For more than three decades, experimental documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs has been shining an intimate light on our hearts and minds in poetic works that explore who we are and our place in the world. The Memphis-born, Brooklyn-based auteur is being celebrated this month with the Museum of the Moving Image virtual festival “Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression,” being held in conjunction with the release of her latest work, Film About a Father Who. From January 13 to 31, MoMI will screen nineteen of Sachs’s films, from 1986’s four-minute Still Life with Woman and Four Objects, in which a woman goes through daily routines like preparing lunch, to the world premiere of the four-minute Maya at 24, comprising scenes of Sachs’s daughter, Maya, at six, sixteen, and twenty-four.
The festival is organized into five programs: “Early Dissections,” “Family Travels,” “Time Passes,” and the feature-length Your Day Is My Night and Tips of My Tongue. Each ticket comes with access to a new interview between Sachs and assistant curator Edo Choi delving into Sachs’s career and her unique, unconventional style, which evokes such avant-garde filmmakers as Chantal Akerman, Bruce Conner, Maya Deren, Bruce Naumann, and Martha Rosler. Sachs will also participate in the live, free “Discussion with the Sachs Family” on January 19 at 7:00 with her brother, Ira Sachs Jr., and documentarian Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson, Dick Johnson Is Dead), introduced by MoMI curator Eric Hynes.
Sachs’s films invite us into her personal life as well as the life of others. Which Way Is East (1994) takes us on her trip to Vietnam with her sister Dana, who says when Lynne gives her the camera, “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.” Lynne’s framing is extraordinary, unfurling in a calm, hypnotic pace that can be claustrophobic in its immediacy. In 2013’s Your Day Is My Night, Sachs documents a group of Chinese immigrants crammed into a closetlike apartment in Chinatown, where they ponder the differences between their lives in America and their native country and wonder if they made the right choice in coming here. There’s a fascinating kind of intervention when a young Puerto Rican woman moves in with them. And in 2007’s The Small Ones, Sachs shares the story of her Hungarian cousin Sandor Lenard, who during WWII in Italy was tasked with “washing, measuring, and cementing the bones of American dead.” His straightforward narration is accompanied by abstract images of war and slow-motion home movies of children at a birthday party.
In an essay Sachs wrote about the four-minute 1987 silent short Drawn and Quartered, depicting a naked man and woman divided into four frames, exploring the tacit nature of the human body, she explained how she felt at the film’s San Francisco premiere: “Within those few painful minutes, the crowd went from absolute silence, to raucous laughter, and back to an exquisite quiet. I was shaking.” That’s how you’re likely to feel as you experience Sachs’s work all these years later.
“We’re pretty candid about who Dad is, and we’ve seen him through a lot, but we’re also able to shift what we might recognize as who he really is to what we want him to be,” experimental documentarian Lynne Sachs says in Film About a Father Who, a revealing look at the patriarch of her seemingly ever-expanding family, her dad, Ira Sachs Sr. Inspired by Yvonne Rainer’s seminal 1974 work A Film About a Woman Who . . . , a cinematic collage exploring sexual conflict, and Heinrich Boll’s 1971 novel Group Portrait with Lady, Sachs’s movie consists of footage taken over a period of fifty-four years, beginning in 1965, using 8mm and 16mm film, VHS, Hi8, Mini DV, and digital images, edited by Rebecca Shapass. Now eighty-four, Ira Sachs Sr. was a sex-loving, pot-smoking minor-league hotelier, a neglectful, emotionally unavailable husband and father, both selfish and generous, carefully guarding secrets that Lynne, her sister, journalist and author Dana Sachs, and her brother, filmmaker Ira Sachs Jr., discuss with their six half-siblings, children their father had with other wives and girlfriends, some of whom they did not know about for many years.
Ira Sr.’s mother, Rose Sachs, known as Maw-maw, who left him when he was young, says of his womanizing, “I can’t stand that way of life.” His first wife, Lynne’s mother, Diane Sachs, speaks about what an easy decision divorcing him was. “Marriage was just a lot of being up at night, going to the window, wondering when he was coming home,” she explains. His second wife, Diana Lee, says through tears, “He’s a mistake.” Yet nearly all the women in his life, relatives and companions alike, profess their undying love for the long-haired, bushy-mustached man who was able to cast a spell over them despite, at least outwardly, not appearing to be a particularly eloquent Don Juan type and never remaining faithful. But there’s also more than a hint of psychological abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother. “She treated me as an enemy,” he says.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the first three children of such a secretive man all went into the storytelling arts, mixing fiction and nonfiction in film and literature; Ira has won awards for such films as Forty Shades of Blue and Love Is Strange, Dana’s books include the novel If You Lived Here and the Vietnam memoir The House on Dream Street, and Lynne’s documentaries range from Investigation of a Flame and Sermons and Sacred Pictures to Your Day Is My Night and States of UnBelonging. There are numerous shots of family members filming other relatives; at one point, Lynne is filming Ira Jr. filming Ira Sr. while watching home movies on the television. A Film About a Woman Who . . . , which features music by sound artist Stephen Vitiello, is a striking portrait of an unusually dysfunctional family, a true story that has been in the making for more than a half century and even now provides only some of the answers. Perhaps you can find out more when it begins streaming January 15-31 in the Museum of the Moving Image festival “Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression”; Sachs will participate in a “Discussion with the Sachs Family” on January 19 at 7:00 with her brother Ira and documentarian Kirsten Johnson, introduced by MoMI curator Eric Hynes.
DOCS IN ORBIT – INTRO Welcome to another Masters Edition episode of Docs in Orbit, where we feature conversations with filmmakers who have made exceptional contributions to documentary film.
In this episode, we feature part one of a two part conversation with the remarkable and highly acclaimed feminist, experimental filmmaker and poet, Lynne Sachs.
Lynne Sachs is a Memphis-born, Brooklyn-based artist who has made over 35 films. Her work explores the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences by weaving together text, collage, painting, politics and a layered sound design.
Strongly committed to a dialogue between cinematic theory and practice, she searches for a rigorous play between image and sound, pushing the visual and aural textures in her work with every new project.
Sachs’ films have been screened all over the world, including New York Film Festival, Sundance, Oberhausen, BAMCinemaFest, DocLisboa and many others.
Her work has also been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Walker Art Center, and other venues, including retrospectives in Argentina, Cuba, and China.
She’s also received a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship in the Arts and in 2019, Tender Buttons Press published Lynne’s first collection of poetry, Year by Year Poems.
Lynne Sachs is currently one of the artists in focus at Sheffield Doc Fest where her most recent feature documentary film, FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO is presented alongside a curated selection of five of her earlier films.
I caught up with Sachs recently to discuss the many aspects of her work, including feminist film theory, experimental filmmaking, and her collaborative approach. We also discuss her short film, A MONTH OF SINGLE FRAMES (FOR BARBRA HAMMER), which is currently available at Dokufest until August 25th.
Christina: I’m just so grateful to have you here today. I have to first say that I’m emerging from this journey of reviewing many of your films and your work over the past 30 years, as well as a video lecture, MY BODY YOUR BODY OUR BODIES: SOMATIC CINEMA AT HOME AND IN THE WORLD, which is a fascinating guide through your work and evolution as a filmmaker. And it’s also available online. I’ll include links to all of this on the website so that our listeners are able to easily find it.
You know, it’s kind of very difficult to figure out where to start after reviewing so much of your work, but I figured maybe it would be nice to just kind of start off with what has shaped you as a filmmaker?
Lynne: First of all, I wanted to say that it’s very interesting to talk to someone who has taken that journey through my work, because one of the things that I think is very much an aspect of my way of making films is that they are so interconnected with my own life.
So if you saw my film, THE HOUSE OF SCIENCE, you’d see that I write within it. I keep journals within it. And I talk a lot about the day that I left for college and I had this male gynecologist, I went to check in with him and get some birth control, but I wasn’t even sure where my cervix cervix was.
And then you all the way to my more recent films from 20 years ago, and they were a lot about having children. And then in between that there’s films that include a lot of travel and a kind of exploration as a young filmmaker.
And then, I have a whole group of films that I made usually in the town where I lived. So partially in Baltimore and a lot in New York. And that was maybe because I didn’t believe that documentary film had to come with a big, expensive airplane ticket. And also I had young children at a certain point.
So there’s a kind of way that each film, whether in subject or in execution, reflects what was going on in my life, in those decades.
Christina: There is this very personal aspect of your work as well. This link of what’s happening historically in the world around you, but then also through the lens of how it connects to something that you’re experiencing.
And I love that you mentioned this notion of going to your gynecologist, because there is also another element of your work that is very much exploring feminism. In a lot of your previous lectures of when you were talking about or writing about what has been influential, you mentioned feminist film theories in your work, and I would love to hear from you- I know it’s a big topic – but what feminist film and feminist filmmaking means to you and why it’ s still important today.
Lynne: I think that in the world of that it has built up around the film industry. There’s been an enormous emphasis on access to the means of production. Are women able to break into the hierarchy and even climb or be given the opportunity to access the top.
So there’s this idea that you become a director and therefore you have accomplished what any other woman would want to do.
But unfortunately that does not necessarily come with what maybe you or I would call a feminist sensibility. So there is this breaking of the glass ceiling on the level of job opportunities, but then once you’re there, you’re still replicating what the men have already done.
So important filmmakers and thinkers around film who’ve really shaken me up on the level of image making and encouraged or compelled me to, to bring a feminist commitment to my work would probably start with Maya Deren.
She’s probably the best known grandmother. And I say that in this very broad way. She was a grandmother to many men also. But this person who believed in the possibility for personal filmmaking to break through, to be accessible to many people and in the process to speak to her own experience, which was a woman’s experience.
And then thinking about theory, I would say, Laura Mulvey’s article on Visual Pleasure, because I think even putting those two things together, visual pleasure – and she was writing about narrative cinema. We look at art for pleasure. Yes, we eat food for pleasure, and we travel for pleasure, and we do many things, but art also offers that.
But if the visual pleasure is replicating the desires of a male cinematographer or director, then what she is asking us. And she did this in the early seventies. What she’s asking is, is that really progress?
So Maya Deren, Laura Mulvey, and then I think other people writing on film, who demanded that we not only talk about women’s experiences, but be very vulnerable in our openness to talking about the body, because that’s what distinguishes us from men.
I think a kind of hero in that respect would be Carolee Schneemann, who was a great performance artist, conceptual thinker and filmmaker.
Christina: Yeah, so it’s not just about being able to give a woman a camera and access to making a film, but it’s about actually putting on screen, the way that a woman sees the world, the way that a woman sees her body and it not being through the lens of this male perspective
Lynne: Yeah.. How the body is framed and how we articulate a point of view and being really thoughtful about that. And eventually, maybe there’s the, there will come a time where we don’t have to be as self-conscious, it will just happen. But I think right now we have to investigate that.
And I think particularly in the year, 2020, we also have to look at how the articulation or the expression is also open to a kind of freedom around race too. A freedom of expression that’s not tied down to stereotypes and tied down the burden of what, what cinema has done for so long in terms of how women and women of color have been represented.
Christina: Yeah, and I was going to ask about this because this feminist movement in cinema, as you had mentioned, has been around since the seventies. And you were exploring that when you were in college as well in the eighties, and reading about these theories and then taking your camera up to the roof and exploring the way bodies were represented in film. But how about today? What more can you say about how this is still important?
Lynne: I think one of the people who kind of broke through our, our way of thinking would be bell hooks. She writes a great deal about those forms of representation. I personally have been very influenced by Kara Walker’s work, and by the imagery that she boldly has presented to the world of art.
Then there’s a few filmmakers whose work has been very influential to me. These Black women filmmakers. Cauleen Smith is a super interesting filmmaker. Her work is very much about Afro surrealism.
I actually really liked the way Ja’Tovia Gary integrates these interview processes. She takes a kind of a convention of the reporter on the street, but she has this intimacy at the same time, which I find very empowering as a woman, you know, like let’s do it the old fashioned way with this phallic thing, the microphone, but let’s do it in this way that’s like female bonding. So I love, I really love her work.
Christina: Yeah, I do too. It was one of the delights to discover at Hot Docs this year. I think it’s been around for a while, that short film, but I had only come to see it when it was on display at Hot Docs.
So another thing that you’re known for … I’m trying to pull the threads of how to describe you as a filmmaker and the adjectives that are most commonly used and the word feminist always comes up, but then also experimental filmmaker.
For me, this is very visible in your work and how you play with textures in your films. I would describe your work as being very idea centric, not so much plot driven, but it’s very much that there’s a thought in the center that you’re exploring and you’re using film as a way to bring that to life.
So can you speak a little bit about this idea of experimental filmmaking and what that means for you?
Lynne: I really appreciate your saying that because I actually do think the kernel, the seed is a thought and there’s an expectation in documentary film that we start with a story. And that I feel a bit resentful of because story also applies to plot also applies to the whole condition or expectations of literature as in you have a protagonist or character, and everything is revolving around that character.
And I find that to be kind of derivative. So if you, with an idea, as you’ve suggested, then the aesthetics have to build up around that and they have to take on a more complex approach.
So, if I have an idea or a curiosity or something I want to investigate, then I have to think about how I will hold the camera? You were talking about texture, how will I hold the camera to make that evident?
Or sometimes it goes the other way. Does the fact that the camera shook give you the sense that we have doubt? So there’s a give and take between process instead of always judging what you did.
Like if you did something all by yourself, the production values are often let’s say disappointing on first view.
But if the idea rises to the top, the idea says to you, well those obstacles, those production value obstacles actually lead us to something more real. Revealed something about the situation, for example, that you were shooting in a place where you felt scared.
Those things can come through the texture, but the problem with, what I think a conventional approach to documentary is there’s always this expectation that you’re going for something that’s perfect that follows a template that is beautiful in the most obvious ways.
But sometimes beautiful is opaque and not so beautiful adds a transparency of process that actually can be very stimulating to the viewer.
I mean, I really believe we’re sick of looking at the perfect image.
And actually you were asking about theory, and I would say another big influence is the German theorist and filmmaker, Hito Steyerl. She definitely identifies as highly conceptual and highly committed to the documentary impulse.
She wrote this article about the perfect image versus the degraded image. She sort of thinks it’s really interesting to look at the degraded image, the one that you find on the internet and how it moves from hand to hand, and that we become aware of its demise and we see all like all its wrinkles. Instead of thinking it has to be like fresh out of the camera and an unaffected by its life journey.
Christina: Another aspect of your work that really drew me / collaboration is a really important element in your process. Somewhere I read that there’s a point in your career as a filmmaker where you note this shift in your approach, as you begin to consider your subject as a collaborator. Can you speak a little bit about this and how it shaped sort of where that insight kind of came from and how it shaped the work that you do now?
Lynne: I’ve had this notion that historically in filmmaking, that actors are, have been treated like props, especially women. So if you allow those participants to become creatively involved, I actually think they feel more, there’s more gratitude.
Maybe that’s part of a kind of feminist resistance to the power that comes with being a director that’s never about listening? Like in my film TIP OF MY TOUNGE, I wanted that film to be a lot about listening – my listening to the people in the film and they’re listening to each other and not just about my directing.
Christina: I think, for me, that’s very resonant in your work. So I want to talk a little bit about that film also, but within the context of collaboration, because I’m really intrigued by the nature of your collaborations, because there’s always a degree of it and it’s really interesting to look at, I’ll just pick three –
Tip of My Tongue, and then Film About a Father Who, and A Month of Single Frames. So I think these three films, maybe we can just talk about these three films and the collaborative nature of them?
LYNNE: I also thought about Which Way is East, which I made with my sister. Yeah, this could be interesting, like in a curatorial way, I hadn’t thought about it.
In TIP OF MY TONGUE, it’s a film that started off with a collection of poems that I wrote for every year of my life, between 1961 and 2011, 2011 was the year I turned 50, but it took me about five years to write all those poems.
And then I started to think about, well, why do I just want to know about my own experience, this sort of documentary maker in me reared its head and said, well, how would other people who lived in Iran or lived in Australia or lived in the Netherlands – how would they have seen those years from very distinct different points of view?
So I am the director of it, but a big part of it was bringing this group of people together. And I didnt say I was making a movie, I just said I’m looking for people to collaborate on a project and I’m looking for people who were born between 1958 and 64.
A couple of them were friends, but others had been recommended like, Oh, I know a woman from Iran and she lived those exact years. And, you know, so I figured, okay, when I was graduating from high school and worrying about whether I was going to go to the prom, she was dealing with a revolution.
And we spent three days basically living together and talking to each other and I filmed it. And then I tried to, in a sense, collaborate with the city of New York, which was the only thing all of us have in common. We all lived in New York at that point, and so New York also becomes a collaborator with us as a backdrop and also as unifying aspect of our lives.
And so, what I did was I got together with them and I did an audio interview and I asked them to pick five moments in their lives where a public event affected something very personal or transformed or allowed them to understand something very intimate in their own lives.
So that was the prompt. That became a way by which they could think about Richard Nixon, or they could think about the first moon landing or they could think about 9-11. Some of those are more obvious than others.
So we processed that and filtered those mate, those big events through our own lenses and experiences.
Once I had those interviews, then I started to see intersections between the stories. And then I came back to them and acted a little bit more like Director.
So I have all this openness, anything goes, and then when we actually shot everything was storyboarded.
I think there’s an interesting connection between something you brought up earlier, which is the idea. I think the link between the idea and the aesthetics has to do with finding formal strategies that resonate both conceptually and visually. That’s what I spend all my time thinking about it in the shower. Or dare I say it, driving my car on the subway. Or I’ll wake up in the middle of the night. I think I need a strategy that works on both of those levels. And I’m very rigorous about that. And if it doesn’t work on both of those levels, then I kind of reject it. And sometimes that takes them years to figure it out.
Christina: Right. And there’s different, I imagine, drafts of strategies that you’re trying and trying and trying until you finally find one that does work.
Lynne: Yeah, sure. So that’s the process for that film. So maybe I’ll go on to A Month of Single Frames?
Christina: Yes! Please!
Lynne: So A Month of Single Frames is a film I made with Barbara Hammer who was a renowned lesbian, experimental filmmaker. And she always said intersectional; lesbian, experimental, and filmmaker, all all once! Woman.
So, I have known her for about 30 years – she had been a mentor of mine back in San Francisco, which was very formulated for both of us and then we both came to New York.
Then, just about two years ago, when she knew that she was dying, she came to four different artists and asked, would we like to work with material that she had?
The material she gave me was uncut, 16 millimeter film that she shot in 1998 of an artist residency.
And I said to her immediately, Barbara, why didn’t you make this? You’ve been so prolific, why didn’t make it? She said, well, it was too much about me. Which is funny because she made a lot of films about herself. But my feeling was maybe she thought the material was too beautiful. It didn’t have an edge to it.
So I was faced with its absolute beauty. Cape Cod, and the dunes, and the sunset. The sound effects of the waves and the insects, and all that.
And so there, I was in a sense collaborating with her work just by editing it. And that didn’t seem like enough.
So I thought I needed to talk through the material to her and to audiences and even to a more epistemological engagement with cinema. Like, what is cinema? What is it in terms of the way it looks at time at place as it once was and now what has changed? And how does cinema allow two people to be in the same space and not in the same space?
And then I’m in the same space with Barbara, with you as viewer, with anyone who watches the film people. Total strangers. We’re all in the same space.
So that actually came to me and I just started writing, as you’ve seen, in a lot of my films writing can find its way as voiceover or on the screen.
So the collaboration in a sense for me didn’t really happen until I was able to create my own place in it. Otherwise it was, it was more like, hagiography, and I didn’t want it to just be a portrait of a woman who had recently died. I needed to engage deeper in the deeper way.
Christina: You said it’s about cinema. It’s also about the making of cinema too and on that level, it resonated with me. It’s very clear from the beginning, when we hear you setting up the interviews, there’s a very reflexive mode in there. “I’m setting out to collaborate with this filmmaker and make a new creation out of her work”.
I found it very moving, not just because the images were incredibly beautiful and the soundscape and the way that those worked so well together, but I found it really balanced in terms of the space you gave yourself in the film while you’re paying an homage to Barbara Hammer and her work during that residency.
Lynne: One of the things that comes about when you’re making a work that uses this word, “about”. Or we talk about the elevator pitch, like, how can you describe your film in the 20 seconds that you’re on an elevator with someone? And the word that always comes in is “about”.
That’s the preposition, right? If the object of the preposition is only the name of someone, then I think it’s very reductive.
But if you can say the about, can become more expanded and more reflective that about is also within, and it can be multiple prepositions, within or underneath or behind or with, like all of those things.
Then we start to think about our engagement as being more fluid, more unpredictable, and more about point of view.
So, if I had just said, this is a film about a woman who had cancer, or this is a film about a woman who was a lesbian experimental filmmaker, then you would enter those 14 minutes and you’d come out knowing more like in an educational experience.
Like I know more about Barbara Hammer. Or in, Film About A Father Who, I know more about this filmmaker’s father. But I didn’t want either of those films to function on that narrow a level. I wanted it to be about process and about failure.
That’s why with A Month of Single Frames, you hear us setting up and you actually hear a place where, Barbara and I are talking about looking through her journal and she kind of gets a little irritated with me cause I don’t find the right part that she should read.
Normally you would cut that out, because it sort of shows my failures or that I felt pressured, or I really didn’t know what I was doing.
But if you leave it in, it becomes more human.
That’s like the calling card of all essay films is those moments where the attempt to do one thing leads to something else and so you go one direction and then you find a kind of obstacle and you go another direction.
There’s another part of A Month of Single Frames that you might not have noticed, but I almost took it out and it also shows failure. Barbara wanted to animate these little toys and she wanted to film them, but she was there all by herself in this remote shack in Cape Cod.
So she’d wind up the toys and then she kind of like run back to her camera. But by the time she got your camera, these wind up toys didn’t move anymore. So you actually see her hand and so called “good animators” wouldn’t include the hand moving the toys. They would only include the success. But I actually thought what was more interesting was her attempt to do something which basically failed.
Christina: I do remember that. I do remember that bit, but I wasn’t, to me, it was just playful.
Just to see somebody that is so renowned that, you know, it’s it’s, but at the same time, so devoted to the work as well and seeing how playful she is with her environment, it was just very nice to see.
Lynne: Well, I think one of the things about that film that’s so extraordinary is that her situation while beautiful is also quite basic.
And there’s a way that the film validates movie production on a budget. It doesn’t elevate access to funds and to locations. It just sort of says what the barest of tools you can make a movie. And I think that also is super validating and important to remember in our high tech and quite money oriented – our industry is a lot about money.
So when you see someone who’s working in this very austere way, I think it’s quite (inaudible)
You asked earlier what makes for an experimental film. I think it’s the notion that work can be play and play can be work. That if you allow yourself to play for a while, rather than judging yourself immediately, which we all do, especially when we call it work, we call it work and we don’t think it’s good enough, then we pretty much stop. We censor ourselves and stop.
But if we move into a realm of play, then I think we often end up in a place of discovery.
And Barbara was always doing that. And so she was most definitely a kind of role model for me.
CHRISTINA: That was it like when you first received this set of archives and watching and hearing them for the first time?
Lynne: You know, I had a student about three years ago who asked me, why do I make movies? And I guess I kind of gave her an answer. And then I asked her because she was learning to make films. And she said to me, I think I make films because I want to give gifts.
And I really loved that. I really loved that you do it because you’re sharing something or that you do have an experience that you want someone else to be able to engage with. And might give them joy. Or might make them feel about the world in a deeper way.
So, when Barbara gave me this imagery that she had, and she is giving me the gift of witnessing her solitude. So I felt that I needed to enter that experience of solitude and that was a gift that was from her to me.
So I needed to find a way to give back to her and I knew that it would be posthumous. So I needed to give to her legacy, not just to her. There’s a real exchange between the two of us.
And it’s interesting to find that I’m referring to her so much now that she’s not with us. I have this very profound belief that when we lose someone, someone who dies, that as much as we don’t want to say their names because it reminds us of them, that each time we say their name, we get to be with them a bit longer.
I really love when I dream about someone who’s died. And so the film is a little bit like my dream of Barbara that I keep getting to have.
Because, as you know with anyone who has died in life, you dream a lot about them, and you’re chit chatting with them and having dinner with them and all of that. When they appear in your dream, you feel wistful. And so the film was a little bit like that.
Christina: That’s wonderful. It’s actually a really wonderful way to close on, on the film too.
DOCS IN ORBIT – OUTRO
Thanks for listening. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss part two of the conversation where we discuss more of Lynne’s work, including her feature film, FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO.
Also, head over to our website, www.docsinorbit.com, for our show notes that include links to films and articles referenced in this episode.
This podcast was produced by Panda Ray Productions.
With music by Nayeem Mahbub in Stockholm. And Produced by Christina Zachariades in Brooklyn. Special thanks to Sylvia Savadjian.
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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.
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.
A tip-sheet on films to watch at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, which has begun with an invigorating selection of documentaries to watch online.
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam
Section: Ghosts & Apparitions
Described as poems, personal observations and political tools, Lynne Sachs’ experimental documentaries are beautiful experiences. Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam is a travel diary in which Sachs and her sister Dana journey through a country they previously knew only from TV, discovering its vibrant life and the ghosts of its history. In addition, Sachs’ 35-years-in-the-making project Film about a Father Who will have its international premiere in October as part of the festival’s Into the World strand.
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.