top of page

An Interview with Deborah Stratman

Öykü Sofuoğlu   •    28.04.2024


It's a Sunday morning. The weather is as piercing and foul as an early spring day could be. With my usual grumpiness and anxiety heavy on my shoulders, I'm bolting to the hotel where Deborah Stratman is staying for the Regards Satellites Film Festival. All the questions I mentally prepared are long gone and left their place to the fear of being late. I finally make it to the hotel but can't seem to find the entrance to the lounge area where she's probably waiting for me. I spot a glass door that definitely isn't the main entrance; my stress has taken over my reins, so I go for it anyway. Deborah is visibly surprised, upon seeing a person randomly materializing out of nowhere. We both laugh at my very dramatic and sneaky entrance, then start chatting. Meanwhile, I can't help but think how appropriate my entrance actually was for meeting Deborah Stratman.—for hers is a cinema that never takes the main road but rather finds sideways and unexpected passages to the subjects she's dealing with. 


From the backstreets of Chicago to the pores of prehistoric rocks, Stratman's art has always shone with energetic curiosity and a strong penchant for exploration—a quality that also reflects her enthusiasm for working with various formats, mediums, and spaces, often extending beyond the cinematic apparatus. It wouldn't be wrong to say that her main interest lies in mechanics—the mechanics of discourses, communities, human, and non-human entities. "Now, how does this thing work?" she seems to ask herself constantly, and she tinkers with them through her camera. The process through which she unfolds each layer and lays bare each component of the matter at hand is surely worth more than any possible answer to her initial question. 


In alignment with her exploratory methods, this conversation attempts to delve into the mechanics of Deborah Stratman's cinema. 

Öykü Sofuoğlu: It's a really trivial question to begin with, but I've been always curious about the name of your production company 'Pythagoras Films'. It's a philosophically charged name and I was curious how it relates to your artistic practice. 


Deborah Stratman: It started many years ago now when I first was making films and wanted to set up a production company to get funding. If you have a company, you need obviously a name. Pythagoras was interesting to me because it was this combination of poetry, math, and mysticism, which I believe are themes that made me go through a lot of my work as well. I was also young and couldn't think  of another name. But I'm sticking with it! I've been consistent. Usually people are like, "oh, A squared plus B squared equals C squared." Yes, I remember! But for me, the most maybe resonant part of Pythagoras' teaching was his interest in harmonics and the music of the spheres, his ideas about vibrations—this musical side of math.


ÖS: A shared interest with James Benning then. 


DS: Yes, but James is actually a mathematician, I'm just someone who appreciates math.


ÖS: You also have a background in science, if I remember correctly. 


DS: I do have a bit. I'm a science hobbyist. I studied science when I was quite young but there was a mutiny very early on, so I didn't go very far. Still, it was a foundational interest.


ÖS: I read one of your interviews where you say, "In the end, I make because I don’t know." Do you think it is related to an interest for exploration, to a certain scientific curiosity? 


DS: If I could wrap my head around the thing that the film is about, then I would have no reason to make it. So for me, the process of making a film is specifically about how to better articulate the questions I have, not to necessarily arrive at some kind of an answer. I feel like if I'm interested in something, I can grasp it better through the language of cinema. Another way to say is that cinema for me is a more indigenous language. I don't speak a lot of other languages but I do speak cinema. Like any new language you learn, when you speak it, you think in a different way. I also believe that the films should speak for themselves, because they'll always speak better than me in their own cinematic language. But to go back to not knowing… I guess I'd be bored to make a film that is just illustrating some theme I already understood. I take cinematic journeys as a way to come to understand whatever the film is about.


ÖS: I find it interesting that issues of control and freedom you usually explore in your films are also inherent to the cinematic apparatus and language. Unlike some artists whose style and discourse are overwhelmingly imposing, I find your films to be very indulgent and welcoming, as if you're inviting your audience to think together. 


DS: Part of it comes from a slight allergy I have towards films that really want to teach you a lesson or address you in a pedantic mode. There are plenty of these films, and I also understand why people want to make them, but they just end up being boring. If I'm in the cinema, I want to build something; I want the director to trust me enough so that I can take the blocks within the film and build something out of them. I don't like having everything constructed and then being introduced to it.


ÖS: On a similar note, the fact that your works are less imposing also creates a more fluid, ever-changing, and rich artistic persona, It's really hard to pinpoint a certain style, format or medium that would define Deborah Stratman as an artist. I find this aspect to be very characteristic of your work.


DS: Maybe there are others too. Unlike someone like James (Benning) let's say… It's not that he has only one style of work, but clearly he's one of those artists who are known for a certain style, a certain rhythm—something that you can come to know and expect from them. I do think I have things that are particular to Deborah Stratman; maybe it's harder to apprehend them thematically. You could say that they are about questioning, about ontology or about belief systems—maybe they have those in common. But some are just about small inquiries like, "Why is the plate this shape but not another?" I love how Georges Perec talks about how we need to question what is habitual. Not just in our work but about the world itself. Why is the world made the way it is? Why is the brick this size and not another size? Why do I take this path and not that path? Just these habitual infrastructures of our thinking and of the world around us. Perec calls them 'infra-ordinary'. The questions about infra-ordinary touch more profoundly to the heart of society, of prejudices and belief systems. I'm bringing this up because I think what is consistent in my work is that I try to force myself to question my habits so that I don't repeat the way I talk about certain things and find new ways to discuss them.

ÖS:  Could we say that asking questions is the first step in your method of working? Are there any other factors that motivate you? Your films also involve interaction with other people and engage in a constant dialogue with writers, thinkers, and artists. Do you first pose questions and seek answers through these interactions, or do the people you engage with act as catalysts, prompting your questions?


DS: There's never one single way. Sometimes it's a subject, sometimes it's a person. For instance, in the short film Ray's Birds (2010)—when I learned that he kept 72 raptors in his backyard, it sparked my curiosity about him. I wanted to know more about this person who chose to keep all these animals at his home. When I moved back to Chicago after living abroad, I realized that there was a lot of street drag racing happening in my neighborhood. I'd hear the sounds of cars racing in the middle of the night. So it piqued my interest: What kind of neighborhood was this? What was this community that I didn't know anything about, even though I had been living there? In a way, it is kind of an anthropological interest—it's in something so close to you, which is also within a community completely outside of yours. 


Sometimes it's more of a philosophical question: How do we define freedom? Why in the U.S. is freedom defined through ownership? First, it's like a little pebble in my shoe, then I keep trying to work on it. Sometimes it's from a prompt, sometimes a commission or an invitation. I especially love assignments because it's usually outside of something I would have thought of. For example, when Barbara Hammer reached out to me and said, 'Hey, do you want to work with this material I shot in the 70s in Guatemala?'—who says no to Barbara Hammer? 


I guess a more complex answer for your question would be that there's not one particular thing that starts me off, and that thing is not always a question. It can be a small amazement or a surprise as well.


ÖS: I recently watched These Blazeing Starrs! and it reminded very much of Last Things, especially through the way in which you address phenomenons that happen on both microcosmic and macrocosmic scales. I think this association between micro and macro scales can also be traced in your films that more politically and socially motivated.


DS: Unlike Last Things, there's no voiceover in These Blazeing Starrs!, only a poem by Du Bartas at the very beginning. There are some texts embedded in the broadsides of the notices that were put up in public, but they're minimal. Yet it's true that there's a communal mix of metaphysical, poetic aspects to them. In celestial terms, when something completely outside of the ordinary, like a comet, happens, it makes sense to me that people would look to that as a kind of oracular message. I was amazed that in ancient times, people would let the augury or the message of the comet be a kind of predictive measure about what might happen in the future. Usually, it was related to dark things—that their lands would burn, a war would break out, or untold misfortunes would come upon them. Sometimes they were seen as a sign of good fortune too. Even today, comets are still sought as something that could give us answers. The reason we send up satellites and missiles to smash into comets is to break them apart and read their spectral signatures. We're still studying them so that they tell us something we don't know yet. The trajectory seems very clear—how we observe something to find answers about life here on Earth. But the method of inquiry is very vivid. In that way, Last Things also juxtaposes metaphysical, supernatural, or science-fictional storytelling with scientific ones. I think it's worth considering why we trust one mode of storytelling more than the other or why we give more authority to one over the other. Sometimes, when we use them side by side, as an audience member, you know which one you gravitate towards more or which one you find more magnetic. Not just these two, a film like The Illinois Parables also questions the delivery mechanisms of information. Whether or not the audience actually does that, I don't know, but it's part of what gets me to put the film together. 


ÖS: Returning to our discussion on Last Things, I'm curious about your thoughts on the paradoxical nature of the post-human aesthetic associated with the film. Despite efforts to integrate the non-human realm into cinema, the medium, like any art form, remains a product of the human psyche. I believe that even a film attempting to explore rocks, animals, or minerals would ultimately end up being about us and our position in the universe.


DS: I think it's quite true. I mean, I can't step out of my own perspective. At the beginning, there was a line in Last Things' synopsis that went like "It's 4.5 billion years of history from the point of view of rocks." Maybe it sounded good, but it's actually just my speculation about their point of view, and it's hubris to say I can present the perspective of rocks. So I stopped saying that. What I think is more accurate to say is that minerals or rocks essentially serve as a prism or a frame through which I ask questions. Some of the subject matter in the film is indeed related to the post-human, as the film starts more or less with humanity being destroyed. Speculatively, it is about trying to think outside of our species, but I can only ever do it from a place deeply rooted in species. 


On both micro and macro levels, there are various forms of remote sensing, extending beyond what we can naturally perceive—whether in terms of scale, such as volume, or time. There are so many realities out there that we don't have the right sensory doors to pick up on. So the question arises: what does it mean to rely on the crutch of a microscope or a telescope, and for geologists, to see through the lens of rocks, in order to comprehend a kind of deep time? I think we've always wanted to use tools to perceive things that are either too fine-grained or too large-scale for our bodies to grasp. Cinema is just another tool for this purpose, sharing many similarities with telescopes or microscopes, almost like a sister to them. I don't know, I can't find a less esoteric way to explain!


ÖS: Many of your films take American society as a framework. Although concepts like freedom, surveillance, control, freedom and beliefs have universal dimensions, you usually approach them from American perspective. Do you see the U.S. as a comfort zone? If so, how does it feel to work outside that zone?


DS: There are a few films I made outside the U.S., Kings of the Sky (2004) was in China, From Hetty to Nancy (1997) in Iceland, and now the one I'm working on takes place in Ethiopia. There have been exceptions where I've tried to explore political or social landscapes outside of the U.S. But honestly, the U.S. also feels foreign to me. The Illinois Parables and In Order Not to Be Here are the ones with which I tried to explore a place I knew very well. Like any place you know well, sometimes you feel more comfortable being critical of that place, or asking sharp questions about it. But I think in both cases, it could have been any state in the U.S. Just like in The Illinois Parables, you would have found similar stories about exodus and depression in other places. As with In Order Not to Be Here, you could have gone anywhere and find stories about how space regulates us; how fear or the desire for safety can cast others as villains and affect the physical landscapes of where we live. America has an endless supply of problems and critiques to be made of it. I feel responsible for acknowledging the shortcomings of the place I'm from, but the comfort I feel there also helps me to lodge those complaints or critiques.

ÖS: If you were to revisit the places and people featured in O'er the Land and The Illinois Parables, do you believe you would observe changes in their interactions with the social and political landscape, primarily due to the influence of new media and information technologies?


DS: I suppose I would. I also think that, in terms of the general proclivities of how Americans think about freedom or outsiders, of which there's no shortage, we're a nation completely built on the idea of manifest destiny as well as this colonialist, expansionist desire to come in and claim everything as ours and then look with suspicion at everyone else who comes from outside. I don't think the fundamental tropes of Americana have changed. But I don't really know the answer of this question—whether the people I meet would speak in a really different way or if I would just start hearing some of the same things. Maybe time always changes us and with new tools, people tell stories in new ways. If I was going to try to respond in VR let's say, it would surely be very different.


ÖS: Speaking of which, would you consider working with new media technologies such as VR , AR or AI? 


DS: Possibly! It's about finding a language that feels endemic to the problem you have. It's the reason why a lot of the work I do, such as public sculptures, drawings or sounds are outside of cinema. Cinema would allow me to approach those problems, but it didn't give me the most organic set of ways to do it. It's intuitive, I suppose. For instance, when does something want to become a sculpture? I think public sculptures are related to VR in the sense that you pilgrimage into a space, you're able to move around it, You're not delivered an art form that you're asked to watch from beginning to end. But at the same time, I don't think cinema is linear either. You sit down and you watch the beginning to the end, but the way your mind interacts with it is totally not linear. Yet again there's an implicit contract which, when you go to cinema, makes you give up your sense of time for the artist's sculpture of time—you let It wash over you. Whereas with public sculptures or works in the museum, you, the visitor, sculpt your own time there. The work you're looking at controls you a bit but you have freedom to wander or to stay. I suppose a VR experience would be similar. The themes, problems or promises that come along with VR or AI feel so big that, I don't have anything in my mind that would make sense, but it could be interesting to try. 


ÖS: Before you leave, I'd really love to hear more about your next project, the one you're making in Ethiopia.


DS: I don't quite know what it's about yet. Because I'm still in the middle of making it and it's been in development for a really long time and keeps having to go on hold because of civil war, COVID, and other logistical problems. There were two things that really intrigued me. Firstly, Ethiopia is on a triple junction, where three continental plates are all spreading apart. So to me, that means it's like an earth birthing zone—a kind of a feminist landscape. Secondly, they had a griot tradition that is called Azmari, who comments on and critiques contemporary political issues. In Ethiopia, traditionally the Azmari were often women. This cultural and traditional position of women who had the authority and the agency to criticize power was very interesting to me. Then I started to wonder how women in Ethiopia today are rewriting or critiquing the history. 


The film is called 'Hello Ladies,' and it's like a collective portrait of a group of women. However, the process has been very slow. Speaking of which, these are all very hypothetical because the language I had around the film is going to be very different from what the film actually is. Because the film always has to teach me what it is. So the words I'm saying now are related to what's got me there and may be completely unrelated to what the film is in the end.

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Vimeo - Siyah Çember
bottom of page