Onions. What was that experience like for her?

I have this unspeakable bond with my grandmother. There was no way anyone else could do this; I couldn’t just get another Korean grandmother. It had to be mine. She doesn’t speak English at all and my Korean is fading. There was this parallel in the story—I couldn’t communicate the way that I would if I were directing an English-speaking person, so the process was very intuitive, and I had to respect all these elements. She didn’t really know what was going on, but when I connected it to us, to our past, she understood what was happening. She wasn’t really acting; she was just being herself in a different situation, a situation I prompted. I didn’t want anybody to be acting.

I would set things up and let them breathe and control the space. The way that I directed the kid was similar to the way that I directed my grandmother—you give them the agency and they do what they do and you just figure out how to work with them. It was also my first project, so I was a little nervous to be direct. I would tell her what to do and she felt annoyed, and I was like, “I’m really sorry.” She is such a lovely person, but I think she was confused at points and I was confused, too.

It was natural, intuitive, and extremely difficult, to sum it up. But I’ve found in my patterns of directing, I don’t like to chime in unless something could be navigated a different way. If something is unfolding, I want to allow it to happen. I don’t want to over-complicate a situation. You have to read the situation for what it is and insert yourself in it. Just because you’re directing doesn’t mean you have full control.

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