There’s a particular liberation found on two wheels, gliding through a night time city street.
That feeling becomes even more liberating and powerful in a group of cyclists, reasserting our right to take up space normally dominated by cars.
But cycling culture is notoriously sexist — just ask almost any woman who has tried to purchase a bike or get repairs at a shop, and group rides are often male-dominated and unwelcoming to women and the gender-nonconforming.
The Ovarian Psycos are a women-of-color cycling crew from East Los Angeles and the Boyle Heights neighborhood. Beyond simply spreading the joy of the ride to more people, their work is directly situated in a historic tradition of feminist and Xicana activism.
“Ovarian Psycos,” a documentary from directors Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle that premiered this year at SXSW, brings the crew’s politics and passion to the screen, where it can hopefully inspire other women like them to take up more space on the streets and in their everyday lives.
At the heart of the film is Xela de la X, the founder of the Psycos, a single mother, and a hip hop artist. The film goes deep into her upbringing, with Xela sharing raw, painful memories of a childhood spent either in virtual solitary confinement or on the streets. Xela’s desire to find a better life for women in her ‘hood, including girls like her daughter Yoli, both inspires her work with the Ovas and forces her to step away from the group in what makes for some of the most dramatic moments in the documentary.
Other key characters are Andi Xoch, a fiercely political artist and the cofounder of the Ovas, and Evie, the group’s newest recruit, who struggles with an overprotective but well-meaning mother. Family is a key theme of the film, but the Ovas also organize for justice and against gentrification, rape culture and systematic racism. Despite the political nature of much of the content, this is a heartfelt film. It’s a story of women on bikes first and foremost, and never resembles a polemic.
The cinematography is gorgeous, evoking the thrill of late night rides while finding nuanced beauty and domestic comfort in the Ovas impoverished surroundings. The directors and team eschew cliched “ghetto” shots in favor of evoking everyday life in a struggling, but close-knit community.
I caught up with the directors at SXSW in Austin, Texas, after the film’s successful premiere — which featured a beautiful moment when Xela, appearing on stage with Andi and Evie, correctly accused SXSW of being a harmful source of gentrification in Austin to the visible consternation and discomfort of the screening’s host.
Here are some excerpts from my conversation with Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle.
Kit O’Connell: What I really took from this documentary was a message about women taking up space and not being pushed to the side.
Kate Trumbull-LaValle: I think that what the Ovarian Psycos do is exactly that, and they use those exact words: “claiming space.” They chant “Whose streets? Our streets!”
And the act of being so visible on the street, on bicycles, in a group, in places that are considered to be inappropriate or dangerous for women, especially on the East Side, when violence against women is not an abstract threat …
I think for them and for the women they attract, it’s a form of empowerment and way to not be silent, to express themselves, express their politics, express their frustrations.
KO: Tell me a little more about the crowdfunding process, I know it’s been through a few waves.
Joanna Sokolowski: Sure, yeah. In the beginning we held a small, modest Kickstarter campaign and raised $12,000. It was right at the beginning of production and it was a really good for us to connect with an audience. People contacted us internationally who were interested in the story.
We needed the money, but it was also a good motivation to keep going knowing that there’d be an audience at the end of the film. We also got to network with some of the number of the organizations in and around Boyle Heights that were connected to the Ovas, so that was good too.
We just had our last kickstarter campaign which was a little big bigger. We raised $20,000 and that was great … we have support from ITVS, they’re our primary funder, and we also have some support from Cal Humanities and Pacific Pioneer Fund, but we really needed money to finish the film and get it out there, and we wanted to bring the women along with us, the main women that we follow.
It’s been great. Kickstarter is hard work, it takes a lot of work, it’s not just free money but it’s also a really interesting and unique way to connect with the people who are going to be interested in the film and start building momentum. It was getting people excited for the premiere and feel a little more connected to the process. It created a little bit more transparency in the process.
KO: Do you think that crowdfunding is a sustainable model for creating art? It sometimes feels like we’re all just continuously passing the hat as creative people.
KTL: I do not think it’s a sustainable form. We actually did not want to do a second kickstarter. We contracted with ITVS with a funding gap, though, and also ITVS only covers the broadcast and we knew we wanted to have a theatrical film. We tried for over a year to raise a modest amount of money — modest meaning $30,000 – $40,000. We could not fill that gap. We applied to every grant maker we could find.
I think that Kickstarter is a great way for filmmakers or for artists who are really in trouble and have a very supportive community, but no, I think we have to support the arts in more foundational ways.
KO: You mentioned during the Q&A that you took some time to gain the Ovas trust. What was that process like?
JS: When we initially approached the Ovarian Psycos about making a film about them they said no, that they would prefer a woman of color, a woman from the community to make the film. Me and Kate had a lot of interest in the Ovas from reading the very small amount that was online. And we just kind of explained that to them and our enthusiasm was a little contagious and, when they thought about it, they got excited about the opportunity to share their story with a broad audience.
But you know the trust building is an ongoing process, all the way from when they said a reluctant yes until today. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we’re outsiders, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that have a big interest in protecting their image and telling their own story and want to agency to do that.
KTL: I think documentary film makers often have this problem. Documentary film makers often are outsiders and not from the community they’re working with, or working with strangers. And then when you bring a camera into the room, there are power dynamics, and you do not escape the issues of class and race and privilege.
Xela and the other women really wanted to have those open conversations about white supremacy, about the ethics of documentary and its long legacy. Documentary has not always been this beautiful genre that has been absent of issues. So those were conversations that needed to happen, and for Joanna and I they pushed us to be clearer about our vision.
I think it made for a better film and it made for a better process in making the film.
KO: Were there specific agreements where they had any editorial control?
JS: We told them that this would be our film, that this was our vision. We told them we wanted them to be happy and proud of the film at the end, but we didn’t want to invite them into the editing room. That’s too challenging for us.
KTL: We were very clear that there were certain things they couldn’t be involved with. ‘You just don’t want to sit with us in the editing room for the next year.’ We did show them a final cut and we did get notes back mostly from Xela and from Evie. And if they’d had major issues, you know Joanna and I would have sat down.
Xela, in particular, really stands behind the film. It’s like we won the lottery. We were able to make a beautiful film that captures the amazing spirit of the women, but that they feel proud of it, thank God, we’re so happy about that.
KO: Partway through the film, Xela doesn’t quit the Ovas but takes a major step back. How do you roll with something like that?
JS: We thought it was over. We hate to reveal too much about that in interviews because it’s an interesting surprise, but we thought the film was over. But it ended up being almost the heart of the film because of the reasons she made the decision, to recommit to her daughter.
KTL: At that point it’s clearly a film about the daily life of women. Joanna often says the flash and the show and the iconography is the way that these women attract attention, they demand attention, but the real work happens after the ride and in their interpersonal relationships with their mothers, their sisters, themselves, and really creating a new kind of family.
Evie struggles with poverty and her mom. Andi struggles with feeling disenfranchised from her own family and not having the love and support. She’s like an adult woman but still struggles with her mom. And Xela, she’s a single working mom and she works with homeless, at risk youth and is an activist herself but also has to negotiate the issues of being a working class woman in a neighborhood that’s under-resourced.
When she’s faced with that dilemma, we thought ‘oh god, is the film over?’ But that was really a turning point.
KO: Tell me a little about making a space that was safe for these women to go so emotional and so deep into themselves and their lives.
JS: I don’t know if we created that space. I think they created it and kind of let us in, thankfully. I don’t know if it was anything we did. We’re so lucky that the women who did appear on camera were so open, with their stories but also their physical space.
Me and Kate have talked about this before, but it’s really rare in a documentary, even in reality TV, we really see the inside of someone’s bedroom, or inside of someone’s kitchen while they’re cooking, their true interior lives, not just their emotional lives.
We’re a really small crew and we spent a lot of time with the women. We’re really just 3. Me and Kate switch off doing sound and so we can be in their spaces without laying cords and moving chairs, but it was really the women who let us in.
KTL: Xela’s a natural storyteller. She accesses these really traumatic moments in her life, and she’s really angry about them and she continues to be retraumatized by them when a woman is murdered in the neighborhood. And she knows that personal stories are transformative. That’s why they have dialogues after their meetings and why sisterhood and family-building is so important to them.
It was a blessing to be able to witness and document Xela doing what she does all the time. She’s very strong and powerful, but the way she can be so incredibly vulnerable is impressive and affecting.
It’s just natural to her, and we were just grateful to get to see that and document that.
KO: Clearly, it’s a story out of a particular place and people. Do you think there’s parallels between the Ovas and what’s happening in other places?
KTL: I think race and gender politics are at the forefront, especially in this election. But Xela said the other day, we were being interviewed about this very thing and what’s happening now is not unusual. What’s happening now in the news is not unusual to her, it’s not unusual to us, it’s omnipresent.
This story is very specific to the place of East Los Angeles, because it had to be. We weren’t about to draw larger parallels because it was really about their daily life and the work of Ovarian Psycos, but of course …
JS: There are parallels.
KTL: Whether you’re in a rural environment or an urban environment, the issues the Ovarian Psycos address of violence against women, and just access … the bike represents freedom of movement, a sense of mobility, of feeling independent. Andi described it once as ‘You don’t have to wait for a friend or boyfriend to pick you up. You’re not stranded. You don’t have to wait for a parent if you don’t have a car. You can pick up a bike and leave.’
So whether it’s the bike or gardening or art, whatever it is that women are using to create that sense of independence and mobility. The bike just happens to be really cool and hip but it’s also a mode of transportation for working class communities. In under-served communities, communities of color, the bike is not a hipster, spandex situation. It’s an affordable way to get to work.
I think that this film does speak to those intersectional issues that are not only happening in the United States — we met film makers from Brazil and they are talking about how women are on bikes in Sao Paolo. It’s really exciting. Women on bikes, women on skateboards. Women using hip hop, poetry, graffiti, all these tools in their tool belt to address issues of gender, racial and economic inequality.
KO: I noticed you didn’t use a lot of shots that are commonly used when depicting poorer neighborhoods. There wasn’t a lot of lingering on the broken bottles …
JS: The shoes hanging on the wire …
Both: We thought a lot about it!
JS: The film talks about violence. It highlights three different murders, so we didn’t want to shy away from the reality of what was happening in East L.A. But we also didn’t want to sensationalize the neighborhood or sensationalize the violence. I mean, Boyle Heights, like most neighborhoods across the country, is really complex. It has an incredibly rich history as being the birthplace of the Xicano movement, it’s the mural capitol of the world. There’s a beautiful and very rich community that lives there. It’s full of farmers’ markets, and yes, there also shoes hanging from the wires …
KTL: … gang violence, police brutality …
JS: So there’s a lot happening in one place, and we didn’t want to stereotypically sensationalize one aspect of it. We tried to touch on all of it, the violence that is happening, that women are being murdered in these neighborhoods, and also touch on the murals, and also touch on the families, and also touch on the markets. All of them are part of the landscape of East LA.
KTL: It’s a largely immigrant neighborhood, it’s a working class neighborhood, it has a wonderful synagogue. At one point there were a lot of Japanese-Americans living there. So it’s a really interesting place, and what we chose to focus on was riding through as if we were these women.
KO: What’s next for the film? And for your company?
JS: We want to do a festival tour, but most importantly a community screening tour. We just got an email from a local library in a migrant community. Those are the kinds of places where we think this film will play strongly.
We really want to take the film home to Los Angeles. We’re working toward an LA premiere and also a free community screening in East Los Angeles, we’re really excited for that. We want take this film not only to fancy festivals but also to schools and libraries and community groups where we can have meaningful discussions about the issues the film discusses.
And as for what’s next for us …
KTL: We’re actually in development right now for a film about homelessness in Los Angeles. We’re just in the beginning stages of that for our production company, Sylvia Frances Films. It’s an issue that’s really bubbling to the surface with the increasing gentrification in Los Angeles.
KO: Fabulous, wonderful. I’m excited and will be looking forward to hearing about that.
In ‘Ovarian Psycos,’ Women Use Bikes To Claim Space & The Streets (#SXSW) by Kit O’Connell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.