ENGLISH TRANSLATION: Try about the encounter. This year’s Sheffield Doc / Fest, which took place exclusively online due to the pandemic, dedicated a carefully curated retrospective to the filmmaker Lynne Sachs. This shows the community-creating moment of Sachs’ films, which are often the result of close collaborations – whether with family members, migrant communities or artistic companions like Barbara Hammer or Carolee Schneemann – especially under the restrictions of the pandemic: like the film critic Esther Buss argues, these films are always evidence of the ambivalence between ‘lonely’ art production on the one hand and shared experience on the other.
Lynne Sachs’ films usually begin with a tactile approach: touches with surfaces and textures of bodies, landscapes and fabrics – touches that always include or even affect the materiality of the image. Her most recent work, Film About A Father Who (2020) – the title refers to Yvonne Rainer’s 1974 film About a Woman Who… – begins with a close-up of two hands untangling the tangled white hair in a head of hair . Lynne Sachs cuts the hair of Ira Sachs, her father, who is over 80, the main character in the film and the center of gravity in a complex network of family relationships. From this concrete and symbolically legible entrance image, a fragmentary narrative unfolds that spans 35 years.
Between 1984 and 2019, Sachs repeatedly filmed his own father: a man who is still difficult to decipher for his family members to this day. A promiscuous hippie businessman who had the reputation of being “Hugh Hefner of Park City”, Ira Sachs, father of nine children from different women, is entirely a product of the 1960s. Sachs is only marginally concerned with the finding of a patriarchal order that was carried forward in a break with existing moral and sexual norms. The film About A Father Who is rather an attempt to decenter the enigmatic figure of the father in the form of a polyphonic, sometimes contradicting essay and to let it merge into a horizontal narrative of family connections. With every new memory, every new face, another mesh is woven in the fabric of the Sachs family, which has grown steadily over the course of the film. The result is a collage of different perspectives and voices, which also remains fragile on the level of the material. Grainy 8 and 16 mm images and muddy VHS line up with high-definition digital material, old and new recordings for interviews and home movies – a significant part of which was shot by Ira Sachs and Ira Sachs Jr., Lynne Sachs’ younger brother and filmmaker too. 
As part of Sheffield Doc / Fest, the film About A Father Who was shown to an international audience for the first time in early October. The documentary film festival, which took place exclusively online this year, also dedicated a carefully curated program of five films from 1994 to 2018 to Sachs. The selection focused on the term “translation”, with which Sachs is sometimes more, sometimes less explicit in her work (the first in The Task of the Translator, 2010, a film that answers Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same name with three body studies). What was meant was not just translating from spoken to visual language or transferring from a source to a target language.  The thematic bracket here was, in general, translation as a practice of encounter and communication and, connected to it, as an awareness of difference. There is a vivid picture of this in the film About A Father Who: The mother had mastered grammar, Sachs said in an interview with her siblings Dana and Ira. Everything was transparent, linear and in the right place, there were commas and points. The punctuation marks with the father, on the other hand, are exclamation marks and question marks.
The work of Lynne Sachs, born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1961 and trained at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she a. a. collaborated with artists such as Bruce Conner and Trinh T. Minh-Ha are hybrid structures. Since her first films, Drawn and Quartered and Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (both from 1987), which are strongly determined by Laura Mulvey’s feminist essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), she has made more than 30 mostly short and medium-length films. The aforementioned “encounter” is essential for Sachs’ artistic practice. Her films are often the result of close collaborations: for example with close or distant family members, migrant communities or artistic companions such as Barbara Hammer, Carolee Schneemann or Gunvor Nelson – she dedicated the film Carolee, Barbara and Gunvor to them in 2018.
As an experimental documentary filmmaker, Sachs always seeks the permeability of authorial authority and filmic subject. In relation to the concept of “fly on the wall” – the most invisible observer – that is decisive for US American direct cinema, she programmatically distanced itself: “As a documentary filmmaker, I am always reckoning with what it means to shoot ‘from the outside in ‘, using my camera to peer into the lives of people from other places, cultures, or communities. Honestly, it’s the foundation of the documentary paradigm that most disturbs me, “said the artist in an interview with the documentary film magazine Modern Times Review.  Sachs is always present in her films: as a body, as an off-voice, as a text. There are also fictional and performative elements.
Your Day is My Night (2013) and the film The Washing Society (2018), made in collaboration with playwright and director Lizzie Olesker, both provide insights into the undocumented cultural microcosms of New York, which has been Sachs ’hometown for many years. The subject of Your Day is My Night is a so-called shift-bed apartment in Chinatown – an apartment in which Chinese immigrants from the working class share a bed in layers (i.e. in coordination with their respective day and night jobs), sometimes over many years. With a precise and poetic eye for the economy of the rooms, Sachs portrays a household with seven residents, or rather ‘characters’, on the corner of Hester Street. In the form of autobiographical monologues and re-enacted conversations, these provide information about political upheavals and family separations, talk about exhausting journeys, fears and longings. In an abstract setting that looks like a theater room, the beds become a stage for a stylized body game. The camera touches lying, sleeping and stretching bodies in haptic movements.
The Washing Society is a document of the invisible work that has increasingly come into the public eye with the outbreak of Covid-19 ‘. The setting is in the laundromats that are increasingly being displaced by large laundries in urban areas. With a mixed cast of actresses and real laundresses, Sachs observes the repetitive gestures of reproductive work and gives a voice to the experiences of the predominantly African-American and Hispanic workers. The laundromat is increasingly contouring itself as a space in which underpaid work, racism and classicism become just as evident as solidarity and community. The historical anchor of the film is the eponymous “Washing Society”, an organization founded in 1881 by 20 African-American laundresses that fought for better working conditions. Looking at the remains of the washing process – the camera keeps pointing at an abject mixture of dust and hair – and the omnipresence of touch, Sachs also defines a moment of physical intimacy – “… there are still two hands … washing your skirt, your shirt, your socks, almost touching you, almost connecting with your skin. Another layer ”, it says from the off at the end.
A completely different touch takes place in A Month of Single Frames (2019), a 14-minute short film “made with and for Barbara Hammer”. Sachs processed the 8 and 16 mm film material that the pioneer of lesbian avant-garde cinema, who died in 2019, shot in the late 1990s during a month-long residency in a lonely hut with no electricity or running water on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. When Hammer began to organize her estate because of her progressive cancer, she handed the recordings over to her younger colleague with the invitation to make a film out of them. Sachs assembles tape recordings that she made in her studio shortly before the death of her mentor and on which she had them read from her Duneshack journal with Hammer’s pictures: recordings of insects, the barren vegetation in the dunes, of light reflections, shadow play and weather changes as well of banal everyday things that transform into lyrical objects when the camera looks at them. “I am overwhelmed by simplicity”, one hears Hammer say to the image of a shred of plastic film blowing in the wind. Another time she looks fascinated at a fly, in which she recognizes a miniature of the army helicopters patrolling the coast. Despite all the amazement, A Month of Single Frames is far from an essentialist view of nature. “Why is it I can’t see nature whole and pure without artifice?” Hammer wonders once. She experimented extensively with the possibilities of camera technology: for example, by slowing down the flow of film material to the point of taking individual images and playing with colored foils that throw colored lights in the sand or immerse the landscape in shimmering magenta. The most striking sign of the posthumous treatment by Sachs are the inserted text panels in which she addresses her girlfriend, who is both present and absent.
The ambivalence of isolation and, lonely ‘art production on the one hand, and shared experience on the other, could seldom be experienced as physically as in this film. A Month of Single Frames is a contemplation of nature, an homage to analog cinema and a testimony to a friendship between women without any claim to exclusivity, quite the opposite. The you in the film is always directed towards a counterpart who is invited to join together to form a community across social and geographical distances.  “You are alone” – “I am here with you in this film” – “There are others here with us” – “We are all together”.
Some of Lynne Sachs ‘films can be seen on her website: https://www.lynnesachs.com. A Film About A Father Who will soon be showing at various festivals, including Indie Memphis. The restrictions caused by the pandemic make online viewing possible.
Esther Buss works as a freelance film critic in Berlin. She writes u. a. for kolik.film, Jungle World, Der Tagesspiegel and Cargo. Last publication in: A story of its own: Women Film Austria since 1999, ed. by Isabella Reicher, Vienna 2020.
The seemingly seamless transition from the ‘other’ to one’s own language is repeatedly questioned by Sachs. In her Travelogue Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994) there are decidedly untranslated passages that make one aware of the linguistic difference. In this film, Sachs also works with Vietnamese parables, the translations of which remain puzzling.
When A Month of Single Frames was presented as part of the digital edition of the 66th Oberhausen Short Film Festival during the lockdown, its community-promoting message took on a larger dimension. The jury awarded the film the main prize.
Vancouver International Film Festival 2020 (VIFF) is delighted to announce the complete programming lineup for the Altered States, Gateway, International Shorts and MODES film series for its 39th edition. Altered States celebrates fantastic cinema that defies traditional classification. Gateway showcases compelling cinematic worlds envisioned by East Asia’s most adventurous artists. International Shorts highlight the work of filmmakers pushing the boundaries of the short form. MODES presents works that subvert the dominant gaze and offer gestures of resistance.
VIFF’s entire film lineup will be available across the province on the new VIFF Connect streaming platform. VIFF’s $60 subscription will bring the festival’s world-class lineup into the homes of thousands of British Columbians starting at 12pm PDT on September 24.
MODES presents two Canadian premieres, nine North American premieres and representation from 18 countries, including Operation Jane Walk (performance) – Live Streaming Event, from Austrian artists Robin Klengel and Leonhard Müllner. This award-winning interactive online performance, set within the confines of a built-to-scale multiplayer shooter game (Tom Clancy’s The Division), is repurposed as an avatar-universe for a guided architectural tour of New York. An active experience, the audience chats live with the tour guides, presenting a dynamic group experience during these COVID-defined times. Additional highlights include: the North American premiere of Digital Funeral: Beta Version by Thai director Sorayos Prapapan, which examines the limitations of digital life within the cinematic form; the North American premiere of Becoming Alluvium by director Thao Nguyen Phan, about Vietnam’s troubled history and the Mekong river’s current ecological state; the Canadian premiere of director Lynn Sachs’ Oberhausen award winner A Month of Single Frames, in which she was invited to rework the material created by her friend and peer, Barbara Hammer, an experimental pioneer and queer icon; and Berlin’s Teddy Award winner, Playback, from director Agustina Comedi, a manifesto honouring a group of trans women and drag queens who faced the AIDS epidemic and fought the violence of the conservative ideals underpinning Argentina’s military dictatorship.
“Protest, resistance and the disruption of the status quo are becoming the defining acts of 2020,” says Tammy Bannister, Programmer and MODES curator. “This year’s artists explore radical acts of engagement within contemplative and virtual landscapes. From a self-organized funeral to the awe-inspiring natural environment of the Mekong River, these selected works tackle the complex architectures of our social fabric.”
All films will include introductions by VIFF Programming Curators or bonus content from filmmakers and creators.
MODES: Works that subvert the dominant gaze and offer gestures of resistance All, or Nothing at All (dirs. Persijn Broersen, Margit Lukács, Denmark/Netherlands | North American Premiere
Becoming Alluvium (dir. Thao Nguyen Phan, Spain/Vietnam) | North American Premiere
Bittersweet (dir. Sohrab Hura, India) | North American Premiere
A Demonstration (dirs. Sasha Litvintseva, Beny Wagner, Netherlands/Germany/UK) | North American Premiere
Digital Funeral: Beta Version (dir. Sorayos Prapapan, Thailand) | North American Premiere
(e)scape goat (dir. Sid Iandovka, USA/Switzerland) | North American Premiere
The End of Suffering (a proposal) (dir. Jacqueline Lentzou, Greece) | North American Premiere
How to Disappear (dirs. Total Refusal: Leonhard Müllner, Robin Klengel, Michael Stumpf, Austria) | Canadian Premiere
In Times of Deception (dir. Michael Heindl, Colombia/Bolivia/Chile/Peru) | North American Premiere
A Month of Single Frames (dir. Lynne Sachs, made with and for Barbara Hammer, USA) | Canadian Premiere
Playback (dir. Agustina Comedi, Argentina) | Canadian Premiere
Operation Jane Walk (performance) – Live Streaming Event (dir. and performance Robin Klengel, Leonhard Müllner, Austria) | North American Premiere
with: Lynne Sachs, Maya Gehrig, Ismaël Joffroy Chandoutis, Astrid Bussink, Sidsel Meineche Hansen and Therese Henningsen and Diane Obomsawin.
The popular saying, I see you, is used when an individual acknowledges or understands a different point of view highlighting its importance. The films selected focus on some of the core issues in today’s society bringing us closer to a better understanding of the challenges and prospects put forward by these seven filmmakers.
This program includes works that speak to the universal and touch on empathy, arousal, fear, confusion and satisfaction through the portraying of complex stories and falls under this year’s theme on emotions proposed by HeK and Kunsthaus Baselland for OSLO NIGHT.
A Month of Single Frames Lynne Sachs, USA, 2019, 14 min 12, English
In 1998, filmmaker Barbara Hammer had an artist residency in a shack without running water or electricity. While there, she shot film, recorded sounds and kept a journal. In 2018, Barbara began her own process of dying by revisiting her personal archive. She gave all of her images, sounds and writing from the residency to filmmaker Lynne Sachs and invited her to make a film with the material. Through her own filmmaking, Lynne explores Barbara’s experience of solitude. She places text on the screen as a confrontation with a somatic cinema that brings us all together in multiple spaces and times.
Average Happiness Maya Gehrig, Switzerland, 2019, 7 min 15, no dialog
During a PowerPoint presentation, statistical diagrams are breaking free from the strait-jacket of their coordinates. A trip into the sensual world of statistics begins. Pie charts are melting, arrow diagrams twisting, scatter plots, bar graphs and stock market curves join in a collective climax.
Swatted Ismaël Joffroy Chandoutis, France, 2018, 11 min, English
Online players describe their struggles with “swatting”, a life-threatening cyber-harassment phenomenon that looms over them whenever they play. The events take shape through youtube videos and wireframe images from a video game.
Listen Astrid Bussink, The Netherlands, 2017, 15 min, Dutch with English subs
Life can seem pretty overwhelming at times, particularly when you’re growing up. And it’s not always easy to talk to your parents or friends about your problems. Fortunately, the “Kindertelefoon” (Child Helpline) in the Netherlands provides a listening ear. LISTEN presents a cross-section of conversations between children and the Kindertelefoon.
Maintenancer (doc.) Sidsel Meineche Hansen and Therese Henningsen, Germany, 2018, 13 min 5, German with English subs
The video work Maintenancer, which was produced as part of Meineche Hansen’s 2018 PRE-ORDER I-III exhibition series, focuses on the use and maintenance of sex dolls in the context of a German brothel. The work documents the transition into post-human prostitution – where sex work shifts from the physical body of the sex worker, onto the sex doll or robot.
I Like Girls Diane Obomsawin, Canada, 2016, 8 min, English
In this animated short from Diane Obomsawin, four women reveal the nitty-gritty about their first loves, sharing funny and intimate tales of one-sided infatuation, mutual attraction, erotic moments, and fumbling attempts at sexual expression.
DOCS IN ORBIT – INTRO Welcome to another Masters Edition episode of Docs in Orbit, where we feature conversations with filmmakers who have made exceptional contributions to documentary film.
In this episode, we feature part one of a two part conversation with the remarkable and highly acclaimed feminist, experimental filmmaker and poet, Lynne Sachs.
Lynne Sachs is a Memphis-born, Brooklyn-based artist who has made over 35 films. Her work explores the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences by weaving together text, collage, painting, politics and a layered sound design.
Strongly committed to a dialogue between cinematic theory and practice, she searches for a rigorous play between image and sound, pushing the visual and aural textures in her work with every new project.
Sachs’ films have been screened all over the world, including New York Film Festival, Sundance, Oberhausen, BAMCinemaFest, DocLisboa and many others.
Her work has also been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Walker Art Center, and other venues, including retrospectives in Argentina, Cuba, and China.
She’s also received a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship in the Arts and in 2019, Tender Buttons Press published Lynne’s first collection of poetry, Year by Year Poems.
Lynne Sachs is currently one of the artists in focus at Sheffield Doc Fest where her most recent feature documentary film, FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO is presented alongside a curated selection of five of her earlier films.
I caught up with Sachs recently to discuss the many aspects of her work, including feminist film theory, experimental filmmaking, and her collaborative approach. We also discuss her short film, A MONTH OF SINGLE FRAMES (FOR BARBRA HAMMER), which is currently available at Dokufest until August 25th.
Christina: I’m just so grateful to have you here today. I have to first say that I’m emerging from this journey of reviewing many of your films and your work over the past 30 years, as well as a video lecture, MY BODY YOUR BODY OUR BODIES: SOMATIC CINEMA AT HOME AND IN THE WORLD, which is a fascinating guide through your work and evolution as a filmmaker. And it’s also available online. I’ll include links to all of this on the website so that our listeners are able to easily find it.
You know, it’s kind of very difficult to figure out where to start after reviewing so much of your work, but I figured maybe it would be nice to just kind of start off with what has shaped you as a filmmaker?
Lynne: First of all, I wanted to say that it’s very interesting to talk to someone who has taken that journey through my work, because one of the things that I think is very much an aspect of my way of making films is that they are so interconnected with my own life.
So if you saw my film, THE HOUSE OF SCIENCE, you’d see that I write within it. I keep journals within it. And I talk a lot about the day that I left for college and I had this male gynecologist, I went to check in with him and get some birth control, but I wasn’t even sure where my cervix cervix was.
And then you all the way to my more recent films from 20 years ago, and they were a lot about having children. And then in between that there’s films that include a lot of travel and a kind of exploration as a young filmmaker.
And then, I have a whole group of films that I made usually in the town where I lived. So partially in Baltimore and a lot in New York. And that was maybe because I didn’t believe that documentary film had to come with a big, expensive airplane ticket. And also I had young children at a certain point.
So there’s a kind of way that each film, whether in subject or in execution, reflects what was going on in my life, in those decades.
Christina: There is this very personal aspect of your work as well. This link of what’s happening historically in the world around you, but then also through the lens of how it connects to something that you’re experiencing.
And I love that you mentioned this notion of going to your gynecologist, because there is also another element of your work that is very much exploring feminism. In a lot of your previous lectures of when you were talking about or writing about what has been influential, you mentioned feminist film theories in your work, and I would love to hear from you- I know it’s a big topic – but what feminist film and feminist filmmaking means to you and why it’ s still important today.
Lynne: I think that in the world of that it has built up around the film industry. There’s been an enormous emphasis on access to the means of production. Are women able to break into the hierarchy and even climb or be given the opportunity to access the top.
So there’s this idea that you become a director and therefore you have accomplished what any other woman would want to do.
But unfortunately that does not necessarily come with what maybe you or I would call a feminist sensibility. So there is this breaking of the glass ceiling on the level of job opportunities, but then once you’re there, you’re still replicating what the men have already done.
So important filmmakers and thinkers around film who’ve really shaken me up on the level of image making and encouraged or compelled me to, to bring a feminist commitment to my work would probably start with Maya Deren.
She’s probably the best known grandmother. And I say that in this very broad way. She was a grandmother to many men also. But this person who believed in the possibility for personal filmmaking to break through, to be accessible to many people and in the process to speak to her own experience, which was a woman’s experience.
And then thinking about theory, I would say, Laura Mulvey’s article on Visual Pleasure, because I think even putting those two things together, visual pleasure – and she was writing about narrative cinema. We look at art for pleasure. Yes, we eat food for pleasure, and we travel for pleasure, and we do many things, but art also offers that.
But if the visual pleasure is replicating the desires of a male cinematographer or director, then what she is asking us. And she did this in the early seventies. What she’s asking is, is that really progress?
So Maya Deren, Laura Mulvey, and then I think other people writing on film, who demanded that we not only talk about women’s experiences, but be very vulnerable in our openness to talking about the body, because that’s what distinguishes us from men.
I think a kind of hero in that respect would be Carolee Schneemann, who was a great performance artist, conceptual thinker and filmmaker.
Christina: Yeah, so it’s not just about being able to give a woman a camera and access to making a film, but it’s about actually putting on screen, the way that a woman sees the world, the way that a woman sees her body and it not being through the lens of this male perspective
Lynne: Yeah.. How the body is framed and how we articulate a point of view and being really thoughtful about that. And eventually, maybe there’s the, there will come a time where we don’t have to be as self-conscious, it will just happen. But I think right now we have to investigate that.
And I think particularly in the year, 2020, we also have to look at how the articulation or the expression is also open to a kind of freedom around race too. A freedom of expression that’s not tied down to stereotypes and tied down the burden of what, what cinema has done for so long in terms of how women and women of color have been represented.
Christina: Yeah, and I was going to ask about this because this feminist movement in cinema, as you had mentioned, has been around since the seventies. And you were exploring that when you were in college as well in the eighties, and reading about these theories and then taking your camera up to the roof and exploring the way bodies were represented in film. But how about today? What more can you say about how this is still important?
Lynne: I think one of the people who kind of broke through our, our way of thinking would be bell hooks. She writes a great deal about those forms of representation. I personally have been very influenced by Kara Walker’s work, and by the imagery that she boldly has presented to the world of art.
Then there’s a few filmmakers whose work has been very influential to me. These Black women filmmakers. Cauleen Smith is a super interesting filmmaker. Her work is very much about Afro surrealism.
I actually really liked the way Ja’Tovia Gary integrates these interview processes. She takes a kind of a convention of the reporter on the street, but she has this intimacy at the same time, which I find very empowering as a woman, you know, like let’s do it the old fashioned way with this phallic thing, the microphone, but let’s do it in this way that’s like female bonding. So I love, I really love her work.
Christina: Yeah, I do too. It was one of the delights to discover at Hot Docs this year. I think it’s been around for a while, that short film, but I had only come to see it when it was on display at Hot Docs.
So another thing that you’re known for … I’m trying to pull the threads of how to describe you as a filmmaker and the adjectives that are most commonly used and the word feminist always comes up, but then also experimental filmmaker.
For me, this is very visible in your work and how you play with textures in your films. I would describe your work as being very idea centric, not so much plot driven, but it’s very much that there’s a thought in the center that you’re exploring and you’re using film as a way to bring that to life.
So can you speak a little bit about this idea of experimental filmmaking and what that means for you?
Lynne: I really appreciate your saying that because I actually do think the kernel, the seed is a thought and there’s an expectation in documentary film that we start with a story. And that I feel a bit resentful of because story also applies to plot also applies to the whole condition or expectations of literature as in you have a protagonist or character, and everything is revolving around that character.
And I find that to be kind of derivative. So if you, with an idea, as you’ve suggested, then the aesthetics have to build up around that and they have to take on a more complex approach.
So, if I have an idea or a curiosity or something I want to investigate, then I have to think about how I will hold the camera? You were talking about texture, how will I hold the camera to make that evident?
Or sometimes it goes the other way. Does the fact that the camera shook give you the sense that we have doubt? So there’s a give and take between process instead of always judging what you did.
Like if you did something all by yourself, the production values are often let’s say disappointing on first view.
But if the idea rises to the top, the idea says to you, well those obstacles, those production value obstacles actually lead us to something more real. Revealed something about the situation, for example, that you were shooting in a place where you felt scared.
Those things can come through the texture, but the problem with, what I think a conventional approach to documentary is there’s always this expectation that you’re going for something that’s perfect that follows a template that is beautiful in the most obvious ways.
But sometimes beautiful is opaque and not so beautiful adds a transparency of process that actually can be very stimulating to the viewer.
I mean, I really believe we’re sick of looking at the perfect image.
And actually you were asking about theory, and I would say another big influence is the German theorist and filmmaker, Hito Steyerl. She definitely identifies as highly conceptual and highly committed to the documentary impulse.
She wrote this article about the perfect image versus the degraded image. She sort of thinks it’s really interesting to look at the degraded image, the one that you find on the internet and how it moves from hand to hand, and that we become aware of its demise and we see all like all its wrinkles. Instead of thinking it has to be like fresh out of the camera and an unaffected by its life journey.
Christina: Another aspect of your work that really drew me / collaboration is a really important element in your process. Somewhere I read that there’s a point in your career as a filmmaker where you note this shift in your approach, as you begin to consider your subject as a collaborator. Can you speak a little bit about this and how it shaped sort of where that insight kind of came from and how it shaped the work that you do now?
Lynne: I’ve had this notion that historically in filmmaking, that actors are, have been treated like props, especially women. So if you allow those participants to become creatively involved, I actually think they feel more, there’s more gratitude.
Maybe that’s part of a kind of feminist resistance to the power that comes with being a director that’s never about listening? Like in my film TIP OF MY TOUNGE, I wanted that film to be a lot about listening – my listening to the people in the film and they’re listening to each other and not just about my directing.
Christina: I think, for me, that’s very resonant in your work. So I want to talk a little bit about that film also, but within the context of collaboration, because I’m really intrigued by the nature of your collaborations, because there’s always a degree of it and it’s really interesting to look at, I’ll just pick three –
Tip of My Tongue, and then Film About a Father Who, and A Month of Single Frames. So I think these three films, maybe we can just talk about these three films and the collaborative nature of them?
LYNNE: I also thought about Which Way is East, which I made with my sister. Yeah, this could be interesting, like in a curatorial way, I hadn’t thought about it.
In TIP OF MY TONGUE, it’s a film that started off with a collection of poems that I wrote for every year of my life, between 1961 and 2011, 2011 was the year I turned 50, but it took me about five years to write all those poems.
And then I started to think about, well, why do I just want to know about my own experience, this sort of documentary maker in me reared its head and said, well, how would other people who lived in Iran or lived in Australia or lived in the Netherlands – how would they have seen those years from very distinct different points of view?
So I am the director of it, but a big part of it was bringing this group of people together. And I didnt say I was making a movie, I just said I’m looking for people to collaborate on a project and I’m looking for people who were born between 1958 and 64.
A couple of them were friends, but others had been recommended like, Oh, I know a woman from Iran and she lived those exact years. And, you know, so I figured, okay, when I was graduating from high school and worrying about whether I was going to go to the prom, she was dealing with a revolution.
And we spent three days basically living together and talking to each other and I filmed it. And then I tried to, in a sense, collaborate with the city of New York, which was the only thing all of us have in common. We all lived in New York at that point, and so New York also becomes a collaborator with us as a backdrop and also as unifying aspect of our lives.
And so, what I did was I got together with them and I did an audio interview and I asked them to pick five moments in their lives where a public event affected something very personal or transformed or allowed them to understand something very intimate in their own lives.
So that was the prompt. That became a way by which they could think about Richard Nixon, or they could think about the first moon landing or they could think about 9-11. Some of those are more obvious than others.
So we processed that and filtered those mate, those big events through our own lenses and experiences.
Once I had those interviews, then I started to see intersections between the stories. And then I came back to them and acted a little bit more like Director.
So I have all this openness, anything goes, and then when we actually shot everything was storyboarded.
I think there’s an interesting connection between something you brought up earlier, which is the idea. I think the link between the idea and the aesthetics has to do with finding formal strategies that resonate both conceptually and visually. That’s what I spend all my time thinking about it in the shower. Or dare I say it, driving my car on the subway. Or I’ll wake up in the middle of the night. I think I need a strategy that works on both of those levels. And I’m very rigorous about that. And if it doesn’t work on both of those levels, then I kind of reject it. And sometimes that takes them years to figure it out.
Christina: Right. And there’s different, I imagine, drafts of strategies that you’re trying and trying and trying until you finally find one that does work.
Lynne: Yeah, sure. So that’s the process for that film. So maybe I’ll go on to A Month of Single Frames?
Christina: Yes! Please!
Lynne: So A Month of Single Frames is a film I made with Barbara Hammer who was a renowned lesbian, experimental filmmaker. And she always said intersectional; lesbian, experimental, and filmmaker, all all once! Woman.
So, I have known her for about 30 years – she had been a mentor of mine back in San Francisco, which was very formulated for both of us and then we both came to New York.
Then, just about two years ago, when she knew that she was dying, she came to four different artists and asked, would we like to work with material that she had?
The material she gave me was uncut, 16 millimeter film that she shot in 1998 of an artist residency.
And I said to her immediately, Barbara, why didn’t you make this? You’ve been so prolific, why didn’t make it? She said, well, it was too much about me. Which is funny because she made a lot of films about herself. But my feeling was maybe she thought the material was too beautiful. It didn’t have an edge to it.
So I was faced with its absolute beauty. Cape Cod, and the dunes, and the sunset. The sound effects of the waves and the insects, and all that.
And so there, I was in a sense collaborating with her work just by editing it. And that didn’t seem like enough.
So I thought I needed to talk through the material to her and to audiences and even to a more epistemological engagement with cinema. Like, what is cinema? What is it in terms of the way it looks at time at place as it once was and now what has changed? And how does cinema allow two people to be in the same space and not in the same space?
And then I’m in the same space with Barbara, with you as viewer, with anyone who watches the film people. Total strangers. We’re all in the same space.
So that actually came to me and I just started writing, as you’ve seen, in a lot of my films writing can find its way as voiceover or on the screen.
So the collaboration in a sense for me didn’t really happen until I was able to create my own place in it. Otherwise it was, it was more like, hagiography, and I didn’t want it to just be a portrait of a woman who had recently died. I needed to engage deeper in the deeper way.
Christina: You said it’s about cinema. It’s also about the making of cinema too and on that level, it resonated with me. It’s very clear from the beginning, when we hear you setting up the interviews, there’s a very reflexive mode in there. “I’m setting out to collaborate with this filmmaker and make a new creation out of her work”.
I found it very moving, not just because the images were incredibly beautiful and the soundscape and the way that those worked so well together, but I found it really balanced in terms of the space you gave yourself in the film while you’re paying an homage to Barbara Hammer and her work during that residency.
Lynne: One of the things that comes about when you’re making a work that uses this word, “about”. Or we talk about the elevator pitch, like, how can you describe your film in the 20 seconds that you’re on an elevator with someone? And the word that always comes in is “about”.
That’s the preposition, right? If the object of the preposition is only the name of someone, then I think it’s very reductive.
But if you can say the about, can become more expanded and more reflective that about is also within, and it can be multiple prepositions, within or underneath or behind or with, like all of those things.
Then we start to think about our engagement as being more fluid, more unpredictable, and more about point of view.
So, if I had just said, this is a film about a woman who had cancer, or this is a film about a woman who was a lesbian experimental filmmaker, then you would enter those 14 minutes and you’d come out knowing more like in an educational experience.
Like I know more about Barbara Hammer. Or in, Film About A Father Who, I know more about this filmmaker’s father. But I didn’t want either of those films to function on that narrow a level. I wanted it to be about process and about failure.
That’s why with A Month of Single Frames, you hear us setting up and you actually hear a place where, Barbara and I are talking about looking through her journal and she kind of gets a little irritated with me cause I don’t find the right part that she should read.
Normally you would cut that out, because it sort of shows my failures or that I felt pressured, or I really didn’t know what I was doing.
But if you leave it in, it becomes more human.
That’s like the calling card of all essay films is those moments where the attempt to do one thing leads to something else and so you go one direction and then you find a kind of obstacle and you go another direction.
There’s another part of A Month of Single Frames that you might not have noticed, but I almost took it out and it also shows failure. Barbara wanted to animate these little toys and she wanted to film them, but she was there all by herself in this remote shack in Cape Cod.
So she’d wind up the toys and then she kind of like run back to her camera. But by the time she got your camera, these wind up toys didn’t move anymore. So you actually see her hand and so called “good animators” wouldn’t include the hand moving the toys. They would only include the success. But I actually thought what was more interesting was her attempt to do something which basically failed.
Christina: I do remember that. I do remember that bit, but I wasn’t, to me, it was just playful.
Just to see somebody that is so renowned that, you know, it’s it’s, but at the same time, so devoted to the work as well and seeing how playful she is with her environment, it was just very nice to see.
Lynne: Well, I think one of the things about that film that’s so extraordinary is that her situation while beautiful is also quite basic.
And there’s a way that the film validates movie production on a budget. It doesn’t elevate access to funds and to locations. It just sort of says what the barest of tools you can make a movie. And I think that also is super validating and important to remember in our high tech and quite money oriented – our industry is a lot about money.
So when you see someone who’s working in this very austere way, I think it’s quite (inaudible)
You asked earlier what makes for an experimental film. I think it’s the notion that work can be play and play can be work. That if you allow yourself to play for a while, rather than judging yourself immediately, which we all do, especially when we call it work, we call it work and we don’t think it’s good enough, then we pretty much stop. We censor ourselves and stop.
But if we move into a realm of play, then I think we often end up in a place of discovery.
And Barbara was always doing that. And so she was most definitely a kind of role model for me.
CHRISTINA: That was it like when you first received this set of archives and watching and hearing them for the first time?
Lynne: You know, I had a student about three years ago who asked me, why do I make movies? And I guess I kind of gave her an answer. And then I asked her because she was learning to make films. And she said to me, I think I make films because I want to give gifts.
And I really loved that. I really loved that you do it because you’re sharing something or that you do have an experience that you want someone else to be able to engage with. And might give them joy. Or might make them feel about the world in a deeper way.
So, when Barbara gave me this imagery that she had, and she is giving me the gift of witnessing her solitude. So I felt that I needed to enter that experience of solitude and that was a gift that was from her to me.
So I needed to find a way to give back to her and I knew that it would be posthumous. So I needed to give to her legacy, not just to her. There’s a real exchange between the two of us.
And it’s interesting to find that I’m referring to her so much now that she’s not with us. I have this very profound belief that when we lose someone, someone who dies, that as much as we don’t want to say their names because it reminds us of them, that each time we say their name, we get to be with them a bit longer.
I really love when I dream about someone who’s died. And so the film is a little bit like my dream of Barbara that I keep getting to have.
Because, as you know with anyone who has died in life, you dream a lot about them, and you’re chit chatting with them and having dinner with them and all of that. When they appear in your dream, you feel wistful. And so the film was a little bit like that.
Christina: That’s wonderful. It’s actually a really wonderful way to close on, on the film too.
DOCS IN ORBIT – OUTRO
Thanks for listening. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss part two of the conversation where we discuss more of Lynne’s work, including her feature film, FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO.
Also, head over to our website, www.docsinorbit.com, for our show notes that include links to films and articles referenced in this episode.
This podcast was produced by Panda Ray Productions.
With music by Nayeem Mahbub in Stockholm. And Produced by Christina Zachariades in Brooklyn. Special thanks to Sylvia Savadjian.
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This year has not been a kind year for the film festival. Several major film festivals including Cannes and Telluride have been canceled as a result of the current coronavirus pandemic, and rightly so. We can probably all agree that the idea of thousands of people from across the globe gathering in one place, standing shoulder to shoulder, and sitting tightly packed inside a small dark room for long periods, is the perfect breeding ground for a virus as deadly as COVID-19.
Some film festivals still took place at the start of the year, most notably Sundance and Berlinale. However, a report from the Hollywood Reporter stated that this year’s Sundance Film Festival could have been the “first petri dish” for the spread of the virus with many attendees reporting coronavirus-like symptoms after attending the festival. However, it is worth mentioning that according to the festival organizers, they are “not aware of any confirmed festival-connected cases of Covid-19.”
The postponement of Cannes this year marks the first time since 1968 that the festival hasn’t taken place since the end of the Second World War. Coincidentally, the festival didn’t take place in ‘68 due to nationwide student protests. When asked about whether or not the festival could take place virtually, Festival director Thierry Frémaux stated that it “wouldn’t work”. However, festivals such as CPH:DOX did make the transition from physical to virtual, with festival organizer Tine Fischer stating, “If we had not gone online I’m not sure that we would have survived.”
And, while we have heard from the major film festival organizers, what about the film critics who have been affected by the coronavirus situation and how has it impacted their film festival experience? Well, I felt compelled to seek out people and ask them about their thoughts regarding the impact that coronavirus has had on the film festival circuit, as well as what the future has in store for the film festival experience. If film festivals were all to make the transition from the physical form to the vertical/digital form, would we not lose something truly unique? Attending film festivals is a major way to network with film industry individuals and allows filmmakers to exhibit their films in the hopes of being picked up for distribution. The right amount of festival buzz can make (or break) a film. Could this be achieved in a digital sense or would we miss out on that special act of social interaction?
Personally speaking, I believe the best outcome is for film festival organizers to host smaller scale festivals once restrictions ease. By controlling the number of attendees, festivals could enforce social distancing quite easily. However, the next question would be – who would be allowed to attend the festival if a limitation of attendees was enforced? Ask any aspiring critic about how strict the restrictions and regulations are for the press accreditation process and they will more than likely express their frustrations. Would film festivals become even more restrictive and selective in terms of what level of film critic and/or industry professional they allow to attend?
Since the pandemic, I have been able to cover Sheffield Documentary Film Festival (a festival I attended last year in person), Edinburgh Film Festival, review films for SXSW, and I hope to help in covering Fantasia Film Festival as well. Being able to access the films via the online Doc Player for the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival made things a lot easier. There were no anxieties about organizing travel and accommodation, no rushing around to make sure I got to the screenings on time. I could simply sit at home on my sofa all day and watch the films I wanted to see and not worry about having to pick and choose films. However, I missed the networking and social interaction aspect of attending a film festival.
Inspired by my own experiences of attending film festivals in the past, and thoughts about the future of film festivals, I decided to reach out to a few fellow film critics and also ask some filmmakers about their thoughts on the matter. Kathia Woods recently covered the AFI Documentary Film Festival which took place online. “It was kinda nice to see the films without standing in line,” she says. “I miss connecting with my fellow critics. A nice part of the festivals are the Q&A [sessions] afterward.”
Woods isn’t the only film critic to have attended a festival in the virtual sense; however, in the case of film critic Alex Billington, his experience wasn’t exactly a straightforward one. “So far the only film festival I’ve tried to cover online is the Annecy Film Festival (the top animation festival in France). It was a disaster,” he explains. “Online festivals are temporary solutions, but definitely do not compare in any way to actual festivals. They said all of their films would be available online. But after logging in I discovered only half were available, the rest were only 10-minute clips. Watching a few of them by myself, at my home, without anyone to talk to about them wasn’t very exciting. I know it’s the only way to run a festival during this pandemic, but it has been a very bad experience so far.”
While Billington had a bad experience with the Annecy Film Festival, critic Cameron Ward’s experience was far more enjoyable. “For Annecy Online, my experience was very positive,” he says. “I don’t have the finances to take a trip to France and the expenses that come with that, so being able to experience the world of animation from the comfort of my home with no real schedule to keep track of was refreshing. If I could afford to go to Annecy France to attend the physical festival, I would. But with everything going on, it wouldn’t have been possible anyway. Going online was a way for animation fans and critics alike to get a taste of seeing what the animation scene from around the world was working on.”
However, even Ward has to admit that “attending festivals in person is fun since you will get the chance to meet the directors, teams, and actors for the films in question, and see new films before anyone else for the most part.” He also explains the cons of physical festivals, but the pros always outweigh them. “[Festivals are] a lot to plan out with schedules to execute, making sure you get your questions answered, walking back and [forth] to different screenings, and sitting down for two or so hours. Like I said above, the pros of it all are being able to see new films, experience the audience reactions, getting to meet the directors in person, and being able to talk to them.”
Critic Max Borg – who I had the pleasure of meeting at this year’s Berlinale – spoke about the prospect of more festivals becoming digital. “Going digital – if we’re talking post-COVID times – should be something that enhances the existing festival experience, rather than replacing it,” he explains. “We’re already seeing that now with Venice electing to be 100% physical (presumably due to rights issues) and Toronto doing a hybrid edition where only some of the films will be available online. I don’t think the online version is much of an incentive to be honest because all of the ones I’ve covered had some kind of restriction, be it geoblocking or some films being unavailable (the latter happened with Annecy, where some of the feature films were not viewable in full unless you were a jury member). And everyone I’ve spoken to about this said the same thing: they miss getting to interact with a physical audience.”
Certainly, the idea of missing out on the human/social interaction side of film festivals seems to be a consensus that most critics I spoke to shared. Awards Watch founder and owner, Erik Anderson, explains that “removing the audience element of festivals and filmgoing misses out on certain key components about film itself.” He continues by saying, “I can watch a movie alone in my living room and laugh at funny parts or jump at scary parts, but more often than not those are less likely to happen or happen with less fervor as an individual. It’s great to gauge how funny a joke is by the audience response or hear someone crying when an earned tearful response happens.” However, Anderson made a very good point which I think we should all consider: “There is a great advantage to people with difficulties or disabilities that would be able to enjoy these films and that’s an undeniable plus.”
Critic Caitlin Kennedy spoke about the accessibility of film festivals, drawing my attention to the fact that not all critics are as privileged as those who work at a professional level. “Traveling to film festivals puts a great burden on time and finances and not all critics or fans have the resources to meet that burden,” she explains. “It’s nice to have the option to interact with film festivals that I previously had no relationship with because it has been made convenient to do so. Of course, with accessibility comes a lack of exclusivity. That “special” feeling of being in a small crowd, limited by time and space, to be the first to experience a film goes away, but we’re at a point where it’s more important than ever for those opportunities to be accessible. Film should not operate under the limitations of privilege. No art should, honestly.” Kennedy’s words certainly gave me food for thought and made me realize how privileged I have been this year to have been able to attend Berlinale.
We have heard that many major film releases such as “Black Widow” and “No Time to Die” have had their release dates pushed back, but what about the future of independent films especially those who were due to be screened at festivals such as SXSW and Telluride? What are their thoughts on the future of the film festival and do they have any concerns about festivals making the transition to the virtual world?
Danny Mendlow, the producer of the documentary, “Never Be Done: The Richard Glen Lett Story,” expressed his thoughts about digital vs. physical film festivals. “There’s no comparison in my mind. It’s like comparing watching a basketball game on your TV at home to sitting next to Spike Lee in the front row of Madison Square Garden. It’s that different,” he states. “You can watch the Super Bowl at home, sure, but how can you compare that to a tailgate party and seats at the 50-yard line? You can watch a hundred really well-produced documentaries of Woodstock, but if you weren’t there in person, you didn’t get to go hang out with Jimi Hendrix after he played ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. So I’m not trashing digital/online film festivals, I think they have an important place in things, and obviously, we are all being catapulted into a more digital world, but there’s just no comparison to what a live, in-the-flesh film festival offers. I mean, I’ve been to rooftop Turkish Film Parties at TIFF or Louisiana Film Parties at Sundance and there’s no universe that skyping into either would’ve been comparable in any way.” Mendlow goes on to add that “attending as a filmmaker and film fan is fun and party hopping and networking, but there’s nothing like attending as a filmmaker or team with a good movie that people like screening at the fest.”
David Lawson, the producer of “She Dies Tomorrow,” also shared his thoughts. The film was scheduled to be screened at SXSW but the festival was sadly canceled. Luckily, Lawson and his team were “extremely fortunate to already have a sales/PR team around the film that had anticipated this as a possibility.” He continues by explaining that they “screened the film for a small group of distributors and press outlets in NY and LA and were extremely fortunate to come out of that situation with NEON picking up the film for distribution.”
Lawson makes a good point which I didn’t even consider: the issue of piracy. “The obvious and biggest disadvantage to me on online film festivals is the potential for piracy,” he says. “I think that should be every festival’s number one concern when opting for a digital version. I’m not sure that everyone is aware that most films at a festival haven’t been sold yet, and if a film ends up on a torrent platform it could destroy the ability for that film to recoup its money, and thus hurting a filmmaker/investor’s future potential in film.”
Gavin Booth, the director of “Last Call,” says that, as a filmmaker, he’s “losing the ability to meet other filmmakers, actors, and creative people.” He says that his favorite thing at any festival is meeting peers. “The energy and excitement of talking to creators fuels my own creativity and often you are meeting your fellow creators. There’s a sort of summer camp aspect to it where you find your circle of people at any given festival and share meals, laughs, screenings, and are able to support and promote one another’s festival events.” Booth also stressed the point of directors missing out on the audience’s reaction to their film. “It’s nice to see what works and doesn’t work with the film. When a film is at a festival, it’s finished, but hey, if you see a real sticking point that audiences don’t respond well to, there’s a hail mary chance to go in and adjust the film before you attempt to find distribution for it.”
In a similar fashion to film critics, Booth agrees that the experience of watching the film with a collective audience is something that would be greatly missed if more festivals took place in a digital sense. “Virtual screenings are no different to watching Netflix or renting a movie on iTunes,” he explains. “What we will lose in terms of a viewing experience at festivals is the community. A community of filmmakers supporting one another’s work as well as each festival’s loyal audience that enjoys taking in new independent cinema. It definitely is more accessible. This can be looked at either way. It’s a great benefit that more than a few hundred people at a time in a cinema can see these films premiere, but at the same time, it’s taking some of the mystique away from the buzz a film gets at a festival and then that buzz is used as a groundswell marketing campaign to help bring the film to the masses upon traditional release.”
Lynne Sachs – whose documentary feature “Film About A Father Who” screened digitally at Sheffield Doc/Fest and whose short “A Month of Single Frames” screened at Oberhausen, Dokufest in Kosovo, Sydney Underground Film Fest, and the Gimli Film Fest in Canada – says that going online may be a good thing. “For smaller festivals, I think there were some very gratifying and democratizing aspects to going online. I was on the jury at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in March this year. They quickly pivoted to an online experience and the results were truly breathtaking,” she says. “Basically, hundreds of filmmakers with work in the festival were able to watch the entire festival and participate in live Q and A’s from literally all over the world! My fellow judges and I spent an intense week on Zoom watching all of the films and discussing them. We felt extremely close after this, not only because we connected via our film viewing, but also because we were bonding during one of the most horrific shared times in world history.”
I also asked Lynne Sachs about her thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of film festivals becoming more virtual, and whether or not that was the right direction to go. She believes that “a hybrid model is really the way to go.” “Our society has become far too dependent on air travel which is expensive, elitist, and terrible for the environment,” she continues. “Ever since I attended my first film festival in the late 1980s, I have loved my experiences participating in all aspects of this very special convergence of cinephiles. But, I also think that we must recognize that the cost of traveling with your film divides those filmmakers with additional financial means from those without. There are so many festivals that just don’t have the budget to pay for airfares, lodging, and food for their participating artists. So, the burden of participating face-to-face lands on the filmmaker who has already probably spent money for the festival submission fee. This is absolutely unfair. Adding a virtual component to a festival enlarges audience and artist participation.”
Communicating with my fellow film critics, and also corresponding with filmmakers, really helped me gain a greater insight into how the cancellation of film festivals due to the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the film industry in a way that goes beyond the headlines. Hopefully, film festival organizers will take the opportunity to reach out to filmmakers and critics alike, as well as film festival attendees, to ask for their input, recommendations, and thoughts about the future of the film festival. One can only hope that we can all come together to support film festivals large and small, as well as indie filmmakers and film critics (at all levels) to maintain our love and appreciation for the film festival spirit. Personally speaking, I’m even beginning to miss the early morning queues at the London Film Festival which I used to moan about all the time. It’s funny how you miss the little things in life.
Editor’s note: The interviews included in this piece have been edited for clarity.
Welcome to another Masters Edition episode of Docs in Orbit, where we feature conversations with filmmakers who have made exceptional contributions to documentary film.
In this episode, we feature a two part conversation with the remarkable and highly acclaimed feminist, experimental filmmaker and poet Lynne Sachs.
In part one of the conversation, Lynne Sachs speaks about how feminist film theory has shaped her work and her approach to experimental filmmaking. We also discuss her collaborative process in her films including, her short documentary film A MONTH OF SINGLE FRAMES (for Barbara Hammer), which is currently available to screen at Sheffield Doc/Fest until August 31st.
Mulvey, Laura. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen,16(3), 6-18, Link
Steyerl, Hito. (2009). In Defense of the Poor Image. e-flux, 10, Link
Lynne Sachs is a Memphis-born, Brooklyn-based artist who has made over 35 films. Her work explores the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences by weaving together text, collage, painting, politics and layered sound design. Strongly committed to a dialogue between cinematic theory and practice, she searches for a rigorous play between image and sound, pushing the visual and aural textures in her work with every new project.
Sachs films have been screened all over the world, including New York Film Festival, Sundance, Oberhausen, Viennale, BAMCinemaFest, Vancouver Film Festival, DocLisboa and many others. Her work has also been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Walker Art Center, Wexner Center for the Arts and other venues, including retrospectives in Argentina, Cuba, and China.
She received a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship in the Arts. In 2019, Tender Buttons Press published Lynne’s first collection of poetry Year by Year Poems.
Lynne Sachs is currently one of the artists in focus at Sheffield Doc Fest where her most recent feature documentary film, A FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO is presented alongside a curated selection of five of her earlier films.
DokuFest, International Documentary and Short Film Festival is the largest film festival in Kosova. This year marks the 19th edition of the festival and the first time DokuFest is rolling out in an online format.
A Month of Single Frames will play in theInternational Docs program.
Synopsis In 1998, filmmaker Barbara Hammer had a one-month artist residency in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The shack had no running water or electricity. While there, she shot 16mm film, recorded sounds and kept a journal. In 2018, Barbara began her own process of dying by revisiting her personal archive. She gave all of her images, sounds and writing from the residency to filmmaker Lynne Sachs and invited her to make a film with the material.
Lynne Sachs is an extraordinary filmmaker with a distinct and unique approach to documentary filmmaking. Each one of her films is an exploration into a secret hidden world as well as an experiment with the medium of visual storytelling. Currently, the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival is running a ‘Directors in Focus’ showcase of Sachs’ work where you can catch pieces like “Your Day is My Night”, “The Washing Society” and her latest film “Film About a Father Who”.
It’s been a real delight to explore Sachs’ work as part of the festival and when the opportunity arose to speak to Lynne personally, I jumped at the chance. Here’s our interview where we discuss how she approaches documentary filmmaking, her friendship with Barbara Hammer and the art of editing.
Bianca: Hello Lynne, lovely to chat to talk. I just want to say how much I’ve enjoyed exploring your work as part of the Sheffield Doc Fest “Directors in Focus”, you have such an unique approach to filmmaking. I find it to be this unusual blend of traditional documentary style filmmaking meets the avant-garde artistic style of filmmaking of allowing imagery and sound to tell the stories. How did you develop this approach and style of filmmaking, and what was it about documentary filmmaking that appealed to you as a filmmaker?
Lynne: I’ll guess I’ll start by admitting that I don’t even know if I would be able to make a traditional documentary, that might be because of when I invest myself into an investigation or a story I take such a deep dive and I am always looking for a visual or an oral method by which I can comment on that particular theme in a way that hasn’t been done before. Sometimes it’s the topic that guides me.
The more conventional approach would be to have a template or a formula or maybe even a time-limit like 58 minutes so you would have time for the commercial breaks, then you would take your subject and frame it by those expectations. However, that approach never really interested me and I wonder whether I have the skill or the commitment to do that style of filmmaking.
My desire to work in the documentary realm came from a convergence of the love of art and the love of politics. My background was as an undergraduate in history, I never expected to be an academic historian but it feeds my way of thinking. I wanted my creative juices to fly but the limitations of being a historian weren’t appealing to me.
Bianca: Did you always strive to have a personal connection with the people and the subjects you film?
Lynne:It’s very important to me to have a complex relationship with the people in my film, just like the one I would have normally with a friend. It takes work, and often in the field of filmmaking there’s the sense of jumping in as quickly as possible then leaving. You actually leave with this gift: the interaction you had with the people you filmed. You then own that gift, but those people don’t have that anymore. I think the whole process has to take a whole circle where you work to find the right participants for your film, you work on that film and then you come back to them after completion and during distribution.
With “Your Day is my Night” we worked on that film for a couple of years and it became a live performance and I was bringing the people from Chinatown, to places in New York City where they hadn’t been before. I was organising cars for them as they were older people and we couldn’t expect them to travel via Subway. I wanted them to experience that pleasure, and two years after we had finished shooting we took the film and the live performance to a public library in Chinatown where we had an afternoon matinee where all of their friends came.
It was actually quite a sad moment because one of the participants in the film had died since we made the film, so when his face came up in the film everyone in the audience started crying. So, it was a memorial for him in a way. There are ways films can function outside the function of building your career or taking you to film festivals. I really feel committed about the idea of having movies been shown on all different kinds of screens.
Bianca: People often overlook the importance of sound and audio infilmmaking because film is a visual medium. What I find fascinating about your films is that often the audio doesn’t always match up to what’s being depicted on-screen. I think this is brilliantly showcased in your latest film “Film About a Father Who” where we see one version of your father being shown but the narration is discussing a different aspect of his character.
Lynne:I just want to touch on something I hadn’t thought about, the formal connection between the way you understand a human being and the way that film works, and how you process what you see and what you later discover. I think that’s very particular to this medium. We have this notion that the visual and the sound should be married but we all know that marriage is just an agreement that can fall apart. It’s through that use of ‘falling apart’ where we begin to see that what something appears like isn’t actually what it is in reality, and we build in doubt.
I think doubt should be a part of any filmmaking experience, whether you’re talking about fiction or non-fiction, do we believe the ideology that is intact. If you’re a doubtful viewer in any way then you start to engage with it in a deeper way, you start to question everything and as a result you become more intellectually engaged. What I wanted to say about “Film About a Father Who” that there were times where maybe I was uncomfortable in a situation where I did have doubts, but I wanted to believe that things were more acceptable than they actually were and worked with how I thought a father should be.
If you think about the foundations of who we think we are as children and the notions of how we fit into that micro community it’s usually pretty transparent. However, maybe that’s no longer the case today. I used to think my family was very atypical, but now that I’ve screened the film quite a lot of people have either come up to me or written to me to share their own experiences. I think our notions of family are now more evolved than how it was when I was a kid.
Since making the film I’ve been able to have some really profound conversations with those who have watched it. Whether or not it’s your mother or father who have secrets it’s their way of protecting themselves, but it also leaves an imprint on us and we’re left with a sense of confusion about how we’re supposed to process this new information and emotions.
Bianca: The impression I got from your film was that this was not only a self-discovery for you but also a self-discovery of who your father is. It was a self discovery of a family too.
Lynne: It took me a year of going through all the videos and super-8 films and I realise I had a lot of content about my father. The traditional approach to documentary filmmaking is that you take all the footage and make a character so people leave the movie thinking they really know that person. I thought about whether that was what I really wanted to do, as what I was really interested in was the interrelationships between people and the way we yearn for a part of our parents in ourselves and how we are always looking for stability. I know I have very distinct relationships with my parents and I value that in its own way.
Bianca: What’s something you want the viewer to take away from “Film About a Father Who”?
Lynne: I’m very interested portraying the layers of expression especially in terms of being a woman, that include your anger and your rage as well as your ability to integrate forgiveness because I think it’s very hard to go on living your life if you hold onto the pain of your own rage. Forgiveness isn’t about saying that something didn’t happen, there are parts in my film where I realise that I’ve become very good at training myself to have forced amnesia. If you can find forgiveness and realize that the person who hurt you or made mistakes, made those mistakes because of the things they went through themselves that can help you move forward.
I am also interested in showing my family’s story so others can investigate their own stories. I showed the film to a group of fifteen men in their 80s who were in a fraternity with my father and all idolised him. After the film, they said to me that they wished their daughters had made a film about them which surprised me. I think it was because the film elevated my dad to a full person and his entire life was told. He came to the premiere in New York and he was happy with the film. And he’s told me that he wants to do better in the future.
Bianca: Another recent film of yours is “A Month of Single Frames”, a beautiful collaboration with the late filmmaker Barbara Hammer. How did that film come around?
Lynne: I met Barbara in the late ‘80s as we were both in San Francisco during that time. At that time and well into the 1990s, San Francisco was a mecca for experimental filmmakers. I think that’s the place where my style really evolved as it’s not a commercial film centre like New York or Los Angeles. There was a place called the Film Arts Foundation where you could go and learn different skills or edit your films on a 16mm flatbed and Barbara was there teaching a class. I took a weekend class with her and we hit it off! We became friends and both ended up moving to New York City.
Twelve years ago, Barbara found out she had ovarian cancer. She was going through chemotherapy and we would take meals to her and talk to her. She actually lived a lot longer than she thought she would. During that time we became deep friends, and I think she appreciated that me and my husband (Mark Street) were not intimidated by the word ‘cancer’. She asked Mark and me to make a film with the material she gave us when she saw her life coming to an end.
When she gave me the footage she hadn’t told me she’d also kept a journal. Her health was declining but she was quite active in terms of filmmaking in her last year, so I had to squeeze in my visits with her between chemotherapy and her trips to the Berlin Film Festival for a premiere of a film she made. And, when she went to Berlin in 2018 she lost one of her vocal chords so when we were recording her narration for the film we had to use an amplifier. What’s amazing about making a film is that it’s a sustained experience and a gift with that person you’re collaborating with. It was also a gift in the sense that we could share all that time together.
Barbara passed away in March 2019, and I’d hadn’t yet written the text you see in the film. I really wanted a way so you could dive into the film on a personal level, and on a level where I could be talking to her, the audience, the Earth, to the future and to anyone who could be watching the movie. What’s so specific about film, that it can transport you back in history but can also propel you forward in time too. I wanted there to be an active presence which is why I talk to the audience.
Bianca: That’s what is so special about “A Month of Single Frames” is that feeling of conversation between you, the audience and Barbara. In the way it felt like therapy and a precious way of capturing someone’s memory.
Lynne: We think of film as a closed system where you enter it but you don’t affect it although it may affect you in a psychological way. I wanted that system to be more open, the screen is no longer a closed system.
Bianca: Do you think we’ve lost something special about the art of shooting on film compared to how we now seem to shoot everything on digital, especially in terms of the craft of editing?
Lynne: It’s funny that you mention editing because it made me recall Dziga Vertov’s “The Man With a Movie Camera” because many people believe that the director’s wife (Yelizaveta Ignatevna Svilova) really made the film, I believe her work helped give the film it’s rhythm. There’s an image of her in the film where she’s sat at the editing table and she looks like she’s sewing. This image reminds us that analogue film was constructed in a method that was very identified with women. There has been a revived interest in the materialistic qualities of the medium and the fact you can go from something three-dimensional to something two-dimensional.
In terms of my own filmmaking, “Which Way is East” was shot all on film and so was “A Month of Single Frames” and “The Last Happy Day” was digital and film. It’s a real mix. In terms of the images I shoot on Super-8 and 16mm, well I just like them better. Digital can be so pristine. There’s a sense of physicality to analogue film. Sometimes you see a strand of hair or dust, and that’s part of the real world that we’ve left behind like a fossil.
“Film About a Father Who” is to be screened in Sheffield in Autumn, and online on Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects in parallel. The Filmmaker Focus- retrospective films are streaming now in the UK and their accessibility has been extended through August 31st.
Sheffield Doc/Fest Director, Cíntia Gil is joined by director, Lynne Sachs to discuss her films and to take questions from the audience for a live Q&A.
Filmmaker Lynne Sachs, in conversation with Festival Director Cíntia Gil, discuss 5 films that form her Director’s Focus within the Ghosts & Apparitions strand and her upcoming international premiere of Film About A Father Who which screens as part of Doc/Fest in October. Lynne Sachs’ films explore the notion of translation as a poetic and political tool for widening the world. Together with the focus, Doc/Fest presents Sachs’ video lecture My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, a fascinating journey through her themes and work.
Her films are currently available to watch on Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects and Doc/Player through August 31, 2020:
The Last Happy Day, 2009, 37’ Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam in collaboration with Dana Sachs, 1994, 33’ Your Day Is My Night, 2013, 64’ The Washing Society, co-directed by Lizzie Olesker, 2018, 44’ A Month of Single Frames, made with and for Barbara Hammer, 2019, 14’