From the cramped quarters of New York’s Chinatown where individual beds are rented, Your Day is My Night artfully brings hidden immigrants into the light. The film follows a handful of people from this close community, who each share their histories through monologues and conversations.
Though a shot of the reddish apartment with its fire escapes could have jumped out of Friends, this is a side of New York people rarely see. Here, the basic sanctuary of sleep feels claustrophobic and upside down; the title refers to the subjects’ nocturnal existences, while the opening shot shows someone sleeping, their eyes flickering against the daylight and blocking out the city.
Lynne Sachs utilises a tactile, emotive approach to best enhance the stories told. The speeches are refined to become potently poetic, but the reality still shines through in the way each voice cracks and pauses. Combining these with intimate performances of a person waking up, stretching and making their bed, one can feel the proximity of, for example, Huang, who either sleeps alone, or shares with his elderly father.
In the daylight, Huang tells of the closet he first stayed in when he arrived and of his passion for singing, performing at weddings with tunes he considers a “bridge to the homeland”. He reveals that after a bad experience he is scared of the subway, electing to remain in his small circle. As a new arrival from Puerto Rico joins the household, clumsy but endearing communication begins and phone calls in Spanish join the chorus of an already chattering kitchen.
Each person’s tale is brief but impactful, intercut with graceful set pieces and grainy footage that allows time to visualise, absorb and contemplate. Your Day is My Night is a cultural window with many dimensions, building empathy with viewers in this politically charged environment.
DIRECTOR: Lynne Sachs SYNOPSIS: “Shift-beds” are economic necessities in immigrant life. Strangers become confidants as the beds become a catalyst for storytelling, a stage for the collective experiences of Chinese immigrants.
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.
Prolific and poetic, experimental and documentary filmmaker, Lynne Sachs, lights up this year’s online edition of Sheffield Doc|Fest with a mini-retrospective, annotated lecture and her new feature, Film About a Father Who (2020).
It happened less than ten years ago, when she was working on Your Day is My Night (2013): Lynne Sachs located the performance within her process and set out to challenge/change it. The idea was to gain participation, collaboration. Instead of turning a camera on her subjects – when they would perform instead of reveal – she decided to include them in the construction and craft of her filmmaking; when you point a camera at a subject, you can’t capture, you command. And power, though useful for its authoritative and therefore convincing tone, is also deeply problematic. In a way, what Sachs is doing is quietly radical. Not just because it is an attempt to remove the hierarchy inherent in documentary since Robert Flaherty started its discourse (Sachs is also a Flaherty Seminar alumnus) but, also, because it is an admission and undermining of her own intrinsic and pervasive authorial voice. It’s ambitious, but that’s also where a kind of freedom resides. The ambition is so substantial that it alone is enough; it doesn’t matter if she succeeds. In this way, Sachs’ later work, from Your Day is My Night onwards, is less about subjects and more about process.
She’s been making films for more than thirty years, but the mini retrospective screening as part of this year’s online edition of Doc/Fest selects moments from the last decade to fit a through-line about Ghosts and Apparitions. I’m not interested in these, as they could be found almost anywhere, and in anyone’s work. In Sachs’ work all I find – and all I want to find – is respectful practice. There is more than just an artist at work, here, there is a generous exploration at play.
Before Sachs experienced her epiphany, she made Which Way is East? (1994), an arresting, painterly exploration of Vietnam. As one of the first American filmmakers granted permission to shoot in Vietnam, Sachs had the weight of responsibility and expectation on her shoulders. Despite this, the film has a sense of lightness and freedom, especially in its aesthetic and aural approach: it begins with a stilted photographic trajectory, literally rendering the moving image as a series of broad brush strokes, while the almost endlessness of the cicadas’ chirrup pitch moves the image along, though not necessarily forward. It is a sensory introduction, rather than a history lesson, and here Sachs’ work is at its most successful, inviting us, as viewers and listeners to be in this depiction of Vietnam, not to look at or hear a presentation of it. Eventually, Sachs and her camera will arrive somewhere static, she will then switch to a show and tell mode, which is informative but less awesome. She flits between the two with relative ease for the remainder of the film, letting her observations and those of her sister, Dana, interpolate the experience. It is as much about making her own memories as it is the chasing of those left behind by others. Her sister’s remarks are among the most revelatory, “I hate the camera,” she muses, “The world feels too wide for the lens and if I try to frame it, I only cut it up.” Holding a camera and being a filmmaker are not one and the same, “Lynne sees it through the eyes of its lens,” she continues, “It’s as if she understands Vietnam better when she looks at it through the lens of her camera.” For Sachs, the practice has always been the pursuit. She instinctively knew, even before it occurred to her laterally, to share the filmmaking in order to make it more accessible, more honest and more like the world it hopes to offer. It may have taken her another almost twenty years to fully understand and break with the idea of documentary as an act or approach, but there is a silver lining of melancholia inside Which Way is East? It makes me wonder if 1) she already knew and 2) if the practice, though expressive and creative as an outlet is also overwhelming, as there is some sadness here.
Looking at historical resonance while also pursuing the interplay between the personal and political, Sachs can’t help but put her heart into her films. The Last Happy Day (2009) stars her own children and uses family, performance, narration, interviews and archive to construct a story about stories. For some, it’s a story about Sachs’ relative, Sandor (Alexander) Lenard, a Hungarian Jew who fled to Rome and later Brazil, where he translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin. Lenard spoke thirteen different languages, and no one knew he was Jewish, so the film is also about what we do and do not know, and how we might go about trying to unpick the constructions and obstructions therein. To demonstrate the difficulty to (re)telling history, Sachs has whole through-lines about bones, with several stunning superimposed images that offer the fragments and the palimpsest at once. She even has one interviewee straight up tell us, “I don’t know anymore what’s real and what’s fantasy,” perhaps even a little too direct for a doc, but ironically true nonetheless, “I am not sure of the truth.”
Remembrance is also brought into question via the presence of doctored documents; literal erasure of a name lets us reflect on the ethics and truths that we can never know as so many were removed from our future before they could even make their mark. What struck me most, however, was the role of the central, yet arguably flippant, text. I wonder how the characters are in translation. Sachs’ band of performers – here, her children and their friends – act out scenes and discuss the meaning behind some of the plot points. Inevitably, they end up discussing the death drive when they get to talking about depression and Eeyore. I’ve always hated Winne the Pooh, because I thought he and many of his mates – Tigger, Rabbit, Owl and maybe even Piglet in his cowardice – were bullies, unkind to Eeyore, to whom my heart always went out. If I were Eeyore and had to live in their world, I might also desire death as an end to my depression. Even Christopher Robin didn’t seem to do anything to help, and he was a (white) human, surely the one with all the power. Could be that I remember it wrong, unsure what’s real and what’s fantasy, but in my remembrance, it is a horrible story filled with horrible characters. It’s lack of compassion makes me sad, still.
But the film itself failed to move me. It was clever and fits a bunch of paradigms that I’d call smart documentary filmmaking. I even think it’s the most obvious fit for that Ghosts and Apparitions programme title. Perhaps that is why it didn’t move me at all. It’s all a bit too neat, well thought out. Nothing incidental or imperfect. No rough edges. But then I watched The Washing Society(2017, co-directed with Lizzie Olesker) and everything changed.
Thanks to Sachs’ newfound process of inclusive filmmaking, with her subjects, The Washing Society feels like a story from, not about New York City laundromats. Visiting over fifty laundries, Sachs tells us, “Sometimes they told us to stop, other times no one notices.” This is how her filmmaking has fundamentally changed: it’s not a process of requesting permission and setting up a tripod to stage an interview, it’s being in the space, with the people, and finding out what the story is as it unravels. Owing to this shift, the performative set pieces within the film – be it actors reading lines, narrated poetic interventions, or even Sachs’ fascination and lingering look at the way light dances around her subject(s) – are seamlessly integrated into an otherwise seemingly observatory mode. What I liked most was that it felt personal, private, public and political at once; the invisible labour of laundry workers is made visible, while the objects we wear to cover and conceal are laid bare, tossing and turning in machines after their toil, until they are, eventually, ready to perform their duty once more. Clothes are the ultimate in public and private markers; from the hours and loads of labour used to make, market and sell them before they even become hours and loads of labour to clean, fold and return to their often-oblivious wearers. I watched, at home, folding my own laundry, mostly that of my almost one-year-old son, painfully aware as I am that domestic labour (performed here whilst undertaking professional labour) is almost always unseen and almost never remunerated. I loved this film not because it struck a chord, but because it could; its poetry sparing and its humanity, honesty and openness laid out with generosity and as a gesture to the many faces that have served and are fast disappearing from NY’s many regenerated neighbourhoods as an app and its collection truck counterpart take over the (barely) visible nature of the business.
It’s an important reminder, from Sachs, to think about what is not seen, whenever we reflect on what we have seen. Your Day is My Night (2013) is not just a film; it has had live stage performances and it is alive in the lives of those it features. Beds and stages and monologues and movement and projection are all elements of this docu-dramatic staged record of what it means to be more than how we are recognised. Spanning the deep economic issues of the US, and the failed reality of the outwardly boastful American Dream, all the way to micro-communities and what ‘home’ might ever mean, Your Day is My Night doesn’t show but does reveal the alienation inherent in both Chinese and American society. In making this film, and the live performances that span its production life, Sachs really got to know her collaborators – well, as well as she could with the bridge of a translator. Language can be a powerful separator, and Sachs hints at this in the film by bringing in an actress (Veraalba Santa, who also features in The Washing Society) to play the part of a Puerto Rican immigrant. It’s not Sachs, but her questioning and unease is represented in Santa’s performative role.
In her lecture, My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, Sachs admits that she is still grappling with the extent to which she should express herself, and the subject. Her body may not be present in this film (it features heavily in many of her earlier, more experimental and material works), but exposing herself has served as a form of generosity, especially where she is asking an actress to expose themselves bare, as in The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991).
Bodies exist but so do thoughts and feelings. And suicide is genuinely considered as an option when old age sets in for those who have no real ‘home’ to go to – neither a citizen of the US or China, there is a unique and pugilistic purgatory for some. Every round is a beating, but fight is what you came to do. I kept thinking of Charles Yu’s fantastic new book, Interior Chinatown (2020) as I watched it. Yu’s book is so many things – maybe everything – a documentary as a book, certainly. A uniquely crafted satire of Hollywood, racism in the United States, and the slippage between screenwriting and prose, Yu’s book looks at the stereotypes of ‘Generic Asian Man’, ‘Background Oriental Male’, ‘Kung Fu Guy’ and more. The people in Sachs’ film feel like characters, at times. Maybe because their lives, like the characters in Yu’s book, are enmeshed with the performance of their parameters – Chinatown in NYC, stuck in a stereotyped nightmare, “I was very aware of the narrow spectrum of representation of the denizens of New York City’s Chinatown,” Sachs tells Paolo Javier in an interview for BOMB Magazine, “Those kinds of Hollywood images haunted me really. In fact, when I first chose the seven people who are featured in my film, I realized that most of them had already worked as extras for the movie industry at some point in their lives.” Fictions and realities reside, side by side, sometimes even in the same bed, sleeping in shifts.
Sachs can’t, shouldn’t and thankfully doesn’t separate these two elements in her films. She works with them. And, now, in her more recent work, she allows the process to become the practice. In her most recent film screening in the programme focus at Doc|Fest, A Month of Single Frames(2019), a work pulling together various pieces of Barbara Hammer’s personal archive – 16mm film footage, journal entries and recorded stories – Sachs lets decisions leak into the final edit, allows us to understand how images move as time lapses. For Hammer as for Sachs as for an audience, frame rates and time passing is only relevant insofar as it is a part of the process that makes up such a thing as a filmmaking practice. It is not important when it occurs, only that it does. In that way, the film is not an archive or an object to be examined or understood. It is the act of holding those things, that person, their feelings, their being.
In this way, Film About a Father Who (2020) is her greatest achievement yet. Digging into far more than the family archive, Sachs takes footage and feelings that span her entire life to create a portrait, not of her father, but of “complicit ignorance” and how pervasive lies of omission might permeate both films and lives, through their intrinsic and insidious power dynamic. Her father is many things, among them a philanderer. Much was uncovered, but he withheld more. This is the role of structure and authority, the act of patriarchy and the act of whomsoever holds power. In this film, it is clear that her father is not the only one with power to play with – his mother, Maw-Maw, is just as commanding, especially as the puller of purse-strings, whose judgement has the ability to grant or take away knowledge, access, identity; family, truth and more. This is what Sachs has been working on all her life because it is the process of uncovering her power and confronting herself. Her aim to frame truth and authenticity will always be compromised by the reality of the moment that the camera is turned on, be it for family or strangers. In Film About a Father Who, Sachs admits that she is filming as a way of finding transparency. It is the ultimate in searching for cinematic veracity. She finds something beautiful and deeply moving, here. Speaking about the differences between her parents, she uses grammar as a metaphor. By extension, her own practice can be understood as a process of grammatic excellence; each thought, memory, scene, time and space given pause and punctuated by still more dancing light.
Reflecting on the impact of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage and his ground-breaking film Window Water Baby Moving (1959), Sachs understands her practice as the unification of art and life, “As a mom and an artist, I was extremely inspired by the way that he integrated his family into his daily practice as an artist. If you separate the two, both suffer.” On her own website, she further imagines “a list of possible lectures one might give in conjunction with the screening of this film [Window Water Baby Moving]. I offer them to you as a vehicle by which to ponder the last forty years of American cultural history.” There are twenty-three. I won’t list them, here. But they did get me thinking about possible lectures one might give in conjunction with the screenings of Sachs’ films. Here’s five of my suggestions.
In Defense of Poetry
The Collaborative Moment
Towards an Understanding of Dancing Light
The Camera as Pencil; Drawing in the Margins
For the past three decades, experimental doc-maker Lynne Sachs has been collaborating with those both behind, and in front of, her lens. Whether recording encounters on her way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi with her co-director sister Dana (1994’s Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam); or using (her own) children’s performance to mine the life of a distant relative, a Jewish doctor who went from fleeing the Nazis to translating Winnie the Pooh into Latin in Brazil (2009’s The Last Happy Day); or getting to know the undocumented workers sharing «shift beds» in NYC’s Chinatown (2013’s Your Day Is My Night) and the immigrants and people of color who wash and dry and fold throughout the metropolis (2018’s The Washing Society, co-directed with Lizzie Olesker); or simply revisiting a moment in time on Cape Cod «with and for» the late great Barbara Hammer, incorporating the feminist filmmaker’s personal archive into her process of dying (2019’s A Month of Single Frames).
And from June 10 – July 10 these five diverse works will be shared online in the «Ghosts & Apparitions» section of this year’s virtual Sheffield Doc/Fest. (Sachs’ video lecture My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World will also accompany the retrospective. While her 2020 feature Film About a Father Who – a sprawling, 35-year-spanning portrait of the hedonistic bon vivant icon of Park City that is her (and too many others’) dad, and which opened this year’s Slamdance Film Festival – will have its international premiere in Sheffield in October).
So how did this retrospective come about? How did you and Sheffield Doc/Fest decide which films to screen?
During the early weeks of the pandemic, Sheffield Doc/Fest director Cíntia Gil and I were talking (through Zoom) about our shared fascination with cinema and translation. We are both intrigued by the passive approach to transforming one language into another that comes with the act of subtitling. Generally speaking, when audiences for foreign films from anywhere in the non-Anglo world start reading their English translations, they simply stop listening to the nuances of the original language.
From my 1994 essay film Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam to my 2018 hybrid documentary The Washing Society, I have tried to challenge this seamless leap from an «other» language to the more dominant English by playing with text onscreen and leaving some sections untranslated. Ever since I read Walter Benjamin’s profoundly insightful essay The Task of the Translator, I’ve tried to activate the act of reading, with the hope of creating a new relationship to language and listening in cinema.
Film About A Father Who seems almost a culmination of your «filmmaking as family affair» approach to the work. How do you see it in relation to the many other films you’ve made throughout your career?
As a documentary filmmaker, I am always reckoning with what it means to shoot «from the outside in,» using my camera to peer into the lives of people from other places, cultures, or communities. Honestly, it’s the foundation of the documentary paradigm that most disturbs me.
With this in mind, I have also consistently turned my camera toward my own life. It’s an A/B/A/B kind of pattern. Looking out. Looking in. Between 1984 and 2019 I shot VHS tape, Super 8mm and 16mm film, mini DV, and digital video with my dad. It was a way to find meaning in the delights, the rage, and the forgiveness that were all so much a part of being his daughter. A few hours after Film About a Father Who premiered as the opening night movie at Slamdance 2020, I thought to myself, «Tomorrow will be the first day of the rest of my life.»
The Washing Society and Your Day Is My Night are incredibly timely considering the pandemic has finally exposed our hidden workforce – which has suddenly gone from society viewing these immigrants and people of color as expendable to «essential.» So have you thought about how the current collision of the coronavirus with racial inequity might best be documented to bring about lasting change?
Another convention of the documentary filmmaking practice is that you need to buy a plane ticket to make a movie, that your job is to make the exotic familiar. This conceit for working with reality conflicts with the notion that you can spend long, sustained periods of time with the people in your movies. They can move from being your subjects to being your collaborators if you are able to shoot your film in the place where you live.
As a documentary filmmaker, I am always reckoning with what it means to shoot from the outside in…
With both The Washing Society (co-directed with playwright Lizzie Olesker) and Your Day Is My Night, I was determined to explore the nature of work and housing in the place where I live, New York City, over a long period of production. Both films investigate the experiences of immigrants, people in service jobs, people who are at the core of what makes a metropolis like this function and thrive. During the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent quarantine, white middle-class citizens were profoundly dependent on these service workers, predominantly people of color, who delivered food and cared for the sick. Maybe watching these films on shift-bed residents in Chinatown and laundry workers throughout the city will give viewers a chance to think about another layer of living in our daunting now.
You’ve tread similar doc territory as Julia Reichert who, along with her husband Steven Bognar, just won the Academy Award last year for American Factory. Do you think there’s an increased hunger from the general public lately for films exploring labor issues, the dignity of work?
Julia and Steve are great heroes of mine. Their commitment to depicting the lives of working people is part of a recent obsession in our culture for understanding the great divide between those who make, those who distribute, and those who receive. British filmmaker Ken Loach’s newest feature Sorry We Missed You gives us an equally profound window into the lives of the people who deliver packages.
Looking back a bit, I am indebted to Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke whose 2008 hybrid feature 24 City guided me toward seeing the factory as a context for organizing, performing, and exploring the collective work experience. While making The Washing Society I tried not to gasp in horror when I realized that the laundry workers I was filming were actually folding thousands of articles of clothing in one day. I want my viewers, who might indeed be their customers, to recognize the pain and struggle that a worker might feel.
I also make a point of collaborating with related worker-supported organizations like the Laundry Workers Center. I shoot video documentation of their protests or invite their organizers to my screenings so they can speak about their current activism.
Your work is so reliant on close observation, on personal encounters with those in front of your lens. So what does filmmaking look like for you in a post-pandemic world?
You’re so right. I thrive on finding some kind of intimacy with my filmmaking process, either through the lens or through my sustained engagement with the people in my films. I think that the convention of relying on the face, on the ability of an actor to articulate an emotion, is so overrated. A deep connection with a film can be found via a barely registered voice, two hands breaking a bean at a kitchen table, a glimpse of skin under the shower. These quotidian moments offer a viewer an entry point, a place to feel a part of the complexity of the cinematic moment.
Stuck at home over the last three months like everyone else, I attempted to throw out things I no longer needed or wanted. I found a bag of black shark’s teeth given to me by an ex-boyfriend, some old red beads, and my collection of snow globes. My adult daughter Noa and I made a film together, which is now a fossil in a way, of our quarantine.
This week I left New York and drove to North Carolina. En route home, I visited Richmond, Virginia where I filmed the desecration of so many Confederate monuments. I am currently making an experimental documentary on Ida B. Wells, co-directed with historian Tera Hunter. No doubt the video I shot on the way home will find its way into this film. For me, life and filmmaking are very intertwined.
Today Sheffield Doc/Fest begins its festival with the international premiere of my feature Film About a Father Who along with a “spotlight” on six of my films. “Two filmmakers have inspired a special focus: Simplice Ganou and Lynne Sachs” From very different regions of the globe (Burkina Faso and USA), with very different ways of filming and telling stories, both are filmmakers obsessed with the possibility of encountering the other, of building bonds with other humans through their camera, and translating that into cinematic beauty.”
“Drawing on her vast body of works from the past 30 years, we will present a curated selection of films by Lynne Sachs, focusing on the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping and reinterpreting filmic language. This focus will be part of the online Ghosts & Apparitions film strand.”
In the lead up to revealing our full official selection for 2020 on 8 June, we would like to announce:
the theme of our annual retrospective: Reimagining the Land, curated by Christopher Small.
and three special focuses:
a screening in tribute to the late French West Indies film pioneer Sarah Maldoror;
a focus on American artist Lynne Sachs;
a focus on Burkina Faso filmmaker Simplice Ganou.
Focus on Lynne Sachs
Drawing on her vast body of works from the past 30 years, we will present a curated selection of films by Lynne Sachs, focusing on the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping and reinterpreting filmic language. This focus will be part of the online Ghosts & Apparitions film strand.
Five Lynne Sachs films ranging from 1994 – 2018 – mostly involving creative collaboration with others – will feature as part of our online programme from 10 June.
Her latest film, Film About a Father Who, offers a complex portrait of Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering businessman from Park City, shot over a period of 35 years, and will make its International Premiere in Sheffield in October, and following that, online, as part of Into The World Film Strand.
Together with the focus, we will present Sachs’ video lecture My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, a fascinating journey through her themes and work.
Lynne Sachs focus, in Ghosts & Apparitions online: Drawing on her vast body of works from over the past 30 years, we will present a curated selection of films by Lynne Sachs, focusing on the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping and reinterpreting filmic language. Tensions arise from the filmmaker’s memories of Vietnam as a tragic place of war in Which Way Is East…; The Last Happy Day is a portrait of a man who translated “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin and reconstructed the remains of American soldiers; Your Day Is My Night tells of places in New York inhabited by immigrant workers and shaped by their lives and stories; the translation of Barbara Hammer’s images and sounds on a deserted landscape become a poem for her deceased friend in A Month of Single Frames. If translation can be considered the job of filmmaking, these works become a poetic and political tool for widening our view of the world and touching on its complexity, rendering it intimate and available for thought. Between them – Theatre, performance, music and an extremely sensitive and tender camera – compose a body of work that becomes more relevant each day.
WHICH WAY IS EAST: NOTEBOOKS FROM VIETNAM Lynne Sachs (in collaboration with Dana Sachs), USA, 1994, 33 min
“A frog that sits at the bottom of a well thinks that the whole sky is only as big as the lid of a pot.”
Two American sisters travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, followed by their own ghosts and those of local memories. On their way, they meet a country and its richness – strangers, translations, parables and stories, in a complex landscape. History is put into perspective, as each conversation becomes a true encounter: uncountable possible words to translate what we see and what we hear. The Vietnam they knew from TV is only a tiny part of this world to which they now decide to pay attention.
THE LAST HAPPY DAY Lynne Sachs, USA, 2009, 37 min
A portrait of Sandor (Alexander) Lenard, a Hungarian medical doctor and a distant cousin of Sachs. In 1938 Lenard, a writer with a Jewish background, fled the Nazis to Rome. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army Graves Registration Service hired him to reconstruct the bones of dead American soldiers. Eventually he found himself in Brazil where he translated “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin, an eccentric task that catapulted him to brief world-wide fame. Personal letters, abstracted war imagery, home movies, interviews, and a children’s performance create an intimate meditation on the destructive power of war.
YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT Lynne Sachs, USA, 2013, 64 min
Since the early days of New York’s Lower East Side tenement houses, working class people have shared beds, making such spaces a fundamental part of immigrant life. A “shift-bed” is an actual bed that is shared by people who are neither in the same family nor in a relationship. It’s an economic necessity brought on by the challenges of urban existence. Such a bed can become a remarkable catalyst for storytelling as absolute strangers become de facto confidants. As the bed transforms into a stage, the film reveals the collective history of Chinese immigrants in the USA, a story not often documented.
THE WASHING SOCIETY Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker, USA, 2018, 44 min
When you drop off a bag of dirty laundry, who’s doing the washing and folding? The Washing Society brings us into New York City laundromats and the experiences of the people who work there. With a title inspired by the 1881 organization of African-American laundresses, The Washing Society investigates the intersection of history, underpaid work, immigration, and the sheer math of doing laundry. Dirt, skin, lint, stains, money, and time are thematically interwoven into the very fabric of the film, through interviews and observational moments. With original music by sound artist Stephen Vitiello.
A MONTH OF SINGLE FRAMES Lynne Sachs, made with and for Barbara Hammer, USA, 2019, 14 min
In 1998, filmmaker Barbara Hammer had a one-month artist residency in the C Scape Duneshak which is run by the Provincetown Community Compact in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. While there, she shot 16mm film with her Beaulieu camera, recorded sounds with her cassette recorder and kept a journal. In 2018, Barbara began her own process of dying by revisiting her personal archive. She gave all of her Duneshack images, sounds and writing to filmmaker Lynne Sachs and invited her to make a film with the material.
International Premiere of Lynne Sachs’s latest film, as part of Into The World screenings in October:
FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO
Lynne Sachs, USA, 2020, 74 min
Over a period of 35 years, Sachs shot varied footage of her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering Utah businessman. This is her attempt to understand the web that connects child to parent and sister to sibling. With a nod to the Cubist renderings of a face, Sachs’ cinematic exploration offers simultaneous, sometimes contradictory, views of one seemingly unknowable man who is publicly the uninhibited center of the frame yet privately ensconced in secrets. Sachs as a daughter discovers more about her father than she had ever hoped to reveal.
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.