Posters for Selina Miles’ documentary Martha: A Picture Story are emblazoned with the claim that it offers “eighty of the happiest minutes documentary-lovers are likely to spend in a theatre”. That’s not pull-quote hyperbole — the film makes good on its promise. With the cheery personality of legendary street art photographer Martha Cooper at its center, this is a film that emphasises the joy of looking, exploring, and being curious.
In some documentaries, formal technique falls by the wayside, with filmmakers relying solely on the ‘interestingness’ of the content itself. Not so for Miles, whose rigorous approach to cinematography and editing (see her viral short film Limitless) ensures that Martha: A Picture Story is both engrossing and fun to look at. It’s only fitting for a film about the pleasure of pictures.
Ivana Brehas sat down with director Selina Miles to discuss the film ahead of its Australian release.
Ivana Brehas: This film made me so happy! Martha is such a vibrant figure. I really appreciate that it was such a joyful film. I found it interesting when she was talking to that gallery director who said “We don’t want smiles” — like art isn’t taken seriously if it’s joyful.
Selina Miles: Yeah, I’m really grateful to Steven Kasher, ‘cause it was at a point where we were like “Gosh, no-one has anything bad to say about her. What are we gonna do? There’s no conflict or friction in this story whatsoever.” The day we shot that, I didn’t remember it being a weird thing to say. Sometimes when you’re shooting you’re more focused on the sound or the picture — but when I watched it back in the edit I was like, “This is interesting.” I think it’s not what he says that stitches him up — it’s when she says, “Why?” and he can’t explain it. He says, “Oh, that’s just the way things are.” I do understand he’s running a business and is expected to uphold a certain level of artistic integrity, but it’s interesting — I still don’t know how I feel about it.
IB: It almost seemed to be a recurring thing where people had an idea of the images they wanted to see. Martha was sent out to take photos where they expected a riot and was like, “Oh, they’re just dancing.” When people are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, people are expecting narratives of violence and sadness. Even graffiti — it’s framed as crime, not art.
SM: Yeah, she has a very joyful outlook on the world, and very unbiased. Actually, no, she’s almost biased towards seeing the positive in things, which is really inspiring. It’s nice to spend time with her. I also think you had to be like that to survive in the world that she was trying to survive in in the ‘70s. If she’d allowed herself to believe anyone that told her she couldn’t do it, she wouldn’t have gotten very far. She’s very independent in her thoughts.
IB: Do you feel like that’s what led you to her as a subject? You’re also a woman who loves graffiti, and you’ve been documenting it for years…
SM: It was a bit of coincidence, a bit of luck, and a bit of guidance from friends that led us together, I think. There’s a blog called Brooklyn Street Art, and I was in Detroit talking to one of the writers from that, Steve Harrington [not to be confused with Stranger Things’ Steve Harrington, who is a fictional character]. This is before I had the idea to make this film. I was like, “Oh, I wanna make a video about this artist, and this artist, and this person, and Martha Cooper, and this person…” and he kind of stopped and was like, “Selina, you should really do that. Now is the time. Go for it, seriously.” And I think he went and talked to Martha as well and was like, “You should let her do this.” So he was the one that really connected the dots. But me and Martha were working together in Tahiti at a festival for two years before I asked her. I think that was a good way to access her, because we were on that work level together. I’d drive the car around and she’d be in the passenger seat. It wasn’t like I approached her out of the blue, which I think people have done before. That’s a very difficult thing to ask somebody. I’ve had ideas for other documentary subjects, and the thought of emailing someone or approaching them cold is like… how would you even do that? And how is someone supposed to respond? “I wanna make a documentary about your life.” They’d be like, “What?”
IB: Yeah, it’s a big thing to trust you with.
IB: What were you two working on for two years?
SM: There was an annual street art festival in Tahiti. The first year when I turned up, I was the videographer and she was the photographer. It was just a coincidence that we were there together. On the third year of us doing that together, I asked her.
IB: One of the things that really impressed me about the film was the editing. There seemed to be a tidal wave of archival photos and stuff you had to work with. How did you get through it all and put it all together?
SM: Full credit to Simon Njoo, my editor. He’s an absolute genius of a man. He also edited The Nightingale (2018) and The Babadook (2014). He’s such a smart man, and he really helped guide me, but also has the confidence to say, “This is your film and I’m here to help you achieve your vision.” He said that to me a bunch. It was like his mantra throughout the process, which is so lovely. It was really us working together. As far as curating the photos, that was a really hard job. There were whole catalogues we had to leave out. Also, a lot of Martha’s images individually are great, but their real power is in the series. When we open the film, she says she thinks in collections. She’ll have a collection of 100 signs on front doors in Baltimore, and if you saw one, you’d be like, ‘I don’t know what I’m looking at,’ but if you see the series it tells this incredible story about the neighbourhood. Deciding what to do with those was difficult. There’s hundreds of thousands of images to choose from.
IB: Do you have a favourite Martha image?
SM: There’s an image of the boy that first introduced her to graffiti, and he’s standing on a rooftop in 1970s New York holding up a pigeon. A lot of the kids would fly pigeons. I feel like it’s such a great symbol of so much of what her work is about — people getting out there and rising above the shit they have to deal with. It’s such a light, beautiful moment, and this boy is totally engaged in what he’s doing, and it’s compositionally perfect. That’s probably one of my favourites, but there are so many to choose from.
IB: There’s a moment in the film where, just for a second, there’s a photo of someone holding a big block of ice. That really struck me in terms of photography’s ability to capture a moment. The ice will melt. Same with the graffiti — it goes away. I’d never thought of how specifically valuable it is to document graffiti, because it can disappear in ways that other art doesn’t.
SM: Totally. I think that’s what makes it special, and what’s caused it to evolve so quickly as an art form. It’s not like someone creates a work and it gets hung in a museum and stays there forever, you know? It might last a week or a month. It’s such a symbiotic relationship between graffiti and photography. To this day, it’s still the same.
IB: What led you to it? Why are you interested in graffiti?
SM: Growing up in Brisbane I had friends who were interested in it. Some of them were a little bit older than me, and they were so good by the time that I met them that I was never like, ‘I’m gonna try and learn how to do this,’ because I saw that it was something very, very difficult that they were very good at. So I started documenting it as a way to participate, and I sort of fell in love with it. The other really important moment for me was the first time I went overseas with a friend of mine who did graffiti. I’d been making these videos for this local spray paint brand, and we put them online, and they had my name in the credits, and when I arrived to Portugal for the first time, I was about 25, all these Portuguese people knew who I was. They were like, “Come and stay at my house, come have dinner with me and my wife, let’s go paint this wall.” Just immediate friendship. It’s such a community. And that happened in every city, and it still happens today. It makes you feel a sense of belonging to something, which is nice.
IB: You see that in the documentary, with people coming up to Martha and hugging her. And in Berlin, those people took you two along to break into a train station and do graffiti. How does that work, legally, as a filmmaker?
SM: I wasn’t too worried about myself. I think it’d be a bit of a stretch for anyone to try and prosecute a journalist or someone making a documentary for a crime like that — or any crime, really. One of the people I met throughout this process is Erin Casper, who edits a lot of Laura Poitras’s films, and I’m like, ‘If Laura Potiras can fly around the world and do the stuff that she’s doing with Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, then I’m sure no-one cares that I’m filming this.’ But we did worry about Martha, for sure. We got legal opinions in three countries. Everyone said it would be unprecedented for a photographer to be charged with something like that. Luckily we still live in a democracy, and freedom of information is a big thing — but yeah, we had to be very careful in protecting people’s identities. It was a bit of a steep learning curve, knowing how to handle the data and stuff, but it was a worthwhile risk to take to tell the story. I felt like we needed to see that.
I read a review this morning that said, “I never thought about how exciting it would be to do that,” and I was like, “Good!” Once you see it, you can see why people would want to do it. And maybe they’re not doing it to beautify. A lot of people that dislike graffiti say, “I like colourful street art, but graffiti looks ugly. I don’t understand why you’d do that.” What I usually say to them is, “Maybe it’s not there for you as a member of the public. Maybe that message isn’t for you. It’s not trying to be beautiful,” and they go, “Oh, maybe you’re right.” I think that [Berlin scene] shows that. It’s about the game and the challenge, and sometimes it’s about communication. It’s not trying to be beautiful.
IB: You get an exhilarating feeling watching it, a feeling of being there.
SM: Yeah. Hopefully. [laughs]
IB: I’m interested in your experience — as both a filmmaker and someone who’s part of this graffiti community — of what your job is like for women now, and what it was like for Martha. She seems to be really loved and respected in the community, but then at work she was the only woman, and maybe wasn’t always getting that in her workplace.
SM: I think that Martha’s interest and participation in graffiti has always been very professional. She doesn’t hang out. I mean, she does a little bit more nowadays, but I know back in the ‘70s and ‘80s — and the guys that I spoke to attest to this — she was all business. She’d turn up, take the photos and leave. She was kind to people, but she wasn’t wanting to be anyone’s friend. I think it was a very mutually beneficial relationship, because a lot of these guys didn’t have good quality cameras of their own, so both parties got something out of it. I think it’s different now for women who are participating in graffiti more, but I can’t really speak to that, because I’m not one of them. It’s a hard question, because you do hear stories of the ways that women get treated, and I’d never want to denigrate that experience, because it’s definitely out there, but I’ve been really lucky. I feel, personally, that I’ve been welcomed in this community based on the merit of my work. I’m not saying sexism doesn’t exist, because it definitely does, but I feel like more than a lot of industries — more than the film industry — I feel like graffiti is very inclusive. It can often be a pretty ragtag bunch of outsiders to begin with, so I feel people can be pretty accepting. But I’m really inspired by Martha’s style of feminism, which is like, “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do anything. Just get on with it, and fuck ‘em if they don’t like it.” She’s so impossible to put down or say no to. She’s such a power force. She’s so confident and sure of what she wants out of life. I really find that inspiring.
Martha: A Picture Story is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She also makes lil videos. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.