The American experimental filmmaker and poet participates in the discussion that takes place after the screening of a selection of some of her films, which explore the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences within the family framework. In addition, she teaches the course Opening the family album .
Lynne Sachs has created genre-defying cinematic works through the use of hybrid forms and interdisciplinary collaboration, incorporating elements of essay film, collage , performance, documentary, and poetry. With each project of hers, Ella Lynne investigates the implicit connection between the body, the camera and the materiality of the film itself.
Girl Is Presence . USA, 4 min. 2020 In this collaborative work, Lynne Sachs and her daughter Noa make a visual poem in response to a poem by Anne Lesley Selcer. Girl Is Presence has traces of the fragmented language of George Bataille, the source of Selcer’s concept poem that reworks, undoes and recalls its rhythms. Made in the deepest isolation of the pandemic, as the words build in tension, the scene begins to feel occult, ritualistic, and alchemical.
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam . USA, 33 min. 1994. When two American sisters travel north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, conversations with strangers and Vietnamese friends reveal the other side of a shared story.
Wind in Our Hair . Argentina / USA, 40 min. 2010. Inspired by stories by writer Julio Cortázar and shot in contemporary Argentina, the film is based on an experimental narrative where four girls discover themselves through their fascination with the trains that pass by their house. As a story of anticipation and disappointment in early adolescence, Con viento en el pelo is set in a period of deep political and social unrest in Argentina.
Maya at 24 . USA / Spain, 5 min. 2021. Lynne Sachs films her daughter Maya in black and white and on 16mm. at 6, 16 and 24 years. In each recording, Maya runs in circles, clockwise, as if she is propelling herself in the same direction as time, forward. Aware of the strange simultaneous temporal landscape that only cinema can convey, this work shows Maya in motion at her different ages.
Available on DAFilms: https://americas.dafilms.com/director/7984-lynne-sachs Drawn and Quartered The House of Science: a museum of false facts Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam States of UnBelonging Same Stream Twice Your Day is My Night And Then We Marched Carolee, Barbara & Gunvor The Washing Society A Month of Single Frames Film About a Father Who
Available on Fandor:https://www.fandor.com/category-movie/297/lynne-sachs/ Still Life With Woman and Four Objects Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning The Washing Society The House of Science: a museum of false facts Investigation of a Flame Noa, Noa The Small Ones Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam Atalanta: 32 Years Later States of UnBelonging A Biography of Lilith The Task of the Translator Sound of a Shadow The Last Happy Day Georgic for a Forgotten Planet Wind in Our Hair Drawn and Quartered Your Day is My Night Widow Work Tornado Same Stream Twice
Available on Ovid:https://www.ovid.tv/lynne-sachs A Biography of Lillith Investigation of a Flame The Last Happy Day Sermons and Sacred Pictures Starfish Aorta Colossus States of Unbelonging Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam Your Day is My Night Tip of My Tongue And Then We Marched A Year of Notes and Numbers
When Pacific Film Archive curator Kathy Geritz invited me to give the 2022 Les Blank Lecture, all of my experiences, challenges, obstacles and revelations regarding what constitutes the real came tumbling into my mind. I immediately confronted and embraced the life I’ve lead in the cosmos of the cinema, and more specifically my I.O.U, my gratitude, to that real for simply providing me with so much to think about and so much to record with my camera.
Tonight, I will share with you a selection of observations I have made in the course of creating approximately 50 films, installations, live performances and web art projects. Whether a 90 second ciné poem or an 83 minute feature, I learned early-on that my process of making films must push me to engage directly with the people with whom I’m working in a fluid and attentive way. I’ve never been truly comfortable with the term “director” or the hierarchical configuration of a movie set. I am a filmmaker who looks for other committed artists who are willing to collaborate with me in an adventure. These inventive souls are not my crew. We talk. We listen to each other. I pay them for their time and expertise. And then we set off on a journey.
Of course there are the people in front of the camera, what many documentary makers refer to as their subjects. In narrative film, these are the actors or, thinking in the aggregate, the cast. Again I find both of these monolithic terms anathema, an insult to their human presence. From my very first 16mm film “Still Life with Women and Four Objects” made in 1986, I asked the woman, the star in the film, to extract herself from “the objects” in order to shake things up for me. I wanted her to shift away from simply being a living, breathing prop. I invited her to bring something from her home that meant a great deal to her to our first day of shooting. She delivered a framed black-and-white photograph of early 20th century feminist-anarchist Emma Goldman. At the time, I had no idea who Emma was. I quickly learned. I, and with my four minute film, were forever changed. I’d claim for the better. I’ve been listening and learning from all the people involved in my films ever since.
This leads me to another perhaps more intricate form of entangling myself in the creative process. Between 2011 and 2013, I worked with seven Chinese immigrants between the ages of 55 and 80 living in the so-called “Chinatown” areas of NYC. Together, we made “Your Day Is My Night”, a hybrid documentary on their immigration experience and their lives in the place each of them calls home. Hybrid is the keyword here, for it was my interaction with these participants that sparked me to find a completely new approach to my documentary practice. I started this project with the intention of discovering more about these people’s lives through a series of one-on-one audio interviews. Then, I turned each of these conversations into a monologue that I gave back to each person so that they could perform their own lives by both memorizing their lines and also improvising, all in a dramatic context that gave them the freedom to express themselves, and a release from the intimidation and vulnerability of not knowing what would happen next. According to the seven people in my film, this in turn gave them the liberty to play with their spoken words with whim and impetuousness, not to feel indebted to the limitations of their own historic realities. At my performers’ insistence, we ultimately moved the hybrid nature of the piece one step further. As a group, they pushed me to search for a story beyond their lives. They wanted me to make their job of articulating their experiences more interesting so I brought in one “wild card”, a Puerto Rican woman actor who would move into their shared, filmic apartment. Her arrival transformed the piece into a story that embraced each person’s immigration experience without being confined by it.
Over a two year period, we took our live performance with film to homeless shelters, museums, universities and small theaters throughout New York City. I then turned our collective work into a film. From this experience, I learned that even a more conventionally narrative film is simply a documentation of a group of people making something together. My integration of a traditional observational mode with a more theatrical engagement gave me the chance to reflect on the work I had done over 25 years earlier, as the sound recordist on Trinh T. Minh-ha’s “Surname Viet Given Name Nam”. This film also challenges monolithic notions of documentary truth. Some of you saw it in this very room when Minh-ha gave the 5th Annual Les Blank lecture.
I also wanted to share something about the exhibition of “Your Day is My Night” which adds another layer to our conversation around collaboration both within the film’s production structure and its exhibition. The first evening that we presented this piece to an actual audience, there was a rather typical post-screening Q and A. There I stood with all of the participants in the film. When members of the audience asked these seven Chinese immigrants to the US how they felt about working on this rather experimental film, they all became quiet, then they whispered together and a few minutes later, one spokesperson came forward to say simply “We do what Lynne tells us to do.” There was a hush in the room. No one knew what to say. Honestly, I felt embarrassed, at a loss for what to do. I put my microphone down, walked over to the group and explained that in the US it was okay for them to say whatever they wanted publicly, to express their feelings about their experiences without any punitive repercussions. At the next screening, they each energetically took the mic from me. With the help of a translator, they articulated their own interpretation of our shared creative process. Never before had they had the opportunity to talk so freely in public, in China or in the US.
The performers in “The Washing Society” which you will see tonight gave me another kind of gift in terms of their response to and expansion of my creative practice. In 2014 and ’15, playwright Lizzie Olesker and I traipsed around New York City trying to record interviews with laundry workers. Most of them were recent immigrants who did not yet speak English or have their legal documents for living in the United States. Neither their bosses nor their husbands wanted them to talk to us. Thus, they refused to be on camera. So the two us confronted this “production obstacle” head-on. We conducted a series of informal non-recorded interviews and then we wrote a play that used the stories we’d heard as source material for a live performance and film. We called it “Every Fold Matters”. We worked for over a year with four professional actors and dancers who were open to devising a strategy for making a site specific piece that would be performed in actual laundromats around the city. In the process, we borrowed from reality in order to create a new hybrid reality.
Veraalba, one of our performers, was formally trained as a dancer but also deeply influenced by the radical choreographic gestures of feminist thinker and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer. Through her physical investigations of folding laundry, the piece gained an exhilarating gestural vocabulary that gave our show and then our film its rhythm and its musicality.
Jasmine, an actor in the film with traditional theater experience, embraced our whole, inclusive process so profoundly that she transformed herself from an eager, responsive actor into a generative contributor. One day during our rehearsals, she texted me with the words “I’ve been living with my grandmother Lulabelle all of my life but she never told me she had worked in a laundry from 1968 to 1998 until I started working with you all on this show.” A few days later, we were filming with Jasmine and her grandmother while she conducted the first documentary interview of her life. She asked her grandmother about her collective actions for better wages and working conditions. The openness of our process gave her the chance to find out more about the woman with whom she’d lived all her life. In addition, this intimate cross-generational exchange between two women in a family gave a new layer to our film.
Now, I would like to take you on a journey through my aesthetic, material trajectory as an experimental documentary filmmaker. I need the word experimental here because it commits me to pursuing formal investigations of the medium. This is the only way that cinema can continually tackle, confront, even tickle my curiosity about the world. What is particular to me about cinema is its embrace of sound with, alongside, underneath and beyond image. In the late 1980s, I made my first longer format documentary “Sermons and Sacred Pictures”, a 30 minute portrait of Reverend L. O. Taylor, a Black Baptist minister who also shot 16mm film and collected sound recordings. At a certain point in the film, audiences are in total darkness while they hear the chatter of church congregants at a baptism in a river. At the time, this film was rejected for TV broadcast because the station producer assumed viewers would give up and turn off their televisions. Tonight I think about this film I made in my late 20s with a new perspective. I think at this moment about what theorist and poet Fred Moten calls “hesitant sociology”, and about the ways that we can integrate a propensity for abstraction into an endeavor to bring attention to a subject that might not have received its rightful place in history. Where do education and exposition end and aesthetic rigor begin? Do we necessarily lose the impact of the former when we give light to the later?
In “Which Way is East”, a diary film made in Vietnam in 1994, I begin with a series of richly colored Kodachrome brushstrokes juxtaposed with my own voice-over remembering what it was like to watch televised images of the war in the late 1960s. As a six year old child, I would lie on the living room couch with my head hanging upside down watching the screen, inverting the images, unintentionally abstracting them somehow. At that age, I just barely understood the dismal war statistics I was hearing. Within my film, I decided to make this oblique reference to the archival images of the Vietnam War rather than delivering actual illustrations from the time period. That was enough. I expected my audience to work hard to fill in this absence, a pointer to the horrifying collateral damage of the US involvement in Vietnam. Each viewer has to reckon with their own relationship to this history, as full or empty as it might be. At the time, I was cognizant of Belgian filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s refusal to provide a visual proof in the form of archival footage from the concentration camps in his 1985 “Shoah”, an episodic series on the Holocaust. At that time in history, forty years after the end of World War II, he felt that that haunting power of those images would be even more searing if his audience had to rely on their internal repository. Just in the last year, I had the chance to read historian and theorist Tina M. Campt’s new book Listening to Images in which she prompts readers to look at archival footage in a way that forces us to hear what was never recorded, to bring our imaginations into the synthesis and recognition of a partial history that needs, at long last, a place in our communal consciousness. The lacunas are mended by my, your and our active modes of participation. Both Lanzmann and I resisted the inclusion of images of horror, cautious about our own complicity by including them, assuming their implicit power that comes from absence.
Two weeks ago, I went to Berlin to shoot for a new film I am making called “Every Contact Leaves a Trace”. I spent several days talking with an 80-year old German woman about many things, including the moment when she first became aware of the concentration camp atrocities that had been committed by the Nazis, the everyday men and women who lived in her own town. She had the chance to watch archival footage of systematic killings and so much more in Alan Resnais’ 1956 documentary “Night and Fog”. It all became absolutely clear. Here was the proof. When I heard this woman speak of the potency of these images, I immediately asked myself if I had failed in my own work. I’d assumed the existence of an internal archive of the horrors of the Vietnam War. In fact, it might not have been there, at least to a younger audience. Had I failed in my own obligation to manifest a history that needed examination?
In addition to a deep involvement from my compatriots in front of and behind the camera, I have come to expect a parallel engagement with my audience. In order for a multi-layered cinematic experience to happen, there must be a “synaptic” event that transpires. Only through this internal occurrence can we register meaning. My awareness of the aperture inside the camera convinces me that we must find intimacy with light to accomplish this kind of charged flow from screen to eye. I have had the same Bolex 16mm camera since 1987. I know her well and feel as if she knows me.
As we sit here together in this room, I would like to share with you just five images from my entire career as a filmmaker. They are part of my IOU to light, the only continuous collaborator who has remained with me for all of these years.
This is an image from “Still Life with Woman and Four Objects” (1986) a film falls somewhere between a painting and a prose poem. It’s a look at a woman’s daily routines and thoughts, interweaving history and fiction. This is the film I mentioned earlier with the framed photo of Emma Goldman.
In this image of an avocado pit just peeled and prepared for growth, you see a slant of sunshine coming through a skylight in the ceiling. This is the first time that I truly learned how to transform – via an awareness of aperture and f-stops – what the eye sees into something only the camera can witness.
In “Window Work” (2001) a woman drinks tea, washes a window, reads the paper– simple tasks that somehow suggest a kind of quiet mystery. I am the performer!
Here, my hermitic, domestic space is ruptured by a backlit newspaper. It glows. As cinematographer and performer, I discover how to sculpt light through silhouette.
In, “Your Day is My Night” (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.
Here light transforms Mr. Tsui’s profile into a gently sloping landscape. He fills the frame completely and in the process conveys awareness and presence.
Over a period of 35 years between 1984 and 2019, I shot 8 and 16mm film, videotape and digital images of my dad. “Film About a Father Who” (2020) is my attempt to understand the web that connects a child to her parent and a sister to her siblings. Here, my father has photographed three of my siblings playing in the water in the early ‘90s.
This time worn image reveals my dad’s point of view. There is no detail. Only light and color affirm a quality of compassion and observation, simply through the texture.
This is one of the last shots from “Film About a Father Who”. It’s clearly a degraded piece of old video, having lost all of its color and detail. And yet, in its starkness, this high contrast black and white image evokes a pathos. After spending 74 minutes with me in the film, viewers are able to fill in what is missing.
In each of these light-sculpted images, I explore the concept of distillation which has always been at the foundation of my work. I am an experimental filmmaker and a poet. Thus I am far more interested in the associative relationship between two things, two shots or two words than I am in their cause and effect, or their narrative symbiosis. For me, a distillation is a container for ideas and energy, a concise manifestation of a multi-valent presence that does not depend on exposition. A distillation is not a metaphor; it’s more like metonymy and synecdoche, where a part stands in for a whole, and is just enough.
I once asked a student of mine why she wanted to make documentary films. She told me that she wanted to make gifts. Just that single word helped me to better understand the ways that this kind of practice can embrace so much about life. Working with and beside reality allows us to feel relevant but also gives us the chance to share something we love with others. Through his engaged, compassionate, ingenious approach to filmmaking, Les Blank gave us approximately 50 gifts. His vision of music, food, culture, and humanity came through every frame of film.
I too have made about 50 films, web art projects, performances and installations. Like Les, each endeavor reveals my curiosity and awe for the world around me, my I.O.U to the Real.
Lynne Sachs is one of our most dynamic filmmakers and poets. Her captivating work is a medley of documentaries, essay films, hybrid live performances, and experimental shorts. With her use of vivid visuals and intricate sound, Sachs eagerly pushes formal boundaries. She crafts transfixing and intimate moving images that draw from her own emotional and social experiences — often through a feminist lens. For Women’s History Month, Fandor celebrates this fascinating female filmmaker and her insightful cinematic achievements.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and what led you to filmmaking?
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, it never occurred to me to be a filmmaker. In fact, that wasn’t even a word in my vocabulary. I knew about movie directors and movie stars. I thoroughly enjoyed the occasional European art film I might see on TV or on a Saturday matinée at a community center. Then I discovered the brazen, irreverent, raw, improvised vision of Rainer Fassbinder and the internal, austere feminism of Chantal Ackerman. From that time on, I knew I wanted to make films.
Was there a particular moment or film that inspired you to become a filmmaker?
When I was a senior in high school in Memphis, Tennessee, I was able to see the films of Reverend L.O. Taylor, a Black minister, and filmmaker with an overwhelming interest in preserving the social and cultural fabric of his own community in the 1930s and ’40s. I spent that summer carrying a projector and stacks of Taylor’s films around to churches in Memphis where a group of us would ask small audiences to help us to identify the people in the films. I was transfixed by this man’s work that ten years later when I too had decided to make films, I returned to Memphis to make Sermons Sacred Pictures (29 min., 1989, streaming on Fandor) on his life and work.
Seeing French filmmaker Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil was equally transformative for me. This feature-length early 80’s essay film entered my soul. I immediately connected to its delicate mode of engaging with other cultures, its self-reflexive intensity, its compassion, its humor, and its unabashed doubt. Marker shot the film himself, so every frame reflects his vision, the way he saw and framed the world at a certain point in his own life. I hadn’t known that this was even possible until I saw Sans Soleil.
What is special to you about shooting on film and do you feel something is lost in everyone’s transition to digital?
I see light differently when I am shooting with film. When I was making Which Way is East (30 min. 16mm, color, 1994, streaming on Fandor), I traveled through Vietnam for one month carrying my Bolex camera and only 40 minutes of 16mm film stock. I had to wait for the light to find me in just the right way, simply because I could not waste a single frame. By imposing this kind of cinematic awareness and discipline on myself, I learned to make each shot matter.
I learned to engage with the medium’s ability to witness and express through knowledge of the lens and the celluloid. I have tried to imbue my filmmaking practice with this kind of awareness ever since. I don’t think I have yet accomplished this level of intimacy with my digital camera but I certainly try. I still never “overshoot”, and find that less material with more striking images still works best for me.
After the 20th anniversary of September 11th, how do you feel looking back at your film Tornado?
Tornado was very much made in the moment of September 11. I shot this film the day after the attack on the Twin Towers. Now we have so much knowledge of what it was all about, but at that moment those of us here in New York City were full of fear and confusion. My two daughters were six and four years old on that day. I made this film to help me work through their relationship to the towers, which they perceived as human beings. Their impulse as children was, surprisingly, to anthropomorphize the buildings themselves. They simply could not comprehend the real number of deaths. How could they imagine thousands of people’s lives, over, gone?
In the film, you simply see me filming my hands rummaging through pages from a desktop calendar that had blown from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn that day. It was so eerie, so tactile, so immediate. Now 20 years later, I have perspective, an awareness of the whole history, but I also still feel deep sadness and loss.
Sound design plays a significant part in Tornado (the sounds of the bustling city, the crinkling of the paper, etc.) How do you approach sound design in your work?
Thank you for your sensitivity to the aural aspect of Tornado (3 min. 2002). While I do make feature-length films, this is one of my shortest, one of the films I made most quickly. It reflects the sensation of being alive right after a national crisis. There were still ashes blowing in the air, and yet you see teenagers riding on skateboards and older Italian-American men playing cards in the park. The sound gives an audience the chance to connect to this attempt by all of us to reconnect with what we perceived as normalcy. Over the last two years, I have referred to the pandemic as daunting now. The days right after 9/11 felt very similar.
Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning is a clever subversion of the male gaze. Can you talk about your inspiration for the film as well as the meaning of the title?
You are very observant! During the time that I was making Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning (9 min., 1987, 16mm), I was in a women’s reading group where we were drinking a lot of tea and wine and devouring texts by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. You probably won’t be surprised that I had just discovered Laura Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema at that time. I do believe that she was the first person to develop a theory of the male gaze. I needed to explore that in my own work, so that is exactly what I did in this film.
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects is your tribute to the anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman. It reminded me of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. I was wondering how feminism overall has impacted your filmmaking?
Bingo! As I mentioned earlier, Ackerman’s work was and is extremely important to me. Her depiction of a woman trapped by the domestic responsibilities of a single mother trying to make a go of it was a revelation to me. I never thought of it before, but my Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (4 min., 1987, 16mm) image of a woman sitting at a table eating and slicing her food probably came right from my witnessing of Jeanne Dielman’s real-time preparation of a meal, in all it is protracted and aesthetically devised labor. Thirty years later, I was equally inspired by this film in the making of The Washing Society (co-directed with Lizzie Olesker, 45 min., 2018) which is not only streaming on Fandor but also supported by it during our production.
A Biography of Lilith combines Jewish folklore, interviews, music, and poetry. Can you talk about the process of incorporating so many different art forms and inspirations into your film?
Sometimes making my films gives me a great excuse to immerse myself in research and to see how all of the reading I do will influence my creative process. When I first heard the story of Lilith, I was shocked and thrilled to discover that this mythological figure from Jewish mysticism was born from the dirt, not Adam’s rib like Eve later would be. She became his first wife but was then thrown out of the Garden of Eden for wanting to be on top in sex.
I was captivated by this story and all of the folklore that came with it, especially since new mothers were historically told to be afraid of Lilith. She was too willful and aware of her sexuality, which was exactly what attracted me. I discovered Lilith when I was pregnant with my first daughter and finished the film right after I gave birth to my second. My film Biography of Lilith (1997, 35 min. 16mm) is a reflection of all the awe, fear, frustration, and excitement that was part of this experience.
That film is a meditation on your role as a mother. How does motherhood, as well as your perspective as a woman, inform your filmmaking? And vice-versa, how does being a filmmaker impact how view yourself as a mother?
My two daughters Maya Street-Sachs (b. 1995) and Noa Street-Sachs (b. 1997) entered my life as an artist before they were even born through the making of Biography of Lilith. I have made numerous films with them, including Photograph of Wind (3 min. 2001), Noa, Noa (8 min., 2006), The Last Happy Day (37. Min., 2009), and Wind in Our Hair (45 min., 2010) which are all streaming on Fandor. Our daughters enjoy performing and engaging with my filmmaking, or at least this is what they have told me. By integrating my daughters into my life as an artist, I was able to engage with them both creatively and intellectually throughout their childhood.
Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
I certainly do! For most of my adult life, I’ve collected and saved over 550 small business cards that people have given me – from professional conferences to doctors’ appointments, from film festivals to hardware stores, from art galleries to human rights centers. In these places, I’ve met and engaged with hundreds of people over a period of four decades, and now I’m thinking about how these people’s lives might have affected mine or, in turn, how I might have touched the trajectory of their own journey.
Rifling through the cards, I wonder about each person who offered me this small paper object as a reminder of our encounter. Some meetings were profound, others brief and superficial. And yet, almost every card actually accomplished the mnemonic purpose for which it was created. Holding a card now, a trickle or a flood of memories lands inside my internal vault, and that person’s existence is reinstated in mine. Beginning in 2021, I threw myself into the process of investigating how the component parts of these cards could hold a clue to my understanding of what they are. The concept of making distillations has been at the foundation of my work for a very long time.
As an experimental filmmaker and poet, I am more interested in the associative relationship between two things, two shots, and two words than I am in their cause and effect, or their narrative symbiosis. For me, a distillation like one of these cards is a container for ideas and energy, a concise manifestation of a multi-valent presence that does not depend on exposition. Distillation is not a metaphor; it’s more like metonymy and synecdoche, where a part stands in for a whole, where less might be more.
The Lynne Sachs Collection is now showing on Fandor, our independent film streaming service. Click here to watch the works of Lynne Sachs.
Summary Lynne Sachs, 1994, USA, 33:00, color, sound
In 1994, two American sisters – a filmmaker and a writer — travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. Together, they attempt to make a candid cinema portrait of the country they witness. Their conversations with Vietnamese strangers and friends reveal to them the flip side of a shared history. Lynne and Dana Sachs’ travel diary revels in the sounds, proverbs, and images of Vietnamese daily life. Both a culture clash and an historic inquiry, their film comes together with the warmth of a quilt, weaving together stories of people the sisters met with their own childhood memories of the war on TV.
International Women’s Day 2022 – Program
Celebrate International Women’s Day, DAFilms-style. Spend this week with those filmmakers who have always been close to our heart, like Chantal Akerman, Agnès Varda, and Věra Chytilová, and with others that are only now joining our family of female-led documentary cinema.
FILMS STREAMING: Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam The Movement of Things Nona. If They Soak Me, I’ll Burn Them Don’t Worry, the Doors Will Open The Kiosk Mural Murals Night Box Maison du bonheur
The online portal DAFilms.com is the main project of the Doc Alliance festival network formed by 7 key European documentary film festivals. It represents an international online distribution platform for documentary and experimental films focused on European cinema. For a small fee, it offers over 1900 films accessible across the globe for streaming or legal download. The films are included in the virtual database on the basis of demanding selection criteria. The portal presents regular film programs of diverse character ranging from presentation of archive historical films through world retrospectives of leading world filmmakers to new premiere formats such as the day-and-date release. DAFilms.com invites directors, producers, distributors, and students to submit their films, thus offering them the possibility to make use of this unique distribution channel.
On this twenty-second episode of OLL OBOUT OVID!, on this ONE HUNDREDTH episode of THE SCREEN’S MARGINS, Witney and B have a very special guest! Here to talk with them about her films, which are being showcased on Ovid.tv, is none other than experimental documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs! Among the films discussed in the first half of their chat are SERMONS AND SACRED PICTURES (1989), WHICH WAY IS EAST: NOTEBOOKS FROM VIETNAM (1994), STATES OF UNBELONGING (2005) and YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT (2013), which are currently on Ovid. The second half of the conversation will be released on February 9th, when five more of Lynne Sachs’ films are released to the service. We hope you enjoy, and thank you for your time!
About Lynne Sachs 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 each and every new project. Between 1994 and 2009, her five essay films took her to Vietnam, Bosnia, Israel, Italy and Germany — sites affected by international war – where she looked at the space between a community’s collective memory and her own subjective perceptions.
Recently, after 25 years of making experimental documentaries, Lynne learned something that turned all her ideas about filmmaking upside down. While working on Your Day is My Night in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York City, she came to see that every time she asked a person to talk in front of her camera, they were performing for her rather than revealing something completely honest about their lives. The very process of recording guaranteed that some aspect of the project would be artificial. She decided she had to think of a way to change that, so she invited her subjects to work with her to make the film, to become her collaborators. For Lynne, this change in her process has moved her toward a new type of filmmaking, one that not only explores the experiences of her subjects, but also invites them to participate in the construction of a film about their lives.
Her films have screened at the New York Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, Toronto’s Images Festival and Los Angeles’ REDCAT Theatre as well as a five-film retrospective at the Buenos Aires Film Festival. The San Francisco Cinematheque recently published a monograph with four original essays in conjunction with a full retrospective of Lynne’s work. In 2014, Lynne received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Film and Video.
About Ovid With the help of an unprecedented collaborative effort by eight of the most noteworthy, independent film distribution companies in the U.S., Docuseek, LLC launched an innovative, new, subscription video-on-demand service, OVID.tv.
OVID.tv will provide North American viewers with access to thousands of documentaries, independent films, and notable works of international cinema, largely unavailable on any other platform.
OVID’s initial offerings fall into roughly three categories: a) powerful films addressing urgent political and social issues, such as climate change, and economic justice; b) in-depth selections of creative documentaries by world-famous directors; and c) cutting-edge arthouse feature and genre films by contemporary directors as well as established masters. And new films in all three areas will be added to the OVID collection every two weeks.
OVID.tv is an initiative of Docuseek, LLC, which operates Docuseek, a streaming service for colleges and universities which was established in 2012, streaming a library of over 1600 titles.
The eight founding content partners are:
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Welcome to the 99th and final podcast from THE SCREEN’S MARGINS of the year! What a year it’s been, and what better way to round out 2021 than by…okay there’s nothing special, it’s just B Peterson and Witney Seibold talking good film that’s available on Ovid.tv, aka the premise of OLL OBOUT OVID! We talk Alain Renais’ 1956 tribute to libraries, Madeline Anderson’s documentation of Civil Rights activism and activists, Lynne Sachs’ experimental explorations of history, language and the documentary form itself, Jill Li’s chronicling of a democratic movement in Southern China, and more besides! We hope you enjoy, and thank you for your time.
Several of her films are currently available to watch on the Criterion Channel
Whether portraying artists, historical figures, family members, or strangers, filmmaker Lynne Sachs has always found rivetingly indirect methods of representing her subjects. The San Francisco Weekly called her 2001 film Investigation of a Flame, about the Vietnam War and the Catonsville Nine, a group of Catholic activists who burnt draft files in protest, an “anti-documentary.” Sachs herself now uses the phrase “experimental documentary” as shorthand for describing the formal elements that constitute her particularly idiosyncratic and collage-like cinematic vernacular, notable in work like the decades-in-the-making Film About A Father Who (2020).
Rooted in her days in San Francisco’s experimental scene, Sachs’s concerns are deeply material; they regard the matter that makes up the world as inextricable from the technology that reproduces it. Her investigation of New York City laundromats, The Washing Society (2016), co-directed with playwright Lizzie Olesker, struck me as an apt departure point for our wide-ranging discussion about and around this material awareness, as well as the larger concerns that bridge the gap between her films as works of art and Sachs’s advocacy for worldly change.
I WANT TO START WITH A WEIRD QUESTION.
I like weird questions.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON LINT?
I have been thinking about lint so much over the last few years. It started with my thinking about skin, and the epidermis, and about clothing being a second layer of our skin—which means that when we collect lint out of the dryer, we’re also catching aspects of our bodies. Sometimes it’s our own bodies, sometimes it’s the bodies of people we love. Sometimes it’s the bodies of people whose clothes are being washed in a transactional way…Iin that flow, you collect something most people think of as detritus. But I actually think of it as material, in the way that Joseph Beuys was really interested in wax and felt. So, lint is material for sculpture, and for an examination of our bodies. When that comes together, I find it very compelling.
I AM, OF COURSE, REFERRING TO A COUPLE OF SPECIFIC SHOTS FROM THE WASHING SOCIETY, WHICH EMPHASIZE SENSUOUSNESS, WHICH IS NOT A WORD I EVER WOULD’VE PREVIOUSLY USED TO DESCRIBE LINT.
That attention to the microscopic aspects that are residue of the much larger social relationships around service, hygiene, and the exchange of money for someone who performs something for somebody else—lint represents all those things.
IT MAKES ME THINK OF THE WASHING SOCIETY AS AN EXTENSION OF YOUR CAREER-LONG PREOCCUPATION WITH MATERIAL FILM, EVEN THOUGH IT WAS SHOT DIGITALLY.
When we look at traditional 16mm film, we see scratches and hair, like we see in lint. It’s not that different. Because lint collects through the months or ages, it collects aspects of the world. Film does the same thing; it is changed by its journey in time.
My co-director, Lizzie Olesker, and I wanted to figure out ways to examine the interplay between economics, aesthetics, and politics. You look at the form of cinema and you say, “I want to create ruptures. I want to create a radicalization of the way images are represented.“ But it’s also important to look not just at the way the camera reproduces our reality, but what is produced by the reality that might be dismissed or ignored. … Lint is not invisible, but it’s about as close to invisible as it gets. It moves from clothing to the trashcan in a kind of rote way. By breaking up that [journey], we’re trying to look at the mechanisms of labor.
THE WASHING SOCIETY FEATURES ACTUAL LAUNDRY WORKERS AND ACTORS. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS ASPECT OF PERFORMANCE THAT FASCINATES YOU AS A DOCUMENTARIAN?
It occurred to me about a year ago that every single film is a document of a performance. Even a fiction film, which is a bunch of people doing this crazy thing—to reinvent themselves, pretend that they’re different from who they are—we film it, and it’s called a fiction film, but it’s actually a documentary of a group of people together.
What’s started to interest me in the last year is that woven quality that takes seriously that anyone in, for example, a documentary film is performing an aspect of who they are. As soon as they turn their head and they see the camera, they’re performing. And there’s this, you could call it a leash, or an invisible thread [that runs] between my eyes and the eyes of any human being in front of the camera. They’re always looking to the director for some kind of affirmation, like, “Yes, you’re doing a good job.“ It’s the same in documentary. If you actually recognize that this is a form of exchange, then you can try to subvert it. People who are supposed to be ‘real’ become performers, or we have performers who open up about their lives . And so, obscure that rigid differentiation. That’s why I’m not really happy with the term ‘hybrid’ yet. Because it’s saying that this ontological conundrum doesn’t really exist, and that we have to create another category that says, “That’s ambiguously real and that’s ambiguously fiction.“
IN TERMS OF REAL-LIFE SUBJECTS VERSUS HIRED PERFORMERS, HOW DID YOU APPROACH WHO WOULD EXPRESS WHAT IN THE WASHING SOCIETY? THERE ARE TIMES, ESPECIALLY EARLY ON, WHEN IT ISN’T NECESSARILY CLEAR WHO IS WHO.
With filmmaking, there’s always two answers. There is the production answer: we tried one thing and it didn’t work, so we decided to go another way. And then there’s the more theoretical, maybe conceptual answer.
I WANT BOTH ANSWERS. I’M HUNGRY FOR ANSWERS.
Okay, the conceptual answer first. We wanted to research the experience of what it is to wash the clothes of another person. Particularly in a big city, where people and workplaces can be taken for granted. Lizzie comes out of playwriting, and this notion that you observe the world in which you live, and then you re-create characters who inhabit those experiences you’ve witnessed, or those interactions that confuse you, and that you’re trying to grapple with. And I come out of experimental filmmaking, with documentaries. So you observe and then you subvert.
She asked me if I would help her to investigate laundry workers in New York. We started, and we got really hooked, but most of the people who do this kind of service work in America are also immigrants, and many don’t have the formal paperwork to give them the freedom to be on camera, to talk about the struggles of their workplace or their bosses, who they’re supporting, all those things. So we would have very informal conversations, but we couldn’t record and we couldn’t film.
Our answer was not to give up, but to listen really actively, and then to write the characters, or to write three characters who appear in the film as composites of these conversations. So, there’s Ching Valdes-Aran, Jasmine Holloway, and Veraalba Santa. They’re all performers—the film started as a performance called Every Fold Matters, which we did live in laundromats in Brooklyn and in New York City, and at places like University Settlement, The Tank.
But then, okay, the answer to the conceptual side is that, even though I’ve been making work that you could call reality-based or documentary-based for a long time, I’m always questioning this notion of asking people to open up their lives for me. That’s why I made Film About a Father Who, because I felt like it was my turn to be in that vulnerable position.
One thing I’ve done for years now, I always pay people [who appear] in my films. That’s kind of anathema in documentary. People don’t do that. Especially journalists, which I do understand… But why shouldn’t you pay them the way you would pay an actor?
Often we measure the success of a documentary by how real it is, by the spontaneity of the reveal of information; “I can’t believe you got in that door.“ Or, “I can’t believe you got those people to say that for you with your camera on.“ There’s a lot of registers of success that have to do with the people in front of the camera letting it all hang out, and that’s an awkward exchange… I wanted to have people who felt confident in their place in the world, to speak from that position. If people didn’t feel confident, then we listened, and we tried to embrace their sentiments and struggles in a fictionalized way.
ARE THE ACTORS REPEATING TEXT THAT WAS SPOKEN BY ACTUAL LAUNDRY WORKERS OR WAS THAT TEXT WRITTEN BY YOU AND LIZZIE?
It’s both. We used parts of it, but often we wrote in a more free-form way. It’s really a composite, and there’s a freedom that comes from making a film like this. .. I call it the Maggie Nelson effect, [which is] this idea where you lay bare the research. In The Argonauts, she tells this personal story about her relationship, and she has these fantastic tangents, which are about her research, what she happened to be reading, letting all of that come in.
I can [also] say that we were influenced by Yvonne Rainer. She was such a visionary when it came to choreography, and a celebration of the body through dance. Because she looked at the quotidian, and she ‘deconstructed’— in the word of that period— how we move through the world. We took that approach to how we thought about the dance movements in The Washing Society, how we could re-examine the gestures of the everyday, and think about how they might be beautiful, in the way that Roberta Cantow’s film Clotheslines celebrates the beauty of laundry work. [Lizzie and I] wanted to think about recognising washing as a form of physical dance. Especially because there’s so much repetition, which dance also uses.
CLOTHESLINES HAPPENS TO BE PLAYING ALONGSIDE THE WASHING SOCIETY.
Clotheslines is fantastic. It’s giving attention, again, to urban life, and to things that people do that maybe they feel ashamed of doing but that they have to do. It’s interesting to look at Roberta Cantow’s film, because it’s a twist on the whole idea of being a feminist. Barbara Hammer did something similar; I think the term ‘feminist’ is evolving all the time.
What Roberta Cantow did in her work, I think, is say, “Let’s acknowledge the beauty of what mostly women do. But it doesn’t mean that they’ll become stronger women than when they don’t do it.” … I should add that today I had a conversation with Roberta Cantow. A woman she knew who organizes washerwomen in New York City told her about the screening. Anyway, she told me today that this whole group of organizers around washerwomen, 10 of them, are coming to Metrograph.
Yeah. And I’m hoping [for] a group from the Laundry Workers Center, which is a union I’ve done a lot of work with, who organize workers in the small laundromats all over New York City… If they’re trying to shut down a laundromat or bring attention to conditions that are really, really bad—where people are required to work 12 hours, and they can’t look at their phones, or all the different rules that are had—[Lizzie and I] make videos for them sometimes.
DO YOU CONSIDER FILMMAKING AS A FORM OF ACTIVISM, OR ADJACENT TO IT? WHERE DO THE TWO INTERSECT?
I was thinking about this last night. I went to an event at E-flux, and I was listening to Eric Baudelaire, the filmmaker, talking about this too…. I don’t think I’ve ever made a film that had the ability to make someone act differently, or to push them in a direction. But I always hope it makes them think about who they are differently, or about how the world works in another way. Maybe the result of that would be an action. But if it’s just a thought, that’s pretty good too. I guess it has to do with results, how you measure your reach… I get very excited, like with Investigation of a Flame, by people doing things with passion, and pushing themselves to extremes from which they can never turn back. I mean, that actually goes to Barbara Hammer. [She] lived life to its fullest, and with so much conviction.
BEING IN DIALOGUE WITH OTHER ARTISTS, FILMMAKERS, OTHER PEOPLE, SEEMS SO ESSENTIAL TO ALL OF YOUR WORK.
Well, when I made Which Way Is East (1994), I didn’t at first understand that it really is about how we look at history, and how we analyze or reconstruct the past. That film is made from the perspective of myself and my sister. We were children who experienced the Vietnam War through television, mostly black-and-white images on a box in the living room. Being typical American, middle-class kids, our parents and their friends had not gone to war. The war was really far away… But you then grow up and you realize that it does touch you; you heard all the numbers of people who died, and you recognize that those statistics were always emphasizing the Americans, but what about the Vietnamese? How does war have an impact?
When we made the film, in the early ’90s, my sister, Dana Sachs, was living in Vietnam. I visited for one month, and, like a typical documentary filmmaker, you arrive in a place and you say, “I’m going to make a film.“ It came to me later that the film is a dialogue with history, but it’s also a dialogue between two women from the same family, who thought about that past in extremely different ways. She looked at Vietnam in this contemporary way, as survivors. Whereas I looked at Vietnam with this wrought guilt, trying to piece together an understanding of a war that still seemed to bleed. That’s what gave the film its tension, that our perceptions were so different. Ultimately the most interesting films are the ones that ask us to think about perception, that don’t just introduce new material.
So that was a gift, to be in dialogue with my sister… Another way of looking at dialogue, [if] you’re in dialogue with [someone like] Jean Vigo, who’s not alive… then you’re creating a dialectic between the materials. In A Month of Single Frames, I’m in dialogue with Barbara Hammer literally, but I’m also in dialogue with her through the form of the film, and with the audience. That was intentional, to have this ambiguity.
In A Month of Single Frames, she also does something that’s not about activism, it’s about solitude… thinking about her place in nature. It’s all about being delicately and boldly in the landscape. When she cuts up little pieces of gel and puts them on blades of grass, she’s doing the opposite of what a feature film made in Cape Cod would… You’d have all these people stomping on the dunes, getting permission to shoot, to take over a whole house, you’d need light, electricity… She wanted to do everything with the least impact. It’s not a film that she probably announced as a celebration of the environment. But to me, it is so much about not leaving your footprint on the land, but being there. I really admire that work.
DID YOU BEGIN THE FILM BEFORE SHE DIED?
The last year of Barbara Hammer’s life, she gave footage to filmmakers and said, “Do whatever you want, and in the process use this material that I love but could not finish. Because I can see that my life will not last long enough to do so.“
She gave me footage from 1998, which she had shot in a residency on Cape Cod. I asked her why she didn’t finish this film and she said, “Because it’s too pretty, and because it’s not engaged, it’s not political.“ She felt that the fact that it delivered so much pleasure just in its loveliness made it problematic. It was this gorgeous landscape, and a woman alone in a cabin. She thought there wasn’t a rigor to it. So she had never done anything with it; it just moved around with her, and it was bothering her, of course: “Finish me. Finish me.“
She gave it to me, and I started to edit. On the second visit, I showed it to her, just without any sound. I asked if she did any writing while she was there, and she said, “I kept a journal.“ She’d forgotten all about it, so she pulled it out.
THAT’S THE DIALOGUE WE HEAR IN THE FILM?
She even writes about herself in the third person, which is fun, and different…
Everything was so pressured: she had to go to chemotherapy, she was trying to finish Evidentiary Bodies, a film that she was going to show at the Berlin Film Festival in 2019. It was one of the last things she did. So I had the material, and when she died… I needed to finish it. That’s when I wrote the text, because I needed to be in dialogue with her more than just editing the material. I needed to concentrate on that energy between us.
SO YOU COMPLETED A FILM YOU HAD BEGUN WORKING ON WHILE SHE WAS LIVING, AND THAT SHE DIED DURING THE MAKING OF. AND THEN YOU MADE A FILM IN DIALOGUE WITH SOMEONE WHO HAD ALREADY DIED, IN E•PIS•TO•LAR•Y: LETTER TO JEAN VIGO.
I’ll give you a little background. I’ve been on and off involved with the Punto de Vista Film Festival, which is a really interesting small festival in Pamplona, Spain, where they acknowledge and appreciate alternative ways of looking at documentary film practice. They asked 10 filmmakers to make a film in the form of a letter to a filmmaker who had influenced us.
I chose Jean Vigo; I love his film, Zero for Conduct (1933), because it is so much about rule breaking. It is so much about trying to exist in society, but knowing when there is a time to break the law. I had made my film Investigation of a Flame; I was interested in those moments where you have to turn inward and say, “This is wrong.“ And I wanted, again, to talk to a ghost. To talk to Jean Vigo.
Then, right at the beginning of this year, there was the attack on the US Capitol. A group of thousands chose to break the law, with absolute abandon in terms of the sacredness of other people’s bodies. I’m not even saying the US Capitol is sacred. But to go to a place of heinous destruction, that really disturbed me. I was already thinking about Jean Vigo, and I thought, “This is really complicated.” Because at what point do we learn to understand how to respect, how to have compassion, how to have empathy? That you can break rules, as in paint graffiti or burn draft files, but that once you start invading another person’s body— it’s a violation I couldn’t accept. And this space between anarchy and authoritarianism, and between compassionate rule breaking and violence was very interesting to me.
WHAT ABOUT REVOLUTION? WHAT ABOUT A FEMINIST SOCIALIST REVOLUTION?
Oh. Well I have to say, a feminist socialist revolution probably would come with a lot of compassion. I think, I hope. But I would never say that women… I don’t think that there’s anything innate.
One other thing about E•pis•to•lar•y: I really like all the syllables in epistolary, so I like that it sounds like bullets. And yet it’s about dialogue… It may be silent, but audiences are writing back in their heads. I think a lot about that in my filmmaking, all the sounds that go on in audiences’ minds.
ARE THE SUBJECTS OF INVESTIGATION OF A FLAME (2001), THE CATONSVILLE NINE, YOUR MODELS THEN OF RIGHTEOUS DISSIDENTS?
My interest in people who break the rules goes way back. I mean, I was protesting the implementation of imposing draft registration on American men when I was in high school. I’ve always been committed to trying to articulate a critique. But when I heard about the Catonsville Nine and this group of people who had nothing to gain by criticizing the US government’s presence in Vietnam, except that they were so upset that they felt they had to speak out against it…
They were Catholic antiwar activists: two priests in particular, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and a nurse, and a sister, and others. But they broke the law in the most performative way. To take draft papers and burn them [with] napalm…. Napalm is not that different from lint. It’s just soap mixed with chemicals. You can make napalm at home. It’s domestically produced napalm, which was being used in Vietnam. But [the Catonsville Nine] wanted to make it and burn it symbolically. This, to me, was the ultimate art performance piece. Let’s burn files, photograph it, disseminate it, and say that these files represent bodies.
People said that they changed so much thinking. It was effective because it was an image that… You were asking about activism, that’s an image! To see priests burning draft files, that’s going to change things. That’s real activism on their part, and that happened in the 1960s.
FROM LINT TO NAPALM. THANK YOU, LYNNE.
I never thought… But it’s made with soap!
Inney Prakash is a writer and film curator based in New York City and the founder/director of Prismatic Ground.
Since bursting onto the filmmaking scene in the 1980s, Memphis-born Lynne Sachs has compiled an inimitable, astonishing body of work which includes essay films, diaristic shorts, gallery installations, and quite a number of simply uncategorizable hybrids. Sachs’s wide-ranging, restless ingenuity is on full display in this program, which includes her 2020 documentary portrait A Film About a Father Who; The Washing Society, her collaboration with playwright Lizzie Olesker, which premiered in 2015 at a Clinton Hill laundromat; and this year’s E•pis•to•lar•y: Letter to Jean Vigo, a ruminative, surprising response to the January 6th Capitol Hill riots. A blast of engaging, and engaged, cinema.
Made up of footage shot by Sachs between 1984 and very nearly the present day, Film About a Father Who represents her endeavor to better understand the outsized personality and myriad affairs of one Ira Sachs, Sr.: Park City, Utah, hospitality industry mogul; bon vivant hippie businessman; serial womanizer; and the filmmaker’s father. Analog and digital video shares space with 8 and 16mm film in Sachs’ decoupage of home movie formats, creating a tenderly critical mosaic portrait that’s as energetic, multifaceted, and messy as its subject.
Sachs’s The Washing Society, co-directed with playwright Lizzie Olesker, uses a combination of interviews, re-enactments, and patient observation to pay lyric homage to the little-acknowledged but essential labor of dealing with dirty laundry, as it occurs every day in New York City’s laundromats. Screening with Roberta Cantow’s feminist forebear Clotheslines, a film that takes laundry seriously as a form of folk art, a fraught social signifier, and a lens for women to reflect on the joys, pains, and ambivalences of household chores. With Sachs’s short “A Month of Single Frames” made with and for Barbara Hammer.
Co-Directors Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker will be present with special guest feminist scholar Silvia Federici for a post-screening conversation. Hosted by Emily Apter.
Post-Screening Conversation for WASHING SOCIETY + CLOTHESLINES +A MONTH OF SINGLE
Co-Directors Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker with special guest feminist scholar Silvia Federici in a post-screening conversation. Hosted by Emily Apter.
Four shorts exemplifying the breadth and tireless curiosity of Sachs’s film practice, as well as an ongoing engagement with issues of justice and resistance. The Ho Chi Minh City–Hanoi travel diary Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam offers an encounter between lived experience and mediated memory of a televised war. And Then We Marched juxtaposes 8mm footage of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C. with archival images of earlier struggles for justice. E•pis•to•lar•y: Letter to Jean Vigo looks at the January 6th Capitol Hill uprising through the unlikely but revealing prism of Vigo’s 1933 Zéro de conduite. Investigation of a Flame revisits the story of the Catonsville Nine, Catholic activists who burnt draft files in protest of the Vietnam War.