Saturday, February 6th, 2021
By Esther Buss
A conversation with the US filmmaker Lynne Sachs about the importance of the autobiographical in her films
- From the beginning of your career as an artist and filmmaker you were in one way or another present in your films: as a body, as a voice, or with certain‚ chapters’ of your own (family) history. Why was this personal or autobiographical approach important to you, why is it still relevant?
Presence in a film comes in a variety of forms. When I used to cut the actual film footage with a guillotine splicer, I felt that my finger prints on the celluloid were the beginning of my engagement with both the celluloid material and the moment that it signified through the images I had collected with my camera. Of course, that haptic connection has now disappeared with the intervention of the digital. Still, in our current time, every image or sound that you collect, be it your own or a found one, is a document of a thought. During the first decade of my filmmaking practice, almost every film I made included some image of my own body, sometimes clothed, sometimes not. It almost became a joke in my family. ”Oh, there she is again!” But, for me, this was a way to subvert the subject/object paradigm of the camera. I needed to flow back and forth, as if through the mechanism of the lens itself. The presence of my body paralleled the presence of my words, whether experienced aurally as voice-over or on the screen through my hand-written gesture. Today, we all recognize the inundation of media in our lives. With the sensation of feeling this material as either an assault or caress (depending on your mood as you scroll through your cell phone just before going to sleep at night), each of us must find a way to register awareness and critique.
- Although you choose a personal approach, you represent yourself (and others) more in a fragmented way than as ‚authentic’ characters. What is the idea behind this?
Seeing my work through your eyes is a revelation, actually. I would not have articulated my approach this way, and yet I completely agree with your assessment. I have never identified with storytelling and, in turn, the effort to create a character. This homage to narrative tradition I find reductive and limiting, in the same way that I would find writing a conventional feature film script to be deeply restrictive. One of the words I despise most in today’s parlance is the word “template”. When I discovered that there are templates for writing feature film screenplays, I felt like weeping. When one uses the word “personal” to describe their work, I think they are claiming ownership for all aspects of the creative process, from the structure to the content. Yes, I do feel an affinity for a more fragmented depiction of another person because I want to make clear that my ability to understand is determined by my point of view. These fissures give someone watching the film the possibility of providing the glue, the connections, the linkages that always circle back to their own life experiences.
- How do you deal with the double position of being the author and the figure of your films at the same time?
Sometimes I make films that are very clearly an outgrowth of my own identity as a white Jewish woman born in the United States in 1961. I can’t change any of that and I can’t simply hide one part and flaunt another. Other times, I make films that don’t make those ingredients so apparent, even though they are always there. Even when my voice, my writing or my body are not there, we all know that my position is influencing every decision I make, how person is framed, how a sound is heard, which music is included, which images are given the space to thrive and which are punished for their very existence.
- When speaking about her autifictional novel The Cost of Living, the British writer Deborah Levy characterized her literary (female) subject as a person who is not herself, but who is ‚close’ to her. Who are you in your films?
Deborah Levy’s sense of her own presence in her work is very intriguing, even candid. This reminds of a cultural theory observation by filmmaker, poet and teacher Trinh T. Minh-ha in her essay “Speaking Nearby” (1992) which I quote here:
“There is not much, in the kind of education we receive here in the West, that emphasizes or even recognizes the importance of constantly having contact with what is actually within ourselves, or of understanding a structure from within ourselves. The tendency is always to relate to a situation or to an object as if it is only outside of oneself. Whereas elsewhere, in Vietnam, or in other Asian and African cultures for example, one often learns to “know the world inwardly,” so that the deeper we go into ourselves, the wider we go into society.”
Trinh was a professor of mine in graduate school. I am convinced that her practice of transposing her understanding of herself to her earnest, but always recognizably incomplete, effort to project on others had an enormous impact on my work.
- In your films about family members like your father in Film About a Father Who (2020) or The Last Happy Day (2009), which tells of a distant cousin of yours, you sometimes seem to dissolve as the authorial voice, or to put it another way, you pass on your voice – for example to your siblings or children. Is this also a form of giving up some of the power that one has as a narrative authority?
Hmmmm. This makes me think very hard about my process. That’s what a good interview does. Thank you for giving me this chance to be introspective. On one level, I am very committed to a non-hierarchical way of working, one that does not privilege my perspective over another person’s. On another level, perhaps I am ashamed of expressing my thoughts or feelings in a singular voice so I depend on others to prop me up. Both of these films are part of a triptych of films, the third of which is States of UnBelonging (2005). The intention with this three-part endeavor was to grapple with the ways we can and cannot understand another human being. States of UnBelonging looks at a woman in Israel-Palestine who was total stranger to me. The Last Happy Day is a fragmented portrait of a distance relative, so one degree closer, in a way, to me. Film About a Father Who is, obviously, about my dad. That was supposed to be the easiest, and ultimately it was the most difficult. Closeness and intimacy somehow became an obstacle. I end up relying on others to give me clarity.
- In A Month of Single Frames, your film with images, sounds and notes by the now deceased experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer, I was very taken with your expanding the First Person Singular. What gave you the idea of this grammatical shift?
Oh, I am thrilled to be talking about voice, language and grammar all in one question. In A Month of Single Frames I decided that I would use the expanded Second Person that includes an ambiguous “you”. It could be the “you” that we usually find in a correspondence with another person. Or, it could be the “you” that embraces all of us in one sweeping address. When I write the word you, the viewer might think I am talking to Barbara Hammer, who is no longer alive but through cinema can be included in this dialogue. Or, the viewer may feel that I am addressing them. It’s kind of wonderfully unclear, which might be an accident or might be intentional. I will never tell.
This is how I see you. This is how you see yourself.
You are here. I am here with you.
This place is still this place. This place is no longer this place. It must be different.
You are alone. I am here with you in this film. There are others here with us. We are all together.
Time less yours mine
(On Screen text by Lynne Sachs from A Month of Single Frames)
- For some time, personal or autobiographical narratives are strongly present in documentary filmmaking. How would you explain the strong interest in the personal in these times?
My interpretation of this current enthusiasm for the personal narrative has to do with our interest in knowing who is speaking to us. So much media in our lives is delivered to us without this clarity of positionality. We are forced to discern and to guess how who someone is affects what they are saying to us. Maybe it is refreshing to have this kind of transparency.