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“Searching: Lynne Sachs’ Cinema” by Lucas Hilderbrand


Published in
San Francisco Cinematheque’s monograph for
APRIL 10-14, 2010

Searching: Lynne Sachs’ Cinema by Lucas Hilderbrand

If I had to choose a single word to encapsulate Lynne Sachs’ cinema, it would be “searching.” Her work is marked by a mode of inquiry, of seeking out connections, of investigation. What is she looking for? Meaning, maybe. But more so, historical consciousness, an ethical way of being in the world, a politics of humanity. I’ve known her to get on a plane to move a film project forward, unsure what she will find when she lands or where the project is going. It seems every time we talk and check in, she’s been someplace else, at work on yet another project. She is indefatigable in her search, and she has been extraordinarily prolific.

With Which Way Is East, Sachs began a series of explorations that are central to her work: exploring geo-political conflict and politics in dialogue with family relations. In Which Way, Sachs visits her sister Dana, who had been living in Vietnam for a year, and this visit produces a cognitive dissonance between the place she saw represented in TV news reports of the Vietnam War as a child and the place she was then seeing as an adult. This tension might also be read as embodied in the celluloid itself: Which Way Is East’s formal signature is its superimpositions, often of blurred streaks of rich green foliage over sharp-focus landscapes, and its general refusal of image-sound synchronization. (Sachs has articulated this film’s form with a resistance to the rise of a common social documentary video aesthetic; with her move from film to video, Sachs would later experiment with frames-within-the frame as an alternative mode of juxtaposition.)

The Vietnam War likewise provides the incitement for Investigation of a Flame, perhaps Sachs’ best-known film. Here, rather than visiting a foreign land in the present, Sachs revisits a local past. While living in Catonsville, Maryland (outside Baltimore), she discovered the actions of the Catonsville Nine, a group of progressive Catholic clergy and believers who dissented against the war in Vietnam by raiding a selective service office and burning draft cards doused with napalm. Investigation explores the ways that ethical and religious beliefs can motivate people to question, even transgress the law; made before but screened after 9/11, the film’s meaning has been accidentally resonant with the later war on terror. In the film, the prosecutor in the Catonsville case raises the compelling archival question of whether the draft records had the right to exist, a peculiar slippage that grants the rights of personhood to inanimate objects, yet one that nonetheless broaches the ways history could be erased through the destruction of records. Even more essentially, the dissenters question the government’s right to dehumanize its people, whether by sending troops into a losing battle or by imprisoning the protesters. In one of the film’s most affecting moments, a participant recalls her first meal after being released from prison: when she stared at the menu at a restaurant, she couldn’t make sense of it and couldn’t decide; she cried because she realized prison had taken away her ability to think for herself.

The effect of war on an intellectual has taken Sachs farther away and yet, in a manner of speaking, closer to home. She has recently worked to unravel the enigmatic story of her distant cousin, anthropologist-doctor-refugee Sandor Lenard. This search began with the succinct The Small Ones, in which Sachs calls our attention to the human cost of war through recovering this cousin’s story of working to reconstruct the bones of dead American soldiers in Rome during WWII. Sachs continued excavating this complex familial connection in the longer and more ambitious The Last Happy Day. In this second take, we learn that she first heard of this cousin as a child because he had translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin while in exile; this discovery is mirrored by her own children’s contemporary inquiry into his story. A Hungarian Jew, Sandor lived in Germany when WWII began and hid prisoners of war in his apartment while in Rome. After the ravages of war, he moved to Brazil in search of “a far away place” and won a small fortune on a game show that allowed him to buy a house in the woods; although living in exile, he planted “all the fruits that can cure homesickness.” But Sandor’s amazing journey was sullied by the fact that he deserted his family in Europe. Sachs visits one of his sons in Germany, in the attempt to reconstruct Sandor’s story, but he only knows fragments of his own father’s story. He shows Sachs how their shared relatives’ books had once been inscribed with the original family name (Levy) but that this name had been partially torn out of each book and replaced with a less Semitic one (Lenard); this act served to hide an identifiably Jewish name but stopped short of removing all trace of the family’s existence. In a curious way, as in the Catonsville Nine’s symbolic burning, the destruction of documents ultimately points to a larger historical-political truth. Commenting on the impossibility of making truth claims about the past, Sandor’s wife comments, “There are things so old, I’m not sure of the truth.” The Last Happy Day is a film about a life structured by wars and the ways that knowledge of that life has been translated between generations.

More impressionistic in structure yet still working through issues of translation, Sachs’ most recent film, Wind in Our Hair/ Con viento en el pelo (2010) was inspired by Julio Cortázar’s short stories and shot in Buenos Aires. The film’s bilingualism might be seen as a metaphor for the work’s focus on young women transitioning from childhood to more mature sexual desire and political awareness. Early in the film, four girls (including Sachs’ two daughters, who appear in a number of Sachs’ works) play a game of searching behind closed doors and around corners. They wear colorful masks and frequently shriek with a mixture of delight and surprise. The girls play a number of games that they are seemingly too old to play—games they will soon enough leave behind. They experience life the ways we remember childhood as adults—as a series of intense moments, many of them related to the routines of daily chores and materiality of daily life. The film is positively tangible in its attention to the fluff of puppy fur, the crustiness of pastry, the lint on stockings, and the curl of paper that’s dried after being saturated with markers’ wet ink. The film is also about the girls’ glimmers of awareness of the world around them, such as the ambient sound of news radio or television images of protests. One girl describes a dream she had when she was eight, dreaming of being thirteen and being kidnapped; the dream suggests the anxiety of growing older and the ways the specter of The Disappeared continues to haunt the country. Yet the film ends much as it begins, with an eruption of exuberance, as the film transitions again: from video to film, from documentary sound and voice-over to Juana Molina’s “Un Día”, from pensive to quick images of girls again in states of excitement.

Trinh T. Minh-ha has written, “Meaning can be neither imposed nor denied.” It strikes me that meaning is something, in Sachs’ work, that is found. It’s what she searches for, but not in the form of some absolute truth. She finds meaning through productive juxtapositions of sound and image, past and present, near and far, family and politics. But she also trusts the audience to make its own meanings, too, by participating in her search.

Lucas Hilderbrand is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright.

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


States of Belonging: A Lynne Sachs Retrospective

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

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

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


Curated by Craig Baldwin

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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