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Messay films: in conversation with Asa Mendelsohn
Friday, February 12, 2021 | Sindhu Thirumalaisamy

Asa Mendelsohn, Cloisters (2020), text: Sayak Valencia, Gore Capitalism (2018)Caption



Asa Mendelsohn and I come from very different worlds—Asa is from New York and spent several years in Chicago and in Vienna as a Fulbright fellow; I have lived in different parts of South India and moved to the US for graduate studies. We found each other through the visual arts MFA program at UC San Diego. E.R. Cho, a mentor to both of us, introduced us when Asa was still considering the move. Asa later told me that our initial conversations about the messy labor politics at UCSD and listening practices convinced him that we could be friends—and that he may not have made the move if it weren’t for Cho and me. We have been studio neighbours, collaborators, and close friends since then, translating for each other about the many ways that art and activism intersect in our lives. We have both worked a lot with sound, perhaps as a way of sidestepping our uneasy relationships to cameras. And, despite that uneasiness, we have both approached filmmaking as a means of imagining worlds to which we want to belong—as imperfect attempts at world-making. 

Asa describes his ongoing project, Pasture, as “a non-fiction film that moves between quiet places in Southern California, where in the mid-2000s a grassroots movement resisted private military development, and New York City, where the filmmaker is coming from. In pursuit of an unlikely coalition and friendship, Pasture reflects on relationships between passing and fantasy.” Pasture continues his engagement through  performance and listening within securitized spaces like airports, streets, museums, and universities. Asa’s interdisciplinary practice also includes writing and teaching. He is currently a lecturer in Critical Gender Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and a teaching artist with the Center for Urban Pedagogy in Brooklyn. 

This conversation is a snapshot of our on-going exchange about filmmaking as a practice that generates desires. What seems to be divided up as questions and answers here is in actuality a much more enmeshed conversation, co-created over shared meals, phone calls, texts, emails, and online writing sessions. We focused here on the “messay film,” an idea that emerges from Asa’s work in Pasture.



“Messay” attempts to name the kind of film that emerges from this muck of witness, process, and reflection. From trying to address who I am as a specific body in relation to place, who I am in relation. 



We’ve talked a lot over the years about essay films. We look at the term essay film as one that indexes work that we find to be interesting and critical, from all over. Essay films are supposed to be subjective explorations of topics or ideas. But, we’ve had several experiences when, on watching them closely, we’ve noticed that the people and the desires behind those subjective explorations are obscured from us. In those moments, there is an unmet desire, in us, to glimpse at something of the people who are making these films. We’ve often said that we’ve wanted more intimacy, more warmth, and more ways to sense the presence and the process of the filmmakers within essay films. Then, one day, you started using the word “messay” to describe your film, Pasture. Can you say more about this word and how you use it?

I texted “messay” to you in a playful, dorky mood: messy essay. I was trying to find a form for Pasture in the editing room at a moment when I was unsure whether I was done shooting. Was the film here, or somewhere else? It occurred to me that the film I was trying to make existed in between here and somewhere else.

In Pasture, I have been looking for a form for the desires that are inscribed within a social movement: desires to affect change, wishes for a different world, wishes that are personally and collectively held. The film emerges from the tangle between other people’s desires and my own fantasies and projections. In this context, I am working with what I, as an outsider, project onto a story about coalitional resistance against private military power. “Messay” attempts to name the kind of film that emerges from this muck of witness, process, and reflection. From trying to address who I am as a specific body in relation to place, who I am in relation

A messay film takes form through sustained attempts, and most likely does not get it right on the first, second, or third try. When you’re working with little to no budget, if you don’t work from a place of desire, nothing happens. Desire becomes hard to talk about in relation to art and film, because of its embeddedness in the mechanisms and logics of the market. And while desire is an instrument of capitalism and of fascism, we’ve been talking about “messay” as a way to reclaim desire as a potential site of resistance, a site for recognizing our own embeddedness. 

I hear the word messay in my mind with a “country” inflection that resonates with the rural dialect of Tamil that my family speaks. I like that it resounds in my mind as sassy and disarming. It is dissonant with the tones that I usually associate with “good” essay films – serious, sombre, precise, clean. In it, I hear the muck and mess that polished “festival films” are expected to resolve, remove, or otherwise bracket, for consumption by Western liberal audiences. I love holding this word as a guide to help me make choices as I work on projects. It helps me frame connections between films made across time and geopolitical contexts that have carried what I imagine to be the messay impulse, even if they have otherwise been categorized under other genres or movements. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this word came to you when you were editing between footage from different times and people—when working with material that wasn’t filmed from a singular perspective.

Yes! “Messay” versus “essay” is also a reflection on respectability politics. What kinds of voices narrate a sensitive and appropriately distanced essay film? Maybe messay is about the capacity of film to act reflexively, more than genre.

Messay is a return to questions that are not new, that are anachronistic, and don’t hold a false narrative of linear progress in the trajectory of thought. Messay describes influence, which is also scattered. Over the past few years, I’ve been looking at historical representations of trans and gender-variant people in nonfiction and experimental filmmaking. I am looking in pursuit of legacy, to learn something about where I do and don’t come from, and as a teacher. 

There are amazing stories about trans people creating worlds of dream-relations through filmmaking, like what can be peeped in Christopher Lee’s films from the 90s that Cho introduced me to. And then there’s a historical trajectory of trans and gender-variant people being framed as pathological, exceptional, or as illustrations, that I find to be generative places to ask questions about documentary ethics and relations of power. How can we as filmmakers acknowledge that films help us misremember as much as they help us remember? That power is always part of intimacy; that differences between our positions of power always simultaneously prevent and enable intimacy? These are questions I’ve encountered spending time with documentary films recently, like Southern Comfort, the film Kate Davis made documenting the last year of Robert Eads’s life, and they’re also questions I’m asking myself in my practice.

I feel challenged and inspired by both of these kinds of films—those that help me imagine legacies I want to live for, and those that help me appreciate the complexity of being present and being accountable. I want to make a film that communicates why I had to make it without thinking too much. 

The essay film category has its formations in the work of film historians and critics. It comes from how films have been theorized as texts or objects, viewed mostly in their finished forms. I have the sense that messay is coming up as a kind of framework that prioritizes the making and the sharing of work over its criticism as text. 

How were you thinking about Pasture in the early stages before you arrived at the word messay? 

Pasture is my first real film project. I’m coming into filmmaking from a listening and writing practice, in which projects have generally taken form as performances, conversations, and radio works. For years it was really important to me to reject cameras as tools that could ever be neutral, or as tools assumed necessary for serious storytelling. I came into Pasture wanting to embrace working with cameras as instruments that are violent and complicated, and wanting to take time with it. 

There have been a couple different versions of this project. Earlier on, I wrote a screenplay for a narrative film. I wanted to use narrative filmmaking conventions to explore multiple story lines, and also to time-travel. The screenplay featured a version of myself who was born ten years earlier than I was, who in 2007 decides to uproot himself from New York City, where he’s from, to the Mexico-California border region to participate in a grassroots movement against private military development. Part of the screenplay explores his world in NYC, and then the second part explores the forms of activism he encounters when he leaves. What he encounters among the anti-militarism activists changes him, and then the world changes, California in flames. That was the story arc. In one version of the screenplay the protagonist is ambiguously-gendered, in another version he’s legibly trans masculine, in another version he’s a man. 

I used the moniker “the activist filmmaker” for the on-screen version of myself. “The activist filmmaker” is someone who has organized their life in a way that enables them to relocate for a political cause—an agility and set of privileges based on people I know, who I am both critical and jealous of, and who I also admire. The privileges enacted by the activist filmmaker are enacted through white maleness. For him, filmmaking is activism when it is a practice of documenting and archiving social movements. 

That was the stage the project was at when a friend told me to read the work of Tijuana-based transfeminist activist-scholar Sayak Valencia. Her essay Gore Capitalism helped illuminate some real gaps in my knowledge of where I was.


After a year of filming often, I felt like what I could make was a film made of searching, rather than one made of what remains after a search is done. 



Can you say more about what those gaps were? How did Sayak’s work influence you?

I’ve learned both from Sayak’s investment in transfeminist coalition-building, and from her reading of this place. About how U.S. empire, borders, and policing shape different forms of gendered and racialized violence in Mexico. What do these dynamics mean for these quiet places on the California side of the border that have a particular legacy of white vigilantism?

I think that Sayak’s work helped me recognize fantasy in the different forms it takes in daily life. I started spending more time with some of the people who fought against a proposed mercenary training facility in this place called Potrero. I had been invested in a story about an unlikely coalition resisting a seemingly impenetrable power. As I spent more time with activists, and more time in this place, I learned that there might not have been the kind of “unlikely coalition” I had romanticized. My initial attempt to make Pasture as a narrative film failed. I couldn’t reconcile the relationship between fantasy and reality in the screenplay with everything I was learning. 

I started spending more time, both alone and with others, in quiet places near the border, and near the site where the mercenary company, Blackwater, had tried to develop this training facility. A lot of these places are physically stunning. When I say this I’m thinking about the steep pitches and curves of rock heading east on 94 from San Diego. One of the grounds on which protestors were eventually able to resist development was that the valley where Blackwater wanted to develop is surrounded by cliffs and accessible only by one dirt service road. Protestors argued that bringing weapons and tactical training facilities here would only increase the risk of fire in what is already during fire season a dangerously dry place, and if there were a fire in that valley, it would be incredibly difficult to get out. I had learned about this story and then it was a few months later that I finally saw the valley. I was kind of shocked by how beautiful it was. I went back many times to peer down over the edge of the cliff. Could I film that place in ways that would be distinct from how settler-military land appraisers and developers see it? I think Sayak’s work helped me ask that question.


Asa Mendelsohn, Cloisters (2020), text: Sayak Valencia, Gore Capitalism (2018)Caption



What you are describing sounds like a process of letting go. You went from a script in which much of the work of representation was on the white activist filmmaker to a much more kaleidoscopic form. And Sayak went from being a textual reference to a physical presence in your film, as a performer, reading to us, directing what we can and can’t see. This is also a process of making room for things you could not have imagined before filming. It is your way of troubling all kinds of “strange thin lines between fantasy and reality.” How has the recording process shaped the film?

When I ended up filming, I was generally alone, and moving through an intense period of gender changes, self-examination, and rupture. I was moving through places I felt trepidation entering, and in which I grew more aware of my mobility. A significant portion of filming took place during the months when I was starting to pass more easily as a man. People treated me differently than they would have a year or even a few months earlier. I was confronting my own desire to pass. I am leery to talk about passing, because it’s shorthand. I don’t think embodiment is as clear as passing or not passing, but there’s also these very material moments of gaining entry: like border patrol inspecting my camera and car, and calling me Sir even as they’re holding my F-marker passport in their hands. Or driving through the checkpoints a few miles north of the border on Interstate 8 and 94, that are incredibly violent in how casual they seem. I was white and male passing and had California license plates, and sometimes they wouldn’t even make me stop my car. They stop me if someone else is in the car, or if a camera is visible. 

While filming I had my first experience of getting closer to someone as a man, without them knowing I was trans. I had my first experiences disclosing to someone whose friendship mattered to me, and not being sure how they would respond. When I looked back at footage, I grew preoccupied by all of these dynamics happening around race, class, gender and sexuality in a scene where someone is showing me their personal archive of Blackwater resistance, or telling me a story about the history of border-region white vigilante groups. I filmed encounters in which what is documented is a projection of settler fantasies onto this place—the fantasies of participants at a Medieval War Reenactment, in which I was also a participant. I started questioning: Will these dynamics be legible to someone else watching the film? What if I make a film in which only some people watching know that I’m trans? 

After a year of filming often, I felt like what I could make was a film made of searching, rather than one made of what remains after a search is done. 

I feel like this searching is an approach to filmmaking that reveals what might be on either side of the camera without it having to be about identity. There is a reciprocity between self and environment that is queer, where one is formed in relation to what’s around them, and filming is tangled up in this process of orientating. I’m thinking of Sarah Ahmed and many feminists of colour who invite us to use identity not as a fixed category but as an analytic—a way of seeing systems of power through the ways that they tend to identify us. 

I like the way you describe “a reciprocity,” but I wonder, what if it’s “between selves and environment”? What if part of what happens while witnessing is that we identify so messily with whoever’s on the other side of the camera that we become someone else?

I struggle to think in images, especially while I’m filming. Thinking in image and montage happens later, in editing, and then generally with some struggle. I aspire to learn how to think and dream in images. But, for now, my experience filming is much more about being present, and later noticing the ways I’m not present; witnessing how, as you say, we are formed in relation to the other. Filming provides an occasion to be present in a way that brings relational power dynamics and desires to the surface. 


Asa Mendelsohn, Cloisters (2020)



In this process, you make room for us to witness the push and pull of fantasy as it operates in highly securitized spaces. It’s an endeavour for which messay-ness is very much required. 

As you’ve been working on Pasture you’ve assembled your research into shorter videos and texts. In the early stages of the project, you made timelines...

The timelines emerged from reading and gathering information over a couple years. I was learning about the privatization of U.S. military and policing systems, and the proliferation of mercenary contracts during the Iraq War. I needed a way to keep notes that might help me remember what I was learning. My note-documents grew to include sections tracing a couple distinct but overlapping historical threads: Blackwater USA, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and coalitions of power; the history of medical insurance in the U.S., and of trans medicalization; and anti-carceral trans and queer resistance movements—looking for coalitions between trans activists and other anti-militarization movements. These threads were part of my learning about where I was, in occupied Kumeyaay territory, San Diego-Tijuana, and who I was in this place. 

My notes include quotes from historical texts and films, and also song lyrics, poems, fragments from conversations. Every entry has a date, but as a timeline it is very imperfect; there are repetitions, and contradictions in the timekeeping. Note-taking was also a way to reflect on the hegemonic, masculinist framing within which stories about militarization and mercenary companies are often told—even when they’re coming from critical or abolitionist positions. The timelines approach linearity and narrative in ways that are expansive and personal. I printed excerpts for an exhibition because I wanted to have something to give friends.


Asa Mendelsohn, Pasture (2017–ongoing), Timeline: “Justice is the firmest pillar,” risograph on paper, photo courtesy of Johanna Breiding and Shoghig Halajian



You end this timeline with the statement, “There is nothing straight about feeling and there is nothing straight about time. Especially legal time.” I love that. These timelines offer a non-linear historiography to ground your project. And, they remind us that filmmaking is a practice that produces many things, not just films. 

I want to ask about one more aspect of your practice—your teaching— which is also connected to the messay impulse. I’m thinking about the video class that you taught at UC San Diego in summer 2020, Love, Crush, Anger, Institution. What was your idea for that class and how did it go?

For the class I started with these questions: What does filmmaking look like as a daily practice? What kinds of filmmaking practices reflect daily experience, and can these also be practices through which we find forms for expressing love and rage? 

“Love, Crush, Anger, Institution” created the frame to, in a short time, make very short films that work with direct address. This first iteration was a summer course at UCSD, so five weeks: the first week, you create a 1-3-minute film addressing someone or something you love; week 2 addressing someone or something you have a crush on; week 3 someone or something you feel anger towards; and week 4 an institution. Week 5 you revisit one of the first four and develop it further. 

I made films alongside my students. We looked at our works together along with an ensemble of films and texts that introduced personal essay strategies and helped us reflect on the conditions of COVID, austerity, anti-Black racism, and xenophobia across the University of California system and our lives. Works that people seemed especially excited about included Patty Chang’s Fountain (1999), Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory (1991), excerpts from the selected diaries of Lou Sullivan edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma, We Both Laughed in Pleasure, Cheryl Dunye’s Janine (1990), and Gregg Bordowitz’s Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993). Our friend Katherine Agyemaa Agard read to us from her beautiful book, of colour, that we were lucky had just shipped out. We worked with found footage, screen recording, phones, animation, and experimented with different approaches to autoethnography. 

Everyone is dealing with a lot, and I felt bolstered by this group’s commitment to making these videos—I wasn’t sure it would be possible. I approach teaching and art as un/learning practices. In the context of this past summer, “Love, Crush…” became an opportunity for me to realign the work I do as a teacher in relation to where we are and imagining what comes next. I’d love to keep developing this framework, and to facilitate it again.

I like knowing that you made films along with the students. I have wished for that as a student on so many occasions! And I love that you brought of colour into your video methods class. In the introduction to the book, Katherine says that she started that project wanting to make a film, “in which I was present, in which you could sense the weight and stress of each action that made each mark and moment now visible.” I thought that was another way to describe the messay impulse—a desire to convey the weight and stress of the actions that produce what finally appears on a screen. For Katherine, this is critical so that the careful work of representation is not simply catering to the viewer “who just wants to understand.” Messay as refusal, among other things. 

Perhaps this is a good place to pause for now. Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Thank you for making meaning of process with me, Sindhu. This is all challenging and important learning for me, and I’m grateful to be able to think with you.

Thanks, Asa, for your work and for this conversation!  

This conversation was conducted by Sindhu Thirumalaisamy.  Sindhu Thirumalaisamy is an artist working across moving images, sound, and text.

Special thanks to Katherine Agyemaa Agard and Dan Bustillo for their inevitable influence on this exchange.