One of the special focus strands of the Sheffield Doc/Fest online programme in 2020 was the experimental documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs, who has an extensive body of work across a number of different documentary interests. I watched two of her films out of the handful made available (some of the rest are still online for festival attendees, so I am determined to catch up with them), and present reviews below — or, maybe I should say, more impressionistic observances as I cannot claim they are as deeply considered as I would like.
The Washing Society (2018) This isn’t a long film, clocking in at about 45 minutes, but it’s a curious blend of documentary and staged fiction. It films a number of New York laundromats, showing their working environments and including some comments by a number of the workers. However, it starts with a Black woman speaking an historical text and then places her in the space of a laundromat opening for the day, and throughout the film her presence functions as a sort of historical commentary making clear the racialised nature of this work, which is somehow so intangible and invisible to so many people. As the film progresses, the testimonies start to become more like monologues, rather more clearly delivered by actors, itself eventually seguing into a musical performance piece on the machines themselves.
CREDITS Directors/Writers Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker; Cinematographer Sean Hanley; Length 44 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Saturday 4 July 2020.
The Last Happy Day (2009) I find it sometimes very easy to criticize documentaries for following a standard talking heads format, but of course Lynne Sachs doesn’t even approach anything resembling the clichés of the form. This medium-length piece does, however, use occasional on-screen captions to contextualize her story of a distant relative, the Hungarian Jew Sandor Lenard (aka Alexander Lenard), who fled shortly before the outbreak of World War II and eventually found himself in Brazil, where he undertook Latin translations, including of Winnie the Pooh (sorry, Winnie Ille Pu). That said, her experimental practice means that it’s difficult to pick out everything that’s going on here, and I imagine wider viewing of her oeuvre would help more in that respect, but there seems to be an idea of the painful ruptures of war and exile being healed at least somewhat by language, or perhaps the idea of translation (given that the language in question is hardly a widely shared one). It’s a family story, too, so children in Sachs’ own family appear on screen to read Lenard’s letters or comment on them (very eloquently, given their age). These are ideas that come out, not inaccessibly, but in a dense mixture of text and image and voice.
CREDITS Director Lynne Sachs; Cinematographers Sachs and Ethan Mass; Length 38 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Tuesday 21 July 2020.
Lynne Sachs is an extraordinary filmmaker with a distinct and unique approach to documentary filmmaking. Each one of her films is an exploration into a secret hidden world as well as an experiment with the medium of visual storytelling. Currently, the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival is running a ‘Directors in Focus’ showcase of Sachs’ work where you can catch pieces like “Your Day is My Night”, “The Washing Society” and her latest film “Film About a Father Who”.
It’s been a real delight to explore Sachs’ work as part of the festival and when the opportunity arose to speak to Lynne personally, I jumped at the chance. Here’s our interview where we discuss how she approaches documentary filmmaking, her friendship with Barbara Hammer and the art of editing.
Bianca: Hello Lynne, lovely to chat to talk. I just want to say how much I’ve enjoyed exploring your work as part of the Sheffield Doc Fest “Directors in Focus”, you have such an unique approach to filmmaking. I find it to be this unusual blend of traditional documentary style filmmaking meets the avant-garde artistic style of filmmaking of allowing imagery and sound to tell the stories. How did you develop this approach and style of filmmaking, and what was it about documentary filmmaking that appealed to you as a filmmaker?
Lynne: I’ll guess I’ll start by admitting that I don’t even know if I would be able to make a traditional documentary, that might be because of when I invest myself into an investigation or a story I take such a deep dive and I am always looking for a visual or an oral method by which I can comment on that particular theme in a way that hasn’t been done before. Sometimes it’s the topic that guides me.
The more conventional approach would be to have a template or a formula or maybe even a time-limit like 58 minutes so you would have time for the commercial breaks, then you would take your subject and frame it by those expectations. However, that approach never really interested me and I wonder whether I have the skill or the commitment to do that style of filmmaking.
My desire to work in the documentary realm came from a convergence of the love of art and the love of politics. My background was as an undergraduate in history, I never expected to be an academic historian but it feeds my way of thinking. I wanted my creative juices to fly but the limitations of being a historian weren’t appealing to me.
Bianca: Did you always strive to have a personal connection with the people and the subjects you film?
Lynne:It’s very important to me to have a complex relationship with the people in my film, just like the one I would have normally with a friend. It takes work, and often in the field of filmmaking there’s the sense of jumping in as quickly as possible then leaving. You actually leave with this gift: the interaction you had with the people you filmed. You then own that gift, but those people don’t have that anymore. I think the whole process has to take a whole circle where you work to find the right participants for your film, you work on that film and then you come back to them after completion and during distribution.
With “Your Day is my Night” we worked on that film for a couple of years and it became a live performance and I was bringing the people from Chinatown, to places in New York City where they hadn’t been before. I was organising cars for them as they were older people and we couldn’t expect them to travel via Subway. I wanted them to experience that pleasure, and two years after we had finished shooting we took the film and the live performance to a public library in Chinatown where we had an afternoon matinee where all of their friends came.
It was actually quite a sad moment because one of the participants in the film had died since we made the film, so when his face came up in the film everyone in the audience started crying. So, it was a memorial for him in a way. There are ways films can function outside the function of building your career or taking you to film festivals. I really feel committed about the idea of having movies been shown on all different kinds of screens.
Bianca: People often overlook the importance of sound and audio infilmmaking because film is a visual medium. What I find fascinating about your films is that often the audio doesn’t always match up to what’s being depicted on-screen. I think this is brilliantly showcased in your latest film “Film About a Father Who” where we see one version of your father being shown but the narration is discussing a different aspect of his character.
Lynne:I just want to touch on something I hadn’t thought about, the formal connection between the way you understand a human being and the way that film works, and how you process what you see and what you later discover. I think that’s very particular to this medium. We have this notion that the visual and the sound should be married but we all know that marriage is just an agreement that can fall apart. It’s through that use of ‘falling apart’ where we begin to see that what something appears like isn’t actually what it is in reality, and we build in doubt.
I think doubt should be a part of any filmmaking experience, whether you’re talking about fiction or non-fiction, do we believe the ideology that is intact. If you’re a doubtful viewer in any way then you start to engage with it in a deeper way, you start to question everything and as a result you become more intellectually engaged. What I wanted to say about “Film About a Father Who” that there were times where maybe I was uncomfortable in a situation where I did have doubts, but I wanted to believe that things were more acceptable than they actually were and worked with how I thought a father should be.
If you think about the foundations of who we think we are as children and the notions of how we fit into that micro community it’s usually pretty transparent. However, maybe that’s no longer the case today. I used to think my family was very atypical, but now that I’ve screened the film quite a lot of people have either come up to me or written to me to share their own experiences. I think our notions of family are now more evolved than how it was when I was a kid.
Since making the film I’ve been able to have some really profound conversations with those who have watched it. Whether or not it’s your mother or father who have secrets it’s their way of protecting themselves, but it also leaves an imprint on us and we’re left with a sense of confusion about how we’re supposed to process this new information and emotions.
Bianca: The impression I got from your film was that this was not only a self-discovery for you but also a self-discovery of who your father is. It was a self discovery of a family too.
Lynne: It took me a year of going through all the videos and super-8 films and I realise I had a lot of content about my father. The traditional approach to documentary filmmaking is that you take all the footage and make a character so people leave the movie thinking they really know that person. I thought about whether that was what I really wanted to do, as what I was really interested in was the interrelationships between people and the way we yearn for a part of our parents in ourselves and how we are always looking for stability. I know I have very distinct relationships with my parents and I value that in its own way.
Bianca: What’s something you want the viewer to take away from “Film About a Father Who”?
Lynne: I’m very interested portraying the layers of expression especially in terms of being a woman, that include your anger and your rage as well as your ability to integrate forgiveness because I think it’s very hard to go on living your life if you hold onto the pain of your own rage. Forgiveness isn’t about saying that something didn’t happen, there are parts in my film where I realise that I’ve become very good at training myself to have forced amnesia. If you can find forgiveness and realize that the person who hurt you or made mistakes, made those mistakes because of the things they went through themselves that can help you move forward.
I am also interested in showing my family’s story so others can investigate their own stories. I showed the film to a group of fifteen men in their 80s who were in a fraternity with my father and all idolised him. After the film, they said to me that they wished their daughters had made a film about them which surprised me. I think it was because the film elevated my dad to a full person and his entire life was told. He came to the premiere in New York and he was happy with the film. And he’s told me that he wants to do better in the future.
Bianca: Another recent film of yours is “A Month of Single Frames”, a beautiful collaboration with the late filmmaker Barbara Hammer. How did that film come around?
Lynne: I met Barbara in the late ‘80s as we were both in San Francisco during that time. At that time and well into the 1990s, San Francisco was a mecca for experimental filmmakers. I think that’s the place where my style really evolved as it’s not a commercial film centre like New York or Los Angeles. There was a place called the Film Arts Foundation where you could go and learn different skills or edit your films on a 16mm flatbed and Barbara was there teaching a class. I took a weekend class with her and we hit it off! We became friends and both ended up moving to New York City.
Twelve years ago, Barbara found out she had ovarian cancer. She was going through chemotherapy and we would take meals to her and talk to her. She actually lived a lot longer than she thought she would. During that time we became deep friends, and I think she appreciated that me and my husband (Mark Street) were not intimidated by the word ‘cancer’. She asked Mark and me to make a film with the material she gave us when she saw her life coming to an end.
When she gave me the footage she hadn’t told me she’d also kept a journal. Her health was declining but she was quite active in terms of filmmaking in her last year, so I had to squeeze in my visits with her between chemotherapy and her trips to the Berlin Film Festival for a premiere of a film she made. And, when she went to Berlin in 2018 she lost one of her vocal chords so when we were recording her narration for the film we had to use an amplifier. What’s amazing about making a film is that it’s a sustained experience and a gift with that person you’re collaborating with. It was also a gift in the sense that we could share all that time together.
Barbara passed away in March 2019, and I’d hadn’t yet written the text you see in the film. I really wanted a way so you could dive into the film on a personal level, and on a level where I could be talking to her, the audience, the Earth, to the future and to anyone who could be watching the movie. What’s so specific about film, that it can transport you back in history but can also propel you forward in time too. I wanted there to be an active presence which is why I talk to the audience.
Bianca: That’s what is so special about “A Month of Single Frames” is that feeling of conversation between you, the audience and Barbara. In the way it felt like therapy and a precious way of capturing someone’s memory.
Lynne: We think of film as a closed system where you enter it but you don’t affect it although it may affect you in a psychological way. I wanted that system to be more open, the screen is no longer a closed system.
Bianca: Do you think we’ve lost something special about the art of shooting on film compared to how we now seem to shoot everything on digital, especially in terms of the craft of editing?
Lynne: It’s funny that you mention editing because it made me recall Dziga Vertov’s “The Man With a Movie Camera” because many people believe that the director’s wife (Yelizaveta Ignatevna Svilova) really made the film, I believe her work helped give the film it’s rhythm. There’s an image of her in the film where she’s sat at the editing table and she looks like she’s sewing. This image reminds us that analogue film was constructed in a method that was very identified with women. There has been a revived interest in the materialistic qualities of the medium and the fact you can go from something three-dimensional to something two-dimensional.
In terms of my own filmmaking, “Which Way is East” was shot all on film and so was “A Month of Single Frames” and “The Last Happy Day” was digital and film. It’s a real mix. In terms of the images I shoot on Super-8 and 16mm, well I just like them better. Digital can be so pristine. There’s a sense of physicality to analogue film. Sometimes you see a strand of hair or dust, and that’s part of the real world that we’ve left behind like a fossil.
“Film About a Father Who” is to be screened in Sheffield in Autumn, and online on Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects in parallel. The Filmmaker Focus- retrospective films are streaming now in the UK and their accessibility has been extended through August 31st.
Sheffield Doc/Fest Director, Cíntia Gil is joined by director, Lynne Sachs to discuss her films and to take questions from the audience for a live Q&A.
Filmmaker Lynne Sachs, in conversation with Festival Director Cíntia Gil, discuss 5 films that form her Director’s Focus within the Ghosts & Apparitions strand and her upcoming international premiere of Film About A Father Who which screens as part of Doc/Fest in October. Lynne Sachs’ films explore the notion of translation as a poetic and political tool for widening the world. Together with the focus, Doc/Fest presents Sachs’ video lecture My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, a fascinating journey through her themes and work.
Her films are currently available to watch on Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects and Doc/Player through August 31, 2020:
The Last Happy Day, 2009, 37’ Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam in collaboration with Dana Sachs, 1994, 33’ Your Day Is My Night, 2013, 64’ The Washing Society, co-directed by Lizzie Olesker, 2018, 44’ A Month of Single Frames, made with and for Barbara Hammer, 2019, 14’
Lynne Sachs has always eluded easy labeling. Since her first short films in the late ’80s — the black-and-white character study Still Life With a Woman and Four Objects and the Laura-Mulvey-inspired observation on gendered bodies that is Drawn and Quartered — she’s eschewed traditional film grammar. She’s focused instead on capturing gestures, inches of skin, fragments of conversations, casual moments in time, personal memorabilia, and weaving them into unexpected patterns. This year, Sheffield Doc/Fest has celebrated Sachs with a long-overdue retrospective.
A recurring theme in Sachs’s filmography is the elliptical tension of translating spoken language into visual language. From her video travelogue of two clashing cultures in Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994) to the visual haiku of Sound of a Shadow (2010), she grounds her work in using aesthetics to decipher how people communicate. For Sachs, translation is frequently as much a vessel for encountering others as it is a tool to mold her films’ forms.
Two titles in the retrospective use this approach to give voice to the marginalized. The Washing Society (2018) documents both the contemporary and historical invisible labor in New York City laundromats, mostly performed by Black and brown women. Their repetitive gestures are performed in tempo to the words of the Atlanta black laundresses’ manifesto of 1881, and their unappreciated work is eventually exalted by artistic performances in the laundromats. Similarly, Your Day is My Night (2014) steps into the overcrowded apartments of immigrants in New York’s Chinatown. Their beds and common rooms are turned into stages on which they recount their pasts and talk about their current experiences. Sachs sublimes the personal into the theatrical.
Translation is more directly approached in Which Way Is East. Visiting her sister Dana in Vietnam, Sachs acts as both an outsider enchanted by the unfamiliar (while trying to avoid succumbing to Orientalist tropes) and a displaced explorer. She does not perceive her inability to speak Vietnamese as a barrier, even though communication would be arduous without Dana acting as an interpreter. Meanwhile, the peculiar The Last Happy Day (2009) explores the intricacies of the Sachs family genealogy. Sachs and her daughters peruse the letters of a distant cousin, Alexander Lenard, trying to piece his life together. The result is a fragmented series of floating imagery which gradually coheres into a portrait of an interesting man, a doctor who fought World War II and later translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin.
Sachs’s mentor and friend Barbara Hammer inhabits A Month of Single Frames (2019), her moving tribute to the late filmmaker’s work and inspiration. Some of Hammer’s personal materials were given to Sachs with absolute freedom regarding what form they would take in her hands. With fondness, she merges 16mm film shot by Hammer during an artist residency at Cape Cod in 1998 with a 2018 recording of Hammer reading excerpts from her journal. On-screen text sporadically appears to further dialogue with the source material, and perhaps Hammer herself as well. It is cinema as a conversation between generations, and between the living and the dead. Translation is not merely a utilitarian mediation for mutual understanding, but also a political act. Sachs embraces variegated renditions of filmic language, recording the world, digesting it, and offering it to viewers in its performative beauty.
Premiering Lynne Sachs’ latest feature, A Film About A Father Who, Doc/Fest 2020 has taken the opportunity to curate a few of the director’s most intriguing films. Spanning over decades of empathetic, experimental filmmaking, Festival Director Cintia Gil mentions that the overarching theme of these works is “translation”. Sachs elaborates that while her films often feature other countries and languages, the experience isn’t meant to feel seamless, but instead explore the sense of dépaysement, of being out of your own comfort zone, and revelling in that unfamiliarity and curiosity.
Which Way is East (1994) In which Lynne joins her sister Dana in Vietnam, and documents their travels north. Primarily she is connecting with the country: eating copious amounts of fruit, bonding with friends and strangers alike, examining the damage left behind from the war. There are layers beyond the direct translation of Vietnamese as peppered throughout are proverbs, which connect with the discussions and reveal how cultures perceive life differently. On another level she’s reconnecting and collaborating with a sister who she’s been separated from, and building a bridge between her own fictional, creative inclinations as a filmmaker and her sister’s political, non-fiction perceptions as a journalist. At 33 minutes, it feels like a whirlwind, footage zooming past on the roads, but one that really feels shared by all who feature in it.
The Last Happy Day (2009) This title is a quote from letters received by Sachs’ uncle referring to the day before the outbreak of WWI, marking a shattering of naïvité and the start of a century of disillusionment. In an incredibly liminal and fascinating piece of exploration, Sachs’ children tell the story of Sandor Lenard, a distant Hungarian cousin who fled a small town in Germany in 1938.
Surrounded by death as he worked for the US to identify the broken bones of soldiers, his later project is intriguingly different: the translation of Winnie the Pooh into Latin. A so-called dead language, that he said best expressed dread, was applied to the philosophical exploits of children’s characters. Having watched many young men become soldiers, seeing Sachs’ kids interpret his letters and his translation brings out a deeper meaning within them. It’s a patchy portrait of a mysterious man that brings about a sense of existential crisis and a permanent exile from security.
Your Day Is My Night (2013) My personal favourite, a window into the world of Chinese immigrants in New York City, who rent “shift-beds” in order to afford to live and work there. It’s a carefully orchestrated blend of performance art to highlight the nocturnal, upside-down lifestyle and monologues perfected to best tell the stories of each inhabitant. One stand out is Huang, a wedding singer who lives with his father, who shares his unique passions and fears. It is a tactile, emotional approach with many dimensions that helps the viewer begin to comprehend these experiences, and brings this hidden side of the city to light.
The Washing Society (2018) Co-directed with playwright Lizzie Olesker, this team effort is the culmination of a performance piece named ‘Every Fold Matters’, detailing and valuing the efforts of laundry workers. This film is named after the original Atlanta Washing Society of 1881, where thousands of African American laundresses unionised and demanded better pay and agency over clients. This revolutionary spirit is carried on, as the film juxtaposes three actresses with three workers, folding and carrying thousands of garments a day, unappreciated and undervalued. Through the combination of conversation and performances, the intimacy and volume of their work is brought to light.
A Month In Single Frames (For Barbara Hammer) (2018) As filmmaker Barbara Hammer was undergoing chemotherapy, she gave certain filmmakers free reign with her unpublished work. In this case, Sachs plays with the footage taken on Hammer’s month long residency at Cape Cod. Particularly hypnotic are past Barbara’s meticulous and beautiful attempts to capture new colours in the sun, the sea and the sand, and the spontaneous originality with which she saw the same cabin and its surroundings. Here the translation is very much inter-generational, as Hammer reads from her journal at the time, and we overhear discussions between the two. Sachs revisits this time of creativity in an organic way and carefully scrapbooks it into a philosophical homage.
Note: this particular film makes a beautiful double bill with Lynne Ramsay’s Brigitte which will be out on Doc/Fest Selects in the autumn. She profiles a prolific portrait photographer, trying to see what Brigitte sees in her subjects, and turns that mirror towards her own life and approach to art.
Full film available as part of Doc/Fest Selects here.
Throughout all these works, the partnership between Sachs and her subjects shines. Often she remains in contact with them, continuing to campaign alongside them. The collection boasts celebrating “translation as a political and poetic tool” and through this glimpse into her career, it is clear that the bridges she builds last. By the end of her films, it feels like both an honour and a necessity to inhabit these spaces and listen to these stories.
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.
Filmmaker Lynne Sachs, in conversation with Festival Director Cíntia Gil, will discuss 5 films that form her Director’s Focus within the Ghosts & Apparitions strand and her upcoming international premiere of Film About A Father Who which screens as part of Doc/Fest in October. Lynne Sachs’ films explore the notion of translation as a poetic and political tool for widening the world. Together with the focus, Doc/Fest presents Sachs’ video lecture My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, a fascinating journey through her themes and work.
Prolific and poetic, experimental and documentary filmmaker, Lynne Sachs, lights up this year’s online edition of Sheffield Doc|Fest with a mini-retrospective, annotated lecture and her new feature, Film About a Father Who (2020).
It happened less than ten years ago, when she was working on Your Day is My Night (2013): Lynne Sachs located the performance within her process and set out to challenge/change it. The idea was to gain participation, collaboration. Instead of turning a camera on her subjects – when they would perform instead of reveal – she decided to include them in the construction and craft of her filmmaking; when you point a camera at a subject, you can’t capture, you command. And power, though useful for its authoritative and therefore convincing tone, is also deeply problematic. In a way, what Sachs is doing is quietly radical. Not just because it is an attempt to remove the hierarchy inherent in documentary since Robert Flaherty started its discourse (Sachs is also a Flaherty Seminar alumnus) but, also, because it is an admission and undermining of her own intrinsic and pervasive authorial voice. It’s ambitious, but that’s also where a kind of freedom resides. The ambition is so substantial that it alone is enough; it doesn’t matter if she succeeds. In this way, Sachs’ later work, from Your Day is My Night onwards, is less about subjects and more about process.
She’s been making films for more than thirty years, but the mini retrospective screening as part of this year’s online edition of Doc/Fest selects moments from the last decade to fit a through-line about Ghosts and Apparitions. I’m not interested in these, as they could be found almost anywhere, and in anyone’s work. In Sachs’ work all I find – and all I want to find – is respectful practice. There is more than just an artist at work, here, there is a generous exploration at play.
Before Sachs experienced her epiphany, she made Which Way is East? (1994), an arresting, painterly exploration of Vietnam. As one of the first American filmmakers granted permission to shoot in Vietnam, Sachs had the weight of responsibility and expectation on her shoulders. Despite this, the film has a sense of lightness and freedom, especially in its aesthetic and aural approach: it begins with a stilted photographic trajectory, literally rendering the moving image as a series of broad brush strokes, while the almost endlessness of the cicadas’ chirrup pitch moves the image along, though not necessarily forward. It is a sensory introduction, rather than a history lesson, and here Sachs’ work is at its most successful, inviting us, as viewers and listeners to be in this depiction of Vietnam, not to look at or hear a presentation of it. Eventually, Sachs and her camera will arrive somewhere static, she will then switch to a show and tell mode, which is informative but less awesome. She flits between the two with relative ease for the remainder of the film, letting her observations and those of her sister, Dana, interpolate the experience. It is as much about making her own memories as it is the chasing of those left behind by others. Her sister’s remarks are among the most revelatory, “I hate the camera,” she muses, “The world feels too wide for the lens and if I try to frame it, I only cut it up.” Holding a camera and being a filmmaker are not one and the same, “Lynne sees it through the eyes of its lens,” she continues, “It’s as if she understands Vietnam better when she looks at it through the lens of her camera.” For Sachs, the practice has always been the pursuit. She instinctively knew, even before it occurred to her laterally, to share the filmmaking in order to make it more accessible, more honest and more like the world it hopes to offer. It may have taken her another almost twenty years to fully understand and break with the idea of documentary as an act or approach, but there is a silver lining of melancholia inside Which Way is East? It makes me wonder if 1) she already knew and 2) if the practice, though expressive and creative as an outlet is also overwhelming, as there is some sadness here.
Looking at historical resonance while also pursuing the interplay between the personal and political, Sachs can’t help but put her heart into her films. The Last Happy Day (2009) stars her own children and uses family, performance, narration, interviews and archive to construct a story about stories. For some, it’s a story about Sachs’ relative, Sandor (Alexander) Lenard, a Hungarian Jew who fled to Rome and later Brazil, where he translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin. Lenard spoke thirteen different languages, and no one knew he was Jewish, so the film is also about what we do and do not know, and how we might go about trying to unpick the constructions and obstructions therein. To demonstrate the difficulty to (re)telling history, Sachs has whole through-lines about bones, with several stunning superimposed images that offer the fragments and the palimpsest at once. She even has one interviewee straight up tell us, “I don’t know anymore what’s real and what’s fantasy,” perhaps even a little too direct for a doc, but ironically true nonetheless, “I am not sure of the truth.”
Remembrance is also brought into question via the presence of doctored documents; literal erasure of a name lets us reflect on the ethics and truths that we can never know as so many were removed from our future before they could even make their mark. What struck me most, however, was the role of the central, yet arguably flippant, text. I wonder how the characters are in translation. Sachs’ band of performers – here, her children and their friends – act out scenes and discuss the meaning behind some of the plot points. Inevitably, they end up discussing the death drive when they get to talking about depression and Eeyore. I’ve always hated Winne the Pooh, because I thought he and many of his mates – Tigger, Rabbit, Owl and maybe even Piglet in his cowardice – were bullies, unkind to Eeyore, to whom my heart always went out. If I were Eeyore and had to live in their world, I might also desire death as an end to my depression. Even Christopher Robin didn’t seem to do anything to help, and he was a (white) human, surely the one with all the power. Could be that I remember it wrong, unsure what’s real and what’s fantasy, but in my remembrance, it is a horrible story filled with horrible characters. It’s lack of compassion makes me sad, still.
But the film itself failed to move me. It was clever and fits a bunch of paradigms that I’d call smart documentary filmmaking. I even think it’s the most obvious fit for that Ghosts and Apparitions programme title. Perhaps that is why it didn’t move me at all. It’s all a bit too neat, well thought out. Nothing incidental or imperfect. No rough edges. But then I watched The Washing Society(2017, co-directed with Lizzie Olesker) and everything changed.
Thanks to Sachs’ newfound process of inclusive filmmaking, with her subjects, The Washing Society feels like a story from, not about New York City laundromats. Visiting over fifty laundries, Sachs tells us, “Sometimes they told us to stop, other times no one notices.” This is how her filmmaking has fundamentally changed: it’s not a process of requesting permission and setting up a tripod to stage an interview, it’s being in the space, with the people, and finding out what the story is as it unravels. Owing to this shift, the performative set pieces within the film – be it actors reading lines, narrated poetic interventions, or even Sachs’ fascination and lingering look at the way light dances around her subject(s) – are seamlessly integrated into an otherwise seemingly observatory mode. What I liked most was that it felt personal, private, public and political at once; the invisible labour of laundry workers is made visible, while the objects we wear to cover and conceal are laid bare, tossing and turning in machines after their toil, until they are, eventually, ready to perform their duty once more. Clothes are the ultimate in public and private markers; from the hours and loads of labour used to make, market and sell them before they even become hours and loads of labour to clean, fold and return to their often-oblivious wearers. I watched, at home, folding my own laundry, mostly that of my almost one-year-old son, painfully aware as I am that domestic labour (performed here whilst undertaking professional labour) is almost always unseen and almost never remunerated. I loved this film not because it struck a chord, but because it could; its poetry sparing and its humanity, honesty and openness laid out with generosity and as a gesture to the many faces that have served and are fast disappearing from NY’s many regenerated neighbourhoods as an app and its collection truck counterpart take over the (barely) visible nature of the business.
It’s an important reminder, from Sachs, to think about what is not seen, whenever we reflect on what we have seen. Your Day is My Night (2013) is not just a film; it has had live stage performances and it is alive in the lives of those it features. Beds and stages and monologues and movement and projection are all elements of this docu-dramatic staged record of what it means to be more than how we are recognised. Spanning the deep economic issues of the US, and the failed reality of the outwardly boastful American Dream, all the way to micro-communities and what ‘home’ might ever mean, Your Day is My Night doesn’t show but does reveal the alienation inherent in both Chinese and American society. In making this film, and the live performances that span its production life, Sachs really got to know her collaborators – well, as well as she could with the bridge of a translator. Language can be a powerful separator, and Sachs hints at this in the film by bringing in an actress (Veraalba Santa, who also features in The Washing Society) to play the part of a Puerto Rican immigrant. It’s not Sachs, but her questioning and unease is represented in Santa’s performative role.
In her lecture, My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, Sachs admits that she is still grappling with the extent to which she should express herself, and the subject. Her body may not be present in this film (it features heavily in many of her earlier, more experimental and material works), but exposing herself has served as a form of generosity, especially where she is asking an actress to expose themselves bare, as in The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991).
Bodies exist but so do thoughts and feelings. And suicide is genuinely considered as an option when old age sets in for those who have no real ‘home’ to go to – neither a citizen of the US or China, there is a unique and pugilistic purgatory for some. Every round is a beating, but fight is what you came to do. I kept thinking of Charles Yu’s fantastic new book, Interior Chinatown (2020) as I watched it. Yu’s book is so many things – maybe everything – a documentary as a book, certainly. A uniquely crafted satire of Hollywood, racism in the United States, and the slippage between screenwriting and prose, Yu’s book looks at the stereotypes of ‘Generic Asian Man’, ‘Background Oriental Male’, ‘Kung Fu Guy’ and more. The people in Sachs’ film feel like characters, at times. Maybe because their lives, like the characters in Yu’s book, are enmeshed with the performance of their parameters – Chinatown in NYC, stuck in a stereotyped nightmare, “I was very aware of the narrow spectrum of representation of the denizens of New York City’s Chinatown,” Sachs tells Paolo Javier in an interview for BOMB Magazine, “Those kinds of Hollywood images haunted me really. In fact, when I first chose the seven people who are featured in my film, I realized that most of them had already worked as extras for the movie industry at some point in their lives.” Fictions and realities reside, side by side, sometimes even in the same bed, sleeping in shifts.
Sachs can’t, shouldn’t and thankfully doesn’t separate these two elements in her films. She works with them. And, now, in her more recent work, she allows the process to become the practice. In her most recent film screening in the programme focus at Doc|Fest, A Month of Single Frames(2019), a work pulling together various pieces of Barbara Hammer’s personal archive – 16mm film footage, journal entries and recorded stories – Sachs lets decisions leak into the final edit, allows us to understand how images move as time lapses. For Hammer as for Sachs as for an audience, frame rates and time passing is only relevant insofar as it is a part of the process that makes up such a thing as a filmmaking practice. It is not important when it occurs, only that it does. In that way, the film is not an archive or an object to be examined or understood. It is the act of holding those things, that person, their feelings, their being.
In this way, Film About a Father Who (2020) is her greatest achievement yet. Digging into far more than the family archive, Sachs takes footage and feelings that span her entire life to create a portrait, not of her father, but of “complicit ignorance” and how pervasive lies of omission might permeate both films and lives, through their intrinsic and insidious power dynamic. Her father is many things, among them a philanderer. Much was uncovered, but he withheld more. This is the role of structure and authority, the act of patriarchy and the act of whomsoever holds power. In this film, it is clear that her father is not the only one with power to play with – his mother, Maw-Maw, is just as commanding, especially as the puller of purse-strings, whose judgement has the ability to grant or take away knowledge, access, identity; family, truth and more. This is what Sachs has been working on all her life because it is the process of uncovering her power and confronting herself. Her aim to frame truth and authenticity will always be compromised by the reality of the moment that the camera is turned on, be it for family or strangers. In Film About a Father Who, Sachs admits that she is filming as a way of finding transparency. It is the ultimate in searching for cinematic veracity. She finds something beautiful and deeply moving, here. Speaking about the differences between her parents, she uses grammar as a metaphor. By extension, her own practice can be understood as a process of grammatic excellence; each thought, memory, scene, time and space given pause and punctuated by still more dancing light.
Reflecting on the impact of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage and his ground-breaking film Window Water Baby Moving (1959), Sachs understands her practice as the unification of art and life, “As a mom and an artist, I was extremely inspired by the way that he integrated his family into his daily practice as an artist. If you separate the two, both suffer.” On her own website, she further imagines “a list of possible lectures one might give in conjunction with the screening of this film [Window Water Baby Moving]. I offer them to you as a vehicle by which to ponder the last forty years of American cultural history.” There are twenty-three. I won’t list them, here. But they did get me thinking about possible lectures one might give in conjunction with the screenings of Sachs’ films. Here’s five of my suggestions.
In Defense of Poetry
The Collaborative Moment
Towards an Understanding of Dancing Light
The Camera as Pencil; Drawing in the Margins
Today Sheffield Doc/Fest begins its festival with the international premiere of my feature Film About a Father Who along with a “spotlight” on six of my films. “Two filmmakers have inspired a special focus: Simplice Ganou and Lynne Sachs” From very different regions of the globe (Burkina Faso and USA), with very different ways of filming and telling stories, both are filmmakers obsessed with the possibility of encountering the other, of building bonds with other humans through their camera, and translating that into cinematic beauty.”
“Drawing on her vast body of works from the past 30 years, we will present a curated selection of films by Lynne Sachs, focusing on the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping and reinterpreting filmic language. This focus will be part of the online Ghosts & Apparitions film strand.”
In the lead up to revealing our full official selection for 2020 on 8 June, we would like to announce:
the theme of our annual retrospective: Reimagining the Land, curated by Christopher Small.
and three special focuses:
a screening in tribute to the late French West Indies film pioneer Sarah Maldoror;
a focus on American artist Lynne Sachs;
a focus on Burkina Faso filmmaker Simplice Ganou.
Focus on Lynne Sachs
Drawing on her vast body of works from the past 30 years, we will present a curated selection of films by Lynne Sachs, focusing on the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping and reinterpreting filmic language. This focus will be part of the online Ghosts & Apparitions film strand.
Five Lynne Sachs films ranging from 1994 – 2018 – mostly involving creative collaboration with others – will feature as part of our online programme from 10 June.
Her latest film, Film About a Father Who, offers a complex portrait of Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering businessman from Park City, shot over a period of 35 years, and will make its International Premiere in Sheffield in October, and following that, online, as part of Into The World Film Strand.
Together with the focus, we will present Sachs’ video lecture My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, a fascinating journey through her themes and work.
Lynne Sachs focus, in Ghosts & Apparitions online: Drawing on her vast body of works from over the past 30 years, we will present a curated selection of films by Lynne Sachs, focusing on the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping and reinterpreting filmic language. Tensions arise from the filmmaker’s memories of Vietnam as a tragic place of war in Which Way Is East…; The Last Happy Day is a portrait of a man who translated “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin and reconstructed the remains of American soldiers; Your Day Is My Night tells of places in New York inhabited by immigrant workers and shaped by their lives and stories; the translation of Barbara Hammer’s images and sounds on a deserted landscape become a poem for her deceased friend in A Month of Single Frames. If translation can be considered the job of filmmaking, these works become a poetic and political tool for widening our view of the world and touching on its complexity, rendering it intimate and available for thought. Between them – Theatre, performance, music and an extremely sensitive and tender camera – compose a body of work that becomes more relevant each day.
WHICH WAY IS EAST: NOTEBOOKS FROM VIETNAM Lynne Sachs (in collaboration with Dana Sachs), USA, 1994, 33 min
“A frog that sits at the bottom of a well thinks that the whole sky is only as big as the lid of a pot.”
Two American sisters travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, followed by their own ghosts and those of local memories. On their way, they meet a country and its richness – strangers, translations, parables and stories, in a complex landscape. History is put into perspective, as each conversation becomes a true encounter: uncountable possible words to translate what we see and what we hear. The Vietnam they knew from TV is only a tiny part of this world to which they now decide to pay attention.
THE LAST HAPPY DAY Lynne Sachs, USA, 2009, 37 min
A portrait of Sandor (Alexander) Lenard, a Hungarian medical doctor and a distant cousin of Sachs. In 1938 Lenard, a writer with a Jewish background, fled the Nazis to Rome. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army Graves Registration Service hired him to reconstruct the bones of dead American soldiers. Eventually he found himself in Brazil where he translated “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin, an eccentric task that catapulted him to brief world-wide fame. Personal letters, abstracted war imagery, home movies, interviews, and a children’s performance create an intimate meditation on the destructive power of war.
YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT Lynne Sachs, USA, 2013, 64 min
Since the early days of New York’s Lower East Side tenement houses, working class people have shared beds, making such spaces a fundamental part of immigrant life. A “shift-bed” is an actual bed that is shared by people who are neither in the same family nor in a relationship. It’s an economic necessity brought on by the challenges of urban existence. Such a bed can become a remarkable catalyst for storytelling as absolute strangers become de facto confidants. As the bed transforms into a stage, the film reveals the collective history of Chinese immigrants in the USA, a story not often documented.
THE WASHING SOCIETY Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker, USA, 2018, 44 min
When you drop off a bag of dirty laundry, who’s doing the washing and folding? The Washing Society brings us into New York City laundromats and the experiences of the people who work there. With a title inspired by the 1881 organization of African-American laundresses, The Washing Society investigates the intersection of history, underpaid work, immigration, and the sheer math of doing laundry. Dirt, skin, lint, stains, money, and time are thematically interwoven into the very fabric of the film, through interviews and observational moments. With original music by sound artist Stephen Vitiello.
A MONTH OF SINGLE FRAMES Lynne Sachs, made with and for Barbara Hammer, USA, 2019, 14 min
In 1998, filmmaker Barbara Hammer had a one-month artist residency in the C Scape Duneshak which is run by the Provincetown Community Compact in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. While there, she shot 16mm film with her Beaulieu camera, recorded sounds with her cassette recorder and kept a journal. In 2018, Barbara began her own process of dying by revisiting her personal archive. She gave all of her Duneshack images, sounds and writing to filmmaker Lynne Sachs and invited her to make a film with the material.
International Premiere of Lynne Sachs’s latest film, as part of Into The World screenings in October:
FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO
Lynne Sachs, USA, 2020, 74 min
Over a period of 35 years, Sachs shot varied footage of her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering Utah businessman. This is her attempt to understand the web that connects child to parent and sister to sibling. With a nod to the Cubist renderings of a face, Sachs’ cinematic exploration offers simultaneous, sometimes contradictory, views of one seemingly unknowable man who is publicly the uninhibited center of the frame yet privately ensconced in secrets. Sachs as a daughter discovers more about her father than she had ever hoped to reveal.
The Last Happy Day by Lynne Sachs
Essay on film by Genna Cherichello
Topics in Rhetorical Theory: Visual Culture – Haverford College
In her experimental essay film The Last Happy Day, Lynne Sachs uses a variety of film types (super 8 home video, stock footage, still photographs), narrative content (interviews, letters, acted scenes) and other components to build her depiction of Sandor Lenard. A distant cousin of Sachs, Sandor was a medical doctor who worked for the U.S. Army Graves Registration Service, reconstructing skeletons out of the bones of dead American soldiers from World War II. After this position, he moved to Brazil where he lived reclusively and translated “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin. The concept of distance, made apparent by Sandor’s purposeful distancing from the realities of the Holocaust, is vital to the film. The various applications and iterations of distance shape the filmic language and afford the viewer an avenue of access to what the film says about war, the Holocaust, and how we see.
The eye as a mediator is only able to focus on one thing at a time, with everything around that point of focus being lost to obscurity; this forces a piecemeal understanding of one’s environment. The filmic eye in The Last Happy Day, too, is an obscuring and complicating force, which helps to form the film’s language. Sachs manipulates her camera very deliberately, employing the difference between sharp-focus and soft-focus. Her camera is dizzying. It sees through things: focuses on one and alters its focus to another, all within the same line of sight. The constant focus adjustments during the scenes of “Winnie the Pooh” rehearsal create a distance between the viewer and the subject, one maintained by the filmmaker’s hand. The camera sometimes focuses on objects in the periphery instead of the person in the shot, such as the scene where the purple flowers and candles are clear, and clearly disabling focused sight of the scene’s human subjects. Sachs manipulates the fluidity of the focus, often shifted in a choppy, unnatural way, reminiscent of being submitted to a prescription exam at the eye doctor. This, coupled with the tendency of heavy background light to darken heavily the foreground, add to the camera’s role in distancing the viewer from the filmic subjects.
Not only does Sachs’s particular camera technique create a distance within the film’s rhetoric, but Sandor’s intentional distancing from the war does so within the narrative. Sandor distances himself emotionally and physically from the war, but he also denies his distancing. The film separates the viewer from the reality of the mass grave by including abstracted, duo-toned stock footage of war with Sandor’s words about the bones. These words, even, were in a letter to someone who is neither the director nor the viewer, and the voice is obviously not Sandor’s. These are two additional layers of distance between perceiving what is presented and attempting to understand it.
Eventually, the film’s distancing procedures end up illuminating the narrative, perhaps more than if the story that develops through the experimental techniques was told in an actual narrative-style film. This is seen particularly strongly in the scene where the young girl who plays Christopher Robin is describing death after being introduced to the topic through Sandor’s Latin translation of “Winnie the Pooh.” His word choice was colored with sterile negativity, free of emotion and full of fact. It permitted the girl to explore and explain the concepts of depression, death, and the desire for death in a way that would perhaps be impossible without the mediating force of a dead language. The distancing tropes of film overall perform the same type action for the viewer, allowing access to understanding of the premise and the subjects that would have otherwise been impossible.