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News . Feature Stories . Visiting artist Catherine Gund: Justice needs art


February 07, 2018

Visiting artist Catherine Gund: Justice needs art

"Art is a way to know that there are other people in the world. Art is a way to hear them, to see them. It takes us away from a unidimensional approach to living and lets us interact and expand."

Headshot of Catherine Gund

Catherine Gund portrait by Robert Muller

By Karen Sandstrom

The camera came naturally to filmmaker Catherine Gund, even if it didn’t come lightly.

Back in the 1980s, when the AIDS crisis was regularly in the news, Gund was living in New York City, flexing her social-activism muscle and recording the scenes around her. In this pre-iPhone era, recording video on the go meant lugging around a heavy VHS camcorder.

But Gund was happy to lug. “I wanted to communicate, and someone put a video camera in my hand and I started taping everything,” Gund said. “It became my journal.”

Gund spoke to members of the CIA community during a January Lunch on Fridays presentation in the Peter B. Lewis Theater. She was in town for the CIA Cinematheque screening of Chavela, a documentary about legendary Mexican singer Chavela Vargas.

Gund came out as a lesbian in college, and had lots of friends in the queer and transgender community. She became a social-justice warrior through the advocacy group ACT UP, which worked to improve the lives of HIV/AIDS sufferers and their loved ones. “When AIDS was happening, there were not very many of us, although at times we felt that we were strong and forceful and numerous,” Gund said.

She and other video artists formed a collective they called DIVA TV — Damned Interfering Video Activism Television. They’d attend rallies and protests, interview participants, and tape whatever went on. They made press passes for themselves, which helped them avoid getting arrested with other demonstrators. Eventually, the footage became movies.

“We decided we needed to film for three reasons,” she said. “We wanted all of us who were not represented in the mainstream media — who were beautiful and strong and sad and unified – to know how we actually looked, because we couldn’t see that. Imagine growing up with no mirror. We made [video] to show each other what we looked like. We made it to provide a counter narrative to the mainstream media. And the third reason was for archival and newsreel purposes.”

AIDS, reproductive freedom and gay rights became just a few on a very long list of social justice issues she has taken on in dozens of films over more than 20 years. In 1996, Gund formed Aubin Pictures Inc., a nonprofit organization with the aim to make documentaries on a range of social and cultural issues.

Among the most recent is Dispatches from Cleveland. The feature film follows ordinary people who came together to seek change in the wake of the 2014 police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Dispatches was shown at multiple film festivals and won a Special Recognition Award at Chicago's Injustice For All Film Festival.

The goal was to show how a discriminated community joined forces to oust the prosecutor who declined to charge the cop who shot Tamir. “There was this way in which I thought in making Dispatches from Cleveland, I’m not just going to show a traumatized community and say how could you do this to us, but instead show how you can make so much change that it’s irreversible.”

Documentary film and other art forms are well suited to move hearts and minds around causes. Storytelling, she said, can breathe life into statistics.

“We cannot have empathy without art. Art is a way to know that there are other people in the world. Art is a way to hear them, to see them,” she says. “It takes us away from a unidimensional approach to living and lets us interact and expand. To me, there is no justice without empathy, and therefore there is no justice without art. “

Gund is the granddaughter of George Gund II, the Cleveland banker and philanthropist, who also served as president of the board of the Cleveland Institute of Art from 1942 through 1966. (CIA’s building on Euclid Avenue is named for him.) Her mother, Agnes Gund, is an arts patron and philanthropist whose many missions also included AIDS advocacy.

Catherine is one of four siblings — and the only one who hated television, she says. She grew up in Cleveland, Connecticut and Massachusetts, graduated from Brown University, and immediately moved to New York City. She still has family and friends — as well work on the board of trustees of the George Gund Foundation — that draws her to Cleveland.

During her CIA visit, she offered some advice to CIA artists who are interested in film. First: Don’t let lack get in the way. She noted that Sean Baker made the acclaimed 2015 film Tangerine entirely using smart phone cameras.

“The first one you make is the going to be the one you’re most desperate to make, that is your story,” Gund says. “That’s what [Baker] did with Tangerine, he said I’m going to make this film, and he made it, for what, $100,000? The next one he did was for I’d guess $2 million, and that would be considered a micro-budget.”

Gund also advised students to learn every part of filmmaking process, and to “learn at least one camera. If you had one of the little [Canon] 5Ds, so that you can change the controls on it, and actually change the lenses. That’s a little camera that some people have just for taking pictures. I would learn that. You guys have editing on your laptops, on your computers. “

She also advised students to learn as much as possible from others in the filmmaking community to maximize their creative options. “The more you know about how to do it, the more your ideas can be expansive.”

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