Mercy. Danger. Style. Absurdity.

Janicza Bravo brings her art of discomfort to Virtual Reality

1. The Unbearable Loneliness of Dog Parks

Janicza Bravo can’t find the particular book she seeks.

“This photographer who meant a lot to me just died,” she says with some urgency, scanning shelves and unburying things in her rococo West Hollywood bungalow, “and I wanted to show you some of her work.” She keeps plumbing the space around us, apologizing repeatedly for her inability to find the book or sit down.

“You mean Mary Ellen Mark?” I venture a guess.

“Yes!” Bravo’s hands fly into the air. “I love her.” She prattles on about how Mark’s collection, Ward 81, has influenced all her films—recalling her admiration for how Mark and a friend lived in a mental institution for a month to collect material for that work.

“There’s a tension in those photos,” she says. “In the faces, in the bodies. It’s very theatrical.”

This allusion seems apt to me as a welcome: Bravo herself is pretty pleasingly theatrical, and if there’s a singular hallmark of the three short films she’s written and directed, “Eat” (2011), “Gregory Go Boom” (2013), and “Pauline Alone,” (2014) it may be tension. Taken together, the set depict duets of discomfort; each story is, on some level, one of strangers meeting, and then violating, each other’s boundaries. I’d place the authorial tone of her work somewhere on a spectrum strung between Michael Haneke and Nicole Holofcener. Her films are character-induced studies of social mores undergirded in a slip of menace. And her upcoming foray into Virtual Reality, “Hard World for Small Things,” premiering at Sundance 2016, will be the most menacing—the most biographical—of any work she’s yet embarked on. But more on that later.

The contrast between the profound awkwardness of the encounters portrayed in her films, which I’ve viewed in advance of meeting their creator, and the vast, vibrant social intelligence of Bravo herself in person is hilarious to me. Bravo is effortlessly charismatic, merrily conversational in wide swaths of art and culture, and basically just wildly likable—a high-EQ individual who seems the farthest thing from awkward. She’s charming, disarming, and clearly the possessor of a long experience of using these winning qualities to probe the provocative, the uncomfortable, and the vulnerable.

Bravo’s apparent contradictions remind me of the old adage about how only a great singer can sing badly on film. You can’t fake bad unless you know what good sounds like. And indeed, Bravo’s range of communicational notes spans several octaves. It’s harder to leverage great short work into bigger opportunities than it used to be, but the nuance and quality of “Eat,” “Gregory Go Boom,” and “Pauline Alone” have solidly established Bravo as an up-and-comer to watch in independent film. The first, “Eat”—which premiered at SXSW and was subsequently purchased by VICE—witnesses a girl (Katherine Waterston, more recently terrific in Inherent Vice) locked out of her apartment and at the mercy of a neighbor (Brett Gelman) whose profound awkwardness may or may not be actually menacing. “Gregory Go Boom” won a Special Jury Award at Sundance, and follows a young, disabled man (Michael Cera) whose wheelchair, incredibly, may be less socially hindering than his blunt verbal self-presentation. “Pauline Alone” played at BAM and LAFF, is now streaming on Nowness, and punctures its title character’s implicit loneliness with her slapshot responses to strangers’ Craigslist Lost & Found postings.

If Bravo’s sharp awareness of social conventions—and accompanying brain trust of interesting ways to disregard them—comes naturally to her, it may be because of the sheer breadth of her lived experience. She’s clearly a voracious reader, listener, and viewer. As she talks, she name-checks a host of auteur influences including Woody Allen and Pedro Almodóvar, the pronunciation of whose name reveals Bravo’s native Spanish. As if Almodóvar’s name trips a wire, Bravo segues fluently into a recollection of her family’s history. She was born in the U.S., moved with her parents back to their native Panama at three months old, then returned to live in New York as a teenager. She’s toggled between both countries ever since.

I ask her what language she dreams in.

“In Panama, I dream in Spanish,” she answers. The last time she was there, she continues, “I was getting sad, because it was taking a while” for the Spanish to return. It was as though “my Peter Pan [phase] was over—I wasn’t a little boy anymore.” She speaks Spanish to her parents, she tells me, and they speak English to her. Finding other Spanish-speakers is “such a relief,” but usually, “I don’t have anybody to talk with.”

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The bio on Bravo’s website, young gifted and black: a frequently updated picture collection, declares these cartographic details in sparse eloquence:

I am Janicza Bravo. I live in Los Angeles.
I spent half my life in Panama and half in Brooklyn.
I studied directing and design for theatre at NYU (Playwrights Horizons).
I have mounted productions in New York, LA, and Madrid.
I am a writer and a director.
also i am a stylist. [sic]

Indeed, it might be noted that Bravo is a bilingual Latin-American woman with a Slavic name and African features, and there’s undoubtedly been a loneliness in the gaps between how she experiences herself and how she’s commonly—or mistakenly—been perceived by the world. Although her own self-identification now seems contentedly plural, it’s clear that she’s been troubled by, and collected a lot of valuable material from, the cognitive dissonance her identity has elicited in others.

“My parents are from Latin America, so I had a different upbringing than most Black Americans did. I’m not African-American, per se,” she explains. “For a while it was really important for me to say, ‘But wait, I’m Latin! You need to understand that I’m Latin.’ But I think the issue is that when you say you’re not something that you look like, people start to think that it’s because you think that’s less than. So now I don’t even fucking bother. That’s not a conversation I need to be a part of.”

Instead, her creative conversation has turned to repurposing misinformed assumptions for creative fuel: Misunderstanding, after all, makes for great dramatic conflict. Bravo notes, “All of my protagonists tend to be very lonely. They have an innocent quality, a desire to connect. They don’t have basic social tools. They’re not socialized people.”

She tells a long, very LA story about dog owners’ inappropriately strong opinions on other dogs’ behavior at dog parks, where dogs go to be socialized, and concludes: “My characters don’t do very well at dog parks.”

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2. Authenticity & Autism

The concept of “authenticity” has become a shopworn cliché of independent film’s taxonomy, yet Bravo’s films illuminate how authenticity can have nothing to do with any easily-glimpsed similarity between author and character. The pale, rural, hobbled Gregory of “Gregory Go Boom” appears the antithesis of the vibrant, able, seemingly thriving woman of color that Bravo herself is; she tells me that her inspiration for the character came from witnessing a guy in a wheelchair get rejected by a blind date, and this, too, stands in contradiction to the very enjoyable blind date I am currently having with her. Gregory (played by the reliably excellent Michael Cera) couldn’t possibly be autobiographical to the Janicza I sit with in West Hollywood—except, of course, he is.

If Bravo’s films portray tenuous moments of connection made remarkable, and pointed, by their surroundings in alienation and despair, it’s also true that alienation and despair often occupy more acreage in her landscapes than does any abatement from them. The character of Gregory, confined to his wheelchair, appears dwarfed by the great maw of this desert in the cinematography of the film. To me, the work’s signature image is an extreme wide shot of Gregory, the only moving point in the center of the screen, tiny in a massive, burned-out expanse. His alienation is palpable, painful, the quiet whirr of his wheelchair like a whimper of the futile desire to plant seeds of the heart in barren sand.

Place is important to Bravo, and “Gregory Go Boom” was shot in two desert towns—Bombay Beach and Slab City—in the Sultan Sea, near California’s border with Mexico. “There are a lot of people that live out there who’ve made these really big, beautiful sculptural pieces in the desert, and there are also people who seem to be running away from something,” she illustrates for me. While location scouting for “Gregory,” one Slab City local told her, “‘It’s great here, nobody touches you, nobody bothers you. I had a friend who got shot by his wife and the cops didn’t come for a week.’” Recounting this, Bravo seems more amused than unsettled. “I was like, ‘Uh, I feel like what is “great” to us is different. But super cool, thanks for the update on, um, MURDER.’”

Bravo tells me that “Gregory Go Boom” takes its title from her favorite François Truffaut film, Small Change. Bravo summarizes for my benefit:

“There’s this moment in the movie where this little boy named Gregory—after shopping with his mom at the market—has a baguette that is bigger than him, and he’s rolling it up a flight of stairs. There’s some construction going on in the building, and the mom stops to talk to this construction worker about something. But Gregory keeps rolling the baguette up the stairs. And then he’s hanging out the window. And then he falls out the window. He doesn’t actually die. They’re only three stories up. But the underscore to the whole thing is ‘Gregory goes boom, Gregory goes boom,’ over and over.”

The connection she draws to a child carelessly placing himself in danger is revealing to me. In “Gregory Go Boom,” Gregory’s self-presentation as a disabled person yearning to experience life beyond his limits is both childlike and reckless. As the audience, we can’t quite tell if Gregory understands how he’s perceived by the world, or if the world understands how to perceive him. Is he actually childlike, or do our preconceived notions about people with disabilities ascribe childishness upon him? Are the things he says actually inappropriate, or does he just not know any better? The film offers him the most adolescent of crossroads to illuminate this question: Gregory meets a girl. First, he goes on that ill-fated blind date Bravo once eavesdropped upon, but then he meets another stranger who lets him, out of hunger or pity, round a few bases with her.

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“When Gregory first sees her, she represents possibility,” Bravo comments on this encounter. “Finally this is his chance. I think that even though there are things about [Gregory] that are unlikable—he’s kind of racist and abrasive—you still feel bad for him because he’s in a wheelchair. That’s something that I was interested in: the idea of using limitation to someone’s advantage. How the audience will feel a certain way and excuse it. You excuse his racism because he’s in a wheelchair. You excuse his bluntness because he’s in a wheelchair. You still feel bad for him.” Implicitly, “Gregory Go Boom” asks who, in this awkward equation, is the greater sinner: the boy whose physical limitations have also limited his ability to think beyond himself; or the girl whose pity for him condones his bigotry? The film is sophisticated enough both to pose this complex ethical question, and to refuse to answer it.

Bravo presents another outsider’s love song in “Pauline Alone,” whose title character, played in a thrilling crescendo of aggression by Gaby Hoffmann, attempts to connect with strangers by responding to Craigslist Lost & Found postings. Like Gregory, Pauline is a protagonist who uses obliviousness as an instrument of violation, ignoring social cues, asking inappropriate questions, and generally always encroaching. In one, she tries to steal a dog from its walker, Irene (Megan Mullally). In a brilliant subversion, Bravo casts the peerless Mullally as the straight man to Hoffman’s loose cannon, and the results are too hilariously uncomfortable, or uncomfortably hilarious, to spoil.

I suggest that Pauline might seem kind of, well, autistic. Bravo is cheerfully, if a bit resignedly, familiar with this reaction.

“Whenever I’ve done Q’s and A’s,” Bravo recalls, “for any film that I’m working on—autism and Asperger’s come up. When I did festivals with ‘Eat,’ they were like ‘He’s autistic, right?’ and I was like ‘I don’t think so…’ And with ‘Gregory,’ it was like ‘…But he has autism.’ And I was like ‘I mean, I guess.’” She laughs before continuing, “‘So, maybe I have autism, guys.’ But I think they’re just variations of myself. I’m uncomfortable and I want to say things that are unacceptable all the time. So this is a great vehicle for me to express myself in this way. Because I actually am aware of what’s acceptable.”

To live in such innocence, oblivion, or naïvete is lonely, Bravo’s films remind us, but also liberating. What would we say if we stripped away all of our defense mechanisms? People who are willing to be blunt, curious, and relentless at the expense of likability often say the things most of us only wish we could say. One senses that Bravo sometimes uses her characters to explore, or empathize with, what it might be like to inhabit an inverse experience to her own. What if she were not charming and intuitive? What if she were not polite and welcoming? (“Women are so concerned with being polite,” the very genial Bravo observes, also qualifying her own priority on etiquette: “Manners are top for me.”) What if she were not female or dark-skinned? What if she were emotionally unstable or differently abled?

To Bravo, to make art is to activate, actualize, and authenticate these complex questions of identity. “If I want to exist outside of my own head,” she says simply, “then I have to exist in my work.”

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3. Choose Your Own Adventure

I want to talk about “Hard World for Small Things”, the Virtual Reality experience Bravo is directing for the Venice-based VR software innovator and content producer, WEVR. But first, I have to confess to her that I have no idea what Virtual Reality is. Is this, like, a “Choose Your Own Adventure” thing, I ask, where the viewer determines what happens next in the film?

She shakes her head. Virtual Reality, she explains, is to be surrounded by the story, rather than to gaze at it. “You put on these fancy headesets,” she elaborates, through which the viewer becomes an active agent in how the story is told visually, able to look at her discretion upon the action unfolding in 360 degrees around her.

“Hard World takes place in South Central,” Bravo synopsizes. “Watts or Compton. That kind of a neighborhood. It takes place on one block. It’s these two boys who are friends. They run into a bunch of people causally, and then one of them has a run-in with the cops, and ends up being shot. But that’s the very end of the piece.” She’s anxious to clarify that her intention is not to immerse the viewer in the experience of police brutality itself, but to create a virtual proximity to it. The climax, juxtaposed against the calm of what precedes it, should feel that much more shocking.

“The story is a narrative that’s been going on for quite some time,” Bravo observes. “But it’s interesting, because I’ve found that in conversations that I’ve had over the last couple months, people think it’s ‘topical.’ And that feels so diminutive of the lives of Black men. Black people being hunted by the cops? That’s not topical. That’s the history of this country, from the moment that they were brought to these shores. So ‘topical’ is a tough thing to hear.”

Especially in Bravo’s own history, I can see why. Just as most Black people in America don’t have the luxury of seeing police violence in the abstract, the reason why any recent white Columbusing of this issue might grate on Bravo is personal: “Hard World for Small Things” was inspired by the death of her cousin, who was asphyxiated by the police in Brooklyn in 1999. After his death, Bravo remembers, “They said that he had choked on a bag of drugs that he had stuffed down his throat. But when the autopsy came back it was inconclusive.” She shrugs. “So whatever.”

It’s a dismissive way to end her thought, a way to make tragedy conversational, but the depth of Bravo’s work lays bare the gravitas she’s called upon to process events like these.

“There’s not a lot of work that represents people like me,” Bravo says, expanding on why she’s chosen to make “Hard World.” “And what is available that represents someone that looks like me is completely out of the realm of my own experience, my family’s, or any Black person’s experience that I’ve met. Cartoon Black people. I don’t know where they’re from, or what they’re doing.” To counter those misrepresentations, Bravo “wanted to write a piece with Black people in it who talk the way that I talk. And who are really stylish, also. Like the spirit of those Jamel Shabazz photos.” She was inspired, in part, by a photo spread in LIFE magazine taken by Bill Ray after the Watts riots of the 1960s, images reflective of a Black masculine style she calls “dandy” and “beautiful,” cast in “super rich,” saturated colors. “I wanted it to be something that felt fashionable and joyous,” she says. “I wanted it to come off as light.”

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Clothes are particularly important to how Bravo experiences the world. Both her parents are tailors, and she worked art and wardrobe department jobs in film and TV for years before making her move above the line. How you dress, for Bravo, is “the way that you silently communicate your history, where you’re going, where you’re coming from, and what you need.” These, to Bravo, are the rules of creating any reality, and the sartorial narrative of “Hard World” will be no exception. Explaining why the flashy, natty style of mid-century Black men was crucial to her aesthetic, Bravo says, “if you get a guy in a XXL white T-shirt and shorts that are down to his ankles, you know what is going to happen to him. I know his story. And for some reason the audience is less sympathetic to his journey. But if you have a guy in a tailored pant, a beautiful button-down, and a pastel-colored cardigan, the stakes are different. It’s very sexy and you’re going to respect it and listen and hear it. I don’t know why that is, but it is how it is—especially when you’re not white.” Appearances speak, and they place a stake: “In all of my pieces, the clothing is such a flag raise.”

She remembers, with an understandable measure of resentment, a styling job in which she was told to dress a Black family “aspirationally.” She was told of the fictional family: “They can afford Old Navy, they shop Gap on sale, and they really want to shop at Banana Republic—but they can’t afford it even when it is on sale.” The depiction made Bravo angry and vulnerable, not least because she was the only Black crewmember on set. “It’s been 10 years and I still think about it. I never want to dress any of my characters ‘aspirationally.’ They just are.”

Oriented by this value system, Bravo’s characters are refreshingly absent of hacky aspiration. There are no winners, losers, or tidy resolutions in her stories. There are no beauty pageants. There are no car chases. Prom, if it entered one of her narratives, would end badly. In Bravo’s worlds, instead, there are appearances, and brief intersections. And appearances, to Bravo, are worth their weight in history—history, she argues, being exactly what too often falls into the fissure between the lived experience of Black men murdered by the police and the public stories that are told to excuse those murders.

The idea behind “Hard World for Small Things,” she says, “is that with all these men who have lost their lives, when the news is covering their stories, we’re missing that part that they’re people and come from somewhere. That they’re mothers and fathers, and had a sister or a child. It’s stripping them of this history. It becomes this black and white thing. That’s how it is with police brutality. So, I wanted to inject a history. They all came from somewhere. Somewhere that could be fun and happy.”

And here we are again, back in the land of apparent contradictions. I don’t know how one crafts a fun and dandy story that also observes police brutality, but in Bravo’s company, I believe intuitively that she’ll find a way to shoot it like she means it. Loneliness. Humor. Mercy. Danger. Style. Absurdity. Difference. These, among strangers, become the populace of Bravo’s vision as a writer and director, as varied as their author. At the conclusion of our conversation, I’m still grappling with what Virtual Reality is, but I do know that Janicza Bravo bubbles over with multiplicity, the richest of all artistic heritages. Bravo, and her stories, are many things at once, and because of this, I trust her, and “Hard World for Small Things”, to take me somewhere interesting, somewhere surprising, somewhere universal and particular, in whatever reality she chooses.

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Photos by Blessing Yen
VR Masks by Marisa Reisel
Lighting Design by Eve M. Cohen
Styling by Stephanie Collinge
Hair and Makeup by Alexa Hernandez

Shot at The ADVNT Society Studio