“The Worlds Lynne Sachs Calls Home” by Susan Gerhard


Published in San Francisco Cinematheque’s monograph Lynne Sachs Retrospective 1986 – 2010

The Worlds Lynne Sachs Calls Home by Susan Gerhard

The films of Lynne Sachs travel to exotic places, but find themselves concerned primarily with the universal qualities of the everyday. They revisit war zones but refuse to foreground the idea of War as humanity’s most fascinating pursuit. They are experimental in nature yet can offer straightforward and earnest approaches to literal problems. They defy expectations for radical art.

The central concern of one of these films, Investigation of a Flame, is the burning of selective service records with so-called “home-made napalm” by an activist group, which included three priests and a nurse, dubbed “The Catonsville 9.” Their protest has been called “a poetic act of civil disobedience.” And while those same words could describe Sachs’ catalogue as a whole—in its upending of the status quo with a sense of joyful lyricism—it’s the word “home-made” in front of “napalm” that strikes the uniquely Sachsian chord.

In Sachs’ oeuvre, life lived in a lowercase way can be ambitious and extreme and remains a primary source of inspiration. Sachs told me that she calls Investigation of a Flame her “backyard film.” Produced over three years while living in Catonsville, Maryland—with a two-year-old and a four-year-old—the film concerns a protest staged thirty years prior in a Knights of Columbus building one minute from Sachs’ home. “I was there, many of them were there, and the access was easy,” she recalls. “It was the perfect setting for building the kind of trust that is important to a documentary film. Plus,” she adds, “none of them wanted to meet for a late-night beer, thus keeping up with the little ones at home was not that tough.”

Sachs has frequently integrated her life into her films. Generally focusing her work on nearby topics (as in Investigation of a Flame), she often utilizes her own children and their friends as actors (in work as varied as The Last Happy Day and Wind in our Hair) and maintains an on-going collaboration—The XY Chromosome Project—with her partner, filmmaker Mark Street. While necessity is largely responsible for Sachs’ approach to work, it is also motivated by the idea that life itself is art and that art should be intersecting with life.

Sachs is currently collaborating with her brother Ira on an installation in New York City which is based on his film Last Address. The piece involves the placement of images in thirteen windows of NYU’s Kimmel Student Center to call attention to artists’ lives lost to AIDS in a period of time that now seems so long ago. On working with family, she says, “I think the best way to see someone regularly is to work on a project with them.”

Physical connections in the lived world are an important feature not just of Sachs’ process as a filmmaker, but for her perception of film as a medium. In an era of personalized screens, she insists that the cinematic experience be physical, and shared. “You know how kids always say, ‘I’m bored?’ Adults don’t get the opportunity to be bored enough, to feel like you’re a vacuum, that you have that much empty space,” she says. “There’s this expression, ‘horror vacui,’ that wherever we are, we have a horror of emptiness. When you go to a theater and are involved with a film to that extent, you stay, and that empty feeling gets filled in ways you can’t predict, ways you can’t quite control.”

“I also think it’s true with filmmaking,” Sachs says. “Trinh T. Minh-ha once said she tried to resist using zoom lenses, or telephoto lenses, because she wanted people to have to move their bodies.”

Sachs has been moving, in one sense or another, from a very young age. The oldest of three children by the same two parents (she has many other siblings on her father’s side), she—along with her sister Dana (now a writer of novels and nonfiction) and her brother Ira (an award-winning and well-known filmmaker)—spent summers with their mother in farmhouses or rock-bottom hotels in Europe, learning how to simply “be” with one another in tightly packed conditions. “We had to sit around tables and have conversations for all those weeks about what we were thinking and doing. The solitude in a small group was important,” she says.

Her mother, a sociology professor, and her father, an iconoclastic businessman, supported their children’s creative lives in unexpected ways—with, on the mother’s side, intellectual ardor, and from the father’s side, a sense of theatrical politics. (“He took us to ACLU meetings, made us help him collate left-wing propaganda materials he liked to distribute. He even ran for political office on the slogan ‘Vote the Rascals Out.’”)

Her sense of home and family, at it happens, extends beyond the core groups she grew up with and the one she is helping to raise. Her working methods with children are reflected in her methods with adult actors, the sense of agency she allows each. “I think it’s very interesting to listen to kids when they are actually being philosophical. Although they would not use that word, they’re grappling for words to express how they exist, how existence works.” She was influenced in this by a series of videotapes that Jean Luc Godard did for television called France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1978), with interviews with kids.  Listening to adults, as it turns out, means offering them a piece of the creation of many films. “In Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (1987), for example, I asked the actor who was playing ‘the woman’ if she would bring something that meant something to her. She brought a picture of Emma Goldman and it became this grounding for the whole film. The documentary side of me said I don’t want to have control over everything. I want her to offer something that’s going to spin this in a new way.”

One quality she’d like to support in her own two daughters, she says, is a sense of adventure of taking actual, physical risks. “Not that they have to climb the highest height, or run a certain distance in a length of time,” she relates, “but I remember when I was five years old and was on what we called ‘monkeybars’ and I was really scared to cross over from one rung to the other to the top. And I remember saying to myself, ‘If I don’t actually climb these monkeybars now, then maybe I’m gonna be scared to do things for the rest of my life.”

You could say with confidence that Sachs has, by now, climbed the monkeybars, and the mountains, in a career spanning decades and continents, that’s found her moving from Memphis to San Francisco to Catonsville to New York, that found personal and political stories to essays about in Vietnam, Bosnia, Israel and Germany.

“In a broader way,” she says, “I’ve always been interested in the French idea of dépayser—to be out of one’s country; to be out of your comfort zone. Sometimes I feel more confident in my observational skills outside the place that I call home.”

Susan Gerhard is a journalist and culture critic whose creative nonfiction, reporting and criticism have appeared in a variety of international and local publications. She was a Sundance Arts Writing Fellow 2002–04 and a senior editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian for many years. She currently edits SF360.org.