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Letter from Bill Nichols on Investigation of a Flame

MarylightFire.still.tiff copy

Published in San Francisco Cinematheque’s monograph Lynne Sachs Retrospective 1986 – 2010

Letter from Bill Nichols
August 31, 2004

Dear Lynne,

It was such a pleasant surprise to see you again after so many years at the benefit for the Anthology Film Archives. Your work has clearly gelled into an oeuvre of some note since we were both, passingly, at San Francisco State University in the late eighties.

I am very glad you were able to send me a copy of Investigation of a Flame, your film about the destruction of draft records in Catonsville, Maryland by Daniel and Philip Berrigan and the seven others. It is quite a compelling work. I think it is extremely revealing in terms of the motivations and consequences of what took place. This was a part of the history of the 1960s that was mediated to us by papers and networks that were in a near hysteria, fueled partly by a fear that the social fabric, and the social contract, was being torn asunder by people who would not accept lies and hypocrisy, and partly by a government that was determined to impose its will on a public vulnerable to a rhetoric of fear—from the specter of Communism that time, the specter of terrorism now. The past does return, doesn’t it, but not always as farce.

I was just getting back from two years in Kenya, where I had gone to teach in a secondary school and to rethink my trajectory toward a medical career, when that and other events occurred. The assassination of Martin Luther King had taken place just before I was due to leave and the May-June events of 1968 in France were at their height. I came back partly with the optimistic thought of resuming my studies, but now in cinema, and partly with the pessimistic dread that my plans would be postponed by the draft. I was eligible but also a bit clueless about what my options were. I had heard news of draft resisters and had friends in Paris who worked with draft deserters; I knew I could go to Paris instead of back to the U.S., but I also knew it would alter the rest of my life more than I could imagine.

Events like the one you reexamine flickered past on the limited news that reached my remote village. Their function on an ethical plane of giving witness to an alternative view of community and relationships was not lost on me, not after having followed King’s efforts in some detail. But this had to be filtered out from the general hysteria, scapegoating and demonizing. I never had access to the interiority of the event, certainly not with the density and complexity that you are now able to offer. You give a delicacy to the representation of what happened that really enlivens memory and enriches history. The sensitivity and strength of the “perpetrators” is quite impressive. They know what they are doing and why and have given it such careful thought. They remain vividly aware of what they wanted to do, how intensely they wished to cause no physical harm to any individuals who may have worked at the draft center, and how visible the symbolic level of their acts had to be. You give these acts, through the archival footage and the very personal, moving testimony of those who participated, an exemplary power: they come to stand for, in your film, those acts we sometimes undertake when we are driven by conscience and a compelling need to give witness to an alternative sense of social responsibility.

I felt at times that Investigation of a Flame bore similarity to The Thin Blue Line with the poetic, evocative quality Errol Morris instills, but without the romantic overtone that his use of Philip Glass’ music imparts. You withhold that kind of musical dramatization; your film remains within a realm of historical witness and physical action that is not now, as it was not then, embroidered with the richness of musical tapestry. The actuality of the event, which in The Thin Blue Line remains, in fact, invisible since no one saw the murder that is at the heart of the film, is rendered visible again. Your rapid pans of flowers and other objects, in an evocative color that evokes the past more than a photo-realist present, have an austere, provocative quality to them. Unlike Glass’ music, whose “work” for Morris’ film is clear, these images of garden flowers challenge us to determine what “work” they do. They do not soften the sharpness of a still vital historical past. They may reduce the pleasures that one ponders upon stepping up to the box office window, but they reward in ways I am still in the process of contemplating.

What I do not need to contemplate but remember is that the efforts of people like the ones you feature did have a profound impact on me. What to do about the draft? I went back to the classes in theology I had had at Duke and to the questions of a just war that St. Augustine had raised so long ago and wound up writing an extremely long explanation of why I felt I had to request status as a conscientious objector to my own draft board on Long Island. Remarkably (because very few boards paid much heed to such requests), my request was granted and, through a series of additional vicissitudes, I was able to resume my studies and continue my opposition to the war in Vietnam without having to enter the Army. People like the Catonsville 9 had a direct influence on the shape of my life and you have now given the shape of their actions and the clarity of their thoughts a brilliant frame. It is a slightly better world now that your film is part of it. Thanks again, so much, for sending it to me.

Bill Nichols is an historian and theoretician of documentary film.

Lynne Sachs Retrospective in San Francisco and Berkeley April 10-14, 2010


States of Belonging: A Lynne Sachs Retrospective

Working since the mid-1980s, variously on lyrical formal shorts and long form experimental documentary, Lynne Sachs’ body of film and video work has explored the relationships between individual memory and experience in the context of large historical forces. Foregrounding personal history and autobiography, Sachs exalts the intimate gesture as perhaps the most heroic of poetic and political acts. With a keen grasp on cultural theory and media history, Sachs’s films avoid academicism in their celebration of life and mindful political engagement, presenting complex pictures of the world with lyrical grace and even joy.

Lynne Sachs: States of Belonging is a four-part retrospective of the filmmaker’s work, presented as a collaboration between San Francisco Cinematheque, Pacific Film Archive, ATA’s Other Cinema and Oddball Film + Video. The series in accompanied by a limited-edition monograph—available at screenings—featuring original writings by Susan Gerhardt, Kathy Geritz, Lucas Hilderbrand and Bill Nichols.

States of Belonging, program one
Saturday, April 10 at 8:30 pm
Other Cinema at Artist Television Access
992 Valencia St., San Francisco


Curated by Craig Baldwin

Inspired by the stories of Argentine writer Julio Cortazar, yet blended with the realities of contemporary Latin America, here’s the world debut of Wind in Our Hair, Lynne Sachs’ experimental narrative about four girls discovering themselves through a fascination with the trains that pass by their house. A story of early-teen anticipation and disappointment, the 42-min. lyric is circumscribed by a period of profound Argentine sociopolitical unrest. Shot with 16mm, Super 8mm, and Regular 8mm film and video, the rites of passage proceed from train tracks to sidewalks, into costume stores, kitchens, and into backyards in the heart of today’s Buenos Aires. PLUS: In her House of Science: a museum of false facts, Sachs suggests that the mind/body split so characteristic of Western thought is particularly troubling for women, who may feel themselves moving between the territories of the film’s title—private, public, and idealized space—without wholly inhabiting any of them. The film explores society’s conceptions of woman through home movies, personal reminiscences, staged scenes, found-footage and voice-over. ALSO Lynne’s Atalanta: 32 Years Later; Noa, Noa; and Photograph of Wind.
Wind in Our Hair (Con viento en el pelo) (2010); Atalanta: 32 Years Later (2006); Noa, Noa (2006, with Noa Street-Sachs); Photograph of Wind (2001); The House of Science: a museum of false facts (1991)

States of Belonging, program two
Sunday, April 11 at  8:00pm
Oddball Films
275 Capp St.  San Francisco


“10 Short Films by Lynne Sachs (1986 -2010)”
Curated by Stephen Parr

Lynne Sachs short works reverberate with the distilled quality of  poetic moments. From her early work in 16mm film in the 1980s through her later works utilizing the immediacy of videotape, the texture of 8mm film and expanded pallet of digital editing techniques, Sachs’ works celebrate the ordinary and the profound, mapping and defining unmined territories of the human psyche.  Elegantly fusing her varied influences of  literature, painting  and collage into a inviting yet deep and personal space these shorts bristle with the feeling of newly discovered modes of perception and expressions of movement in time. (Stephen Parr)

Still Life With Woman and Four Objects (1986); Drawn and Quartered (1986) Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning (1987); Window Work ( 2001); The Small Ones (. 2006); Atalanta (2006); Georgic for a Forgotten Planet (2008); Cuadro por Cuardo en Montevideo (with Mark Street, 2009); XY Chromosome Project (2006-2009); Task of the Translator (2010)

States of Belonging, program three
Tuesday, April 13 at 7:30 pm
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft Way
Between College and Telegraph, Berkeley

“Dotted Lines: Women Filmmakers Connect the Past and the Present”
Curated by Kathy Geritz

Lynne Sachs has been making films for twenty-five years, shifting between short, lyrical works and longer experimental documentaries, all distinguished by her beautiful camerawork and poetic associations. Her most recent film, The Last Happy Day, is a portrait of a distant cousin, Sandor Lenard, whose life was shaped by war and marked by his unusual pursuits. A Jewish doctor living in Hungary, he fled the Nazis in 1938, relocating to Italy. After he later moved to Brazil, he translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin. His story is revealed through letters and interviews, punctuated by scenes from Winnie the Pooh acted out by Sachs’s children and their friends. Which Way Is East, made fifteen years earlier, chronicles Sachs’s trip to Vietnam to visit her sister Dana; the pair traveled together from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. Impressionistic yet keenly observed, the film reveals details of life during and after the Vietnam War, interspersed with Vietnamese proverbs and voice-over remarks by both Lynne and Dana as well as Vietnamese friends. Both films are part of a larger series, I Am Not a War Photographer, and along with the short cine-poem Tornado, they provide unique perspectives on the personal impact of war.(Kathy Gertiz)

Which Way is East (1994);  The Last Happy Day (2009);  Tornado (2001)

States of Belonging, program four
Wednesday, April 14 at 7:30 pm
SF Cinematheque at California College of the Arts
1111 Eighth Street (near 16th), San Francisco

The Last Happy Day  and Investigations of a Flame
Curated by Steve Polta

A frequent theme in Sachs’ work is the aftermath of war and its lingering effects on multi-generational families. Investigation of a Flame is a work of poetic investigative journalism which explores a 1968 Vietnam War protest in suburban Baltimore. Blending archival footage of the event, period reportage and contemporary interviews with participants Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the film examines the resonances of the act over the succeeding decades. A more personal work, 2009’s The Last Happy Day portrays a distant cousin of Sachs, Sandor Lenard. A Jewish writer and doctor, Lenard fled the Nazis and, post-war, worked with the US Army to identify human remains. Later, while living in self-imposed exile in the Brazilian jungle, Lenard achieved brief fame for translating Winnie the Pooh into Latin. Incorporating excerpts from Lenard’s later letters to his estranged family, and on-screen performances by her own children, the film stands as a moving tribute to quiet heroism. Also screening: Sachs’ 2007 “collaborative update” of Chris Marker’s 1972 short Three Cheers for the Whale. (Steve Polta)

The Last Happy Day (16mm  on video, 38 min. 2009); Investigation of a Flame (45 min. color and B&W, 2001); Three Cheers for the Whale
by Chris Mark in collaboration with Lynne Sachs (17 minutes / color, english version, 2007)