Local Activist Talks Self-Published Movie Magazine ‘SVLLY(wood)’
Rooney Elmi started her own magazine to supplement her film criticism and social justice spirit. As a writer and activist, SVLLY(wood) has allowed her to critique the film status quo; the magazine’s first issue dealt with women in horror cinema and the stigma of mental health, while the second addressed a cinematic uprising in the age of Trump.
For Elmi, SVLLY(wood) represents a new style of film writing; one that experiments with diverse themes, aesthetics and politics, and addresses a kind of radical cinephilia that has interested readers all over the world.
Below, Elmi discusses her introduction to film criticism and activism, what it’s like operating her own magazine, the documentary she’s filming and more.
Taijuan Moorman: Can you talk to me about your writing background?
Rooney Elmi: When I was in high school I had dreams to dabble in film production, [but] once I got a little older, I realized that it wasn’t logistically possible…the really high demanding hours on set. So I just sort of fell into writing through reading of criticism from Susan Sontag and James Baldwin. And although it was never a dream of mine, I noticed that film criticism was the most accessible part of cinephilia. And that’s when I first started getting into it. I took a class on film writing and just started from there.
TM: And can you talk to me about your activism? As in, have you done any organizing here in Columbus?
Rooney: I was always a bit of a rebellious child in terms of what I believed in politically. But in my senior year of high school, I saw the death of Trayvon Martin, and I think it was a year after that Mike Brown was gunned down. And so that really jump-started my radicalization. Just seeing the Ferguson uprising being led by kids my own age.
And so when I enrolled at Ohio State I was really interested in political engagement—I was more interested in that than my studies to be honest—and so I got really heavily involved with Black Lives Matter activism here in Columbus…But yeah, my politics and activism heavily influence each other, or I should say my politics and activism heavily influence my creative output, and vice versa. I see them as a marriage, instead of as a division where they’re different facets of my personality. They all come together as one.
TM: When and why were you first inspired to start SVLLY(wood)?
Rooney: It started out as a direct reflection of my frustration with creative output. I felt like I didn’t have a place to house all of my thoughts and feelings about film. So I just made it out of nowhere, but the idea of creating a radical ‘zine has been brewing inside me for a good while. I was really inspired by punk/radical/political ‘zines of the ‘90s and even of the ‘70s. So I just wanted to create a space in the vain of leftist political gazettes that really inspired me. And that’s kind of where SVLLY(wood) started.
TM: Can you talk more about the magazine’s goal regarding film criticism?
Rooney: Our goal is to harness the talents of emerging creators from marginalized backgrounds to examine the past, present and future of the moving image. And one of the goals of the magazine, from the very beginning, [was] to sort of destroy the sense of elitism and pretentiousness that plagues film culture. And it generally stems from it being dominated by cis, white male voices. And with SVLLY(wood) we really want to usher in a new way of understanding and consuming cinema that allows for more open attitudes and has a much more diverse body of people promoting that.
TM: Regarding this upcoming issue, why was it important to discuss women in captivity?
Rooney: We’re living in the shadow of ICE roundups of refugee and immigrant women. We have a much more heightened awareness of the prison industrial system, and there’s just an increased number of inmates in the American prison population that are mostly women. The number of women who are being incarcerated is exponentially growing. But, at the same time, there seems to be a general lack of contemporary cultural studies surrounding the visual nature of imprisonment, and how it pertains to women.
And so with this issue, we really wanted to remedy that fact, and dedicate this issue toward women in prisons, and profiling and examining the politics of captivity in visual media. Because in my opinion, I feel like there is a copious amount of narratives and aesthetics [in the prison film genre] that could lay a foundation for a feminist playground for filmmakers. And yet, that has yet to happen. I feel like that genre promotes the male gaze when really it could redirect it and can be a really, really interesting playground for feminist filmmakers, and for women audiences as well.
So with this issue, we want to examine the past, we want to see what’s happening now, who are the radical women behind the scenes nowadays who are making these movies, and what that can mean for the future. Yeah, this issue is very exciting.
TM: As the editor of a self-published magazine, what challenges and opportunities have you ran into?
Rooney: It’s all a learning process in my opinion. Being unique and being the singular voice in film criticism has never been an issue for SVLLY(wood). That’s the blueprint for what we are. That’s kind of our North Star, the fact that no one else could be like us.
But at the same time, we do lack proper funding to stay afloat and to be able to pay for web design, able to really sustain ourselves. And that’s the major challenge, is just a lack of funding, so we’re always on the lookout for grants and financial outreach…
In terms of opportunities, we have people reach out all the time. Bookstores all around the world. I’m going to be in London in June hosting a screening at Deptford Cinema, where we’re going to be marrying “issue.3: Incarceration” with some short films. Those things tend to pop up a lot.
TM: Can you talk about the documentary you’re filming?
Rooney: The filming is year round because thankfully it’s not a traditional documentary where we’re using talking heads or we’re following subjects. So luckily I’m not at the mercy of other people. The documentary is called Seen, and it’s a feature-length film that doubles as a personal video diary around my personal interactions with surveillance cameras. And I just wanted it to critic how private and public entities are storing your likeness without your permission. So that filming is going pretty good…I just pull out my camera whenever I feel compelled to and I just start shooting. So it’s very convenient.
And you know what, that kind of speaks to the foundation of SVLLY(wood) as well. We’re trying to democratize cultural resources…Even 10 years ago, the iPhone wasn’t where it’s at today. And it’s important for millennials, and just people in general, to know that they can create art anywhere and anyhow…You just have to make something and be proud of that. Just utilize the resources around you. And that’s what I want Seen to be. I just want it to be something that I’m proud of.
SVLLY(wood)‘s Issue 3 launch party takes place Monday, May 14 at 7 p.m. at 934 Gallery, 934 Cleveland Ave. To learn more about Elmi, and how to contribute to SVLLY(wood)‘s crowdfunding campaign, visit her website at rooneyelmi.com.