BA Alum Katie Kirkland (2015) on Performative Strategies in Contemporary Experimental Documentary and Film Programming during COVID-19

Katie Kirkland, a fourth year PhD candidate in Comparative Literature / Film and Media Studies at Yale University, found film as an undergraduate student at UChicago. “I feel very fortunate to have fallen into film, since I knew next to nothing about it when I first entered college,” Kirkland says. Her interest in film was sparked by the first class she ever took at UChicago, Media Aesthetics (a three-course sequence in the Humanities Core). Media Aesthetics introduced her to the interdisciplinary mode of thinking that would eventually guide her away from her original intent to be an English major and towards CMS. “I was actually initially interested in working on photography, but I fell in love with film and film theory after taking the Introduction to Film and History of International Cinema courses,” Kirkland explains. 

Kirkland graduated from UChicago in 2015 with honors in Cinema and Media Studies and English Language and Literature. She fondly recalls the support of several CMS professors. “My BA advisor, Daniel Morgan, was a wonderful mentor to me both during college and after, when I ultimately decided to apply to graduate school,” she says. “What I learned most crucially from Dan and from the other CMS professors I took courses with—Jennifer Wild, Tom Gunning, Yuri Tsivian, and Dominique Bluher—was how to do close reading, and how to understand aesthetic form as always also historical and political form.” Kirkland reports that just as much of her film education came from CMS graduate students. “I benefitted a lot from the generosity of attention—and productive challenge—to my ideas that I received from the many grad students who were my instructors, TAs, and classmates. Now that I’m teaching myself, I’ve been attempting to model the same generosity.”  

She also recalls a formative course on realism taught by Noa Steimatsky. The paper she wrote for this course ultimately became the inspiration for her BA thesis on contemporary reenactment films: Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up and Through the Olive Trees, and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. “I was interested in reenactment as a kind of nexus for exploring broader theoretical questions about indexicality, the antagonism between theatricality and realist modes, and the status of the represented body,” Kirkland says. “I ultimately decided to go back to school for a PhD because I felt as though I wanted to continue researching those questions and extend the work I had started at Chicago—and my dissertation is in many ways a growth out of that!” 

 Kirkland’s dissertation focuses more broadly on the widespread proliferation of performative strategies within contemporary experimental documentary work—reenactment and restaging, but also the remediation and recontextualization of archival documents and the use of 3D modeling and computer simulation. “I’m at the very beginning stages of researching and writing, but I’m interested in tracing how this work utilizes performance as a formal logic for encountering and imaging forms of embodied materiality (and their attendant histories) beyond the indexical document.”  

During her time at Yale, Kirkland has been involved in public film programming, both as a co-organizer of the Yale Graduate Film Colloquium and as a Film Programming Assistant for the Whitney Humanities Center. But she also programs films at home—she acquired a projector during COVID-19 and calls it “the best thing that’s happened to me during the past several months.” She has structured her time through many different phases of pandemic watching. She began with on-the-nose pandemic picks (highlights: Todd Haynes Safe and Pasolini’s Decameron), moved through a travel fantasy moment (highlights: Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, and Mariano Llinas’ playful essay film Balnearios, about Argentine beach towns), and descended into noir (highlights: Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear, Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss).  

Throughout the pandemic, Kirkland has enjoyed a wealth of online independent film programming that has introduced her to work she had never seen and work that’s otherwise difficult to see. “Some of my favorite watches on that front have been the roundtable on Sarah Maldoror organized by Yasmina Price and Another Gaze; Sidney Sokhona’s Nationalité Immigré at Anthology Film Archives; and stumbling on Jean Pierre Bekolo’s Les Saignantes when I accidentally got the time wrong for a screening at Spectacle.” Her favorite 2020 releases were Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance, perhaps because, as she says, “these films are also portraits of communal care.” She also relished TV during the pandemic: “I’ve long loved Michaela Coel so I May Destroy You was such a gift, and I finally watched all of Twin Peaks, accompanied by copious amounts of pie, a pandemic watching / pandemic baking twofer.” 



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