Reel Story: Cherrywood-based Documentary Filmmaker Wins Guggenheim

Expanded interview from the May 2015 Flea

PJ RAVAL headshotPJ Raval is the winner of a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, an achievement that the Robinson Ave. resident didn’t tell anyone about for a day or two after he was notified this month because he wanted to make sure it was true.

“To be honest I didn’t quite believe it, Raval said. “What went through my head when I first learned was (a) disbelief, and then (b) what an incredible honor!”

Raval is an Austin-based filmmaker and cinematographer, whose documentary, Before You Know It, released in 2013, focuses on the challenges and triumphs of gay seniors. Inspiration for Before You Know It grew out of Raval’s and co-director Jay Hodges’ 2008 documentary, Trinidad, which tells the stories of women undergoing sex-change surgery in Trinidad, CO. Also, Raval was cinematographer for Trouble the Water about a couple’s struggle to survive Hurricane Katrina. It received a 2009 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary.

Guggenheim Fellowships are grants that have been awarded annually since 1925 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to those “who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.”

The Guggenheim is the latest of numerous awards for Raval. As a University of Texas graduate student in 2000, Raval’s 100% Cotton, won the Chicago Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival award for Best Cinematography.

“I realized that a lot of my work has to do with roles—the role of a boyfriend, the role of a partner, the role of a son, of a father—and what happens when people challenge those roles and reject them,” Raval told author Phillip Gambon, in a profile published in Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans, 2010, University of Wisconsin Press.

Born and raised in Clovis, CA, Raval is the son of Filipino immigrants. At the University of California San Diego, he studied media art and biology. The scope of his work includes producing and directing his films as well as cinematography for his own and other filmmakers’ work, and ranges from narrative films, experimental films, documentaries, music videos and television ads. He has described his career as “cinematographic genre-jumping”.

Filmmaker Magazine named Raval one of “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2006.

Flea: Can you describe the Guggenheim application process?

Raval: I had applied the year before, and I got to the same phase. My references were contacted for letters. I had turned in a work sample. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it that year, but then this year I did. I was going to say not that much has changed. In the last year, but actually a lot has changed. I’m assuming that made the difference.

The Guggenheim application process involves a career narrative statement. They ask you what your career has been up to this point, and where you see it going. It was a great opportunity to reflect on the overall body of work I had made at that point and what I see in terms of the narrative thread or progression. I had to go all the way back to when I was first studying art in San Diego as an undergraduate because that’s were I started doing film. They ask you for three references and a CV. After that round you turn in work samples.

Flea: What material did you submit?

Raval: I submitted three films: My current film, which is Before You Know It. I submitted my previous film, which was Trinidad. And then I submitted a film called Trouble the Water, which I was the cinematographer for. And it was interesting because in my narrative I have to talk about two careers. Not only have I been making my own films but I’ve been shooting films for other people too, and that’s a huge section of my career. Thankfully, I didn’t have to go back and talk about my ex-career as a scientist.

Flea: What went through your mind when you first learned you’d won? What does that feel like?

Raval: To be honest I didn’t quite believe it. What went through my head when I first learned was (a) disbelief? and then (b) what an incredible honor! Knowing how many people apply and looking at the list of past recipients I’m in very good company. In a lot of ways it’s a quote, unquote ‘I’ve arrived’ kind of feeling. It’s really nice to be recognized for a body of work.

Since I was a finalist the year before—and I didn’t get it—I told myself, ‘OK, I’m going to be a little quiet about this until I actually see it in print, publically announced, not just an email or a letter.’ They notified me, and then a day or two later the press release went out. So, I didn’t really have to worry about it for too long.

There was a third level when they ask you for a potential budget of what your finances look like and what the project you’re working will look like. Then they contacted me and said I was being nominated for a Guggenheim to the board of directors who would meet in April to decide officially. I wasn’t really sure if that meant I was in the running or that I got it and they just needed to sign off on it. That was the point where I said, OK, I’m going to be quiet about this until they announce it publicly.

When it got announced I posted on Facebook: “Beyond excited to announce I received a Guggenheim Fellowship amongst some amazing filmmakers including Silas Howard, Madeleine Olenek, and Iva Radivojevic!!! I am reminded of a super low point in film school when I met a very high profile producer who told me no one is interested in LGBT stories in film. Well to you naysayer I say take that! 🙂 Very happy and humbled.”

Flea: Your recent documentary works, such as Before You Know it and Trinidad are about LGBT or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender issues, but your focus seems really more about the lives of individual men and women. Can you describe how you determine whom and what aspects to cover in creating a documentary?

Raval: I’m not interested in representing a whole community. I think it’s kind of impossible to do. And it’s something I’m not interesting in doing, because I think in the process of doing that it really overlooks all the diversity and differences and commonality between people. What I am interested in doing is looking very closely at individuals. I think in the process of doing that—the more specific and individual we look at someone—in a way the more universal it becomes. We think about what are these threads that connect us as humans? And it largely is the human condition, right? What are these universal aspects that connect us as humans? Funny enough, I think the more attention and the more examination of an individual, the more universal the story becomes. I’m interested in finding those aspects and qualities of individuals that are universal, experiences that we can all relate to.

Flea: How do you think the Guggenheim might change your career or the kinds of projects you are offered and accept?

Raval: Knowing that I’m being recognized is great, but it’s also a little bit scary. Because I do feel like now there is a certain expectation. Like, ‘well what are you going to do next’? Winning the award is amazing for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it is a cash award. It takes a little bit of the pressure off. It can be a significant contribution to a project that I’m working on. But it’s also a cachet award. Now potentially other people will pay attention in a different way because they can see that I have the support and acknowledgment from a major foundation, and organization that is taken seriously. And I gladly welcome that.

One of the amazing things about this award is it is designed to support you as an artist and as a scholar, someone who is contributing creatively. One of the things I’m most proud of is I didn’t listen to people who tried to discourage me actively from making these types of films, the subjects, the content. I didn’t listen to their discouragement. I think those sentiments are part of what drives me in the first place. I believe that these are stories that people haven’t heard. These are stories that people need to see and learn about. Knowing that there are people in this world who would rather have it silenced or have it not be addressed, I think that is a real motivating factor to what I have done and continue to do. To receive an award that looks at a body of work, I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of the low points. But this is clearly a high point. It’s an incredible honor.

Flea: What can you share about the project you are working on now?

Raval: I have a couple of projects in the works. I’m not talking about them at length yet. I have a narrative feature that I’m developing with a screenwriter friend of mine who lives in New York. For a while I’ve wanted to make something that I think captures a true Austin story. So, I’m hoping to make this feature that does that. So, there’s that. And then funny enough I told myself I wasn’t going to make another documentary for a while. I wanted to take a break, but I already have another idea that’s developing very quickly. Hopefully, within the next couple of years I will have both a fiction feature and a documentary feature completed.

Flea: What influenced you to live in Cherrywood? How much time do you spend here?

Raval: When I first moved to Austin I lived in Hyde Park for a number of years. I would occasionally come over to Cherrywood because I had some friends who lived over here. At some point like most Austinites, I found that my rent got a little too expensive in Hyde Park, and I had a lot more friends living in Cherrywood. It seemed to be a very artist-friendly place. I happened to have a friend who is a musician who was living in my current house. He invited me to move into his place and charged me a very reasonable rate to help support a fellow creative person here in Austin. So, I jumped on that. And it’s a great house. I love it because it felt like a neighborhood. I love having the grocery store nearby. I love having places like Cherrywood Coffeehouse. I like that is near the university. At the time when I was moving here the different types of people that I saw in the neighborhood were closer to what I was looking for. The person I was renting from moved back to Germany, so he left me to take care of the house, and that lasted for a number of years, and eventually I bought the house.

Flea: You have used Austin locations in music videos and your Slacker homage. How do you select a location? Is it ever tricky to get permission to film in some places?

Raval: Filmmaking is very much supported here in Austin. It’s not impossible to get locations at a low cost or donated, but obviously it is much harder to get a major commercial area. Austin is pretty big if you expand beyond central Austin. If one store or neighborhood is not working, there is probably another. So, in that sense Austin is great because I know when I have shot films in other places, people often will say no before you even officially ask. They are just flat out not interested. Whereas, here everyone at least considers it. I think there is still an intrigue about the filmmaking process. People are still excited about it.

Flea: The scope of your work is wide. I read that you were a photographer before becoming a cinematographer, which led to directing your own films. I’m guessing the progression of your career is not as linear as that sounds. Who and what are your influences? Inspirations? What did you think you wanted to be 10 years ago?

Raval: I’ve always been making my own films as a producer and director, but I was living off of being a cinematographer. In a weird way being a cinematographer was my day job. Which is an incredible day job to have, and I still enjoy it. I do consider myself a filmmaker. The reason I use that term is I think it encompasses a lot things. I think if I say I’m a director that’s very specific, and I’m not quite just a director because I like shooting also as a cinematographer. And I’m not just a cinematographer because I am committed to producing and directing my own work.

But back in the day when I was in college I actually was a double major in biology with an emphasis in human genetics, as well as art. I double majored coming in, and I finished the biology major very quickly within two and a half or three years. I started working as a teacher’s assistant. So, I was teaching my own sections, and I started working as a lab researcher. It was a cellular biology lab. This was in the early-to-mid-90s when the human genome project was a huge thing, so everything was about mapping genes and trying identify strands of DNA. I worked largely in that area.

At some point I realized that what I was studying and what I was interested in were so specific and advanced that actually there were only a few outlets for me to work. Either you become a professor, and in order to do that you work at a research institution and open your own lab at a university, or you work as a lab researcher. I could have gone into teaching but I would never have been teaching what I was studying because that would really just be for advanced students. So, at some point I couldn’t see myself working at a lab forever. And I couldn’t see myself happy teaching science at a more general level. So, I just left it. I decided, well, I also have this artistic passion, which up until then I had never truly considered as something viable. We all grow up thinking, ‘Oh, you’re not allowed to be an artist or creative as a job. You have to have a real job, and you can make artwork or films or music on the side.’ Then at some point when I discovered filmmaking, I realized, wow, there actually are jobs in filmmaking. I did see people making a living. As much as I enjoyed being a biologist, I just couldn’t see myself doing that for years to come.

Of course, my parents are still asking me when I’m going to get a real job? Am I ever going to go back to the sciences and join a more conventional workforce?

Flea: If you ponder your long-range aspirations, what kinds of things might you hope to achieve 10 years in the future?

Raval: I would like to think that in 10 years from now I will still be making films in one capacity or another. I would like to think that I would have more films under my belt. I would also like to think that at that point maybe I’ve expanded into other territories as well. For all I know in 10 years it might be all about television programming. Or maybe I would have incorporated more multi-arts into my discipline.

I also helped co-found an organization called Outsider, which is a queer multi-arts organization. We just had our first festival last February. We’re a nonprofit and we definitely intend to expand and grow, and I would love to see that still in existence, bigger and much more developed in 10 years from now.

And… I would love to see a lot of the things in my house that need fixing fixed. (Laughing) You know that’s a big thing—to be able to get to it and afford it. That’s a huge thing.

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