Tag Archives: Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam

In Their Own League – Exclusive Interview with Filmmaker Lynne Sachs

Exclusive Interview with Filmmaker Lynne Sachs
In Their Own League 
By Bianca ‘Bee’ Garner 
July 17, 2020
https://intheirownleague.com/2020/07/17/exclusive-interview-with-filmmaker-lynne-sachs/

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.

Lynne Sachs, dir. of Film About a Father Who

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 in filmmaking 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.

Ira Sachs Sr. w Painting in Film About a Father Who

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.

Photo collage from Film About A Father Who

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.

Please see: https://selects.sheffdocfest.com/bundle/lynne-sachs-focus/

Watch Sheffield Doc/Fest : Lynne Sachs Live Q&A with Festival Director Cíntia Gil

DATE: Thursday, 2 July
TIME: 7pm (BST)

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’

How Lynne Sachs Turns Spoken Word Into Cinematic Language

A long-overdue retrospective of the feminist artist and filmmaker demonstrates how she explores communication in her work.

By Serena Scateni
July 13, 2020
Hyperallergic 
https://hyperallergic.com/575385/lynne-sachs-sheffield-docfest-retrospective/

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.

Lynne Sachs’s work is available on a variety of platforms.
https://hyperallergic.com/575385/lynne-sachs-sheffield-docfest-retrospective/

Screen Queens: Sheff Doc/Fest 2020— The Lynne Sachs Focus

By Fatima Sheriff
July 11, 2020
Screen Queens
https://screen-queens.com/2020/07/11/sheff-doc-fest-2020-the-lynne-sachs-focus/

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. 

Lynne Sachs Q&A at Sheffield Doc/Fest

July 2, 2020
Sheffield Doc/ Fest – Lynne Sachs – Live Q&A

Our Festival Director, Cíntia Gil is joined by our in-focus director, Lynne Sachs to discuss her films and to take questions from the audience for a live Q&A.  

DATE: Thursday, 2 July 
TIME: 7pm (BST)

The Q&A is free and open to all – please register through link below: 

Lynne Sachs Live Q&A registration

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. 

Her films are currently available to watch on Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects and Doc/Player:

The Last Happy Day, 2009, 37’
Which Way Is EastNotebooks 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’ 

https://sheffdocfest.com/articles/867-lynne-sachs-live-q-a

“Which Way Is East” – BFI’s 10 Films to Try at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020

by Georgia Korossi
26 June 2020
BFI.org.uk

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

Which Way is The East: Notebooks From Vietnam (1994)

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.

Ubiquarian: The Process is the Practice

Ubiquarian 
The Process is the Practice
By Tara Judah
June 21, 2020
http://ubiquarian.net/2020/06/the-process-is-the-practice/

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).

Tara Judah

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.

Film still from “Your Day is My Night” (2013) by Lynne Sachs. Courtesy of Sheffield Doc|Fest

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.

Film still from “Which Way is East?” (1994) by Lynne Sachs. Courtesy of Sheffield Doc|Fest

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.

Film still from “The Last Happy Day” (2009) by Lynne Sachs. Courtesy of Sheffield Doc|Fest

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.

Film still from “The Washing Society” (2017) by Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker. Courtesy of Sheffield Doc|Fest

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.

Film still from Lynne Sachs’s “A Month of Single Frames” (2019) Courtesy of Sheffield Doc|fest

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.

Film still from Lynne Sachs’s “Film About a Father Who” (2020) Courtesy of Sheffield Doc|fest

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.

Confronting Performativity
In Defense of Poetry
The Collaborative Moment
Towards an Understanding of Dancing Light
The Camera as Pencil; Drawing in the Margins

Lynne Sachs Focus at Sheffield Doc/ Fest

June 1 2020
Announcing 2020 filmmakers’ spotlights and our retrospective

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.”

Simplice Ganou, Sarah Maldoror, and Lynne Sachs

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

Lynne Sachs headshot
(Image: 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 by Lynne Sachs
(Image: Film About A Father Who by Lynne Sachs, 2020)

FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO

Lynne Sachs, USA, 2020, 74 min 

International Premiere

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.

https://sheffdocfest.com/articles/840-announcing-2020-filmmakers-spotlights-and-our-retrospective?tag=homepage&fbclid=IwAR3byOZT2ucbjfASllCsBc1PdIK_nhRhJJA6Bzkdg5HfsnAEfdegnO21QtA

BBC Features “Which Way is East” in ‘The 100 greatest films directed by women: Who voted? L-Z’

BBC

The 100 greatest films directed by women: Who voted? L-Z

11/26/2019

BBC Culture polled film experts around the world for their favourite films directed by women. In total, 368 critics, academics, industry figures and film programmers, from 84 countries responded. Each critic voted for 10 films, ranking them 1 (favourite) to 10 (10th favourite). We awarded 10 points per first ranked film, 9 per second ranked film, and so on down to 1. We then summed the points. The film with the most points won, and films with more individual votes in total ranked higher.

Irina Trocan – Freelance film critic (Romania)
1. Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991)
2. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
3. The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1998)
4. Shoot for the Contents (T Minh-ha Trinh, 1992)
5. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2017)
6. The Meetings of Anna (Chantal Akerman, 1978)
7. Which Way is East (Lynne Sachs, 1994)
8. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016)
9. Nuts! (Penny Lane, 2016)
10. Sex Is Comedy (Catherine Breillat, 2002)

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

World-Records-VOL-1-005

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Note:  Journal version includes streaming videos and PDF for download

Edited by Jason Fox and Laliv Melamed

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It’s just an old war

Not even a cold war

Don’t say it in Russian

Don’t say it in German

Say it in broken English

Say it in broken English

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Lose your father, your husband

Your mother, your children

What are you dying for?

It’s not my reality

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

unmotivated break… with a series in progress and a willed

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

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

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

rhythm.{4}

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Involuntary conversion with the ground = a plane crash

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

 

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

 

Lynne: Could these Cold War issues be generational?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Uncle Adrian…

Here I am in the reservation of my mind

and silence settles forever

the vacancy of this cheap city room.

In the wine darkness my cigarette coal

tints my face with Wovoka’s shade

and I’m in the dry hills with a Winchester

waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A frog that sits at the bottom of a well thinks that the whole sky is only as big as the lid of a pot.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

——————————————-

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

ENDNOTES

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{11} Roland Barthes [placeholder]

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

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