Ovarian Psycos: Chloé Hazelwood in conversation with Joanna Sokolowski & Kate Trumbull-Lavalle


Los Angeles-based directors Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle formed the production company Sylvia Frances Films in 2013 to make their first feature documentary, Ovarian Psycos. This film offers a raw and unflinching account of everyday life for a diverse group of women of colour who have joined forces to cycle around Eastside Los Angeles at night, fully aware of how dangerous a pursuit this could be but remaining fearless and unapologetic in their fight for equality. Xela de la X, the founder of the group, mentions that all of the Ovarian Psycos are dealing with some kind of trauma in their lives, and that ‘at-risk youth’ can easily become ‘at-risk adults’. When abuse, racism, injustice and violence are the norm, revolutionary feminist tactics are not only a strategic response, but also an imperative action.

Why was it important to both of you to call your production company Sylvia Frances, after your mothers’ first names?

Both of our mothers are strong, influential women in our lives.  I think in naming our collaboration after them we honour them personally, but also try to pay homage to the legacy of women and work that came before us.

What was it that drew you to the story of the Ovarian Psycos?

We had an immediate gut reaction when we first learned about the Ovarian Psycos. The women in the Ovarian Psycos collective are fierce, unapologetic, feminist women of colour. They are brilliant strategists and have crafted an image and politics that centres their own voices to fight against personal and collective gendered violence.  After hearing the personal stories and motivations that propelled the collective, we wanted to see a film that intimately profiles young, urban women of colour organisers.

How do the women combat feelings of fear and threats to safety when riding around the streets of Eastside Los Angeles?

In the film we cite a devastating global statistic from the World Health Organization that 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual violence. The threat is real for women, and disproportionately affects women of colour. In the story we’ve tried to underscore what really seems to be at the heart of the Ovas organizing strategy: the idea that building sisterhood, or siblinghood, is a form of protection from violence.  They confront it head on when they chant, “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” and in the film, Xela says it best: “There’s strength in numbers… When you are riding with a group of women, you feel like you have back-up. You feel like you can win the war.”

Has cycling created a public space of empowerment for the Ovarian Psycos where it didn’t exist before? 

In the film we include archival footage that shows the radical organising from the 1960s and 70s to ground the work of the Ovas in the history and legacy of the neighbourhood. Xela explains in the film that the bicycle is just a tool; it’s the mode for getting women and women-identified folks together in the streets as a form of protest. In recent years and like a lot of cities, L.A. has seen the emergence of bike culture, but it’s overwhelmingly white and male-dominated.  The Ovas were responding to that. In the film, Xela poignantly asks, “Where are the spaces for us?” The Ovas are intentionally building their own safe spaces, in their own neighbourhoods, within this context. What we have witnessed since being introduced to the Ovas are countless collectives in Eastside LA, and across the U.S., who are taking up space in ways that feel authentic to them.  Today the current Ova collective are organising at the forefront of the anti-gentrification movement in Boyle Heights, Andi Xoch has since left the Ovas to form her own women of colour art collective called Ni Santas that has done some incredible public art projects, and Maryann a.k.a. La Fingers is part of a regional women of colour D.J. collective called Chulita Vinyl Club. So it’s been exciting to witness that beyond the film; many groups are taking up space in an ongoing effort to organise, create and resist.

What kinds of conversations were happening around intersectional feminism within the group?

We can’t speak on their behalf, but we can certainly say from our perspective, their work fully embodies the ideas behind intersectional and radical feminism.  In the film, Xela, Evie and Andi articulate in their own way just how their work sits at the intersections of race, gender, class and immigration status and how they confront gendered violence and the legacy of colonialism.  We include the perspective of Maylei Blackwell, a professor of Chicano Studies, to help illuminate how their work pulls and re-appropriates signs and symbols from the political and cultural movements of Zapatismo, Chicanismo, punk, and gang culture.

How do the women balance their commitments to family with group loyalties? Xela expresses fear that her activism might be straining the relationship between her and her nine-year-old daughter.

We hoped to craft a film that would show the complexities of organising, but also the complexities of familial relationships – both the families you were born into and the families you create by building community. The first time we interviewed Andi to talk about her work in the Ovas, she brought up her relationship with her mom. When we first met Evie, she lived with her mother, who struggled to understand why she wanted to ride bikes and was genuinely worried for her daughter’s safety.  And the love between Xela and her daughter Yoli is profound. Yoli is such an incredible powerhouse, just like her mom, and their story in the film really cuts to the heart of this complexity. Ultimately, Xela decides to leave the collective to focus on her daughter.  In the film, she talks about what a painful decision that was for her to make, but we also witness her joy in re-committing her time to Yoli. We think that’s one of the reasons folks have responded to this film — because of the layered, honest, raw and intimate stories of activism, heart and family.

Interview by curator Chloé Hazelwood, who has co-curated Corporeal: The Presence and Absence, currently showing at Verge Gallery until February 25th.

Catch Ovarian Psycos as part of the Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival on Sunday February 19th 2017, 7:15pm. Tickets available here.