Filmmaker Lise Swenson has made a career out of asking questions — to make “Mission Movie” in 2004 and in her two residencies at the de Young Museum.
In Swenson’s current run as the de Young’s filmmaker-in-residence, her 90 video interviews of artists featured at the museum, including Andy Goldsworthy, Ann Marie Sayers, Meklit Hadero and Catherine Wagner, have been curated into the museum’s new iPhone app, dYinterpretations.
In one of the videos, she follows Goldsworthy as he walks along a skinny crack he made across the de Young’s grounds as a nod to earthquake country. But some people will think the fracture was accidental, he said. In another, a then 21-year-old Kanyon Sayers-Roods sings a somber Chumash Indian song, known as the “Song for Grandmothers.”
By giving a video tour of the museum that features its artists, Swenson hopes people will look at the museum in a different — not “encyclopedic” — way.
It’s not the first time that Swenson, 51, has featured people as part of the museum experience. In 2005, she had video installations in the de Young of interviews with artists and visitors sharing their thoughts on the museum, with monitors placed to reflect her subjects’ heights so they could easily find their interview when they returned to the museum.
“I interviewed 500 people who came to the museum,” she said. “I asked them, ‘What’s the role of the museum in contemporary culture?’”
Her piece gave voice to the fact that visitors wanted the museum’s board of directors to be more transparent about decision-making and let members have a say about museum collections and lectures.
“It was an eye-opening experience because I saw that people have a sense of ownership of the museum,” she said. “I heard from people, ‘I came in as a kid,’ and they’re bringing their kids now.”
Swenson mastered the skill of asking questions in 1995, as a method to engage teenagers in the Real Alternatives Program, an alternative high school that operated at Bryant and 25th streets until 1999.
While collecting stories from students’ lives to create their own short movie, she discovered that turning real stories into art was a formula for success.
It inspired her to found TILT, Teaching Intermedia Literacy Tools, and later helped her make “Mission Movie” with support from Southern Exposure.
“I realized working with the kids that fiction can sometimes create something that’s much closer to the truth than a documentary,” she said.
So when she decided to make a film about the Mission, Swenson spent 12 months interviewing Mission District residents to gather material to “tell the story of the community.”
In the end she produced a multicultural movie featuring a muralist, immigrants and hipsters. “I don’t know all these people,” she said.
“There was no way I could write the story of the Mission — well, unless I was Peter Bratt,” she said, referring to Bratt’s film “La Mission.”
She said 2,000 people came to the film’s sneak preview in 2004, in the then-empty lot across the street from Cell Space. “I cried. As a white woman living in a multicultural neighborhood, to be able to take the lead on that project was an amazing experience, total highlight.”
An earlier learning experience was moving Artists’ Television Access, which she helped found, from SoMa to the Mission in 1987. “We thought, ‘We’ll open our doors to the community!’” she said. “Well, the community said ‘… off!’ You need to legitimize yourself in the community.”
Since then she’s used collaboration and being inquisitive to cement her place in the community. “My slogan is, ‘Just be nice.’ Because this town is too small. I couldn’t pull any of this off without the community.”
Although Swenson has left TILT and ATA, she still teaches in the Cinema Department at San Francisco City College. “I started five years ago, and I think I almost dropped to my knees and kissed the ground,” she said. “It was after teaching at the Art Institute, where people had this privileged, ‘We’re artists’ attitude. But at City College, they teach everybody.”
One of Swenson’s best experiences at City College was recruiting a few of her students to work on a film she was producing, called “Strange Culture,” which was selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 2007. “They went to Sundance as filmmakers! Oh my god, that was so fun.”
Even though she moved to the Mission District in her 20s, Swenson said she feels like she grew up here.
“Walking around the Mission, every street corner has memories. There’s something really special about that. There’s also something really annoying about that!”
While living in a warehouse in Clarion Alley, looking out her window, “I saw people outside selling sex for drugs, and pooping and vomiting. I thought to myself, what really separates myself from them? This wall.”
Despite the grim view, Swenson said she burst into tears the day she walked past Clarion Alley and discovered the warehouse had been torn down. “I’ve learned so much by living here.”
Swenson celebrated turning 50 by keeping a daily blog from August 2009 to August 2010 and taking photos with her iPhone. Her year culminated in a show at 323 Gallery, where she exhibited 150 of her photos and read entries from her blog. “It helped me embrace the next stage of my life,” she said.
Her next project will be in Mile City, Montana, where she will again apply the “TILT method,” as she calls it, and interview residents to create a movie about a problem the community struggles with — teen suicide. “Film is really a tool to explore,” she said. “To speak a truth that really can’t be spoken otherwise.”
On May 27, students in Swenson’s Motion Picture class will present their own short films at ATA, 992 Valencia Street.