Film In Conversation
Christine Sloan Stoddard with Regina Beach
Sirena’s Gallery is Christine Sloan Stoddard’s first feature film, which she wrote, directed, and starred in.
Christine Sloan Stoddard
Christine Sloan Stoddard is a Salvadoran-American writer, artist, and filmmaker based in New York City. An MFA graduate of the City College of New York, she works in disciplines ranging from poetry and playwriting to watercolor, sculpture, mixed-media collage, and film. Stoddard’s parents met during the Salvadoran Civil War (1979–92) and settled outside of Washington, D.C. Stoddard, a multi-disciplinary conceptual artist, runs Quail Bell Press & Productions, which engages with the themes of identity, feminism, mental health awareness, and the Latin American diaspora.
Sirena’s Gallery (2021) is Stoddard’s first feature film, which she wrote, directed, and starred in. Having debuted August 27 at the Byrd Theatre in Richmond, Virginia (where much of the film was shot), it chronicles the grief and struggles of gallery owner Sirena who is mourning her husband’s death by suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic. We chatted over Zoom this summer about destigmatizing mental health issues, the power structures of who gets to make and curate art, and what it means to connect to your heritage as an adult.
Regina Beach (Rail): What is your background? How did you become interested in filmmaking?
Christine Sloan Stoddard: My father is a documentary filmmaker. He met my mother while he was working for NBC during the Civil War in El Salvador. He’s a native New Yorker. My mother was working as a secretary at a law firm during that time, and they met at a Christmas party that was held by San Salvador’s NBC bureau. So really, the entire origin of my being revolves around television, the news, and storytelling.
Rail: How did you transition from shorter projects to Sirena’s Gallery, your first feature film?
Stoddard: In college, one of our assignments was to write a feature film script. The head of my program, Robert Tregenza, told us that all of us should be preparing to one day make a feature. We might get one shot.
For me, that was never good enough. I was always interested in using my first feature as a stepping stone. With the pandemic, the way opportunities collided, I was awarded this residency at 1708 Gallery in Richmond, Virginia. I was living in New York City, and I went down for that residency where I had the gallery to myself for two weeks.
Throughout my grad school program, I had been thinking about power structures and art and galleries: who has power, who doesn’t.
During grad school, I had the chance to go to El Salvador and do a residency at an archive for artwork that had been produced during the El Salvador Civil War. During that residency, I was thinking about: Who has the power? Who gets to own a gallery? Who gets to decide what artwork goes in the gallery? Who’s buying the art?
During my thesis project, I thought more about an actual character as a gallerist. And that served as the basis for Sirena, the character in the film. I finished my MFA in 2019. When I was given the gallery at 1708, I just figured, you know what? Why not? When else are you going to get a gallery totally to yourself? Just make it. Just do it. So I did.
Rail: How did COVID-19 factor into Sirena’s Gallery?
Stoddard: I was imagining conversations with gallery patrons. But because of the pandemic, I had to do everything over Zoom. I shot in May 2020 at a point where we were not really sure where things were going. I really had to be safe. It was very strange to go from New York, where entire neighborhoods seemed to have emptied out, to Richmond, Virginia, which was much more vibrant than New York during that time. I had to work around not being able to play off of other actors in real time with the exception of the person who played Quinn, who was my real life quarantine partner.
Rail: Can you give a brief synopsis of Sirena’s Gallery and what type of audience you had in mind when you were creating the film?
Stoddard: It is about a gallerist who lives in the South and has recently lost her husband just as the pandemic is starting. She is rapidly adjusting to the world of e-commerce so that she can stay afloat during the pandemic. Anyone who enjoys art house, anyone who enjoys independent film, experimental narratives, would be this film’s kind of audience.
Rail: Your character’s mental health is front and center. How did you tackle the topic?
Stoddard: Even before the pandemic, I considered how lonely this kind of work would be and how little support that the art market has. The art market itself is very commercial. And then anything else falls under nonprofit, but the government doesn’t provide a lot of support for nonprofits, so there’s so much independent fundraising that happens. There’s a lot of dependency on philanthropists. And of course, most of those philanthropists got rich from Wall Street, from oil, from pharmaceuticals, from big things that we as artists are often told we should oppose. Okay, yeah, I oppose these things, in theory, but I also have to eat, and the funding has to come from somewhere. When the pandemic hit, I was still thinking about all the ways that our government was not supporting us as people overall. We were forced to be extra resourceful for those of us who had any hope of remaining in film.
Rail: What about the broader topic of destigmatizing mental health, especially in the Latin community? Where would you like to see that conversation go?
Stoddard: In my family, there are so many mental health issues that are never discussed. And this is very discouraging, and very painful. A lot of Latin communities say, “We don’t need therapy. We don’t need the health system to intervene. We don’t wash dirty laundry in public.”
Even my father, who experienced wartime as a journalist, would say, “I just don’t understand how we can worry about mental health when people are starving.” My mother will say similar things, that the priority needs to be on physical health. Our mental health is important, and it does have to be a priority. We should be allowed to talk about suicide, about depression, grief. Grief is something that everyone experiences at some point. We need to talk about things that happened. I understand that people don’t talk about it because of shame. Well, let’s remove the shame. Let’s remove the stigma.
Rail: As a Salvadoran-American artist, how much of your own experience gets woven into the film?
Stoddard: The archival footage in the film is from 2018. That was the first time that I went to El Salvador in my life. And I was 29. So I was actually older than my mother was when she left her home country for the United States. She left and then she just didn’t return. There were things related to mental health in her family that just caused so much shame. I really had no connection to the country besides having a mother who was from there and having parents who had met during the Civil War. My mom tried to cut us off as much as possible, because she didn’t like where she was from.
Rail: Did you feel a connection when you were in El Salvador? Or did it feel foreign to you?
Stoddard: It felt so strange. Our mother was born in San Salvador, but because of family difficulties, she had to go live with her aunts in a very small town. I remember when my sibling and I went there, we just started crying, because it was so poor. It was because of survivor’s guilt more than anything else. Just the idea of us living there, and especially with my dad, being an Anglo who speaks no Spanish, that would have been impossible in so many ways.
It felt like I was visiting this mythical place because I had built it up in my head so much. It was almost like finding out Santa Claus doesn’t exist, except you’re almost 30 years old. There’s not the same kind of writing or movies about El Salvador [as other Latin countries]. I had no choice but to build something in my head.
Rail: You run a feminist publication, produce a podcast, write books—how do you divide your time?
Stoddard: I divide my time quite pragmatically. I have to think about logistics, how I’m going to finance projects, where I’m going to make them, what materials I need, how am I going to acquire those materials.
I am working on promoting Sirena’s Gallery. I have a book of plays with my coauthor Justice Hehir. I have a play that is based upon some similar themes that appear in Sirena’s Gallery. I have a three-person nationally-juried show at the Howard County Center for the Arts in Maryland. The exhibition is about different ways we have navigated our identities [as Latin artists], and for me, a lot of it has to do with loss and disconnection: loss of heritage, loss of culture not passed down from generations, and secrets.