Art as Activism: An Interview with Student Filmmaker Miranda Sieber

Miranda’s interview is the second in a series of interviews with emerging feminists and student activists. Read more here.

Miranda Sieber - Feminist Filmmaker

Miranda Sieber – Feminist Filmmaker

Miranda Sieber is a junior at Purdue University majoring in Film/Video Studies and English. An aspiring visual storyteller, Miranda also enjoys reading, writing, and comic conventions. Her filmmaking passion began with a love of the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Not surprisingly, she has long admired directors and authors who employ strong female protagonists while telling stories that matter, and who approach the arts as a vehicle for social change.

I first met Miranda when she enrolled in my introductory Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies course at Purdue University in the spring of 2015. Over the next four months, I watched Miranda grow even more outspoken and confident, and become inspired to use her filmmaking as a tool for education and social change. I was honored to be interviewed for her film about the Take Back the Night rally at Purdue this past April. Here I talk with her about embracing film as a form of activism and about her plans for the future.

Dana Bisignani [DB]: So this was your first film, right? What got you interested in making films, specifically documentaries?

Miranda Sieber [MS]: I’ve had a strong interest in filmmaking and writing for a while now. The semester I made Take Back the Night, I was taking a documentary film class that required each person to make a documentary on their own that was due at the end of the semester. When I took the class, I was primarily interested in wildlife documentaries, like the ones on National Geographic or Discovery Channel, but obviously it’s a bit difficult making a wildlife documentary in Lafayette, Indiana.

DB: Yeah, you’re pretty much stuck with deer and ducks.

MS: In the class, we were exposed to all kinds of documentaries…some tackled social issues, such as mass incarceration in the U.S., some were humor documentaries, and some were just films that captured the lives of people at home. Seeing the unlimited number of documentaries out there, I was incredibly excited to make my very first one.

DB: What made you decide to focus your film on Take Back the Night at Purdue? You started with a different topic, right?

MS: Originally, I planned on making my documentary about nerd culture because I was supposed to attend multiple comic conventions around the Midwest, and I had friends who were willing to be interviewed. With only a month left of the semester and only a small amount of usable film, those plans fell through, and I had to scramble to find something new and interesting for my documentary.

Luckily, I was also taking [your] Women’s Studies class that semester, which had opened my eyes to sexual assault and rape culture on college campuses. To me, it was almost comforting hearing the term “rape culture” because it was a way of identifying what I was seeing on campus and online. One of the big events happening that month was the Take Back the Night Rally in April that had a series of teach-ins [on sexual assault, victim-blaming, and resources for survivors] beforehand. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to capture a very real issue happening in the world on camera.

DB: What challenges or frustrations did you face in making the film? Any exciting moments along the way?

MS: At first, the only issues I faced with my film were with myself…trying to figure out how to edit footage and learning to do most of the technical aspects of film by myself. However, there were a few challenging moments during filming that really stuck out to me. The first moment happened when I was walking on campus to an interview. It was really hot out, and I was sweating through my shirt while carrying heavy [filming] equipment. While I was walking through an intersection, a pickup truck pulled up by me, and the guy inside yelled, “Hey sexy, need a ride?” I’m no stranger to being catcalled. It made me furious, but since it wasn’t the first time that had happened, the only thing I did in that moment was ignore it, as usual. Mostly, I just thought about how ironic it was that I was working on a film about rape culture on campus and here was this man giving me a prime example of it!

DB: Wow. I’ve had a number of students – some from your class – tell me that they’re often cat-called walking around campus, just going from class to class. That has to create an environment where women students feel self-conscious and even unsafe. I’ve also been cat-called on campus, usually while waiting for the bus – and I’m clearly older and dressed as an instructor or at least a staff member, some professional…so no one’s immune. And why is it always guys in pickup trucks [laughing]?

MS: After I finished filming the interview, I walked back to my car to drop off some equipment. During this walk, I passed the brand new gym [the France A. Cordova Recreational Center] where they were holding a Relay for Life event. People were lined up outside the door in their purple t-shirts, waiting to participate in whatever events were inside. As I walked by them, another truck drove by me, honked its horn, and the man inside yelled, “Woo! Hey baby, nice tits!” I was mortified. Not only was it the second time I was catcalled that day, but it was in front of a bunch of people.

DB: It was really your lucky day, huh?

MS: What really gets to me is that no one said or did anything about it. I knew they heard. There was no way they couldn’t have heard because the man was so loud. When I looked at the line of people, everyone looked the other way and didn’t make eye contact with me, like I was the one who [had done] something wrong. I marched to my car, shoved the camera equipment inside, jumped into the driver’s seat and started crying. I called my mom and told her what had happened, and she said, “I know you feel horrible right now, but this anger that you have is going to fuel you as you continue making your film.” And it did.

DB: What a powerful thing for her to say in that moment. So the film started as a class project, but it seemed to become something more for you. Did you start thinking of your film as a form of activism after that?

MS: Yes. I think after those cat-calling incidents was when it really started to become a form of activism for me. [Creating the film] was turning my own frustrations with the world into something I could show to an audience. Hearing the stories from women on campus at the teach-ins held before the rally especially triggered that need [I felt] to promote awareness and change in the community. It wasn’t about getting a good grade in my class anymore, it was about showing something that would change the way people viewed rape culture and sexual assault.

Student activists march against sexual assault on Purdue's campus, April 2015. Miranda Sieber (far left) films footage of the march. Women's Studies instructor and blog author Dana Bisignani leads chants on a megaphone.

Student activists march against sexual assault on Purdue’s campus, April 30, 2015. Miranda Sieber (far left) films footage of the march for her documentary. Women’s Studies instructor and blog author Dana Bisignani leads chants on a megaphone.

DB: You premiered an early version of your film at the Lafayette Theater in April. What was that like? What kind of response did you get?

MS: I got a few compliments on my unfinished film at the premiere. I felt my film wasn’t the best because of all the experienced students that were also showing their films that night. [But] I had multiple people come up to me and say what an important issue this was to cover because no one had made a film about this topic at Purdue before. People I talked to genuinely wanted to know more about the Take Back the Night Rally at Purdue, and I was thankful people actually cared about this topic. As another way of getting people to know more about Take Back the Night, I brought some of the fliers with me to pass around and spread awareness at the premiere.

DB: Yes, your spreading the word about the event was a huge help! I think your film wound up being a key piece of promotion for the event. Do you have ideas for more film projects in the future? Where do you see yourself going from here?

MS: Even though I’m trying to focus on school and work a little more, I still have that need to capture issues that need to be changed on camera. One of my newer ideas for a film came to me when I was doing a Maymester class in Heavilon Hall [which houses the Department of English, the American Studies Program, and Purdue’s world-famous Writing Lab]. The T.A. for that course was telling us how nothing has been done in the past year to eradicate the asbestos in the building. That seems really unfair to the students and professors who use that building considering Purdue’s English program is the 3rd best in the nation.

DB: Yeah, that’s my home department, and I taught in that building for years. It’s in abysmal shape – a few years back, they had to move out all of the professors over the summer because of a terrible mold problem. They’ve documented too-high levels of carbon dioxide in the building as well – there’s literally not enough oxygen! And yet every Purdue student takes at least one class there, ENGL 106 or 108, the first-year writing course, where students learn the basics of academic writing and research, and argumentation. I always thought, “What kind of message does the condition of this building send to our students about what Purdue values?”

MS: Also, Purdue just received a $40 million dollar donation from the Lily Endowment for the Engineering and Technology programs here on campus, in order to expand lab space and new commons buildings. None of that money went to tearing down and building a new space for English students. Asbestos has been known to cause breathing problems and even lung cancer, yet the Purdue Administration has done nothing about it. Students that pay money to go here deserve better. People I know on campus have been talking about this for about a year, and it’s time that someone call out the Administration on their (for lack of a better word) bullshit.

DB: And it’s not just a Purdue problem. Recently, four Southern University of New Orleans professors died within three months of one another not long after their offices were moved to a moldy building at the HBCU. I certainly know a lot of students and instructors here who would be really excited if you made a film about that state of Heavilon Hall! What advice do you have for other aspiring young women film-makers?

MS: My advice for future women filmmakers is to never be afraid to ask for help when you need it. The one thing that helped me the most while working on my film was the help of friends and professors. I wouldn’t have been able to finish my film without them. Another piece of advice: Never be afraid to call people out on their sexism. Although filmmaking is a fairly modern career, there are still a lot of rude and sexist people. There will be lot of people who will patronize you because they think that just because they’re a guy, they’ll be a better editor, director, etc. than you. Nowadays it’s rarely blatant sexism [you’ll experience].

DB: Like someone calling you “sugar” and asking you to get his coffee?

MS: There are always comments like, “Oh, I’m pretty sure you can’t handle this” or “Why don’t you stick to writing. For you it’ll be easier.” That’s the type of dialogue that happens in this field that goes unnoticed – but it is still sexist and it hurts. So call it out!

Watch Miranda’s documentary below. Want to do more? Sign the petition to let Purdue University know they need to establish a Sexual Assault, Stalking, and Relationships Violence Center on Campus!