An exhibiting filmmaker’s thoughts on the recent online festival, Prismatic Ground.
It began, as so many things do these days, with a tweet: in October 2020, Inney Prakash, programmer of the Maysles Cinema’s “After Civilization” series, put out a call for experimental documentary films. The resulting festival, Prismatic Ground, debuted in early April with a diverse line-up of new and repertory non-fiction films that ran the gamut of genres, styles, and techniques. Imagine: a programmer directly engaging with his community of filmmakers with an open-hearted all-points-bulletin was the antithesis of conventional festival gatekeeping. The refreshing prospect was a beacon to filmmakers struggling to create and exhibit work during a traumatic and hostile time.
Prakash’s call for submissions caught my attention on that fateful October night: for once, my endless Twitter scrolling put me in the right place at the right time. For the last four years, I’d been dutifully at work on a narrative feature concerning Julian of Norwich, an obscure 14th-century woman mystic. With development and production on indefinite hold, I resolved to keep in “fighting shape” by making whatever I could—however I could—about Julian’s ecstatic religious experience. I had originally set out to make a companion piece, a sort of altar to this long-overlooked religious icon. What began as a few standalone tableaux eventually turned into The Sixteen Showings of Julian of Norwich, a bricolage of stop-motion animation, back-projection, and collage.
I was very fortunate to have a job for most of last year, but working well beyond the customary 40 hours a week in these new circumstances was disastrous for my mental health and creative practice. For the first few months of this solitary arrangement, I was lucky if I ended each day with just enough energy to bathe and feed myself. Readers, no doubt, will recognize this feeling immediately—a pervasive fogginess, a dearth of initiative, contained on all sides by fear, dread, and exhaustion. The immediate reaction for many of us possessing an artistic temperament is to heal through the work, to create from a place of self-preservation as a therapeutic exercise (because, to be perfectly honest, very few working artists can afford traditional talk therapy).
After a nights-and-weekends work schedule, I finished a short film in my little office consisting of whatever I had on hand. It’s a wild departure from my usual narrative practice of snappy dialogue and meticulously-designed sets, edging my practice into a heretofore unexplored aesthetic and style.
Sixteen Showings was my first attempt to make a film without in-person collaborations: Tessa Strain’s narration, Matt Macfarlane’s original score, and Eliana Zebrow’s rich sound mix were directed entirely over email. The film was tangential to my would-be narrative feature, but very much apiece with my overarching vision. Finishing this solo effort was a balm—somehow I had made something new despite… well, you know, everything. But what now? Surveying the fruits of this months-long process, I struggled to conceive of a suitable afterlife beyond the customary Vimeo upload. Where could I screen this? What context could there possibly be for a theological exploration of isolation, plague, and revolt? Calling it a “shut-in watercolor movie,” or “moving altar,” while elegiac, didn’t quite fit the bill.
Enter Inney Prakash’s well-timed tweet and timely festival. Emboldened by his transparency and programmatic voice, I steeled myself for yet another humbly-toned inquiry. When Sixteen Showings was selected, I was shocked, ecstatic and, in a way, relieved: if there was an audience for this film, surely I would find it at Prismatic Ground. Having never enjoyed a virtual premiere, I went into the experience as a total neophyte. But for every gripe there was praise in equal measure: the pleasure of connecting with an otherwise distant viewership, public recognition for work made under great duress. Prismatic Ground helped me recontextualize what felt like a moving target. More than a descriptor or genre, “experimental documentary” affords artists a wide berth to do just that: experiment with cinematic and journalistic techniques within a nonfiction framework. To that end, I began to understand the dual significance of Sixteen Showings as a documentary about Julian of Norwich’s life and, by extension, my own.
In a festival space laid low by last year’s pandemic, Prakash saw an opportunity to challenge “the toxic or tedious norms governing festival culture, and to emphasize inclusivity and access.” Where the year’s higher-profile festivals sought to replicate the exclusivity of their in-person events with geo-blocked premiers and Zoom happy hours, Prismatic Ground promised viewers a deliberate antithesis. Its programming, ethos, and even web presence were tailor-made for the online space, prioritizing widespread access and a filmmaker-centered focus on screenings and Q&As. Prakash’s curation was mission-driven: “It was important to me to strike a balance,” he said, “between early career and established filmmakers, palatable and challenging work, passion and polish.” The line-up generously gave equal weight to artists at every stage of their process. Instead of single-film, time-sensitive screenings, audiences enjoyed free reign to explore and engage of their own accord, a heretofore unheard of format—online and off.
Organized in a series of “waves,” Prismatic Ground was structured around four separate collections touching on simultaneously personal and societal themes. It was reassuring to screen Sixteen Showings alongside equally intimate works, each with a different visual and philosophical approach. I was, and still am, grateful to Prakash for including my film. Despite being a newcomer to experimental filmmaking and documentary, I never once felt like an impostor. That feeling carried over to my experience as a viewer as well: these were films unlike any I’d seen, whether due to their newness or, in the case of repertory titles, my own lack of access. I am grateful to the festival for offering an avenue through which to engage with the work of other like-minded artists.
I was eager to hear from my fellow filmmakers about their road to the festival and experience as participants in this bold experiment in public exhibition. While we all arrived through different avenues, I immediately noticed a shared resonance. A wide net-approach to programming naturally attracted filmmakers reeling from the exclusionary nature of the mainstream festival circuit. Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Max (Two Sons and a River of Blood, 2021) was quick to note how “Inney was able to really access all of the different layers of what the piece was doing.” For director Sarah Friedland (Drills, 2020) it was the fervor of how Prakash had “created the festival he wanted to exist, instead of trying to reform an established festival” that drew her to the event.
For filmmakers navigating constraints brought on by the pandemic, and its ongoing economic aftermath, social media provided the sense of community missing from in-person festivals. Elias ZX (You Deserve The Best, 2018) was already familiar with Prakash’s programming work on “After Civilization” when they submitted their film. “We became friends through Twitter, [and] he told me about his plan to make an experimental documentary festival.” Screening online “gave my film space to breathe in a way that is really uncommon for festivals. Every viewer was allowed to have a completely unique experience with the film.” Virginia-based filmmaker Lydia Moyer (The Well-Prepared Citizen’s Solution, 2020) saw the festival as a chance to broaden and strengthen these seemingly disparate filmmaking communities. “As a person who lives in a rural place, it’s great that so much interesting work has been available this year to anyone who’s got enough bandwidth (literally and figuratively).” Moyer said. “The way this is set up is for online viewing, not just trying to transfer an in-person experience online.”
Programming the work of early career filmmakers alongside more established artists was more than a canny curatorial choice. The variety presented across these four waves expanded the audience’s access to repertory titles, while simultaneously reiterating the connection between both older and more recent offerings. Prismatic Ground’s streaming platform and presentation stood out for director Chris Harris (Reckless Eyeballing, 2004), who “had some streaming experiences that weren’t so happy in terms of the technical aspects.” The festival’s creative exhibition format was especially taken by “the mix of programming, special live events, and the flexibility of accommodating filmmakers with the option of live and recorded Q&As.” For prolific filmmaker Lynne Sachs, Prismatic Ground represented “an entirely new, unbelievably adventurous, compassionate approach to the viewing of experimentally driven cinema,” emphasizing that the festival itself was “beyond anything I have ever seen in my life.”
Among the filmmakers I spoke with, Prismatic Ground’s liberal approach to exhibition belied a tremendous sense of potential for artists navigating a post-COVID festival ecosystem. Harris noticed an “[increasing] festival bandwidth for underseen/emerging Black experimental filmmakers,” a tendency that he “[hopes] to see continue after COVID.” In lieu of a return to in-person only screenings, the general consensus saw streaming as a fixture in future festivals. “I don’t think it is going to be possible to put the toothpaste back in the tube here,” noted Zx, emphasizing that “more access will be good for filmmakers… and will challenge programmers to be more competitive, to release more obscure films that are harder to find.”
Prakash’s groundbreaking work has already heeded the call, citing critic Abby Sun’s Berlin Critics’ Week essay “On Criticism” as a guiding principle. “Festivals aren’t merely reacting to social conditions,” Sun writes. “They are often the primary creators of them.” Prismatic Ground’s focus on diverse curation and access reaches well beyond the artistic ramifications. Prakash’s end goal is emboldening, a manifesto of sorts: “Enough of premiere politics, prohibitive pricing, playing only the same handful of films at every festival. Let’s create better conditions. There is a moral imperative to keep doing virtual screenings now that we know we can and how.”
Marking it’s debut edition, Prismatic Ground is a film festival of endless potential. Space for experimental cinema, particularly short form, is hard to come by, and thankfully it appears as though a new, heavily curated festival is set to give these incredible artists a new ground to show their work. But again, it’s a first edition. What could they possibly collect on their first try? Well, if these seven(ish) films are any hint, we may be at the ground floor of one of the country’s most interesting experimental film festivals.
6. The Films of Lynne Sachs
Another sidebar, although not one found in the main program, director Lynne Sachs is being honored as the inaugural winner of the “Ground Glass Award,” the festival’s award given to a person who has contributed to the world of experimental media. Being honored by both the award and a pair of programs, eight of the director’s short and medium-length works are being highlighted here, led by one of her more well known works (at least recently), A Month of Single Frames (For Barbara Hammer). Made in 2019 but just now making its way out of the festival circuit, the short is actually also available on MUBI at the moment, and sees the director collaborating with late director Barbara Hammer by finishing her final project in what ultimately results in a profoundly moving and aesthetically captivating character study of sorts. Other highlights include Sermons and Sacred Pictures, Sachs’ 1989 documentary about Reverend L.O. Taylor, a Black Baptist minister with a passion for filmmaking, and also maybe the best film of the bunch The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts. This 30 minute experimental documentary from 1991 looks at the depiction of the female body throughout history, and is as provocative today as it ever has been. Sachs is also featured in the main slate with her 4 minute masterpiece Drawn and Quartered, another film about perception, looking and gender.
7. 4 Films By Bill Morrison
Starting off this preview of the debut Prismatic Ground festival, we turn to a sort of sidebar-within-a-sidebar. Structured largely around four “waves,” Prismatic Ground is highlighting films with similar themes and ideas, and for the first entry we turn to, of course, the first wave. Within the first wave known as “desire is already a memory,” Prismatic Ground is highlighting four brand new shorts from beloved director Bill Morrison. Including the likes of 2020’s Curly Takes a Bath By The Sea and 2021’s trio of Sunken Films, Wild Girl and The Ring, these collectively only run around 30 minutes, but are as entrancing a quartet of films as you’ll see all year. Chief among them is Curly Takes a Bath, which is a short the director produced during lockdown that is strangely one of the more moving explorations of the striving for freedom that lockdown has brought us. Sunken Films feels squarely in his wheelhouse as its story of lost films discovered is a topic found throughout his career, as is the idea of loss and decay, which is the topic of both Wild Girl and The Ring, the former being maybe the director’s most formally interesting work collected here.
5. Home In The Woods
The feature film highlighted in the fourth wave (the same wave as the above mentioned Sachs film), Home in the Woods is about as singular a vision as you’ll ever encounter. At once maximalist in its experimental aesthetic and yet born out of the most minimal of intents, Home is director Brandon Wilson’s exploration of a forest near the filmmaker’s own home in Oregon. However, this isn’t a rudimentary point and shoot style, almost zen-like document of metaphysical freedom. No, instead Wilson crafts a relatively narrative-free deconstruction of the cyclical nature of the world around us and man’s own relationship to the space we inhabit. Pairing incredible sound design with filmmaking choices ranging from dynamic color processing to the use of microscopic imagery, Home has an almost science-fiction like feel, despite being a decidedly tactile and organic work. Not so much born of the lockdown era as the perfect type of conversation piece with it, Wilson’s film is in many ways one of the great pandemic documents. A film about the beauty of nature that plays as both zen installation piece and hypnotic slow cinema deconstruction.
4. Too Long Here
Back to the wide array of shorts collected here, for one of the more anger-inducing viewing experiences of the festival. More or less a seven-minute short film looking at the day that former First Lady Pat Nixon inaugurated a stretch of land along the US-Mexico border as “Friendship Park,” Too Long Here is director Emily Packer’s recontextualizing this event opposite the increasing racism and xenophobia that has ultimately culminated with not just former president Donald Trump, but his “liberal” replacement Joe Biden potentially continuing the building of the disastrous border wall. A soul-crushing exploration of America’s failed promise and increasing descent into nationalism is the real focus here, with Packer using lushly restored footage from the inauguration set against what the viewer is keenly aware of as the future for this relationship. In just seven minutes Packer stacks her film with fascinating moments from that day in history, and culminates with an absolute emotional gut punch of a final moment. A fascinating, deeply important work.
3. The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant
From one singular picture to another. The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant is from director Jim Finn, and tells the story of General Grant, as he attempts to liberate the southern states during the 1860s. However, this isn’t your father’s historical documentary. Instead Finn takes things like board games and collectible trading cards to lay out the respective battles Grant found himself in, pairing these opposite modern day landscapes of former battlefields, all shot in gorgeous 16mm. An engrossing, travelogue-like riff on a legendary historical figure, Field Guide is a strange melting together of the revered (former battleground location footage) and juvenile (board games). This is also a brilliant piece of research, moving viewers from the border between Texas and Louisiana up to the coast of New England, pairing seemingly misplaced thing like a 1970’s inspired soundtrack with deeply textured and dense historical background, making this an endlessly surprising feature.
2. The Films of Anita Thacher
The final director-focused collection on this list, Anita Thacher’s work is set to open the festival, with seven of her rarely seen shorts getting highlighted as the opening night centerpiece. This collection is led by the incomparable Loose Corner from 1986, which is being shown as a restoration-in-progress screening, as the Academy Film Archive is currently attempting to bring this masterpiece back to life. Cinephiles may find one of her later films, Cut to be compelling, particularly it’s fascinating use of image, sound and editing, and those, and I myself am transfixed by Loose Corner, maybe the most playfully kinetic of the films collected here. It’s a gloriously anarchic experiment in filmmaking and space, and features some of the most formally inventive sleights of hand you’ll ever find. These are exactly the type of one of a kind visual experiments that make Prismatic Ground a fantastic new player on the festival circuit, and will hopefully inspire more people to give these filmmakers proper respect.
1. Second Star To The Right And Straight On ‘Til Morning
Rounding out this list is arguably the most buzzed about film of the festival, and for just cause. Originally intended to be included on potential home video releases for the underrated Ben Zeitlin film Wendy, Second Star is the latest film from directors Bill and Turner Ross, and is not only likely never to make any release of the film they documented, but may very well never see the light of day commercially following this festival run. Billed as “too experimental” by the studio, this documentary is less about the making of the film itself and more about the spirit of the children that helped make it happen, embracing a sense of freedom and almost whimsy that is truly unlike any making of picture you’ve ever seen. Featuring little to know actual interviews, the film is more a collection of moments, of lives, all the while feeling decidedly of the Ross Brothers. Inherently a film about community, Second Star feels like a distant relative to a film like Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a film about performance and family, catching small moments like a child blessing someone’s sneeze in the middle of a conversation, all the while making these happenstances feel immensely moving. There simply aren’t filmmakers quite like these two, filmmakers with endless empathy and compassion.
Kino Rebelde has created a retrospective that traces a delicate line connecting intimacy, power relations, violence, memory, migration, desire, love, and war in Lynne’s films. By looking at each of these works, we can see a director facing her own fears and contradictions, as well as her sense of friendship and motherhood. Moving from idea to emotion and back again, our retrospective takes us on a journey through Sachs’ life as a filmmaker, beginning in 1986 and moving all the way to the present.
With the intention of allowing her work to cross boundaries, to interpret and to inquire into her distinctive mode of engaging with the camera as an apparatus for expression, we are delighted to present 37 films that comprise the complete filmmography, so far, of Lynne Sachs as visual artist and filmmaker. Regardless of the passage of time, these works continue to be extremely contemporary, coherent and radical in their artistic conception.
About Kino Rebelde
Kino Rebelde is a Sales and Festival Distribution Agency created by María Vera in early 2017. Its exclusively dedicated to promotion of non-fiction cinema, hybrid narratives and experimental.
Based on the creative distribution of few titles by year, Kino Rebelde established itself as a “boutique agency”, working on a specialized strategy for each film, within its own characteristics, market potential, niches and formal and alternative windows.
This company supports short, medium and long feature films, from any country, with linear or non-linear narratives. They can be in development or WIP, preferably in the editing stage.
The focus: author point of view, pulse of stories, chaos, risk, more questions, less answers, aesthetic and politic transgression, empathy, identities, desires and memory.
Kino Rebelde was born in Madrid, but as its films, this is a nomadic project. In the last years María has been living in Lisbon, Belgrade and Hanoi and she’ll keep moving around.
About María Vera
Festival Distributor and Sales Agent born in Argentina. Founder of Kino Rebelde, a company focused on creative distribution of non-fiction, experimental and hybrid narratives.
Her films have been selected and awarded in festivals as Berlinale, IFFR Rotterdam, IDFA, Visions Du Réel, New York FF, Hot Docs, Jeonju IFF, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sarajevo FF, Doclisboa and Viennale, among others.
María has a background as producer of socio-political and human rights contents as well as a film curator.Envelope
Lynne Sachs (1961) is an American filmmaker and poet living in Brooklyn, New York. Her moving image work ranges from documentaries, to essay films, to experimental shorts, to hybrid live performances.
Working from a feminist perspective, Lynne weaves together social criticism with personal subjectivity. Her films embrace a radical use of archives, performance and intricate sound work. Between 2013 and 2020, she collaborated with renowned musician and sound artist Stephen Vitiello on five films.
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 each new project.
Between 1994 and 2009, Lynne directed five essay films that took her to Vietnam, Bosnia, Israel, Italy and Germany – sites affected by international war – where she looked at the space between a community’s collective memory and her own perception.
Over the course of her career, she has worked closely with film artists Craig Baldwin, Bruce Conner, Ernie Gehr, Barbara Hammer, Chris Marker, Gunvor Nelson, and Trinh T. Min-ha.
Fresh from her early 2021 retrospective at New York City’s Museum of the Moving Image, filmmaker Lynne Sachs returns to San Francisco where she lived and went to school (SFSU & SFAI) between 1985 and ‘95. It was here that Lynne really immersed herself in our city’s experimental and documentary community, working closely with local artists Craig Baldwin, Bruce Conner, Barbara Hammer, Gunvor Nelson and Trinh T. Minh-ha and spending time at the Film Arts Foundation (RIP), Canyon Cinema, SF Cinematheque, and Other Cinema.
“For more than thirty years, artist Lynne Sachs has constructed short, bold mid-length, and feature films incorporating elements of the essay film, collage, performance, and observational documentary. Her highly self-reflexive films have variously explored the relations between the body, camera, and the materiality of film itself; histories of personal, social, and political conflict; marginalized communities and their labor; and her own family life, slipping seamlessly between modes, from documentary essays to diaristic shorts.” – Edo Choi, Assistant Curator of Film, Museum of the Moving Image.
Accompanying our Bay Area premiere of Sachs’s Film About a Father Who, the Roxie offers two accompanying shorts sidebars programmed by filmmaker and Other Cinema curator Craig Baldwin.
Over a period of 35 years between 1984 and 2019, filmmaker Lynne Sachs shot 8 and 16mm film, videotape and digital images of her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering businessman from Park City, Utah. Film About a Father Who is her attempt to understand the web that connects a child to her parent and a sister to her siblings. With a nod to the Cubist renderings of a face, Sachs’ cinematic exploration of her father offers simultaneous, sometimes contradictory, views of one seemingly unknowable man who is publicly the uninhibited center of the frame yet privately ensconced in secrets. In the process, Sachs allows herself and her audience inside to see beyond the surface of the skin, the projected reality. As the startling facts mount, Sachs as a daughter discovers more about her father than she had ever hoped to reveal. (74 min., 2020, A Cinema Guild Release)
Critic’s Pick! “[A] brisk, prismatic and richly psychodramatic family portrait.” – Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times
“Sachs achieves a poetic resignation about unknowability inside families, and the hidden roots never explained from looking at a family tree.” – Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times
“Formidable in its candor and ambition.” – Jonathan Romney, Screen International
Tickets for FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO will be available on February 12
SACHS SHORTS SIDEBARS
Sidebar 1: INQUIRIES INTO SELF AND OTHER
Still from “The House of Science: a museum of false facts”
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (4 min., 1986) Sermons and Sacred Pictures (29 min., 1989) The House of Science: a museum of false facts (30 min., 1991) Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (made with Dana Sachs) (33 min., 1994)
“As sidebar to her fresh Father feature, here is the first of two shorts programs, showcasing the astonishing cinematic artistry of Lynne Sachs…all made during her san fran years and recently digitally restored. Her ‘89 Sermons offers an early glimmer of her sensitivity to both marginalized communities and their archives, as she gracefully threads ultra-rare ‘30s & ’40s footage from Rev. LO Taylor into a tapestry of visibility and respect for Memphis’ Black community. Her facility for celluloid extrapolation is demonstrated in even more creative ways in House of Science, a personal essay on female identity, told through found footage, poetic text, and playful experimental technique. Which Way is East raises its eyes to engagements in international waters, and to insightful exchanges with her expat sister Dana, towards new understandings of and in the oh-so-historically charged Republic of Vietnam. Opening is Lynne’s first ever 16mm, Still Life.” – CB
TRT: 96 min.
Tickets for Sidebar 1: INQUIRIES INTO SELF AND OTHER will be available on February 12
Sidebar 2: PROFILES IN COURAGE
A Month of Single Frames (for Barbara Hammer) (14 min., 2019) Investigation of a Flame (45 min., 2001) And Then We Marched (4 min., 2017) The Washing Society (co-directed with Lizzie Olesker) (44 min., 2018)
“Characteristically, Sachs speaks in first person to cultural difference and dissent, here particularly valorizing acts of resistance and struggles for justice. Her collaboration with the recently deceased lesbian maker Barbara Hammer keynotes this ‘Solidarity’ set, with Lynne literally framing/finishing her mentor’s last project. Younger allies are also acknowledged in Sachs’ inspiring 2017 celebration of women’s political power on contested Washington, DC turf. The 2001 Investigation is a tribute to the courage and conscience of the epochal Berrigan-led burning of Baltimore draft records, made while Sachs was teaching in that town. And the local debut of The Washing Society, produced with playwright Lizzie Olesker, stakes their support of NYC’s low-paid laundry workers—mostly women of color—in even another radiant illumination of the little-seen truths of contemporary race/class inequity.” – CB
TRT: 107 min.
Tickets for Sidebar 2: PROFILES IN COURAGE will be available on February 12
Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression
January 13–31, 2021
For more than thirty years, artist Lynne Sachs has constructed short, bold mid-length, and feature films incorporating elements of the essay film, collage, performance, and observational documentary. Her highly self-reflexive films have variously explored the relations between the body, camera, and the materiality of film itself; histories of personal, social, and political trauma; marginalized communities and their labor; and her own family life, slipping seamlessly between modes, from documentary essays to diaristic shorts. On the occasion of her latest feature, Film About a Father Who, a kaleidoscopic portrait of the artist’s maddeningly mercurial father, the Museum is pleased to present a career-ranging survey of Sachs’s work, including new HD presentations of Drawn and Quartered, The House of Science: a museum of false facts, and Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam, as well as the premiere of Maya at 24, the third edition of Sach’s temporal portrait of her daughter.
Organized by Assistant Curator of Film Edo Choi. Special thanks to Canyon Cinema and Cinema Guild for their support in organizing this program.
All films will be presented in MoMI’s Virtual Cinema, including a new video interview between Lynne Sachs and Edo Choi, which will be available exclusively to ticket holders.
Tickets: An all-series pass (including Film About a Father Who) is available for $30 ($26 MoMI members). A pass for just the repertory portion is $20 ($16 members) / individual program tickets are $5. Tickets for Film About a Father Who are $12 ($10 members).
All films are directed by Lynne Sachs.
Program 1: Early Dissections
In her first three films, Sachs performs an exuberant autopsy of the medium itself, reveling in the investigation of its formal possibilities and cultural implications: the disjunctive layering of visual and verbal phrases in Still Life with Woman and Four Objects; un-split regular 8mm film as a metaphorical body and site of intercourse in the optically printed Drawn and Quartered; the scopophilic and gendered intentions of the camera’s gaze in Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning. These experiments anticipate the range of the artist’s mature work, beginning with her first essayistic collage The House of Science: a museum of false facts. Itself an autopsy, this mid-length film exposes the anatomy of western rationalism as a framework for sexual subjugation via a finely stitched patchwork of sounds and images from artistic renderings to archival films, home movies to staged performances.
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (1986, 4 mins.) Drawn and Quartered (1987, 4 mins. New HD presentation) Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning (1987, 9 mins.) The House of Science: a museum of false facts (1991, 30 mins. New HD presentation)
Program 2: Family Travels
One of Lynne Sachs’s most sheerly beautiful films, Which Way Is East is a simultaneously intoxicating and politically sobering diary of encounters with the sights, sounds, and people of Vietnam, as Sachs pays a visit to her sister Dana and the two set off north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. The film is paired here with a very different kind of family journey The Last Happy Day, recounting the life of Sachs’s distant cousin Sandor Lenard, a Jewish Hungarian doctor who survived the Second World War and was ultimately hired to reassemble the bones of dead American soldiers. Here Sachs journeys through time as opposed to space, as she assembles a typically colorful array of documentary and performative elements, including Sandor’s letters, a children’s performance, and highly abstracted war footage, to bring us closer to a man who bore witness to terrible things. This program also features The Last Happy Day’s brief predecessor, The Small Ones. Program running time: 73 mins.
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994, 33 mins. New HD presentation) The Small Ones (2007, 3 mins.) The Last Happy Day (2009, 37 mins.)
Program 3: Time Passes
Twenty years unspool over nine short films: portraits of Lynne Sachs’s children; visits with her mother, brother, niece and nephew; a tribute to the city where she lives; and scenes of sociopolitical trauma and protest. Nearly all shot on super 8mm or 16mm, and often silent, each work is at once a preservation of a moment and a record of change, seamlessly weaving together the candid and the performed gesture, the public and the private memory, in a simultaneously objective and subjective posture toward the passing of time. Program running time: 51 mins.
Photograph of Wind (2001, 4 mins.) Tornado (2002, 4 mins.) Noa, Noa (2006, 8 mins.) Georgic for a Forgotten Planet (2008, 11 mins.) Same Stream Twice (2012, 4 mins.) Viva and Felix Growing Up (2015, 10 mins.) Day Residue (2016, 3 mins.) And Then We Marched (2017, 3 mins.) Maya at 24 (2021, 4 mins. World premiere)
Program 4: Your Day Is My Night
2013, 64 mins. “This bed doesn’t necessarily belong to any one person,” someone says early in Your Day Is My Night. It could be the metaphorical thesis of this film, perhaps Lynne Sachs’s most self-effacing and meditative work. A seamless blend of closely observed verité footage, interpretive performance, and confessional monologues and interviews, the film doesn’t document so much as create a space to accommodate the stories and experiences of seven Chinese immigrants from ages 58 to 78 who live together in a “shift-bed” apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Sachs’s quilted sense of form achieves a new level of refinement and delicacy in collaboration with her cameraman Sean Hanley and her editor Amanda Katz, as she works with the participants to exhume a collective history of migration and struggle.
Program 5: Tip of My Tongue
2017, 80 mins. Sachs’s richly generative Tip of My Tongue finds the filmmaker responding to her 50th birthday by gathering twelve members of her generational cohort—friends and peers all born between 1958 and 1964, and originating as far as Cuba, Iran, and Australia—to participate in the creation of a choral work about the convergent and divergent effects history leaves upon those who live it. From the Kennedy assassination to Occupy Wall Street, the participants reveal their memories of, and reflections upon, the transformative experiences of their lives. Set to an ecstatic, pulsing score by Stephen Vitiello, the film interweaves these personal confessions with impressionistic images of contemporary New York, obscured glimpses of archival footage, and graphically rendered fragments of text to create a radiant prism of collective memory. Preceded by Sachs’s frantic record of accumulated daily to-do lists, A Year in Notes and Numbers (2018, 4 mins.).
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.
When Lynne Sachs agreed to meet me on Skype, I was equally excited and nervous: excited, because I had just seen several of her movies, which left me feeling like I had entered a whole new world of visual and verbal language. Nervous, because her knowledge and experience in experimental/essay/documentary cinema were vast compared to mine. Nevertheless, we agreed on a meeting and it was one of the most honest and inspiring conversations I have had on film. I began the conversation by briefly introducing myself. I am a PhD student in a biology lab, where I often conduct experiments. Perhaps that is why I’m so drawn to experimental film, especially Lynne’s work.
Lynne Sachs: What you do in your lab – which is to dive into the unknown by using materials you understand, without knowing what will happen when they come together, without a script for what the results will be – shares something with experimental filmmaking. Although, as you might already know, Jonas Mekas didn’t like the term experimental. It is kind of like saying you’re an atheist, meaning you define yourself by what you’re not, so I understand, he just says: “I make films”.
Tijana Perović: Do you feel ok with the term experimental?
I personally do. I think it turns the noun into a verb because it says that the entity itself is devolving and can’t be made from a template. I like it and I think it’s liberating.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I definitely didn’t grow up watching personal art films, made by women. I hardly knew that women were making movies. But I always have written poetry and I always did a lot of art. In university, I pursued something that you might call more academic. I was a history major, but I did a lot of studio art. So in that time, when I was at university, I took a year, I went to Paris and I discovered Chantal Akerman and Marguerite Duras. This changed me. I realized that you can make films from this place of experience, or you can bring your attention to the small things in life. You could also bring in some politics or a change for women, etc.
In a sense, I got a chance to see that a film could be a vessel and that you could throw whatever you want into it and make your own recipe or idea. That was really exciting to me and a revelation. After college, I moved to New York and I started taking classes in Super 8 and video. I ended up going to graduate school in San Francisco. That was such a transformative experience, because there were so many people there.
You know Gunvor Nelson’s films? Gunvor was a teacher of mine. In fact, Carolee Schneeman, Gunvor Nelson and Barbara Hammer were all living in San Francisco at the time. Such powerful women. Powerful in a poetic way. Do you know George Kuchar’s films? They are very rowdy and irreverent. Craig Baldwin was also there. He is a filmmaker, quite renowned, almost all of his work is made from found footage. But he also has a small, still existent, screening space, called Other Cinema. It is just like a store front. And I spent almost every Saturday there, from 1987 to 1994, and that’s actually where my husband Mark Street and I met. It was a scene and that’s how I educated myself on film. I was not the kind of person who stayed up watching all the famous fiction films on TV until midnight. I hadn’t even seen Citizen Kane until I was in my mid-twenties. Now I am interested in all of film history, but that is not what brought me to this kind of filmmaking.
Funny that you mention that, because I just watched Jeanne Dielman 10 days ago.
I actually was thinking about Chantal Akerman, two days ago, because of our quarantine. Have you seen her film Là-bas (2006)? She went to Tel Aviv, to do some teaching there. It was during a very heightened period of violence, in Israel/Palestine, so she made the whole film from her window. To me, it’s very timely to think about the window as a frame in its relationship to the film frame. The thing about long films like Jeanne Dielman is their stature. You need to spend almost four hours with her film. But think about a book. When you read a book, you need to spend two weeks with it! Four hours really shouldn’t be a big thing.
What is really interesting for me in your movies is that in each one of them there is an idea, but it flowers, it grows. In your experience, how does this idea change during the process of actual moviemaking and in editing?
Sometimes when I make a film, it starts with the material. Is there any particular film on your mind?
Then I’ll talk about The House of Science. That actually started with the collages which are in the movie. It started with the idea that I felt alienated from my own body. And I probably felt that way for most of my life, maybe until I had a baby. I wanted to move through the world almost invisibly. I don’t think that if I were 30 today, I’d make the same film. But in 1991, I felt frustrated with how my culture was constructing me. Not with the feminism, 1st wave, 2nd wave – rather as I moved through the culture and I felt this alienation from the world of science. But then it became an equal distaste for art, while I was making it. So, that was a film where I said, any idea that comes to my head will go into the film. I called it a yes film. That film is a film essay. What defines a film essay is that you are at ease with including your doubt.
So you have this idea, and it is kind of a manifesto, but it isn’t really a manifesto because you are always second guessing yourself. In a sense, you have to have more confidence in what you say by including your doubt. If you didn’t, then it would be dogma or didactic. That film really came out of an idea. Did you see And Then We Marched? It is a super short film I made after the women’s march. I didn’t have a particular idea. I had collected Super 8 film from the 2017 Women’s March, and I wanted to do something with it. I didn’t want to just document it because I thought a lot of people are already doing that. I thought I needed to shake up my understanding of what that march was, and the only way I could do that was to talk to a child. That’s been common in a lot of my work. I struggled to make The Last Happy Day for years and years, until I started to work with some children.
Also Wind in Our Hair, the film I made in Argentina. Sometimes working with kids doesn’t infantalize the situation, but it allows you to experiment more and listen to the materials more and to be surprised. Maybe it’s because I had two daughters and I brought them along. But I am also very intrigued by what children bring to it perceptually. So to take something as large as the Women’s March of 2017, and to think about it from that perspective was very invigorating and turned it into something more immediate. In the end, the Women’s March sadly did not have that much impact. It was like a plaintiff call, so it did connect all of us, but it didn’t bring structural change. It brought bonding amongst kindred spirits. When I’m making a film, I often have to figure out how can an idea that I had years ago can resonate today.
Last night, at 3:30 in the morning, I woke up. We’re not as active these days during the quarantine so sleeping is strange. I got up and I took a bath. But then I had this idea for a film I have been working on for many years. It is called The Company We Keep. It comes from an English expression, often you are judged by the people your are around, “the company that you keep.” Some people use this expression in a rather judgemental way. Over many years, I’ve collected business cards, so I have about 500 of them. I’ve scanned most of them. I want to make this film kind of like an animated film where we go through them. The purpose of a business (calling) card is to be a mnemonic device. Surprisingly, I can remember a little bit about almost all of those people. I am playing with the idea of how these cards trigger something, not just what I remember, but how I understand myself in relationship to them. When you look at the cards, you remember who you were when you connected with that person, but also something about them.
Last night, I wrote myself a note. Most of the people whose business cards I have kept are in a group of people I will probably never know. But in the present, there is another group of people I will never know. These are the people whom I’m hearing about who died from the coronavirus. Recently, a friend of my daughter’s told us about two African American men in her neighborhood in Brooklyn. They were quite old, already retired. For years, they would sit on the stairs (what we call here the stoop) and talk to everybody on the block. Both of them died. Then another man I know lost a brother who was autistic. As you hear those stories, you imagine those people, you imagine them almost like a cut-out, paper-doll. You imagine their shape but they are gone. I wanted to weave that into this short film, because it makes it more vital to me now.
What is your definition of feminist filmmaking?
Many years ago, when I was in grad school, we would take turns shooting each other’s movies. A woman asked me to shoot her film, which I was excited about. We were on her set but I didn’t think that what she was espousing my concept of feminism. Even though I was very honored to be her cinematographer, I could not accept the imagery that she was creating and wanted me to co-create. I have been hesitant to shoot other people’s films ever since. This was the time when I realized that we talk about feminism in terms of holding the camera in addition to how the images of women’s bodies are constructed. I don’t cheer just because a woman gets an Academy Award. I am not actually even necessarily happy that Joe Biden has already announced that he will choose a woman. I feel like he did that as a political ploy. I am happy that he is going to choose a woman, but is that why he chose this woman? I think that a feminist approach to filmmaking takes the responsibility for the representation of women, but for me it must be broader than that. It has sensitivity to other categories of identification, whether you are talking about gender identity, etc.
I loved your talk for the Ann Arbor Festival. I especially agreed when you said that Godard has challenged the film world in many ways, but never in terms of the representation of women. So, who were your favorite feminist filmmakers and your inspirations?
Definitely all three of the women in my film Carolee, Barbara, Gunvor. Each one for different reasons. I would say that they run the gamut of different approaches within the sector of personal filmmaking. I think Barbara Hammer and Carolee Schneemann were particularly at ease with their own bodies. Carolee challenged feminism in a profound way, because she was interested in sensuality, too. I think that’s very current, but she was criticized in other periods of feminism; for showing her own body, for exuding a kind of sensuality/sexuality. Barbara also showed her own body, but in a different way: it was more about strength, strength in the bareness and nudity. Gunvor Nelson made this film called Schmeerguntz. It is so wild, and it’s about motherhood, having babies, all the mess, the shit, the body, letting it all hang out. That’s kind of her take on it. They really run – to me – the gamut. I mentioned Chantal Akerman and loving her work, and her study of women’s bodies. But it’s not just about bodies, of course.
Have you heard about the Bechdel Test? Yes.
I think it’s pretty interesting for mainstream filmmaking. It’s a handy rubric for deciding what the presence of – let’s talk about narrative film – what the presence of a protagonist does or whether a character is able to speak. I think those are interesting things. They’re not the kind of films I’m making, but I do watch them, and I think that plenty of women who make it very high up in the industry, instead of trying to change that structure, actually think that the best way to get into the business is to replicate what already exists, and that’s a shame.
We had two movies at Berlinale this year that were pretty mainstream and feminist – The Assistant –
Oh I saw that! I really liked it. It’s controversial.
At her press conference, the director said that it was hard for her to get funding because she was criticizing the industry. Sometimes these norms are really hard to break. The other one was Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
I wanted to see that. It came out, and then [lockdown happened]. Now it’s online. The other movie that came out in the mainstream, like The Assistant, on the same topic – workplace dynamics – was a film called Bombshell. Did you see that?
No, but I heard about it.
Well…I did not like that movie at all. One of the reasons was, they were talking about the abusive power in the workplace, by men who had financial or other kinds of control in the workplace. But the people who were playing the women actually were bombshells. Do you know this expression? It’s old fashioned. A bombshell is an incredibly beautiful woman.
The movie’s called Bombshell because it’s about these women who are television anchors on broadcast news, who have to be bombshells to get those jobs, but then the story is that they also have to sleep with the boss. But the film, in its texture and representation, never breaks the mould. The women who play the parts are always presenting themselves with the best bodies and make-up, etc. Whereas in The Assistant, everything becomes much more austere and cerebral, and you think about the protagonist – who she is at her desk. I thought it was much more effective.
Another filmmaker who has had a very big influence on me is the Argentine director Lucretia Martel. I study her films, to help me figure out things, around editing. I’ve really been affected by her work.
Did you have a plan for your career? How did you find your direction?
The lucky part was that I found this way of working, and relationship to the media, that I loved. I think that’s been a setback for plenty of good friends of mine: they didn’t necessarily find something they were passionate about doing. I just continue to be excited about it. I had to find ways to make that work for me. The most practical thing I did when I moved to San Francisco, was that I enrolled in a program at a public university that also had a whole cinema studies component. I had a lot to catch up on, in terms of developing a foundation for the understanding of cinema. But the degree was a Master’s degree, and then there was an art school there at the time – The San Francisco Art Institute.
They offered a Master’s of Fine Arts – which in the States is considered a terminal degree, not just the first step. I ended up doing both programs because I was thinking ‘I might want to teach’ and I have been teaching pretty consistently for all these years, but I never aspired to a tenure track job. I’ve taught at probably 15 different art schools or universities, but I wasn’t trying to raise myself up in academia. So that was the most practical thing I did. The other part was that depending on where you teach, it could be hard to have time to do your work, e.g. if they have 7 classes a year. It depends on what is expected. I have had good relationships with places where I was teaching where they gave me funding for a project. Here, we have all different kinds of grants: we have grants from the government (which are not that big), or grants from private foundations, like the Guggenheim foundation.
How did you develop your aesthetic? Did you look back at your earlier works and think ‘oh I could have done this better’ or are you happy with each step?
No, not necessarily happy. Oh my God, sometimes I look at the credits and think ‘oh why did I do that? Why did I have so many names?’ I’m actually in the midst of doing some preservation work on some of my older films. I’m doing part of it with the Museum of Modern Art, they’re working on my film Which Way Is East. It’s been interesting because I’ve had to look at it very carefully, and they are very fastidious. They said, ‘when we make a new 4K scan, you can’t push us to try to make it look like you made this in 2020, because you made it in 1994’. You think about the film stocks and things like that.
NYU has a preservation program, and they are studying the preservation of one of my very first short films, it’s called Still Life with Woman and Four Objects. We’re working on that. They just transferred it to 4K.
That movie actually made me think of Chantal Akerman a lot.
Thank you for saying that. I was also very affected by Yvonne Rainer. I had seen Akerman for sure by that time, because I’d seen her in France, but I don’t know if I’d seen Yvonne Rainer’s [work].
My newest film is called Film About a Father Who. There’s a famous film that Yvonne Rainer made, called Film About a Woman Who… – from the ’70s. I have definitely been very influenced by Yvonne Rainer, but then I would say her films are more austere than mine are.
But you asked about aesthetics. I can’t impose any one aesthetic that I might’ve discovered on the next project, because the idea is the boss. The idea drives the aesthetic, mostly. Sometimes I just shoot, and it’s like I re-find my own material. Did you see this short film I made called Starfish Aorta Colossus?
The whole film is shot with a regular 8mm camera that you wind-up. It’s collaboration between myself and poet Paolo Javier. That material I had shot over decades, and then he asked me if I would make a poem in honor of his book being published. I thought it was a good excuse to go back and look at all this old footage. It wasn’t like I created the footage for his poem, but I put it together in response to his poem.
What was it like to have Bruce Conner as your mentor?
I had kind of like a short-term boyfriend, and he introduced me to Bruce. I was just getting involved in filmmaking, so I had negative skills. But we got along well. Some people thought he was a bit of a curmudgeon, but he wasn’t to me at all. I would just go to his house – I was supposed to be helping him splice his films, but he would look at my splicing ability and think it was so terrible that he ended up doing it himself.
I went once a week and he would tell me stories the whole time. We would just talk and talk. He had a long-term kidney problem. He actually lived for twenty more years, but he would always have to take a rest so I would hang out with his wife. Over the years, when both my children were born, he gave them lovely drawings and we stayed in contact. His found-footage work is profound. The ideas that happen between every shot in A Movie are so fantastic. Nothing is about ‘the archive being precious’ – [instead] the archive is about a way of finding irreverence, or irony, or poetry or politics. He was interested in the clash, rather than the archive being an illustration of a moment in history.
Does your approach change — and if so, how — when working with digital versus celluloid?
It takes a lot more for me to be excited about images that are shot on digital.
[She shows me a work in progress, from which the following still was taken.]
I like the unpredictability of film – the fact that as she circles around, you go into these dark areas. It can happen in video too, but I like the way it works on film, especially in black and white: the background that’s black becomes one kind of canvas, versus another kind of canvas. I also like that it’s not perfectly sharp, because I think that in television there’s too much attention on the face. The less you show, the more interesting the face is. The precision of digital and its ability to replicate reality makes it less compelling to me. Sometimes I shoot digital work I really do like. But in digital, people tend to overshoot: hours and hours. With film, I only shot three minutes of my daughter [running in cirlces], so I have to work with that.
It’s interesting how the film shapes what you make. I watched the XY ChromosomeProject. [Made in collaboration with her husband Mark Street.]
That’s also the name of our – we sort of have a film company. It doesn’t really mean a company, but… you know. I’m glad you watched that.
How was it to collaborate? Did you plan it together and then shoot separately? Or did you shoot separately and then come together?
We made that during a period when our daughters, who are 23 and 25, were younger. We initially made it for this performance space here in New York that was also a restaurant, called Monkeytown. They’ve moved all over the world. There’s one person who runs it and sometimes I hear he’s in Australia, sometimes in Berlin. He had this restaurant (with delicious food), where everybody sat on the floor. They had projectors, so you could project on all four walls of the room. We thought it was Cartesian, so we had an X and a Y. But we also thought about XY as in Chromosomes, so that’s where we got the name.
We’ve made quite a few films together. More than films, we created projection evenings, and things like that. We did something at the Microscope Gallery, for example, here in Brooklyn. Anyway, in this particular case, Mark and I had each shot some of our own material, and we said we had to edit the film together: he would edit a shot, and I would come in on the same computer and edit the next one, like a Surrealist Exquisite Corpse. We constructed it that way, so it was not pre-planned.
How does language that you use mediate or affect your creative process? Language is so interesting in your movies. It’s very rare to find somebody who is so visual and lingual at the same time. Somehow people tend to choose one or the other.
That’s really true. And I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t necessarily identify with certain kinds of ‘purist’ wordless experimental films – but then I also really don’t identify with traditional documentaries that aren’t as playful with the image.
The thing is, that poetry is very close to experimental films. If you think about it, poetry breaks all the rules of grammar, a line break is like a cut between the shots. It makes sense that you don’t have to say ‘cine-poem’, but that poetry is in conversation with not just a love of a language, but a heightened love of language that would work with a heightened love of the film frame. Instead of it being one or the other. But for many people it is one or the other. I’m just excited about both.
It’s really nice. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching mostly male experimental cinema for the longest time. I suddenly switched and thought maybe it’s just because women are more verbal.
That definitely could be. It’s interesting because Barbara Hammer and Carolee Scheemann both did a lot of writing. I would say in Carolee’s films, the words weren’t that important, but she wrote many books, and she was very engaged with text.
In The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991), Lynne Sachs curates a moving-image exhibition of womanhood, carefully sampling artifacts from the past (fabricated truths built to sustain male dominancy), intertwined with empirical artifacts of her own history (personal truths and memories). Through the power of visual and aural association, several domains of the exhibit simultaneously unfold in front of us: the personal, the public and the historical. Sachs drifts between these domains smoothly until a whole network of information is gently bestowed upon us. We start with the image of a doctor guiding a woman into a glass booth, followed by him setting a model house on fire, and the sound of Sachs’ voice, telling us about her experience of being examined by an apathetic gynecologist while pregnant. The image of the detached male doctor lingers with us for the whole length of the movie, along with his perverse power over a female body, over her right to “bare armor”—as in, contraception—and over her right to give birth. Together with Sachs, we wince at the story of her obtaining a contraceptive diaphragm. The doctor has no issue sending her off into battle with her new armor and zero instructions on how to do it. “I leave his office fully equipped, protected, and completely incapable of placing that plastic sheath over my cervix. Where is my cervix?” Next, we see a naked woman rolling up and down a sand dune unceasingly.
Another moment sat with me throughout the movie, that of a little girl. A little girl learning to read, stumbling through the grotesque words of Dr. Cesare Lombroso, naively walking us through his diagnosis of a nine-year-old female, a “born thief”. Sachs explores the concept of criminal atavism by juxtaposing her daughter’s voice with the delusional criminalization of women based on their physical appearance. By pairing images of female child-like playfulness and purity with delusional artifacts of the late 19th century, she amplifies the gap between the male study of women and women themselves. She flows between the public, mainstream, male rationale and the private, subjective female counter-experience. We are left with the uncomfortable ambiguity of child-like giggles of lightness and historical screams of darkness.
At the core of Sachs’ exhibit lies her most intimate gaze upon womanhood. It is articulated into unspoken words on the screen:
“I am two bodies—the body of the body and the body of the mind. The body of the body was flaccid and forgotten. This was the body that was wet with dirty liquids, holes that wouldn’t close, full of smells and curdled milk.” (We hear pencil scratches.)
The body of the body of a woman is biologically destined to be softer and therefore more fluid. All this fluidity, open space, holes, smells are often psychologically coupled with shame. Sachs’ words here represent the experience of most girls becoming women. This body of ours is too visceral for both us and the world to accept.
“The body of the body moves in cycles, and with every repetition there is a sensation of pain. The arrival of the body of the body forces the body of the mind to take notice, begrudgingly so. With legs crossed, the blood is caught just before it crosses the border into the public domain” (We hear a person peeing and a loud flushing of the toilet.)
Not only is the body of the body full of liquids and smells, but they threaten to spill over into the public domain. Our bodies and all their products are trained to be confined.
“Filled with infectious, infected liquids, we hold in the blood, the water, the sneeze, the wax, the hair, the pus, the breath. All that is ours to let go, to release onto this earth is held in, contained. I am the cauldron of dangerous substances.”
To defeat this imposed belief system of male ideas which we were fed throughout our lives is to inspect and observe your body for yourself. It takes a lot of courage to look into your own body with curiosity, rather than shame.
“I trace a path across my chest, searching for surprises I’d rather not find, knots in the fabric.”
Women are being re-educated to examine themselves instead of being examined by the cold metal-handed gynecologist. However, self-examination carries a burden of unforeseen surprises. Releasing our juices into the public, into the mainstream. Bravely facing the knots in the fabric as early signs of our bodies decaying.
“Undressed, we read our bodies like a history. Scars, muscles, curves of the spine. We look at ourselves from within. Collect our own data, create our own science. Begin to define.”
Built from the inside out, this new laboratory pushes against the walls of the old structure. An incendiary effect, but not arson.
When we are brave enough to look into the stretch marks, the scars, the wobbles, the curves, we own our space, our fluids and our bones. We collect and process our data, introduce new terminology. We allow for the soft to be malleable, buoyant, rather than flaccid and weak. We allow for differences. We allow for change. We allow for expression to re-place suppression. We become safely vulnerable instead of avoidant or anxious. We spit our words and meanings out instead of swallowing them.
In between the personal and the public domain lie Sachs’ women. These are real, physical women, subjects of anatomical studies, as well as women in paintings, subjects of the male painter’s gaze. The first, forced silent, the latter, painted static, confined to a space in history, “to be taken”. We witness a female artist looking at men looking at women.
Despite the immanently observational, passive and saddening tone of the movie, there is a promise in this exhibit. A promise that by carefully unfolding and studying the history of womanhood, one is already shaking the habitual. Sachs’ voice is not passive at all, it is rather filled with precisely focused meditative anger, an eloquent scream for justice, live from the gynecologist’s office, calling for help and cooperation.
To aid and support this novel conception of womanhood, we seek out new imagery, new viewpoints, new forms. Sachs’ filmography is a great start. The House of Science shifted my gaze to earlier works of art, predating celluloid. I searched for an alternative museum of womanhood. In particular, the Viennese modernist painters Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka stood out as engaging with the representation of women: as neither virgins nor whores, allowing their female subjects to escape this demeaning cage. They let their subjects move around freely, be comfortable, take up space, lie down wrapped up in themselves. Schiele went one step further: painting anger and anxiety on the faces of his subjects. “By exploring such subjects, the three artists simultaneously exhumed their own sexuality: their fears, sorrows, hopes, and ecstasies…their women do not necessarily submit passively to the male artistic gaze. They look back and demand to be understood on their own terms.”1 These were not the only attempts by men to redefine womanhood in a feminist way. However, the others were often buried and forgotten, most likely because they were single, isolated sprouts of change.
Although revolutionary, the idea that cooperation could displace competition has certainly taken root lately. This idea insinuates that equality is actually a lot more functional and productive for all parties involved. A very timely example would be the evolution of a virus (or a random constituted body of persons, empowered by the state, with a specific aim, e.g. to enforce the law). If a virus were to survive, it would have to evolve in a cooperative manner with its host. Eventually, many highly infectious and pathogenic viruses have decreased their pathogenicity in order to keep their hosts alive. Some have even been completely eradicated over time. This gives me hope, both for us as a species and us as women. However, to put this into practice, we need both the unspoken voices to be heard and the destructive, competitive voices to fade out. It would have to be a cooperative effort.
Jane Kallir, ‘Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka – Men Looking at Women Looking at Men’, p. 59, in: Agnes Husslein-Arco Jane Kallir and Alfred Weidinger, The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka, 2015
I feel a closeness to writers, poets and painters, much more than to traditional film directors. For one thing, we ciné experimenters are not bound by the plot-driven mechanics of cause and effect that, for me, often bring the transcendent experience of watching a movie to a grinding halt. The kinds of films I make give the space for mysterious – at least initially — sequences that don’t simply illustrate why one event or scene leads to another. More like an artist than a traditional documentary maker, I am interested in a kind of meaning that is open to interpretation. Once a film is complete, I often learn things about it from my audience — how the convergence of two images actually expresses an idea or how a non-diegetic sound expands the meaning of spoken phrase. I hope it’s doing one thing, but I might discover that it’s doing something completely different. In this way, the films are kind of porous and flexible; they are open to interpretation. My essay films, in particular, are full of association. Some are resolved and some are adolescent; they’re still trying to figure out who they are. Through the making of the film, I learn about myself in the context of learning about the world. My job is not to educate but rather to spark a curiosity in my viewer that moves from the inside out. The texts for these films come to me in both public and private spaces: on a long train ride, during a layover in a strange city, at a café, in a hotel room, on the toilet.
Throughout the 1990s, I gravitated toward the simultaneously visceral and cerebral French feminist theory of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. As a moving image artist searching for a new discourse that spoke to radical issues with an equally radical form, I embraced this kind of writing as it led me toward the non-narrative, unconventional grammar of experimental film as well as the self-reflexivity of the essay. My first essay film was “The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts” (1991), a personal rumination on the relationship between a woman’s body and the often-opposing institutions of art and science. While I was shooting this film, I was also keeping a diary:
“My memory of being a girl includes a “me” that is two. I am two bodies – the body of the body and the body of the mind. The body of the body was flaccid and forgotten. This was the body that was wet with dirty liquids, holes that wouldn’t close, full of smells and curdled milk. Of course there was the skeleton. This was assumed and only reconsidered upon my very rare attempts at jumping farther than far enough, clearing the ditch, lifting the heave-ho. But the body of the body was not the bones. This body wrapped and encircled the bones, a protective cover of flesh, just on the other side of the wall I call skin.”
I will never forget a cross-country plane ride I took near the end of editing this film. Throughout the time I was in the air, as I flew across the Mississippi, the Great Plains, and the Rockies, I was searching frantically for the hidden skeletal structure of the film. I’d committed to a premiere at the Los Angeles Film Forum, and I only had a couple of months until my screening date. (Stupid me. I’ll never do that again!) Midway into the flight, I realized it was all laid out before me in the form of the poetry journal I carried in my backpack. The writing had been with me all along; I simply hadn’t realized that this text was more than a dispensable traveling partner in the “journey” that was the production of the movie. Over the next few weeks, my poems began to guide my editing of the images and sounds,. Ever since that early period in my filmmaking career, I’ve kept a handwritten journal during the making of my films. In addition to contributing an often times essential narrative element, this kind of writing can also be the critical link to the “naïve” yet curious person I may no longer really “know,” the person I was when I embarked on the intellectual and artistic adventure that is the creation of a film.
In my 1994 essay film “Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam” (1994), I built a voice-over narration out of two surprisingly oppositional perspectives on post-war Vietnam. My sister Dana Sachs, one of the first American journalists to live for an extended period of time in Vietnam, offered expansive, highly informed insights on Vietnamese daily life. In contrast, my writing traced my own transformation from earnest, war-obsessed American tourist to more keenly observant traveler:
“Driving through the Mekong Delta, a name that carries so much weight. My mind is full of war, and my eyes are on a scavenger hunt for leftovers. Dana told me that those ponds full of bright green rice seedlings are actually craters, the inverted ghosts of bombed out fields. At Cu Chi, we pay three U.S. dollars so that a tour guide will lead us through a section of this well-known 200-kilometer tunnel complex. This is the engineering masterpiece of the Viet Cong, a matrix of underground kitchens and living rooms and army headquarters. As I slide through the narrow, dusty passageway, my head fills up with those old war movies Dad took us to in the ’70′s. My body is way too big for these tunnels. I can hardly breathe. After five minutes, I come out gasping. We decide not to spend the extra ten dollars it costs to shoot a rifle.”
Only by reconnecting to the developing stages of my awareness through my journal could I provide an opening to my American audience. The narrative trajectory of this half-hour film follows our evolving understanding of the landscape and the people of Vietnam. Honestly, my sister Dana and I fought all the through the shaping of the film’s voice over. If she hadn’t been my sister, I probably would have fired her as a collaborator! The fundamental tension between the two of us grew out of several distinct differences between our points of view. While she had very much completed her own reckoning with the destruction of the war between Vietnam and the United States, I, like most tourists, was still dealing with the war’s echoes and the guilt that came with that psychic burden. While she wanted to follow the order of events to the letter, I felt free to articulate our experiences by distilling our stories into anecdotes that could function like parables. By recognizing the inherent tension between my position as a non-narrative experimental filmmaker and my sister’s commitment to a more transparent commentary, we were able to find a rhetorical strategy that mirrors the most fundamental conflicts around discourse and truth facing an essayist in any format. In several quintessentially self-reflexive moments, my sister expresses exasperation with almost every aspect of my production process:
“Lynne can stand for an hour finding the perfect frame for her shot. It’s as if she can understand Vietnam better when she looks at it through the lens of her camera. I hate the camera. The world feels too wide for the lens, and if I try to frame it, I only cut it up.”
In 1997, I completed “Biography of Lilith” (1997), a film exploring the ruptures both women and men must confront when transitioning from being autonomous individuals to parents with responsibilities. I began making this film when I discovered I was pregnant with my first daughter and by the time I finished three years later I was able to punctuate the final sound mix with the cries of my second child. Inspired by the theoretical texts of Julia Kristeva and Antonin Artaud, in particular, this film celebrates my most intimate and abject concerns about the changes in my body and my place in the world as a woman. My film on Lilith, Adam’s first mate, is also a portrait of a female archetype who boldly wanted to be on top during sex. The film matches a non-authoritative exposition of Lilith in a multiplicity of cultures – both ancient and contemporary – with my own pre and post-partum writing. In this way, I juxtaposed two years of historical and cultural research and interviews with intimate ruminations on my own sexuality and motherhood.
“I’m learning to read all over again. A face, this time, connected to a body. At first, I feel your story from within. Nose rubs against belly, elbow prods groin. Your silent cough becomes a confusing dip and bulge. You speak and I struggle to translate. I lie on my side, talk to myself, rub my fingers across my skin, from left to right. I read out loud, and I hope you can hear me. I’m learning to read all over again, but this time I have a teacher.”
In “States of UnBelonging” (2005), my fourth film in a five-film body of work I call “I Am Not a War Photographer”, I turned to Terence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” and to the “Hell” section of Jean Luc Godard’s “Notre Musique” for lessons from makers who were capable of articulating the horror of war. I constructed this film around an epistolary friendship I had with an Israeli student who moved back to Tel Aviv during an extremely volatile period in Israel-Palestine. A meditation on war as well as land, the Bible, and filmmaking, this essay film is built from over three years of emails. With enormous hesitation and intimidation, we reveal our anguish and bewilderment in the film’s soundtrack as well as on the screen as text. With an awareness of my own position in this charged political landscape, I start the film with a kind of meta-historical lamentation on the way that human beings organize time:
“Do you ever have the feeling that the history you are experiencing has no shape?
Even as a teenager I was obsessed with history’s shifts and ruptures. Wars helped us order time. A war established beginnings and endings. There is “before.” There is “during.” There is “after.”
I am currently working on “Tip of My Tongue”, a film on memory that began with 50 autobiographical poems I wrote about each year from my birth in 1961 to my 50th birthday. Unlike my previous films, in which the research and shooting themselves prompted the text, this project grew directly from my poetry. Without the slightest concern for how the poems would eventually shimmy their way into one of my movies, in 2012 I gave myself the unencumbered freedom to write about my own life. In each poem, I looked at the relationship between a large public event and my own insignificant, yet somehow personally memorable, connection to that situation. Now, three years later, I am working with a cast of eleven people from almost every continent, each of whom was born around the year 1961. Together we are creating an inverted history of our collective half-century through a series of spoken story distillations that place the grand in the shadow of the intimate. From glimpsing a drunken Winston Churchill on the streets of London to watching the Moon landing from a playground in Melbourne to washing dishes during the Iranian Revolution to feeling destitute during the Recession, we are working collaboratively to construct our own recipe for a performative sound-image essay film.
Excerpt from Review by Tanya Goldman in Cinema Journal:
“There is often a poetic dialogue extending between sections when a voice of the past rhymes with the present. In 1948, Alexandre Astruc wrote of a cinema that should function as “the seismograph of our hearts, a disorderly pendulum inscribing on film the tense dialectics of our ideas.” This quality is echoed in Lynne Sachs’s 2016 reflections on her own practice through which she feels a stronger sense of kinship with writers, poets, and painters than film directors. She states that her job “is not to educate but rather to spark curiosity in my viewer that moves from the inside out.” Observations such as these bestow the essay film with a distinct emotive quality much at odds with classical documentary’s association with sobriety.”
Tanya Goldman Cinema Journal, Volume 57, Number 4, Summer 2018, pp. 161-166 (Review) Published by University of Texas Press DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/cj.2018.0064
I feel a closeness with writers, poets and painters, much more than with traditional film “directors.” We share a love of collage. In the kinds of films I make, there are fissures in terms of how something leads to something else. Relationships and associations aren’t fixed. I always learn from an audience, about whether or not the convergence of two images is actually expressing an idea. I hope it’s doing one thing, but I might learn that it is doing something completely different. In this way the films are kind of porous; they are open to interpretation. One thing I realized recently is that I have this rhythm when I make films—ABABAB or yesnoyesnoyesno. For example, I call The House of Science a “yes film” because any idea that came into my head, pretty much made its way into the movie. The yes films are full of associations—some of them are resolved and some of them are adolescent; they’re still trying to figure out who they are. Other films are “no films.” Window Workis a single eight-minute image of me sitting in front of a window. It’s very spare and kind of performative. I felt like it had to be done in one shot. “No, you can’t bring in any clutter.” Sometimes I try to make films that don’t have clutter; other times I make films that are full of it.
Watch ‘Lynne Sachs’ Yes and No Films’ by Kevin B. Lee
Here is a list of my films in the Fandor collection. Critic Kevin B. Lee gave me the assignment to designate films that fall under the YES or NO category. Please keep in mind that these rather black-and-white distinctions do not imply a positive or negative disposition within the film. Instead, they indicate an integrated philosophical approach to the artistic rigor I brought to the creative process. I didn’t actually figure out that I was following this approach until about 2010, so I am actually imposing this nomenclature on my filmography retroactively.
Selected Films and Videos by Lynne Sachs
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (4 min. B&W 16mm, 1986)
A film portrait that falls somewhere between a painting and a prose poem, a look at a woman’s daily routines and thoughts via an exploration of her as a “character.” By interweaving threads of history and fiction, the film is also a tribute to a real woman—Emma Goldman. (This is a YES film that was inspired by my viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie and Yvonne Rainer’s Lives of Performers. For the first time, absolutely any idea that came to my mind had to squeeze its way into my four-minute film. Sometimes big ideas were distilled into a gesture or a cut. So was born an experimental filmmaker. . . .)
Drawn and Quartered (4 min. color 16mm, 1986)
Optically printed images of a man and a woman fragmented by a film frame that is divided into four distinct sections. An experiment in form/content relationships that are peculiar to the medium. (This is a NO film. I shot a film on a roof with my boyfriend. Every frame was choreographed. Both of us took off our clothing and let the Bolex whirl and that was it. Pure and simple.)
Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning (9 min. color 16mm. 1987)
Like an animal in one of Eadweard Muybridge’s scientific photo experiments, five undramatic moments in a man’s life are observed by a woman. A study in visual obsession and a twist on the notion of the “gaze.” (Another YES film intended as a pair with Still Life with Woman and Four Objects. I tried to put way too many ideas into this film and it ultimately didn’t work very well. It was a risk, and that in and of itself I am happy about.)
Sermons and Sacred Pictures: the Life and Work of Reverend L.O. Taylor (29 minutes, 16mm, 1989)
An experimental documentary on Reverend L.O. Taylor, a Black Baptist minister from Memphis who was also an inspired filmmaker with an overwhelming interest in preserving the social and cultural fabric of his own community in the 1930s and 1940s. (A teacher of mine in graduate school said to me “Why don’t you put yourself into the movie? Make yourself visible on the screen.” I felt that my fingerprint on the film and the three-year production expressed my personal presence far better than my actually being in the film. I said NO.)
The House of Science: a Museum of False Facts (30 min., 16mm 1991)
“Offering a new feminized film form, this piece explores both art and science’s representation of women, combining home movies, personal remembrances, staged scenes and found footage into an intricate visual and aural college. A girl’s sometimes difficult coming-of-age rituals are recast into a potent web for affirmation and growth.” — SF Cinematheque (This film was the beginning of unbridled YES-ness.)
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam(33 min., 16mm, 1994)
“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.” When two American sisters travel north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, conversations with Vietnamese strangers and friends reveal to them the flip side of a shared history. “The film has a combination of qualities: compassion, acute observational skills, an understanding of history’s scope, and a critical ability to discern what’s missing from the textbooks and TV news.” —Independent Film & Video Monthly (I shot this film during a one-month visit to Vietnam. I traveled around the country with my sister and shot only forty minutes of film, as much as I was able to carry in a backpack. The post-production required absolute precision, focus and a willingness to work with the bare minimum. I learned about editing in this film because it was so self-contained. I could not return to Vietnam to shoot more and this in and of itself taught me to see. A definite NO.)
A Biography of Lilith(35 min., 16mm, 1997)
In a lively mix of off-beat narrative, collage and memoir, this film updates the creation myth by telling the story of the first woman and for some, the first feminist. Lilith’s betrayal by Adam in Eden and subsequent vow of revenge is recast as a modern tale with present-day Lilith musing on a life that has included giving up a baby for adoption and work as a bar dancer. Interweaving mystical texts from Jewish folklore with interviews, music and poetry, Sachs reclaims this cabalistic parable to frame her own role as a mother. (This film started with my first pregnancy in 1995 and ended with the birth of my second child in 1997. So many ideas came to my mind during this early period of being a mother, from superstitions, to feminism, to archeology, to my performing nude in front of the camera. I would even say this film is my first musical. It’s a YES.)
Investigation of a Flame (16mm, 45 min. 2001)
An intimate, experimental portrait of the Catonsville Nine, a disparate band of Vietnam War peace activists who chose to break the law in a defiant, poetic act of civil disobedience. Produced with Daniel and Philip Berrigan and other members of the Catonsville 9. (I lived and breathed this movie for three years but from the beginning I knew what it was about and I didn’t really deviate from that except on a metaphoric level and that doesn’t count. It’s a NO.)
Photograph of Wind(4 min., B&W and color, 16mm, 2001)
My daughter’s name is Maya. I’ve been told that the word maya means illusion in Hindu philosophy. As I watch her growing up, spinning like a top around me, I realize that her childhood is not something I can grasp but rather—like the wind—something I feel tenderly brushing across my cheek. “Sachs suspends in time a single moment of her daughter.” —Fred Camper (I kept this one very spare and I like that NO-ness about it.)
Tornado(4 min., color video 2002)
A tornado is a spinning cyclone of nature. It stampedes like an angry bull through a tranquil pasture of blue violets and upright blades of grass. A tornado kills with abandon but has no will. Lynne Sachs’ Tornado is a poetic piece shot from the perspective of Brooklyn, where much of the paper and soot from the burning towers fell on September 11. Sachs’ fingers obsessively handle these singed fragments of resumes, architectural drawings and calendars, normally banal office material that takes on a new, haunting meaning. (This film is a distillation of what I was thinking right after September, 11, 2001. It had to be a NO film. If I had added anything else, it would not express the anguish of that moment in New York City.)
States of UnBelonging(63 min. video 2006)
For two and a half years, filmmaker Lynne Sachs worked to write and visualize this moving cine-essay on the violence of the Middle East by exchanging personal letters and images with an Israeli friend. The core of her experimental meditation on war, land, the Bible, and filmmaking is a portrait of Revital Ohayon, an Israeli filmmaker and mother killed in a terrorist act on a kibbutz near the West Bank. Without taking sides or casting blame, the film embraces Revital’s story with surprising emotion, entering her life and legacy through home movies, acquired film footage, news reports, interviews and letters. (A NO movie that wanted to wander in every direction but the one where it eventually led.)
Noa, Noa (8 min., 16mm on DVD, B&W and Color, sound 2006)
Over the course of three years, Sachs collaborated with her daughter Noa (from 5 to 8 years old), criss-crossing the wooded landscapes of Brooklyn with camera and costumes in hand. Noa’s grand finale is her own rendition of the bluegrass classic “Crawdad Song.” (I followed my daughter wherever she took me, so that limitation makes it a NO film.)
Atalanta 32 Years Later (5 min. color sound, 2006, 16mm on DVD)
A retelling of the age-old fairy tale of the beautiful princess in search of the perfect prince. In 1974, Marlo Thomas’ hip, liberal celebrity gang created a feminist version of the children’s parable for mainstream TV’s “Free To Be You and Me”. Now in 2006, Sachs dreamed up this new experimental film reworking, a homage to girl/girl romance.
(This film had very strict parameters that were given to me by curator Thomas Beard so I suppose it is a NO.)
The Small Ones (3 min. color sound, 2006 DVD)
During World War II, the United States Army hired Lynne Sachs’ cousin, Sandor Lenard, to reconstruct the bones – small and large – of dead American soldiers. This short anti-war cine-poem is composed of highly abstracted battle imagery and children at a birthday party. “Profound. The soundtrack is amazing. The image at the end of the girl with the avocado seed so hopeful. Good work.” — Barbara Hammer.
(A YES film that allowed me to include an avocado and a spider in a film about war.)
Georgic for a Forgotten Planet(11 min., video, 2008)
I began reading Virgil’s Georgics, a First-Century epic agricultural poem, and knew immediately that I needed to create a visual equivalent about my own relationship to the place where I live, New York City. Culled from material I collected at Coney Island, the Lower East Side, Socrates Sculpture Garden in Queens, a Brooklyn community garden and a place on Staten Island that is so dark you can see the three moons of Jupiter. An homage to a place many people affectionately and mysteriously call the big apple. (Not sure if my catagories work for this film so I won’t commit.)
Cuadro por cuadro/ Frame by Frame( 8 min., by Lynne Sachs and Mark Street, 2009)
In Cuadro por caudro, Lynne Sachs and Mark Street put on a workshop (taller in Spanish) with a group of Uruguan media artists to create handpainted experimental films in the spirit of Stan Brakhage. Sachs and Street collaborate with their students at the Fundacion de Arte Contemporaneo by painting on 16 and 35 mm film, then bleaching it and then hanging it to dry on the roof of the artists’ collective in Montevideo in July, 2009. (I made this film with my husband Mark Street. It is one of our XY Chromosome Project collaborations so my usual rhythms don’t really apply.)
The Last Happy Day (37 min., 16mm and video, 2009)
The Last Happy Day is a half hour experimental documentary portrait of Sandor Lenard, a distant cousin of filmmaker Lynne Sachs and a Hungarian medical doctor. Lenard was a writer with a Jewish background who fled the Nazis. During the war, the US Army Graves Registration Service hired Lenard to reconstruct the bones — small and large — of dead American soldiers. Eventually Sandor found himself in remotest Brazil where he embarked on the translation of Winnie the Pooh into Latin, an eccentric task which catapulted him to brief world wide fame. Perhaps it is our culture’s emphasis on genealogy that pushes Sachs to pursue a narrative nurtured by the “ties of blood”, a portrait of a cousin. Ever since she discovered as a teenager that this branch of her family had stayed in Europe throughout WWII, she has been unable to stop wondering about Sandor’s life as an artist and an exile. Sachs’ essay film, which resonates as an anti-war meditation, is composed of excerpts of her cousin’s letters to the family, abstracted war imagery, home movies of children at a birthday party, and interviews. (I had wanted to create this film for about 20 years but could never figure out how to make it work. Only when it transformed from a NO film to an anything-goes YES film did it find its voice.)
Wind in Our Hair/ Con viento en el pelo (40 min. 16mm and Super 8 on video, 2010)
Inspired by the stories of Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, yet blended with the realities of contemporary Argentina, “Wind in Our Hair” is an 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, Wind in Our Hair is circumscribed by a period of profound Argentine political and social unrest. Shot with 16mm, Super 8mm, Regular 8mm film and video, the film follows the girls to the train tracks, into kitchens, on sidewalks, in costume stores, and into backyards in the heart of Buenos Aires as well as the outskirts of town. Sachs and her Argentine collaborators move about Buenos Aires with their cameras, witnessing the four playful girls as they wander a city embroiled in a debate about the role of agribusiness, food resources and taxes. Using an intricately constructed Spanish-English “bilingual” soundtrack, Sachs articulates this atmosphere of urban turmoil spinning about the young girls’ lives. (Again this film moved from being a NO narrative film based on a short story by an Argentine author to being a YES film that included lots of documentary material. This shift is an indication of a move toward hybrid filmmaking.)
The Task of the Translator(10 min., video 2010)
Lynne Sachs pays homage to Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” through three studies of the human body. First, she listens to the musings of a wartime doctor grappling with the task of a kind-of cosmetic surgery for corpses. Second, she witnesses a group of Classics scholars confronted with the haunting yet whimsical task of translating a newspaper article on Iraqi burial rituals into Latin. And finally, she turns to a radio news report on human remains. (Not sure what to call this one.)
Sound of a Shadow (10 min. Super 8mm film on video, made with Mark Street, 2011)
A wabi sabi summer in Japan–observing that which is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete– produces a series of visual haiku in search of teeming street life, bodies in emotion, and leaf prints in the mud. (Another blissful NO film that recognized the integrity of keeping it simple)
Same Stream Twice (4 min. 16mm b & w and color on DVD, 2012)
My daughter’s name is Maya. I’ve been told that the word maya means illusion in Hindu philosophy. In 2001, I photographed her at six years old, spinning like a top around me. Even then, I realized that her childhood was not something I could grasp but rather—like the wind—something I could feel tenderly brushing across my cheek. Eleven years later, I pull out my 16mm Bolex camera once again and she allows me to film her—different but somehow the same. (There is an organic logic to this so I will designate it a NO.)
Your Day is My Night (HD video and live performance, 64 min., 2013)
Immigrant residents of a “shift-bed” apartment in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown share their stories of personal and political upheaval. As the bed transforms into a stage, the film reveals the collective history of the Chinese in the United States through conversations, autobiographical monologues, and theatrical movement pieces. Shot in the kitchens, bedrooms, wedding halls, cafés, and mahjong parlors of Chinatown, this provocative hybrid documentary addresses issues of privacy, intimacy, and urban life. (Because I brought in the performance and fiction elements to this documentary I must call it a YES film.)
Drift and Bough(Super 8mm on Digital, B&W, 6 min., 2014)
Sachs spends a morning this winter in Central Park shooting film in the snow. Holding her Super 8mm camera, she takes note of graphic explosions of dark and light and an occasional skyscraper. The stark black lines of the trees against the whiteness create the sensation of a painter’s chiaroscuro. Woven into this cinematic landscape, we hear sound artist Stephen Vitiello’s delicate yet soaring musical track which seems to wind its way across the frozen ground, up the tree trunks to the sky. (One very cold day in the park and some music. If there were more, it would melt. It’s a NO.)