Marion Lougheed

Layers of Loss, Layers of Hope – Filmmaker Christine Sloan Stoddard on Sirena's Gallery


Marion Lougheed grew up in Canada, Benin, Belgium, and Germany. She holds a diploma in professional writing and degrees in anthropology. She has worked at Flanker Press and as editor-in-chief at World Record Label. She currently runs MLEdits and Off Topic Publishing, while pursuing a PhD at York University in Toronto, Canada.

The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the arts industry, with high unemployment and huge loss of income across the board. By September 2020, modern and contemporary art sales in the United States had dropped by over a third compared to pre-Covid numbers.

Christine Sloan Stoddard is a Salvadoran-American filmmaker, fine artist, writer, and performer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her new film Sirena's Gallery uses the pandemic as setting and metaphor to explore the life of a recent widow and art gallery owner struggling to make ends meet.

Although this movie is set in a specific historical moment, it speaks to universal human experiences of loss and loneliness, as well as hope and recovery.


Q: This is the first movie that I've seen that takes place during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people are still shying away from these kinds of stories. What motivated you to create a pandemic story at this time?

A: I had been toying around with the idea for Sirena’s Gallery for a couple of years in one way or another. The seed was planted during my MFA program. It took root after I won a travel award to do an artist residency in El Salvador. The residency, called Laberinto Projects, has a special focus on the art and culture of El Salvador’s civil war. Part of its mission is connecting diaspora like me with this part of the country’s history through an archive from the period. I spent a couple of weeks immersing myself in the archive and eventually used that experience to develop my thesis exhibition. During the exhibition, I took residence in the library archives gallery at The City College of New York-CUNY. One of the main considerations in my MFA program is taking a critical stance of the art market, so I had already been thinking about power dynamics in the industry. Once I started living with my work in the gallery, I began thinking of someone trapped in the system. Naturally, I imagined a gallerist and went from there.

The opportunity to make the film didn’t come until the pandemic, ironically. In May 2020, I was awarded a space grant at 1708 Gallery in Virginia, my home state, and used the gallery as the film’s primary location. While I had to rewrite Sirena’s story to accommodate the pandemic, the thrust of it is the same. The pandemic only exacerbated some of the thematic issues that interested me.


Q: In the film, Sirena displays artifacts of the pandemic in her gallery, even though no one is around to see them. What inspired you to delve into the materiality of the pandemic in this way?

A: I’m fascinated by archives and I’ve been thinking about how the pandemic will be archived since April 2020. Sirena can’t help but think the same and give herself something of a ritual while she mourns.


Q: How specific is this story to the pandemic? What aspects of it do you imagine as more timeless or universal?

A: It isn’t necessarily specific to the pandemic. The timing only heightens her sense of individual loss during a time of collective loss. The concept of losing hope and then working to recover it is timeless.


Q: Sirena’s Gallery is about a person who creates and sells art, but of course the film itself is a work of art. Many would call it an art film, since it doesn't use a typical movie structure or formula. What is an art film to you and would you consider Sirena's Gallery to be an art film?

A: The term “art film” makes sense in terms of the film industry, where marketing must be considered because of business concerns. But within filmmaking as an art form, outside of the industry, I don’t love the term. I don’t want to follow a “typical movie structure” if it doesn’t serve my story or vision. Story structures can take various forms. The patriarchy, colonialism, and other systems of oppression tell us there’s only one way, but those are the same systems that don’t privilege artists like me.


Q: What is Sirena's Gallery about for you? What would you say the main theme or themes are? What would you want people to take away from their experience watching it?

There are layers of loss in this film, but also layers of hope. That hope largely comes from acts of improvising and creating. While Sirena’s individual loss of her husband is obvious from the get-go, she experiences other forms of loss, too. She’s also experiencing the same collective loss of “normalcy” as the rest of society. What’s less obvious is the loss she feels as a member of El Salvador’s diaspora. She’s disconnected from the Motherland and the pandemic only furthers that disconnection. I want viewers to consider all the forms of loss Sirena feels, but also find power in her path toward hope. It’s a long path, but she’s started walking it.


Q: Especially in the beginning, the film has a post-apocalyptic vibe, as if the world has stopped and everyone died. How intentional was that aesthetic? How did you go about creating it?

A: The aesthetic was very intentional. I created it by choosing a post-industrial location (Richmond, VA), shooting in early quarantine when the streets were empty, fucking up the look of the video, and then editing it to create faux glitches.


Q: Most of the audio effects or music are described in the credits as "manipulated found audio." What does that mean? Tell me a little about your process.

A: I find sounds online, record them, and then play with them in the editing process. It’s spontaneous, improvised, and fun. I just feel it.


Q: Tell me about the timeline for making this film. When did you first get the idea and how long did it take to create from start to finish? All told, how many hours of work did you put in?

A: I developed my grad school musings and re-worked everything in time for the residency about two or three weeks before getting access to the gallery. Then I worked on it for two weeks, shooting and re-shooting every day. That was the duration of my residency, so I had to get it done in that period. I mulled over it for the next nine months, edited it in about two, and completed the film a little before the one-year anniversary of my residency. I have no idea how many hours of work I put in. This was certainly one of my main creative projects of 2020-2021, but it wasn’t the only one. I’ve also worked on books, paintings, plays, and installations. I update my website at pretty regularly, so you can peek at what else I’ve released in the past year.


Q: How did you find your actors during the pandemic? Describe working with them under these unusual conditions.

A: All of the actors are friends and colleagues. All of them were familiar with my work and most of them have worked with me on other occasions. We collaborated entirely via virtual communication. The exception was the actor who appears as Quinn (different than the actor who voiced the character), because that person was my real-life quarantine partner. I didn’t want to put any of the actors in danger. It wasn’t necessary anyway to work with them on location to tell the story.


Q: There’s a line in the film: "I don't believe in angels; I believe in debt." In your view, what role does debt play in the film and in society?

A: The fact that Sirena has to think about money after her husband died and during a global pandemic disgusts me. We should have a society that allows people to grieve without fretting about bills, but we don’t and that needs to change.



Sirena's Gallery will be made available for streaming on Vimeo on Demand in early 2022.

The film was produced by Quail Bell Press & Productions, a woman-owned creative studio.

Please consider supporting the movie on Kickstarter.

© The Acentos Review 2021