Enjoy this day-by-day recap of what we saw, learned, and experienced at the 2017 Level Ground Festival. Plus watch exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews with some of our special guests.
A HUGE THANKS to all the artists, guests, and volunteers for making this year's festival one for the books!
Julien baker and joy oladokun
During the opening night of this year's festival we witnessed Julien Baker and Joy Oladokun bare their souls openly, honestly, and vulnerably through their music and the stories they shared from their own lives. As ones who have experienced the beauty and the pain of the messy conversation about faith, gender, and sexuality, they told us that resisting easy answers starts with unapologetically being who we are and not giving into the pressure society puts on us to label ourselves.
Through their art, they show us what it means to embrace the in-between places - allowing ourselves and the people around us to keep evolving, learning, and growing without rushing the journey for ourselves or anyone else. As Julien writes it in one of her songs, we can pretend like we have it all figured out or that we have arrived but the truth is we are all in need of “humiliating grace.”
These two women gently remind us that "righteousness" is found not in "right" belief or the purity codes of our religious traditions but in how we care for one another. It’s in the imperceptibly beautiful interactions that occur in the intangible space between human beings that we encounter the divine, are reminded that there's goodness in this world, and where we establish community.
Something happened this first night at the Level Ground Festival that we have witnessed repeatedly for the past four years, which is the holy and mysterious ways that art bridges divides, leading to greater empathy, understanding, and the possibility of extending the grace we've received to people we might never have spoken to otherwise.
"59" live and the innocents
The thread which connected night two of the festival was the theme of a violence that threatens human beings who already encounter oppression and marginalization on a daily basis as a result of their race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, identity, or sexual orientation. Tonight we saw that resisting easy answer looks different to different people. It might look like active resistance against the status quo of heteronormativity, or white supremacist structures and systems, or the patriarchy, or a form of Christianity that values theology over people made in God's image.
The artwork that the "59" gallery artists shared in response to the racism, sexism, sexual assault, homophobia, and abuses of power that we see in our world is an act of sacred resistance. Each piece taken as a whole helped us to see the intersectionality of justice issues and how every movement of liberation is tied together. But our response to violence and discrimination must not be to give in to fear and hate or to build walls so that we can shut out everyone we don't understand or like.
A healthy response, one that we saw in the film The Innocents, comes through learning how to love and be loved by people outside of our respective tribes. As Sr. Nancy Usselmann explained it, our vocation as human beings, even if we are not part of a religious order, must be a response of Love and a response to Love that informs everything we do, from the way we protest injustice, to the art we create and the friendships we make.
During this memorable evening, faith, gender, sexuality, and race overlapped and collided in the music, dance, spoken word performances, and the film we experienced and discussed together. The risks taken by the artists to share their work with us created a kind of safe space for us to encounter one another at the busy intersections of identity and (hopefully) none of us left the same way we came in.
moonlight and cinephile shorts
When he was being awarded his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Roger Ebert called movies “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts” because of their unparalleled ability to allow viewers to step into someone else’s life and walk around in their shoes. Movies give us a taste of what it might be like to be a different gender, a different race, a different sexual orientation, a different economic class, to live in a different time, or to have a different set of beliefs. Like Roger, Level Ground believes that “the great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.” We chose to screen Moonlight at this year’s Level Ground Festival because it’s the kind of film that changes people.
Our panel of young, queer, black artists and filmmakers who were all raised in the church spoke of how much it meant to finally see someone like themselves on screen. One of the panelists shared how overwhelmed he was by the representational aspect of the film. Like Chiron, the main character in the film, he could relate to growing up black, gay, and poor but what stood out to him the most was the poignant and sensitive treatment with which the filmmakers depicted a same-sex friendship tinged with unspoken romantic longing that wasn’t overly sexualized. What is refreshing about the relationship between Chiron and his childhood crush Kevin is how pure, tender, and unabashedly romantic it is. It isn't too much or too little. It isn’t exploitative and it’s definitely not a cautionary tale. It’s just right.
In the film, Chiron is a shy and sensitive soul who is trying to find his place in a world that doesn’t tolerate men who don't fit a tough, non-touchy-feely, overtly macho, and aggressively heteronormative mold. The sad truth is that many men, particularly in certain religious contexts, are forced into this one size fits all type of manhood that is defined by a strictly enforced male code of conduct. There is no place for weakness or vulnerability and being slapped with the label “feminine” or “gay” means you are a social pariah or a punching bag. It’s no wonder so many boys learn to run from physical and emotional intimacy with other men as a means of self-preservation.
Tonight we were reminded that when we fixate on what is or isn't happening in the bedroom, we miss that a person's sexual orientation or gender identity can never fully encapsulate all of who they are. And we will probably also miss the healthy longing for human contact and connection that's at the heart of every human relationship, gay, straight, or otherwise.
ask & answer and bitchface comedy
How do you decide what to say and what not to say when sharing what is often a private conversation about deeply personal experiences connected to gender, race, identity, and transition? Lambda Literary Finalists and multi-disciplinary artists Chase Joynt and VIVEK SHRAYA responded to this question during the talkback following a thoughtful and provocative performance of Ask & Answer. Chase answered that the question of what to expose is always about the alliances he has with underrepresented communities and how he might use his own story, along with his power and privilege, to increase visibility and advocate for the rights of sexual and racial minorities.
When asked about the intersection of LGBTQ and spiritual identities, Vivek shared that for her growing up in a devout Hindu family, religious spaces were the safest places for her to wrestle with questions of gender and identity. Hindu masculinity is very different from Western conceptions of masculinity due to their gods being gender fluid, so in the absence of queer role models, she first looked to Hindu gods for inspiration. Chase, whose mother converted to Orthodox Judaism when he was transitioning from female to male, found many parallels in their respective journeys that encompassed their minds, spirits, souls, and bodies while touching on profound ontological and theological questions.
Following Ask & Answer, Rachel Mac brought her stand-up show, Bitchface Comedy, to Level Ground for the third year in a row with a lineup of terrific comedians, including Rhea Butcher. Exploring the dangers, pitfalls and foibles of human sexuality and spirituality, the show leans into raw honesty and incisive wit to share stories that bring people together and provide unexpected insights into the complexity of human life. As Rachel is fond of saying, stand-up is a communal experience. It’s a group of people, all hearing the same words at the same time. And the comics are willing to be vulnerable with the good, the bad, and the ugly of their lives, as long as we are willing to listen and laugh with them.
Tonight Rachel shared about her conservative Christian upbringing in the Midwest, a topic she often discusses in her stand-up comedy. Comedy has allowed her to break out of the boxes of traditional gender roles she was taught growing up and explore who she is without fear of rejection. For her, and for the audience, her honesty in sharing her doubts, questions, and complicated history in dealing with her sexuality and her relationship to Christianity is hilariously cathartic.
WILDFIRE, daytime shorts, with friends like these, and dina
We closed out the festival today acknowledging that we are living in a historical moment when the gaps between belief systems are becoming more exposed. Everyone is painfully aware that our national family has huge chasms of disagreement about a myriad of pressing issues where the lives and wellbeing of our neighbors are quite literally at stake. The challenge for us all is to figure out how to bridge those gaps in order to maintain healthy relationships and robust dialogue across political and theological differences.
If we cannot learn how to love and communicate with each other across our differences and disagreements the possibility of finding a way forward together in our religious communities, and more broadly as citizens of this nation, will continue to fade. This is why we think the mission of Level Ground is so crucial. As Jeff Chu reminded us, we need to be in relationship with people who do not share our worldview because those friendships will challenge us, change us, and make us all better.
After this festival we are even more convinced that it's possible for people of diverse identities to come together, share space with one another, and form a community in spite of very different experiences, perspectives, and beliefs. Level Ground remains committed to creating a curious, empathetic community of people eager to come together because of our differences. Here's to getting better together!
* Stay up-to-date on local Level Ground events happening in the Los Angeles area.