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Watch This: Filmmaker Laura Conway Is Unapologetically Nostalgic

Filmmaker Laura Conway has been making art with more than 2,000 FBI documents about her Communist grandparents.EXPAND
Filmmaker Laura Conway has been making art with more than 2,000 FBI documents about her Communist grandparents.
Laura Conway

Filmmaker and artist Laura Conway had big plans for the next couple of months...but most of them have been canceled.

"I am part of the COVID Class of 2020 whose graduation came to a screeching halt," she explains. "I was just about to graduate from CU Boulder's MFA in Studio Arts with a focus on moving-image arts, set to mount a museum show at the CU Boulder Art Museum and attend the Ann Arbor Film Festival to show one of my films. Then the emails started coming in, and everything was canceled."

The Ann Arbor Film Festival, one of the country's premier destinations for avant-garde film, subsequently migrated online, and the entire event was live-streamed. Conway joined filmmakers from all over the world, watching from their homes in Russia, Iran, Cuba and beyond.

"I am so grateful to have a home to work in and for the health of my friends and family, and still I am telling myself it’s okay to mourn those things that could have been," she says.

She's also worried about whether the United States is ready to weather the pandemic.

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"At night I lay awake and worry about this country’s ability to meet this crisis," she explains. "We lack collective thinking. COVID-19 debunks the myths we tell ourselves about our rugged individualism and reveals our true and deep interdependence. It reveals how ill-prepared a health-care system designed for profit is to meet a historic pandemic. And yet I see from the ashes of this crisis an avenue to dismantle structures that weren’t serving most of our people anyway."

While the country sorts out its response to COVID-19, Conway is working from home, creating work with partner and longtime collaborator Ben Donehower. They're recording a new album with their band, Petite Garcon, called Let Go of Stress, and just released a music video for their song "No Going Back."

"This film, shot on one roll of Super 8 film, hand-processed and barely edited, shows my young cousins dressed up and brawling," Conway notes. "In the midst of this pandemic, when we see bodies outside our fortified homes as dangerous sources of potential infection, I need to see these children hug, fight, and fling their bodies at each other with reckless abandon.

"This film is also, quite obviously, about time," she continues. "It is not edited at the frantic pace of many music videos desperately trying to keep your attention, and allows the actions to unfold uncut. It speeds up and slows down time. We are all experiencing time differently right now: Global reality changes by the hour, and yet the present is elongated as time is measured by this curve we are trying to flatten."

Conway also made a film for Donehower's new song "Dreamin' Free." She shot the project on Super 8 and 16mm film at an Italian roller disco party at Skate City.

"These were joyous nights starting after most go to sleep and going until the first light of morning," Conway says. "This film is unapologetically nostalgic, even more so now that our bodies are so regulated and the community is unable to come together for music and dance."

In addition to the music videos she's been producing, Conway is busy finishing her thesis film for graduate school, which tells the story of her grandparents, Billie and Dave Bramhall, Communists who lived in Denver in the ’40s and ’50s and were tried by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

"They spent ten years of their lives hiding their true identity from all who knew them, dedicated to overthrowing the capitalist system," Conway says. "They also fought police brutality in Mexican-American communities in Denver and organized alongside civil rights leaders protesting segregation."

Conway started making the film half a decade ago, after filing a Freedom of Information Act request for her grandparents and receiving 2,000 documents that the FBI had collected about them over thirty years. She has tried to process the information through a variety of projects; she wrote a play, animated the documents, created a dance project with them, and even bathed in them.

Below is an excerpt from the film, which includes music from the Working Girls, a Houston-based band:

Since Conway started the project, both of her grandparents — longtime supporters of universal health care and Senator Bernie Sanders — have passed away.

"I am haunted by this lost future, that they believed so completely they could end capitalism and create a more just economy," Conway says, "when for me, as the saying goes, 'It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.'"

This weekend, Conway is hosting a virtual dance party with Meghan Meehan, The Nightshift, which had previously been held at the Meadowlark. The virtual event is a fundraiser for Urban Peak's COVID-19 Crisis Assistance Fund.

"I care about events, and community, and I miss being in the same room with other humans watching films, dancing and listening to live music," Conway laments. "I also go crazy without moving my body, and so I am now taking movement and dance classes online, and I think these movement practitioners are providing heroic essential services. ..."

"There is a solidarity of being together, alone, at the same time, enduring together these long days," she continues.

She points to Zoom meetups, artist Instagram feeds and an epic list of experimental films as examples of people figuring out how to share this moment, despite the isolation.

"With that," she adds, "I am excited about seeing artists thinking of new ways to collaborate across distance and with limited resources."

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