International Festival of Documentary Cinema: Encounter with Other Cinema – Quito, Ecuador
“Cinema & Curiosity: A Conversation between Alexandra Cuesta and Lynne Sachs”
English Translation of Catalog Entry
Lynne: Why do you feel the need to make films?
Alex: Since I was young I have always been curious about the world around me. I used to draw a lot, and make collages, but I never had an art education until I got to college where I decided to study photography without knowing why at the time. I didn’t get into filmmaking until much later, and I was never interested in conventional filmmaking- separation of roles, genres, storytelling. My interest was in using images to discover something that I could not put into words. The closest thing is music or poetry, but for me images were able to communicate reality. When I discovered experimental film it blew my mind because I didn’t that you could make films this way. With film I can look at the ordinary and it becomes extraordinary. It is a way to express nuances, and things that are visible to me but maybe not to others. Every day things can transcend and take on a deeper meaning. A street at night, is no longer just a street but a possibility to imagine something else, it evokes something on the screen, and next to another image. I’ve continued in this path because I really believe that in this high speed, image filled, hyper real world an audience has the right to be exposed to other ways of making and thinking about cinema. And it is a way for me to connect with the outside and to learn.
Lynne: Can you describe the alternative film cosmos in both the universes you call home?
Alex: I left Ecuador at an early age but before that my family had always moved so I never really had strong roots anywhere. And I still don’t. I grab things as I go along. The film community I am part of in the United States is crucial for me because there I discovered the kind of work I was interest in making and films that I couldn’t have seen anywhere else. I met people that influenced me deeply and opened my understanding to cinema and art. It is kind of ironic that I found this in Los Angeles because often when you speak of film in that context your mind immediately goes to Hollywood, yet this avant garde world exists in a universe completely apart. But even though I believe identity is built through experience, where we are from does have an influence on our view of the world, and so my cinematic concerns were always connected to Latin America. Coming back to Ecuador has been cathartic to understanding my filmmaking and my process against this very different backdrop. I am still searching for my place here but I think there is a lot to do, and a lot of films to show. And especially now that Ecuador is having a big moment in building a film identity I think it is the moment to include non conventional film processes.
Lynne: Do you work alone or with a group?
Alex: It depends on the project but generally when I shoot 16mm I use a Bolex and I can be alone, and I prefer to be on my own. I go out and search for images and it is a long process. Some days I don’t shoot anything and others I shoot a lot, and I have to find a personal rhythm. Also I feel there is a vulnerability to being in the street by myself and the camera that creates something special between the people I encounter and I. It is a sense of being an observer but also being observed, and this non verbal communication is present in the films. However in my new film which I shot on video I did work with a team, and it was a very different experience. It influences the relationship with the subject, the length of the shots and the ideas I am searching for. It worked for that film because I was creating visual tableaus that I wanted to feel staged, even though its documentary, and having a crew helped that sensation of performance, fiction within non fiction.
Lynne: What kinds of things spark you to begin making a film?
Alex: The curiosity I spoke of before is at the root of any new project. It is usually related to cities, construction of space, social and cultural constructions as well. I think of the world in general, how things work, and what things mean. It comes from an place of questioning and wondering about what “reality” is. I am interested in the margins, and the parallel realities that within one place. For example in my film Piensa en Mi, it began with one image: a man waiting for a bus. And I was driving in this city filled with cars and people inside these machines I kept seeing people waiting for public transport and it felt like a third world country because the social separations was so visual and extreme. And then I begin researching. I walked and spoke to people and I went to an organization called the Bus Riders Union and had a lot of information about the history of public transport in the city but also the demographic of people that use it and of course it was primarily minorities. And in the city like Los Angeles, the bus is hidden, you never see the people that use, and it definitely a very different experience of the city.
Lynne: Can you talk about one director, a film, a poem, and a trip you have taken that have inspired you as an artist?
Alex: On of the first things that spoke to me was In the Street by Helen Levitt and James Agee. It is a portrait and a city symphony of the Bronx in New York shot in the forties. Their background is also still photography and I loved seeing photographic images without a story or dialogue, capturing the mundane and opening up meaning. Also the films of Jonas Mekas, Maya Deren, but more importantly the films of Robert Fenz who was my mentor and is a close friend. Through his films I discovered that cinema could be about the image first, and could be made in a personal way. I also feel connected to Latin American experimental/ political films from the sixties like Santiago Alvarez, The Hour of the Furnaces by Solanas and the films of Glauber Rocha. In terms of photography an influence is modern photography, people like Paul Strand, Robert Frank, and Bruce Davidson. And poetry the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton, the poetry of Fernando Pessoa and the poems of Mahmoud Darwish from Palestine.
Alex: How did you begin making films? What led you to this specific world of experimental/ avant garde film world?
Lynne: I was definitely not a kid who loved the movies, at least the kind of Hollywood movies that featured the “stars” and predictable plots. My interests were in painting, photography and poetry. It wasn’t until I was about 20 years old that I discovered the kinds of experimental or at least art films that could weave together these fascinations of mine. I studied in Paris for a year during which I came across the films of Chantal Ackerman, Agnès Varda and Marguerite Duras. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these directors are all women. Before I saw the works of these visionary artists, I had hardly even seen a film directed by a woman. Very sad.
Alex: It is really interesting for me to hear this because there are so many parallels with my own background. I never had a fascination with “movies” either, and I began with still photography as well. The first experimental film I saw was Meshes in the Afternoon by Maya Deren when I was 22 and later in grad school I remember seeing Jean Dielman by Chantal Ackerman, and both blew my mind.
Alex: What is the relationship between your films and the city of New York?
Lynne: I came to New York City kicking and screaming in 1996. My partner Mark Street who is also a filmmaker pretty much dragged me from the natural beauty of San Francisco, California to the cold, much more urban east coast because he so loved this city. It’s been about 18 years now and I must admit I am really happy about living here. Brooklyn (the area where I live) has become a hub for experimental filmmaking which means there are lots of places to see great work and people in the community who want to be involved in helping you make your films. You might think that since we are in this big art and film city that it would feel too competitive, but actually since most of us make movies that never really make any money, I think we all want this alternative cosmos to thrive in whatever way possible. In the past few years, NYC has even begun to inspire me artistically. I made YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT and DRIFT AND BOUGH right in town. I will be screening both of these films at EDOC.
Alex:– I know what you mean about New York. It was always the place I wanted to visit and I fell in love with the city when I went for the first time. I was 21. I met Jonas Mekas and people at Anthology Film Archives. And my first film Recordando El Ayer screened at Views- New York Film Festival thanks to Mark McElhatten, and it really opened the doors to being part of the experimental film community there. I am so happy people will have a chance to see your film Your Day is My Night at EDOC. It really captures the city in a way I’ve never seen before. You show a hidden part of the city that is in fact the reality of this metropolis, and of the United States in terms of immigrants and reinventing oneself. It is an amazing film.
Alex: Your body of work is so extensive, and impressive, and you have worked in a variety of forms: long form, short form , experimental, documentary, installation, how do you conceptualize a new work? What is your process? How do you decide which will be the path you take in terms of structure and style?
Lynne: In the broadest way possible, I would say that every one of my artistic projects begins with a level of burning curiosity. I wonder how the detritus of the Vietnam war might be manifested in the landscape of that country, I wonder how people connect to objects in their lives, I wonder about a distant cousin of mine who saw the worst of World War II, I wonder how the snow looks on a tree branch, I wonder how little girls learn about their bodies. I would say I have been exploring these and other questions with my camera for pretty much all of my adult life. Once I commit (and this is a key word) to this investigation, I begin the arduous and joyful process of finding the right visual and aural language to express the various discoveries I make. Every film calls for its own particular vocabulary. No one, not even me, knows this evolving language until the film is finished. Everyone – filmmaker and audience – is learning. I like that moment of mutual discovery, the “aha” of it all.
Alex: I really love how you articulate your process in terms of curiosity and learning. Also, that you honor your material and let it speak to you, tell you what it is. This is hard to explain to people that work in more conventional ways, and also it takes a lot of practice and intuition I think. A lot of trust in your initial curiosity. Can you tell us which filmmakers, or films, or experiences have influenced your making and your thinking?
Lynne: Seeing the films of Chris Marker in the late 1980s revealed to me that you could make something called an essay a film, a moving image work that explored the world and offered as many questions as it did answers. Seeing his “Sans Soleil” made me realize how much more vital it is to be a filmmaker than a director. There is a difference. Some other transformative viewing experiences include: “Window Water Baby Moving” by Stan Brakhage; “Fuses” by Carolee Schneemann; “Vivre Sa Vie” by Jean Luc Godard; “Killer of Sheep” by Charles Burnett; “La Ciénega” by Lucrecia Martel; and all of the films of Raul Ruiz, Ken Jacobs, Werner Fassbinder, Craig Baldwin and Maya Deren.
Alex: Do you work with people or by your self?
Lynne: I really enjoying going solo with my Bolex camera and a roll of film but I also thrive on the electricity that occurs when I work with other people. Recently, after twenty-five years of making experimental documentaries, I learned something that turned all my ideas about filmmaking upside down. While working on Your Day is My Night in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York City, I came to see that every time I asked a person to talk in front of my camera, they were performing for me rather than revealing something completely honest about their lives. The very process of recording guaranteed that some aspect of the project would be artificial. I decided I had to think of a way to change that, so I invited my subjects to work with me to make the film, to become my collaborators. For me, this change in my process of filmmaking has moved me toward a new type of filmmaking, one that not only explores the experiences of my subjects, but also invites them to participate in the construction of a film. I also think of my “crew” as a group of really extraordinary artists who have decided to join me on a project they too are excited about creating.
Alex: How do your films relate to the films in the program?
Lynne: Honestly, I chose films by people in the NYC film community who make work that really inspires me to look at the place where we all live in a new, refreshing way. The EDOCS audience will see films by my husband Mark Street and lots of dear friends of mine. This is my community.