Home Art Talena Sanders Wants “Free Tuition for All, Always”

Talena Sanders Wants “Free Tuition for All, Always”


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Artist and filmmaker Talena Sanders (all images courtesy Talena Sanders)

The month of June is a time to celebrate LGBTQ communities. It’s a moment to reflect on the rich history and culture of the queer community, as well as more recent advances made in the realm of civil liberties. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many queer individuals are navigating greater risks to their health, safety, and livelihoods.

Cognizant of the need to stay connected and elevate queer voices amid uncertainty, Hyperallergic is commemorating Pride Month by featuring one queer art worker per day on our website and asking them to reflect on what this time means to them. If you identify as a queer art worker, we’d love to hear from you. Click here to learn more about how to participate. 

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From Voladoras (2020), dir. Talena Sanders, HD, work-in-progress

What’s your name?

Talena Sanders

Where are you based currently? 

Sebastopol, CA

Describe who you are and what you do.

I’m an artist and filmmaker who creates experimental documentary films. I work to make films that reflect the wild complexity and strange poetry of lived experience. I’m interested in expanding and challenging mainstream documentary conventions. I like gaps and mystery and opening up more questions than giving easy answers. Sometimes my work is about my own experiences, sometimes it’s about people I admire from history — trailblazing women and queer people. I usually feel like I’m building a collage in my films. I pull from many different sources and angles and usually don’t have a clear vision for how it will all hang together until I have all the pieces. I shoot on 16mm most often — in part for the way that material destabilizes a viewer’s sense of time, blurring the line between found footage and what is contemporary. I’m currently in post-production on a documentary feature shot in Huauchinango, Mexico, following some of the first women allowed to perform the daredevil Indigenous ritual, the Danza de los Voladores. I’m also a film educator — I teach film and video production at Sonoma State University in northern California.

Tell us about your greatest achievement or something you’ve done lately that you’re proud of.

Building the confidence of young film artists from backgrounds that are still so underrepresented in our field, so they can tell their own stories, is what drew me to teaching. The accomplishments of the QTPOC students I’ve worked with over the years keeps me going. They bring so many rich kinds of knowledge to their processes and interactions in the classroom. Their work keeps my perspective right when I start to feel burned out or like I’m overvaluing academia or art world prestige. I have been so proud to see students I have worked with forge their own ways in a harsh industry, win significant financing for their films, and screen their work internationally.

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From Voladoras (2020), dir. Talena Sanders, HD, work-in-progress

Favorite ways to celebrate your queerness and community?

I pour a lot of myself into my teaching practice, and do my most important work building community in that realm. I present work that centers queer experience and engages students in analyzing both the artistry of a piece and its representation of identity. Talking about queer art as art, while not losing sight of its meaning-making and modes of representation, has a normalizing effect that ripples throughout the classroom culture. Over the course of a semester I can see queer students in my courses become more at ease in being bold and expressive about their identity in their work. Finding ways to communicate to them that they are supported and seen is massively rewarding for me.

Also, being queer is fucking fun where I live (much more so in more normal times). I am so grateful that my day to day experience as a visibly queer person feels mostly safe and frequently joyous. I know that in the case of where I am from that would, unfortunately, not always be a constant.

What’s been top of mind for you lately?

When there’s so much real pain throughout the world, I know my quarantine life is privileged in so many ways. I started thinking about these questions before the current uprising. In that moment I was focusing on how resilience has come to look different, and finding rhythms and balance day by day. I was trying to be gentle with myself and remind other artist friends to be gentle with themselves about how much substantive work we can or “should” make during this experience.

Now everything is so necessarily different. These weeks have shifted to being structured around showing up for protests throughout the Bay Area and online support. Before this uprising, I saw my role in the classroom as my main contribution to anti-racist work. I’m still critically aware of the enormous power and responsibility I have as an educator and white gatekeeper in the arts. I see now that I was letting myself off the hook for actively doing this work in the world beyond the classroom. Showing up for protests is the easy part — I need to hold myself accountable to participate in the boring, time consuming logistics of organizing work.

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From Between my flesh and the world’s fingers (2018), dir. Talena Sanders, 16mm

Talk to us about your immediate queer community/support systems. (Feel free to shout out other folks or organizations you think are doing important work.)

When there’s a queer contingent at a film festival, I love how we form an immediate crew. Feeling so included and seen after suppressing my identity for so long is an indescribable joy. Online resources helped me build my confidence to come out — big shout out to Queer Appalachia. I just love to see rural queers from back home being celebrated and supported through their Instagram.

I still have work to do to integrate more fully into the Bay Area queer community and organizing — I was working on that before the pandemic. I had just started volunteering occasionally with El/La Para TransLatinas in SF — a beautiful community safe space. Jolene’s is my weekend second home, and I also have special places in my heart for El Rio and The Stud (RIP, but I know it will come back).

How are you celebrating Pride Month this time around?

I’m planning to participate in Black Lives Matter solidarity actions organized by Black leadership in San Francisco for Pride. This is my first Pride finally out in all parts of my life — socially, professionally, and, as of this year, with my family. I grew up Mormon and in deep rural Kentucky. It took me a while to build confidence in my queerness and to be able to navigate the homophobia that is part of the process with my family. It’s still an ongoing thing, but I’m at ease with it. This will be my first SF Pride, and it will (correctly and necessarily) be different than I imagined it would be before the pandemic. I’m looking forward to celebrating in support of something so much bigger than my personal experience.

Are there ways you think queer artists and art workers could be better supported?

Pay queer artists for their work, to make them more able to make their work. Let’s fill the world with queer art and let it not be a constant money scraping struggle to get it done. Also, there needs to be attention to true equity in programming queer work in film festivals — rather than separate LGTBQ+ programming strands, or just a couple of films that center queer experience to fill a programming niche.

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Voladoras (2020), dir. Talena Sanders, HD, work-in-progress

In the communities that you’re part of, what are you hoping to see shift in the future?

At this moment, dismantling racist systems for a future without police is the most important vision to work toward. I hope we will keep building our own mutual aid in the queer community, since established systems have been failing people for so long. In the Bay Area, with extensive access to wealth and such a stark wage gap, mutual aid and redistribution of resources is essential for the future. I also hope those of us who still have a salary will work together to keep inclusive safe spaces and organizations for trans/non-binary/womxn-identifying folks open and sustainable. From my life as an academic, I also want free tuition for all, always, and better, more thoughtful support systems to make QTPOC students feel seen, valued and essential to the community.

This is the baseline — there’s so much more to reach toward. There are more expansive, radical ideas out there than mine. As someone who was comfortable and privileged in the old normal, I still believe it’s high time to fuck up what we thought was normal before.

What’s the first thing you’re planning to do when it feels safer to physically gather again?

The pure pleasure/fantasy version: Get a super fresh fade from my barber, Rosy, and then go dancing with my friends at Jolene’s. On that little dance floor, pressed up against so many bodies, I’ll get coated with sweat and ruin my sculptural hair style. I’ll go outside to cool off and hold onto my friends for far too long and never stop touching someone all night and probably make out with/go home with a hot stranger. Then the next day, I’ll wake up hungover, my throat hurting from shouting over music, and move real slow through the early morning light in quiet SF streets.

Enjoying this series? Check out other entries here.

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