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Vox Voice Podcast: Episode 9 - Barbie Banks, Camellia Cosgray, Arin Liberman

Banks, Cosgray and Liberman have put their heads together to help make True/False Film Fest possible next May

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True/False Podcast Photo

Arin Liberman, Barbie Banks and Camellia Cosgray.

Barbie Banks, Camellia Cosgray and Arin Liberman are co-custodians of Ragtag Film Society and have played an integral role in making sure our beloved True/False film fest is still able to happen amidst the pandemic. Hear about their plans for the fest, their favorite movies and the potential future of documentary film. 

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Episode Transcript 

Jesse Baalman, 1:00: Thank you guys for joining me this morning or this afternoon. Let's jump right into it. What are each of your roles as co executive directors?

Barbie Banks, 1:10: Now we have to like, do we go alphabetical order? Yeah, I mean, we, you know, we all have the same title as co executive director, our co custodians, as we like to be called, and, you know, we have the same job. We just kind of supervise different parts of the organization. And those are pretty fluid. Also, in that, while I might be the person who's over operations, I'm often calling on Arin and Camellia to guide me in that or they're jumping in to help with stuff and and it's that's kind of the beauty of the model of three people at the top.

JB, 1:51: Yeah, it's nice to see you guys are like, tri-directors, you can kind of split that between the three of you. 

Arin Liberman, 1:58: It was a part of our, you know, desire to be a more agile organization. You know, so we see the  different departments that we oversee, or buckets, as I like to call them, you know, as being flexible. I think that we, we set it up the way that we did this year to try to just set ourselves up for success, you know, the areas of the organization that we kind of knew the most about had the most institutional knowledge, like, those are the areas that that we're driving, but we all collaborate on almost everything. I mean, it's it's really, you know, we kind of keep each other up to date or, or, or get feedback. You know, and certainly work with different people across the org, just depending on what's needed. And, and it lets us sort of be flexible, let us, you know, pick everybody's brains to make sure that we're doing the best that we can. 

JB, 2:54: You can kind of fall back on each other, which is nice. You all have 30 years of experience combined working with Ragtag Film Society. And so I guess I want to ask, how did each of you get started? 

Camellia Cosgray, 3:10: I know Barbie and I have kind of similar stories. I started... gosh, it's been like 11 years ago, now something like that, more or less as a volunteer. My first year, I coordinated the True Life Fund. And that wasn't quite the right fit. And so then I ended up volunteering the next year with the art and production team. And, and then not long after that, I was asked to head up an installation, the map that is located at the Globe Theatre at the First Presbyterian Church on Hitt Street right next to Ragtag. And this was all for, for the fest. And so after doing that project with that, which at the time, like, felt like this incredible achievement that I had never like, like, would never have thought would be possible to do in such a short amount of time. It's huge. It's a huge piece, and it still hangs in the church year round. And then every year after that I just kept doing more and more, and here we are. When I think about making the map like that was one of the things that made me like kept me coming back was that experience of working it wasn't just me there was like, I had like tons of volunteers helping with helping me and there was just like, a whole community of people making that happen. And that's, it was a real microcosm of what the fest and the cinema are all about. 

BB, 4:47: Yeah, one of my first years volunteering was at the Globe Theatre, and I ripped Camellia's beautiful piece of art when I was moving a chair, and I thought, “Well, this will be my last year volunteering.” But the community was and Camellia were just great. And oh, that's an easy fix. And they got up there and fixed it. And it's, you know, it's beautiful as ever now. And so, but that year volunteering, I was a queen, and I loved it. And it was a great time, but I was like, “I'm gonna work full time for this organization someday because I like being a part of art and cool things.” And that is exactly what our organization does. And I started at my first job with the org was in hospitality and I ran their hospitality team. And I still get to do a lot of stuff with hospitality, because it's one of my favorites. And it's really important to our organization that we are hospitable and everything that we do, and so, and then from there just sort of kept working my way up, you know, so. 

AL, 5:50: Yeah, all three of us started in a moment when the festival and the cinema operations were really very separate. And so that's been a really exciting part of our more recent evolution, that that, you know, we we all started on the on the fest. But, you know, have always appreciated the the sort of core of like, the, the organization has been, like this space at Ragtag Cinema. And like, so many people like during the festival are, like, packed into this, this wonderful building that has, you know, all of these cool things happening all in one tiny space. And so that's been really exciting to kind of, you know, intentionally grow those two projects together over the last few years.

JB, 6:37: Yeah. Um, Barbara, you mentioned being a queen, can you describe what being a Queue Queen is for the listeners?

BB, 6:43: Yeah, a Queue Queen is a flamboyant mobile information station. So we dressed up, we dress up, and we are assigned to one venue, and you have to know the ins and outs of the festival, but especially at your venue. And, you know, we have a pretty, it's not complicated in that it can't be done. It's just a complicated ticket reservation system. But we also have a queue that allows anybody who didn't get to reserve a ticket to get into the movie or attempt at least to get into the movie. And the queue, the Queue Queen monitors that so they hand out a place in line an hour before the film, and then depending on how many ticket holders show up, then they let people in off of that queue. So and it is, I would say, a unique thing for a festival to have these, you know, information stations that are humans standing around, and we take a lot of pride in them and our Queue Queens are very integral to what we do here. They're doing it for the community and making, I don't know, Colombia a better place to live by just dressing in crazy outfits. 

JB, 7:53: Yes, they are like a ray of light at the festival.

CC, 7:58: And many of them spent their entire year planning their outfit for the next year. So like, as soon as the fest is over, they start thinking about the one the next year.

AL, 8:07: We had to tell you know, when we were figuring out when to move the festival dates to the queens were one of the first people had to tell like, okay, it's gonna be warmer out you don't your outfits don't have to be like for March, they have to be for May now. You know, kind of give them a heads up.

BB, 8:22: Peel off the layers. 

JB, 8:27: Why have each of you stuck with Ragtag Film Society and True/False for all these years? 

BB, 8:33: Well, I love Columbia so much, I will be mayor one day. And I think it's the greatest thing in Columbia. And when I moved here and started learning about it, I knew that it was important and life changing for many Columbians. And I think that's why I stick with it. I also really, really love the people that I work with. And we have just such a great team. And going through the pandemic together. I think we're going to be like forever bonded. Even as people move on, we'll, we'll be sticking together. And so I just think what we do is really great for our community. And in turn, it's really great for myself, and that's a little selfish, but that's why I stick around.

CC, 9:19: For me, you know, I think there's this tendency for people to think that to sort of view art as being sort of superfluous like that, it's maybe not something that is it's not like, it's not like a necessary thing to have in your life. And that's something that I just completely disagree with, like I, I feel like it is an essential part of being a human being, like, we can't really, it's hard, I think it's much harder to have empathy. It's harder to understand other people. It's harder to engage with the world, if you are not given the opportunity to engage with art in all of its forms. And so I am very grateful to be a part of an organization that it champions art in all of its forms and has for the last 20 years.

AL, 10:09: Yeah, I mean, I appreciate all of those things, I think there is something you know, really wonderful about all the people that we work with. I think there's also something really special about you know, our vision, and I am, you know, I am like a doer, an operations, logistics brain. And so like, I feel like for a number of years, I was just like, Okay, how do I just help make this thing happen? And how do I help make this thing more efficient, because I believe so much in the idea. And, you know, when we were doing this, we did a big sort of strategic planning session last spring and summer, and you know, it's sort of, in moments, dry organizational stuff. And then sometimes, like, really inspiring and wonderful that we're thinking about, oh, yeah, this is why we do what we do. And we kept coming back to this idea of, of like, this "Ragtag spirit" of the organization, and everybody, everybody knew what we were talking about, everyone had a hard time or like, had a little bit different way of actually articulating what that was, but everybody knew, you know, what, what that feeling was, and, and so yeah, I think we have something really special and really multifaceted. And it's, it's not something that I've seen a lot of other places. And in a lot of other, you know, roles that I've had. So it's... Yeah, it's sort of this cycle of, of excitement and challenge and community.

JB, 11:52: Yeah, it is exciting. I like that idea, that "Ragtag spirit." I feel like everyone who's been to the festival knows exactly what you're talking about, even if they can't describe it. So as the pandemic is raging on, what does, what does planning for True False and the Ragtag Cinema look like now?

CC, 12:15: Yeah, well, for True/False, I feel like every day, there are more questions. Every time we answer a question, we come up with more questions. But I'm also really excited about what we're planning for May. I think it's going to be very different, obviously, for a lot of reasons. But it's also going to still be True/False, and it's going to be pretty amazing. Yeah, so we are planning on doing everything outside at Stephens Lake Park, we will have what we're calling a downtown day on the Friday of the festival, where we'll focus a lot of our programming and events and stuff downtown during the day. We will be showing films at night, obviously, because we can't show films outside during the day. So we'll be focusing a lot during the day on music and art and other aspects of the festival with films at night. 

AL, 13:25: I think as far as planning, organizationally, like it's all just one step at a time. Like Camellia said, we have so many questions. And so we're trying to be, you know, methodical, like we know how to plan a festival like we know we have awesome people with different skill sets and different perspectives that we'll be able to pull something off. But we're also kind of going back to the drawing board. I mean, one thing that will be consistent between cinema and festival planning is that we will stay in touch with the health department and figure out what's possible and what feels right to our audiences. And, you know, we felt like we had to kind of plan for the festival as if it were happening right now and not assuming that things are going to be better in May. Maybe they will be and that'll be awesome. But, you know, we're gonna run with the outdoor thing, because we've seen that that's what our audiences are comfortable doing. And so, so yeah, you know, we'll, we'll see what restrictions are necessary and what you know, what our capacities need to look like. And we'll just sort of methodically, you know, kind of check, check things off the list and figure out, Okay, this this thing is solid. And you know, next week, something else becomes solid, because there's so much uncertainty, which is maybe a good kick to talk about our theme if you want to.

CC, 14:54: Yeah, this year's theme is the nature of uncertainty. I have to admit, I don't usually, like that it takes me a while to get to like my pithy encapsulation of the theme, and I have not gotten there yet, because I haven't been talking about it very much. 

 CC, 15:19:We definitely knew fairly early on that we wanted to think about the idea of uncertainty but weren't sure exactly how to create like, what that tagline was going to be and what that what that verbiage was going to be. But ultimately, the nature of uncertainty felt right, partially because of the sort of practical reason that we are going to be outside and so the word nature evokes that feeling of being outside for obvious reasons. And we want people to be kind of thinking about that, as they're engaging with the Fest in whatever way. But also, for me, like, what's, what's interesting about that phrase, as well, it's not a question, there is an inherent question inherent in it, like, what is the nature of uncertainty? And, you know, we don't presume to have the answer to that question, but really want people to be thinking about it. And and exploring it as again, as they engage with the festival and everything that we do. 

BB, 16:26: We give prompts to artists, to submit for T-shirt designs or art installations. And one of them is ritual as an antidote for uncertainty. And that's like my favorite prompt, mostly because I really enjoy tradition and stuff. But I hope that's what comes out of the festival is that it feels completely different. But there's these moments where you're like, “Oh, that's True/False.” You know, like, maybe it's a Queue Queen, or maybe it's campfire stories that has never really been outside, and now it's going to be outside, you know, so that we can keep some of these rituals and feelings that we've had for 17 years of the fest and be able to keep it while being totally different than it ever has been before.

AL, 17:10: Yeah, and one piece of our theme every year is that there is some reference or tie in with filmmaking itself, that, you know, we all have our themes, I think, can be explored through that lens. And so documentary filmmaking, like very clearly has, has these massive elements of uncertainty, and you have an idea and you have a concept, maybe, you know, maybe you even have a script, depending on what you're what you're looking to do, but, but when you're dealing with reality, there are always going to be unknowns, and, you know, people's stories, you know, shift in unexpected ways. And, and, you know, so then certainly in editing a film, you know, maybe you discover a through line that you hadn't planned on, or whatever that is, so that's another way to look at it.

CC, 18:03: Yeah, and something that I don't think is has ever been intentional, but that I've noticed pretty much every year since I've started working for the fest is that there's like this point with the scene where I'm like, “Oh, this theme is also about like the experience of making a festival happen.” And I think this year’s is more clear to me right away like oh, yeah, that's that's what it is. It's full of uncertainty, full of exploring all of those questions.

JB, 18:36: Well, I'm certain you guys will pull it off though. Shifting gears here. How do each of your personalities complement each other when working together as tri-directors?

AL, 18:53: Who wants to go first?

BB, 18:56: I am probably the most extroverted of the three of us and can talk to anybody. I'm the world's worst proofreader. And those two things are really balanced out with Camellia and Arin. So I can take the lead on any public speaking that we have to do pretty off the cuff and talk to anybody. I also think I can calm nerves that time. But if you give me a paper to edit, not going to happen. And so while I'm doing some schmoozing, I can, I know I can rely on these two to be taking care of some of the other things that I'm not as good at. And it's really nice, like I ran a festival at Stephens College and being at the top by yourself is just not as fun. And it makes it a lot harder. And there were times where I know my friends were annoyed, because I just wanted to talk to them about work. And now it's like, I get to annoy my two co-workers, by constantly talking about work, you know, and it just makes it a lot easier and nicer to know that you don't have to be perfect just the other day, we were working with somebody and they said, “Nobody is perfect, but a team can be perfect.” And I'm like, “We're doing that!” We have this tri-group that is just working amazingly together.

AL, 20:16: And we're all human. So like everybody has their off day. And it's just really wonderful that like in moments where, you know, one of us feels a little bit less motivated or less inspired, or, you know, like, I just need to focus on some straightforward tasks for a minute, or I just need to rest because I have a headache that like, we're complementing each other in that way, also, that, you know, we're we're people and, and as a, you know, nonprofit organization that is so rooted in community, like we really care about putting people first and and certainly through the pandemic, you know, like, everybody's mental health is the most important thing. I mean, physical health as well. But, you know, taking care of each other and taking care of, of our employees and our audiences and everyone that engages with us. 

CC, 21:05: Yeah, I think too like, I mean, this isn't necessarily like our personalities, but we do sort of like balance each other as far as expertise and just like knowledge with the Fest, like I started out with when production and operations to a certain extent, and Arin did a lot with box office, and you know, the program book and Barbie with hospitality and being a Queue Queen. And so like bringing all of those pieces together, has been really useful. And then with the cinema, Barbie was the cinema director for a couple of years before we became co-custodians. And so, I worked there a little bit during my tenure. And so we've got all this knowledge about the organization that together basically means we know everything, the three of us plus a bunch of other people who work for the organization, but, but it's really useful to have that combination as well.

JB, 22:02: And do each of you have a favorite part of the festival, and like, kind of thinking about how it's going to translate over to this year's?

AL, 22:10: Oh, I remember my, my thought, which was, like, the favorite part of the festival, is that moment when, like, the thing that we internally have been planning for so long, like, comes to life and, and takes on a life of its own and takes on ownership by all of the volunteers and all of the guests and all of the patrons. And so you've been holding this thing for so long, and like waiting to bring it into the world, and then it becomes its own, you know, entity. And so that's a really exciting moment when you sort of like, you know, I'm trying to refrain from the birthing analogy, but, like part of it, you know, that, you know, you bring something to life, it's really cool.

JB, 22:54: Your dreams come to life. 

CC, 22:57: Yeah, I think about that, it's, it's not like necessarily any one thing. It's sort of like the quiet moments that you can find like throughout the Fest, and I definitely feel like I'll be able to find those this year, you know, and it's sort of like a, just a moment to take a breath and just like really appreciate, like, what's happening around you, and what, you know, what, what the community has come together to create. I mean, I think I guess one of my favorite events that we do is Gimme Truth, and we haven't totally figured out how that's going to work but we are planning on doing it. So I'm excited to figure that out and see, see what we come up with there.

BB, 23:45: I love the parade. And there's this moment. Usually, I'm at the bottom, like where the parade ends, and just looking up the Ninth Street and seeing all these people gathered for this thing that we work so hard for and, and having so much fun, even when it's been raining or snowing, or weirdly hot, like, people, it's always so much fun. And I think this year, you know, we're kind of planning to do two different parades, one in March and then one in May. And that really excites me to think about having multiple moments like that, where we get to share this exciting thing. And, and yeah, I don't know, for a fact, but I think we're one of the only festivals with a parade. So it's nice to know that that's like a unique thing to Columbia, and that people who don't even attend the film's come out for the parade, and it's a kind of a way to give back to our community, even if, you know, cinema is not your thing. 

JB, 24:42: Yeah, I love the parade. I'm glad you guys are gonna have it in March as well. That's awesome. Um, what are each of your guys' goals as co-executive directors?

AL, 24:56: We put a lot of thought into the new organizational structure that we proposed to the board whenever that was June, May? May, or June. And, you know, I think that, like, we knew it was gonna be really hard because of the pandemic. And we knew that it wasn't going to be a typical year, but that, you know, given our tenure at the organization, we each cared about, you know, a couple of key things that we boiled down in that proposal. And so I'll address one thing that that was near and dear to me, which is the idea of making this a sustainable organization, especially as we have just kind of more recently come been bringing the two projects together, you know, I think that the festival and the cinema and getting getting those systems in place, getting getting roles, you know, efficient and rewarding, and, you know, kind of kind of the system's piece of it is where my, my brain fits into the puzzle. And I think that, like, you know, and that includes systems that support people that make seasonal, intense seasonal work sustainable as a long-term job, which, you know, I know a lot of people - I myself for a while and, and I know, a lot of people who work for the festival, are our seasonal festival workers. And so you do three months here, and you do three months there, and it's, it's, you know, it's always sort of intense and a whirlwind. And it was, it was really meaningful to me when I stopped doing that, and, and this started to be a full-time job for me. And so, you know, I think that we've gone through as an organization, we've had this sort of initial phase of you know, of being entrepreneurial and, and cutting edge and, and, you know, we had these two cofounders who, who put so much love and time and energy into, into making the festival, and now we get to kind of pick up the baton and, and make it like a truly sustainable business. That's not really as much focused on an entrepreneurial spirit, although we will always innovate, we will always encourage innovation, because, you know, that's essential to what we do, and as an arts organization, but, but I'm really excited to, to kind of lay that groundwork that that, you know, makes this sustainable in the long term.

BB, 27:42: One of my goals and this is the collective goal is of making the organization a little bit more feminist and social justice minded, you know, not changing our mission to become a social justice organization, but to always be keeping to keep our approach to leadership, more feminist, so, you know, focus on values and emotional health and I think being a servant leader is part of that. really taking a more collaborative approach to everything that we do. We are very collaborative, it's one of our strengths, but to really be intentional about what that hierarchy looks like, and how that isn't a barrier for innovation and new ideas and making everybody feel good and safe at work. 

CC, 28:29: Yeah, I mean, I think a more like, short term goal is just to make it get through this pandemic, and come out the other side. And, and I, that maybe seems kind of obvious, but like, it's gonna feel like such a huge accomplishment. And I do, I do believe, though, that we will, that we will get through it. I think, you know, a sort of more longer term goal for me is to, is to really, like, actively engage with our, with more of the community as far as like, going back to what I was saying earlier about art being essential to being human, like, I feel like that is something that is really missing from, you know, like the sort of collective discourse. And so I think, providing more opportunities for people to really think about that idea and be in and, and engage with what we're doing as an organization and like, see the value that it brings to their, to their lives, but also to the community.

JB, 29:49: Yeah, I think it'd be a big achievement to pull it off this year, in of itself, you know. And so as directors of a film festival, can you guys tell me what some of your favorite movies are? I won't ask you what your favorite movie is because that question is really hard. 

BB, 30:12: I know. It's like, I want to be very intellectual and talk about it. But like, my favorite movie is Romeo and Juliet, the one with Leonardo DiCaprio. So like, I just really appreciate films that make you feel good. And like one of our programmers who has moved on from the organization, Chris Bachman, he was brilliant at watching films and programming. And I always thought there's no way I could chat with him about film. And he's like, if you like it, it's a good film. And that's the approach I've always taken of like, do I enjoy watching Romeo and Juliet? Yes. And so it's a good film for me and, and I think that's what's been great about working at Ragtag too is that you just expand your mind all the time with films like films that you wouldn't necessarily have picked just by the description. You come in, because you trust our organization and what we pick and so it's been pretty cool to do that and working at the cinema with our projectionist Steve Ruffin has been a film history lesson. He's constantly talking about film, he knows so much about it. And he'll just, all of a sudden, send you a  text with like five films that he thinks you should watch, that you talked about like a week ago. So that's been one of the best parts of working here. It's like oh ok, now I get this history, cause I don't think any of us went to school for film. Did you Arin? Was that your...

AL, 31:40: I did a film studies minor but, yeah...

BB, 31:42: So yeah, that wasn't;t a thing in my past. And so it's been fun to do that but yeah Romeo and Juliet.

AL, 33:50: I love that because one of my favorite films is Moulin Rouge. So Camilla, you have to say strictly ballroom is your favorite film because apparently we all love Baz Luhrmann.

CC, 32:03: I did like that movie. I wouldn't say it's one of my favorites.

AL, 32:10: I feel like that would be really fun personality tests like of the sacred trilogy, or the red curtain trilogy. 

CC, 32:17: One of my favorite things that we do at the cinema is the home brewed series, which is like low-budget films made in the United States and my favorite one from last year, which was actually I think it was my favorite film from last year, or one of them, was Diamantino. It was so fantastic. It was about this famous soccer player who was truly amazing when he was on the pitch, and like about to score a goal, he would see gigantic puppies on the pitch. So he was just like, surrounded by these huge puppies, and it just got weirder and amazing from there. So I would definitely recommend trying to track that one down. I also might one of my all-time favorite movies is LA Confidential, which is a little, maybe a little closer to Moulin Rouge

JB, 33:18: Tie it all in. 

AL, 33:21: Yeah, one of my one of my favorite recent films that we showed was the 40-year-old version, which was just incredible and just had me like, feeling all the feels laughing, crying. I mean, it was great. 

JB, 33:35: Last question here. What do you think is in store for the future of documentary filmmaking? 

CC, 33:40: I think we're gonna see a lot of pandemic documentaries in the next few years.

BB, 33:49: It was just that people get to tell their own stories, that there's some decolonization of documentary. So it's not just white people telling stories of other people. And I think we're trying to do you know, that's always in the forefront of our minds. And we’re some of the leaders in doc film so I hope we can play a role in making that happen.

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