Christina Raia subverts genre through her horror and comic shorts

During quarantine, a series of amazing cat videos have been produced once a month on Instagram by CongestedCat Productions. I encourage you all to check them out. That kind of ingenuity in a pandemic is brained by filmmaker Christina Raia, founder of CongestedCat.

Christina Raia is what I like to call a female filmmaker super hero. She’s paving the way for womxn filmmakers in story, style and creative approaches to the industry. She’s always harnessing her environment, whatever it may be, to make her films work and defy any trace of formulaic structure. I love that about her.

I interviewed Christina a year ago about her film “About A Donkey” and her work as Head of Education at Seed&Spark. In my follow-up piece, we focus on her current work at her production company CongestedCat and her latest three shorts (“The Gaze”, “Affliction”, and “Game Brunch”). Her subversion of the comedy and horror genre brings us deeper into the stories. What she’s doing is unlike anything I’ve seen before, though it does call to mind Jordan Peele’s take on horror by bringing social commentary to the genre. Christina’s films do that, while also enhancing the narrative by viewing it with a feminist lens.

REBECCA MARTIN: How did your production company, CongestedCat, get started?

CHRISTINA RAIA: My childhood friend, Chris Carroll, and I started CongestedCat in 2011. We started the production company because we wanted an umbrella to put our work under. Chris is a fashion photographer now, but at the time we were collaborating a lot because I was wanting to make films. When I was in school, I felt like I was surrounded by people who had access in ways that I didn’t, specifically connections in the industry and to money. Being a multi-ethnic person–my friend is also multi-ethnic in addition to being queer–we had a unique perspective of the world and what we could bring to storytelling. We decided to make a couple shorts, and we wanted to unify them under a brand. The name of the production company came out of a joke.

MARTIN: What was the joke?

RAIA: We wanted to do something with “C and C” because we are Christina and Chris. We were trying to think of words that start with C that we both have in common, and “cat” was one, because we both love cats. We were saying a lot of different things, and then we put into Google “C Cat”, and the first thing that came up was “Congested Cat”.

MARTIN: That’s hilarious. 

RAIA: At first we thought the name was silly and we weren’t taking it seriously, but then the more we said it, we really loved that it had this offbeat quality to it. The name of the company makes people think, ‘What is CongestedCat?’, and has made the name more memorable. People hear it and they don’t forget it. And the name of the production company applies to the horror and comedy element of our films.

In 2013 I made my first feature, and we really had to commit to the name and the existence of the company. We decided to create branding for the company and create a social media presence. Chris ended up moving on. He’s still our internal photographer, but he’s moved on from film, and now he’s a fashion photographer. 

Kelsey Rauber, a friend from my school, joined the company and became my main producing partner. She is the writer and the producer of “About a Donkey”. And then we started to fill the team out with this group of ragtag queer multi-ethnic people. That’s our thing in a way. We are people who have intersectional identities that are just trying to make work that make people feel seen and that is challenging social norms in ways that are really story-focused. We’re not making cause-driven content on the surface, like documentaries on social issues, although those kind of films are important. But our path, which I feel is definitely the thread in “About a Donkey”, is empathy. Our films make you identify with people onscreen for their universal humanity. For example, fear is unifying. If you’re afraid with that person, you may identify with them. Same for comedy. If you can laugh with that person, you may identify with them, even if you don’t look like them, or love like them.

MARTIN: I’d love to discuss your latest work with your short films. I love how in all of the films they have this twist. I feel that your films have mastered that. You go in thinking one thing, and then it comes out completely different. It makes you think deeper about things. 

Are all the films you sent me out in the festival circuit now?

RAIA: “The Gaze” was supposed to be wrapping up. We have a couple left, but some of those festivals have cancelled or are going online. “The Gaze” is going to be streaming on the platform “Alter” in August. 

“Affliction” is just starting its festival run. It’s unfortunate because we were supposed to have our premiere in March. Everything shut down the weekend it was supposed to have its premiere. 

We’ve had one online film festival experience so far, and we’ve heard from a couple others. I think that the run of that film, “Affliction,” is going to be completely online because we had planned to finish the run before the election in November. We’d release the film before the election, so we could create a conversation around consent. The person we currently have in office is not someone who follows consent. 

Still from “Affliction”

MARTIN: That’s totally correct. “Affliction” is such a unique film of the #MeToo era, whis is reflected in many films released this year (“Athlete A”, “TAPE”, “The Assistant”), because it touches on the climate of #MeToo. What makes your film different is the genre element, bringing humor to the subject through the horror aspect of the film. There is a conversation between the two characters that is so interesting and familiar. Could you talk about how you came to making the film, and what you want to leave with the viewer?

RAIA: I wrote and directed “The Gaze” and “Game Brunch,” which are my other two short films that are in the festival route. On “Affliction,” I was just the director and the producer, while Kelsey Rauber wrote the script. That was born out of our weekly writing group. We often will come together with pages we have been working on with new pitches every week. That was a pitch that Kelsey had and was rooted in conversations that we had been having about the #MeToo movement. We felt that the movement was really excellent about bringing these horrific things to the forefront, but what we were frustrated about was the fact that men were not going deep enough into how they may have crossed lines. That sexual assault, and sexual violence, is not binary. It’s either you did or you didn’t. You’re either a rapist or you’re not. So much of the conditioning indicates that there are lines that may have been crossed, maybe not intentionally, but that doesn’t mean that you didn’t do something wrong.

Still from “Affliction”

We wanted to create a film that removed the idea where the assault was open to interpretation. The body is deciding that some violation has happened, and that is not up for debate. It’s really about the fact that you don’t realize what you violated. We must have that conversation, because I believe that is the only way that we grow. The average woman who has experienced sexual violence has not been walking home down an alley where a stranger jumps out and attacks. It’s often in the nuances of dating, like when you’re on a date with someone, or inviting someone up to your apartment. And that’s the only way forward, if good men who don’t necessarily mean to do wrong, admit that they’ve done wrong and reflect on that within themselves.

This is a film that we hope would push some buttons, and get you thinking and talking. That is kind of the downside of losing the festival circuit, on the ground. But I’m hoping we can still facilitate that online. 

Still from “The Gaze”

MARTIN: Let’s transition to “The Gaze”. The film is so unique in its subversiveness of the horror genre. Could you talk to me about how you came to this project?

RAIA: That film was rooted in insomnia. I couldn’t sleep. It was in 2018, and I had been having a lot of sleepless nights. When I can’t sleep it’s because my brain is going a mile a minute. When that happens, I need to just start writing. “The Gaze” came out that night. 

I wrote the script during the summer. During that summer, being cat-called on the street was a regular occurrence. #MeToo was a thing then, and was rising more to the surface. I had been talking to a lot of women who work in independent film. We weren’t just talking about the bigger elements of sexual harassment, but the small microaggressions that you experience being a women on set. I had been thinking a lot about how women are so often defined through the male gaze, whether it is in film, but also just in life. All of these things were working their way into my head and I just started spilling this thing out on the page, like a meta dissection of the male gaze. I wanted to show that the male gaze is in the movies we watch, it’s in the making of the movies that we watch, and it’s just a part of everyday life.

Still from “The Gaze”

So I did that through one character, through a film that she is in, and then on set, and then out in the world. I also wanted to play with your perception as an audience member. You think that you know what you’re watching, but then realize that it’s not that kind of movie. Only to find out that it’s not that kind of movie, either. Part of that was to pull you out of a typical slasher film. Right in the beginning, we see that it’s a movie set and a female director is behind the film. I just really wanted to completely subvert the gaze. I wanted to make you think about how the objectification of women exists, and what does that look like if there were a group of people who could channel that and turn it back around? I’ve had really interesting reactions to the film on the circuit. One man came up to me and said, “Thanks for scaring me away from dating.” And he was like, “God forgive me if I look at a woman.” I said, “Well if you understand the story, you have nothing to worry about, if you’re just looking at a woman.”

It’s just been really interesting hearing different reactions to the film. Women love the ending and the world it builds. That’s something I really like to do. I like to build a big world that already exists, and capture a moment of it, which I think is the thread through all three of these shorts we’re discussing. 

I’m really excited to see “The Gaze” have a wider audience. On Alter they get a ton of views-

MARTIN: What is Alter?

RAIA: It’s a free platform, they have a Facebook channel and a YouTube channel comprised of horror content. But the content tends to be more selective, higher brow. And the head programmer is a woman, so that appealed to me. There is a lot of engagement on their videos, and most of them have received a minimum of half a million views. The comments are kind of crazy. I’m excited about that and I’m also mentally preparing for the trolls. 

MARTIN: I love that you always just go for it. I remember when we spoke last year about your film “About A Donkey,” you intentionally brought the film to festivals in red states knowing the push back you might get. I admire that. You always have a vision for long-term impact. 

Still from “Game Brunch”

Let’s talk “Game Brunch”. Another genre flip- 

RAIA: I do want to keep the reveal a secret, because that film is the newest one and it hasn’t screened yet. That film was born out of a couple things. One, I wanted to make this film fun. After finishing “Affliction”, the conversations we were having around the film were so heavy. I wanted to make a lighter film, something fun, that’s going to make people laugh. But I cannot resist having some level of commentary in the film, even if it’s just playful and silly.

“Game Brunch” came about because I wanted to write something for the actors. It was the first time I’d ever done that, where I asked myself, “Who do I like working with and what can I do with them in one location and in a short?” So I just thought about off the top of my head a few actors that I liked working with recently, or had been wanting to work with recently. Then I came up with those six actors. 

For a location, I was thinking about my apartment, and how I could use it in a way that I hadn’t yet. It was helpful through a writing process to have their voices in mind. That gave me a set up of personalities, and who would clash, and who would work well together. The spark was that I hosted a game night a couple years ago where we played “Werewolf,” and that was fun.

Still from “Game Brunch”

MARTIN: I’ve never heard of the game “Werewolf” before. What is it?

RAIA: It’s like if you played “Mafia” or “Assassin”. Those are just other names for it. It’s just a role-playing game. You essentially just try to trick each other into thinking who the werewolf might be. It’s a game of pointing fingers, trying to figure out who the last person is to survive. The game itself is irrelevant to the short, I wanted it to function in a way where you don’t need to know how the game works for it to have fun or to be entertained. 

It’s funny now thinking about that film in a Covid world, because there are different stakes to having a party at your apartment now. I wanted to make a film that was about friendship, a rom com, but for friends, that isn’t about trying to pursue romantic love, but more to find a friend. 

MARTIN: I did love how you did that. For example, the two queer female characters that the hetero couples were trying to set up weren’t attracted to one another. That was funny because of that assumption, and loved how you played off of that.

RAIA: I also wanted to make a film about representation without going deep. There are one-off jokes about how representation is often portrayed. For example, having two queer women characters, that is a part of it, the idea that you put two queer people together in a room and that makes them automatically a match. So I just wanted to subvert some of that and play with a lot of little things. But ultimately the film is fun and I hope it entertains people, giving them a little bit of an escape, but without being able to completely unplug. Because I think some films are just going for escape, and they’re still so white and heteronormative. And this is a film that is offering you a humorous escape, but it’s still making you think of things better, on the forefront of society. 

MARTIN: What’s your filmmaking process right now going into the new world we’re in with the pandemic and Covid-19?

RAIA:  It’s hard. There’s the safety element. For me it doesn’t seem responsible to ask people to show up in a group and make a thing, even if we follow all of the guidelines. There’s also just the feasibility of meeting those guidelines on a micro budget, which is how I work, which isn’t a reality within the new perameters that SAG has put into place. It’s just not possible with no real money. So I’m not really looking at production anytime soon. 

I was hoping to be thinking about working on my next feature. I already have written the script. I was also hoping to start fundraising this year, but it doesn’t feel like the right time for that either. I’ve been focusing on writing. The nice thing is that with the writers group that we have, we can do that virtually. I’ve been thinking of other ways that we could possibly collaborate. That is my favorite part of filmmaking, it’s the collaboration. 

For one thing, and this is only really happening on our CongestedCat instagram, every month I’ve been releasing a short starring one of my cats. It started in quarantine where I just wanted to start shooting stuff and play around. I had no actors in my apartment, but I had cats. I’ve been looping other people in, and we’ve been doing voice overs. The whole team has been involved in some way, whether it’s doing the music, or a voice. And they’re really short, they’re like a minute to a minute and a half. 

MARTIN: That’s amazing. I will check those out.

What do you feel are the benefits of moving films online, rather than in physical theaters?

RAIA: There’s no replacing being in a room with people watching your movie, and hearing people react to your film. There’s no replacing that. But people finding my film from states or countries that I would have never been able to go to is a benefit. I’ve experienced people tweeting me about my film from a totally different place than where I was trying to bring my film.

Also, I don’t think we talk enough about able-bodied privilege. People who have not been able to go to their local festival because of their disability can now experience their festival virtually. And that’s really cool.

Another benefit is that before it was harder to get lots of views online for independent content because people had so many options to go out and watch stuff. Because of the pandemic, people are more willing to watch content online, and have hit a cap in mainstream content and now are looking for more independent content.

The creativity and accessibility that is available to people didn’t exist before on multiple levels. And I appreciate the creativity of conversations like the use of Zoom and social media Q&As for films. I ask myself why wasn’t I doing this before? That’s something I’m definitely going to be doing moving forward. When we put a film online, I’m going to initiate an online Q&A. It’s a great way to create conversation, and reach the people that are already paying attention. 

This pandemic has created new doors, and new creative thinking around video content. 

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