Family Portraits: Tiona McClodden

In her feature-length documentary “black./womyn.: conversations with lesbians of African descent,” Tiona McClodden — Ms. m. — interviews black gay women from various backgrounds about myriad subjects. Ms. m. (which stands for McClodden, but everybody mangles it so she just goes by m.) is a multi-media artist whose mission is to make visible the invisible and humanize her subjects. McClodden began her career apprenticing on music-video sets and as a freelancer working with various production companies and nonprofit organizations. She hopes her work as a filmmaker and visual artist can inspire various communities by affirming their existence in contemporary society. We turned the tables on the filmmaker and asked her a few questions.

PGN: Let’s start with the basics: Where are you originally from, Ms. m.? TM: I’m from Greenville, S.C.

PGN: And what was it like growing up in South Kakalak? TM: Oh man, it’s funny answering that because growing up it seemed fine, but now that I’ve grown up, I go back and visit and realize how hard it was. I went back recently for the first time in a while and had a whole different perspective of it. We grew up pretty poor, but back then it seemed pretty carefree for us kids. I’m the oldest of four. [Laughs.] I have memories of us playing down the road in the local creek, things like that. But it was a very white area with very old money, and we weren’t very welcomed. In school, I was in a lot of advanced-placement classes and most times I was the only black kid, which kind of sucked! Otherwise, it was pretty nice, a typical Southern upbringing.

PGN: When did you come to Philadelphia? TM: Well, I first moved to Atlanta for six years and then I moved to Philadelphia, and I’ve been here since 2006.

PGN: What was the biggest difference living above and below the Mason-Dixon Line? TM: People like to think that they’re super-duper northern here, but what attracted me to Philly is that it has a little bit of a southern feel to it, especially in terms of the people and the way they talk and interact with each other. The biggest difference to me is the mobility. Back home, there’s no real solid transportation system. You’re pretty much stuck where you are. If you don’t have a car, you’re practically immobile, as opposed to here, where you can pretty much get to any part of the city and even the suburbs if you want to. Although it is funny that in Greenville, you have to leave your home to do anything: If you want to go to a department store or out to dinner, you have to drive to a strip mall. I remember having to drive downtown with my mother just to pay the electric bill. Granted, downtown was just a few stores, but you get used to moving around. Here, I’ve found many people don’t ever leave their neighborhood. You need milk or toothpaste, there’s a store on the corner, half a block away, so people stay where they are. I like to navigate around the city, so even though I’ve only been here four years, I’ve been to more sections of the city than most of my friends who were born here. I’ve found that West Philly folks really don’t leave West Philly, etc. But I’ll go to an event in the upper Northeast, browse a music store in South Philly, visit a museum in West Philly, go see a play in North Philadelphia, wherever. If there’s a train, bus or subway that can take you there, I’m on it.

PGN: You’re a writer; what was your first favorite book? TM: “The Mouse and the Motorcycle,” a book by Beverly Cleary about a headstrong mouse who longs for adventure.

PGN: What was your favorite game as a kid? TM: “Algebra Dragons” on Commodore 64. It was from one of the early computer-gaming systems.

PGN: Tell me a fun memory about your mother. TM: I’m a tomboy and always have been and, when I was in middle school, my mother would come to the school whenever I had a recital or a sporting event. I played basketball and ran track. I’d be dressed like me and my mother was always dressed to the nines in very feminine attire. [Laughs.] The other kids would question whether or not she was my real mom because we were such opposites!

PGN: Where did you go to college? TM: I went to Clark Atlanta University but I didn’t stay long. I knew how to work a camera and was itching to start work in the film industry. After two years, I felt that if I stayed in school any longer I would be behind my peers actually working in the field.

PGN: What brought you to Philly? TM: A couple of friends and I took a road trip here in 2005 and it was really nice. I liked the city and I liked the people. I liked the proximity to New York and D.C. without the overwhelming feeling I had in New York. I was looking for a place to move to because I felt I’d exhausted the film community in Atlanta. It wasn’t the place to do the kinds of films I wanted to do. The Atlanta film industry was big on doing music videos and hip-hop and not as much into exploring social issues. I wanted to move to a place that I chose, not because of family or school but because I wanted to be there. [Laughs.] It was my big-girl move! My first adult decision, and it was a good one. I’ve been able to be the kind of filmmaker I wanted to be and get the kind of support I needed here in Philly. There are so many great organizations like the Leeway Foundation and the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival [now Qfest] and the Black Women’s Arts Festival and supportive venues like the International House. As a filmmaker, it’s important not just to have people who will help you make your film, but then you need a place to screen it and people who will come see it. Philadelphia has a very strong activist environment.

PGN: What type of filmmaker are you? TM: I am a social-realist filmmaker. I try to do projects that are relevant to the times and relevant to the community that I belong to and therefore feel I can represent. I can’t see myself trying to do films about another group or issues that I’m not familiar with or a part of. I think I would feel like I was an imposter and not qualified to portray them properly. I have a fear of misrepresenting people. PGN: I haven’t heard that term, “social realist.” TM: [Laughs.] It’s actually old-school, but so many people now confuse documentary filmmaking with reality TV: I try to distinguish it by calling it social realism.

PGN: What are you working on now? TM: I’m working with Staceyann Chinn on a film called “Baby Makes Me.” We’re traveling around the country and internationally, as much as we can, interviewing women about motherhood, specifically single motherhood and the lengths people go to become a mother, as well as exploring some of the cultural issues that arise with being a single parent. Staceyann is contemplating becoming a mother herself, so her story is the underlying thread as she speaks to women about the joys and difficulties of single motherhood. We just got back from filming in South Africa, where I also got to screen “conversations … ”

PGN: What’s a memorable story that you’ve heard so far? TM: In Johannesburg, they have a process called “corrective rape;” where they rape lesbians in the effort to “cure” them of their homosexuality. One of the women we spoke to was “correctively” raped and got pregnant but lost the child. She wanted a child, so she managed to have a child with a donor, and we were able to interview her with the daughter. The crazy thing was how open and matter-of-fact the women were, speaking about the horrific ordeals they’d been through. The majority of the women have been raped at some point in their lives, so it wasn’t something they didn’t speak about because they’d all experienced it. To hear them discussing it in front of the kids without a flinch or in whispers was startling. There was a collective bravery in facing it openly. It was, hands down, the most intense and moving interview I’ve ever done.

PGN: Tell me about coming out. TM: It’s a never-ending experience! But I came out when I was about 16. Just about everyone on the basketball team was gay, so I had a pretty good support system. We’d all sneak into clubs together. When I told my mom at 16, she just kept thinking I was playing around. When I was 19, I finally sat both my parents down and said, “Look, this is not a game, this is for real.” Then they both freaked out! It was one of those things where they knew but didn’t want to get it. Finally, the fifth time you tell them, it sinks in. It caused a rift between me and my father. He was mentally ill and it became a lightning rod for him. He is also very religious. The first few years of my life, before my parents separated, I grew up in a hyper-religious environment. Fortunately I waited until I was in a position where I had the power, so I was able to disown him instead of the other way around. I don’t talk to him now, not just because of the gay thing, that’s only about one of 20 issues we don’t agree on. But considering the experiences of a lot of people that I have interviewed, my coming out was easy. It also paved the way for my sister to come out as well.

PGN: Since you like to film what you know, is mental illness a subject you’re likely to tackle? TM: Oh yes, it’s something that doesn’t get a lot of attention, especially in communities of color. With black men, it’s treated as a weakness. You’re not encouraged to speak to a therapist or take medication for help with mental issues. I want to explore how that affects the families, because his difficulties definitely had an effect not just on him, but on everyone around him. It’s something I want to address down the road either as a documentary or even as a fictional work.

PGN: What’s a tradition from another culture that you admire? TM: In South Africa, despite the other problems, gay marriage is legal. One of the traditions when you propose to someone there is to give gifts to the family of your betrothed. You must sit with the family and get to know them and basically get their blessing. It’s kind of like paying a dowry, which to us is like, “Oh shit, you’re paying for your wife,” but in actuality, it was kind of sweet. A way to honor the family. It was interesting to hear the lesbians who told us stories of going to speak to the father or mother of her intended and honor them with a gift. The old-fashioned side of me was like, Wow. I like that! That would be so cool to do. It makes a statement.

PGN: If you could walk into any painting, which would you choose? TM: Ooh, I have a lot of art, so I’m looking around my room trying to choose. I have a lot of early black cinema posters from back in the ’20s and ’30s. They hand-painted the posters then and they were so much more indicative of the movies. You look at a movie poster now and you can’t tell what the movie is about. Right now, I’m looking at a poster from the French artist Paul Colins: I wish he’d done more real-life images of black women in his poster work, but it is otherwise magnificently done. He was most famous for his poster of the movie “Revue Nègre,” which helped to launch the career of Joséphine Baker, who became his mistress. You look at one of these and you want to walk into the scene. You can feel it, you can hear the music, you can see the movement. I’d walk into one of those.

PGN: What’s a smell that makes you stop and reflect? TM: Thierry Mugler’s perfume “Angel.” It makes me think of my mother.

PGN: And the nominees for best filmmaker go to … TM: There are three Asian filmmakers that I really like: Tsai Ming-liang, Kim Ki-duk and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. They all do films that have a very minimalist aesthetic. Not a lot of dialog, very slow, maybe 10 shots: a realistic snapshot of life, like you just dropped a camera in unseen. That’s the kind of filmmaking I admire.

PGN: Any hobbies? TM: I collect old cameras. I have a bunch of old Polaroid cameras, as well as old 35-millimeter cameras. And I also collect first-edition books. As much as I can afford to!

PGN: What’s your best find? TM: I have a first-edition copy of “Meridian” by Alice Walker.

PGN: Whom would you want to apprentice for? TM: Right now, I’m feeling Michael Haneke. I just ordered a box set of his movies. He did the films “The White Ribbon” and “The Piano Teacher.” He’s an Austrian filmmaker and known for a real violent and bold style of filmmaking. He scares me a little. But I like the fact that he’s not afraid to tackle taboo subjects. There are things that I want to address that may be unflattering to the community and I’m always concerned about how people will respond. I feel like he’s done that: He shows the grittier side of society and I think I could learn from him how to commit to something without second-guessing yourself or worrying how others are going to take it.

PGN: What about you as a kid led you to the path of filmmaking? TM: Reading books, without a doubt. Because of the religious way I was raised, I wasn’t allowed to watch much television or go to see most movies. The only things I could watch were fantasies or cartoons, things that didn’t deal with real life and society’s ills. Until I was 13, I didn’t know much about the world. I still see things now that I find hard to imagine. But I could read any book that I was able to comprehend and discuss it with my dad. I didn’t want to read — I wanted to watch movies — so I would create the films in my head. Then I would take my favorite books and re-read them and try to make them different each time. I think that’s what filmmaking is about, you recreate a story over and over, first when you write it, then when you shoot it, then again when you edit it. So books are the reason I do films.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].