Building Queer Community

A look through filmmaker Alexandria “Jo” Bombach’s lens

(Shelby Criswell)

In their first feature film from 2014, Alexandria “Jo” Bombach (they/she) follows four Afghan photojournalists in Kabul as they take great personal risks to document life in their country in the immediate aftermath of Taliban rule. Frame By Frame offers perspective about what it means to live in a place where telling the truth comes at such a high cost.

“I felt very passionate about telling the story of these photographers who capture truth,” Bombach says, “and what that even means.”

As a documentary filmmaker, Bombach is hyper-aware of creating meaning and story through a lens. Their films focus less on sequences of events than on the emotional journey Bombach wants viewers to feel.

“I don’t think objectivity exists in films; you’re always making choices,” they say. “I could have made a million different movies. Storytelling is super powerful, and it’s a really terrifying responsibility, and not scrutinized in the way it should be.”

Bombach grew up in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. With a handheld Flip Camera they bought with their own money at age 13, they filmed their friends—but they never had any idea it could become a career. The New Mexican filmmaker/documentarian now has three feature films under their belt, along with a number of shorts and numerous editing and production credits. In addition to Frame by Frame, they directed and produced the Indigo Girls documentary It’s Only Life After All, which held its theatical opening in Santa Fe in April, and 2018′s On Her Shoulders, a documentary about the impossible weight of Yazidi ISIS genocide survivor Nadia Murad’s advocacy work.

“I started these films with a sense of responsibility,” Bombach says. “And it definitely has never been like I want accolades, or I want to participate in this weird industry that’s so egotistical—it’s a big reason I live in Santa Fe. I just can’t deal with that shit.”

After graduating Fort Lewis College in Durango during the recession in 2008, Bombach began making films for the outdoor industry and lived out of their 23-foot Airstream trailer. Their first independent short was 23 Feet and featured people across the US who were also living on the road in camper vans and buses. Bombach toured the West with the film and, to her surprise, began hearing from viewers who said 23 Feet had inspired them to sell their houses, quit their jobs and hit the road.

“I was like, ‘This is scary.’ I realized if I can make films that make people change their lives, I should probably make something important,” Bombach says. “I found that important story, and the one led to another and it has always felt like a responsibility to just try to do right by the people I promised I would do right by.”

For Bombach, integrity and humility have become key in both filmmaking and in life. Like most artists who circle similar ideas or themes across a body of work, Bombach is invested in digging deep into their subject matter and revealing the complexities and contradictions inherent to the topic.

“So many of the films I’ve made, I’m just trying to get people to think about their preconceived ideas about something,” Bombach says. “On Her Shoulders—you think this is going to be some Malala doc, but it’s thinking about our own participation in the commodifying of victims of women in the Middle East; and Indigo Girls—you think you know who they are, but they have massive preconceived notions of who they are that they’re up against all the time. I’m really drawn to that. I want to adjust how people think about things, just kind of automatically.”

Directing Frame by Frame and On Her Shoulders immersed Bombach into global activism on a massive scale. But seeing firsthand how global systems functioned—and didn’t—proved disheartening. On Her Shoulders, for example, shows Murad traversing the globe to meet with world leaders and speaking before the United Nations on behalf of the Yazidi people who had been murdered and enslaved by ISIS..Although the world listened, the UN and other world leaders failed to act.

“There was just a real disappointment after being behind the scenes,” Bombach says, “about the systems in place like the UN and journalism that are supposed to help people.”

Directing It’s Only Life After All about Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, then, changed Bombach’s perspective about what activism could be.

“Sitting with that footage of the women Indigenous leaders who guided Amy and Emily and then being out in the streets protesting with [Santa Fe activist group] Three Sisters Collective in the summer of 2020 really helped bring me back to activism and believe in the power of grassroots work,” Bombach says.

And though Bombach could have attended the theatrical premieres of their Indigo Girls doc in New York City or Los Angeles, they prioritized Santa Fe.

“It’s important to me to invest in this community,” they say. “I wanted to be here that night—where my family, friends and chosen family is.”

That doesn’t mean they aren’t globally conscious. Bombach’s current activism is focused on Palestine, and they recently helped organize a queer community care event that raised $8,300.

“We’ve been distributing [the funds] directly to people on the ground in Gaza, to Rafah and to northern and central Palestine,” they say.

Still, Santa Fe is home. In 2019, Bombach moved back to New Mexico after living out of their suitcase for many years while making their first two films, with the intention of rooting here for the long term—an intention strengthened by the isolation of the pandemic. Though they have family here, Bombach says they’ve also been lucky to find a group of queer friends. Even as Bombach acknowledges the queer community in Santa Fe can sometimes be construed as hierarchical, they describe their friend group as one of “unbridled, casual queerness.” As a self-described gender-fluid pansexual, they say, this is of great comfort.

“There’s just radical, casual acceptance. I appreciate the relationship anarchy, intimacy with friendships and expanding in all these different places without judgment,” Bombach says. “It’s also a community where a lot of people were surprised that I made a movie, because we don’t always know each other’s occupations. It feels anti-capitalist in that way, and that’s really nice.”

Bombach is currently renovating a home and plans to offer studio and residency space for other filmmakers when the house is complete. This year, they’re taking a break from directing and focusing on editing and cinematography work for other directors. They’ll also be doubling down on community.

“My Santa Fe community and my chosen family here are a vital part of being able to continue doing the work I do,” Bombach says. “They inspire and challenge me, but most importantly they make me feel held in such a difficult world to be in right now.”

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