Starting a Documentary

Chronic pain is extremely misunderstood. No, it doesn’t just affect older individuals. No, there is not one straightforward treatment. No, its not just in the individual’s head. Yes, chronic pain can be disabling, but no, it is not recognized as a disability by the government. Chronic pain conditions are as complex and nuanced as those who deal with them, something that is often overlooked when discussing the disorders. Imagine on top of the stigma above, for particular women dealing with chronic pain of the vulva, an added bias because of gender and the location of the pain.

As I begin my thesis project, I am out to explain and examine the various stigmas surrounding vulvodynia, a severe chronic pain condition of the vulva. Why is it underreported and under diagnosed? How does it affect regular functioning? What are treatment options? Why are they so limited and archaic? Why isn’t there more research? Once laying out these specific topics and questions, I decided on a video documentary as the format of my thesis. It makes the most sense because I have been working with imagery, still and moving, for several years now, and I feel I can incorporate both information and emotion. Emotion matters for chronic pain discussions; severe pain creates drastic emotion. Information is important because it will inform my audience about what is going on systemically, and what actions they could take to impact that.

There are many factors to consider when beginning to create a documentary video: whose stories get to be included and why, how the individual narratives are woven together to create a larger systemic critique, what topics are key to emphasize, what bias I bring to the film, what footage should be sought out and more. Hopefully in the coming weeks as I begin interviewing both individuals with vulvodynia and healthcare providers, I will start to uncover some answers and have greater clarity on the direction of the documentary.

“Vulvodynia: A Documentary”

houstonI was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan on April 1, 1996 in a quaint lake house. Soon after, I moved with my family to suburban New Jersey where I grew up, not too far from New York City. During my teenage years, I discovered a webcam aesthetic used by other young girls on Tumblr and Instagram that has influenced my video and photo work. Today I am a BHA student majoring in gender studies and art.

The conceptual nature of Carnegie Mellon’s art program coupled with the spread of online activism has inspired much of what I work on now – primarily experimental video work, analog photography, accessible zines and found-object installation.

I created a duo-exhibition with artist Kate Werth titled “Guaranteed Fresh” at the Frame Gallery in March 2017, deconstructing femininity in the context of sexual dysfunction and online intimacy. I am a regular contributor to Crybaby Zine and Polyester Magazine, where I illustrate sex-ed comics for marginalized populations, and my work has been in both of CMU’s literary and art magazines, Imprint and Dossier.

As an intern with Anthropologie, I created visuals for multiple stores, developing sculptural installations and working on catalog photo editorials at their home office in Philadelphia.

My current focus is on experimental filmmaking branching off into documentary, and recently, I finished a photography book, “Paradise, Home from Work,” documenting young individuals with chronic pain in their homes with funding from a CMU Undergraduate Research Grant.

Learn more about my project.

Alternate Tunings

With school coming back into session, I’m reminded that it’s time to get back into the grind of my thesis.

The tail-end of the summer and these first few weeks of school have brought my mind back to focusing on my work, and also questioning some of the ideas I’ve had about the final form my project will take.

A quick TL;DR of my life: my band released an album, I played a lobster festival in Chicago, and I’ve been accepted as an Andrew Carnegie Society Scholar, which I hope will fund a trip to SXSW to meet industry executives and leaders in March.


All of these experiences have led me to question what the final form of my thesis project will take.

Initially, I wanted my project to be presented as a film, more specifically a documentary. This film would be 30-45 minutes, and more or less be a traditional linear narrative that puts forth my argument about the Pittsburgh music scene.

However, I find myself now questioning myself. After finishing my research this past summer and limiting my scope, I now worry about almost being too argumentative and having tunnel vision with my film.

My music experiences and interactions with individuals have taught me that, if anything, the developments in the music scene are inextricably tied to huge other cultural factors locally, nationally and regionally. It’s no surprise that with huge amounts of money coming in from the tech boom and with younger, more affluent people moving into the city there has been a shift in the live music scene.

Also, I’m quickly realizing that the notion of making a large film has a learning curve, and even with a team to help, could lead to us getting mired in production aspects rather than focusing on content.

As a result, I’ve been debating using an online, interactive method of conveying my narrative as opposed to a traditional film.

Businessman pressing virtual icons

This narrative would be less “linear” and act more as a timeline that displays information with firsthand videos and documents accessed by the reader. As a result, the reader can move around more and create their own personalized experience in learning about changes in the music scene. Also, as the music scene continues to develop and change, more people could post and add to this narrative.

The one weakness of this change would be that my ability to convey an argument would be weakened. My ability to control how the narrative functions and is followed is hindered by the increased interactivity and responsibility of the user/reader.

Ultimately, I think that this hurdle of deciding the final form of my project is the next challenge for me to tackle (and fast!)

Hot Tempers in Avignon


I was trying to stall the bus driver with fragments of bad French and Joe was running across the parking lot to find Mame when I heard someone shout my name.

I looked around, but couldn’t see who had called me. The bus driver took my distraction as an opportunity to pull the folding doors closed and step on the gas, leaving me halfway off the sidewalk. When the bus cleared off, I saw Mame across the street, leaning out of a taxi.

“Kaytie, viens! Hurry!”

I hesitated, knowing that Joe wouldn’t know where we were. After a long day that began with getting locked out of our hotel in Avignon and having to lug around camera equipment and a sick baby Malik under the hot summer sun of southern France, we had split up to find the fastest way home; Mame went to the taxi stop to see if one would arrive before the bus, and Joe and I waited at the bus station. But the bus came early and apparently Mame had managed to get a taxi at exactly the same time. So now we were all over the place.

“Kaytie, now!”

I ran across the road. Why was she so urgent?

When I got closer to the taxi, I heard the driver yelling at her. I couldn’t make out all of it, but it was something about how it was against the rules to pick up other people, that he couldn’t believe this sh*t, how she needed to get back in the car.

But when he saw me, he stopped. Not immediately, and he certainly didn’t apologize, but he cooled down from his tirade to a venomous simmer.

Fortunately, Joe came running shortly after me, and we all piled in the taxi. I asked Mame what the driver’s problem was, and she said he was mad because she asked him to pick us up, which was “against the rules.”

“But notice how he stopped yelling when you two arrived?” Mame asked, a big smile on her face, balancing a squirming baby Malik as he climbed all over her and the taxi.

And that’s how Mame almost always deals with racist microaggressions. She waves it off with a smile and a laugh, and usually adds something like, “Aren’t people crazy?” She moves on.

Meanwhile, I was in the passenger seat, boiling. “But this is unacceptable, Mame! We shouldn’t pay for this taxi,” I argued. “He can’t treat you that way!”

“Kaytie, I’m already past it,” she laughed. “I am thinking about how to get this crazy baby to sleep and give him his medicine and if I need to buy more diapers. I can’t let this bother me. I’m already gone.”

And so I dropped it.

The women we interviewed in these past two weeks of production shared similar stories. Elizabeth told us about how people never assume she’s the owner of her art gallery; they always ask if she’s one of the artists, or a secretary. Bintou is always introduced at conferences as a “black choreographer,” never just a choreographer. And Fati was hesitant to say anything controversial, because her Franco-Senegalese food truck just started a new branch in Paris’s business district, and she didn’t want to risk gaining any sort of notoriety.

But even in light of all these unfortunate reminders of why this documentary is so necessary, I was also uplifted and inspired by these women. Each one was pursuing her dreams with high hopes and tenacity, succeeding in spite of those who expect her to fail.

I’m back in the States now, and post-production starts straightaway. I can’t wait to dig into the footage we captured and weave together these amazing stories, and I’m looking forward to sharing those stories with you.

Learn more about my project.

The Jay-Z to my Beyoncé

I just realized that I’ve never introduced you to my Director of Photography, and all-around partner in crime, Joe Hill.

In Prague, after a successful showing of Joe’s production, Surrounded 2.0

In Prague, after a successful showing of Joe’s production, Surrounded 2.0

He’s a fellow student in CMU’s School of Art and will be the primary camera operator on this project. We’ve worked on several films together, including the short promotional videos we shot in Tamil Nadu, India for Visions Global Empowerment. Most of these videos are still in post-production, but you can watch the Dindigul episode here, which we published at the end of last semester.

We’ve definitely learned a lot throughout our adventures about filming on the run and traveling with equipment. One thing is certain; big suitcases are harbingers of death on hilly, cobblestone streets.

Little did I know, this was only the bottom of the hill.

Little did I know, this was only the bottom of the hill.

But I guess it was worth it.

But I guess it was worth it.

And after the hundreds of selfie sticks and outstretched smartphones that bombarded us in Prague, Rome, and Barcelona, we’ve been inspired to consider an idea for a new documentary: Touring the Tourists.

This couple didn’t have a selfie-stick. I was happy to oblige.

This couple didn’t have a selfie-stick. I was happy to oblige.

Anyway, we arrived in Paris last night, and we start filming today at an AfroParisian Network event. Our batteries are charged, our memory cards are formatted, and our permits are secured. It’s time to get to work!

Learn more about my project.

Couchsurfing in Limbo

We begin production in just two weeks, arriving in Paris on July 9th. I’m nervous, of course, but I’m feeling ready to get started.

I’ve been in Europe for about a week now. Under the auspices of CMU’s School of Drama, I was just in the Czech Republic attending the Prague Quadrennial, the biggest international convention for theatrical design in the world. I’m currently in Oslo, Norway, staying with my friend’s extended family here. (Basically, I’m bumming around Europe wherever I can stay for free until we start filming in Paris.)

Yes, those are real. Welcome to the Czech Republic.

Yes, those are real. Welcome to the Czech Republic.

New friends, old traditions: Elin with her formal bunad

New friends, old traditions: Elin with her formal bunad

Before I left the states, Dr. Niang and I decided on how we would approach the interview process with our participants. We chose four diverse individuals to focus most of our time on. We’ll be following these characters throughout their daily routines, with both moving and stationary interviews. Each day will have a different theme of questions:

Day #1: Daily life, and what lies ahead

Day #2: Beauty/sexuality

Day #3: Identity

Day #4: Major events pertaining to religion and race (Charlie Hebdo, 2005 Riots, etc)

Day #5: Fears/struggles/obstacles

I’m excited to get to know these women, and I hope that through us, you can get to know them too.

For now, check out this series by Cecile Emeke, which is my current inspiration.

Read more about my project.