Doclisboa/MOMI New York: Daddy dearest
December 14, 2020
In Film About A Father Who we observe the director’s father, Ira Sachs Senior, over the course of several decades. He is a man both generous and successful, whom we see running a hotel development business from the ski-slopes using an early model cell phone.
That said, we are also told early in daughter Lynne’s ingeniously crafted, searingly honest and ultimately big-hearted film that he defined himself not by work but by the space in-between, a place of largesse and abundance that was generally occupied by a harem of young women with whom he was having concurrent affairs.
His first wife Diane (mother to director Lynne, Ira Jr and Dana) turned a “purposefully” blind eye to his cravings. He wasn’t a faithful swan, we are told. He wasn’t monogamous. He wasn’t suited to marriage. He was more, as is later observed, “the Hugh Hefner of Park City.”
But he was a good dad, it would seem, if somewhat unconventional and both annoying and frustrating at times for his offspring during the film. Director Sachs puts it in grammatical terms. Her mum was stable, with a life punctuated by commas and periods (full-stops). Her dad meanwhile was all question marks and exclamation marks. While her mother’s semi-colon existence suggested organised compartmentalisation, he was a colon, a tool designed to open up onto new vistas. “I loved him so much. I agreed to his syntax, his set of rules,” daughter Lynne concedes.
Of course the more sexual partners your father has, the more half-siblings you are likely to come across, some of whom you may only get to know about when they are in their twenties. By the film’s end there is a fellowship of nine brothers and sisters, each of whom expresses in measured, articulate and non-histrionic terms, the impact of their father on their lives.
Director Sachs explains why the time seemed right to draw this ongoing portrait of her father (35 years in the making) to a close. As part of a film triptych in which she set out to “dive into the thinking of another person”, she had always believed that this would be the easiest to make. States of UnBelonging (2005) was about a complete stranger (a mother and filmmaker killed during a terrorist attack on a kibbutz) while in The Last Happy Day she communicates with its protagonist (a distant cousin of Sachs) via letter.
But Film About A father Who was always more problematic. Despite her father’s cheery countenance, he would always meet her questions with a benign obstinacy. He always had a tendency to answer ‘no’ to questions about his early life, or to claim complete memory loss about many troublesome periods or episodes.
One of the key propellants of the film’s eventual completion was the death in 2015 of Ira Senior’s mother, the centenarian Maw Maw, with whom he had a very complicated relationship. She abandoned the family home with him when he was a young teenager, only for him to be snatched back by his father Harry as they were boarding the train to Memphis. Maw Maw’s decision to carry on without her son represented a Sophie’s Choice moment, we are told.
“There was kind of a loosening in communication, and that was true because that was the time when I met two sisters whom I didn’t know anything about, so it seemed like things were becoming more transparent,” says Sachs. “It all started to fit together. So I thought the pieces are here. Yes, there may be more surprises, but I think that I’ve come to a sense of more clarity now, so I’m ready to do this.”
There was also a cache of film material at her disposal which, despite being an emotional wrench at times, was also decomposing, not that this was a problem in aesthetic terms. “Like old decaying VHS tapes that had been in the garage, I started to see them as interesting, like the texture was compelling and archaeological,” she says. “I came to a point where this film was also giving me the pleasure of the art.”
It would be easy to think about the work as a psychological profile of her father or their relationship, but Sachs is more generous and encompassing than that. Yes, the “reckoning” that she speaks of in the film offered a catharsis for her, one that she experienced through the craft of filmmaking, but there is a collective benefit to her documentary endeavour. “For me the reckoning was that my father stayed very much a part of my life, that I could look at him with clarity, and that I have connections with the siblings who I didn’t know. Now we all get together every Sunday on Zoom, with my dad.”
“I think maybe the film facilitated that in a way, because I listened to everyone who was critically involved, and about a year before I finished I said, this isn’t just my story, this is about a family, so I need to listen to them and I need to hear their angle on it.”
Ira Senior is in his 80s, less fleet of foot now and he doesn’t speak with the same clarity as we see in earlier footage, and he allows his dutiful filmmaker daughter to remove the tangles from his long grey hair. Given his tendency towards secrecy all of his life, what did he think of such a revelatory film, of which he is the focus?
“If you are in your 80s and somebody decides to chronicle or [some would] say memorialise your life, it gives a kind of significance to it,” Sachs responds. “He did say to me that he hopes he does better, and he cried when he saw the film… I don’t think anyone will make a film about my life – or maybe they will, I don’t know – but it gives it a place in the world after you have lived it.”
Returning to the subject of grammar, Sachs responds eagerly to the question as to which punctuation mark best describes her and her films. It’s as if she has been waiting all her professional life to be asked it.
“Ha, I am very interested in ellipses (…), in the dot, dot, dot,” she enthuses. “A lot of the film is constructed around associations rather than chronology – which would have been an obvious way to construct it. The ellipsis is like the fissure between one thing and the other, where you bring knowledge. In grammatical terms, it is interesting because it is like a vessel rather than something explicit and expository. It allows for a lot of participation. It has to be activated by the viewer, the spectator, the audience, because you bring your own energy. It is the idea that you can watch this film in which certain facts are not given, but through ellipses you connect associations or feelings, or your own sense of recognition.”
“So that is the grammatical tool I identify with,” she ends…
Museum of the Moving Image in New York will present the twenty-film retrospective Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression from January 13-31, 2021. The career-ranging survey, all presented online, will include Film About a Father Who which opens in MoMI’s Virtual Cinema on January 15.
Among other series highlights are three of Sachs’s key early works, Drawn and Quartered (1987), The House of Science: a museum of false facts (1991), and Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994), which will be presented in new HD presentations. The last of these is both an intoxicating family travelogue and politically sobering diary of a trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. The series will also include the premiere of Maya at 24 (2020), the third edition of Sachs’s temporal portrait of her daughter Maya, which is presented as part of a program of films that document her children over a span of two decades. The full program is included below and available online at movingimage.us/LynneSachs.
Along with the screenings, the Museum will present a new recorded dialogue between Sachs and Assistant Curator of Film Edo Choi, who organized the retrospective, covering the breadth of Sachs’s career.
“Over a 30-plus-year career, Lynne Sachs has charted a formal path defying conventional categorization. Each of her films is a self-reflexive meditation into the psychic origins and intellectual process of its own making, issuing from a space between thought and expression,” says Choi. “This is true of her work as early as The House of Science and as recent as her latest and most personal film so far Film About a Father Who.”
About Sachs’ work, Choi writes: “Immersed in questions of form from her earliest, highly structural works, Sachs went on to embrace a more variegated aesthetic approach, incorporating elements of the essay film as well as observational documentary, while remaining dedicated to the embodied, gestural camerawork of the avant-garde. In her most recent long form works, such as Your Day Is My Night and Tip of My Tongue, she has progressed to a process of open-ended, communal collaboration with her subjects, making them equal partners in an effort to create works of multi-faceted and polychromatic dimension.”