An Artist You Should Know: Terence Nance

20 Oct

by Janday Wilson


How many people do you know that are bold enough to make a feature-length film while having practically zero filmmaking experience?

How many of those people would have the audacity to make the subject of the feature film about a personal heartbreak, and then cast the real-life heartbreaker in the film alongside themselves, the heartbreakee?

These were the choices made by Terence Nance, 31, a visual artist and musician with an enviable ‘fro, whose debut feature film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty– replete with a pleasantly dizzying mix of live action, line drawing, watercolor, stop-motion Claymation, retro animation – won the hearts of many who watched it and solidified his status as a talent to watch. The inventive film about a relationship that agonizingly teeters on the edge of the friendship zone was awarded the 2012 Gotham Award for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You,” was acquired for theatrical distribution by Variance Films, and got backing from industry heavyweights like dream hampton and Jay-Z.

Nance speaks to Transitioning Movement about not moving on from his co-star Namik Minter, his upcoming projects, navigating the film industry as a filmmaker of color, and shares a funny hair story and his thoughts on the “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit.

In a fairly recent article, you said, “I’m not interested in the idea of moving on. I want to love her [Namik] forever and I want to love anyone I’ve ever loved forever. Just see where it takes me.” Is that how you’re currently feeling and can you explain why?

Terence: I think there’s this sort of Freudian, Western idea that not getting what you want in romantic situations or any sort of negative conflict in the context of romance … can cause some emotional maladies or scarring and the only way to live a healthy emotional life and connect emotionally in a fulfilling way in the future is to purge yourself of those experiences. And I just think that’s something that I don’t believe in. I think that that’s not something that is a ubiquitously healthy way of dealing with any sort of conflicts that you have in a romantic situation. I think for some people, that’s healthy and that kind of fits their psycho-emotional makeup, but … that’s not necessarily how I operate and how I most naturally process those experiences. I think that the physiological feelings that they inspire, the thoughts they inspire are not positive but they’re necessary. I think they fuse who I am, my personality. And I think they teach me things that I could use in the future. So I just think that the idea of letting go doesn’t fit with my psycho-emotional makeup.

You mentioned building new techniques and a new sensibility since An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. How does that apply to your newest work, The Lobbyists? Did you take any elements from Oversimplification and apply it to that film?

T: [T]here weren’t really many lessons that transferred in terms of aesthetic. It was more logistical, like find the money before you shoot the movie [laughter]. I didn’t carry anything over from one to the next…  [because] the concepts are so unrelated and completely distinct from each other… The only kind of relationship, I think, is accidental. There is a kind of guy-girl dynamic that’s very different. There’s an older woman and a younger dude, but there’s a certain similarity to the guy-girl dynamic [in Oversimplification] [laughs]. That’s the only thing I could think of that’s even mildly similar. This movie is really cold and kind of mean, so hopefully that’s the opposite of what Oversimplification is.

Congratulations on winning the Tribeca All Access Creative Promise award for The Lobbyists. I know that contributes to the money aspect. Is the film finished yet or are you still working on it?

T: I’m still working on the script.

Are you currently working on any other projects? Filmic or otherwise?

T: Those two are pretty much killing me right now [laughter] and really putting out Oversimplification is really the biggest thing. Self-distributing that with Variance [Films] is really, really time-consuming. I just did a Kickstarter video for Question Bridge [Interactive] with Hank William Thomas. We just launched a Kickstarter campaign for that. So hopefully that comes together. Do a website for that. My main projects are Oversimplification and those two features (The Lobbyists and an untitled documentary on skin lightening creams). They’re super pressing right now.

The other day you were tweeting about Bounce TV and basically saying that our own people, who are in the position to put out our stories, have no respect for black peoples’ sophistication. And then in the mainstream sense, people of colors’ stories aren’t valued enough to be put out or distributed widely. How do you deal with this as a filmmaker of color from an emotional standpoint as well as from a practical standpoint?

T: From an emotional standpoint, I think that on some level as any person doing anything, adversity is kind of the nature of the threat, whatever it is. If it’s filmmaking, they don’t value our stories or as a doctor they don’t want [me] to do surgery because they think I’m not smart enough or whatever [laughs]. I think to maintain a certain attitude towards your life and your work is just about doing work on your sense of self and kind of developing a comfort level – having an active self-affirming attitude and having an active spirit about maintaining that. And shutting out anyone that is telling you you should do anything in the service of another energy that isn’t self-affirming […]

But practically, it’s more complex, I think, because the reality is that most all art takes resources to create and, unfortunately, film probably takes the most resources to make … [T]he Western world in general  –  race, color aside – … does not value art making. And it does not value quality and originality within art making, period. It is not a problem only black people have [laughs]. White people have that problem too and Koreans do too…It’s an all-encompassing problem with media, in general, and art making. And pragmatically, I think it’s just important to study the anomalies or people who have been able to retain the ability to say what they want to say, how they want to say it in their artwork and on the scale they want to say it at and maintain consistent work doing that…people who are able to say what they want to say … and be widely accepted and widely viewed…

There [are] obviously a lot of problems that could be addressed with more specific solutions, like why is the culture of black wealth not to patronize original content from black creators who often don’t have access to money or wealth? Why is that? How do we address that? … I’m sure there’s a million specific ways to address that […]

Can you give me one really memorable reaction to your hair?

T: One that was really funny [happened when] I was living in France … they have a completely different conception of ethnicity [and] cultural affiliation as it pertains to ethnicity because they didn’t have slavery or the one drop rule. It’s just very different. So when I was there, this guy walked up to me. He had hair pretty much exactly like mine but he was significantly lighter than me. But just a normal – what I would say in the American context – light-skinned black dude with a big Afro. I remember him telling me in French, “Wow, your hair is just like mine. That’s strange. Except I’m not black.” I was just looking at him… like, “You’re not black?” And he was like, “Yeah, I’m not.” And I was just like, “Alright,” [laughs] and I just remember feeling really sad for him. It was a really bizarre feeling, but then I kind of had to check myself because my Black American-ness and the education that had to happen post-Civil Rights movement clued me in to things that he clearly didn’t know about himself. I think even in the conversation, he had no idea how his hair got like that [laughs]. He just thought it was a European thing. I mean, that happens a lot in a lot of places. Not just France or him. But it was just funny that [he] recogniz[ed] himself in my hair but not … in my skin. He could divorce the two things from each other. It was really hilarious…I used to teach in Harlem with Dominican kids and it was basically similar to that experience.

What do you think about the recent interactive public art exhibition “You Can Touch My Hair”? People were really divided about it, so I wonder if you thought this was a productive way of addressing this issue?

T: I [like] anything that calls attention to the fact there are, especially in the American context, people walking around who are not of African descent who see people of African descent as other and other in a way that’s exoticized, and in that dynamic feel the need to experience them [laughs]. And that manifests itself in all kinds of ways. It manifests itself in wanting to touch peoples’ hair and Mandingo parties [laughs]…I like anything that calls attention to anything like that, especially if it’s in the spirit of art making. And I think that [in] my experience, 80% of the time, the energy that someone approaches you with when they want to touch your hair is [that] they’re trying to pet you. They think of you, mostly subconsciously or kind of consciously-subconsciously, as an alien existence – as opposed to them being based on you, genetically and ethnically. [And] as opposed to them having been born out of you because they’re African too, they think of you as some other thing.

And my reaction is like, “Can I pet you?” … and that usually sparks some dialogue (laughter). Yeah, it’s fun. Most of the time it’s that … energy, but sometimes it’s really completely harmless. But I think that project is addressing the vast majority of how it happens and just attempting to get people to reflect on, “Why do I want to do that?” Because now that [they] can do it, hopefully it makes them investigate why they feel the need to experience this person in this tactile way. Would I be okay with somebody experiencing me in this way? Is the way my hair feels representative in any way of me? Why is that important at all, how my hair feels to somebody unless they want to have sex with me [laughter] or something? And I think it’s like a sexual thing, which is to me, even more disturbing… And if it is even slightly invasive, if you pair that with it being a sexual act then there’s all kinds of wrong there.

For more on Terence Nance and his work:

Media MVMT, the film production company he co-founded:

Cinema Stereo, collective of black filmmakers:

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