Directed by Women
Lynne Sachs: Exploring the Making of ‘Film About a Father Who’
By Barbara Ann O’Leary
Lynne Sachs is a filmmaker whose work deserves the serious attention of film lovers. As she prepares to bring her new documentary Film About a Father Who to MoMa’s Doc Fortnight, following its world premiere last month at Slamdance, she took time to converse with #DirectedbyWomen about her multidecade filmmaking project, the complexity of documenting the life of her non-conforming father, and how the film relates to her larger body of experimental and documentary work.
Seek out Film About a Father Who… and her earlier films as well.
DBW: Lynne, thanks for your patience. It’s taken me some time to collect my thoughts. Watching Film About a Father Who felt a bit like looking through a kaleidoscope or seeing things reflected in a fun house mirror. The story unfolds in unexpected ways. I know it will stay with me for a long time. You’ve been working on this film for 35 years! How did you finally know it was time to complete it and share it with the world?
LS: It’s very interesting to me to hear you use the word kaleidoscope rather than some other form of viewing device, like a camera or a telescope, for example. For me telescopes are inherently voyeuristic, often providing the one seeing a kind of power over the one seen. So, the fact that you experienced the fragmentation, the color and the disorientation of a kaleidoscope indicates to me that you witnessed some aspects of my story quite clearly, while others appeared refracted, very much removed from the 20/20 reality we usually expect from a documentary. My film is still very, very new, so I anticipate learning more and more about what I made from viewers, particularly people like you who are willing to articulate their experience to me. While I had never planned to create the sensation of a “fun house mirror,” I am familiar with the architecture of those spaces. They are places where you catch a reflection of yourself and, in that first moment, you actually do not even recognize that it is you. Yes, I think you are spot on, that is probably the filmic experience I have created, whether I am at ease with it or not.
DBW: The film is about your father, but not simply about his relationship to you. It’s an ever- expanding look at fatherhood from many perspectives. This is clearly not a story that was understood in advance. It evolved as your awareness about your father and his life choices evolved. Can you share insights into how you coped with what feels like waves of revelation… without giving away any of the many surprises the film holds, of course? We don’t want to spoil the experience for viewers.
LS: Throughout my life, I have had to deal with “discovering” things about my dad that I did and did not like. There were times when I celebrated his break-all-the-rules approach to life, and other times when I wished he would simply be like every other dad in middle America. When I read Freud’s psychoanalytic schematic which divided the self into the id, the ego and the super-ego, I had one of those breathless aha moments. My father just simply did not have a super-ego; he did everything his own way. This sounds very cerebral, I suppose, but once I came to this understanding I was able to better appreciate his radical sensibility. I was also able to embrace my own rage and frustration as a woman. I swore to myself that I would never place myself in a position of dependency that he seemed to expect from the women who surrounded him. In “Film About a Father Who”, I tried to explore these evolving feelings through my own voice-over narration and through the shaping of my images, as well as by listening to my three brothers and five sisters. We all, in our own way, had to find our own resolution.
DBW: Can we talk for a moment about “introspection”? Several times in the film your father is described as not being introspective. And I think about how crucial introspection is to your work as an experimental filmmaker. I’m curious. Do you experience this film as a way for you to come to terms with your own deep introspection?
LS: About a year ago, I was taking a walk on the beach with filmmaker Alan Berliner, a dear friend who made a film on his father in 1997 which is called “Nobody’s Business”. His father was resistant to his son’s filmmaking endeavor. He expressed his antipathy with humor, anger and pathos. Alan and I shared stories, laughing about the fact that while our fathers were nothing like William Kunstler or Louis Kahn (famous fathers whose children made films about them), we still found them fascinating, at least as their children. In contrast to Alan’s curmudgeonly dad, my father was more than willing to be the “subject” of my movie, he just didn’t want to talk about himself. My camera had to witness his actions instead.
Earlier you mentioned that the film looks at the nature of fatherhood. In that context, it may also be my attempt at grappling with the nature of masculinity, at least how it was delivered to many of us in the later- half of the 20th Century. Thank goodness, men are finally being given some platform from which to express their emotions. I would have to say that “introspection” is inherent to all human beings, but being willing to express that, in writing, in a film, in a poem, in conversation feels so risky. I am not (yet) a let-it-all-hang- out kind of person, so when I actually hear my own voice in this film saying what I might not have ever even said to my closest friends, it’s scary. But the time was right.
DBW: The film was shot in so many different formats. I’d love to hear about how that evolved and particularly about how that impacted the editing process. It gives the experience such a rich feel of moving through time.
LS: I appreciate your attention to the texture of the film. I have always loved and been proud of the 16mm film material that I shot throughout the entire project. For example, in 1992 I shot the sync-sound footage of my father’s second wife and his girlfriend at the time with me using an Arriflex camera and my new boyfriend filmmaker Mark Street recording sound on a 1/4” reel-to-reel Nagra. That was probably one of our earliest dates, and we’ve been together ever since. When I saw that film footage for the first time, I knew it was both haunting, compelling and extraordinarily beautiful. And yet, I was scared to use it, so the film cans followed me for 28 years – from San Francisco to New York to Florida to Baltimore and back to NYC until I finally decided I was ready to look at and listen to the material, as if a straight shot back through the decades.
Another reason the film took so long to make was that I thought so much of my earlier video material was ugly, poorly shot, deteriorated, simply not as “realistic” and precise as the digital imagery with which we have all become accustomed. Not until I started to watch and transcribe the tapes with my editor, artist Rebecca Shapass, did I decide that the fact that this degraded media felt authentic, more impressionistic, painterly, and expressive. Like we all do with our faces as we look over and over in the mirror, I ultimately accepted the bumps, wrinkles and scars as signs of a life lived.
DBW: Since watching the film I revisited some of your work from the 1980s. And I’m thinking particularly about Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning. This new film feels like a continuation of that theme across time. This film is interwoven with the work that was unfolding across the past 35 years, I suppose. Looking back do you notice ways that this project was informing your work on other films you’ve made since you first started this one?
LS: Wow, Barbara, that is incredible! Never ever would I have made the connection between those two films, but I think you are so right. Two of my very first films, Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (1986) and Following the Object (1987) were made during a time in my life when I was just beginning to figure out how filmmaking was going to work for me as an artist. As a feminist, I was profoundly resistant to objectifying anyone, male or female, on screen. I was also thrilled by the way that film, as compared to painting, photography or poetry, could explore the lives of people – real or invented – whom I was trying to depict or understand better. I guess I have been working on that exercise, so to speak, ever since.
DBW: The title of the film is inspired by Yvonne Rainer’s A Film About a Woman Who… Can you share with us something of your experience being part of a community of women creating experimental film? Perhaps that’s too vast a question, but I’m thinking about how often women’s filmmaking work has been under seen and undervalued. The act of clearly connecting your work with work that has gone before seems like an act of power and a commitment to ongoing dialogue.
LS: I am thrilled and honored to mention some of the women filmmakers who have inspired me as an artist. I rarely do things in chronological order but I think in this case it might be interesting. When I was 20 years old, I lived in Paris for a year. It was there that I realized that there were women in the world who were directing their own films. I beheld the work of Chantal Ackerman and Marguerite Duras and never looked back. Soon after, while living in New York City, I discovered the films of Lizzie Borden, Bette Gordon and Meredith Monk. I went to graduate school in San Francisco, and there I actually had the chance to work with Peggy Ahwesh, Barbara Hammer, Karen Holmes, Babette Mangolte, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Gunvor Nelson. Now, as a life-long filmmaker with comrades from across the country, I am indebted to a long list of makers including Zeinabu Irene Davis, Jeanne Finley, Sasha Waters-Freyer, Michelle Handelman, Irene Lusztig, Kathryn Ramey, Jennifer Reeves, and M.M Serra, for sharing their passions and enthusiasms with me and the rest of the women in our community.
DBW: Film About a Father Who had its world premiere as the opening night film at Slamdance this month. What a great place to bring the film out into the world. And then on to an NYC premiere at Doc Fortnight at MoMA. It’ll be interesting to see how those very different film communities respond to this complex, multi-layered work.
LS: Historically speaking, these two festivals do represent two different approaches to filmmaking. I think that the indie film community that, for the most part, is found at Slamdance is becoming more open to formal experimentation, using hybrid approaches that shake up established views of film practice and genre. And I think, more and more people are becoming interested in film as an art. In its newly enlarged space, The Museum of Modern Art has embraced the moving image like never before, finally celebrating film and media alongside painting and sculpture in a way they have never done before. It’s a profound shift in the zeitgeist. It will be exciting to see how this is manifested in their 2020 Documentary Fortnight.
DBW: I’m sorry I won’t be there in person to celebrate with you. Will be with you in spirit. Is there anything else you’d like to share before we wrap up?
LS: When I first started teaching film, I would give my students a questionnaire and ask them to write about their favorite directors. Male or female, they NEVER wrote about women “in the directors’ chair.” Then I started asking them to write about their favorite male director AND their favorite female director. For the most part, they would complain that they did not know any women directors. Yes, that has changed by the year 2020, but not enough. The best known female directors got their start as actresses. People knew their faces first. By bringing attention to women directing on your site, you will succeed in changing this disconcerting state of disequilibrium in our field and in society at large. For this, and for these stimulating questions you have asked me, I am grateful.
DBW: Thanks so much for taking time to communicate about A Film About a Father Who. It means a lot. Documentary Fortnight 2020: MoMA’s Festival of International Nonfiction Film and Media https://www.moma.org/calendar/events/6412