Paige Taul Explores Blackness Through Film
Written by Vocalo Radio on September 22, 2022
“I make a lot of work about Blackness and defining Blackness, because it is simultaneously definable and indefinable.”– Paige Taul
Chicago filmmaker Paige Taul makes experimental nonfiction films exploring different forms of Black cultural expression.
Originally from California, Paige Taul moved to Chicago as a student to join and learn from the ever-growing community of filmmakers in the city. She now resides in Humboldt Park, and she teaches at universities and with the Chicago Filmmakers.
Taul uses both analog and digital formats, as well as archival film, to focus on real stories and human topics — especially pertaining to Blackness and identity. Taul makes it clear she’s no documentarian, and describes her work as experimental nonfiction. Rather than inform or teach through her films, she hopes people will relate to her works based on their own lived experiences.
“When you preface a work as documentary or strictly documentary, there’s an expectation to learn something from the material,” Taul explained. “I don’t make these works for people to learn about what Blackness is… I make work about Black people, but I also make work for Black people.”
“If I’m talking about or making a thing about something… I should hope that those who have the strongest response are also people who have that same experience,” she said.
Exploring collective and individual meanings of Blackness tends to take the forefront in Taul’s creative endeavors. After her internal definition of Blackness was called into question, Taul began to explore more deeply how her understanding of her own identity was formed and what Blackness means to herself, her parents and her friends.
“I think it definitely started the journey, I guess, into asking… more concrete questions or more things with more concrete answers,” Taul said. “‘Where did her definition come from… Where does mine come from?'”
“I make a lot of work about Blackness and defining Blackness because it is simultaneously definable and indefinable,” she reflected.
On this segment of “This is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Paige Taul discusses the Chicago film community, what documentary means to her and the multitudes of Blackness.
“One of the things I love about nonfiction is that people are already very interesting.”– Paige Taul
What kind of films do you make?
I like to make work about Black people, myself included. I guess, calling it experimental nonfiction, because it’s not quite documentary. I mean, I do mix mediums a little bit in film. So digital, HD, video… archival footage, and then 16 mm [film] is actually mostly what I work in.
I think there’s a potential to create new relationships between sound and image every time you make something. Recently, I’ve been making a lot of work dealing with family or family relationships. I had a professor that was making his own work and used students as part of his crew. And then that was a really big moment for me, it made… it closed the gap between professional, quote unquote, filmmakers and what I felt that I was, or could be. If I can be a part of this person’s production team as an undergrad, then what can I do… outside on my own. And so I started making films in his class and then wanted to keep going and learn from other makers, which brought me to Chicago.
Are you from Chicago?
I’m from California, although I have spent a significant amount of my adulthood in Chicago. I currently live in Humboldt Park. I think there’s many kinds of film communities in Chicago. There’s a really, I think, great interconnectedness with the film people that I’ve definitely grown, obviously, fond of, because now I know these people have become involved.
I think it’s really cool that there’s this connectedness that maybe I wasn’t aware of when I first got here. As far as being in Chicago, yeah! I like being here as a filmmaker, because I like the pace. I make a lot of work about Blackness and defining Blackness because it is simultaneously definable and indefinable. I think it varies depending on who you ask, their age, where they grew up, their regions, their nationality… Blackness is so… there’s such a multitude. And we’re not a monolith, but we say “we.” So I think there’s an interesting thing happening with collective memory, but then also these pockets, or dates, or regions that are self-defining that make up someone’s particular sort of understanding and expression of Blackness.
You said you make films about Black people, and that they’re experimental. Can you tell us more about that? What are your films about, and what do you mean by experimental?
I was told by another Black person that I wasn’t Black, and I was like, “Oh, my God, what does that mean?” Like, how do I understand that? And I knew what she meant, but also I couldn’t understand it. I think it definitely started the journey, I guess, into asking… more concrete questions or more things with more concrete answers. It’s like, “Okay, well, where did her definition come from? How did it build into that moment? Where does mine come from? And how does… that tension sort of rub up against how someone else understands it”? I think there’s always, with any sort of identity, qualifiers like this question of “enough.” I’m sure many, many people have this moment — “Are you Black enough?” Where does “enough” come in? You can apply that with any sort of language used to define identity. “Are you this enough or that enough? Do I look like I belong to this… identity group that I feel like I belong to, or don’t feel like I belong to?”
“Part of what I consider very crucial to my job is listening.”– Paige Taul
Especially with my earlier works, a lot of it was unsynched sound. So when people were talking, you didn’t see them talk. Or if you did see them, it wasn’t synced. And I think, with that kind of slippage, it requires a different kind of listening, a different kind of attention, to watch and listen simultaneously in a way that I think some filmmaking wants you to do — is just sort of combine them and experience it in that way. I liked the potential, or the freedom, that experimental film can provide in form. Playfulness, specifically. I liked being able to… or like being able to… explore that relationship. Can something different come about by not just seeing what you’re hearing, or not just hearing what you’re seeing? I made a film with my mom in 2016, 2017, called “I Am.” And she talks about moving from Kentucky to California and why that was significant to her relation to herself and also in relation to her family.
The imagery is a cheerleader who was on the cheerleading team at the University of Virginia at the time, where I went to undergrad. In the audio, my mom was describing herself as this sort of Black sheep, so to speak. “I didn’t want to stay. I didn’t believe in this,” or “I did believe in this and I felt that I can find… sort of like-mindedness in California.” And then… she was a cheerleader in high school in a mostly white town and an all-white high school, or mostly-white high school.
I thought it was interesting that there was this activity that demanded both a physical conformity, and then also, most likely, an ideological conformity that sort of comes with belonging to a team that manifested sort of both personally and physically, with uniforms and routines and stuff like that. So I like that, like this person who says, “I’m different in these ways,” but then belonged to a group that required you to not be different. One of those moments that I was describing earlier, of building a relationship between image and audio, that maybe doesn’t initially sort of exist without the relationship being sort of forced together. I think documentary has a history that is very complicated, that I’m not sure my work necessarily belongs to. I think it’s an expanded form of filmmaking. I like that kind of excavation, which I definitely think… or I do know has a history in experimental film, as a practice, as artists’ practices.
“I make work about Black people, but I also make work for Black people.”– Paige Taul
Why don’t you call your films “documentary”?
When you preface a work as documentary or strictly documentary, there’s an expectation to learn something from the material. I’ve always been concerned about being didactic, because I don’t make these works for people to learn about what Blackness is… I make work about Black people, but I also make work for Black people. So the idea, right, is that if I’m talking about or making a thing about something, like a learned behavior from the lived experience of being Black, then I should hope that those who have the strongest response are also people who have that same experience. That doesn’t mean it’s the only people… who have an experience watching the films. But I think there are different levels of being able to relate to material. I think one of the things I love about nonfiction is that people are already very interesting. Part of what I consider very crucial to my job is listening. I teach film at University of Illinois at Chicago, and then also at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. And actually, most recently, with Chicago Filmmakers.
What is it like teaching film?
I think part of my job is learning to be flexible, not only just as a person, but also in what and how to teach filmmaking. I had a professor in undergrad who would take his class on trips to film festivals. And so in 2016, he took us to the Ann Arbor Film Festival and it was just like, non-stop for five days of starting at 10 a.m. and going to 11 p.m., of watching stuff. And I think watching is very much a part of my practice that I also try to encourage in my students. I know they feel it’s tedious, but I think it’s a really phenomenal way of learning about how others make films, and then also developing tastes and what I would like to see in my own work.
Learn more about Paige Taul on her website
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Photography and written introduction by Makenzie Creden
Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia
Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
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