‘Lilies’ Rising

How poet Joni Renee Whitworth transformed the pandemic experience into an award-winning experimental short film

“Of course, lesbians have dreamt of this for years: sleeping in late, reading to each other, fretting over the cat, cooking, stretching, listening to jazz in silks. No parties to attend.” Those are the first words in Lilies, an experimental short film written by poet Joni Renee Whitworth, who wanted it to communicate their passion for finding ecstasy in the midst of tragedy—even during a pandemic.

“I know a lot of people felt like joy and pleasure were not allowed last year, and they would feel kind of guilty or try to hide when something was going well,” Whitworth says. “And I’m so disheartened by that response. We can’t build a society where joy and pleasure are not allowed. Because the hard stuff will always be there, and last year was harder than most—harder than any I’ve known.”

“Lilies” in the field: Collaborators Hannah Piper Burns (left) and Joni Renee Whitworth.

Created in collaboration with Hannah Piper Burns, Lilies is a nine-minute kaleidoscope of sounds and images that coalesce into a rush of hope and anguish. It invokes Whitworth’s experience as a queer artist surviving the pandemic, while offering a sweeping meditation on post-COVID life (Whitworth’s characterization of the “choreographed veering” required to avoid other humans is one of many potent observations about current social protocols).

Lilies, which premiered at Fertile Ground and won three IndieFEST Film Awards of Recognition in the Experimental, LGBT, and Women Filmmakers categories, started as a poem that Whitworth wrote. “I was used to performing poetry very regularly around Portland—once a week or so for the last few years,” Whitworth says. “And I just thought, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that for a very long time.’ So that’s when I started thinking about film.”

After Whitworth invited Burns to contribute to the project (which Whitworth describes as “halfway between fiction and nonfiction”), a strict division of labor was instituted: Whitworth focused on the words and Burns stuck to the images and sound effects. “I love handing off the reins in a collaboration,” Whitworth says. “You basically say, ‘For the purposes of this collaboration, I am a poet. And now you are going to do your role, which is filmmaker, and fill in all of your skills and knowledge and training and background.’”

A series of stills from “Lilies.”

Burns complemented Whitworth’s narration with entrancingly eclectic visuals. Video footage of nature, animals and food dominate Lilies (“A lot of my art is about food and family and the body,” Whitworth says), and there are also clips from three video games: Animal Crossing, Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector, and Stardew Valley.

“I love the subtle, witty audio track that she designed that runs throughout the piece,” Whitworth says. “There are little gaming sounds and food sounds, just trying to reference all the things that people are doing while they’re stuck at home in quarantine and trying to understand our society and working through their own processing.”

Recording narration for Lilies turned out to be an overwhelming odyssey. “I remember I was completely just filled up with energy and rage at our broken systems…and devotion from the feelings of writing about my intense desire for my beautiful partner and the hope that kind of comes out at the end of the piece,” Whitworth says. “It was all just raging and coursing through my body, and I actually started shaking when we were recording, so we did a couple takes because of that reason.”

That intensity is felt in every frame of Lilies, which is a vagueness-free zone (“As an autistic person, I’ve fantasized about a culture of direct speech, free from vague, meaningless niceties,” Whitworth says in the film). It’s the cinematic equivalent of a quote from the poet Dunya Mikhail that Whitworth loves: “I still feel that poetry is not medicine—it’s an X-ray.”

“I love that because so many times, we think of our own artmaking process as healing and people always wonder, ‘Is it okay to try to heal myself with my art?’” Whitworth says. “I certainly don’t think that has to be the goal, but I think that this particular film can be healing for people who are trying to process the last year, including me. I’m one of those people.”

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Lilies can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XK8_dR5mxms.

About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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