Attention all you mainstream and cult film lovers, feminists and non-feminists alike! The second China Women’s Film Festival is presenting a total of fifteen screenings around the city throughout the week. (Scroll down for more screening details.)
While the women’s film festival in Taiwan has an almost-20-year history, and many female directors in Hong Kong have been making their marks since the 1930s, women’s cinema is still in its infancy in mainland China. Although they came from different backgrounds, Ying Xin, Dan Li, Juan Jiang and Zhao-Yu Li shared a common desire to do something about women and arts, so the four first launched the first China Women’s Film Festival covering four cities in 2013.
“We are a pretty grassroots film festival, none of the members of our organizing committee is from the film industry, and it’s completely organized by volunteers.” Says Ying, “It isn’t the first of its kind in mainland China, but it is the only one that makes it to the second edition.”
In its second year, the China Women’s Film Festival is running parallel sessions in Shanghai. “Shanghai is free, fashionable, feminine… and it offers unparalleled opportunities for women in China. Shanghai is an ideal venue for our CWFF.” Says Monica Qiu, a like-minded friend of Ying’s who initiated the sessions in Shanghai.
Monica started to summon volunteers at her birthday party in late October. Through the magic of networking and social media, she gathered around 80 ardent participants. “We’ve only had one month to make it happen, and the fact that it relies solely on volunteering… There are lots of uncertainties.”
Volunteers all have their own jobs. Putting together this film festival uses up their spare time, but they are quite enjoying it. “We had lots of meetings last until midnight, and afterwards, everyone went on with their ‘homework’. We split up marketing, renting venues, inviting guests, seeking media partners and sponsorship…” Monica continues, “We are just a temporary team, but we’ve been efficient and organized. I’m so proud of us!”
“I see feminism as a harmonious interplay between both sexes.” Monica told THAT’S, “We are expecting that through such film screenings and forums, not only women would become more active in exploring their own identities, but men would get more involved, to better understand women. This hasn’t been done enough in China.”
Here’s a list of the film screenings coming up over the next week:
Golden Gate, Silver Light
Shi-Yu Wei/Hong Kong/2013/90min/Documentary
RMB25 (Student discount: RMB10)
Yu-Shan Huang/Taiwan/1990, 106mins/Feature
Wan Yuan Culture
Your Day Is My Night
Free (Please bring your ID card)
My Dear Stilt
Tongji Venture Valley
Out Of Focus
Wan Yuan Culture
Gare du Nord
RMB25 (Student discount: RMB10)
RMB25 (Student discount: RMB10)
Qia Tu Sheng Huo
The total of 6 films: RMB25, (Student discount: RMB10)
I Don’t Want Grandma To Talk
States of Unbelonging
Calling and Recalling: Sentiments of Women’s Script
Image above: “What Happened in the Dragon Year?” by Xun Sun, mural painting displayed in Shanghai Biennale 2014.
Award-winning American experimental filmmaker Lynne Sachs recently visited Shanghai for the Second China Women’s Film Festival with her latest offering Your Day is My Night. Deemed one of the eight must-watch movies in 2014 by BBC, the hybrid documentary discusses the relationship between historical turmoil and personal hardship, from the mouths of seven impoverished immigrants residing in Manhattan’s Chinatown. We caught up with the director to talk about the film, race and feminism.
Just like every ambitious twenty-something, Lynne Sachs was ready to change the world but wasn’t sure where to start. Her young mind was bubbling over with all kinds of possibilities. “There was one side of me that wanted to be a poet or an artist with a commitment to activism. Then there was the other side that thought the only way I could improve conditions around the world was to become a human rights attorney,” she reflects, saying her first brush with the world of experimental films was Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren, who is considered the grandmother of the field. “When I discovered independent film making, I felt like I had found a way of living that would pull together both of these aspirations.”
After graduating from Brown University with a B.A. in history, she went on to earn a M.A. in cinema at San Francisco State University, and later an additional M.F.A. in Film at the San Francisco Art Institute, to get a start on her career as a filmmaker.
Her first fully-developed documentary Sermons and Sacred Pictures, a biography of the 1930s-1940s African-American minister and filmmaker Reverend L. O. Taylor, made its debut at the Museum of Modern Art in 1989. “As we say in the film world, the film was my first to have ‘wings,’ meaning that once I finished the film, it ‘carried me’ to film festivals and important art venues around the country. Both of my parents flew from their homes across the country to attend. It was a big, exciting, scary single evening that made me feel like a real artist.”
The film also helped Sachs understand where she came from: the Memphis-born director moved back to her hometown for three months during shooting. “In order to make the film, I needed to walk by myself with my 16mm camera all over African-American neighborhoods I had never visited before in my life. Memphis was 50 percent black and 50 percent white. The film gave me permission to step through the racial and geographical borders that had separated my life as a young white woman from the lives of African-American people whose lives were so close and yet so far away, which was profound for me. ”
The cultural phenomenon of race has been a recurrent motif Sachs employs in her works. From Sermons and Sacred Pictures, to Which Way is East (1994) where she traveled extensively with her sister in Vietnam exploring the other side of a collective war memory, to States of UnBelonging (2006) in which she meditated on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict through uncovering the life of an Israeli filmmaker and mother killed in a terrorist attack, before she spent two years working with Chinese immigrants in New York City in her most recent work Your Day is My Night (2013).
Sachs on location for Your Day is My Night
During the making of Your Day is My Night, Lynne was mindful of her position as an outsider, and sensitive to how the people in her film – whom she regards as her collaborators – felt about their collaboration. “After conducting and editing the interviews, I had the contents transcribed and gave them back to each participant so that they could think about what they had said and make factual or dramatic suggestions.” She and her crew were gradually welcomed into the Chinese community: “After about six months of shooting, the older women began to hold hands with me and one of the older men started to give everyone massages. We often went out for a relaxed Chinese meal, and we spent time together that was informal and fun, not just about shooting or exhibiting our film.” Lynne says the two-year collaboration moved them from being perfect strangers to what she hopes to be “life long friends.”
Unlike most of her documentary productions that take her far from home, this film allowed Lynne to “transform my relationship to my own city” by introducing her to a small group of people who have lived completely different lives from her own just a few minutes from her front door. “Most New Yorkers see Chinatown as a place to eat, that’s it. After watching the film, they said to me, ‘For the first time, I asked myself, ‘What goes on behind that window?’ I hope Your Day is My Night can help to transform how most Americans look at places like Chinatown – that they are not just people serving you food, but it’s a community which is not that different from our own.”
Sachs with the cast of Your Day is My Night
“I am very moved by the ways that we discover so much about the world through interactions with people who are different from ourselves,” says Lynne. “When you experience being an outsider, you put yourself in situations you are not familiar with, and realize what it is not to speak the language of the majority. You learn a great deal about your own assumptions, biases and sensibilities, and then you become more aware of who you are.”
Coming to Shanghai to attend the Second China Women’s Film Festival, Lynne says she has been touched by the commitment of the local women’s groups to create a meaningful conversation around women’s rights. “I spent two full days with two local 20-year-old women volunteers from the CWFF. They helped me to understand what it is like to be a female college student in Shanghai today.”
The director also has a lot to say about feminism. Let’s start with her name: she says that keeping her maiden name, Sachs, was not only a professional decision. “I honestly never considered changing my name to my husband’s. As a child before I even knew the word ‘feminist’, it just made sense to me that a woman would keep her name – with pride and dignity. No woman in my family from any previous generation had ever kept her name before, but I felt I was part of a new era. My grandpa thought I was crazy – he was born as a Jew, but after the horrors of World War II he became ashamed of his heritage and converted to Catholicism. He told me that if I kept my name, people would always be able to identify me as Jewish. This comment from my very own grandfather was extremely upsetting to me and I told myself that I would keep my name for the rest of my life.” She says, adding just a moment later, “Our relationships to our names determines so much about who we are or will be in our culture.”
“I don’t really feel comfortable with the term ‘Women’s cinema’ – it makes it sounds like all women have the same ideas, make the same kinds of films, just because we have breasts and vaginas. But I don’t think we do. Our works are influenced by many things, they’re multifaceted. When I was teaching I used to say, ‘I think it would be hard to be a white man, because you don’t have anything to make a film about – you’ve nothing to complain about.’” Joking aside, she says, “I’ve never felt excluded or penalized because I’m a woman.”
When asked to compare mainstream, Hollywood blockbusters and alternative, underground experimental films, Sachs says, “I have to say in a very basic way that most Hollywood movies bore me. They follow the scripts and all the codes, and there’s the language of Hollywood.” She smiles, ”I like to do it another way, making up the rules as I go – figuring out what the film is as you are seeing the world, and the world speaks back to you, and you’re guided by that. I believe each film has to invent its own language.”
Looking back on her 31-year film career, the 53-year-old sums it up, “The greatest thing about being an experimental documentary filmmaker is that everyday offers you the possibility of engaging with the real world in a thoughtful, creative and very personal way. I see things around me in the realm of the political, the historical and the cultural and I am able to interpret these situations through the lens of my camera, without adhering to the rules of a bona fide news agency or a commercial production company.”
Nightingale Cinema’s Christy LeMaster and Kartemquin Film’s Beckie Stocchetti join forces to present RUN OF LIFE, a co-curated experimental documentary and expanded media event running every third Monday.
This new series pairs a recent feature experimental documentary with a short nonfiction work in any number of mediums – performance, video short, interactive presentation, audio doc, etc.
Lynne Sachs’ YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT (New Documentary)
The Run of Life Experimental Documentary Series at Constellation (3111 N. Western Ave.) – Monday, 7pm
“With a subject matter inspired in part by Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, Lynne Sachs’ YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT is not so much an homage to Riis’ work as it is a modern reimagining of the issues he brought to light. Published in 1890, Riis’ book controversially documented the “shift-bed” lifestyle, among other aspects of the downtrodden immigrant experience, which involved people taking turns sleeping in shared beds. This practice still exists today, and Sachs uses it as a jumping-off point from which to explore various symbolic elements and the collective experiences of her characters. It’s far from a straightforward documentary, but much of what makes it so experimental actually happened off-screen; in 2011, after first learning about “hot bed houses” from a family member, Sachs decided to collaborate with her cast rather than merely film them recounting their stories. As she says in her director’s statement, “While working on YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT, I came to see that every time I asked a person to talk in front of my camera, they were performing for me rather than revealing something completely honest about their lives. The very process of recording guaranteed that some aspect of the project would be artificial.” Thus Sachs met with her subjects (a group of non-professional Chinese “performer/participants”) almost weekly over a year and a half, using the impromptu workshops to script the monologues that provide context to the film’s poetic structure. Sachs uses a combination of 16mm, Super 8, and HD video to disorienting effect; the scenes shot on film are stark in contrast with the crispness of various close-ups shot on video. Additionally, beds are not just a plot device, but also a symbol of the film’s themes (privacy, intimacy, and urban life, among others). In this way, Sachs’ film is also like a gallery installation or a piece of performance art. (Sachs and the cast have presented YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT as a live film performance on several occasions, and the artfulness of its construction combined with its social utility are reminiscent of Riis’ work, which is frequently exhibited in galleries around the world.) This hybrid documentary challenges not only the way such films are made, but also the way we watch and talk about it. Preceded by the sound piece LIGHT READINGS (Stephen Vitiello, 2001, 8 min) and the short film WINDOW CLEANING IN SHANGHAI (Laura Kissel, 2011, 3 min). Cinematographer Sean Hanley in person. (2013, 64 min, HD Digital Projection) KS”
I have found several of Lynne Sachs’s films unusually disarming. Wind in Our Hair starts by just hanging out with four barely adolescent girls and seems to drift with them to no evident purpose; one is tempted to say that the attention and impressionistic, closely shot fascination comes from a mother’s affection that a general audience has little reason to feel. By the time a narrative event starts to shape the film, we sort of know these girls, or we start to feel that we are among them by way of the film’s stylistic drifting. A non-incisive drift transforms itself into a thickening bundle of barely perceptible but compelling discourses through which one finds oneself caring about the characters, not as individualized, biographical characters, but as female beings drifting toward a world that is itself drifting toward sexual and political fission, a fission that might be disastrous or revolutionary. The energy that would feed that fission is felt in the experimental music of Juana Molina that accompanies the transcendent avant-garde film poem of the end-credits—the drifting girls have suddenly exploded into articulate girl-power and woman music, just as the drifting Lynne Sachs-made film explodes into incisive experimental film. The stirring success of the music and of the film’s coda suggest a positive future for these drifting girls, while the discourses woven finely into their lives during the entire film remain frighteningly daunting.
There is an analogously disarming feel in Drift and Bough, though it is a totally different kind of film with no character development at all. There I was disarmed by the unassuming succession of art-photo shots of snowy Central Park, shots that seemed pretty ordinary, but that again gently drifted toward a richer collection of elements, such as the graphic lines that did things like scale shifting. The lines of duck trails through the ice-pack—lines that “drew” a kind of benign insinuation into a cold world—seemed to help effect an insinuation into my affect. By the time that film ends, I have been drawn, partially consciously, into a meditative state that I wanted to resist at its beginning. The ending—with people moving about and with bicycle taxi and camera both drifting to the right—was a break in that mood, but it still maintains some of the meditative mood through the realization that a barely perceptible superimposition of nothing very distinguishable has occurred mysteriously for the first and only time in the film.
The disarming feeling in Sachs’s films is especially strong in Your Day is My Night. Again the film starts by hanging out with some ordinary people, in this case Chinese immigrants in a confined space doing ordinary things. We gradually meet these people by name and hear them interact and tell stories. I won’t try to develop how that works, but will just say that somehow this ordinariness changes into—not just the liking and caring about the characters that one can see in numerous effective documentary films such as Salesman and Fallen Champ and The Square and American Pictures, or in the ur-documentary Nanook, and even the surreal Act of Killing—the ordinariness in Sachs’s film changes into something more than those films’ liking of or sympathizing with characters, something more like loving those characters, though that seems a bit strong.
My main point is the experience across several films of this imperceptible transformation from a disarming ordinariness to something strongly opposite. The kicker for me with Your Day is My Night was that I first experienced the film as a documentary, not as a scripted film with actors performing characters via learned lines; thus, my feeling of being disarmed extended to the ontology of the represented reality. That reversal of expectation, from something like Direct Cinema to a set of carefully researched and scripted performances—including the insertion of a “fake” character, Lourdes—comes at different points in the film for different viewers, but that doesn’t really change the reception structure of the film, or the films discussed above—they have little or no character or story arc but have a reception arc that moves one from being disarmed, even being uninterested and dubious, to something stronger than caring and understanding.
Sachs’s refusal to romanticize the glimpses of hopefulness, and her ending of the film with a quotation that re-affirms the power of the world’s alienation, are important contributions to the depth that the reception-arc achieves. Though the film finally leads into territory beyond the opening close-shots of packed human flesh, beyond the later medium-shots of crowded beds within crowded rooms, and the still later long-shots within crowded apartments within a crowded neighborhood of one of the world’s most crowded cities…though the film leads us beyond this over-determined within-ness to other, less impacted parts of the city, indeed leads us to a bridge that Lourdes—the outsider—introduces to Haung, one of the Chinatown shift-bedders—though the film takes us out there to that suggestively transitional bridge, nevertheless the viewer remembers what Haung has said earlier in the film that he has no benign means to get out of this life buried deep within the world situation. He will not ever be able to go home to see his children and he will have to kill himself when he reaches retirement age, perhaps by jumping off a bridge, he says. We remember that line when we see him on the bridge with Lourdes, but we also see that Lourdes has benignly infected his alienation, and has infected the entire over-determined within-ness of the characters’ lives and of the film’s structure. The deep within-ness of the characters’ situations has been broached by the character Lourdes, and by Sachs with her bizarre idea to make a film of these unknown Chinese and the more bizarre idea to introduce a Puerto Rican immigrant deep into this pervading within-ness; Lynne Sachs herself has infected the characters’ alienation, for real, by making this strange film, and thus Sachs opens the documentary people, who play themselves, to Sachs’s world and to the film’s audience. And she opens the viewer to a well-hidden within-ness, through documentary explorations that go deeper than Direct Cinema. All this in a way that is so disarming.
Lynne Sachs has spent 25 years of her young life making films, installations and documentaries from Vietnam to Bosnia and all corners of the world. She is a master of the art and a gifted collector of the tiny moments of the human comedy and tragedy.
At home in New York City, she became intrigued with stories about the “shift bed” people of Manhattan’s Chinatown, a collective of Chinese performers and workers who live in an old apartment building on lower Manhattan’s Hester Street.
In this gorgeous, breathtaking film, “Your Day is my Night,” she takes us deep into an almost fairyland world.
With the camera magic of Sean Hanley, who did the editing as well, and Ethan Mass, Sachs walks us up the long flights of stairs to the heart and home of these pilgrims, all displaced from the big cities and tiny villages of China. Prepare yourself. This is no ordinary documentary. This is film, a canvas, a moving poem. It never stands still. It moves and it moves us.
The film opens with a closeup — and Hanley uses that form throughout — of an old woman waking. Her eyes flutter, her lips move as though trying to rid the taste of a bad dream of ancient memories deep in her DNA.
The camera is there as dawn breaks, with the light of a dirty New York sun turning clean and golden as it fills these rooms. Slowly, there is a montage of awakening bodies, floating white sheets, flowery scarves and cheap, yellowing curtains in a slow Chinese ballet of ever changing color. Stravinsky would have killed to score it, but Stephen Vitiello’s score is proper and enchanting. From here, the day workers go about their tasks throughout the city, and the night workers come home and take their places on the beds made warm by the day people, the sheets still bearing the imprint of the night bodies.
Most of us are shocked by these seemingly airless rooms that are smaller than some people’s closets. They are filled with tiny beds, double decked, triple decked. They first make us think of kennels for humans too complicated to engage. But these are Chinese,and despite the fact that some of them have lived for generations in poverty, they have inherited the gifts to transform each room into musical notes. They hang posters, small pieces of art, photographs and notes on whatever piece of space they have. There are goldfish and small birds. The air is redolent with the aroma of their communal cooking.
We meet seven of the dwellers, all performers, dancers, singers, magicians and actors, as they move through the days and nights of their lives. In Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese, we learn the stories they’ve brought with them out of the smoke of their pasts.
We meet Chung Che, who was a medical professor in a Chinese university, then came to America and worked as a garment cutter. Eventually, with his medical knowledge, he became a massage therapist.
There is Yun Xiu Huang, a larger than life entertainer, a gregarious Chinese Tom Jones, who has been here for twenty years working as a professional singer and musician. He performs at weddings and Chinese banquets. These tiny rooms shake with his laughter. Some work in building maintenance and restaurants, some teach dance and Chinese music. But all cling to one another like sparrows in a familiar tree.
Lynn Sachs brings seven of them together and steps back, letting the camera of Sean Hanley move among the players. In one sequence, Sachs and Hanley take us to a big Chinese wedding that looks like it was taken from the musical version of “World Of Susie Wong.” In another, the group perform an amateur dance number in home made cowboy costumes, dancing to Bizet’s “Carmen.” Hanley’s closeups, each one, are framable pieces of art, that look as they though they should be illustrating poems. His color and editing are astonishing. He moves from lips to eyes like Vermeer, to hands practicing Tai Chi in the early light and the blue light of evening. Director Sachs places the monologues carefully throughout. One tells of his journey from China as he massages a friend. Another tells his housemates of his family following the great military leader Chiang Kai-Shek from war-torn Peking to Taiwan, where he loses his parents, never to see them again.
An old man,who slept on stone as a child, walks the streets of Manhattan, collecting old mattresses, torn and old, simply because he never had one. These stories are told to one another in their native language, not meant to entertain us. We are merely welcome eavesdroppers, and we find ourselves lucky to be here.
We are in the presence of survivors unlike any we’ve ever known, people who have learned by listening to the inner voices of their ancestors, how to survive war, drought, and famine. I feel you have never seen anything like it.
J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer and former actor.
“New York’s Chinatown, a place as much spectral as real, flickers and flares into life in this singular hybrid of documentary, performance piece and cine-monologue. Seven working-class, immigrant residents of a shift-bed apartment play versions of themselves, recalling violent upheavals, long journeys and endless yearnings. Beautifully scored by Stephen Vitiello, marrying subtle comedy to its dominant mood of dreamy disorientation, and achieving a rare intimacy, it’s one of the most mysterious and magical evocations of the migrant city in many a year.”
“Director Lynne Sachs’ Your Day is My Night shines a light on a little documented sub-culture in New York’s Chinatown, chronicling immigrants who live communally in buildings where there’s a shift-bed system. One person returns from a stint of overnight work to sleep in a bed just vacated by another person off to their day job. The form of this documentary is as compelling as its content. It is a beautiful collage of different media and music intricately edited together with the often emotional testimony of the immigrants.”
La cita era para las 8:00pm y el studio de Sofía Gallisá en Fort Green, Brooklyn empezó a llenarse de amigos puertorriqueños. Éramos cerca de diez. Habíamos sido convocados por la cineasta y profesora, Lynne Sachs. Lynne quería conocer nuestras historias de cama, grabarlas y estudiarlas. Sofía, su colaboradora, confiaba en nuestro poder narrativo y extrañezas, de ahí la invitación.
La discusión fue entretenida y alegre. Se habló de dormir rodeado de almohadas por todas partes, de intolerancia al ruido, de estar envuelto en sábanas como momias, de pelearse por el lado de la cama con la pareja, de idiosincracias de limpieza; loqueras y rituales de cada cual al momento de acostarse.
Una semana después me enteré de que aquel encuentro fue una audición y que tres de nosotros (Veraalba Santa, Pedro Leopoldo Sánchez y yo) habíamos sido seleccionados para participar en el proyecto de Lynne, Your Day is my Night. En mi caso como escritor.
Una vez me reuní con Lynne me informó que simultáneo a nosotros un grupo de chinos fueron igualmente entrevistados/audicionados para el filme que se empezaba a gestar: un documental híbrido acerca de las camas itinerantes en los apartamentos de Chinatown. Parte de mi tarea fue ir con ella a realizar nuevas entrevistas con los seleccionados. Mi misión sería la de co-escribir unos monólogos basados en lo escuchado.
“My way of filmmaking is all about process – Tell me who you are and I’ll tell you what I’m trying to do and let’s work on something together. I was taken by a Chinatown activist to the Lin Sing Association on Mott Street, where he told me I could find willing performers. Most of Lin Sing’s members are retired, so they have time. I happened to come during a karaoke contest. The place was packed. I said I am auditioning –as a documentary filmmaker I usually say I’m interviewing– I am making a film about beds. I didn’t explain any more than that. About 40 people signed up to come to audition and 26 people showed up. Working with a Chinese translator, I interviewed every one of them but I only asked them about one thing. I said, “Do you have any interesting stories about beds in your life? Did you ever have to share a bed? Did you ever live in a really crowded apartment where there were many beds? I taped the interviews with these 26 people. It ended up that seven people actually had these stunning and haunting stories to tell me.“ -Lynne Sachs on Asian Cinevision, Cinema Spotlight: Your Day is my Night
Las historias de los siete chinos, cuatro hombres y tres mujeres, se distanciaban bastante de lo que había escuchado o contado con los puertorriqueños. En sus historias no había mucho espacio para celebrar la cotidianidad o las selecciones de comodidad. Todas estas historias remitían a pasados devastadores, separaciones familiares, traumas, violencia y eventos horribles que finalmente llevaban a experiencias de imigración. La mayoría como hijos de comerciantes fueron sacudidos de mala manera por la revolución. Debieron abandonar el país. En una primera instancia el hacinamiento en Chinatown, New York, tenía la pinta de progreso.
“Interestingly, the disturbing stories that you hear in the film surprised Jenifer Lee, one of our translators. She’s from Taiwan originally and she said that she’d never heard about so many terrible things happening as early as the 1940s in China. Things like gangs breaking into someone’s house and beating up parents in front of their children. People were not really talking about this kind of violence in history very much. Still, most of our performers did bring their kids to the show. To me, this is important, because they were proud as performers and a lot of them wanted to reveal their tragic stories to their own families.” Ibid.
En esa primera etapa de atento escucha en pos de un texto se me presentaron varios retos. Primeramente andar a ciegas en el laberinto idiomático en el cual me había metido. Los entrevistados solo hablaban mandarín. Sus historias pasaban por el sedazo de una traductora. Sabía que algo siempre se me escapaba: un matiz, una entonación, un comentario de doble sentido, quién sabe. No había manera de identificar los aspectos emotivos del habla o de corroborar cuan fiel era la traductora.
De este escuchar sin referencia yo tomaba notas en inglés que luego condensaba y le daba algo de tono cinemático. Lynne escribía por su cuenta y luego yo editaba ambos textos en una versión casi final. El proceso se invertía y se les hacía una traducción en mandarín para que ellos se aprendieran o improvisaran, como terminó siendo el caso, a partir de sus monólogos. En todo ese recorrido de capas lingüísticas se quedaba la sensación de un algo incomunicado, lost in translation.
El siguiente reto consistió en introducir a los personajes puertorriqueños de Veraalba y Pedro en el mundo de Chinatown. Lynne no estaba interesada en repetir el proceso de filtrar la realidad y contar una versión estudiantil y artística del inmigrante en NY. Su interés era el de crear una ficción acerca de unos boricuas de clase baja que terminan viviendo entre estos señores chinos. Los personajes servirían como catalizadores para las historias chinas. La película era tanto una propuesta documental como un invento de ficción. Había que nadar en ambas aguas.
Muchas preguntas surgieron: ¿Cómo manejar la yuxtaposición de ambos acercamientos? ¿Cómo serle fiel a la cruda historia china? ¿Cómo mantener una credibilidad con estos puertorriqueños de la ficción? ¿Deberíamos enfocarnos también en las dificultades de la emigración puertorriqueña? ¿Es este filme el foro indicado para ello?
El trabajo con Lynne propone retos muy interesantes pero rara vez conclusiones o métodos fáciles. Su acercamiento como cineasta da muestra de su visión poética del mundo. Una visión personal y de referencias eclécticas que toma tiempo descubrir, pero estimulante y sui generis sin duda. Su proceso fílmico señala a las prácticas de directores como Jean-Luc Godard oTerrence Malick, quienes privilegian la improvisación actoral y visual y la intertextualidad. Fue en la misma filmación y posteriormente en la sala de edición, donde se fueron tomando las decisiones de tono, construcción narrativa y de utilización de los textos. En la película se mezclan escenas actuadas con momentos puramente documentales como una boda china o un talent show en un centro comunal de chinatown.
Los monólogos chinos los mantuvimos bastante fieles a los datos recibidos por los actores. Se agilizaron y sintetizaron en una prosa coloquial que podía encajar en cualquier situación. En un inicio escribimos ciertos rodeos literarios que demostraron no ser necesarios para comunicar sus historias. El poder de las anécdotas era suficiente. Mientras menos adornos mejor. Los personajes cuentan sus historias mientras cocinan, comen, tejen, tocan el piano, dan un masaje, ven una película en la laptop o simplemente están tirados en sus catres. La cámara explora sus rostros y partes del cuerpo desde muy cerca y se sumerje en los distintos objetos del apartamento. La visual es tanto íntima como claustrofóbica. Esto fue tanto una decisión estética de los cinematográfos como una necesidad traída por las circunstancias espaciales. La narrativa visual en Your Day is My Night es tan importante como la palabra hablada y en muchos momentos incluso más evocadora.
“Because of the tight quarters, some parts of your body cannot move. What you can move more freely is your hands. In this circumstance the performer’s hands became two bodies. They are interesting and sculptural. So we tried to use the hands and the sheets as two kinds of landscapes. From the very beginning this was a visual plan we had. I always wanted the sheets to become like caverns, to have a feeling of adventure over the sheets. There was one shot of Mr. Huang’s pink sheet right after his first monologue. I wanted it to feel like the Grand Canyon, or the Steppes in Eurasia, something very far out there.” Ibid.
Los personajes puertorriqueños fueron más dificiles de componer y sostener en el filme. Como no estaban basados en datos reales se les inventó una vida. Lourdes, el personaje de Veraalba, trabajaba como empleada en un Ikea arreglando camas (showroom beds). Carlos, su hermano (Pedro) había muerto en un accidente de carro pero ella se lo imaginaba por todos lados cargando una planta de moriviví. Lourdes se va de Puerto Rico tratando de escapar de su propia angustia (la muerte de su hermano, una madre opresiva) pero algo de su motivación queda ambigua. Su proceso como inmigrante es históricamente menos trágico aunque advertimos vive perdida tratando de encontrar un ancla. Lourdes, quien también es bailarina y escritora, se muda a Chinatown buscando conocer una cultura lejana a la suya. Sentirse despatriada es su manera de encontrar su esencia como persona.
Creo que con Lourdes alcanzamos construir una historia rica en matices, tipo novela de aprendizaje; pero desarrollarla, contar todos esos detalles, significaba alejarse del tema principal que motivaba a Lynne: las camas itinerantes; el chinatown oculto y hacinado. Dejar que el personaje moviera la trama era hacer otra película teniendo a la comunidad de chinatown como trasfondo secundario. Ese no era el balance que se buscaba entre ficción y documental. Aunque se filmaron muchas escenas acerca de Lourdes y Carlos, poco a poco Lynne y Sean Hanley cinematógrafo, co-editor y productor, las fueron extirpando (la historia sobre Carlos fue eliminada por completo, por ejemplo) para mantener el foco del filme y una duración adecuada.
“Originally the film was a little bit more narrative. For example, we had this whole part where Mr. Huang disappears, because Lourdes originally tries to get him out of Chinatown after he claims that he never leaves. They walk across the Manhattan bridge and she says: “I have to go to work”. When she leaves to go to work, he’s never seen again. It didn’t work in the film. It turned it into a narrative film that had a forced story and people judged it on the acting.” Ibid.
A pesar de este proceso de eliminación, el personaje de Lourdes cumple una función importante: crear un puente entre el apartamento y el exterior, un afuera que va más allá de la comunidad de chinatown y de la generación de los protagonistas chinos.
“One thing that I didn’t want to happen in this film was to portray either the shift-bed houses or Chinatown as isolated enclaves that didn’t exist anywhere else…I wanted to say that in 21st Century America, life is more porous. People have accidental interactions that affect them, and so I felt like bringing in not just another language, but also another person with a slightly different immigration experience, would add to that conversation. I also felt that for an audience, it broke the snowglobe feeling of “I’m looking in, but I cannot go in.” That would imply that Chinatown was a kind of hermetic space. So I thought that by having a new person in the apartment who’s a little bit wide-eyed, who wanted to learn from her older “roommates”, we could offer the audience the opportunity to become more involved.“ Ibid.
Durante año y medio mientras se editaba la película Lynne regresó con Sean varias veces para filmar tomas ambientales y aveces pequeñas escenas extras. En una de estas escenas se logró acceso a un apartamento repleto de camas itinerantes. La landlady y algunos inquilinos se dejaron filmar y hablan cómodamente con Huang, el cantante de bodas, uno de los personajes más curiosos del reparto. Esta escena es de las más impresionantes por la tristeza y resignación que esta manera de vivir trae a los implicados.
Ese juego entre escenas orquestradas y escenas documentales culminó con unas tomas en que se filmó a los protagonistas chinos en uno de los performances del “work in progress”. Estas tomas, por tener iluminación teatral y movimientos del tai-chi, tienen un aspecto surrealista siendo a la vez un registro híbrido entre ficción y documentación de las actividades del grupo.
“Far into our production, as I was documenting one of our live performances, I thought “This is really expressive and totally non-verbal, why aren’t we using it in the film?” Again, the idea, the process, revealed itself, whereas the more plot driven story was what I was forcing on them. It was artificial. So I took out all of that and allowed the film to become more improvisational and intuitive. This switched everything. We spent a year edit the other way and then just threw it all out when we realized how lucky we were to work with people so confident about their bodies, very willing to go on the stage and move freely. They had that ability and confidence.” Ibid.
Mi presencia en la etapa de post-producción fue mínima y se limitó a verificar unos subtítulos para una escena en español. No fue hasta que el filme estrenó el pasado 24 de febrero en el Museo de Arte Moderno de Nueva York (MoMa), en que finalmente vi entrelazados todos los niveles de escritura audiovisual. El filme tiene una cualidad atmósférica y voyeur que lo acerca más al género del documental, aunque ciertamente es una propuesta híbrida y con una estética muy trabajada.
Me sorprendió cómo decantar la palabra hablada ayudó al ritmo de la película. Los monólogos pueden considerarse islas dentro del tema-archipiélago de las camas y la vida en chinatown. Con las capas de traducción y la improvisación de algunos diálogos desapareció la autoría o los trucos de estilo, míos o de Lynne. El personaje de Lourdes terminó encajando muy bien como ese ojo externo dentro de las circunstancias. Las escenas estrictamente visuales no dejan de crear un texto pero este se manifiesta desde unas instancias poéticas y emotivo-arquitectónicas. Sin carecer de narrativa, Your Day is My Night no alardea de grandes peripecias sino de una observación cuidada al cotidiano de los personajes. Nunca victimiza sino que reconoce y valida la presencia de los por lo general anónimos habitantes de este barrio nuyorkino.
Lynne Sachs labora en el medio fílmico y en el del video. Otras facetas de su trabajo incluyen instalaciones y proyectos para la red. Su obra explora la relación intrincada que existe entre la observación personal y las experiencias históricas. Su estilo entrelaza poesía, collage, pintura, política y complejos diseños de sonido. Los filmes de Lynne se han presentado en el Museo de Arte Moderno de Nueva York, el Festival de Cine de New York, el Festival de Cine de Sundance y el Festival Internacional de Cine de Buenos Aires. Lynne enseña cine y video experimental en la Universidad de Nueva York y vive en Brooklyn.
When the experimental filmmaker Lynne Sachs taught avant-garde filmmaking at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1992, few if any in our class had ever heard of the essayist Chris Marker, with whom she later collaborated on Three Cheers for the Whale, or Trinh T. Minh-ha, whose approach to filmmaking strongly influenced her own. In an interview we did back then, Sachs talked about Trinh’s ability to maintain a certain distance in her work in order to create a non-hierarchical space in which events unfold. At the same time Sachs was adamant about being “participatory” and, for her first long format film Sermons and Sacred Pictures: The Life and Work of Reverend L.O Taylor (1989), “interacting with the people that I was talking to in a very physical way.”
Sachs, who is also known for incorporating poetry, collage, and painting as well as dramatic performance in her films, continued to explore and develop this approach over the course of 25 works, including her latest, Your Day is My Night (2013), a hybrid documentary about residents in shift-bed apartments, a virtually unknown phenomenon of New York’s Chinatown. Like her previous films TheLast Happy Day, a portrait of her distant cousin who survived the Holocaust, and Wind in Our Hair, a loose adaptation of a Julio Cortázar story, the film weaves in fiction elements—some are jarring, others are so seamless they’re hard to pinpoint.
The film is especially notable for the unexpectedly personal monologues the residents of this insular community deliver, which are based upon her interviews with them. How an outsider got a group used to staying out of the public eye to open up is largely the subject of our conversation.
Karen Rester (Rail): Let’s start off with the Uncle Bob story that launched you on this project.
Sachs: So I have a 93-year old distant cousin named Uncle Bob. He told me that in 1960 two planes crashed over New York. One went down over Staten Island and the other one crashed onto Flatbush Avenue. I said, “That’s horrible! I’m sure all the people on the plane died, and they did—‘but what about the people on the ground?’” He said, “Well, Lynne, there were so many hotbed houses in that area, who knows?” So, of course you hear the expression “hotbed house” and you think, “Hmm, that seems pretty racy!”
Turns out a hotbed house is where workers, and, in this case, people who worked on the docks in Brooklyn, shared beds. One person was on the night shift, one person was on the day shift, and that really sparked my imagination as a platform or a location. Then I discovered that these shift-bed houses—which is another name for them—still exist in Chinatown today.
That’s what led me to the Lin Sing Association, where I met the group of older Chinese immigrants who would collaborate with me on the film.
Rail: And, as you told me, you asked some of them this one great question, about beds, that led to some of the most intimate stories in your film.
Sachs: It wasn’t a clever question at all. It was just what I needed to ask: Can you tell me anything interesting that ever happened to you in a bed? I thought they would tell me something like, “When I first came to the United States I lived in a room with eight people. Let me tell you, it was hard.” Instead, they were the ones who opened it up to stories that were very personal, very revealing of the larger story of Chinese history and Chinese immigration. It went from one Chinese man telling me about living on a mattress in a closet in Chinatown for three months to another woman talking about lying in bed and dreaming about the father she never really knew. That question sparked their imagination.
That’s a key to documentary for me. When you can work with the people in your film and get them to harness their own imagination.
Rail: I think I mentioned I’ve been recording interviews with some Chinese relatives in the Mississippi Delta, and even being a member of the community it’s not easy getting them to open up. So when I saw your film the first thing that came to mind was, how in the world did a non-Mandarin speaking white woman get them to reveal some of their most intimate details on camera?
Sachs: [Laughs.] I think one of the keys to working in reality and working with people is allowing the extraordinary to appear familiar rather than exotic. If you immediately respond, “Oh that is so heavy!” then you’ve introduced a level of intimidation. So if someone was telling me how during the Cultural Revolution his father was beaten to death by a group of farmers, I’d say, how did you feel about that as a child? If you didn’t have any food what did you eat? I tried not to make these issues, which have this mythic horror, seem that big, because then it becomes scary to talk about them. So I’d guide them to revisit these moments in the most vivid way possible, not as a symbolic event in the history of China.
Rail: This isn’t your first film about beds. You made Transient Box in the early ’90s. I understand you, camera in hand, asked your now–husband, Mark, whom you’d only known for a few weeks, to accompany you to a motel room and remove his clothes?
Sachs: [Laughs.] I wanted to film the marks a man leaves on the bed and in the room, but I wanted him to remain invisible. All the detritus that people want to erase, the pieces of yourself that you leave behind, are interesting to me.
Of course in your own bed you can leave as much as you want and people aren’t going to sweep it away. That’s what intrigued me about these shift-beds. People aren’t able to leave an imprint of themselves and that became very unsettling to me.
Rail: The British artist Tracey Emin once did a controversial installation called My Bed. She took her bed, which she’d been sleeping in when she was depressed, and put it in the Tate. It was blood-stained and there were condoms around it.
Sachs: That’s exactly what would never happen in a shift-bed apartment. You wouldn’t leave that detritus because that’s saying, “This is mine.” By erasing your presence you’re inviting another person to establish theirs.
Rail: How did you see Chinatown before and after the making of this film?
Sachs: Before I made the film, Chinatown was a place to feel out of place. A place in New York where you had the sense you were in another country. I’m really interested in this French word dépaysé, to be out of your country. It also means to be disoriented. I like the idea that when you go into another community you have this sensation of being an outsider. And for most people so much of it is about gratification. You feed your eyes. You feed your mouth.
Then I started making the film and Chinatown became a neighborhood. It’s not just a destination for outsiders to go and experience the pleasure of another culture. It’s a place where people have very intricate relationships, and they work, and they sleep. They don’t want to leave it because it’s so supportive. I didn’t know any of that, for sure, and I didn’t know what happened above the ground level. For me, Chinatown was all on the first floor—
Sachs: Exactly. It’s almost as if I never looked up. Now I look up and I can imagine looking in. And I have friends to visit.
Rail: I’m half-Chinese and Chinatown is a foreign place to me, though seeing your film helped change that. I think movies have trained me to think of Chinatown as background or an exotic setting where the protagonist chases the bad guy through a maze of crowded streets.
Sachs: You never know how a film will draw open curtains on various worlds for audiences. There’s the New York City audience that sometimes responds, “Oh, you’ve forever changed the way I walk into Chinatown.” And maybe not just Chinatown, but any place where you feel you are benefitting from its differentness. Then there’s the audience made up of young Chinese immigrants who say the film harkens back to a time in Chinese life that was closer to their grandparents.
Rail: At least two of your performers have lived in New York since the, 60s. They’d never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art until you took them there. What inspired you to do that?
Sachs: One of the things I tried to do was take them out of their comfort zone. I think this is what creates unpredictable, almost theatrical situations. We went to the Met to see two things. The first was an exhibit called The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City. It was a simulation of a grand palace in China in which the emperor created different seasons in different rooms. So if it was winter outside and he wanted to be in spring time, he would go to the Spring Room. I just love that idea because it’s the antithesis of living in a shift-bed house, where you have such little control over your environment. Then I took them to the 20th century wing to see Andy Warhol’s floor-to-ceiling portrait of Mao Tse Tung. I actually wanted to trigger something, I wanted to rock everyone’s world. I thought, big things are going to happen! We get there and they really couldn’t have cared less.
Rail: [Laughs.] Let’s talk about the wall you hit during the editing process. The film suffered from a dramatic storyline you couldn’t make work. People didn’t like it, you were devastated, and you didn’t know what to do.
Sachs: Mark actually said to me, “Stop sitting in front of your computer editing, editing, editing, and not going anywhere—it’s getting worse!” [Laughs.] Then, out of the blue, someone sent me an email about an abandoned hospital in Greenpoint looking for artists to put on performances. So I called everybody up and said, “Let’s do our show live, I’ll bring two beds.” We did it again in the Chinatown public library. Then at University Settlement, a community center in the Lower East Side. I grew to love the performance more and more, and saw it as a way to lay bare the structure of the film.
Rail: Did that help you finish it?
Sachs: Enormously. Especially with the transitions. Once you listen to these really intense monologues you can’t just move onto something else that quickly. Where do I take the viewer afterwards? I realized I could integrate scenes we recorded from the performances as transitional places where people could meditate on what they heard.
Rail: By the way, I misinterpreted your title. I realize now it’s dialogue between two people sharing a shift-bed. One has the day shift, the other has the night shift. How did you come up with it?
Sachs: I knew the film was called Your Day is My Night before I even started shooting. It’s a little bit of a tribute to Truffaut’s Day for Night and also, the history of narrative filmmaking where if you needed day but were shooting at night you just created it. It’s sort of like the Forbidden City where the emperor had so much power that he could create seasons. The hegemony of everything. I’ve always resisted that in my filmmaking. I didn’t want to be a director per se; I wanted to be a filmmaker who didn’t work in such hierarchical situations.
Your Day is My Night will screen September 25 and 26 at Maysles Cinema and October 26 at New York Public Library’s Chatham Square branch. Upcoming festivals include Vancouver Film Festival, New Orleans Film Festival, and Bordocs in Tijuana, Mexico. For more information visit yourdayismynight.com