Screen Slate – Interview with Lynne Sachs on “Film About a Father Who”

Lynne Sachs Interview: Film About a Father Who
Conor Williams     January 13th 2021

On the morning of Wednesday, January 6, I called up the poet and filmmaker Lynne Sachs to talk to her about her new documentary, Film About a Father Who and online retrospective at Museum of the Moving Image, which starts todayThe film — which takes its title from an early influence of Sachs, Yvonne Rainer’s 1974 experimental film Film About a Woman Who — is an attempt by the filmmaker to better understand her father, Ira Sachs, Sr. Ira was a man who had, as he put it, “one wife, and many friends.” He slept around almost obsessively with scores of young women. He fathered nine children, some of whom remained a mystery to Lynne and her siblings for decades.

After picking up the phone, Lynne chatted with me a bit about the crucial runoff election that had played out in Georgia the night before, in which Democrats regained control of the Senate. She expressed optimism about those results, and I offered a comment that the future of our country could now hopefully be “at least a bit better.” Neither of us predicted that a few hours after our phone call, a large mob including white supremacists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and even a handful of GOP lawmakers, incited by the President, would storm the Capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the presidential election. It was an astonishingly surreal, terrifying siege that left five people dead.

But our conversation happened before all that, in a past still tethered to even the slightest bit of hope. It was a fascinating and moving dialogue in which we ruminated on the now-fading intimacy of in-person experience, documentary filmmaking’s power to amplify voices, and the beautiful ugliness of split pea soup.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Conor Williams: In the late 80s and 90s, you started making films investigating things like gender and the body and the male gaze. I’m also thinking about other films that were made at the time, like Elisabeth Subrin’s Swallow, or Flat is Beautiful by Sadie Benning. They’re kind of similar in that they highlight these feminist perspectives through the modes in which they’re made. I remember reading one of B. Ruby Rich’s essays about the festival scene at the time, and Barbara Hammer’s journals about screening her films to different audiences. It seems like this zenith of a moment. Could you feel that at the time?

Lynne Sachs: That idea is very different from bigger-budget commercial films, where a film travels, and then you say goodbye to it and look for another producer. Even the idea of a producer — we produced our own movies! And we traveled with them, we distributed them. It was a homemade thing in all the best possible ways. Of course, Sadie Benning’s work was really important to me in its intimacy, in its rawness, its ability to talk about desire. You mentioned B. Ruby Rich — she wrote a book, Chick Flicks, and it was like, “We’re okay with ‘chick!’ We’re okay with ‘queer,’ we have a bond that way and we’re into it!” The whole idea of a women’s film festival…the idea was, will that time pass? Will we not “need” it? And it wasn’t just that we needed it, we wanted it. We wanted to spend time together. We wanted to see each other’s films. It wasn’t that we needed to be separate, it was that we needed to have that collective experience to be in conversation. If you could, you would make it to all these people’s films. You needed to be there for other people.

CW: I know things are especially different right now at this moment — but do you think there’s any vestige of that kind of closeness left?

LS: That’s a very interesting question to ask during the pandemic. Closeness has to be in a spiritual kind of way. I think that my moment, which is also your moment, allows us to have hope toward the future, but not just nostalgic about the past, but awed by the past, those collective interactions. I think there needs to be an effort to bring in younger people so they understand you can’t do it all by yourself through YouTube or Vimeo. There is something about being in the same room together. I mean, here we have UnionDocs, and Mono No Aware, these other groups that commit themselves to that spatial interaction and to that presence.

CW: Your movies feel like something that you need to just go sit in a room somewhere and see projected. There’s this texture to your work, because you’ve shot most of it on analog film cameras.

LS: I totally agree. I also am trying to be not just optimistic about the possibilities that the virtual offers, but that it shifts a kind of elitism that could have happened to the avant-garde. Accidents will happen in the best of ways. George Kuchar loved accidents. He’d shoot a whole roll of film and it’d be overexposed and he’d say, “Great, we’ll call it a snowstorm.”

Anyway, this is not an accident, it’s our destiny to be in this time. And when this period in our lives is over, that we’ll also go back to shared spaces. I kind of think we’ll do both.

CW: I hope so. Especially right now, I think there’s no excuse to not make something just as widely accessible for anybody to see it. Because we’re all just in our houses.

LS: For example, my film Your Day is My Night, which is a part of the retrospective, started as a site-specific installation, and we traveled with it to homeless shelters or community centers for seniors, and we also showed it in museums, and I took it to other countries like China. So it was clunky and big and unwieldy and unpredictable in the real world. And then it became a film, so that you can see it in your living room. But I’m really glad that I did that site-specific work. And in the course of making the film, people saw other parts of New York they’d never seen, and then the people who watched the film saw a side of Chinatown they’d never seen, and we got to talk about that in actual spaces.

CW: Your new film is called Film About a Father Who. Can you talk a little bit about what motivated you to begin this project and what you’d say the film does?

LS: I think it connects to that first question as to why I was drawn to art. Once I was drawn to art and really jumped full on into filmmaking, I saw the practice of shooting and editing and thinking about one movie after another as very much intertwined with my life. So if you said, Lynne, what were you doing in 2001, I could say, oh, I was making Investigation of a Flame —

CW: They’re markers for you.

LS: They’re totally markers. And that probably really became clear to me in the late eighties, early nineties. At the same time, I was trying to understand my relationship to my father, how he had shocked me and my other siblings in many ways, and was also very supportive and a present dad, and how there was a life full of constant contradictions. And I said, okay, maybe if I say I’m making a film about this, to kind of give myself an internal permission to ask my father more and more questions about his life and our relationship, maybe it also opens up this context by which he’ll work with me on something. I’ve found that throughout my life. You work on a project, you become collaborators, and have a kind of commitment. To a great extent, he did that, and I kept working on what everyone called my “dad film,” but I didn’t really know where it was going. I just knew I was trying to make this film as a way to understand another person. That was a deep dive for me, to be able to say, how can this medium help me to understand the way that we understand other people?

CW: So much of your film work is centered on your family, inspired by your family, made with your family. Your brother Ira is also a filmmaker. In Film About a Father Who, you and your siblings talk about a kind of family grammar. Was cinema another shared grammar for you and Ira?

LS: Oh, wow. In many ways, yes. Doing things through a visual practice was also sort of the start. My mother says, “I gave you all a bunch of crayons and that was the beginning.” Ira came to filmmaking more through theater. He did children’s theater. He definitely knew the movies that Betty Grable was in. He was more aware of the movie stars and the newest Hollywood kind of movies. And I was definitely coming at it through experimental film. In a way that gave us a lot of freedom, because it sort of took out the competition. I wasn’t in the same field as him. Or maybe it was the same field, but not the same stadium. Or maybe he was in the stadium, and I was in like, the backyard. (Laughs) It’s actually really fun now, because we can ask each other for advice. I probably ask him more often for advice. I’m the older sister, I should add. So we send each other lists and, “Oh, I think you should definitely see this.” But in a lot of ways our taste is quite different. He wouldn’t necessarily be in conversation with Bradley Eros and Jack Waters, though he knows them. There’s a lot of overlap and then a lot of difference. The other day, he said to me, “All my old work prints, I think I should throw them away.” And I said, “No! No, you can’t.” I understood what old work prints were. I said he’s gotta keep them.

CW: Yeah, please tell him he can’t do that.

LS: I said that I’d store them for him.

CW: So talking about, I guess, extended family, Kirsten Johnson, who is the mom of Ira’s kids, also made a film about her father recently, Dick Johnson is Dead, and I watched her film and your film together–

LS: It’s funny, last night, I was going through my photos on my computer and I found four or five of them with my dad and Dick together. They’re holding hands up in the air, just last year. And I don’t think that will happen again, for health reasons, really. I sent it to Ira and Kirsten late last night while we were watching the [Georgia election] returns. Actually, Ira made a film called Forty Shades of Blue, with Rip Torn, and in a kind of quasi-fictional way, you could say that Rip Torn kind of plays our dad. Though it’s very different, and he’s a music producer, there are similarities…

CW: That’s interesting. So those two films together, yours and Kirsten’s, it’s this kind of diptych of fractured fathers. Kirsten’s film uses fantasy to sort of preserve this image of Dick, and your film is really about a shared narrative of your siblings. It’s a family production in a way. But I watched Dick Johnson with my dad—

LS: Oh, gosh!

CW: Something that he was a bit uncomfortable with — and I understood — is that Dick is very obviously deteriorating mentally. It made me think of questions not necessarily about the nature of the relationship between a father and daughter, but between a documentarian and their subject. Questions of ethics. In your film, your dad doesn’t say too much. And from what I gathered, it’s because he was reluctant to speak about his lifestyle and he would get defensive and omit things. But you also said that he’s getting older and sort of losing his ability to actually speak. I’m just wondering how you thought about that when you were making the film.

LS: What you just said is completely true, about his health and his ability to speak. But I think that that started in his present even before that. For me, the leap in the making of this film was that I decided to look at the world through his eyes — not so much, by the way he explained it and articulated his memories or his interpretations of things — but when I found videotape that he shot. And that became very important to me. That’s an aspect of filmmaking that maybe opened up to me in this film. When you’re looking at another person, you’re also wondering how they’re looking at you. And that tells you as much about the way their mind works. You know, we have this paradigm of the interview. You sit down, and then you ask these questions that you planned, and then you get the words back. But maybe by including the camera as a conduit to understand the mind, you get something very different.

For example, in the film, there’s three parts of the same shot, of three of my siblings on the water, on a little stream. At first, when I saw that footage, I thought, “Well it’s so degraded, it’s on VHS, it was in a garage for 25 years. I can’t use this at all.” And then I looked at it again and I thought, “This is the most important image of the whole film.” Because there is this delicate visual conversation going on through eyes — his eyes looking at them, and he’s sort of bossing them around in an affectionate way, like any dad would do, so it’s kind of a classic gesture, but he leaves the camera on, maybe accidentally. Consequently, to my eye, you get this exquisite, almost Renaissance image of the children moving around in this triangle. And you have these colors that reminded me of the impressionists. it was exactly the opposite of HD where you get things so unmediated, this was very mediated. By time. Our skin is mediated by time. If you were talking about film, you might talk about scratches, but it’s something else that happens to videotapes. And it’s part and parcel with what happens to the body — his body, our bodies, and in film, the body within the image stays the same.

I have those short films with my daughter Maya running around, and she grows older, but the film — like, she’s young, I can still grasp her in that way. And with this, I get three of my siblings, I get my father, and he’s chatty, which he isn’t anymore. And I get to hold on to that. It’s not just a memory, it’s a relic, like in an archaeological way.

CW: That’s really beautiful. Your film with Maya is just gorgeous. I remember seeing it somewhere online. It was so good.

LS: You probably noticed that that’s a kind of love of mine, having a person make a circle around you. There’s this intense gaze, which I kind of insisted on, and so I had her do that at different ages. I actually had my father do that a few times, and my mom. So it’s become a kind of conceit that I find very interesting, because as the filmmaker or shooter, you become dizzy. You become compromised, because if you’re in the center, you get dizzier than if you’re running around somebody. So I think that’s kind of the punishment for making them do it. (Laughs)

CW: And you have to trust that they’ll spot you. Or maybe they won’t. Okay, one last thing — watching Film About A Father Who — it really felt to me not just to be about your father, but about so many different women who were entranced by your father, or around in his orbit, or who felt betrayed by him, and hidden by him—

LS: Including his mother. Yeah. You’re right.

CW: I was really struck by the generosity of space that you give to people like maybe some of his girlfriends that I assume you didn’t know super well, but you guys all have this bond, this shared point which is your dad. And that connection is different to all of the women in the film.

LS: It’s very helpful for me to hear you say that. I think that was the reason I was finally able to make the film. I could make it as a peer with the women. Honestly, I grew older and my father’s girlfriends changed. They didn’t grow older, necessarily (laughs) and so as I grew older, I would think, okay, instead of feeling resentful toward them because they have found themselves in these situations, I need to understand what it means to be this woman at this point in time, and the vulnerability that comes with it, and the expectations, and the need and the desire to change whatever situation is going on in your life. You know, people take different opportunities. And not to see it as opportunistic, but to see it as all of us caught in different webs of attempts to make our lives better or different or possible. And so, you know, as an 18 year old, the first time I went to a therapist was to talk about my dad. And I remember, she said to me, “Oh, God, how can you handle that? That’s terrible. You should talk to your father.” And I didn’t want to be that person. I just had to grow into my own maturity and live my life in a different way. When I finished this movie, I could say that I finally grew up.

CW: Well, nonfiction films, and films like this, you could’ve just kept the perspective in this very personal, subjective place of judgment or anger, and those things are felt in the film, for sure, but I think it’s so nice that you seized this opportunity to bring them into the conversation as much as they wanted to be.

LS: I appreciate your saying that. And it was the same with the two sisters, really. [Ira Sr. had hidden the existence of some of his children from their siblings.] At this second, I’m sitting on the bed where I shot with Julia, and I’d only just met her and Beth. They were other women in this vortex, and I wanted to hear about their lives. When we’re all together, that was most definitely the first time we’d all been together, and probably the third time I’d ever met her.

CW: Wow.

LS: So to hear her speak about her life was definitely a first.

CW: That’s incredible. And for a film to create that opportunity for all of you guys is so wonderful.

LS: It’s so interesting that you say that — to create an opportunity — because actually some really dear friends of my fathers wanted to see the movie, so I let them and they all got together on Zoom, they’re all in their eighties and wanted to talk to me about it. I was really really nervous about it, because I thought they’d be like, “Oh, this isn’t the Ira we knew!” but actually they said, “I wish my daughter would make a movie about me. And that we could go this deep.” And I was so relieved and shocked. Because basically, what they were saying was, this is the life he led, and we live different lives, maybe more expected and typical, but it’s not on film. And it didn’t generate all these conversations and deeper reflections on the part of all the members of our family. As you know, all of us have an ability, a self-conscious or forced amnesia and there’s things that don’t get talked about. And I don’t mean like we should all be in therapy together. I just mean that it’s kind of freeing to talk about things. And something about a movie sort of gives everybody that license. Because you’re doing it together! It’s a collaborative effort and it’s something that everybody deems worth doing.

Stills from Film About a Father Who. All images courtesy of Cinema Guild.