Notes to future lovers
by Nayantara Parikh (a student of Lynne’s)
I asked Lynne Sachs if I could interview her and she said yes. I had spoken to Lynne so much over the semester that her constant counsel fitted in, as though I had been interviewing her for the last four months. Strains from Lynne’s work bled into what I had wanted to talk to Julia about. The ideas tumbled onto each other like a pile of puppies being fed from the same mother. In some of Lynne’s words: War is a shared experience that breaks down the routines of ours lives, a moment of crisis that is just BIGGER.
When we spoke I asked her about her collection of five films, “I AM NOT A WAR PHOTOGRAPHER”, why this theme? What drew you to it? She said how there was no specific plan—she just kept following the themes that drew her in. They began to revolve around war; it drew her in because of the breakdown of daily life and rawness of the situations that war creates. “They could have even been about snowstorms, or any major event in the climate”, something that would affect and connect all of us. How does one process horror? How does a society process what is happening when all that is tangible of that society is in the process of being destroyed? Things that are left: fragmented identity, stories, fables that weave ways to perceive. The only way to deal with what is happening around you when it is too much to process is to maybe turn it into a fable, with animals talking instead of people, with people surviving on poison instead of bread and water. I know it sounds a bit vague, but one can’t pinpoint these things I feel. Sadness is strange and vast. In STATES OF UNBELONGING, Lynne focuses on a filmmaker from Israel, Revital Ohayon, who was killed along with her two sons in a terrorist attack near the West Bank. Her husband says, “The pain is so big, you don’t know where to put it.”
Last night I woke from nightmares again. What monsters were chasing me, I don’t know, but I was to scared to move. In my half sleep state I knew they were there watching me; I tried to breathe quietly, and then sleep grabbed me up and flung me back into the darkness.
In The Last Happy Day (2009), the fifth I AM NOT A WAR PHOTOGRAPHER film, Sachs follows the story of her Hungarian cousin Dr. Sandor Lenard, who was hired by the American army during WWII to reconstruct the bones of dead American soldiers. Later on, when he was in Brazil, he translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin, and in the film a group of children read and work on a theatre piece of it. It is “a meditation on war’s perverse and provocative stamp on the imagination”, says Sachs.
In Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam(1994), Sachs visits her sister Dana in Vietnam. They travel together from Ho Chih Minh City to Hanoi and on the way weave parables and images and conversations together to form the texture of Vietnam through their experience of it. Dana apologizes to a veteran at one point, and later tells her friend Phong about it. He says, “War is like a volcano. You can’t control it, so you do what you can to save yourself.” Images blur the screen: greens and whites dragging across and smudging into themselves. Tall trees lined up, I see them as though I am driving past in a car. I feel the humidity hanging on my skin, spices infiltrating the air and wrapping themselves around me—this reminds me of home. There’s a shot of a woman washing clothes in a bright red bucket, we see her through the open bathroom door, as though we are peeking at her from a rooftop.
The slimy green water stained bathroom wall was like the one behind the house. I know that specific shade of green. It reminds me of that crisp winter morning my sister and I decided to play a war game. It was foggy and pretended we were secret agents, hidden and undercover. We climbed up to the water tanks on the roof and opened them to drop the secret codes. We didn’t know but two lizards were precariously balanced on the edges of the tanks. As we opened them, the lizards tumbled in and began flailing. We woke up my father and had to drain all the water from the tanks so that none of us got sick. We felt so guilty we stopped playing war games, and when enough time had passed for us to forget the guilt, we were too old to play.
Back to images of Vietnam. I see a tall, white building, it fills the screen. It looks like something official, maybe a university building or a house of parliament. Sach’s voice begins to talk about her meeting with someone named Coy. The VietCong burned down Coy’s house during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Coy’s father had been collecting books since he was a boy. When their house was burned all his books burned with it, in it. Coy said his father went crazy after that. Sach’s and Dana’s voices talk one through Which Way is East. Each sentence is like a diary entry, a note to the viewer, so personal that one can’t help but be drawn in. The first time Dana speaks, I thought it was a child’s voice.
….ashes and the smell of burned wood. searing through and cracking the spines of books. a lifetime’s worth of stories. where do burned stories go?“When you love someone, you love everything about them. Even their footsteps. When you hate someone, you hate everything about them, even their existence.”
Some one says, “It’s raining so heavy, it reminds me of the war we fought against the American B-52s.”
Last year I visited my grandmother in Germany. A storm started to break out and she got progressively nervous as it got worse. “I want to go home”, she kept saying. Later my mother explained to me that it reminded her of the war, and the bombs, and that the sound of thunder would always remind her of the planes flying overhead.
In the film, Sachs turns down a street, and realizes that it is the most peaceful street she has seen in Vietnam. None of the doors to the houses are wide open, and there is no commotion. Her guide tells her that this was the street the soldiers brought prisoners to shoot them. “No one wants to mingle with their ghosts.” The vague images would convey a feel of the place for sure, but the voices are what make it feel as though the Sachs sisters are not blind tourists visiting and showing us some faraway place that we know nothing about. We are immersed as visitors who are lovingly shown a place that is more than the American War that happened to it.
Language is inextricably bound to culture. When you speak the language, understand its nuances, its twists and turns, you can begin to communicate from within the society instead of as an outsider. In both Which Way is East and Wind in Our Hair (2009) Sachs uses the language of the place to further integrate and understand. Dana Sachs speaks Vietnamese and Sachs’ daughter learn Spanish in Wind in Our Hair. They play out the words, repeat them, let them roll around their mouths, sensing the correct hardness of D’s and softness of S’s.
Filmmaking always makes me wonder how one is supposed to balance the work aspect and the family aspect of one’s life. I sometimes think that there could be no possible way to balance film and a regular life. Art takes over, it allows no room for anything else. I am crazy when I create, I am unpleasant, I am unreasonable, and there is no room in my life for anything other than my creation and me. Not the most fun thing to be around. Lynne has found a way to integrate her life into her work, and her work into her life; they fit together. I asked Lynne and she said that her daughters are around her a lot of the time, so it only makes sense for them to find their way into her work. Rather than discard the personal, Lynne embraces it, and that’s exactly what draws one in. Her films live in the realm of public space, but are wrapped in personal space. The documentary aspect comes in on two levels—the actual thing she is documenting, Vietnam for example, and then, her experience of it. Instead of pushing the personal away to “focus” on her work, she pulls it closer, unintentionally so, weaving it into each film.
A pair of feet in socks run across the screen, followed by three more similarly socked pairs. I hear laughter. This is Wind in Our Hair, Sachs’ film that tries its hand at following a vague story line based loosely on Julio Cortazar’s story End of the Game. Four girls are visiting a house for a short period of time. They grow bored, as there is not much to do and find some fun in waiting for the trains to pass at the tracks nearby. The are all about thirteen years old, on the cusp of something new, waiting for the changes to take place, waiting to be one step closer to growing up. Two of the girl’s are played by Sachs’ own daughters. She used 16mm, Super 8mm, 8mm, and video to shoot it.
Remember when my hair was long, it curled all the way down my back and you loved it, more than me I thought on some days. My friend told me one day, “women tend to carry history, identity, and heartbreak in their hair. No wonder we try to change it all the time.” I thought about that later, after 13 inches of my hair heavy with your love had been cut and placed into an envelope sent away to some one who had none.
Plants appear in a lot of Lynne’s work. Sneaking in at the corner of a frame in some places, taking over the whole screen in others. She told me that that she around the time she had her daughters, she got interested in the plants; she knows all their names. Walking around the city, her daughters and her could suddenly share the experience of knowing what would bloom when, and knowing that the nasturtium are late this year, or something else is early. In STATES OF UNBELONGING Revital Ohayon’s mother says of her, “She was so interested in nature, we thought she’s become a scientist.” Odd coincidences draw us to our subjects.
When I had to do my Abecedarium project earlier this semester, I was having problems making my film. Lynne gave me a piece of advice: some films are yes films, and some films are no films. Neither name gives a negative or a positive context. When making a Yes film, say yes to everything, anything that calls out to you, anything that feels right. When making a No film, you stick a story, you keep to your plan and you see it through. Of Sachs’ work, Wind in Our Hair is an example of a NO film, while The Last Happy Day is an example of a YES film. I made my film a YES film and ran with it.
STATES OF UNBELONGING uses Lynne’s voice and the voice of her Israeli friend Nir Zats as they try to find out more about Revital Ohayon. The voiceovers are the backing and forthing of their letters to each other. One of the moments in the film is Ohayon’s two sons’ day care centre at the kibbutz where they lived. The children talk about what to do with their toys and things. Shots of the toys recall ones we see at the beginning of the film. A horse, a tower, a pile of balls, dinosaurs too. Text lights up the screen in white. “I am not a war photographer. All I have is my imagination.” Lynne
I hope I have managed to get across at least some of what I wanted to. I made this a Yes essay for me. I just went where the wind took me. Some of it is perfect, like how I wanted, and some of it is far from it. Thank you for letting me interview you. [art] lives in the lining of your skin. I always seem to wish I had more time.
Home is a strange thing. The day I interviewed Lynne Sachs, I called and she asked me to call back in some time because she was putting her daughters to bed. One of my biggest worries is that I won’t be able to balance work and have a life at home, but I suppose the trick is to intertwine the two, so that neither one is in neglected, and so that both benefit from it. I suppose this is the secret of having enough time.
FILM LIST (films used for this piece)
States of Unbelonging, 2006. Israel and New York.
Which Way is East, 1994. Vietnam.
The Last Happy Day, 2009.
Wind in Our Hair, 2009. Brazil.