Blair Dorosh-Walther, Director & Producer
6.4.16 Newburgh, NY
On a hot summer evening in 2006, four young African American lesbian women from New Jersey went to the West Village wanting to hang out, feel accepted, and feel safe. That night they were charged in a stabbing, labeled by the media as a “Gang of Killer Lesbians”, and sent to prison.
In her film, “Out in The Night”, 2016 Guggenheim Fellow blair dorosh-walther addresses prejudice within the mainstream media and the failings of our judicial system, examines aspects of discrimination which are rarely discussed, and questions who has the right to defend themself.
Interview and Photos by Kate Orne
Out in the Night is avail on Itunes & Amazon 6.7.16
UD: What initially drew you to this story?
BDW: A headline in the New York Times on August 19th, 2006: “Man Is Stabbed After Admiring A Stranger”.
At this point, I didn’t know much about what had actually happened but I knew a man is not an “admirer” at 2:00 a.m. on the streets of NYC. Two female journalists wrote this particular story from the perspective of the man. The idea that these journalists couldn’t identify with the young women whom had been stalked and ultimately assaulted infuriated me.
UD: Identifying as a gender non-conforming person (whom uses both female and male pronouns), did you intimately relate to the issue?
BDW: I could relate to being drawn to the West Village, a gay neighborhood, because it is a safe space for the larger LGBTQ community. I can also identify being sexually harassed as a gender queer person. However, walking down the street as a black woman is quite different than walking down the street as a white woman. Our threats are as different as our safety nets. Verbal street harassment tends to turn into physical assault way more frequently when it involves a woman of color or it’s someone that is gender non-conforming —something that was not taken into account during the reporting on this case or during the trial.
UD: You have said that the film is not about race or sexuality. How do you describe it?
BDW: I might put it slightly differently. Out in the Night is a nuanced film that takes into account intersectional identities: race, gender-identity, class and sexuality – all of which create a whole person.
The film examines the mainstream media and our criminal legal system by providing the context for what went through these women’s minds that night while having to defend themselves. The film asks us to evaluate, “Who has the right to defend themself?”
UD: All the women have since been released. How are they adjusting?
BDW: Adjusting from prison to the ‘free’ world, just as adjusting from the ‘free’ world to prison, must be indescribable. The process is a long, arduous one. That said, they are doing wonderfully. They are travelling around the country with the film speaking out for other women and trans-folks that are incarcerated for defending themselves. They are in school and back to work.
But having a violent felony on their record does impair them. It effects the type of jobs and housing they are eligible for, the type of social services and scholarships they are or aren’t able to get. It really affects every aspect of their lives.
UD: What’s your tattoo about?
This was my first tattoo and a finger to diabetes. It is an anthropomorphic pancreas vomiting sugar crystals. A few months after I was diagnosed, my younger sister passed away from diabetes, she was only 17. I grew up caring for her and as a result was hyper aware (or so I thought) of the disease. Once I was diagnosed, I realized there was very little I understood. So, this tattoo is my visual interpretation of diabetes.
UD: Tell me about your alter ego.
BDW: (Laughing) Being that I am from Minnesota and have a deep connection to its sensibility, he is a 65-year-old Minnesotan man. A perfect evening to me, after a long day of working on my ‘96 Ford F-250, would be sitting in a rocking chair on my front porch, smoking a cigar, drinking Glenmorangie neat, and grunting at anyone who tries to talk to me. (Laughing)
UD: Were your parents initially supportive of your sexuality?
BDW: My father was totally cool when I first came out. He sort of chuckled and then went on about his day. (Laughing) My mother said I'd get AIDS and die….
For me, understanding my gender identity was a longer and more complicated process than coming out.
In fifth grade, I announced in class that I was “half boy, half girl”. At that point, I think if someone had told me that I had the option to be however I identified, I would have gone ahead and transitioned. But now I think I’m just fine as I am.
UD: Through your day job as a social worker you’ve had an intimate perspective of poverty in NYC. What does poverty in Newburgh look like?
BDW: Poverty in Newburgh feels more acute than NYC. It might be hard to find work in NYC and you might have long commutes for a very low paying job — but the jobs do exist.
In Newburgh, there are no jobs and not enough public transportation. Unfortunately, like anywhere in the country with a high rate of addiction within the population, no matter how good the social services are, there are just never enough.
UD: Creators like you are leaving NYC for more affordable housing. What’s the reaction from the locals regarding the new transplants into their neighborhood?
BDW: I would imagine the feeling is similar to any place that is undergoing gentrification; it’s both scary and unwanted — and mixed with a honeymoon period of exterior beautification that might give the illusion of hope. My hope is that with the influx of artists and creators — jobs will follow.
I have fallen madly in love with Newburgh. The architecture and history are incredible – Newburgh is Brooklyn before Brooklyn became ‘Brooklyn’! The view of the river, of Storm King Mountain, Mount Beacon, the Hudson Valley…. it will never get old. It makes me happy to walk outside, which I haven’t felt in NYC for a long time.
As a filmmaker, there are endless possibilities in this vibrant and very creative community.
UD: Tell me about the property you bought. Do you miss living in NYC?
BDW: I purchased an 1890’s three-family house. The view from my third floor balcony overlooks the Hudson River and Bannerman Island. I’m only a few steps away from the bluffs.
Now I have a large basement that I’m turning into my studio, edit suite and workshop. I could never have imagined space like this in NYC. I feel like I’m finally in a place where I can afford to focus on creating — it’s an indiscernibly amazing feeling.
UD: How does The Guggenheim Fellowship impact you as an artist?
BDW: I spent 10 years working on Out in the Night, including the case and the pardons of the women… so my film-making career feels defined by this film. The fellowship definitely came at a time when I needed a confidence boost, an acknowledgement that I’m a filmmaker, not just the director of this one particular film. It still feels a bit surreal.
My primary project, the one for which I received the Guggenheim Fellowship, is a historical documentary, Inherently Unequal. This film examines a constitutional history of the denigration of equal rights by the United States Supreme Court.
Visually, it’s big departure from my last film. It will be a challenge but also stimulating to work within a different framework. To counter the research required, and keep my creative juices flowing, I am also in production on a sculpture project that examines masculine female sexuality.
I have been planning it for years, but never had the space — until now!