Q: Can you talk about
the context in which you made Manuel
Ocampo: God is My Co-Pilot
(1999) - how you chose Manuel Ocampo and
the particular cultural and political context
of that decision.
A: I was
first introduced to the work of Manuel Ocampo
during the same year as the Los Angeles
Riots, 1992. He was in a show called Helter
Skelter at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
There was something in his craft that evoked
a haunting. His works seemed to portray
the fallout of the spiritual damage of the
Latin American colonized headspace. I was
immediately drawn to the power of it. At
the same time, Ocampo was undermining the
seriousness of the subject matter with a
cheeky, playful, irreverent, rude take on
race in America that the art world has always
treated as so sacrosanct. On the one hand
he was laying down some heavy shamanism
and on the other he was undermining it –
and all in the same strokes. This was really
refreshing for me.
This became the basic question of the film.
Is the artist a shaman or a multi-cultural
Q: The film seems to
be a singular project, because of its vision
and commitment. You decided to shoot the
film knowing that you would make a 35mm
copy for theatrical distribution. Knowing
the film would not only have a theatrical
life but also a life as a film – did
this require a particular approach?
A: I felt
like the paintings merited a kind of classical
mechanical treatment. There was something
about Ocampo’s work that demanded,
or certainly suggested, an association with
the Spanish classical painting tradition.
I felt like to shoot electronically would
be to shortchange the richness, the depth,
the texture, the mystery, the old fashioned-ness
of the images.
But, ultimately, I was motivated by you
know, simple, sentimental film school vanity
- the notion that it could be "big."
You know, the pursuit of bigness, just for
the sake of it. Nothing more high-minded
than that. There were a lot of considerations,
but ultimately it was probably that I thought
the paintings would look best. And I did
this despite the fact that the film negative
process would limit the creative possibilities,
because I'm increasingly drawn to the possibility
of digital imagery.
Q: I think of the film
as an intervention, a way of participating
in the ongoing discourse and dialogue around
these issues. It is in the painting and
it is also in the decision to make the film.
The context of the film is really important.
It is important for people to understand
how you understood what was being called
"multiculturalism" and "diversity"
- how this was lived, experienced, and observed
by you. There is an older movement of minority
groups and cultures that have their own
complexity, but this was a new moment and
there was an apparent welcoming of it, with
reluctance, but there as a willingness to
talk about these issues.
the film rather fortuitously became a questioning
or repudiation in some ways of multiculturalism.
I think this film can be seen as a document
of an enormously talented and intelligent
young artist who becomes trapped by the
politics of the moment, panders to it, and
is ultimately limited to that space. He
is the Filipino guy, who, despite his enormous
talent and intelligence, can only be appreciated
and sold and taken seriously if he’s
playing the race card. As a brown filmmaker
in Los Angeles, it had become apparent to
me as a brown person there were a lot of
factors over-determining my prospects of
expression. What was expected of me was
to speak, not just as an American son, but
as a brown son, so I can relate to him.
The film is about this trap of the identity
game. This is why the first line of the
film is "identity is your worst memory."
Though we Western brown sons of Asia and
Mexico are often more worldly and cosmopolitan
than our gringo counterparts, very often
we afford ourselves a smaller space of creative
possibility in these barrio-ized spaces.
Part of the film was to insist upon the
Q: But it’s also
A: Yes, it’s
decidedly a Los Angeles film – the
idea that this artist and this film could
emerge from a place like this is decidedly
there. Increasingly, greater numbers from
Asia and Mexico are coming to the US and
to the West coast. Our imagination is no
longer bound to Big Ben. As a result there
are these new and interesting identity formulations,
that look to and come out of the Pacific
and the south rather than New York and Europe.
Many of us are no longer able to see ourselves
as simply Americans or Americans from Mexico.
Our identities are being shaped by a wide
variety of influences.
The engagements you see in the film with
the collectors reveal a great deal about
the real lack of cultural capital among
those who seem to be the consumers of cultural
capital. Those who broker world culture
are not necessarily the most culturally
qualified, or deft, or hip; very often they
are quite the contrary. I would hope under
everything else, this film is an examination
of creativity. It is an exploration of this
cat who just lived to draw and to paint
on the walls with his fingernails or whatever
else was available. It impressed me and
I really admired this man. But I also wanted
to witness the capital and social relationships
that determined the way in which creativity
becomes possible for people like that.
Q: It’s a very
rich film visually, in terms of textures,
the variety of approaches, and the ways
of filming. It is lyrical and poetic.
A: From the
first day of shooting it was evident the
biggest assets were the paintings themselves.
Ocampo himself was obviously very shy and
wasn’t very forthcoming. He was very
self-protecting, very soft spoken.
I looked at a lot of films and tried to
find a strategy or way to make the film
powerful given the limits of this man’s
persona and given the greatest visual commodity
I had, which were these paintings - just
these flat things. I watched a lot of films
about paintings and I walked away extremely
unsatisfied by the way the paintings jumped
off the screen. I worked with a very innovative
cinematographer, Esteban De Llaca (with
the help of Claudio Rocha), and we figured
out a way to bring life to these images
and textures in the paintings – a
way to animate them. We experimented with
the speed and frame rate and transfer rate,
16 frames per second. I think we successfully
evoked the power, mystery, the movement
and experience you get in a gallery when
tripping off a powerful painting. That was
the first element, the cornerstone of what
I knew I wanted to make a film about.
At the same time, I didn’t want to
fix Ocampo into any hole. He was this Asian
guy who was certainly no Picasso in terms
of being a dynamo, or the commonly portrayed
tragic drunk, Pollock or Bacon type tortured
artist. I feel like I was a co-conspirator
with him. We were both manipulating and
helping to contrast an image. Ocampo played
cat and mouse with me and at times I wanted
to catch him. Sometimes I didn’t and
sometimes I couldn’t.
Q: That relationship
is present in the film.
A: He is
a talented and wonderful and recognized
artist. We had a lot of the same concerns
and so I guess I used him to express my
own preoccupations and reservations and
frustrations with the state things as far
as art and culture and this part of the
Q: It is a very successful
collaboration. It is apparent you honor
and respect his work, but also that you
wanted an exchange. You question and elicit
responses or statements from him. What is
important is you respect him but you are
critical as you would be with anybody you
care about in order to strengthen them.
You are almost protective of him in your
insistence of questioning those around him.
But you elicit a whole range of opinions
about him, about his work, about his place,
and from younger artists who may be both
a bit inspired or a bit envious. It is a
complicated film because of this range of
A: So often
documentaries seem to be sons of privilege
examining the less privileged, so part of
what my work is hopefully about is reexamining
the elite. It is about turning a camera
toward those who traditionally can protect
themselves, but those whose opinions and
assumptions have so much of an impact on
the way the world turns.
Q: I think in this
film and in your other film, Mixed Feelings:
San Diego/Tijuana (2002), there is a high
regard for art and for imagination. Your
projects sometimes touch upon other areas:
culture, politics, culture, but what I appreciate
is how you take the visual and visual producers
seriously. You use them as a way to engage
and to understand the world.
A: I am a
pragmatist. But I am drawn to the romantic,
less pragmatic types. These films are my
way of paying respects to that Third World
romanticism that has no place in my world.
Q: I wanted to ask
you about the figure of Jean Michelle Basquiat.
I think he emerges in an organic way during
the course of your film. We know he is part
of the dilemma in Ocampo and in other artists.
Basquiat YEAR (1996) was definitely something
I was using and responding to. Certainly
Ocampo was terribly aware of the fate of
Basquiat. Certainly he was aware he was
inheriting, or potentially occupying the
space Basquiat had created in the art world
that had been so lily white. I think Basquiat
was a cautionary tale for him. Ocampo is
ultimately a middle class guy who wanted
to end up like most people - happy and healthy
and loved and comfortable. I think he was
a little suspicious, as I was, of the space
being offered to him. Basquiat was there
with us. He was the cautionary tale.
Q: But inspiring as
sure. One wants to be inspired to be like
someone who lives large and lives long,
like Picasso. You want to be able to exist
and to be permitted and encouraged to keep
changing and growing.
In American movies, the black and the Mexican
still don’t get to kiss the leading
lady, and still die young. Take Eastwood’s
Bird or Nava’s Selena. Films about
non-white artists who need to die at the
end. And that’s fine, it suits somebody’s
guilty conscience, but it also suits somebody’s
sense of superiority. I don’t want
to hear anymore about how we cannot handle
success, creativity, or drive a Lamborghini.
That is patronizing, demeaning and racist.
I am a middle class boy with a sense of
entitlement of a middle class American,
and when my brownness rubs up against that
sense of entitlement, I don’t like
That is why I feel a need to investigate
those culture makers, those culture brokers,
those art dealers, those studio executives,
those museum curators, those professors,
those editors of the newspapers, who are
determining the culture, who are writing
the culture, and who are determining how
so-and-so is to understood and portrayed.
Q: But you persist
in developing your own path. Along that
path, you tell of your own formation as
an artist. When you were twenty-three years
old you published a magazine. I look at
your work as a cultural producer then and
your work now and I see continuity.
A: Two generations
ago my grandparents were peasants in middle
Mexico. They were semi-literate. They came
here and two generations later I'm going
to UC Berkeley and to film school! I think
my people have time traveled quite a bit
in a short period of time. What I'm trying
to accomplish is to understand the trajectory
of this process, this traveling, and where
it takes us to next. That has been my preoccupation.
And sure, it has been a real privilege to