If you’ve ever wondered what it’d be like to travel across America and meet with astrologers, tarotmancers, clairvoyants, animal communicators, roadside psychics, and diviners of all kinds, then “Summer Reading” may be the documentary you’ve been looking for.
Enter Julia De Santis and Shelby Hougui.
The two filmmakers recently graduated from college and are setting out to make a film that explores self-discovery, healing, mysticism, womanhood, and the somewhat shrouded piece of America that is the occult. The documentary will follow both Julia and Shelby as they travel across 25 cities and use these interactions to learn how to reconcile events in the past, better understand the present, and look more insightfully to the respective future.
Hoping to learn more about their journey and the vision behind the film, we caught up with the duo and asked them a few questions.
Where did the inspiration for “Summer Reading” come from?
Julia: “Summer Reading” was originally born of an itch to travel. We attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, which, to two 18-year-olds, was very like being tossed head-first into (what felt a lot like adulthood). SVA doesn’t have a meal plan. It doesn’t even really have a campus, as is true of many schools in New York City. So, we learned swiftly, if not gracefully, to fend for ourselves, and we worked extremely hard for four years. We didn’t have the time or money to party.
During my senior year, I would lie in bed with this inexplicable feeling of expanding… like I was being stretched over the Earth. And yet, we were more-or-less tethered to New York because of school, work, and our daily lives. I think that part of this originated from Tom Robbins’ book “Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas,” which takes place in the author’s home city of Seattle. In it, Robbins describes Seattle with a kind of moonstruck rapture — and, to be honest, that scared me! I realized that I was ostensibly, come graduation, going to tie myself to New York City without ever having seen what else is out there.
Soon after, Shelby and I started talking about a cross-country trip, but we also knew that we wanted to create something over its course. At the time, we were buried in post-production for Shelby’s first feature-length documentary, “Bread Machine,” so the idea of making a second film together was there, but we didn’t really have an angle or a focus just yet. We only knew that this would be an allotment of time in which we could explore America, ourselves, and our respective potentials. We didn’t have much else figured out, though I vaguely wanted to meet a grizzly bear.
I think it’s also important to note that I grew up near a Gardnerian Wiccan coven, and Shelby was exposed to Wicca in her early adulthood. So, it was always a shared interest of ours. While spitballing road-trip ideas one night on my couch in Brooklyn, I said that we should get at least one psychic reading, and Shelby half-yelled something like, “That’s the film!” In my memory, it’s just that cinematic a moment. Of course, “Summer Reading,” is a much more intricate tapestry than getting psychic readings, but we’ll get to that!
Have you made a film like this before?
Shelby: Naturally, having gone to film school at SVA, a college that is very hands-on with an emphasis on learn-as-you-go techniques, I was forced to just immediately start making films. I started with documentaries in high school for National History Day but drifted away from documentary film to explore editing in college. Over the course of the last four years, my filmmaking aspirations have grown (as have the budgets), and in the end, I’ve found myself back in documentary film with my thesis project, “Bread Machine,” which is about my Aunt’s ex-boyfriend, Karl — a documentary I’ve wanted to make since I was 16. The film is about friendship, family, and humanity, and it’s the closest I’ve gotten to making a film like “Summer Reading.”
Where will your route take you?
Julia: Originally, we had planned to leave from Brooklyn because we wanted to film this summer. We’re both living in Bushwick at the moment, but now that we’ve pushed production to Summer 2019, I realize that I’m not sure where we’ll both be a year from now! It’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll leave from New York, in any case. The abridged version of our trajectory is a drive down the East Coast, kind of zigzagging from North Carolina to Tennessee to Georgia, and then through Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans. In New Orleans, we’ll rest up for a few days, attend a seance, explore some local voodoo practices, and move on to Corsicana, Texas, where we’ll receive a white-energy cleansing (though it’s interesting to note that we’re both a little apprehensive about seances and voodoo).
Then, it’s on to New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington. From Washington, we’ll drive through Oregon and reach our final stop: San Francisco. There, we’ll board a train back to New York.
We’ve planned to stop in 25 cities, spending one to two nights in each, and one to eight hours of driving on travel days. In some cities, like New Orleans and Seattle, we’ve planned to spend three to four nights. Other than that, there are a few stretches in which we’ve allotted a few days of traveling, though we haven’t chosen which cities we’ll stop in.
Have you traveled across the U.S. in such a way before?
Shelby: The closest I’ve come to something like this is a cross-Canada drive I did with my parents in my pre-teen years, and I remember a lot of snacks in the car, a lot of listening to my iPod Mini, and a lot of arguing about where to stop and take photos. But I think what I remember most is that there’s nothing like traveling with those you love. And, while I’m nervous about physically getting from point A to B, I love driving. I take after my dad in that way — the car becomes an extension of my person. Because of that, I’m looking forward to the experience of driving through places I’ve never been with my best friend.
What voices will you be seeking out along the way?
Julia: I don’t know that we are necessarily seeking out exceptional voices. There’s not much visibility afforded to what might be considered occultism in America. We want to highlight magic, where and how it is employed today, and who is harnessing it, but we’re not interested in aestheticizing it, substituting beautiful cinematography for reality, or making our subjects seem difficult to identify with. We’re also not so interested in this kind of capital-“O”-Occultism. We want to see how magic might function in the life of an outwardly quite average person, how a person is altered by the realization of certain — for lack of a better term — oceanic abilities and sensitivities such as clairvoyance.
We also hope to gain a better understanding of magic and spirituality through a female-identifying lens. The vast, vast majority of people who we have interacted with during these first months of pre-production have been women, and I’d venture to say that when most people think of witchcraft, they think of the coded female witch. With this in mind, we want to explore what of womanhood makes magic so attractive, and if women have greater access to it.
Why do you believe these voices and perspectives should be heard on a mass scale?
Shelby: Julia and I recently watched the film “Bottle Rocket” (yes, we’re Wes Anderson fans), and there’s a scene in which Luke Wilson’s character asks his brother, “What do you think of Inez?” to which Owen’s character responds, “As a person?” and Luke kind of shrugs, saying, “Yeah, as a girl.” And I noticed that all the women in the theater kind of snickered. This is maybe a silly illustration of a much larger issue, as well as one that Anderson likely didn’t intend to comment on, but historically, women haven’t been granted personhood but rather have fallen under a label like mother, daughter, girl, lady, bitch, or witch.
This is why storytelling from women’s perspectives is so important. We are people. We travel, we make films, and we have stories to tell.
What are you hoping to discover — about humanity, America, and yourselves?
Julia: For me, this is very much about experiencing the American landscape. I’m coming to terms with the fact that New York is maybe not my place. I want to find my tribe. I don’t know an adult Julia that’s not this chased-by-wolves New Yorkian version of myself. I don’t know quite what I want to discover about humanity, but I think I just want to see it. And meeting with diviners is a way to reconnect on a metaphysical level with people all across the country and thereby with the country itself.
Shelby: To be honest, I don’t know what I hope to discover. And maybe this a vague and abstract response to your question, but I’m hoping that whatever it is, it’s human. If I were to dissect my personal intentions for the film, I suppose that they don’t extend too far beyond a deeper understanding of who I am and who other people are. I hope the journey forces me to face my fears about the future and understand my fears of the past. I hope it gives me something to look forward to, without taking me out of the present. I hope whatever there is to discover guides me through the inevitable physical and emotional duress we’ll face along the way, while allowing me to simultaneously take a moment for the sublime experiences that the trip will have to offer. This film is going to be about contradictions, about two sides of the same coin — and I can’t wait to experience that.
Have you been curious about magic for some time?
Julia: As I mentioned before, I grew up around bonfires, Beltane, and rituals. When I was young, my mom read cards at the Renaissance Faire in Sterling Forest for some extra money. It was a beautiful childhood! I loved a good maypole dance. That all being said, Wicca didn’t ever constitute a big part of my identity. When I was of kindergarten age, my mom quit all of that and enrolled me in Catholic school. This might sound reductive, but I’ve always been fascinated by ghosts. Maybe a more democratic word is, like, “energies”… Anyway, all this is to say that I’ve always had this deep, hungry interest in the paranormal. I want time to explore that, and to maybe — hopefully — find out who or what is out there, up there, or right next to me.
Shelby: When I was young, I discovered my own connection to magic and Wicca, and despite having incredible spiritual mentors in my life, I have struggled to find my place in all of it. Eventually, my spiritual journeying became mired in schoolwork and books and art. This connection would defy my best efforts to defy it every once in a while, only to get buried again by the things I just mentioned. So, I guess you can say, yes — I have been curious for a while, and now in the mere six months of exploring this film, I feel more connected and present than I ever have. It feels like “Summer Reading” has been, and will continue to be, a catalyst for putting me on a new path — a combined exploration of spirituality and filmmaking.
You’ve said that the film will be about self-discovery, healing, mysticism, and the nature of womanhood — can you expand on that?
Julia: That line’s been floated quite a bit in pre-pro, but I think that what this film will come to be about, will come about organically. For me, a large part of that self-discovery will happen in the coming year. As for mysticism and womanhood, those themes ring true. I truly believe that mysticism and womanhood are linked, though I may be proven wrong in the making of this film — and that would be okay! In the most banal sense of the word, I think women are pretty magical, and I think we’ve all got a little Carrie White in us! I don’t mean this in a “let’s get horrific” way, but more so a “let’s get powerful and start seeing ourselves as such” sort of way.
You’ve also said that this film is timely. What does that mean to you?
Shelby: When we say timely, we’re referring to the fact that travel, feminism, and magic are all things that are more than relevant — they have sunken into the hearts of people who have a passion for life. Travel quite simply is a universal dream; it’s a means of chasing after this sublime connection to both the world and oneself. If you talk to most millennials, they’re often planning the cheapest, most efficient way to backpack through Europe, or climb a mountain, or fall in love with a new city, and it’s something that young people not only vaguely want but are driven to make happen. At the same time, when you talk to Baby Boomers, most of them will tell you that their biggest regret is not traveling more and that they have dreams of doing so when they can. And if you go back even further, you’ll notice that your grandparents’ photo albums are filled with their travels all over the world. And though my grandparents have now settled in the quiet solace of Boynton Beach, Florida, it doesn’t change the fact that that drive was once there. The travel bug extends through generations, and it seems that now, more than ever, people are taking the initiative — not to want, but to do.
In the wake of feminism, with the growing #MeToo movement and the various other means by which all female-identifying people are making themselves heard, being a woman has become an empowering and wonderful position to be in. Today, it’s crucial for all women who have a story to tell it. Again, not to want to tell it, but to tell it. Julia and I stand here as fellow women who are driven to travel and express what we want to say about the ways in which we see the world, and on an even smaller scale, our country. It matters what women have to say, and now is the time to say it.
What do you want people to discover while watching this film?
Shelby: I’m sitting here trying to think of something clever or honest or deep about what I want people to discover, but I think the truth is that I just want people to feel something. When people think of documentary film, they think of some history-based slideshow of images with people talking nonstop, made only with the intention of informing them about a topic. They think about the documentary on building the pyramids they were forced to watch in high school history class. What they don’t think of is passionate, meaningful work that has the ability to change how you see life. They don’t think of “Dear Zachary,” “Amanda Knox,” “Searching for Sugarman,” “Living on One Dollar,” “The Hunting Ground,” or even a Michael Moore masterpiece (there are so many that I could just keep going). They don’t think of art. If I had to talk about what I want people to discover, I honestly just want people to walk away having felt something, and perhaps, if possible, even thinking differently about life or life after death.
How can people get involved in this journey?
Julia: The best way for people to keep up with “Summer Reading” is by following our Instagram (@summer.reading.film). We post about what’s going on in both of our lives, about pre-production, and about inspiring people — diviners, creators, doers, thinkers, practitioners — who cross our paths throughout this process. And, when we lift off, so to speak, it will become a platform for people to follow our actual journey!
Also, throughout the coming year, we are going be hosting a series of film festivals around NYC in tandem with Without Bounds Creative. Information about these will become available through our Instagram as well as our website. So, reach out! We’re always looking to expand our networks, form new friendships, and engage in conversation.
And, lastly, we have a donation portal open through our fiscal sponsor, Center For Independent Documentary, should anyone have an interest in donating.