Documenting Race and Gender: Kym Ragusa Discusses “Passing” and “Fuori/Outside”
Women’s Studies Quarterly
Volume 30, Numbers 1/2, Looking Across the Lens: Women’s Studies and Film (Spring – Summer, 2002)
Livia Tenzer, Managing Editor
In her two award-winning short documentaries Passing (1996) and Fuori/Outside (1997), New York-based filmmaker Kym Ragusa explores the limits of the documentary genre in order to portray the centrality of race and ethnicity in U.S. women’s experience. Employing the narrative techniques of storytelling and the imagery of personal memory, Ragusa’s films relate a past that is broadly historical, yet anchored in the intimate relationships between a granddaughter and her grandmothers. Each film emerges from Ragusa’s research into the life of one of her grandmothers and reveals the social pressures and prejudices the older woman confronted. As her grandmothers’ lives connect to the present through the filmmaker, their stories provide crucial insight into how race and ethnicity continue to shape identity both inside and outside the family.
Passing records a story told to Ragusa by her African American grandmother about an incident that occurred in 1959 during a trip she took from New York City to Florida. Using still images, archival footage, and a soundtrack that mixes blues and gospel, Ragusa evokes the racial tensions of the time and creates a multilayered narrative around gender, class, and color. Traveling with an African American male friend (her then lover), the grandmother encounters the segregated and racially hostile South for the first time when her companion sends her into a diner in North Carolina to purchase food for a picnic. Inside, two white male customers repeatedly confront her with the question “What side of the tracks are you from?” When she realizes that they are asking her race, Ragusa’s light-skinned grandmother also realizes that her companion has presumed that she will be able to “pass.” Her courageous response to the people in the diner carries with it an aftermath of fear—will the two white men pursue them?—and unsettling questions about the supposed community among people categorized as racial outsiders by white social norms.
In Fuori/Outside Ragusa depicts the life of her Italian American grandmother, the person in her family who most resisted accepting…