February is Women in Horror Month. Every Tuesday this month, I’ll be featuring an interview with an excellent woman in horror!
Today, I’m featuring Robyn Citizen. Robyn works with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and has her PhD in Genre and Race Film Studies; with a special interest in horror and sci-fi. Read on to learn more about this amazing woman and the work she’s done in film and film study.
Sonora: You have your PhD in Genre and Race Film Studies (which sounds amazing). When did you first become interested in film as art? As commentary? As academic study?
Robyn: I became interested in film very young because I come from a family of movie watchers. My dad — history buff — in particular liked to watch older films and go on about the history around their release and how they were received. So I knew who Hitchcock was at an early age and since I was born liking horror and scary things, he was the filmmaker who stuck with me as I watched movies with my parents.
I’ve always had both an analytical and fan approach to films and wrote movie reviews for my high school newspaper, but was a Government major in university because I didn’t know that you could make a living in film outside of film production (turns out you can’t for the most part lol). I worked for a social justice nonprofit after graduating and hemmed and hawed between going to law school or grad school for film. When I got into NYU for Cinema Studies that made my decision for me! I earned my PhD with honours in 2015.
Sonora: As a fellow film studies student, I’m curious about your thoughts on the current state of film academia. What’s lacking in an average film studies program? What do these programs do well?
Robyn: At NYU I always thought it was weird how separate they kept film studies from film production. I wanted to take editing classes and it was discouraged. I had to get internships at production companies and talent agencies to apply what I was learning to the day-to-day workings of the industry. Also, depending on the film studies program they don’t concentrate enough on professionalization and what you can do outside of academia because there are not enough professor positions to justify the number of people with humanities postgrad degrees, unfortunately; so we have to find other places to go! What academia does well is allow you to really specialize and do a deeper dive into your niche of choice. Who else would let me write at length about representations of blackness in japanese cinema?
Sonora: What is a dream course you would teach? Conversely, what have been some of your favorite courses that you have taught?
Robyn: Asian Horror Cinema was my baby, I proposed it to the Department of Asian Studies at UBC [University of British Columbia] and they approved it. I built the curriculum and screening list on my own. It was my favorite class to teach as a horror fan and as someone who is mainly interested in transnational, cross-cultural encounters in film, but Korean Cinema was a close second. I taught that latter course for the better part of five years so I am beyond thrilled to see what’s happening for Bong Joon-ho since I would teach Memories of Murder in every semester of Korean cinema and gush about how it was a perfect film and how he was The Korean Director of his generation.
Sonora: You say you have a penchant for erotic thrillers from the ‘90s. What do you love about them? What are some of your favorites?
Robyn: And the 80s! Erotic thrillers genuinely have interesting roles for women — not positive roles necessarily but complex, interesting, powerful. They tend to directly confront how sexuality for women is punished or transactional in this society in a way that most rom-coms only address obliquely or accidentally. This definitely has roots in my affection for Lifetime movies and the woman-in-peril TV movie genre which I grew up watching on cable. Also, these films are totally over the top which makes the woman’s punishment seem less egregious somehow because its already bracketed by the unreality of the film. The histrionics draw attention to the films’ own problematic characterizations and plot twists.
I remember seeing Jagged Edge AND Fatal Attraction in the theatre with my parents — I was 5 and 7, so not my parents best parenting choices for sure; but they had a big effect on me. And of course Jeff Bridges is the seducer in Jagged Edge while Glenn Close is the slow-on-the-uptake dupe so that gender flip was very productive for me when I rewatched the film as a tween. I also love The Last Seduction and Basic Instinct as the peak quality works of the subgenre, and Body of Evidence and Sliver as truly dumber, yet hilarious examples of the subgenre.
Sonora: How long have you been interested in horror films?
Robyn: My whole life! But horror literature came first for me. I’m hyperlexic and was reading at 2, then onto dark fairy tales, then Fear Street and Christopher Pike books, then Stephen King books by 9. One year later I watched Nightmare on Elm Street 3 at a sleepover and it utterly blew. my. mind. I was an anxious kid and still an anxious person and somehow horror’s worst case scenarios are therapeutic for me to watch. It’s a safe space to play out what I would do if the Worst Case came to pass.
Also, Stephen King in particular resonated with me as a black girl growing up in the U.S. because his stories are all about familiar, even friendly things — cars, dogs, drains, cameras, libraries — becoming menacing. It may sound funny because he’s not known for his balanced crafting of characters of colour in The Green Mile and The Shining for example. However, the experience of being a racialized person in Texas was one of doing regular things throughout your day, but being constantly confronted by micro and macro-aggressions as you move through the world. I’d be around people and friends I thought I was cool with and suddenly someone would tell a racist joke or ask a crazy question or I’d be singled out to be followed in a store — people having such a strong reaction to you simply existing in a certain body is a surreal, often horrific and violent experience.
Sonora: Recent films like Get Out and Us have opened up new conversations about Black horror films, but Black horror has been around for much longer than 2017. What are your thoughts on the way Black people and their experiences are treated in horror films? What do you think is done well? What do you think could be done better?
Robyn: I think black characters are not treated as badly in horror films in terms of the popular discourse about us always dying first. However, it’s more relational about how we die and then how are those deaths treated in the text of the film? Do the other characters just move on without registering it or is the death solely to advance the plot? Is it much more gory and focused on facial suffering and abject fear than other deaths? That’s the real issue for me and something that overlaps with non-final girl white women characters in horror films. Horror tells us a lot about who is valued in our culture and what traits are valued in our culture, what is worthy of protection and what is disposable.
Generally, horror films don’t deal directly with black experiences, rather those experiences are allegorized and mapped onto the monsters — the things that make them monstrous and their outsider quality are the traits that racist culture has historically associated with blackness. Get Out is not the first horror film to use black experiences but it is one of the first mainstream horror films to be so explicit about depicting whiteness — the historical construct and how it is practiced — as something monstrous.
Sonora: You also study Asian cult cinema. What are some of your favorites? How do Asian cult films compare to American cult films? In your experience, how do audience reactions to both compare?
Robyn: Some of my fave Asian cult films are Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, and Mystics in Bali. It’s hard to say how Asian cult films as a group compares to American cult films because there is such a wide range of what constitutes “cult”. But in my experience sexploitation and sexual violence seems to feature in more Asian cult films (and European ones) than American cult which are often given that designation for transgressive gore, body horror, and cheesiness or kitschy elements related to production value and ironic reception.
Sonora: What have been your experiences as a Black cinema studies professor and doctoral student? What have been your experiences as a woman?
Robyn: I was the only black student in my M.A. and PhD program and while I made some friends in those programs and there was one black tenured prof who was great, it was a very lonely experience. Particularly challenging is when you choose a dissertation topic that is partially based on your identity and only one other person in the program is well-versed in that literature.
My proposal process was a mess. I had to frontload it with all this literature review and arguments that black-Japanese cinematic encounters were an actual thing, and something that could be traced and studied because there weren’t any book-length texts on black-Japanese cinematic encounters in the film studies canon. I incorporated a lot of sociological information and political history in my project and there was resistance to that as well. The professor leading the proposal seminar chose to tell me that my proposal likely would not pass two weeks before it was due. I ended up rewriting everything 3 times before the proposal defense, which I passed.
I really wish that me and the other women in my cohort had been more of a unified group but it was very “every scholar for him or herself” and people were more concerned with networking. The offshoot of this emotionally and professionally alienating experience was that I worked very hard to perfect my dissertation and therefore, my defense was very relaxed and short. My committee mostly spent time complimenting my prose and my project — I couldn’t believe it because it had been such a torturous process! — before telling me that I passed with distinction.
My grad school experience had a good outcome on paper but was also quite traumatic, and I struggle with imposter syndrome and serious anxiety around writing that did not exist prior to grad school, to this day. My advice to other women of color and white women is to find your people as soon as you can and form writing support groups or even ‘whine and wine venting sessions’ (these exist apparently!) and yes, zero in on mentors that can help you professionalize and understand how your racial, gender identities will affect your career trajectory. Friends that have done these things have come out of their M.A. and PhD programs in a much better place and even find tenure-track appointments faster.
Sonora: What are some of your favorite movies? Who are some of your favorite directors?
Robyn: I have a rotating list of fave movies but the ones that have been most influential to me are: Sex, Lies and Videotape by [Steven] Soderbergh, Blue by Krzysztof Kieslowski, and She’s Gotta Have It by Spike Lee. Probably add Nightmare on Elm Street 3 to that!
Right now my favorite directors are Masaki Kobayashi, Hong Song-soo, Bong Joon-ho, Agnes Varda, Charles Burnett, Mary Harron, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Byun Young-joo, David Cronenberg, and I’m very excited to see more from Nia DeCosta and Carol Nguyen.
Sonora: What are some of your favorite books? Who are some of your favorite authors?
Robyn: I was in a real Stephen King and Haruki Murakami rut for years because I prefer short stories and horror/weird fiction, both of which can be really bad in the wrong hands; so it was easier to stick to the people who I know do it well. Short stories are a more precise medium in my opinion. But, I became increasingly annoyed with Murakami’s portrayal of women in his later works so I had to branch out. Finally, this year I’ve discovered other writers! I’ve been enjoying Tananarive Due, Eden Royce, Carmen Maria Machado, Charles Yu, Nnedi Okorofor, Ted Chiang, Octavia Butler, Ramsey Campbell, and others. These aren’t new writers but they’re new to me!
Sonora: If you were in charge of making a movie — your perfect movie — what would it be about? What would its style be?
Robyn: Even though I’m a genre person when I write creatively what comes out are these chamberplay type dramas with surreal elements. It would probably look like a cross between a Hong Sang-soo film, [Ousmane] Sembene’s Black Girl and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant – very precise framing and blocking.
About Robyn Citizen:
Robyn Citizen, PhD is the International Programmer for Short Cuts at the Toronto International Film Festival. Her primary programming interests are in representations of race, ethnicity and national identity and the horror/science-fiction genres. She was a lecturer in the departments of Asian Studies and Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia from 2012-2017, has written critical analyses for edited collections, is board co-chair of Breakthroughs Film Festival, and served on juries for the Philadelphia Film Festival, Reelworld Film Festival, and the Norwegian Short Film Festival.
Read her forthcoming book chapter on Get Out: https://ohiostatepress.org/books/titles/9780814214275.html
Read her just-released chapter on Asian Cult cinema: https://www.routledge.com/The-Routledge-Companion-to-Cult-Cinema-1st-Edition/Mathijs-Sexton/p/book/9781138950276