“Sirena’s Gallery” is a new movie by writer, artist, and director Christine Sloan Stoddard. The independent film follows a struggling Salvadoran-American gallery owner who is grief-stricken after the suicide of her husband. Artistic, atmospheric, and brooding, the film captures the realities of grief which is amplified by its setting during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Christine wrote, directed, and starred in the film, which was produced by her company, Quail Bell Press & Productions. It is making the rounds at theater festivals and will first be screened at the Byrd Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, on August 27.
Christine recently discussed this new film via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How and when did you come up with the idea for “Sirena’s Gallery”?
Christine Sloan Stoddard (CSS): It stemmed from my creative explorations in graduate school and dates back to ideas I generated in 2018. During my MFA, I spent so much time holed up in my studio or the library that I led almost this monastic experience (reading, writing, creating art, and dreaming in solitude really prepared me for quarantine.) It made me think a lot about the creative process and the loneliness inherent to art-making, even in collaborative projects. For my thesis exhibition, I became the artist-in-residence at the campus library archives gallery and continued to spend a lot of time by myself. I had to fill the entire gallery and program events related to my process in addition to writing a lengthy research paper. Throughout grad school, I thought about the power structures at play in the art world, especially the gallery system and institutional spaces like museums. It made me imagine all kinds of characters, scenarios, and stories related to these physical spaces and the challenges faced by artists, gallerists, curators, and other arts professionals. From these imaginings, Sirena was born.
As a New York City transplant, I’m always thinking about how NYC ecosystems compare to, well, everywhere else. Now that I’ve lived in Brooklyn a few years and have a better understanding of how sales and philanthropy work in this city, I’m fascinated by how arts organizations survive anywhere else. New York City wealth is tremendous! The amount of power here is insane! While I knew this to some extent before, I now have firsthand knowledge of it. Or I thought I did. The pandemic complicated NYC’s art systems and flattened out geography. Suddenly, you could be anywhere and have an unprecedented amount of access to organizations and audiences. During quarantine, most of us lived online. Sirena’s story as the Central American diasporic gallery owner in the South had to be rewritten. I quickly adapted, just as I do with everything else, and the film took a new direction.
MM: How did you find locations to film and how long did it take to film?
CSS: The film was shot on location in Richmond, VA, where I attended VCUarts and have lived off and on for years. I was fortunate enough to receive a Space Grant at 1708 Gallery and largely used it for the production of Sirena’s Gallery. It’s the film’s principal location, with other locations also in Richmond. Since I know the city so intimately and have been noting potential locations for years, it wasn’t hard to pick where I wanted to go. I filmed over the course of two weeks, taking my time because I had to do it myself, with only very limited assistance from my spouse, my quarantine partner. I did some rewriting as I went and reworked some scenes even after shooting them. Some scenes were scrapped entirely. You will also see few snippets of cell phone footage from Brooklyn, NY and Santa Ana, El Salvador in the film. These come from my personal archive and date back to 2018. I’m always collecting photos and videos for possible future inclusion in my projects.
MM: How personal is this story?
CSS: It is a work of fiction, but as with any creative work, there are elements of my own life that crept their way into the project. While I wasn’t interested in producing an autobiographical film, I was inspired by my own experiences. Then I kneaded and stretched them.
MM: Why did you decide to have one of the main characters die by suicide, an overdose, in particular? Have you lost anyone in such a way?
CSS: I have a family history of suicide and am struck by suicide’s continued stigma. Even with the opioid crisis and the mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic, shame surrounds the topic. According to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, more than 48,500 Americans die by suicide every year and an estimated 285,000 become suicide survivors. Around the world, nearly 800,000 people die by suicide every year. With numbers like that, there’s no good reason why the topic is so taboo.
MM: What’s your favorite part of the movie and why?
CSS: The ending. In particular, I like where Sirena is dancing with a projection of one of her paintings on the wall, all alone in the dark gallery. Despite everything, she takes her power to play and embrace joy.
MM: Was it a challenge to make a movie during a lingering pandemic?
CSS: Yes, but I purposely crafted a story and circumstances that allowed me to create while in quarantine. I did a lot by myself—almost everything!
MM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about this movie so far?
CSS: People have commented on the story’s emotional range and how, despite her challenges, Sirena remains hopeful. I’ve also gotten a lot of positive feedback on the performance.
MM: What has it been like to shop this film around to various festivals?
CSS: I cut the film on May 15th, 2021, so the shopping process has only just begun! Sirena’s Gallery will first screen at the beautiful and historic Byrd Theatre in Richmond, VA on August 27, 2021. Readers may buy tickets on Eventbrite. Seating will be limited because of social distancing, so buy your tickets early!
MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?
CSS: I like to keep most of my projects a secret until they are close enough to their release that promotion becomes mandatory! But what I will say is that I’m working on the film version of “Naomi & The Reckoning.” “Naomi & The Reckoning” is a print novelette from Finishing Line Press, as well as an audiobook from Quail Bell Press & Productions. “Naomi & The Reckoning” follows Naomi, a young woman with a physical deformity. Struggling with body acceptance all her life, Naomi also comes from a strict religious upbringing. Purity culture further complicated her relationship with her body and, now recently married, she can’t find sexual satisfaction. Both the print book and the audiobook open with five narrative poems that lead into the central story, a work of prose fiction. Both the print and audiobooks are still available, so order your copies today!
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
CSS: I hope to continue expressing myself creatively, telling stories, and making art. I do that through my creative studio Quail Bell Press & Productions and never want to stop.