In December, 2018, I screened INVESTIGATION OF A FLAME with artist Darius Clark Monroe who showed his film BLACK FOURTEEN as part of the Berrigan Forum (named for the the brave and inimitable DANIEL BERRIGAN, peace activist and poet) at Fordham University. The forum is organized by Ryan Di Corpo, whose passionate commitment to peace and cinema is inspiring, indeed.
“This column has put me in a retrospective mood, since it marks my 30th anniversary writing about films for The Nation. So it’s fortunate that I have a 40th anniversary to write about, and a series to peg it to. For the second half of September, the Metrograph theater in Manhattan is offering a birthday salute to the distributor Icarus Films, screening 56 titles that demonstrate a principle dear to both that company and me: the conviction that a movie can have strong social or political content and still do something interesting as film.
I had the good luck to write on just that theme for one of the first pictures I reviewed here, Marcel Ophüls’s Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, and dozens of other films in the series implicitly make the same point. The Metrograph is showing, among others, Chris Marker’s epic (or perhaps encyclopedic, or maybe satiric) recent history of the global left, A Grin Without a Cat; Patricio Guzmán’s gorgeous meditation on astronomy and the collection of human remains, Nostalgia for the Light; Chantal Akerman’s magnificent, wordless journey into the regions of her unlived past, D’Est; Lynne Sachs’s almost tactile resurrection of the resistance to the Vietnam War, Investigation of a Flame; and, for those in a truly retrospective mood, Heddy Honigmann’s Forever, an infinitely touching documentary about the Père Lachaise cemetery and its visitors. If the Metrograph is far from you, please be aware that almost all of the films in the Icarus series are available on streaming services, making it possible for you, too, to look back, and look around.
The Tang Teaching Museum’s series Whole Grain explores classic and contemporary work in experimental film and video. Whole Grain is programmed by Educator for College and Public Programs, Tom Yoshikami. All events are free and open to the public.
Join us on Thursday, September 13, at 7:00 PM, for a screening of Investigation of a Flame: A Portrait of the Catonsville Nine, followed by a discussion with filmmaker Lynne Sachs.
Investigation of a Flame (2001, US, 45 min., 16mm) is an intimate, experimental documentary portrait of the Catonsville Nine, this disparate band of resisters who chose to break the law in a defiant, poetic act of civil disobedience. It follows nine Vietnam War protesters led by Daniel and Philip Berrigan, who, on May 17, 1968, walked into a Catonsville, Maryland draft board office, grabbed hundreds of selective service records, and burned them with homemade napalm.
This screening is part of our series Whole Grain: Experiments in Film and Video and is held in conjunction with the exhibition Give a damn., on view at the Tang through September 30.
Lynne also taught a workshop in the
THE JOHN B. MOORE DOCUMENTARY STUDIES COLLABORATIVE (MDOCS)
The year 1968 signaled revolution, but that call for change was heard differently, unevenly. In the streets, it was louder than a bomb and echoed with joy; in mansions and police precincts, an incomprehensible tune sung in an impossible language. A student in Mexico City goes to a demonstration, a communist in Tokyo buys a saxophone, a CIA operative spies on Black nationalists in Cleveland, and the Los Angeles rich look in the mirror and don’t recognize their faces. This film series explores the many manifestations of this global upheaval through cinema.
Series programmer: Austin McCann
Investigation of a Flame and El Pueblo Se Levanta are two documentaries centered around the church as a site of community organizing.
Investigation of a Flame
(Lynne Sachs, US, 2003, 43 min)
In her elegiac tribute to the Catonsville Nine, acclaimed documentarian Lynne Sachs ponders the moral dilemma that moved nine middle-class Catholics to break into their local Maryland draft office and burn 378 draft records with homemade napalm. The film combines insightful interviews with a more abstract visual sensibility attuned to the quotidian spaces of the resisters. A beautiful portrait of faith in opposition to war featuring Daniel and Philip Berrigan.
El Pueblo Se Levanta
(Prod. Third World Newsreel Film Collective, US, 1971, 42 min)
The Young Lords were a US-based Puerto Rican militant organization dedicated to improving the lives of their communities through direct action and community programs. In this hard-hitting 1971 newsreel, we witness the Young Lords organizing in Harlem in the late ’60s, including an extensive church occupation.
*Co-presented with the Seattle Chapter of the DSA!* Post-screening discussion to follow with Dae Shik Kim Hawkins Jr., who is a local reporter, youth pastor, and organizer with the Seattle Peoples Party. He does most of his organizing around Seattle’s unhoused community and the brutal sweeps that the city continues. Hawkins recently co-wrote the “Bruised But Not Broken: Tales of a Korean Immigrant Church” series for Inheritance Magazine. You can find his writing in the South Seattle Emerald, the Seattle Weekly, and the Atlantic.
On May 17th 1968, nine Catholic activists entered the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland. They took 378 draft files, brought them to the parking lot, and burned them using homemade napalm. In order to get to the files, the group was forced to struggle with a clerk, Mary Murphy, who was working at the office that day. Later, from jail, the activists sent Murphy a bouquet of flowers and an apology.
This curious detail is one among many that come to light in Lynne Sachs elegiac 2001 film Investigation of a Flame,screening tonight at Anthology Film Archives. This poetic cinematic essay integrates interviews, archival footage, and experimental flourishes into a gentle evocation of the Catonsville Nine’s direct action. From this variety of material, the film develops its own deliberate cadence, where found and original footage create an effortless dialogue across time. Sachs gives us a rich vision of the event, the people involved, and its political and philosophical context, that’s always elegant, never didactic.
Sound maintains the leading role in Sachs’ film. It binds her images together, giving the formally playful passages their necessary freedom while keeping them tethered just closely enough to the larger subject. A variety of voices are also key. In Investigation of a Flame, we hear from the Nine themselves and Mary Murphy, the draft board clerk, and the Catonsville Nine prosecuting attorney as well. These voices of seeming dissent are not at odds with the work at large, but rather become some of its greatest strengths, achieving, strangely enough, the kind of dialogue advocated by a steady stream of present-day editorials. The perspectives of the Nine, Mary Murphy, and others however, so many years after the incident, are still reckoning with questions of duty, faith, and violence. What results is a not a work of lifeless history, but a vital, wisened film about the nature of protest.
The Light and Sound Machine is at it again, bringing Nashvillians some of the most interesting experimental cinema, current and historical, screening anywhere in the Southeast. On Thursday, Sept. 17, L&SM welcomes veteran filmmaker Lynne Sachs for a program of works spanning her 30-year career, beginning with her first released film and ending with her latest.
Sachs is probably best known as an experimental documentarian, and the centerpiece of this program is one of her most widely screened films, the 45-minute featurette Investigation of a Flame. This 2003 work examines the legacy of the Catonville Nine, the anti-war protesters who in 1968 walked into the local offices of the Catonville, Md., Selective Service, stole their Vietnam draft files, and lit them on fire using homemade napalm. The group, led by radical priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan, became symbols of a different kind of war resistance, and Sachs’ film interviews those members of the Nine still living, intercutting the new material with file footage for a multi-perspectival approach.
Sachs’ earliest works are more “traditional,” if by this we mean operating in the recognizable vernacular of American avant-garde film. So for most viewers, they will seem quite unusual indeed. For example, “Still Life With Woman and Four Objects” (1986), Sachs’ first film, adopts a feminist approach common during the 1980s: Instead of offering a portrait of a woman per se, we are given mere fragments, and the promised objects of the title are either withheld or depicted in such an oblique manner as to make it likely that we will miss them. The upshot being: Any filmic subject, such as “woman,” is inherently too complex to adequately depict with straightforward means.
Similarly, Sachs’ four-image “Drawn and Quartered” (also 1986), is partly a self-portrait, partly a portrait of a man (presumably Sachs’ partner Mark Street), and partly a study of a shifting environment. The split image results from Sachs having shot in 8mm, but not having split the film in half (as was customary with regular 8, before Super 8 cartridges). So one gets a doubled, inverted image. The two double images play off one another in terms of form, direction and color. Their relationship is partly planned, but not entirely within Sachs’ control.
Two of Sachs’ films from the past decade focus on the filmmaker’s children, capturing moments of innocence and discovery. 2001’s “Photograph of Wind” is a brief portrait of Sachs’ daughter Maya as she runs and whirls in a circle. The silent black-and-white film shows the little girl surrounded by the centripetal streaks of spinning grass and trees, the runner and the camera going in and out of phase with one another. “Noa, Noa,” from 2006, depicts the young girl of the title playing dress-up in the woods, acting like a queen of the forest and exhibiting an enviable sense of self. Black-and-white and silent, like “Photograph of Wind,” “Noa, Noa” ends with a surprising coda in color with sound. It’s as if Noa’s world suddenly bursts into a new dimension of life.
Sachs’ latest, “Starfish Aorta Colossus” (made with Sean Hanley), is based on a poem by Paolo Javier. An eerie, fractured meditation on loss, the poem is visualized with another foray into multiplied imagery. Although formally “Starfish” echoes “Drawn and Quartered,” the new film features striking footage of the AIDS quilt, as well as partial, disrupted portions of bodies and landscapes. The structural play that enlivened Sachs’ film from 30 years ago is now mournful, staggered. This speaks not only to Sachs’ inevitable maturity as an artist, but no doubt to her assessment of the three decades we have collectively traversed to arrive where we are now.
Yes/No: The Cinema of Lynne Sachs
Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015 at Third Man Records, 623 Seventh Ave. S.
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.)
the Vietnam antiwar movement in 1968, In Catonsville
Friday, May 10, 2013 · 2:30 PM – 6 PM
Friday, May 10
Proscenium Theater, Performing Arts and Humanities Building
Looking Forward from the 45th Anniversary of the Catonsville Nine Actions
In May of 1968, nine individuals shook the conscience of the nation as they burned U.S. Selective Service records with home-made napalm on the grounds of the Catonsville, Maryland Knights of Columbus hall. The fire they started erupted into an infamous trial where the nine were defended by William Kuntsler. The news spread throughout the country, influencing other similar dynamic actions in every major U.S. city. Two of the original members of the Nine will be on hand to talk about their experiences – about how they met and their stand against U.S. militarization in Latin America. We will also be joined by two scholars who will help us connect this story with the larger context of Vietnam War era protests.
3:00pm Screening of the documentary film Investigation of a Flame (dir. Lynne Sachs), followed by excerpts from the documentary film Hit and Stay (dir. Joe Tropea & Skizz Cyzyk). Q&A with the directors.
Thomas and Margarita Melville (authors of Whose Heaven, Whose Earth?);
Karin Aguilar-San Juan (Macalester College, author of Staying Vietnamese and The State of Asian America);
Joby Taylor (Shriver Center Peaceworker Program, moderator); and special guests.
Co-sponsored by the Department of American Studies
Published in San Francisco Cinematheque’s monograph Lynne Sachs Retrospective 1986 – 2010
Letter from Bill Nichols
August 31, 2004
It was such a pleasant surprise to see you again after so many years at the benefit for the Anthology Film Archives. Your work has clearly gelled into an oeuvre of some note since we were both, passingly, at San Francisco State University in the late eighties.
I am very glad you were able to send me a copy of Investigation of a Flame, your film about the destruction of draft records in Catonsville, Maryland by Daniel and Philip Berrigan and the seven others. It is quite a compelling work. I think it is extremely revealing in terms of the motivations and consequences of what took place. This was a part of the history of the 1960s that was mediated to us by papers and networks that were in a near hysteria, fueled partly by a fear that the social fabric, and the social contract, was being torn asunder by people who would not accept lies and hypocrisy, and partly by a government that was determined to impose its will on a public vulnerable to a rhetoric of fear—from the specter of Communism that time, the specter of terrorism now. The past does return, doesn’t it, but not always as farce.
I was just getting back from two years in Kenya, where I had gone to teach in a secondary school and to rethink my trajectory toward a medical career, when that and other events occurred. The assassination of Martin Luther King had taken place just before I was due to leave and the May-June events of 1968 in France were at their height. I came back partly with the optimistic thought of resuming my studies, but now in cinema, and partly with the pessimistic dread that my plans would be postponed by the draft. I was eligible but also a bit clueless about what my options were. I had heard news of draft resisters and had friends in Paris who worked with draft deserters; I knew I could go to Paris instead of back to the U.S., but I also knew it would alter the rest of my life more than I could imagine.
Events like the one you reexamine flickered past on the limited news that reached my remote village. Their function on an ethical plane of giving witness to an alternative view of community and relationships was not lost on me, not after having followed King’s efforts in some detail. But this had to be filtered out from the general hysteria, scapegoating and demonizing. I never had access to the interiority of the event, certainly not with the density and complexity that you are now able to offer. You give a delicacy to the representation of what happened that really enlivens memory and enriches history. The sensitivity and strength of the “perpetrators” is quite impressive. They know what they are doing and why and have given it such careful thought. They remain vividly aware of what they wanted to do, how intensely they wished to cause no physical harm to any individuals who may have worked at the draft center, and how visible the symbolic level of their acts had to be. You give these acts, through the archival footage and the very personal, moving testimony of those who participated, an exemplary power: they come to stand for, in your film, those acts we sometimes undertake when we are driven by conscience and a compelling need to give witness to an alternative sense of social responsibility.
I felt at times that Investigation of a Flame bore similarity to The Thin Blue Line with the poetic, evocative quality Errol Morris instills, but without the romantic overtone that his use of Philip Glass’ music imparts. You withhold that kind of musical dramatization; your film remains within a realm of historical witness and physical action that is not now, as it was not then, embroidered with the richness of musical tapestry. The actuality of the event, which in The Thin Blue Line remains, in fact, invisible since no one saw the murder that is at the heart of the film, is rendered visible again. Your rapid pans of flowers and other objects, in an evocative color that evokes the past more than a photo-realist present, have an austere, provocative quality to them. Unlike Glass’ music, whose “work” for Morris’ film is clear, these images of garden flowers challenge us to determine what “work” they do. They do not soften the sharpness of a still vital historical past. They may reduce the pleasures that one ponders upon stepping up to the box office window, but they reward in ways I am still in the process of contemplating.
What I do not need to contemplate but remember is that the efforts of people like the ones you feature did have a profound impact on me. What to do about the draft? I went back to the classes in theology I had had at Duke and to the questions of a just war that St. Augustine had raised so long ago and wound up writing an extremely long explanation of why I felt I had to request status as a conscientious objector to my own draft board on Long Island. Remarkably (because very few boards paid much heed to such requests), my request was granted and, through a series of additional vicissitudes, I was able to resume my studies and continue my opposition to the war in Vietnam without having to enter the Army. People like the Catonsville 9 had a direct influence on the shape of my life and you have now given the shape of their actions and the clarity of their thoughts a brilliant frame. It is a slightly better world now that your film is part of it. Thanks again, so much, for sending it to me.
Bill Nichols is an historian and theoretician of documentary film.
Actor, Director Tim Robbins Takes Up Historic Vietnam War Protest in Production of “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine”
Academy Award-winning actor, director and writer Tim Robbins is involved in a new production of Father Daniel Berrigan’s acclaimed play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. The play centers on the events of May 17th, 1968, when nine Catholic peace activists, including Father Daniel Berrigan and his brother, the late Father Philip Berrigan, entered a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, and removed draft files of young men who were about to be sent to Vietnam. They were arrested and then sentenced in a highly publicized trial that galvanized the antiwar movement. We speak to Robbins about the play, which is being staged by his Los Angeles troupe, the Actors’ Gang.