Tag Archives: Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam

World Records Journal presents “English is Spoken Here/ English is Broken Here”

World-Records-VOL-1-005

 

 

 

 

English is Spoken Here/ English is Broken Here:
a conversation about film and language

With Lynne Sachs (initiator), Jeanne Finley, Christopher Harris, Sky Hopinka, and Naeem Mohaiemen

Published in Fall 2018
World Records Journal  Vol. II “Ways of Organizing”
https://vols.worldrecordsjournal.org/#/02/02

Note:  Journal version includes streaming videos and PDF for download

Edited by Jason Fox and Laliv Melamed

Lynne Sachs: Let us begin with the statement “English is spoken here.” I’ve been thinking about what the implications of this pronouncement might be in terms of an anchoring of a singular language and the drowning of others. So, with the encouragement of World Records, I decided to invite the four of you to discuss and complicate English’s ascendancy worldwide. In both subtle and overt ways, each of you has explored the impact and resonance of this dramatic shift in your own work. With this in mind, I want to ask all of you why and how English has become the lingua franca of our chosen medium and our practice. We are all moving image makers and, generally speaking, what bonds us together is our choice as art practitioners not to engage with the mainstream paradigm for making and distributing our time-based work. Our work circulates outside of industrial networks; and yet, the fact that we have chosen to use the English language as our primary mode of communication and route of circulation (even here!) places us squarely within the established order.  And, to extend the question, I would also encourage all of us to ask ourselves how we might swap out the word “English” for other words, like “narrative,” “state,” or “culture.”

 

Sky Hopinka: There’s something that really doesn’t sit right with me regarding the suggestion that English is the lingua franca of our chosen medium. I don’t know what exactly, but I’ll touch back on it later.

 

Naeem Mohaiemen: Maybe the title of Coco Fusco’s 1995 book English is Broken Here is more relevant to where we are now. {1}

 

Lynne: I like the intimations of the statement “English is broken here,” especially if it suggests that the act of breaking is an intentional one and not a flaw. Fusco’s book was written about twenty years ago in the full blush of multiculturalism. It’s not that I want to romanticize those times either.  Some artists felt liberated by the new set of cultural “rules,” others constrained, even punished. Now, as the years have passed, I wonder how successful that divine impulse has really been.

 

Naeem: Fusco’s book was one of the first works to parse projects such as Robert Flaherty’s 1922 compelling of his subjects to stage “traditional rituals” on camera. This “reality” of the so-called other is based on Western documentary’s obsession with “discovering” the negation of itself in something that was distinct and “authentically” different. So, to have a body of experience that is initially framed by your (as in Nanook’s) own context, and then to be forced to work within a Euro-American context where those experiences are always othered is to be always performing that difference in front of, and behind, the camera—even if this does not always interest you, or certainly is not always productive for the project.

 

Lynne: Then in our shared journey as “reality explorers” armed with cameras, do all roads lead us back to Nanook? If so, should we create a chronological schematic that starts with B.N.N. (pre-1922) and P.N.N. (post-1922) and go from there? It is very clear that the rhetoric of this then new form of cinema was structured around English as a form of communication and education, but I would also note that there is still something radical going on here: Flaherty’s camera compels us to listen with our eyes and to take note of Allakariallak (Nanook’s actual name) and his family’s mode of being. We can still imagine the aural dimensions of their language without replacing it with our own native tongue.  The seductiveness of Nanook itself (or dare I say himself) stems from its power to “negate itself” or even him. Nanook is a participant in what I would call a “silenced” film. There is no aural experience for us of his Inuit language. He is silenced. You and Peter both maintain your own volition, but in the end, you as the director choose English.

 

Naeem: As Erik Barnouw points out, Flaherty’s focus was “authenticity of result,” so the means to get there (for example, shearing away half an igloo to get a well-lit shot) did not disturb him.{2} But what of the damage done to the story of those whose stories he/you/we continue to claim as makers?

 

Lynne: Naeem, do you think that Flaherty was guiding his cast toward the creation of a language of “the other” that was mimetic (of his own American culture somehow) rather than authentic? Might you or any of the rest of us ever have done this in our own practice—unintentionally privileging a project’s need to be articulate, aesthetic, or polished?

 

Naeem: When I first approached Dutch scholar and activist Peter Custers in 2011 (for Last Man in Dhaka Central, completed in 2015), his wish to speak to me only in Bengali/Bangla was driven by his idea of what would be the fundamental bond between us within the film. I knew that I wanted him to talk in depth about the theoretical and tactical debates the underground Left (Moscow, Peking, etc. tendencies) was waging in Bangladesh. And that was a conversation that needed to happen in English, a language in which Peter did most of his writing, on Rosa Luxemburg or Kazi Nazrul Islam. I think there was a disconnect there, between what language people may have felt we “should” talk in and which one we do talk in. There is a scene on the train when I compliment him on his Bangla reading and he replies that he feels fluent in “political literature” but not everything else—I suppose he meant high-form literature. I wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of the Left debates of that time, which I felt would not flow in Bangla because his skills were commendable but not first language fluent. Over the course of three years I did not want to keep talking in broken Bangla.  On the last day of the shoot, he noted, “But you have not heard me speaking in Bangla on camera.” So at his request, he read out a poem written by Khorshed Bhai. The film bent to his gentle will in the end. I always say that film had two directors, myself and Peter.

 

Lynne: I recently saw the film In Time to Come (2017) by Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin. In her film, Tan bears witness to the transformation of her multicultural, Chinese-speaking country into an English-only nation where it appears that the most basic class divisions are designated by one’s ability to speak a foreign tongue. Tan Pin Pin asks her audience this question: “How can true connection take place when so much has been pre-shaped and destroyed by a government that’s only looking out for its own interests?” Tan is a maker who continues to live, speak, and make work in a country where her own language is being systematically decimated. Considering her explicit critique of her own country’s agenda, it seems fortuitous that she has enough creative agency to address this erasure in her films.

 

Jeanne Finley: I have often employed contested language to explore how individuals can be shaped by the social and cultural institutions of family, religion, and the state, yet remain in conflict with the identities ascribed to them by these institutions. Tan Pin Pin’s questioning in her film suggests that prescribed state structures are bound by language. Perhaps work that seeks to dismantle the yoke of state-controlled language might have a shot at creating true connections. The first thought that came to mind when considering these questions of broken/spoken English was the 1979 song, “Broken English” by Marianne Faithfull. Faithfull was inspired to write the song after reading a garbled subtitle, “broken English…spoken English” while watching a documentary on Ulrike Meinhof, a co-founder of the communist terrorist group Baader-Meinhof Gang later dubbed Hitler’s Children. The song feels prescient in today’s world where a middle ground between extreme ideologies is becoming increasingly rare.

 

Lynne: Do you think that English standing in for stability, and for a particular world order, is what is being challenged?

 

Jeanne: Preciscely. With the disaster that had unfolded in Southeast Asia, (American) English—the language of Democracy—as the primary post WWII stabilizing force has started to falter, and Faithfull gets to the heart of that sentiment in this song. I followed just that thought to Youtube (1) and there she is in a short-sleeved pink pantsuit, the scar slashed across her left cheek, the camera tracking slowly towards her from a wide shot to a close-up while lights pan the stage where she stands singing in her permanently cracked, low-pitched voice, imploring us to say it all in broken English:

 

It’s just an old war

Not even a cold war

Don’t say it in Russian

Don’t say it in German

Say it in broken English

Say it in broken English

 

 

Naeem: Do you think the only languages she could imagine at that time were German, Russian, or English? This speaks volumes about the blinders of what people thought was the operations stage of the Cold War.

 

Jeanne: I am less likely to think this is a lack of imagination. Rather, her language choice is reference-specific to the fissure running through the heart of Europe, metaphorized as an Iron Curtain splitting the continent in two.

 

Lynne: And with the hindsight that time offers, what do you think a singer-songwriter like Marianne Faithfull is trying to say about the relationship of language to the Cold War?

 

Jeanne: While living in Eastern Europe during the collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was utterly stunned by the rapidity with which an entire state system was dismantled.  Communist rhetoric had led me to believe that the state held absolute power over the Soviet satellite nations. However, Václav Havel, the dissident, underground Czech playwright who became president in 1989, made the argument that while resistance may seem futile, it is not. In “The Politics of Hope,” he insists that although those who strive to use language to combat the assault on truth might appear weak in the face of Goliath, each stab into the opposition weakens the oppressor.{3} He made this claim as he staged his plays in the basement of his Prague apartment and was repeatedly jailed for it. But still, he managed to get his writing out to the West and translated into English so it could be distributed worldwide, amplifying his voice. We watched as the groundwork his writing created helped weaken an oppressive, Moscow-controlled, communist dictatorship.

 

Christopher Harris: In 1972, the great composer, arranger, bandleader, and pianist Sun Ra recorded an original composition “It’s After the End of the World” with his Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra. The song begins with vocalist June Tyson leading the Arkestra as they repeatedly chant, “It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?” (2)  In the Anglophone western hemisphere, “English is spoken here,” after the end of the world. That is, for the descendants of Africans in the so-called New World, English is the language of the post-apocalypse, provided, of course, that the Middle Passage is properly understood as a profound rupture, a world-ending disaster for those who made the voyage as cargo. Jeanne, these lyrics in Faithfull’s “Broken English” are relevant here:

 

Lose your father, your husband

Your mother, your children

What are you dying for?

It’s not my reality

 

Counting the suicides and survivors, 13.4 to 16 million fathers, husbands, mothers, and children were taken by the abyss of the Middle Passage. Along the way and continuing for centuries after throughout the Americas, native tongues (not to mention belief systems) were violently suppressed if not nearly altogether erased in the attempt to transform Africans into farm implements.

 

Lynne: So, as I see it, both of you, Chris and Jeanne, are thinking about music’s response to power.

Music doesn’t have to play by the rules in the same way that a spoken language does. Are there other zones where you find this to be true?

 

Chris: Clearly, Black people in the United States have a vexed relationship to English, as evidenced in part by half remembered debates about Ebonics and the mocking, wildly exaggerated, stylized speech patterns of minstrels that persists even today in the cadence of certain white hipsters.

 

For many, Black English is a sign of cultural deficit, a flaw in the body politic of a Black nation that is offered as evidence of an inferior caste deserving of arrest, defunded schools, environmental racism, summary executions by police, and all manner of further depredations. English is spoken here, after the end of the world, after the end of the universe. Black English, Black speech, however, is spoken in the hereafter, in the abyss. Black speech is spoken through, beyond, and outside of English, outside of words. It’s spoken through the movement of Black bodies, the motion of Black music, the fragmented objects and off-kilter spaces of urban landscapes before the erasure of gentrification is complete. If one knows how to listen, one hears it in the glossolalia, the slurred, bent, broken notes, and split voicings saying things that English was never intended to express, things that English was supposed to suppress. Bebop is spoken here. (3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7slr02RsdY  In “Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture,” James A. Snead argues that Black culture confronts “accident and rupture not by covering them over but by making room for them inside the system itself.” Snead explains that, if there is a goal in Black music, dance, and language:

 

… it is always deferred; it continually “cuts” back to the

start, in the musical meaning of “cut” as an abrupt, seemingly

unmotivated break… with a series in progress and a willed

return to a prior series. …The ensuing rupture does not cause

dissolution of the rhythm; quite to the contrary, it strengthens

it, given that it is already incorporated into the format of that

rhythm.{4}

 

By incorporating rupture as a constituent element in this way, Black culture transforms disaster into a generative force. I am directly inspired by this embrace of rupture and I attempt to exploit the expressive potential of disjunction in my own practice as a filmmaker. For example, my film still/here (2001) is about sites of disaster and rupture, the ruins in North St. Louis where the city’s Black population live. The film is structured around a fundamental antagonism between image and sound occasioned by these ruins. Image and sound occupy the same space but at different times. One is the past of the other, or perhaps one is the premonition of the other. They can’t be fixed in relation to one another but in that very antagonism is all of the meaning in the film. It is a film that is fundamentally at odds within itself. The rupture between sound and image is the constituent element of the film. The film is, in a sense, double-voiced. I want my films to speak to and through rupture, to resist the way monoculture, in the parlance of Black vernacular speech, talks out of the side of its neck when it isn’t talking out of its ass. In that regard, there’s often a great deal of tension between the work of Black cultural producers and the established venues that exhibit and fund such work, not to mention the tension between that work and the way the critical establishment receives it. We see this tension in the presumption that Black art is separate from experimental or avant-garde art. This tension, indeed, this contradiction, is inevitable because the work is produced from within a culture of settler colonialism, genocide, slavery, and racial capitalism that, in the words of the current President, “tamed a continent.” So, when my work goes out into the world, it is subject to these sorts of presumptions, that is, that it has to be tamed, domesticated within the politesse of established cultural apparatuses. For me the question becomes, “who is implicated?” I want, more and more, for my work to implicate, to do the work of incivility. Might that alienate those institutions on which it relies? Perhaps. I’m ready to test that possibility. (4)

 

Sky: I don’t know if English is broken, here or elsewhere. Lynne, you proposed an idea to transpose a different word for “English” and I’ve been thinking about what that could be. “Dialect” offers something specific, as does lingua franca, but it feels like what is being pointed at is the utility of this wide range of language systems that we call English.

 

Naeem:  I want to pick up on Sky’s use of “utility” (which I presume he meant critically) and add “forced” to it. There are all sorts of ways that English dominates because of the presumed efficiency it brings to human exchanges. This focus on utility imposes an unimaginative universalism.

 

Lynne:  One might think of Ogden and Richards’s idealistic but ultimately reductive 1923 proposal for a B.A.S.I.C. language that would simplify global communication.{5}

 

Naeem: At a recent “Asian Curatorial Forum” conference organized by the Bengal Foundation in Dhaka, the Chinese curator had a translator with him. It meant that presentations went into double-time, because first he would make a lengthy point, then the interpreter would translate, then someone would ask a clarifying question. I was thinking that this is what it’s actually like trying to communicate across borders—the presumed utility of English vanishes these difficulties.

 

Sky: I get your point, but what I’m referring to specifically is the dialects of English that have sprouted out of that colonization.

 

Lynne: Are you saying, Sky, that English in whatever new form it is expressed, can actually be of use to those who do not claim to own it but rather to embrace it in their own inventive ways.

 

Sky: Speaking to my own experience, I’m referencing specifically North American dialects, such as Reservation dialects, Black Vernacular English, various creoles and pidgins that have developed over the years. I won’t look at these communities as victims of a broken system, but rather as groups of people that have adapted and shaped this language for their own purposes, survival, representations of culture in spite of those colonial acts. How they are speaking “English” in spite of those oppressive claims that it’s not “good English.”

 

Naeem: I think of the place of English, on page or screen, alongside all the languages it is crowding out, constantly. I feel it acutely because English has, by now, colonized a large part of my thinking. In 1972, newly independent Bangladesh imposed a post-independence “shorbosthore Bangla/Everywhere Bengali” policy. This meant English has never developed as a primary, or even significant language of discourse in Bangladesh. That is changing under pressure from English language publishers. But the change is tiny, and one need only contrast the impact of a newspaper op-ed written in English in the Daily Star and one written in Bengali in Prothom Alo. Since these are sister publications, we can presume they have similar infrastructure—yet the Bengali newspapers’ circulation dwarfs that of any English newspaper. Travel outside of Dhaka, and you will rarely see an English-language newspaper lying around in a tea stall, restaurant, or any other public venue.

 

Lynne:  So your critique does not fall with the more mainstream newspapers that convey the daily stream of events to the general public but rather with the art world in Bangladesh? Is it the art world then that is sacrificing the integrity of the Bengali language and culture in order to move with more viability into the  global conversation? I am interested in the way that both you and Chris are analyzing the dissemination of your own work in the art world vis-à-vis your own appropriation of a standard English idiom.

 

Naeem: The hegemony of English as an international art language has reinforced a Biennial-Art Fair-Museum arc that orbits around established centers of power. Attempts to enter this so-called “globalized” space has produced stylish English-language art magazines. But are enough Bengali people actually reading or thinking in this language? Why aren’t there more Bengali language art journals with the funding, marketing, and visibility of the English publications? Most of my projects are also in English. I know that being in English limits who can see it in Bangladesh; but it does not necessarily widen who will see it elsewhere. After all, there could always been subtitles.

 

Sky: I can’t think of English as the philological manifestation of the oppressor. I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine while we were working on a language revitalization project for a tribe in the Pacific Northwest, and she said that English is the enemy—in English. It was both funny and tragic—that the only way we can express our oppression was through this language.  But her dialect of English was different from mine. Her accent told me something about who she is and where she’s been. If I continually thought about how my use of English is representative of my oppression, I’d feel stressed to the point of exhaustion and give up. While the attitude that being a monoglot is preferable is a very American idea, and the inherent racism and classism amongst American dialects of English is pervasive, there still exists a wide range of vernaculars, tongues, and talks of this Germanic Creole that are full of resistances and sparks of identity that should be given permission to be accepted. Or don’t, because who needs permission to be who you are and speak the way you speak?

 

Naeem: Permission not needed to speak as you do, but it is ok also to parse why and how our preferences develop. For many artists, weirdness and not-fitting-in has been the first thing to be leached away by the broadening of an audience. Sometimes one way of being outside the parameters is not to speak in English, and that position is often the first to fall away as international circulation arrives. For those who do not read the language, I repeat here the slogan we often use after each catastrophic event in Bangladesh history: Keep calm and learn Bengali. [6]

 

Jeanne: Naeem’s suggestion that, sometimes, a way of claiming one’s position outside of the hegemony of what is thought of as traditional social norms is to speak in a language other than English, can also be considered in the inverse—that the manipulation of the English language can be used by those in power to dull meaning and keep the public uninformed and thus on the outside.  Media scholar Edward S. Herman demonstrates how the government and mass media manipulate words to make us accept the unacceptable.{6} The use of language/propaganda as a means to obscure meaning rather than to clarify has always been a part of political discourse, and the romantic idea that there once was an era of truth that has now been lost is not useful. However, the mechanics of language manipulation are specific to the constantly evolving communication technologies. What is compelling for me as an artist is to use the deconstruction of incoherent language as a means to build new and more equitable options.

 

Lynne: Jeanne, you’ve been looking at this disparity in language between clarity and an intentional, manipulative warping of meaning in your own work for a long time. Can you tell us about that?

 

Jeanne: In the 1990s, I made a film titled Involuntary Conversion. Its premise was simple. I gathered as many examples of doublespeak that I could find in the printed and broadcast media. For example:

 

Involuntary conversion with the ground = a plane crash

A catastrophic misadventure of a high magnitude = amputation of the wrong limb

 

At the time I was traveling frequently, and I shot footage from Japan to Bulgaria, as well as in the USA, that captured these examples of the disparity between language and meaning. I wrote a narrative script utilizing all the doublespeak words and phrases I could find and recorded a voice-over that begins, “These are the days of permanent pre-hostility” (peace), and meditates on the relationship between language, meaning, and social decay. The translations of the doublespeak, “peace,” appear over the footage as text. (5)  My 2017 film Book Report (co-created with John Muse) is an extension of this investigation in our current era of misinformation and post-truth that acknowledges the changing methodologies of disseminating misinformation. In Book Report, we focus, in part, on Twitter language, and its accompanying overuse of the air quote—that ironic gesture of two hands reaching up to face height, with forefinger and middle finger extending up from the fist and clawing back down twice in quick succession, or as punctuation, taking up two characters out of 140 in a tweet, to imply we aren’t serious, that sarcasm rules over earnestness, and nothing means what it seems. The air quote, along with all caps, destabilizes the ability of language to impart meaning and eliminates the author’s responsibility for what they are saying. As author and journalist Moises Velasquez-Manoff states, it weaponizes irony.{7} We hope for language to clarify, to offer the revelation of meaning through its very complexity. Yet the weaponization of language is most forceful when it is blunt, simple and asks nothing of the reader. Many non-fiction/experimental filmmakers insist on complexity as a means to disarm the weaponization of language that incessantly fire at us in today’s social media and internet platforms.

 

Lynne: Could these Cold War issues be generational?

 

Jeanne: Absolutely. My parents were in their very late thirties when I was born and every adult on both sides of my family participated in WWII. My mother served on an Army Red Cross ship and participated in numerous missions including liberating the concentration camps. When I was a resident at the Camargo Foundation, I realized as I gazed out to the Mediterranean Sea just east of Marseille, that she had been on a Red Cross ship, exactly where I was staring, during the invasion of Southern France. I created a site-specific projection installation from interviews with her about that mission. So the specifics of my familiarity with language propaganda and Cold War ideology is rooted in my generation.

 

Naeem: Has everyone seen Sam Green’s film The Universal Language (2011)(hyperlink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjxLej9QHXo), which  traces the history of Esperanto, the artificial language that was created in the late 1800s by a Polish eye doctor who thought that if everyone in the world spoke a common tongue, humanity could overcome racism and war. “Esperanto” means “one who hopes.” Hope died twice for that community, once after 1914 and then again after 1939. When I found out Sam was working on Esperanto—precisely when I was struggling with the position and valence of English in my work—it felt as if he was moving toward a solution to same problem.

 

Lynne: What exactly were the problems around language that you were facing?

 

Naeem: Most of my films have a script that starts in bits of Bangla and English. Eventually though, the whole script converges toward English. There are many reasons for this, not always well thought out. One is that I liked the idea of the audience being able to close their eyes and just listen for periods, as in United Red Army (2011) where a majority of the film is in the dark. So, using English became a way to do that. Another is the temperature of English, how it feels as a language for me. I can move to modes of irony and distance in English. I cannot do the same in Bengali. The way I feel about my first language (as opposed to my acquired language) is more of a warmth. I am tremendously troubled by this. There are bits of Bengali in all my films, but never a whole film in that language. So, when Sam started researching Esperanto, when his film was completed, it offered a way to think about the language-heart link. Esperanto came from an activist heart, a very different impulse. (6)

 

 

Sky: What was standard twenty years ago is different now, maybe in small ways, maybe the overall accent or pronunciation here or there, or the meaning of a word has changed, whatever it is – it’s different. That’s where I’m optimistic—not only because I must be – but because that’s where the utility of this language comes in. If the purpose of language is to communicate the needs of your existence to another then the place we exist in today offers much versatility for the acceptance of the words we choose and use to describe who we are and what we need. Twenty years ago, I was a Native American. Today I’m Indigenous. There are nuances behind those terms that offer a lot of avenues to go down, about the specificity of identity. Maybe not enough, but that’s the point.  Perhaps I’m being too optimistic—a lot of vile things have been said in English throughout the Anglo colonization of the world. Maybe what’s broken now is General American English. I haven’t read the Fusco book—I eventually will—but allowances for those specificities will only allow our understanding of the languages of English we speak to have a place of respect and not derision.

 

*note* Since writing this earlier this morning I’ve gone back and forth a lot about what I meant and changed my mind a dozen times and thought more about how to approach this idea of “English is spoken here” or even “English is broken here.” Another part of that idea is questioning or defining where “here” is. Is it in the academic discourse surrounding representational media? Is it in the personal scopes of identity that are as diverse as they are infinite? Is it in the political/social/economic/cultural localities of strife? No clue.

 

Uncle Adrian…

Here I am in the reservation of my mind

and silence settles forever

the vacancy of this cheap city room.

In the wine darkness my cigarette coal

tints my face with Wovoka’s shade

and I’m in the dry hills with a Winchester

waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools

who taught me to live-think in English.{8}

 

I also have no clue how relevant this quote is from Adrian C. Louis, a member of the Lovelock Paiute Tribe, who wrote the poem “Elegy for a Forgotten Oldsmobile,” but those last two lines of the stanza, “waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools / who taught me to live-think in English” have always stuck with me for their violence, heartbreak, irony, and tilted resignation. Adrian’s poetry never shows up in my work explicitly, but the influence it’s had on me shows up in other forms. Even thinking through the representation of the poet Diane Burns’s work in I’ll Remember You as You Were, not as What You’ll Become (2016). Those pairings of texts are ways to try and express something inherently inexpressible. (7)

 

Lynne: “Elegy for a Forgotten Oldsmobile” is such a vivid poem of anguish and awareness. It makes me think about the way we are all pushed to make films that can be understood, at least in terms of language. Beginning with my film Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994), I had to grapple with the presumption, which so many filmmakers have, that in order for language to be appreciated in its totality it must be translated into the dominant language (and historically the language of the oppressor in Vietnam), in our case English. In this film, I included a variety of Vietnamese parables, delivered to the audience as either on-screen text or aurally on the dialogue track.

 

This parable comes at the beginning of the film, for example: (8)

 

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.

 

As I was making the film, it occurred to me that the meaning of a parable seems so obvious to someone who comes from the culture from which it originated, but that it may remain quite opaque—like poetry, in the best of ways!—to a person who lives outside that society. During the step-by-step challenge of creating the subtitles for the film, I came to realize that translation might not necessarily be a pro forma gesture, but rather has the potential to complicate the initial experience of travel as a step in the production process and editing as a task that is connected to the return to home. I began to imagine a disrupted delivery of “information” where I would use an easy translation of a parable, then an un-translated parable, then the sound of my sister Dana (an American) struggling to speak the Vietnamese words in the parable with her tutor; the variation on the theme unraveled in various iterations throughout the entire film. In this way, I encouraged my English-speaking audience to listen more carefully to the sound of a language they do not speak, to know what it is to be outside and perhaps alienated from a culture that is not their own. I played with this strategy again in my Walter Benjamin-inspired short essay film The Task of the Translator (2010) where I conducted a series of language experiments. In one section, my camera witnesses a group of Latin scholars confronted with the haunting yet whimsical task of translating from English to Latin a New York Times article on the burial rituals of an Iraqi woman tasked with the cleaning of a suicide bombing victim. At the 2018 Flaherty Film Seminar, I saw your 2015 Venite et Loquamur, Sky,  in which a group of Latin students and teachers gather for an immersive week-long, Latin-only retreat. Clearly, there is something very seductive for both of us about a seemingly moribund language, a language that exists outside the parameters of utility, taking flight anew. (9)

More recently, in The Washing Society (2018), I include sections in which un-translated Chinese and Spanish voice-overs (based on interviews with immigrant washer-women) are woven together. My co-director Lizzie Olesker and I hoped these two intertwined languages could convey both frustration and revelation through their timbre rather than their meaning. (10)

 

Chris: I did something similar in my film Distant Shores (2016) where a woman speaks English in voice-over but the same woman is also heard speaking in untranslated Arabic through what seems to be a loudspeaker located somewhere within the imagined diegesis of the film. The refusal of translation into English is a deliberate, perhaps tiny, gesture as a little present to Arabic/English speakers in the hope that they have a different, perhaps fuller, viewing experience than the viewer who doesn’t speak Arabic. (11)  Speech is something that a body does and bodies speak body language. Maybe bodies speak English as in “putting English on it.”{9} Be that as it may, thinking in terms of speaking bodies, bodies that speak and body language makes me think of Harvey Young’s Still Standing, where he writes about black captives in South Carolina.{10} Thinking about Black body language in this context, it seems clear that this history of enforced stillness continues to inform the way Black bodies are rendered mute today, confined within the holding cells of the prison-industrial complex and lying dead in the middle of a Ferguson, Mo. street for four hours. The muteness of Black bodies is implicated in the way English is spoken here.

 

Lynne: Chris, when you wrote “I think about the body because speech is something that a body does and bodies speak body language,” I thought about Roland Barthes writing about a French soldier in Korea who realizes that his own writing has somehow become assertive.  This kind of embarrassment started, for him, very early; he strives to master it—for otherwise he would have to stop writing— by reminding himself that it is language which is assertive, not he. An absurd remedy, everyone would surely agree, to add to each sentence some little phrase of uncertainty, as if anything that came out of language could make language tremble. By much the same sense, he imagines, each time he writes something, that he will hurt one of his friends….{11}

 

Jeanne: Barthes’s soldier becomes aware that his discomfort was generated by the sense of language producing a double discourse. He knows the aim is not truth but suggests that perhaps adding a sentence of uncertainty can bring us closer to understanding the assertiveness of language. His dilemma is remarkably similar to the one we face today:  how do we live with the subjectiveness of truth as we ground ourselves in the pursuit of understanding of what takes place around us and the reality of how it affects individual lives. In this era where nothing we read or see can be confidently believed, how can filmmakers, photographers, journalists, and philosophers examine the notion and value of truth in cultural production?  One current unfolding method of documentary investigation utilizes the cinematic power of non-fiction staging to make evident the relationship between fact and fiction within our information culture. The questions of who is speaking, what language, and under what direction, is made through multiple layers in the construction of the film itself, moving deeper into the question of truth than is possible through the self-reflectivity of the filmmaker.

 

Lynne:  Are you claiming that a hybrid form of filmmaking formulates an implicit question of each and every traditional genre—from the personal documentary to the low-budget indie to the news report? No cinematic genre is allowed to maintain its own hermetic, unchallenged linguistic space.

 

Jeanne: As Naeem critically states above in regards to Nanook of the North, staged scenes are nothing new to documentary. They form the foundation of documentary practice and reenactments have become a frequent documentary trope in a wide range of films from Errol Morris to Vicky Funari to Joshua Oppenheimer. Harun Farocki’s film An Image (1983), documents the staging of a Playboy photograph, and directly addresses the question of the relationship of a staged image to the real. The presence of the camera always has and always will affect the scene before it. Examining how filmmakers make use of staging today is central to to the question of truth within any given scene or subject. It provides an opportunity for the unraveling of the construction of a given set of facts. It is perhaps one of the most powerful tools in combating the battle cry of ‘fake news’ and is used very effectively in the 2015 Russian film Under the Sun directed by Vitaly Mansky. The film begins with declarative language from the filmmakers that explains the circumstances of producing the film and provides a context in which to read the visual language of the film in relation to the spoken language.Under the Sun begins with the statement: (12)  The script of this film was assigned to us by the North Korean side. They also kindly provided us with an around-the-clock escort service, chose our filming locations, and looked over all the footage we shot to make sure we did not make any mistakes in showing the life of a perfectly ordinary family in the best country in the world.

 

After this statement, we see documentary scenes, staged exactly as the filmmaker’s minders intended, of a girl and her family preparing for her to join the Korean Children’s Union on the Day of the Shining Star (Kim Jong-il’s birthday). But the filmmaker also gives us the heads and tales of every scene—the down moments before and after “roll tape” and “cut” are announced. In these heads and tales, a completely different emotional tenor and bodily relationship between the subjects and their environment is represented. There is a palpable deflation of the optimistic energy that the staged scenes are designed to convey. We are asked as viewers to sort through this and to make sense of these radically different emotional states.

 

Lynne: A fascinating example of the way that film can create two parallel languages: the language of power and the language of doubt finally carry equal weight. Do we as artists need to continually remind our audience to doubt what the established order is offering?

 

Chris: I am a descendent of farm implements, that is, people who were treated as farm implements by other people who subscribed to the values of the Enlightenment. Scientific racism is troubling to me in the sense that it isn’t just called racism, i.e. that the racism isn’t enough to cancel out the utility of the modifier “scientific.” Charles Murray, conservative writer and author of The Bell Curve, can (attempt to?) make a scientific case for the inferiority of Black people. Drapetomania was a conjectured mental illness that supposedly caused Black people to flee captivity, a theory that is seen now, retroactively, as a pseudoscience but it had to pass through science first on its way to becoming pseudoscience. These aren’t merely academic questions of the scientific method. It’s one thing to be wrong about physics until new science comes along. It’s quite another to organize a society around structural anti-Blackness so that the errors are a feature and not a bug.

 

Lynne:  How have you recognized and put light on these layers of cultural discourse/truth in your own work, Chris?

 

Chris: I engaged with this in my three-channel video installation A Willing Suspension of Disbelief (2014) and the split-screened video installation Photography and Fetish (2014) which I made in response to a 1850 daguerreotype of a young American-born enslaved woman named Delia who was photographed stripped bare as visual evidence in support of an ethnographic study by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz. Agassiz held that racial characteristics are a result of differing human origins. In this work, I restage the daguerreotypes and split the figure of Delia so that she becomes both the object of Agassiz’s (and the viewer’s) gaze while simultaneously returning that gaze and articulating her subjectivity, or, speaking her mind. She gives us a piece of her mind and in so doing, disrupts the discourse of disinterested science by speaking directly to that science, while pinned like a butterfly specimen. This work posits her figure as irreconcilable, beyond recuperation in the terms of Western science. Agassiz wanted the enslaved Black body to speak the language of the commodity. His self-proclaimed project was the pursuit of scientific truth, a project to which Murray and others lay claim today.  For Agassiz (and many others like J. Marion Sims who invented modern gynecology by operating on enslaved women, some as many as 30 times without anesthesia), the quest for scientific truth was not troubled by the subjugation of Black bodies into farm implements, on the contrary, it both depended on and authorized it. As before, during the presumably pre-post-truth era of Agassiz and his heirs, police are going to continue patrolling and occupying Black spaces and they will continue to shoot, incarcerate, monitor, and otherwise colonize Black bodies, rendering Black body language mute. (13)

 

Lynne: What you are describing then, Chris, is a universally-enforced language for every aspect of reality—one that is constructed, maintained, and policed by the state.

 

Chris: Visual and media anthropologist Toby Lee has written about reality being used as a tool for the oppression of people of color, so I don’t have an unproblematic relationship with the notion of restoring reality as a stable ground for discourse. For Black people anyhow, being unrealistic has been an act of resistance so I’m quite wary of responding to the current era of “fake news” with a re-inscription of the real. I think we the surreal, the Afrosurreal, the hyperreal, not simply reality.{12} Or, deeper still, as Sun Ra says in the film Space is the Place (1974):

 

“How do you know I’m real? I’m not real, I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we’re both myths. I do not come to you as reality, I come to you as the myth, cause that’s what Black people are, myths.” (14)

 

Jeanne: The dialectic of the mythology and the real can be held simultaneously without one negating the other. The embracing of seemingly opposite states, living comfortably in both, despite the irritation that the conflict might create, feels like a job that artists are frequently assigned. Language can define and constrict. Language can expand and liberate. Broken language/spoken language offers the possibility to move through complexity towards a reconciliation of both the myth and the real.

 

Naeem: Bengali is what I spoke with family, English is what I read books in, sometimes even in a private place away from family (well, while sitting on the balcony of the family home—so not really “away”). I am sure there’s a way to theorize all this, but what it comes down to is that English becomes a language of keeping some emotions at a distance.

 

Chris: We’ve known for quite some time now, as established fact, that “race,” for example, in genetic terms is not a fact, yet that knowledge, that truth, hasn’t stopped a single cop’s bullet from going through Black bodies at routine traffic stops. I suppose what I’m wondering is, given this history, after we pass through the present era of post-truth, then what?

 

Lynne: Then maybe the problem isn’t really with English per se, but rather with language of any kind as it circulates through our mass and social media, warping perception, turning readers toward unwarranted acts of violence in the name of some atrocity or belief that is completely unfounded by any shade of truth. Words—generated from ideology and malevolence—are inciting such horror.

 

Sky: I don’t really know what to say to that. There is power in the language we speak, but those are reflections of deeply ingrained systems of oppression, privilege, and racism in societies we live in.  The words we choose then have the same power to create understanding, inspire, mobilize, and unite.  At least that’s what I have to believe.

 

——————————————-

 

Jeanne C. Finley works in film, video, photography, installation, internet, and socially engaged work to create hybrid documentary and expanded cinema projects. Her recent projects weave a discursive, cinematic fabric of narrative, documentary interviews, scientific evidence, and archival and original footage to investigate sites of transformation. The resulting films, installations, and social engagement projects employ collaborative processes with artists, scientists, audience members, and subjects.

 

Christopher Harris is a filmmaker whose films and video installations read African American historiography through the poetics and aesthetics of experimental cinema. His work employs manually and photo-chemically altered, appropriated moving images, staged re-enactments of archival artifacts, and interrogations of documentary conventions.

 

Sky Hopinka was born and raised in Ferndale, Washington and spent a number of years in Palm Springs and Riverside, California, and Portland, Oregon and is currently based out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Portland he studied and taught chinuk wawa, a language indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin. His work centers around personal positions of homeland and landscape, designs of language and facets of culture contained within, and the play between the accessibility of the known and the unknowable.

 

Naeem Mohaiemen combines films, installations, and essays to research failed left utopias and incomplete decolonizations—framed by Third World Internationalism and World Socialism. The terrain is “a revolutionary past meaningful in the sudden eruption of a revolutionary present.”{13} In spite of underscoring a left tendency toward misrecognition, a future international left, against silos of race and religion, is a hope in the work.

 

Lynne Sachs makes films, installations, performances, and web projects that explore the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences by weaving together poetry, collage, painting, politics, and layered sound design. Strongly committed to a dialogue between cinematic theory and practice, she searches for a rigorous play between image and sound, pushing the visual and aural textures in her work with every new project.

 

 

 

ENDNOTES

 

{1} Coco Fusco, English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas (New York City: New Press: 1997).

{2} Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974).

{3} Václav Havel, “The Politics of Hope” in Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Huizdala (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).

{4} James A. Snead, “On Repetition in Black Culture,” Black American Literature Forum 15, no. 4,  Black Textual Strategies, Volume 1: Theory (Winter 1981). p. 146–54.

{5} C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, eds. The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.: 1923).

{6} Edward S. Herman, Matt Wuerker, eds., Beyond Hypocrisy: Decoding the News in an Age of Propaganda (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1992).

{7} Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “Trump Ruins Irony, Too.” New York Times, March 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/20/opinion/trump-ruins-irony-too.html.

{8} Adrian C. Louis, “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile” in Fire Water World: Poems (Albuquerque: West End Press, 1989).

{9} http://www.english-for-students.com/Put-English.html

{10} Harvey Young, “Still Standing: Daguerreotypes, Photography, and the Black Body” in Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2010), p. 26-75.

{11} Roland Barthes [placeholder]

{12} Toby Lee, “The Radical Unreal: Fabulation, Fiction, and Fantasy in Speculative Documentary,” lecture from Visible Evidence Conference, August 8–11, 2018.

{13} Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, “Sarjah Biennial 10: Plot for a Biennial,” Bidoun 25, no. 25 (2011), https://bidoun.org/articles/sharjah-biennial-10.

“On Writing the Film Essay” by Lynne Sachs

 “On Writing the Film Essay” by Lynne Sachs
Published in Essays on the Essay Film, edited by Nora M. Alter and Tim Corrigan
Columbia University Press, 2017

Note: All of the films I discuss in this essay can be found on www.lynnesachs.com

Essays on the Essay FilmI feel a closeness to writers, poets and painters, much more than to traditional film directors. For one thing, we ciné experimenters are not bound by the plot-driven mechanics of cause and effect that, for me, often bring the transcendent experience of watching a movie to a grinding halt. The kinds of films I make give the space for mysterious – at least initially — sequences that don’t simply illustrate why one event or scene leads to another. More like an artist than a traditional documentary maker, I am interested in a kind of meaning that is open to interpretation.  Once a film is complete, I often learn things about it from my audience — how the convergence of two images actually expresses an idea or how a non-diegetic sound expands the meaning of spoken phrase. I hope it’s doing one thing, but I might discover that it’s doing something completely different. In this way, the films are kind of porous and flexible; they are open to interpretation. My essay films, in particular, are full of association. Some are resolved and some are adolescent; they’re still trying to figure out who they are.   Through the making of the film, I learn about myself in the context of learning about the world.   My job is not to educate but rather to spark a curiosity in my viewer that moves from the inside out.   The texts for these films come to me in both public and private spaces:  on a long train ride, during a layover in a strange city, at a café, in a hotel room, on the toilet.

Throughout the 1990s, I gravitated toward the simultaneously visceral and cerebral French feminist theory of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. As a moving image artist searching for a new discourse that spoke to radical issues with an equally radical form, I embraced this kind of writing as it led me toward the non-narrative, unconventional grammar of experimental film as well as the self-reflexivity of the essay.  My first essay film was “The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts” (1991), a personal rumination on the relationship between a woman’s body and the often-opposing institutions of art and science.  While I was shooting this film, I was also keeping a diary:

“My memory of being a girl includes a “me” that is two. I am two bodies – the body of the body and the body of the mind.  The body of the body was flaccid and forgotten.  This was the body that was wet with dirty liquids, holes that wouldn’t close, full of smells and curdled milk.  Of course there was the skeleton.  This was assumed and only reconsidered upon my very rare attempts at jumping farther than far enough, clearing the ditch, lifting the heave-ho. But the body of the body was not the bones.  This body wrapped and encircled the bones, a protective cover of flesh, just on the other side of the wall I call skin.”

I will never forget a cross-country plane ride I took near the end of editing this film. Throughout the time I was in the air, as I flew across the Mississippi, the Great Plains, and the Rockies, I was searching frantically for the hidden skeletal structure of the film. I’d committed to a premiere at the Los Angeles Film Forum, and I only had a couple of months until my screening date.  (Stupid me. I’ll never do that again!) Midway into the flight, I realized it was all laid out before me in the form of the poetry journal I carried in my backpack.  The writing had been with me all along; I simply hadn’t realized that this text was more than a dispensable traveling partner in the “journey” that was the production of the movie. Over the next few weeks, my poems began to guide my editing of the images and sounds,.  Ever since that early period in my filmmaking career, I’ve kept a handwritten journal during the making of my films. In addition to contributing an often times essential narrative element, this kind of writing can also be the critical link to the “naïve” yet curious person I may no longer really “know,” the person I was when I embarked on the intellectual and artistic adventure that is the creation of a film.

In my 1994 essay film “Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam” (1994), I built a voice-over narration out of two surprisingly oppositional perspectives on post-war Vietnam. My sister Dana Sachs, one of the first American journalists to live for an extended period of time in Vietnam, offered expansive, highly informed insights on Vietnamese daily life.  In contrast, my writing traced my own transformation from earnest, war-obsessed American tourist to more keenly observant traveler:

“Driving through the Mekong Delta, a name that carries so much weight. My mind is full of war, and my eyes are on a scavenger hunt for leftovers. Dana told me that those ponds full of bright green rice seedlings are actually craters, the inverted ghosts of bombed out fields.  At Cu Chi, we pay three U.S. dollars so that a tour guide will lead us through a section of this well-known 200-kilometer tunnel complex. This is the engineering masterpiece of the Viet Cong, a matrix of underground kitchens and living rooms and army headquarters. As I slide through the narrow, dusty passageway, my head fills up with those old war movies Dad took us to in the ’70′s. My body is way too big for these tunnels. I can hardly breathe. After five minutes, I come out gasping.  We decide not to spend the extra ten dollars it costs to shoot a rifle.”

Only by reconnecting to the developing stages of my awareness through my journal could I provide an opening to my American audience.  The narrative trajectory of this half-hour film follows our evolving understanding of the landscape and the people of Vietnam. Honestly, my sister Dana and I fought all the through the shaping of the film’s voice over.  If she hadn’t been my sister, I probably would have fired her as a collaborator!  The fundamental tension between the two of us grew out of several distinct differences between our points of view.  While she had very much completed her own reckoning with the destruction of the war between Vietnam and the United States, I, like most tourists, was still dealing with the war’s echoes and the guilt that came with that psychic burden.  While she wanted to follow the order of events to the letter, I felt free to articulate our experiences by distilling our stories into anecdotes that could function like parables. By recognizing the inherent tension between my position as a non-narrative experimental filmmaker and my sister’s commitment to a more transparent commentary, we were able to find a rhetorical strategy that mirrors the most fundamental conflicts around discourse and truth facing an essayist in any format.   In several quintessentially self-reflexive moments, my sister expresses exasperation with almost every aspect of my production process:

“Lynne can stand for an hour finding the perfect frame for her shot. It’s as if she can understand Vietnam better when she looks at it through the lens of her camera. I hate the camera. The world feels too wide for the lens, and if I try to frame it, I only cut it up.”

In 1997, I completed “Biography of Lilith” (1997), a film exploring the ruptures both women and men must confront when transitioning from being autonomous individuals to parents with responsibilities.  I began making this film when I discovered I was pregnant with my first daughter and by the time I finished three years later I was able to punctuate the final sound mix with the cries of my second child. Inspired by the theoretical texts of Julia Kristeva and Antonin Artaud, in particular, this film celebrates my most intimate and abject concerns about the changes in my body and my place in the world as a woman. My film on Lilith, Adam’s first mate, is also a portrait of a female archetype who boldly wanted to be on top during sex. The film matches a non-authoritative exposition of Lilith in a multiplicity of cultures – both ancient and contemporary – with my own pre and post-partum writing. In this way, I juxtaposed two years of historical and cultural research and interviews with intimate ruminations on my own sexuality and motherhood.

“I’m learning to read all over again. A face, this time, connected to a body.  At first, I feel your story from within.  Nose rubs against belly, elbow prods groin. Your silent cough becomes a confusing dip and bulge.  You speak and I struggle to translate.  I lie on my side, talk to myself, rub my fingers across my skin, from left to right.  I read out loud, and I hope you can hear me.  I’m learning to read all over again, but this time I have a teacher.”

In “States of UnBelonging” (2005), my fourth film in a five-film body of work I call “I Am Not a War Photographer”, I turned to Terence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” and to the “Hell” section of Jean Luc Godard’s “Notre Musique” for lessons from makers who were capable of articulating the horror of war. I constructed this film around an epistolary friendship I had with an Israeli student who moved back to Tel Aviv during an extremely volatile period in Israel-Palestine.  A meditation on war as well as land, the Bible, and filmmaking, this essay film is built from over three years of emails.  With enormous hesitation and intimidation, we reveal our anguish and bewilderment in the film’s soundtrack as well as on the screen as text. With an awareness of my own position in this charged political landscape, I start the film with a kind of meta-historical lamentation on the way that human beings organize time:

“Do you ever have the feeling that the history you are experiencing has no shape?

Even as a teenager I was obsessed with history’s shifts and ruptures. Wars helped us order time. A war established beginnings and endings. There is “before.” There is “during.” There is “after.”

I am currently working on “Tip of My Tongue”, a film on memory that began with 50 autobiographical poems I wrote about each year from my birth in 1961 to my 50th birthday.  Unlike my previous films, in which the research and shooting themselves prompted the text, this project grew directly from my poetry.   Without the slightest concern for how the poems would eventually shimmy their way into one of my movies, in 2012 I gave myself the unencumbered freedom to write about my own life.  In each poem, I looked at the relationship between a large public event and my own insignificant, yet somehow personally memorable, connection to that situation.  Now, three years later, I am working with a cast of eleven people from almost every continent, each of whom was born around the year 1961. Together we are creating an inverted history of our collective half-century through a series of spoken story distillations that place the grand in the shadow of the intimate.  From glimpsing a drunken Winston Churchill on the streets of London to watching the Moon landing from a playground in Melbourne to washing dishes during the Iranian Revolution to feeling destitute during the Recession, we are working collaboratively to construct our own recipe for a performative sound-image essay film.

Excerpt from Review by Tanya Goldman in Cinema Journal:

“There is often a poetic dialogue extending between sections when a voice of the past rhymes with the present. In 1948, Alexandre Astruc wrote of a cinema that should function as “the seismograph of our hearts, a disorderly pendulum inscribing on film the tense dialectics of our ideas.” This quality is echoed in Lynne Sachs’s 2016 reflections on her own practice through which she feels a stronger sense of kinship with writers, poets, and painters than film directors. She states that her job “is not to educate but rather to spark curiosity in my viewer that moves from the inside out.” Observations such as these bestow the essay film with a distinct emotive quality much at odds with classical documentary’s association with sobriety.”

Tanya Goldman
Cinema Journal, Volume 57, Number 4, Summer 2018, pp. 161-166 (Review)
Published by University of Texas Press
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/cj.2018.0064

 

 

 

 

Yes, No and an Occasional Maybe

fandor logo

 

 

Two directions in the creative process
by Lynne Sachs with a video interview by Kevin B. Lee

[Editor’s note: We publish this list and the accompanying video as part of the “Fifty Days, Fifty Lists” project. Read more at “Why Lists?”]

Can also be seen here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3aC0P5dDho

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 Work is 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. . . .)

STILL LIFE WITH WOMAN AND FOUR OBJECTS

‘Still Life with Woman and Four Objects’

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.)

FOLLOWING THE OBJECT TO ITS LOGICAL BEGINNING

‘Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning’

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

‘Which Way is East’

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

‘Investigation of a Flame’

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

‘Tornado’

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

‘Noa, Noa’

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.)

ATALANTA 32 YEARS LATER

‘Atalanta 32 Years Later’

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.) 

GEORGIC FOR A FORGOTTEN PLANET

‘Georgic for a Forgotten Planet’

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.)

THE LAST HAPPY DAY

‘The Last Happy Day’

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

‘Sound of a Shadow’

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

‘Your Day is My Night’

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.)

Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam

by Lynne Sachs in Collaboration with Dana Sachs
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.”

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.  Lynne and Dana Sachs’ travel diary of their trip to Vietnam is a collection of tourism, city life, culture clash, and historic inquiry that’s put together with the warmth of a quilt.  “Which Way Is East” starts as a road trip and flowers into a political discourse.  It combines Vietnamese parables, history and memories of the people the sisters met, as well as their own childhood memories of the war on TV.  To Americans for whom “Vietnam” ended in 1975, “Which Way Is East” is a reminder that Vietnam is a country, not a war.  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. (from The Independent Film and Video Monthly, Susan Gerhard)

“Captures the Vietnam experience with comprehension and compassion, squeezing a vast and incredible country into an intriguing film.” Portland Tonic Magazine

“The sound track is layered with the cacophony of bustling city streets, the chirps of cicadas and gentle rustles of trees in the countryside, and the visuals, devoid of travelogue clichés, are a collage of pictorial snippets taken from unusual vantage points….  What comes through is such a strong sense of the place you can almost smell it.”  The Chicago Reader

“It’s really a magnificent film about translation, with the play of light and shadow mirroring the movement between language, cultures, and moments in time.  It brought back memories of my own years in east Asia, too. The light was exactly the same!” Sam Diiorio

SCREENINGS

Sundance Film Festival; Atlanta Film Festival, Grand Jury Prize;  Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Cinematheque; San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival;  Melbourne Film Fest; Sydney Film Fest;  Ann Arbor Film Fest; Denver Film Fest, Whitney Museum of American Art

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LIBRARY COLLECTIONS

Amherst College; Arizona State University; University of California, Berkeley and Irvine; Duke University; Hong Kong University of Science; New York University; New York Public Library; Penn State; Rutgers University; University of Iowa; Minneapolis Public Library; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; University of Virginia; Northwestern; Seattle Public Library