Oregon Lens is celebrating its 15th year on OPB. The program takes the pulse of the Oregon independent film community, highlighting quality cinematic works from seasoned professionals to students. View the broadcast schedule.
Filmmaker Ariane Kunze is not afraid to get personal. And with her compassionate demeanor, it’s easy to see how she could encourage almost anyone to open up to her. Kunze is currently wrapping up her master’s degree in multimedia journalism at the University of Oregon, and three of her short films are featured in this year’s Oregon Lens series on OPB TV.
Arts & Life recently talked with Kunze about what how she got interested in filmmaking, what inspires her, and what she’ll be working on next.
Q & A with Ariane Kunze
Arts & Life: Tell me about yourself. What got you interested in filmmaking?
Ariane Kunze: I grew up in Newberg, Oregon, which is kind of a small country town. It was about my senior year in high school that I thought, “What am I going to do for college?” I kind of thought about journalism, but wasn’t sure, but then I did a huge project on photojournalism and I was like, “Ooh, this is cool!” I picked U of O because it had such a wide range of majors, and then I started taking journalism classes and realized, “OK, this is where I fit in.”
I love storytelling! I’ve always known that since I was a little kid. I used to make books for fun and draw my own pictures. My first internship was at the News Register in McMinnville doing feature writing news reporting, that was between my sophomore and junior years in college. It was super-crazy intense. I was running around writing tons of stories, probably between 20 to 30 a week. It was kind of overwhelming, but at the same time it helped me realize that I really want to be on the visual side of things. At that time the News Register was developing a multimedia outlet … It was there that I created this multimedia piece about a human trafficking survivor, and I was super into it. It was so cool putting video and photo together with their story. From that I had a little bit of work to show and so they asked me to jump on board and offered to pay me to do multimedia stuff. So I finished off that summer doing that, and that’s when I realized that this is what I want to do.
What first really got me going was the issue of human trafficking in Portland. I had so many connections and was involved with so many different people in various groups, and I started finding all these survivors who wanted to share their stories and I could help them tell them. We would do these long, in-depth interviews and then I would just kind of hang out with them, go to church with them, hang out at their house and film their daily lives to create these beautiful pieces that they could then use for their advocacy. I could use them, too, to talk about the issue, or to give to different non-profits or whatnot. That was where I first realized, ‘OK, I can capture that story and that emotion and tell that to large audiences,’ and it was really interesting to me.
A&L: Tell me about some of the things you’ve been working on recently.
AK: I created the Elvis piece [Fake It Until You Make It] toward the end of my senior year at U of O, and that was kind of the big moment for me of like, ‘Oh, I’m maybe finally starting to get it a little bit.’ I graduated only a year ago and since then have been doing mostly freelance stuff. I’ve been at the Oregon Sexual Assault Task Force helping them create an Oregon Survivor Voices video, which is basically interviewing survivors of sexual assault. They are then put into small vignettes that are used to educate law enforcement and counselors and nurses about sexual assault. They tell their stories and then those are used for them to then know how they should handle a situation with a survivor. I’ve been there for about a year off and on and I’ll be wrapping that up at the end of the summer.
I also just finished teaching a digital storytelling and photography class to third- through fifth-graders at schools in Portland and Gresham. That has been really cool. I am about to start editing all of the content from that soon. For that the kids were able to take home cameras. Some had digital, some had disposable, and they were able to photograph their lives for a week. We’ll pull all of that material together with video interviews and sound bites of them talking about their lives so they can tell their own stories. A lot of them are immigrant students, and a lot come from totally diverse different backgrounds. The kids get a copy of it and then it’s also going to be used throughout the school district for family services to educate people coming in about the kids and their lives and what reality is for them.
A&L: What was it like to produce the three films that are featured in Oregon Lens?
AK: La Vida was a character profile piece I did for my grad program. My friend Emily who I worked on it with said, ‘Hey, I know this guy who works at the MAC counter. He recently showed up to work one day dressed like a woman and Nordstrom pulled him aside and told him he needed to pick a gender so he wouldn’t confuse customers.’ Even though he was dressed under dress code, he was totally modest and everything. He got upset about that and talked to management and got it dealt with and they apologized to him.
From that we decided to do a piece about gender discrimination, so that’s how the story started. But then when it came to the actual character profile, we found out that he also does drag and decided that would be a good angle to approach it from. He invited us to come on back to his dressing room for a night and just hang out … We stepped inside of this dressing room, it was tiny and dark and super-packed, and there were guys everywhere … They didn’t seem to care at all that we were there with cameras, which was great. I loved seeing them do all this crazy different makeup that I could never do, and getting to then see them up on stage. They were so much more feminine than I could ever be. Being so close to these people that I didn’t know before was an awesome experience.
The Bowling for Life and Fake It Until You Make It videos were similarly surprising, and great experiences. They were both these characters who seemed fun and positive, but had these underlying issues they were dealing with. Like with Elvis [Fake It Until You Make It], I thought, ‘Oh, this is just going to be this fun little piece about how quirky this guy is.’ But then it turned out that in our interview he just totally opened up and told me how he and his wife had just separated, and his dog just died, and he just had double hernia surgery. His dad had recently died so he moved back home with his mom. He said it was kind of like the real Elvis because at Graceland he also lived with his whole family. So he had all this crazy emotional stuff going on in his life, but he always had to pull himself together to perform for people. Becoming Elvis and performing kind of takes him out of that situation, and having people clap for him and cheer him on seems to help him heal and get through it all. It’s cool to see how everyone’s got something going on in their life, but they have to pull it together and keep going anyways.
A&L: Do you have a day job?
AK: I work at a clothing store to make money. Also the schoolwork has been paying a little.
A&L: Do you have any future projects coming up?
AK: I’m currently working on my thesis for grad school. I knew I wanted to do something more with human trafficking. That’s an issue that’s really close to my heart and a lot of the kind of reporting that I’m moving into deals with women’s issues, social issues, and how to tell these stories to impact the world and bring about change.
A&L: A lot of your subjects seem very personal. How do you approach them?
AK: A lot of what I do is getting to know the people first. I’ve been involved with the issue of sex trafficking by being a part of different organizations for long enough now that I know a lot about it, so I know how to approach the people. And building trust is so big. I’m still building trust with some people.
A&L: What have you learned from your work that you could pass along?
AK: Being super in tune with your subjects and aware is the biggest thing I’ve learned through all of this. You have to take the step to hang out with them and do things like go to church with them or have coffee, or whatever, so that you build up trust and they are comfortable with you being a part of their everyday lives.
Also, I think it is important to always be flexible, and be open to totally regrouping your story. Don’t be afraid to throw out what you had in mind before and start over, because I feel like a lot of times you might be able to dive in head first and people seem to feel comfortable with you, but then all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Sorry, we don’t want to work with you anymore, we want to close off our private life.’ At that point you’re stuck with what you have and have to try to make a story with it or you have to completely turn it around. Just don’t become too attached to your work that you are devastated when something doesn’t work out. Be able to think of a story in many different ways and find many different avenues to one story.
Watch Ariane Kunze’s films Fake It Until You Make It and La Vida on August 28 at 10 p.m. and Bowling for Life on August 30 at 10 p.m. on OPB TV.