.Chloe Xtina Watching the Watchers

Filmmaker confronts the psychosexual gaze

Chloe Xtina will be shooting a new short film titled “Arcadia” in Santa Cruz in mid-May and hopes to include locals in the production. The 25-year-old theater and film writer/director grew up in Oakland and often visited Santa Cruz.

“Santa Cruz has always been this dark, magical place to me,” Xtina says, “but it also has this very timeless feel that’s slow moving, warm and welcoming.”

Xtina ran a theater company in high school and studied playwriting and film at UCLA. She now lives in Brooklyn, and last summer her play Joan of Arc in a Supermarket in California had a successful Off-Broadway debut.

The 2023 Sundance Ignite x Adobe Fellow previously directed two short films: “Ghost of You” (2023) and “The First Taste” (2020). “Arcadia”—the story of a young woman’s “sexual awakening infused with the precarity of climate collapse”— will feature Logan Miller, Lucy Urbano, Alaska Reid and Maria Dizzia. More information can be found at Chloextina.com.

Tell me about “Arcadia.”

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Chloe Xtina: “Arcadia” is a short film about an 18-year-old girl. The summer before she leaves for college, she joins a prestigious theater troupe in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She’s on the hunt for sexual power, and there’s a blurring of the lines between prey and predator.

The film is really about these blurred spaces of being a young woman in an art space, where you’re grasping for your own sexual autonomy, but also dealing with what could be determined as grooming. The lines blur between sexual power and power being abused, but also the autonomous power of a young woman and her sexuality.

I set the story during a dark, rainy summer in Santa Cruz, to have the feel of an ’80s thriller. We’re shooting on 16mm film, which adds to the effect. The dark nostalgia in the film is inspired by these really gritty feminized worlds like that of directors Karyn Kusama, Andrea Arnold and Catherine Hardwicke.

I read that your stories explore “psychosexual gazes, desire and California’s climate crisis through a magical realist lens.”

Throughout my adolescence I was very hypersexualized and a lot of rage built up, nonverbal stuff. It wasn’t in the cultural canon to talk about the feelings or experiences I was having. I realized I could use fantasy and magic as a tool to represent unspoken feelings of rage. I’m really interested in these tiny, isolated moments that happen in a young woman’s life that will forever impact her and blow up into a very sinister effect. So, I started exploring magical realism as a tool to talk about these things.

The climate crisis is also an important part of your stories.

All of my work deals with California’s climate crisis as a backdrop. My last project (“Ghost of You”) took place during fire season and a heatwave. I found the climate crisis is a strange mirror for my own coming of age and my relationship to psychosexual gazes. California is as much a character in my work as the literal characters. This mirror of chaos reflects the experience of not being able to control this gaze upon you as a young woman, and not being able to control the world around you.

When you say “psychosexual gaze,” I’m thinking you mean the way that (mostly) men communicate with you, and the way media sexualizes women to sell products and ideas.

A lot of conversation about the male gaze is about the way women are perceived, but what I’m fascinated with is the way that gaze becomes internalized by women. My last film was about a 16-year-old girl who’s playing at a creek and photographed by a strange man, and she starts having these visions of a ghost in a bedsheet watching her. She manipulates that gaze to try to feel empowered, or to feel like maybe she’s attracted to the ghost.

That was based on my own experience as a teenage girl where I was always picturing men watching me and then being so confused as to why I pictured men watching me. I thought I was crazy. As I spoke more about it, I found it’s a very common phenomenon. Margaret Atwood talks about male fantasies of women literally picturing the voyeur watching them. You’re always thinking about the way you’re being perceived. In “Arcadia” the psychosexual gaze is explored through the main character Juliet, who takes in the sexual exploitation around her and kind of craves it.

Tell me more about the local production of “Arcadia.”

We’re shooting in Santa Cruz May 19 to the 22nd. We’re shooting at Monty’s Log Cabin in Felton for our dive bar scenes and we’re in search of unconventional theater spaces and also a farmhouse. We’re interested in bringing on locals to our project; filmmakers with grip, gaffing or sound experience. We’ll need lots of extras, too. During the pandemic, I reevaluated my work as a filmmaker and created my own model of success. I just want to have a community that I’m proud to have created or impacted, and work I’m proud of.

I like that you have your own model of success. I often wonder how to measure success in feminism in this consumer-driven world that is still white, male dominated? Is it beneficial that women become CEOs of corporations and can now be in combat roles in the US military?

I grew up in a feminist Marxist household and my belief is that capitalism and racism can’t mix with feminism. All the systems intersect. It’s so fascinating you bring this up because I was thinking about how sometimes female directors are encouraged to be more masculine, in order to be taken seriously. I have feminine and masculine qualities and my femininity is really helpful. As a director, it allows me to tap into people and make sure I’m taking care of them. That’s also a huge factor in my model of success; I don’t think I’m successful unless the community I’m working with feels heard, seen and taken care of. But I don’t think female CEOs are the answer.

Listen to this interview on Thursday at noon on KZSC 88.1 FM / kzsc.org on “Transformation Highway.”


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