The Essay Film: Students Contemplate States of UnBelonging by Lynne Sachs


On March 6, 2016, University of Iowa graduate students Brittany  Borghi (MFA in the Non-Fiction Writing Program) and Hannah Bonner  (MA in Film Studies ) wrote this letter to me:

Dear Lynne,
My name is Brittany Borghi and I’m a graduate student in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. I’m enrolled in an essay film class this semester, and this week, I’m putting together a presentation on you and your film, States of Unbelonging. 

This class is the first time that I (and many of my classmates) have gone in-depth with the essay film, and we’re slowly making our way through the process of creating our own (very, very amateur films). In my very preliminary research about you, I’m finding that you seem to be extremely open to conversations about your craft and your work, and I’m wondering if it might be possible to send you a few questions from our motley crew of budding filmmakers, to share with the class on Thursday night. Since you are someone who transitioned from writing to filmmaking, it might be particularly helpful to hear more about your perspective. Also, our class is full of female filmmakers, and I know they would love to hear from you. 

I’m sure you’re extremely busy, but if you wouldn’t mind me emailing you a few quick questions, I would be delighted. 

I hope this email finds you well. Looking forward to hearing from you!
Best and Thanks,
Brittany Borghi 

HI Brittany, this is a start for you and your class. I will try to write more tomorrow before I get on a plane but otherwise it will be finished next week.

I got through about half of your fantastic questions.


Hi Lynne, 

Sorry for the delay on this–I tried to curate some questions from my classmates and they were slow getting back to me. Feel free to answer any of these that appeal to you. It’s really exciting to be able to pull your perspective as filmmaker into our class. I hadn’t seen States of Unbelonging before taking this class, and I really loved the film. Thanks for being so generous!



How intentional was the visual and aural layering in the film, and what was your motivation behind that level of layering? 

As with many of my films, I start out thinking the journey of the production will take me one place but the realities of the real life situation take me somewhere far different. In the case of STATES OF UNBELONGING,  I actually knew the title of the film even before I began looking into Revital’s life as a filmmaker.  I had felt torn about the situation in Israel,  believing that the country itself had come into existence for profoundly disturbing and meaningful reasons but that the contemporary realities had become unfathomably complex.  I see the ‘state’ in which Palestinians and Jews are trying to live as a pathological place where no one and everyone belong and don’t belong. Even the notion or ownership and nationhood is so contested. For this reason, I wanted the portrait of Revital to reveal my own sense of doubt and I tried to make this evident through the tensions that exist in the very fabric of the film.     Throughout the film, I try to create a sense of poignancy in either the image or the sound but often not both, except for the documentary material from the kindergarten (where children talk about death) which is so powerful on its own and should not be circumvented.

I’ve read that Chantal Ackerman is an inspiration of yours, and the beginning of the film almost reads like an reimagining of News From Home. Can you talk about pulling Ackerman into this film? Were you inspired at all by Chantal’s installations, as well as her films?

Most definitely, the epistolary structure and intimacy of NEWS FROM HOME was an inspiration for me.  I think that our culture has actually become more literary since the advent of email and that we are constantly hearing our friends’ and families’ voices in our heads as we read their words, these monologues then travel with us throughout the day.  Cinema is particularly capable of replicating this psychological connection to another human being.  Regarding Akerman’s installations, the only one I’ve seen was “D’est” (From the East) a sweeping yet somehow very human meditation on the changes brought on by the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe.  I suppose that her use of long noninflected pans across landscapes was important to me, but on the other hand I focus on one person’s life caught up in political turmoil and Akerman was, in this case, looking at a contintal gestalt.

In The Essay Film, Tim Corrigan writes, “Like an endless war, these states of unbelonging offer no place in which a self can be situated and clearly articulated. It is rather a state of perilous expectations or, as Revital’s husband describes it, a place of such intense longing that there is simply nowhere to locate the extreme sorrow of that longing.” He goes on to say that happens even in the practice of filmmaking. Did you have a position for your essayistic self before beginning States? How did you position yourself against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Against Revital? Against Judaism or Islam? Did making the film change those positions? 

Making the film put me into the wrestling ring where I was being bounced around by every single conversation, large scale political event, suicide bomb, unwarrented settlment – – really the gamut of the the Israeli-Palestinian war was on my mind for the entire time. I was wrought by it all, but then again this was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to reckon with the dilemma in my own exploratory way. I was constantly haunted by her death, but I was not angered to the point where I wanted revenge.  I will share a story related to the distribution of the film.  I contacted the Jerusalem Film Festival a few months after completing the film to ask about their submission deadline.  When I described  the subject of the film, the secretary who happen to answer the phone told me immediately that the film would NOT be accepted into the festival because of its subject matter. I said “Why?” feeling broken-hearted that I would not be able to show the film in that highly respected festival. He then explained that all of the programmers were very progressive and would not like a movie that functioned an exposé on a terrorist act against a Jewish woman and her children. I then explained that the film is not a  one-sided critique of either the murderer or the Palestinians, but rather a thought piece on the whole situation and its resonance for those of us who are far way physically but close emotionally. In the end, my collaborator Nir Zats and I were invited to the festival.  And, to my great joy, Chantal Akerman was there screening “La Bas” (Down There) here own rumination on the fraught situation in the Middle East.  I was able to meet her the day that the war broke out between Israel and Lebanon. A very scary day for both us in Jerusalem.

I love that we end with the innocence of your daughter’s question, which is at once so wonderfully comforting and so entirely unnerving. What was that conversation like in real life? Was it an honest revelation of hers–or a prompting for the film? Can you talk about your perspective as a woman and a mother–in relation to both Revital as a mother and filmmaker, and to the creation of States itself?

This film is very much coming from my position as a mother.  I made the film BIOGRAPHY OF LILITH about ten years before and some of the issues around the creative process and its relationship to having children are in both films.  Honestly, I initially thought the best way to make this film was to make an anti-documentary that would not allow me to smell, hear, feel or hear anything related to the actual place I was exploring. I was interested in using other people’s and the mainstream news’ mediations coming from every direction. Plus, this intellectual premise, this rhetorical stance, would actually provide an armor or a buffer, protecting me from the very thing that had actually killed Revital. In the end, I capitulated and ended up going to Israel to shoot.  This in and of itself is problematic for those people who believe that boycotting Israel is the best way to create change.  I am not convinced this is true. I wanted to challenge the status quo through the work of making the film.  In this way, the core of Revital’s work as an artist and her commitment to recognizing the rights of the Palestinians was hopefully recognized by the film itself.  She bravely chose to live near a Palestinian village she admired a great deal.

As Corrigan points out (and is clear in the film), our narrator shifts throughout the duration of States, and we come to eventually see the full revelation of you as narrator as Revital’s grave. Can you walk me through your decision-making process for that shifting? How did the essay take shape in that way, or when did it? Did you always intend for the audience to experience this unfolding of and with the narrator? Or was that a part of your filmmaking process? At the level of craft, your voicing is so much different at the beginning than it is even halfway through the film. What were you channeling in those opening moments of the film? 

I’m enchanted by the textual and discursive distance between the narrator’s voiceover, Nir’s voiceover, the text on the screen, and the extreme diversity of rendered images. Again, echoing Corrigan, there is something Marker-esque happening on the screen–and in the mind of the viewer. It puts us on unstable ground, an obvious connection to the thematic exploration in States. Can you elaborate on your own intention with that distance, and how you made those choices? Where are you hoping to situation the audience, and your own essayistic self?

Can you get crafty with us? How many different cameras did you use when recording? How much behind-the-scenes work was happening between you and Nir, in terms of both filming and writing? What was your editing process like? 

Anything else you want us to know about the film? What you wanted to do, and what you wanted us to walk away with? (We’ll have a lot to say about that in class, I’m sure, but I’d love to include that information from you.)

One more question came in from my professor, Jeff Porter, if you have time to answer! 

Dear Lynne—such a compelling and subtly complex film. Thanks for fielding questions from our class. I have a number but let me keep it to one or two. At what point in figuring out your story did you realize that your gradual, visual emergence as a complete presence in the film would tie together so many narrative strings? Was there anything about the editing process that lead you to that solution?

Basically,  I admitted to myself that I would be absolutely candid about my own fears, because I knew that I could not be a war photographer in any way, I knew that my sensations of ambivalence and hesitancy and curiosity were neither unusual or heroic.  I was scared to be so open but it was also very much a relief.  It’s true that I, as a woman with  a camera , only really emerge at the end when I become a listener to Revital’s husband.  This was not planned but it did somehow make sense. When I make essay films, I always end up figuring out the ending at the completion of the editing.  This keep me entertained throughout the process, wondering how I will tie it all up.

Many thanks,
Jeff Porter


Thank you so, so much! These are so interesting to read, and the answers I shared in my presentation last week helped spur a really fascinating discussion that I don’t think we would have had otherwise. I’ll look forward to sharing the rest of them when we get back from spring break.

Creating my own brief essay film for the first time this semester is proving to be a wildly fun challenge, and I’m still not really sure how it’s going to take shape before the end of the semester. Corresponding with you has been really motivating, though. Glad to know that you feel like I “got” your film. The genre has been new to me this semester, and I’m absolutely loving it. Any parting advice for someone slowly trudging through this study and work?

When will TIP OF MY TONGUE come out? I’ll be looking forward to it!

You’re great, this has been great, and again, I really do appreciate it.

All the Best,