By Greg Youmans
About a quarter of the way into Malic Amalya’s ten-minute film RUN!: A Mythography, which premiered in 2020 and is newly available for distribution through Canyon Cinema, a figure in leather bondage gear is seen from behind as it crawls up a dune of white sand. When we later see the figure from the front, we discover it is wearing a WWII-era gas mask, with big glass-circle eyes and a long proboscis-like tube that dangles free, connected to nothing. The figure’s association with a fly is reinforced by other footage in the film, in particular the faded imagery and warped soundtrack of a midcentury 16mm educational film about the insect.
Still other footage, shot in the present, suggests that the figure is at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, somewhere near the Trinity Site where the first nuclear bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945. Watching the figure, who is played by Amalya, move through the desert conjures associations with the Mad Max franchise and other films set in post-apocalyptic wastelands. Is this a survivor of nuclear war, a hanger-on after radioactive fallout? Or is it an embodied memory of the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The bomb sites are little mentioned in the memorials at the Trinity Site and Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb is commemorated mainly as a feat of military-engineering ingenuity that made possible “a quick end to the war.” But at the start of Amalya’s film we see projected footage of the aftermath of the one of the bombings over captions that read, “The only things that moved in Hiroshima were the flies circling the dead.” Perhaps the central figure of RUN! then is one of those flies, buzzed back across the Pacific to remind Americans of what we did. Military equipment seems to track the figure as it moves across the sand, indicating that it is in danger of being found out and exterminated.
As an experimental filmmaker, Amalya has long favored analog technologies. Although he has made work in digital formats, RUN! is one of a number of films that he has shot and screened in 16mm celluloid. Among other things, he appreciates that the technology slows him down and compels him to approach every shot and step of the process with greater attention and intention. In the case of RUN! there’s an additional reason for the choice. Amalya began working on the project in the summer of 2017, in year one of the Trump Presidency when the threat of nuclear war resurged with a vengeance. In this light it’s not surprising that his engagement with U.S. militarism would turn not to the digital, video-game logics of drone warfare, but to the medium and gauge associated with an earlier era of analog Geiger counters, sonorous male voiceovers, and mushroom clouds viewed from 10,000 yards away through dark field glasses.
RUN! is an essay film with a collage aesthetic, and its subtitle references Roland Barthes’s analysis of mass-cultural objects and hegemonic values in Mythologies. Part of what makes Amalya’s film so powerful is the way it freights the figure of the fly with so many associations (or exposes the way it’s already so freighted) and then asks us to think critically about how those associations intersect. When I spoke with the filmmaker, he told me that he was struck by how explicit the ideologies of war and genocide are in the 16mm educational film about the insect. As the male narrator intones, “Scientists have found that when we know the life history of a pest we are better able to control it and prevent it from spreading disease. Scientists use natural enemies and poison sprays to destroy these pests.” RUN! invites us to consider what and who else are targeted by the ongoing state-sponsored ideology of “natural enemies” and the continued military-scientific production of “poison sprays.” The figure crossing the desert could easily be an undocumented immigrant trying to get into the United States, or else a climate refugee fleeing, or trying to flee, ecological disaster. While Amalya was making the film, and well before the COVID-19 pandemic, he already had to put on an N95 mask at times just to leave his apartment in Oakland because of the new reality of unending wildfires in California. (After spending more than a decade in the Bay Area, he moved to Boston in the fall of 2020 to take a tenure-track job teaching experimental media at Emerson College.)
The fly takes on other associations as well. Early in RUN!, we encounter a brightly colored set in which two people, one in a powerchair and dressed all in red and the other in a close-fitting black leather outfit that is similar to the one worn by the figure in the desert, stand in front of a large American flag as we hear a scratchy recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” The two performers are strangely affectless as they carry out a series of actions that are both mundane and odd. The person in the powerchairholds at various moments a heart-shaped box of chocolates, an enema bag, a red scrapbook, and a blue plastic football. The other person sprays roses that are attached to the powerchair with a white aerosol can and at another moment removes the first person’s rose-tinted glasses.
This material is a restaging of Jack Smith’s 1969 film and performance Song for Rent, a newly restored print of which is also distributed through Canyon. In Song for Rent, Smith appears in drag as Rose Courtyard, a wheelchair-using matron based on Rose Kennedy, and performs parallel actions with similar props in front of the same flag and with the same recording playing in the background. In Amalya’s reworked version, disabled performance artist and comedian Jade Theriault takes on the role of Rose Courtyard, and they are assisted in their Smithian actions by activist Rae Raucci in the role of Barbarella Bush. Amalya’s recreation became a standalone film, Song for Rent, After Jack Smith, with a festival run in 2019, but he made it from the start with the intention of incorporating it into RUN! He was drawn to the ambiguity of Smith’s camp take on American patriotism, with its tension between critique and indulgence, and he felt it would provide a useful counterpoint to the otherwise serious imagery in RUN!
In more than one way, RUN! links Theriault’s character to the fly. A fly brooch is seen on their lapel in an early shot that pans down their body. It is a “fly in the ointment,” a small defect that disrupts and disturbs the overblown and oversaturated image of patriotism that surrounds it. The intercut educational-film footage of fly eggs and larvae—pale and limbless—also charges the proximate shots of Theriault gazing out at us through the camera. In these ways, the film exposes how disability is caught in the web of cultural myths about “pests,” “parasites,” and “enemies.”
Interestingly, the one association of the fly that viewers may not realize unless they are familiar with Amalya’s earlier films, or unless a festival blurb or this essay tips them off, is its association for him with being transgender. Insects, and especially flies, crop up in a number of his earlier works, perhaps most notably FlyHole, a digital video from 2017 that he developed from a dual 35mm slide projection. Together, Flyhole, Song for Rent, and RUN! comprise an informal fly trilogy of sorts within Amalya’s work.
FlyHole reworks an erotic story that Amalya found in a 1985 issue of the gay adult magazine Manscape in which a woman disguises herself as a man in order to cruise for sex at a gay bar. Despite the cissexist language and framing of the story, Amalya identified and responded to its depiction of the fear, excitement, and desire of a trans man engaging with cisnormative gay male sex culture. FlyHole integrates excerpts from the magazine’s printed text into a rich collage, in which images and sounds of flies threaten to overtake the story at the moments when the main character is most at risk of exposure. Nouns and pronouns for female gender never appear, and in the one quoted line from the story where they would, “If only he knew I was a ____”, a fly interrupts the text, obscuring the final word.
Amalya told me that he is attracted to the figure of the fly because he connects it to a personal memory that goes back to his early awareness of being trans. In early middle school he began shaving his legs to try to fit in, but he stopped in eighth grade. When his mother noticed that he had stopped shaving, she compulsively reached out and ran her hand across his leg, shivered, and recoiled. Having seen his mother happily scratching her boyfriend’s hairy back, Amalya understood that she was repulsed not by body hair but by his gender transgression: his transness had evoked a visceral disgust in her that seemed to run deeper than language and logic. As an adult, he keeps returning to the notion of trans abjection in his films not so much in order to reject or exorcise that abjection, but rather to reclaim it and build solidarity through it with other people who have been cast out and denied their humanity.
Another of the motivations in making RUN! was Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. Amalya’s engagement came not from a liberal desire to end the ban, but from a queer radical position that was critical of military participation as a movement goal—in other words, from the conviction that there are some things trans people have been excluded from that they should not want to be a part of. But even as RUN! uses the multivalent figure of the fly to build solidarity among a host of marginalized people who have been harmed by U.S. patriotism, xenophobia, and war, the film refuses to lean on or perpetuate any tidy, self-satisfied distinction between center and margin or perpetrator and victim. When in 2021 Biden repealed Trump’s ban through an executive order, any sense of a clear divide between trans people and state power broke down. But Amalya had already cast doubt on that divide at the end of his film two years earlier.
In one of the final shots, a radioactive piece of trinitite, residue from the atomic blast, is placed gently and almost ritualistically into Amalya’s sand-filled mouth. Following Mary Douglas’s classic theory of abjection, this act and image break down the symbolic boundary between ingestion and expulsion, between what is deemed clean and permitted entry into the physical/social body and what is deemed unclean and expelled. RUN! is not simply a critique of warmongering patriots by a pacifist leftist. It is a complex film by a white, American, queer, trans, and antiracist filmmaker who grapples at once with both his complicity and vulnerability.
Greg Youmans is a writer and scholar based in Washington state, where he is an associate professor of English and film studies at Western Washington University. He is the recipient of an Arts Writers Grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation, and his essays on queer and trans experimental film have appeared in e-flux, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema, and numerous other publications.