Film Scratches is a blog by David Finkelstein focusing on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
Serial Seduction: Film About a Father Who (2020) by David Finkelstein
Film About a Father Who is Lynne Sachs’ absorbing feature length film about her unconventional father. She worked on the film for almost 30 years, shooting on a variety of analog and digital formats. The film begins with Lynne Sachs laboriously combing and disentangling her elderly father Ira’s long gray hair, an occasionally painful process, and the film is likewise an extensive process of trying to disentangle the many confused and hidden strands of her father’s complex relationships, hidden lives, and bewildering behavior. The examination is painful at times as well.
The film plays out as a detective story, as Lynne uncovers layer after layer of information about her father’s many contradictions and secrets. A free spirit and compulsive womanizer who spent most of his adult life picking up as many young women as he could, he pursued so many women at once that he had to keep elaborate lists and diagrams to keep track of them. Lynne admits that there are so many girls that she doesn’t even learn most of their names. Ira Sachs was adept at closing his eyes to the havoc he created in the lives of his various wives, girlfriends and children, and expert at keeping parts of his life hidden.
An extremely willful, volatile person, Ira acts on every passing desire and impulse he feels, heedless of the consequences. By contrast, Lynne’s mother and the other young women in his life seem so passive and fatalistic it is as if they don’t even know what it is like to identify one of their own needs or desires, let alone to act on it. Her mother says she didn’t make major decisions in her life, things “just happened.” She describes herself, in retrospect, as “purposefully blind” to Ira’s infidelities.
Ira’s instinct is to be courtly and attentive to all women: wives, girlfriends, daughters, his mother. They are each treated like queen for a day. Ira is seen dancing with his mother to Autumn Leaves, and her face lights up with a smile. (Perhaps this is why Lynne’s brother Ira Jr. comes across as having a more clear-eyed, less conflicted view of his dad: Ira Sr. doesn’t typically turn the charm on for men.)
A scene where Lynne discusses her parents with her brother and sister reveals that the three siblings act like close, trusting family allies. All three identify as artists: Ira Jr. is a filmmaker and Dana is a writer, and not only are they comfortable analyzing their family dynamics, they all relish it. Their father might refuse to see the uncomfortable truth of the people he has hurt, and their mother might close her eyes to her husbands philandering, but these three offspring do not believe in living an unexamined life. They have each made careers out of what amounts to a survival technique in the Sachs household: shining a light on the murky darkness.
Lynne Sachs builds her story with the consummate skill which viewers have come to expect from her films: seamlessly weaving together diverse fragments of sound and picture so that they tell a complicated and ambiguous story in a way that constantly draws you in. She circles around her elusive subject, viewing him from multiple angles, but always moving in towards the center of the story. The film’s nonlinear form, intercutting between time periods, pointedly calls attention to the disconnect between Ira’s perceptions and the real consequences of his choices.
The revelations pile up, and some of them are devastatingly ugly. Yet as Lynne brings the different branches of her family together for the film, it is clear that their frank discussions provide them with a powerful source of trust and healing. The film’s title, a reference to a Yvonne Rainer film, perfectly sums up a man so full of contradictions that he is impossible to sum up. The film wisely refrains from providing judgements or pat conclusions about Ira, and it ends with Lynne and her sister realizing that forgiveness is the only possible attitude to take towards this dynamic, creative father who offered inspiration and dismay in equal measure. When you dig deep enough into family histories, they can seem like an unending chain of cruelties suffered and inflicted in turn, but Lynne Sachs’ spirit of intelligent compassion lights up the film, giving voice to the anger and pain, but also providing the space and distance needed to recover from it. It’s a spectacular gift to the viewer, and one that will provide insight even to those with more conventional parents.
Filmmaker Lynne Sachs, in conversation with Festival Director Cíntia Gil, will 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.
Prolific and poetic, experimental and documentary filmmaker, Lynne Sachs, lights up this year’s online edition of Sheffield Doc|Fest with a mini-retrospective, annotated lecture and her new feature, Film About a Father Who (2020).
It happened less than ten years ago, when she was working on Your Day is My Night (2013): Lynne Sachs located the performance within her process and set out to challenge/change it. The idea was to gain participation, collaboration. Instead of turning a camera on her subjects – when they would perform instead of reveal – she decided to include them in the construction and craft of her filmmaking; when you point a camera at a subject, you can’t capture, you command. And power, though useful for its authoritative and therefore convincing tone, is also deeply problematic. In a way, what Sachs is doing is quietly radical. Not just because it is an attempt to remove the hierarchy inherent in documentary since Robert Flaherty started its discourse (Sachs is also a Flaherty Seminar alumnus) but, also, because it is an admission and undermining of her own intrinsic and pervasive authorial voice. It’s ambitious, but that’s also where a kind of freedom resides. The ambition is so substantial that it alone is enough; it doesn’t matter if she succeeds. In this way, Sachs’ later work, from Your Day is My Night onwards, is less about subjects and more about process.
She’s been making films for more than thirty years, but the mini retrospective screening as part of this year’s online edition of Doc/Fest selects moments from the last decade to fit a through-line about Ghosts and Apparitions. I’m not interested in these, as they could be found almost anywhere, and in anyone’s work. In Sachs’ work all I find – and all I want to find – is respectful practice. There is more than just an artist at work, here, there is a generous exploration at play.
Before Sachs experienced her epiphany, she made Which Way is East? (1994), an arresting, painterly exploration of Vietnam. As one of the first American filmmakers granted permission to shoot in Vietnam, Sachs had the weight of responsibility and expectation on her shoulders. Despite this, the film has a sense of lightness and freedom, especially in its aesthetic and aural approach: it begins with a stilted photographic trajectory, literally rendering the moving image as a series of broad brush strokes, while the almost endlessness of the cicadas’ chirrup pitch moves the image along, though not necessarily forward. It is a sensory introduction, rather than a history lesson, and here Sachs’ work is at its most successful, inviting us, as viewers and listeners to be in this depiction of Vietnam, not to look at or hear a presentation of it. Eventually, Sachs and her camera will arrive somewhere static, she will then switch to a show and tell mode, which is informative but less awesome. She flits between the two with relative ease for the remainder of the film, letting her observations and those of her sister, Dana, interpolate the experience. It is as much about making her own memories as it is the chasing of those left behind by others. Her sister’s remarks are among the most revelatory, “I hate the camera,” she muses, “The world feels too wide for the lens and if I try to frame it, I only cut it up.” Holding a camera and being a filmmaker are not one and the same, “Lynne sees it through the eyes of its lens,” she continues, “It’s as if she understands Vietnam better when she looks at it through the lens of her camera.” For Sachs, the practice has always been the pursuit. She instinctively knew, even before it occurred to her laterally, to share the filmmaking in order to make it more accessible, more honest and more like the world it hopes to offer. It may have taken her another almost twenty years to fully understand and break with the idea of documentary as an act or approach, but there is a silver lining of melancholia inside Which Way is East? It makes me wonder if 1) she already knew and 2) if the practice, though expressive and creative as an outlet is also overwhelming, as there is some sadness here.
Looking at historical resonance while also pursuing the interplay between the personal and political, Sachs can’t help but put her heart into her films. The Last Happy Day (2009) stars her own children and uses family, performance, narration, interviews and archive to construct a story about stories. For some, it’s a story about Sachs’ relative, Sandor (Alexander) Lenard, a Hungarian Jew who fled to Rome and later Brazil, where he translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin. Lenard spoke thirteen different languages, and no one knew he was Jewish, so the film is also about what we do and do not know, and how we might go about trying to unpick the constructions and obstructions therein. To demonstrate the difficulty to (re)telling history, Sachs has whole through-lines about bones, with several stunning superimposed images that offer the fragments and the palimpsest at once. She even has one interviewee straight up tell us, “I don’t know anymore what’s real and what’s fantasy,” perhaps even a little too direct for a doc, but ironically true nonetheless, “I am not sure of the truth.”
Remembrance is also brought into question via the presence of doctored documents; literal erasure of a name lets us reflect on the ethics and truths that we can never know as so many were removed from our future before they could even make their mark. What struck me most, however, was the role of the central, yet arguably flippant, text. I wonder how the characters are in translation. Sachs’ band of performers – here, her children and their friends – act out scenes and discuss the meaning behind some of the plot points. Inevitably, they end up discussing the death drive when they get to talking about depression and Eeyore. I’ve always hated Winne the Pooh, because I thought he and many of his mates – Tigger, Rabbit, Owl and maybe even Piglet in his cowardice – were bullies, unkind to Eeyore, to whom my heart always went out. If I were Eeyore and had to live in their world, I might also desire death as an end to my depression. Even Christopher Robin didn’t seem to do anything to help, and he was a (white) human, surely the one with all the power. Could be that I remember it wrong, unsure what’s real and what’s fantasy, but in my remembrance, it is a horrible story filled with horrible characters. It’s lack of compassion makes me sad, still.
But the film itself failed to move me. It was clever and fits a bunch of paradigms that I’d call smart documentary filmmaking. I even think it’s the most obvious fit for that Ghosts and Apparitions programme title. Perhaps that is why it didn’t move me at all. It’s all a bit too neat, well thought out. Nothing incidental or imperfect. No rough edges. But then I watched The Washing Society(2017, co-directed with Lizzie Olesker) and everything changed.
Thanks to Sachs’ newfound process of inclusive filmmaking, with her subjects, The Washing Society feels like a story from, not about New York City laundromats. Visiting over fifty laundries, Sachs tells us, “Sometimes they told us to stop, other times no one notices.” This is how her filmmaking has fundamentally changed: it’s not a process of requesting permission and setting up a tripod to stage an interview, it’s being in the space, with the people, and finding out what the story is as it unravels. Owing to this shift, the performative set pieces within the film – be it actors reading lines, narrated poetic interventions, or even Sachs’ fascination and lingering look at the way light dances around her subject(s) – are seamlessly integrated into an otherwise seemingly observatory mode. What I liked most was that it felt personal, private, public and political at once; the invisible labour of laundry workers is made visible, while the objects we wear to cover and conceal are laid bare, tossing and turning in machines after their toil, until they are, eventually, ready to perform their duty once more. Clothes are the ultimate in public and private markers; from the hours and loads of labour used to make, market and sell them before they even become hours and loads of labour to clean, fold and return to their often-oblivious wearers. I watched, at home, folding my own laundry, mostly that of my almost one-year-old son, painfully aware as I am that domestic labour (performed here whilst undertaking professional labour) is almost always unseen and almost never remunerated. I loved this film not because it struck a chord, but because it could; its poetry sparing and its humanity, honesty and openness laid out with generosity and as a gesture to the many faces that have served and are fast disappearing from NY’s many regenerated neighbourhoods as an app and its collection truck counterpart take over the (barely) visible nature of the business.
It’s an important reminder, from Sachs, to think about what is not seen, whenever we reflect on what we have seen. Your Day is My Night (2013) is not just a film; it has had live stage performances and it is alive in the lives of those it features. Beds and stages and monologues and movement and projection are all elements of this docu-dramatic staged record of what it means to be more than how we are recognised. Spanning the deep economic issues of the US, and the failed reality of the outwardly boastful American Dream, all the way to micro-communities and what ‘home’ might ever mean, Your Day is My Night doesn’t show but does reveal the alienation inherent in both Chinese and American society. In making this film, and the live performances that span its production life, Sachs really got to know her collaborators – well, as well as she could with the bridge of a translator. Language can be a powerful separator, and Sachs hints at this in the film by bringing in an actress (Veraalba Santa, who also features in The Washing Society) to play the part of a Puerto Rican immigrant. It’s not Sachs, but her questioning and unease is represented in Santa’s performative role.
In her lecture, My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, Sachs admits that she is still grappling with the extent to which she should express herself, and the subject. Her body may not be present in this film (it features heavily in many of her earlier, more experimental and material works), but exposing herself has served as a form of generosity, especially where she is asking an actress to expose themselves bare, as in The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991).
Bodies exist but so do thoughts and feelings. And suicide is genuinely considered as an option when old age sets in for those who have no real ‘home’ to go to – neither a citizen of the US or China, there is a unique and pugilistic purgatory for some. Every round is a beating, but fight is what you came to do. I kept thinking of Charles Yu’s fantastic new book, Interior Chinatown (2020) as I watched it. Yu’s book is so many things – maybe everything – a documentary as a book, certainly. A uniquely crafted satire of Hollywood, racism in the United States, and the slippage between screenwriting and prose, Yu’s book looks at the stereotypes of ‘Generic Asian Man’, ‘Background Oriental Male’, ‘Kung Fu Guy’ and more. The people in Sachs’ film feel like characters, at times. Maybe because their lives, like the characters in Yu’s book, are enmeshed with the performance of their parameters – Chinatown in NYC, stuck in a stereotyped nightmare, “I was very aware of the narrow spectrum of representation of the denizens of New York City’s Chinatown,” Sachs tells Paolo Javier in an interview for BOMB Magazine, “Those kinds of Hollywood images haunted me really. In fact, when I first chose the seven people who are featured in my film, I realized that most of them had already worked as extras for the movie industry at some point in their lives.” Fictions and realities reside, side by side, sometimes even in the same bed, sleeping in shifts.
Sachs can’t, shouldn’t and thankfully doesn’t separate these two elements in her films. She works with them. And, now, in her more recent work, she allows the process to become the practice. In her most recent film screening in the programme focus at Doc|Fest, A Month of Single Frames(2019), a work pulling together various pieces of Barbara Hammer’s personal archive – 16mm film footage, journal entries and recorded stories – Sachs lets decisions leak into the final edit, allows us to understand how images move as time lapses. For Hammer as for Sachs as for an audience, frame rates and time passing is only relevant insofar as it is a part of the process that makes up such a thing as a filmmaking practice. It is not important when it occurs, only that it does. In that way, the film is not an archive or an object to be examined or understood. It is the act of holding those things, that person, their feelings, their being.
In this way, Film About a Father Who (2020) is her greatest achievement yet. Digging into far more than the family archive, Sachs takes footage and feelings that span her entire life to create a portrait, not of her father, but of “complicit ignorance” and how pervasive lies of omission might permeate both films and lives, through their intrinsic and insidious power dynamic. Her father is many things, among them a philanderer. Much was uncovered, but he withheld more. This is the role of structure and authority, the act of patriarchy and the act of whomsoever holds power. In this film, it is clear that her father is not the only one with power to play with – his mother, Maw-Maw, is just as commanding, especially as the puller of purse-strings, whose judgement has the ability to grant or take away knowledge, access, identity; family, truth and more. This is what Sachs has been working on all her life because it is the process of uncovering her power and confronting herself. Her aim to frame truth and authenticity will always be compromised by the reality of the moment that the camera is turned on, be it for family or strangers. In Film About a Father Who, Sachs admits that she is filming as a way of finding transparency. It is the ultimate in searching for cinematic veracity. She finds something beautiful and deeply moving, here. Speaking about the differences between her parents, she uses grammar as a metaphor. By extension, her own practice can be understood as a process of grammatic excellence; each thought, memory, scene, time and space given pause and punctuated by still more dancing light.
Reflecting on the impact of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage and his ground-breaking film Window Water Baby Moving (1959), Sachs understands her practice as the unification of art and life, “As a mom and an artist, I was extremely inspired by the way that he integrated his family into his daily practice as an artist. If you separate the two, both suffer.” On her own website, she further imagines “a list of possible lectures one might give in conjunction with the screening of this film [Window Water Baby Moving]. I offer them to you as a vehicle by which to ponder the last forty years of American cultural history.” There are twenty-three. I won’t list them, here. But they did get me thinking about possible lectures one might give in conjunction with the screenings of Sachs’ films. Here’s five of my suggestions.
In Defense of Poetry
The Collaborative Moment
Towards an Understanding of Dancing Light
The Camera as Pencil; Drawing in the Margins
For the past three decades, experimental doc-maker Lynne Sachs has been collaborating with those both behind, and in front of, her lens. Whether recording encounters on her way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi with her co-director sister Dana (1994’s Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam); or using (her own) children’s performance to mine the life of a distant relative, a Jewish doctor who went from fleeing the Nazis to translating Winnie the Pooh into Latin in Brazil (2009’s The Last Happy Day); or getting to know the undocumented workers sharing «shift beds» in NYC’s Chinatown (2013’s Your Day Is My Night) and the immigrants and people of color who wash and dry and fold throughout the metropolis (2018’s The Washing Society, co-directed with Lizzie Olesker); or simply revisiting a moment in time on Cape Cod «with and for» the late great Barbara Hammer, incorporating the feminist filmmaker’s personal archive into her process of dying (2019’s A Month of Single Frames).
And from June 10 – July 10 these five diverse works will be shared online in the «Ghosts & Apparitions» section of this year’s virtual Sheffield Doc/Fest. (Sachs’ video lecture My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World will also accompany the retrospective. While her 2020 feature Film About a Father Who – a sprawling, 35-year-spanning portrait of the hedonistic bon vivant icon of Park City that is her (and too many others’) dad, and which opened this year’s Slamdance Film Festival – will have its international premiere in Sheffield in October).
So how did this retrospective come about? How did you and Sheffield Doc/Fest decide which films to screen?
During the early weeks of the pandemic, Sheffield Doc/Fest director Cíntia Gil and I were talking (through Zoom) about our shared fascination with cinema and translation. We are both intrigued by the passive approach to transforming one language into another that comes with the act of subtitling. Generally speaking, when audiences for foreign films from anywhere in the non-Anglo world start reading their English translations, they simply stop listening to the nuances of the original language.
From my 1994 essay film Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam to my 2018 hybrid documentary The Washing Society, I have tried to challenge this seamless leap from an «other» language to the more dominant English by playing with text onscreen and leaving some sections untranslated. Ever since I read Walter Benjamin’s profoundly insightful essay The Task of the Translator, I’ve tried to activate the act of reading, with the hope of creating a new relationship to language and listening in cinema.
Film About A Father Who seems almost a culmination of your «filmmaking as family affair» approach to the work. How do you see it in relation to the many other films you’ve made throughout your career?
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.
With this in mind, I have also consistently turned my camera toward my own life. It’s an A/B/A/B kind of pattern. Looking out. Looking in. Between 1984 and 2019 I shot VHS tape, Super 8mm and 16mm film, mini DV, and digital video with my dad. It was a way to find meaning in the delights, the rage, and the forgiveness that were all so much a part of being his daughter. A few hours after Film About a Father Who premiered as the opening night movie at Slamdance 2020, I thought to myself, «Tomorrow will be the first day of the rest of my life.»
The Washing Society and Your Day Is My Night are incredibly timely considering the pandemic has finally exposed our hidden workforce – which has suddenly gone from society viewing these immigrants and people of color as expendable to «essential.» So have you thought about how the current collision of the coronavirus with racial inequity might best be documented to bring about lasting change?
Another convention of the documentary filmmaking practice is that you need to buy a plane ticket to make a movie, that your job is to make the exotic familiar. This conceit for working with reality conflicts with the notion that you can spend long, sustained periods of time with the people in your movies. They can move from being your subjects to being your collaborators if you are able to shoot your film in the place where you live.
As a documentary filmmaker, I am always reckoning with what it means to shoot from the outside in…
With both The Washing Society (co-directed with playwright Lizzie Olesker) and Your Day Is My Night, I was determined to explore the nature of work and housing in the place where I live, New York City, over a long period of production. Both films investigate the experiences of immigrants, people in service jobs, people who are at the core of what makes a metropolis like this function and thrive. During the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent quarantine, white middle-class citizens were profoundly dependent on these service workers, predominantly people of color, who delivered food and cared for the sick. Maybe watching these films on shift-bed residents in Chinatown and laundry workers throughout the city will give viewers a chance to think about another layer of living in our daunting now.
You’ve tread similar doc territory as Julia Reichert who, along with her husband Steven Bognar, just won the Academy Award last year for American Factory. Do you think there’s an increased hunger from the general public lately for films exploring labor issues, the dignity of work?
Julia and Steve are great heroes of mine. Their commitment to depicting the lives of working people is part of a recent obsession in our culture for understanding the great divide between those who make, those who distribute, and those who receive. British filmmaker Ken Loach’s newest feature Sorry We Missed You gives us an equally profound window into the lives of the people who deliver packages.
Looking back a bit, I am indebted to Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke whose 2008 hybrid feature 24 City guided me toward seeing the factory as a context for organizing, performing, and exploring the collective work experience. While making The Washing Society I tried not to gasp in horror when I realized that the laundry workers I was filming were actually folding thousands of articles of clothing in one day. I want my viewers, who might indeed be their customers, to recognize the pain and struggle that a worker might feel.
I also make a point of collaborating with related worker-supported organizations like the Laundry Workers Center. I shoot video documentation of their protests or invite their organizers to my screenings so they can speak about their current activism.
Your work is so reliant on close observation, on personal encounters with those in front of your lens. So what does filmmaking look like for you in a post-pandemic world?
You’re so right. I thrive on finding some kind of intimacy with my filmmaking process, either through the lens or through my sustained engagement with the people in my films. I think that the convention of relying on the face, on the ability of an actor to articulate an emotion, is so overrated. A deep connection with a film can be found via a barely registered voice, two hands breaking a bean at a kitchen table, a glimpse of skin under the shower. These quotidian moments offer a viewer an entry point, a place to feel a part of the complexity of the cinematic moment.
Stuck at home over the last three months like everyone else, I attempted to throw out things I no longer needed or wanted. I found a bag of black shark’s teeth given to me by an ex-boyfriend, some old red beads, and my collection of snow globes. My adult daughter Noa and I made a film together, which is now a fossil in a way, of our quarantine.
This week I left New York and drove to North Carolina. En route home, I visited Richmond, Virginia where I filmed the desecration of so many Confederate monuments. I am currently making an experimental documentary on Ida B. Wells, co-directed with historian Tera Hunter. No doubt the video I shot on the way home will find its way into this film. For me, life and filmmaking are very intertwined.
A chapter in a continuing stream of work by an experimental, highly personal film-maker
Dir. Lynne Sachs. US. 2020. 74 mins.
Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who begins and ends with images of the director cutting her elderly father’s tangled hair. This inescapably suggests an attempt to get into the man’s head, but that is precisely what Sachs’s film does not do. Described by the film-maker towards the end as neither a portrait nor a self-portrait, this documentary essay explores the complexities of a disparate family and a nexus of problems revolving around a wayward, unconventional, elusive patriarch.
Through its depiction of Ira, the film indirectly sketches a picture of a generation of American males whose lives were changed by the radical ideals of the 60s but who remained no less patriarchal for all that
First screened at Slamdance, the film receives its international premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest alongside a selection of shorts by Sachs, which should give context to a documentary that is formidable in its candour and ambition, but which many viewers may find frustratingly elusive in its eschewal of a more conventional expository style.
Named after Yvonne Rainer’s 1974 work Film About a Woman Who…, and inspired by the narrative approach of Heinrich Böll’s novel Group Portrait With A Lady, Sachs’s film gradually unpacks the mysteries of her large family, and the relationship between the nine children and their their father. Now in his 80s, and seen on film and video over several decades, Ira Sachs Sr. is a Park City businessman, sometime hotelier and hippie bon vivant, a lover of the great outdoors who has clearly led the freewheeling life he wanted, but at the expense of those around him. The film uses footage, both new and old, including material from home movies shot over decades in formats including 8mm, 16mm, VHS and digital – the bulk of the footage shot by Ira Sr, Lynne Sachs and her brother Ira Sachs Jr, the director whose own films include Little Men and Love Is Strange.
Early on, Lynne’s mother Diane talks about her marriage to and divorce from Ira, seen in early footage as a clean-cut middle-class suburbanite. The picture gets more dense as we learn more about Ira’s enthusiastic womanising and tendency to surround himself with much younger partners. A second wife, Diana, is seen in tears, uncertain as to how her marriage went wrong, while another girlfriend, Mallory Chaffin, offers her own frank testimony. A picture builds up of a sprawling extended family– with another sister, Beth Evans, turning up towards the end, having been the secret relative that, for 20 years, the ‘official’ Sachs siblings didn’t even know about.
One can’t help suspecting that at the root of the story – and perhaps of Ira Sr’s problematic personality and emotional opacity – is his mother Rose, a.k.a. ‘Maw-maw’, a formidable, forbidding woman who clearly loves her son, yet thoroughly disapproves of his lifestyle to the extent of regarding him as “a cripple… as if he was born an idiot.”
Through its depiction of Ira, the film indirectly sketches a picture of a generation of American males whose lives were changed by the radical ideals of the 60s but who remained no less patriarchal for all that – although the resounding conclusion here is that this oddly detached, possibly damaged man remains unknowable, inaccessible even to those closest to him. As Lynne Sachs herself says at the end, the film is neither a portrait nor a self-portrait, but “my reckoning with the conundrum of our asymmetry” as a family.
Fragmentary construction, and the refusal of a too clearly defined narrative framework – despite occasional voice-over by Sachs – can make the film feel somewhat self-enclosed. Viewers may well feel like outsiders at a family council, having to puzzle over connections for ourselves, despite captions identifying participants. Nevertheless, it is perhaps in the nature of such a ‘reckoning’ that it may make few concessions to the outside observer; and as the completion of what Sachs sees as a trilogy, following States of UnBelonging (2005) and The Last Happy Day (2009), the film might indeed be best understood as one chapter in a continuing stream of work by an experimental, highly personal film-maker.
An old question for humans is ‘how can we make visible what is invisible, sometimes only somatic, sometimes a faded memory, sometimes just a dream’? In our programme, transitional processes are present and relevant: from forgetfulness to remembrance, from past into present, from the individual into the collective realms. Architecture and political iterations of space in Concrete Forms of Resistance, This Means More or The Kiosk; memories and the materialization of haunting stories in The Tunnel, Deep Waters, Aganai, They Whisper But Sometimes Scream, Truth or Consequences, The Metamorphosis of Birds, Santikhiri Sonata; love and death in Mon Amour, Point and Line in Plane, Dying Under Your Eyes. Work, in relation to the mourning of a known order of things – a community of miners in Spain in Work Or to Whom Does the World Belong, or a lost Russia hijacked by global resource exploitation in Karabash. Ghosts & Apparitions is also about experimenting with the cinematic forms and narratives, questioning what documentary can be. Frem is a voyage outside the anthropocentric perspective over landscape and nature, and All That Is Forgotten In An Instant builds an intricate journey between words, translations, and political landscapes. Ascending Ballard Down collates materials for a reflection on art and landscape, and A New England Document brings together a critique of the colonialist tradition of Ethnography and the art of documentation. On A Clear Day You Can See The Revolution From Here explodes official discourses on a country’s context and history. Yãmĩyhex: The Women-Spirit exists within a tradition where the documentation of life follows the materialization of myths and visions. We present an online focus on Lynne Sachs, whose latest film, Film About A Father Who, will be screened in Into the World, in October.
Today Sheffield Doc/Fest begins its festival with the international premiere of my feature Film About a Father Who along with a “spotlight” on six of my films. “Two filmmakers have inspired a special focus: Simplice Ganou and Lynne Sachs” From very different regions of the globe (Burkina Faso and USA), with very different ways of filming and telling stories, both are filmmakers obsessed with the possibility of encountering the other, of building bonds with other humans through their camera, and translating that into cinematic beauty.”
“Drawing on her vast body of works from the past 30 years, we will present a curated selection of films by Lynne Sachs, focusing on the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping and reinterpreting filmic language. This focus will be part of the online Ghosts & Apparitions film strand.”
In the lead up to revealing our full official selection for 2020 on 8 June, we would like to announce:
the theme of our annual retrospective: Reimagining the Land, curated by Christopher Small.
and three special focuses:
a screening in tribute to the late French West Indies film pioneer Sarah Maldoror;
a focus on American artist Lynne Sachs;
a focus on Burkina Faso filmmaker Simplice Ganou.
Focus on Lynne Sachs
Drawing on her vast body of works from the past 30 years, we will present a curated selection of films by Lynne Sachs, focusing on the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping and reinterpreting filmic language. This focus will be part of the online Ghosts & Apparitions film strand.
Five Lynne Sachs films ranging from 1994 – 2018 – mostly involving creative collaboration with others – will feature as part of our online programme from 10 June.
Her latest film, Film About a Father Who, offers a complex portrait of Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering businessman from Park City, shot over a period of 35 years, and will make its International Premiere in Sheffield in October, and following that, online, as part of Into The World Film Strand.
Together with the focus, we will present 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.
Lynne Sachs focus, in Ghosts & Apparitions online: Drawing on her vast body of works from over the past 30 years, we will present a curated selection of films by Lynne Sachs, focusing on the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping and reinterpreting filmic language. Tensions arise from the filmmaker’s memories of Vietnam as a tragic place of war in Which Way Is East…; The Last Happy Day is a portrait of a man who translated “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin and reconstructed the remains of American soldiers; Your Day Is My Night tells of places in New York inhabited by immigrant workers and shaped by their lives and stories; the translation of Barbara Hammer’s images and sounds on a deserted landscape become a poem for her deceased friend in A Month of Single Frames. If translation can be considered the job of filmmaking, these works become a poetic and political tool for widening our view of the world and touching on its complexity, rendering it intimate and available for thought. Between them – Theatre, performance, music and an extremely sensitive and tender camera – compose a body of work that becomes more relevant each day.
WHICH WAY IS EAST: NOTEBOOKS FROM VIETNAM Lynne Sachs (in collaboration with Dana Sachs), USA, 1994, 33 min
“A frog that sits at the bottom of a well thinks that the whole sky is only as big as the lid of a pot.”
Two American sisters travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, followed by their own ghosts and those of local memories. On their way, they meet a country and its richness – strangers, translations, parables and stories, in a complex landscape. History is put into perspective, as each conversation becomes a true encounter: uncountable possible words to translate what we see and what we hear. The Vietnam they knew from TV is only a tiny part of this world to which they now decide to pay attention.
THE LAST HAPPY DAY Lynne Sachs, USA, 2009, 37 min
A portrait of Sandor (Alexander) Lenard, a Hungarian medical doctor and a distant cousin of Sachs. In 1938 Lenard, a writer with a Jewish background, fled the Nazis to Rome. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army Graves Registration Service hired him to reconstruct the bones of dead American soldiers. Eventually he found himself in Brazil where he translated “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin, an eccentric task that catapulted him to brief world-wide fame. Personal letters, abstracted war imagery, home movies, interviews, and a children’s performance create an intimate meditation on the destructive power of war.
YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT Lynne Sachs, USA, 2013, 64 min
Since the early days of New York’s Lower East Side tenement houses, working class people have shared beds, making such spaces a fundamental part of immigrant life. A “shift-bed” is an actual bed that is shared by people who are neither in the same family nor in a relationship. It’s an economic necessity brought on by the challenges of urban existence. Such a bed can become a remarkable catalyst for storytelling as absolute strangers become de facto confidants. As the bed transforms into a stage, the film reveals the collective history of Chinese immigrants in the USA, a story not often documented.
THE WASHING SOCIETY Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker, USA, 2018, 44 min
When you drop off a bag of dirty laundry, who’s doing the washing and folding? The Washing Society brings us into New York City laundromats and the experiences of the people who work there. With a title inspired by the 1881 organization of African-American laundresses, The Washing Society investigates the intersection of history, underpaid work, immigration, and the sheer math of doing laundry. Dirt, skin, lint, stains, money, and time are thematically interwoven into the very fabric of the film, through interviews and observational moments. With original music by sound artist Stephen Vitiello.
A MONTH OF SINGLE FRAMES Lynne Sachs, made with and for Barbara Hammer, USA, 2019, 14 min
In 1998, filmmaker Barbara Hammer had a one-month artist residency in the C Scape Duneshak which is run by the Provincetown Community Compact in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. While there, she shot 16mm film with her Beaulieu camera, recorded sounds with her cassette recorder and kept a journal. In 2018, Barbara began her own process of dying by revisiting her personal archive. She gave all of her Duneshack images, sounds and writing to filmmaker Lynne Sachs and invited her to make a film with the material.
International Premiere of Lynne Sachs’s latest film, as part of Into The World screenings in October:
FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO
Lynne Sachs, USA, 2020, 74 min
Over a period of 35 years, Sachs shot varied footage of her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering Utah businessman. This is her attempt to understand the web that connects child to parent and sister to sibling. With a nod to the Cubist renderings of a face, Sachs’ cinematic exploration offers simultaneous, sometimes contradictory, views of one seemingly unknowable man who is publicly the uninhibited center of the frame yet privately ensconced in secrets. Sachs as a daughter discovers more about her father than she had ever hoped to reveal.
Cinema. Conversazione con la regista e artista americana, a cui il festival Sheffield/Doc ha dedicato un focus. «Quando il comune di Memphis lanciò un programma di integrazione per studenti, molte famiglie bianche preferirono mandare i figli alle scuole private invece che in quelle nei quartieri neri»
Nativa del Tennessee, laureata in storia alla Brown di New York poi in cinema alla San Francisco State, la cineasta sperimentale Lynne Sachs ha elaborato tecniche e linguaggi personali sin da quando nel 1987 prese in mano la sua prima cinepresa 16mm e si inventò un modo per dividere il fotogramma in quattro parti. Il risultato sono i 4 minuti di Drawn and Quartered: due corpi nudi e il desiderio di filmare una donna (se stessa) oltre le convenzioni del «piacere visivo» maschile. È stata poi allieva e collaboratrice di Bruce Conner, Trinh Minh-ha, Chris Marker e con il marito Mark Street ha nutrito per anni un’amicizia con Barbara Hammer a cui recentemente ha dedicato il corto
A Month of Single Frames (premio a Oberhausen 2020) composto di immagini girate anni prima da Hammer stessa e affidatele per un uso creativo. In questi giorni, lo Sheffield Doc/Fest dedica a Sachs un focus incentrato sulla traduzione «come pratica d’incontro con l’altro e di rielaborazione del linguaggio filmico» che propone online (sheffdocfest.com) cinque opere realizzate tra il 1994 e il 2019 e una videolecture sul suo «cinema somatico». In ottobre sarà poi proiettato l’ultimo lungo Film about a Father Who, ritratto a schegge di un padre larger than life: imprenditore e bohémien, seduttore seriale con sei matrimoni e nove figli (tra cui il regista Ira Jr.).
Nel corso di una videochiamata che la coglie in visita alla sorella Dana in North Carolina, le chiediamo come nasce la sua riflessione filmica sull’alterità: «Sono cresciuta a Memphis dove la metà della popolazione è nera. Avevo quattordici anni quando il comune lanciò un programma di integrazione per favorire lo spostamento degli studenti bianchi verso scuole di quartieri a maggioranza nera e viceversa. Quindi presi il bus per andare alla scuola pubblica dall’altra parte della città mentre, pur di evitarlo, molte famiglie bianche decisero di iscrivere i figli a scuole private.
Per la prima volta mi ritrovai a essere ’minoranza’ e questo mi aprì gli occhi. Anni dopo, tornai a casa per girare Sermons and Sacred Pictures (1989), un documentario sul reverendo e filmmaker afroamericano L.O. Taylor che aveva lasciato ore e ore di audio e 16mm della vita quotidiana nella comunità nera tra gli anni ’30 e ’40. Mi ritrovai ancora una volta ’altra’ rispetto i miei soggetti, cosa quasi paradigmatica nel documentario, ma io volevo capire cosa significhi girare ’dal di dentro’ come Taylor. Quando i suoi soggetti guardavano in camera, vedevano qualcuno che era parte del loro mondo e mi ha fatto molto riflettere sulla posizione e il privilegio di chi filma».
Opere come «The Washing Society» o «Your Day is my Night» rendono visibili le condizioni di vita e il lavoro di soggetti negati dal razzismo senza feticizzare la miseria ma mostrando il modo in cui ciascuno, pur nella difficoltà, ricerca la bellezza: è una decisione estetica e politica?
Io uso le immagini per esprimere tensioni e suscitare il dubbio senza però dire mai cosa penso o cosa sia giusto pensare. Viviamo circondati da immagini seducenti concepite unicamente per il consumo, da usare e poi gettare, l’estetica che m’interessa invece è quella in cui si crea una dialettica o un cortocircuito tra due immagini tale da innescare un processo di rimessa in discussione delle nostre certezze, di presa di coscienza del modo in cui pensiamo o guardiamo. In questo senso effettivamente la mia ricerca estetica è anche politica.
Quanto coinvolgi i soggetti filmati nella scrittura del film? Penso al modo in cui gli abitanti della piccola casa affollata di Chinatown in «Your Day is my Night» raccontano di sé. Avrei tanti aneddoti da raccontare sul modo in cui abbiamo costruito collettivamente quel film! Dico solo questo: convenzionalmente oggi si identifica l’autorialità con chi firma la regia mentre i film sono per lo più l’esito di collaborazioni con i soggetti filmati. Un giorno, dopo aver confabulato, alcuni dei protagonisti mi dissero che il film rischiava di essere molto noioso perché parlava «solo» di loro, non c’era un plot, non c’era azione e così decisi di inserire un elemento di finzione, l’arrivo di una giovane portoricana nella casa comune. Loro poi hanno inventato i dialoghi e le reazioni prima di diffidenza e poi di confidenza che si creano tra i personaggi.
Come nasce l’idea di inserire elementi performativi in alcuni dei tuoi documentari?
C’è chi chiama «ibrido» il mio modo di lavorare ma non so se mi soddisfa. L’elemento performativo per me esplicita a beneficio di chi guarda il fatto che ogni linguaggio è rappresentazione. The Washing Society è stata una performance teatrale allestita in alcune lavanderie prima di essere un film sulle donne che lavorano in quegli esercizi. Your Day is my Night invece è un caso particolare: prima ho registrato una serie di interviste con i soggetti sulla loro migrazione, le case in cui hanno vissuto, i letti in cui hanno dormito. Le interviste sono state tradotte, montate e trasformate in una sceneggiatura e in un copione. Durante le riprese ciò mi ha permesso di concentrarmi meglio sulle immagini, su gesti irripetibili, invece che sulla parola.
In «Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam» (1994) compi con tua sorella un viaggio in un paese in cui sono ancora visibili le tracce della guerra con gli Stati Uniti. La collisione tra i vostri due sguardi rende l’idea di un paesaggio sospeso tra memoria e oblio.
Quando giravi hai pensato al lavoro di Claude Lanzmann?
Avevo visto Shoah e trovavo potente la scelta di sollecitare un archivio interiore di immagini senza riproporle esplicitamente con il rischio di validarne in un certo senso l’orrore, chissà se oggi tutti possiedono ancora quell’archivio interiore. Ora penso anche a quanto scrisse Susan Sontag sulla rappresentazione del dolore degli altri ma all’epoca non avevo articolato tutta una teoria prima di filmare. Molte cose sono emerse durante il viaggio, per esempio questa differenza tra il mio sguardo e quello di mia sorella. Nel ’92, il Vietnam aveva riaperto da poco le frontiere a noi americani e Dana viveva ad Hanoi, conosceva la lingua, era già capace di guardare avanti, oltre la guerra, mentre io guardavo indietro, vedevo la storia. C’è una scena in cui una stessa buca nel terreno per lei è un laghetto e per me il cratere di una bomba: le immagini del paesaggio non sono mai univoche.
È allora che hai conosciuto Trinh Minh-ha?
Sono stata sua studentessa a San Francisco a metà anni ’80 e poi sua collaboratrice al suono e al montaggio di Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) e Shoot for the Contents (1991). È stata la prima a cui ho mostrato il girato prima che diventasse Which Way Is East ma tutta la sua esperienza in Africa occidentale ai tempi di Reassemblage (1982) e le sue riflessioni sull’alterità e sull’essere outsider sono state importanti per me sin da quando preparavo Sermons in un periodo di intenso dibattito sociale sulla politica identitaria. Lei mi ha aiutata a pensare il posizionamento da cui si
operano le scelte di rappresentazione.
«Film about a Father Who» è un ritratto di tuo padre segnato dall’enigma. Il titolo omaggia
Lynne Sachs: Images in Dialogue, Examining our Certainties By Silvia Nugara, June 11, 2020 Il Manifesto
conversation with the American artist and director, currently featured in a
retrospective at the Sheffield Doc/Fest. “When the city of Memphis began their student
integration program, many white families chose to send their children to
private schools instead of schools in black neighborhoods.”
A Tennessee native with a history degree from Brown
University and a film degree from San Francisco State, the experimental cinéaste Lynne Sachs has been developing
her own personal techniques and expressive languages since 1987, when she
picked up her first 16mm video camera and invented a way to divide the frame
into four parts. The result was the four-minute Drawn and Quartered: two naked bodies and the desire to film a
woman (herself) beyond the usual conventions of the “male gaze.” She then
became a pupil and colleague of Bruce Conner, Trinh Minh-ha, and Chris Marker.
Together with her partner Mark Street, she was friends for many years with
Barbara Hammer, to whom she recently dedicated the short A Month of Single Frames (awarded the grand prize at Oberhausen in
2020), made up of images filmed years earlier by Hammer herself and entrusted
to Sachs to use in a creative project.
Currently, the Sheffield Doc/Fest is featuring Sachs in a retrospective, focused on “the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping filmic language.” Five films made between 1994 and 2019, along with a video lecture on her “somatic cinema,” will be presented online (sheffdocfest.com.) Then in October, her latest full-length feature, Film About a Father Who, will be screened. The film is a fragmented portrait of her larger-than-life father: an entrepreneur and bohemian, a serial womanizer who was married six times and had nine children (including the director Ira Jr.)
During a video call that found her in North Carolina
visiting her sister Dana, we asked her about the origins of her cinematic
reflections on otherness: “I grew up in Memphis, where half the population is
black. I was fourteen years old when the city launched a busing plan to send
white students to schools in majority-black neighborhoods and vice versa. So I
took the bus to go to the public school on the other side of town, while many
white families decided to avoid that by enrolling their children in private
school. I found myself being a “minority” for the first time, and it opened my
eyes. Years later, I returned home to shoot Sermons
and Sacred Pictures (1989), a documentary on the African-American reverend
and filmmaker L.O. Taylor, who had left behind hours and hours of audio and
16mm film of everyday life in the black community in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Once again
I found myself the “other” with respect to my subjects, something that’s almost
paradigmatic in documentaries, but I wanted to understand what it meant to film
“from inside” like Taylor. When his subjects looked into the camera, they saw
someone who was part of their world – it made me reflect on the position and
privilege of the one doing the filming.”
Pieces like “The
Washing Society” or “Your Day is My Night” make visible the lives and work of people
downtrodden by racism, without fetishizing their misery but rather showing how
everyone, difficult as it may be, seeks out beauty: was this an aesthetic or
I use imagery to express tensions and inspire doubts without
ever saying what I think, or what you’re supposed to think. We live surrounded
by images created solely for consumption, to be used and thrown away. But the
aesthetic that interests me is one where a dialogue or short circuit forms
between two images and makes us start a process of re-examining our
certainties, of becoming conscious of the way we think or watch. In that sense,
essentially, my aesthetic choices are also political.
How much do you
involve your filmed subjects in the writing of the film? I’m thinking of the way
the people who live in the crowded little house in Chinatown in “Your Day
is My Night” talk about themselves.
I could tell you so many stories about the way we
collectively built that film! I’ll just say this: today the convention is to think
of the “Author” as the person whose name appears in the credits as the
director. But movies are mainly the result of a collaboration with the subjects
being filmed. One day, after a chat, several of my main characters told me that
the film risked being very boring, because it was “only” about them: there was
no plot, no action. So I decided to add an element of fiction: the arrival of a
young Puerto Rican woman in their shared home. Then they created the dialogue
and the reactions – first suspicion, then trust – that arose between the
How did the idea of
including performative elements in some of your documentaries first come about?
My way of working is sometimes called a “hybrid” approach,
but I don’t know if I find that satisfying. For me, the performative element reminds
the viewer that every expressive language is representation. The Washing Society was a theatrical
production staged in several laundromats before it became a film about the
women who work in those jobs. Your Day is
My Night was an unusual case: I started by recording a series of interviews
with the subjects about their immigration, the houses they’ve lived in, the
beds they’ve slept in. The interviews were translated, pieced together, and
transformed into a screenplay and a script. During filming, that allowed me to
concentrate better on images and unrepeatable gestures instead of on words.
In “Which Way Is
East: Notebooks from Vietnam” (1994) you take a trip with your sister through a
country where the scars of war with the United States are still visible. The
collision between your two points of view evokes the idea of a landscape caught
between memory and forgetting. When you were filming, did you think about
Claude Lanzmann’s work?
I had seen Shoah, and I found it powerful the way he chose
to draw out an inner archive of images without explicitly showing them, with
the risk of validating that horror in a way. Who knows if they all still have
that inner library. Today I also think of what Susan Sontag wrote about the
representation of the pain of others, but at the time, I hadn’t fully
articulated a theory before I began filming. Many things emerged during the
trip, for example that difference between my sister’s and my perspectives. Vietnam
had opened its borders to Americans in 1992 and Dana lived in Hanoi, she knew
the language, she was already capable of looking forward, past the war – while
I was looking backwards and seeing history. There’s a scene where the same hole
in the ground is a little lake for her and a bomb crater for me: the images of
the landscape are never unambiguous.
Was that when you met
I was her student in San Francisco in the mid-80s and then I
worked with her on the sound and editing of Surname
Viet Given Name Nam (1989) and Shoot
for the Contents (1991.) She was the first person I showed the footage to,
before it became Which Way Is East, but
all her experience in Africa while making Reassemblage
(1982) and her reflections on otherness and on being the outsider have been
important to me ever since I put Sermons together
during a period of intense social debate on the politics of identity. She
helped me think about the positioning from which these choices about
“Film About a Father
Who” is a portrait of your father marked by mystery. The title is an homage to
Yvonne Rainer’s “Film About a Woman Who,” but the elision of the verb is both
an open space and a kind of absence.
The film is part of a series of portraits I’m working on to
understand how much we can ever truly know another person. I hate when people
talk about “character-driven documentaries,” I’m not interested in making a
complete portrait of someone and I’m not sure it’s possible. That’s also part
of what the film is about, so in that sense the missing verb opens itself up to
multiple possibilities: a film about a father who…tells jokes, behaves badly,
has had many children. What interested me was not filling a void, finding
answers or uncovering secrets, but following tracks and asking questions.
Lynne Sachs’ “Film About a Father Who” will enjoy its international premier in the program –
INTO THE WORLD This strand is about all of us – the distant, the close, the intimate, the political – our worlds and their infinite appearances, challenges and dangers. Essential films with essential themes that take varied approaches to exploring our past, present and collective future. In journeying around the Earth, let us encounter people, their fights, their fears, their stories. From China to the USA, from Mexico to Argentina and Chile, from Canada, to the West Indies and France, from England to Scotland and Ireland, from Lebanon to Israel, from Italy to Poland, from Gambia to Iran, from the Philippines to South Africa, these films search, investigate, ask questions, show and testify contemporary local and global struggles, remembering and learning from past battles in order to be ready for new fights.