Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Krissy Mahan
By Travis Trew, Programming Associate
Camden-born artist and filmmaker Krissy Mahan has been making movies using humor as a feminist tool for 25 years. Mahan’s movies center the social failures around accessibility, gender identity, mental health, immigration, and working class post-industrial cities. In My Aunt Mame, Mahan uses Fisher-Price figurines and handmade, paper sets to tell a very personal family story across three different time periods. As Krissy cares for her ailing mother, she remembers coming out to her mother in the 80s, and how this experience brought back memories of childhood visits to her butch, working class great aunt.
PFS: When did you start making films?
KM: I had been making videos of my friends since the public library began loaning out a VHS camera, which must have been in about 1993. I started making films with a goal of festival screenings in 2004.
PFS: What brought you to making films with toys and paper sets?
KM: Many of my movies feature cut paper sets that I design and make. Construction paper is an affordable, easy-to-find material that I’ve used my whole life. Before I considered paper as a foundation to make three-dimensional spaces, I made cut paper works about current events. Most of my films I’ve made completely by myself, so toys were what were available to stand in for actors. The emotional connection with toys does help get audiences on my side. Also, I am very interested in exploring the concept of the ethical witness. Because the toys only have one expression, that means that the surrounding situation is brought into sharper relief. If steps at a doorway preclude a smiling toy from entering the space, the viewer has to do the work of noticing that steps are there, and question if a smile is the correct response to that situation. I want my films to be ethical witnesses to the world we live in, which often is full of hardships. I also want to model cheerful persistence in eliminating those hardships.
PFS: How do you define being an “ethical witness?”
KM: Ethical witnessing is holding a mirror to a society committed to its collective destruction. In the words of Dr. Paula Ioanide, “The legacy of ethical witnessing and racial and gender justice is cumulative, intergenerational and permanently engaged in struggle rather than utopic.” Ethical witnessing is seeing a situation for what it is, not through a filter of self-serving ideology. My Aunt Mame is not an accusation or an attempt to humiliate anyone. It is a way for the viewer to have a fun bit of distance to see that homophobia creates hurtful, lived experiences for people they love. It isn’t just something abstract.
PFS: How do you approach the film’s tone (the mixture of humor and serious subjects)?
KM: Ha! I’ve developed a reputation for “funny/sad.” It might be our kind of regional humor, or maybe a working class sensibility that I am tapping into. Or maybe it is just being a fan of Philadelphia sports teams that makes me mine the rich vein of funny/sad. Anyway, I am interested in the concept of absurdity. For example, in My Aunt Mame the facility’s name and motto is “Vista View Hospital – Your Life Is Worth A Lot To Us!” Then we see that the surgery for my mother’s broken hip became a financial decision, and not about medical necessity. I think it is absurd that we live in a wealthy nation where the health care one receives is dependent on profit. I also think the name Vista View is funny. I try to throw in a little spice like that to keep the viewers interested. I hope that the viewer finds the tone of my movies to be one of compassion—never, ever ridicule. My aunt was funny and happy, and her life was difficult. Many things co-exist. By tenderly showing complexity, I hope to stir the hearts of the viewer, or at least make them think.
PFS: What motivated you to include subtitles throughout the film?
KM: To address and normalize accessibility, my films for the last ten years or so have had subtitles built into them. The subtitles aren’t a separate file; they have to be shown if the movie shown. It is immoral to forbid a group of people from experiencing something they want to, just because of some arbitrary reason—especially if that arbitrary reason is being oblivious to someone else’s needs. Often we don’t notice that when people with different kinds of bodies, vision, hearing abilities, etc. want to go to the movies, the structure of the theater and the film itself keep some bodies from enjoying it.
PFS: How long did it take to make My Aunt Mame, and can you take me through the process?
KM: There is a shorter answer and a very, very long answer. For the purposes of this interview I’ll share my process in steps: I think of the idea, usually on public transportation. I make little sketches of what it might look like. If the idea is funny and can do some social critique, then I draw a rough storyboard. If the film has dialogue (many of my films do not) then I will write a basic script. I videotape the story on a camera or on my phone. Then I do voiceovers. Many people I know have voiced characters in my films! Then I send out drafts to friends to see what they think. Happily, these last few years, friends do not just say “Great!,” but provide honest opinions on what does or does not work. This feedback brings the film from the range of good to excellent. For that, I am grateful to my team. Once I’ve reached a compromise between my versions and their feedback, I make the final version. This process can take a week, or several months—as in the case of my current collaborative film project.
PFS: How do you hope audiences will respond to the film?
KM: I hope audiences like it! I’ve asked them for their time and I want to return the favor with some enjoyment. I also hope that their hearts are jiggled in some way. Being a white, American artist at this political moment is a tremendous responsibility. I feel that as a country we need to see ourselves, educate ourselves, and dismantle some things. I make movies as a woman from the Philly region. I try to be conscious of the history of this rich country, as well as be conscious of the advantages given to me. I know from my Gloucester City family that working class people’s hearts don’t soften after confrontation. I attempt to lovingly make characters and stories that white, working class people can relate to. Perhaps seeing ourselves as individuals might help people notice connections between all kinds of people that they might have not seen before, and then act differently. My working class family hears from all sides that they are bad; from being born with original sin to not living like/looking like people on television shows do. I’m not interested in making anyone feel judged. Defensive minds aren’t open to learning. But we know that facts show that oppression is harmful. So I am not even trying to present facts, that hasn’t worked. I’m trying to tell stories that my family can relate to. And I hope that in in the storytelling and story listening, maybe something will shift.
My Aunt Mame will screen on Friday, May 11 at the Prince Theater’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.