Lynne Sachs on Film About a Father Who and a career of personal filmmaking
By ORLA SMITH
OCTOBER 16, 2021
Eight films by Lynne Sachs premiered on the Criterion Channel this week, including her new feature, Film About a Father Who. We sat down to discuss the decades long process of making a film about her father, and how that project relates to her other films about family.
In the 1980s, documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs started filming her father, Ira Sachs, a gregarious, womanising businessman. Now, three decades later, she’s finally finished making Film About a Father Who, a sprawling chronicle of her father’s life, and the children, wives, and girlfriends he left in his wake. That includes Lynne, her sister Dana, and her brother Ira Jr. (also a filmmaker). It also includes the six other children that their father had with various different women.
The film opens with the innocent scene of a daughter, Lynne, combing her aging father’s hair in the present day. His hair is greying, and he’s mostly silent, save for an “ouch” when she tugs a little too hard on a tangled strand. Sachs then cuts to old footage of her father skiing down a slope while taking phone calls, the epitome of a businessman who doesn’t waste a second of time; it’s a stark contrast from the image of him as an older man, being taken care of by his adult daughter. Now that her father’s life has slowed to a more measured pace, Sachs uses this film to reflect on the man who shaped her life, for both good and bad.“I wanted to make a film about my father because I thought he was an iconoclast, a rule breaker,” Sachs explained to me. “But he was also not transparent to me. I was interested in the method by which we can understand another human being at all.”
The film received its streaming premiere this week on the Criterion Channel, along with seven other short and mid-length films by Sachs. Aside from two films — The Washing Society (co-directed by Lizzie Olesker, 2018) and E•pis•to•lar•y: Letter to Jean Vigo (2021)— they’re all films that Sachs made about and/or with her family. Watching them all — Which Way is East (1994), The Last Happy Day (2009), Wind in Our Hair (2010), Girl is Presence (2020), and Maya at 24 (2021) — I came to know, at least on some level, Sachs’s family unit. I saw her two daughters, Noa and Maya, grow up on screen over the course of several films. I observed Sachs’s relationship to her sister Dana in Which Way is East. I witnessed her try to unravel the legacy of her distant cousin Sandor Lenard in The Last Happy Day.
Film About a Father Who feels like a culmination of this family-focused work; it’s ambitious, attempting to take in the whole scope of Ira Sachs Sr.’s life. In non-chronological fragments, through footage spanning from the present day back to 1965, Sachs seeks to understand the complicated, unknowable figure of her father. In the end, the film doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive character study of Ira Sachs Sr.; Sachs realises that she has only so much access to her father’s mind, especially now that his declining health means that he can’t speak that much. Instead, she works with what she does have: access to herself, and to an extent, her siblings, to examine the bruises that a father leaves on his children, and how they attempt to heal.
Film About a Father Who is an archival film, of sorts, but it’s mostly Sachs’s own personal archive of footage she shot for the film over the course of decades. So much time has passed since the early footage was shot, some of which Sachs didn’t look at for thirty years, that the process of editing felt more like diving into and interpreting an archive than the traditional process of editing new footage shot specifically for a documentary. Some of it was shot on old, grainy video cameras. Some of it was shot during the editing process, with glossy digital cameras. The result is a film that’s a hodgepodge of different styles, in which the passage of time is visible in the way the quality of the footage jumps back and forth. The runtime is only seventy-three minutes, but Sachs manages to evoke the passing of several decades, and the way people and relationships shift in that time, so completely.
To celebrate her Criterion Channel retrospective, I spoke with Lynne Sachs about a career of personal filmmaking and the lessons she’s learned along the way. She told me about the decades-long process of making Film About a Father Who. I also asked her about one of my favourite films in the program, The Washing Society, a forty-five minute fiction/nonfiction hybrid that documents the lives of laundromat workers across New York City.
As well as the Criterion Channel program, Sachs’s film Your Day is My Night (2014), which she references throughout this interview, is currently on Mubi in Canada and the US.
Seventh Row (7R): Could you tell me about your journey to becoming a nonfiction filmmaker?
Lynne Sachs: I came to filmmaking with a background in photography and poetry. I also had a deep investment in being involved with politics in some way; to participate in the world, [rather than] extricate myself from the world, through my practice of art making. It seemed to me, in my twenties, that [filmmaking was] this vessel into which I could throw all of those impulses.
And then, [I discovered that] there was such a thing as filmmaking that wasn’t following a template, that didn’t have the baggage [that comes with] the ambition to reach a kind of commercial stature. It was parallel to writing a poem, or to shooting a series of photographs. It also gave you this license to ask questions and to knock on doors that you might normally feel intimidated by. I always liked that, in filmmaking, you could issue your own license. You didn’t have to be a journalist with an affiliation with a bonafide news agency. You could follow your impulse and curiosity, and you could shape it in a way that was very inventive and personal.
I was influenced by Maya Deren, for example. She made her work, which she called film poems, but then she traveled with them. She had these interactions [with people who saw the film], and I thought that was pretty inspiring.
7R: The kind of work you do, making experimental and often personal nonfiction films, is being talked about a lot lately. But when you were first making films in the eighties and nineties, it was a bit more underground.
Lynne Sachs: When I first created my website, and I wrote ‘experimental documentary,’ it was sort of an odd combo. It was almost like an oxymoron, like, no, those couldn’t go together. But now, there really is a belief in that. There’s also the notion of it not being exclusively nonfiction, either; that you could have this hybrid work where you bring in something that is invented.
7R: You’ve made dozens and dozens of films; I only saw a cross section of eight of them that have been programmed on the Criterion Channel. What do you feel this curated group of eight films shows about your work?
Lynne Sachs: I was truly awed by the commitment to creating a really unpredictable but revealing program by Penelope Bartlett, who’s the programming director at the Criterion Channel. I’ve never met her, and I’ve actually never had a telephone conversation with her, but we’ve had extensive correspondence. For an artist of any medium, to have a dialogue with a curator with their own vision is so special. And it’s very important for shorter films. How those films speak to each other is similar to how a framed canvas in a gallery on one wall speaks to the other wall. It’s this subtle development of a thesis or an idea.
She watched a lot of my films. I actually sent her links for all of them. That’s forty films! She came up with an idea [of programming films] in relation to my new feature film, Film About a Father Who. She wanted to think about the way that this medium, in a sense, is an extension of the home movie; it’s part of your domestic universe. It’s also a way to bring a different perspective to the notion of family and what a parent gives to a child.
I have plenty of other films, so she could have followed up different kinds of themes, like around feminism, or around politics, but she chose that one. It allowed her to bring in the film that I made in the nineties with my sister, Dana, Which Way is East, which is actually kind of a discourse on the politics of US presence in Vietnam. But it’s also a film about two sisters who find shared interests and differences [with each other].
Also, she chose some of my most recent work. The most recent film in that program, which is called E•pis•to•lar•y: Letter to Jean Vigo, is my response to the attack on the US capital.
I should say, not all the films have a family element. Two of them don’t, because those two films connect to some other films on the Criterion Channel. So I’m glad she wasn’t rigid about her theme either. E•pis•to•lar•y: Letter to Jean Vigo is a film that is, in essence, in conversation with the great, visionary narrative French filmmaker Jean Vigo. One of his most famous films was called Zero for Conduct. It’s from 1933, and it’s about some little boys in a very authoritarian prep school who revolt against the teachers. They include Zero for Conduct in their programming, so it’ll be an interesting juxtaposition.
The Washing Society is not about family; it’s a film about labour, underappreciated work, and the nature of city life, specifically around a [laundromat]. That will be screened with a film called Clotheslines (Robert Cantow, 1981), which is a hallmark film of that [era of] feminism.
7R: Let’s talk about your new film, Film About a Father Who. I really loved it. I’m very curious to hear about the process of making it, because it was shot over several decades. How did your idea of what the project would be shift from the beginning of the filmmaking process to the end?
Lynne Sachs: It’s very interesting to think about how tender we are in relation to the work that we create. You might feel that way about an article that you write, if you’re very proud of it and you threw your soul and your mind into it. Part of this impulse that we have is we want to be liked. We want to be appreciated. But we are willing to take the risk that we won’t be.
Film About a Father Who is a film that took me to the most vulnerable place I’ve ever been with my work. That was one of the reasons that it took me so long to make it, because I was intimidated by it. I had this feeling that I didn’t want to go there. I don’t want to be in the mindset of the child who feels scared, the child who feels angry, the child who needs to find forgiveness. So if I decided that I didn’t want to make it, then I would just shoot it and put the tapes under the bed, or in a suitcase as I was moving from California to New York. It had to move around with me.
There were aesthetic issues that were so discouraging for a while, which was that technology was improving, supposedly, and technology was making the shooting process easier and more precise and more accurate. I would look back at the footage I’d shot and I was very dismissive of it. I thought that it was so degraded, like maybe I hadn’t stored it properly. As I was finishing what I thought was the shooting process and really starting with the editing process in 2017 or 2018, I started to think of the material like a body. It’s more somatic. The fact that it had aged might be a good thing. Like our bodies, it showed its lines and its wrinkles. That textural relationship became important.
7R: Did you have any specific intention when you began the process?
Lynne Sachs: I wanted to make a film about my father because I thought he was an iconoclast, a rule breaker. But he was also not transparent to me. And [at that time] I didn’t even know the extent to which he wasn’t transparent. In a more epistemological way, I was interested in the method by which we can understand another human being at all.
I made two other films that are what I would call a triptych [with Film About a Father Who], although I’ve never shown them all together. It’s a triptych on finding that awareness of another human being. Maybe one day I’ll have a chance to show the three together, and I’ll really be able to develop that idea with an audience.
Two of them are in the program [Film About a Father Who and The Last Happy Day]. The Last Happy Day is a film about a relative of mine, so I felt a kind of closeness to him. He had written all of these letters, and I felt like I could get into his head. In a way, it’s easier to get into someone’s head who’s a letter writer, or a writer of any kind, than a person you might even live with, because the gesture of writing gives you access to the way someone thinks.
Then, I made a film about a total stranger called States of UnBelonging (2005) [which is part of the triptych but not in the Criterion Channel program]. It’s a film that looks at a woman filmmaker, who was also a mother, who lived on the border between Israel and the West Bank, and had really worked hard for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And then, she died in a terrorist act. It’s an essay film about land, and the ways that people exploit each other for that kind of ownership. It’s a film that ponders politics.
The film that should have been the easiest, the one I thought I would finish by the mid-nineties, was a film about the person I should have known best, but who was the hardest to know, and that’s my own father.
7R: How did you know when to stop shooting and start editing Film About a Father Who?
Lynne Sachs: A big part of making Film About a Father Who was tackling my personal archive. It also pushed me to go into the garage in my dad’s house or to contact old friends and get some materials and photographs. It pushes you to do things you don’t think you have the desire to do or the time to.
I knew that the editing process was going to be very challenging, not just on the level of organization, because any archival film is that way, but emotionally challenging. I decided to work with a woman named Rebecca Shapass. She’d been a student of mine at NYU, where I taught for a number of years; I’m not there anymore. She’d taken an experimental film class with me, and I really liked her.
She started to come over, and we would look at the material. I had to organise digitising it, because that hadn’t happened before. That was a big project. We did it together: we created an Excel sheet, and then we watched it all. She was never judgmental. I would transcribe what was going on, and she would be sitting at the computer. She actually did all the work with the Premiere Pro program. I was just sitting there. I was able to have a big picture distance.
7R: What was it like watching all that footage back? Did the way you perceived things change?
Lynne Sachs: I’m watching it with this young woman [Rebecca Shapass] who’s the same age as my older daughter, so I felt this correspondence with my daughter, but also with myself, because she’s about the age that I was when I started shooting. I was about twenty-five years old.
We would look at it together, and we would see things that revealed something beyond the context. I’ve always had this sense that in conventional documentary, everything is about exposition. If you introduce an idea, it has to be contextualised. At first, I thought I had to contextualise everything [in Film About a Father Who]. But doing that became very explicit and very much only about my family. But not contextualised, it became a series of fragments that allow you to understand a dynamic in a family that might be like your family.
We decided that, in the first year of editing, which was 2018, we would make twelve short, experimental documentaries, and not worry about what vertebrae was holding it all together. And then, in 2019, we pulled those all apart and started to define relationships.
As soon as we decided that it wasn’t a film that was trying to create one thesis that would leave you with a sense of completion, but would open up questions, then it was really exhilarating. We’d find, let’s say, the end of a roll of a VHS tape that ends up becoming all black and white and kind of static-y and broken up. And then we said, Oh, but there’s dad in there. And that became a really primary image: all the colour and the detail are taken away, and it becomes a father, not just Lynne’s father, but a parent. And [it visually shows how] you’re grabbing on, trying to understand your parent, but they are also living their own lives.
7R: I’m very curious about how you approached creating the structure for Film About a Father Who. It’s not at all chronological, and there’s so much footage. It must have taken a while to get your head around it all.
Lynne Sachs: It’s interesting that you bring up structure. I’m not a linguist or an anthropologist, but I am very interested in how grammar works. I talk about that a lot in the film, but I never would have said that this is a film about language and grammar five years ago. It came to me in the process of going through the material. I thought about how I’m both similar to my father — I appreciate his brazenness and his lack of a super ego — but I also think that it comes with a lot of pain for everyone around him.
I started thinking about language as a way that we have connections with other people; some people construct their own language, and some people play by the rules of language. And then every family has its own language. That was a really important discovery of mine. There’s a scene in the film in which my sister Dana, my brother Ira, and I are sitting around, talking about how mom is commas and periods and dad is the question marks and exclamation marks. That was a documentary gift. Once we had that conversation, I started to understand that as a trope of the film.
If I didn’t shoot [a piece of footage in the film] myself, then my brother Ira shot it, or my father shot it, or Rebecca shot it. I really love the material that my dad shot, because he’s not very communicative about what’s going on in his head, which is kind of to be expected for a lot of men of his generation. They don’t have access to the words to talk about emotions. Having access to the videos that he shot gave me a way to understand his thinking: how he wanted to frame the world, what he wanted to say, what he cherished.
That’s why I include a scene three times in the film of three of my siblings playing in the water [shot by my father]. It’s a seven minute [shot], probably from a tripod, [and he probably] even forgot the camera was on, but you hear this banter between a dad and the children. Some of it’s admonishing, and some of it’s just playful. All the colours have sort of faded into these pastel colours. To me, it’s this glorious essence of a dynamic between a father and his children. I wanted to include that as a way of saying, this person sees the world with compassion but also has created an enormous amount of pain.
7R: Could you tell me about the scene towards the end of the film where, for the first time, we see you and all your siblings in a room together, having a conversation. It seemed like it was shot pretty recently.
Lynne Sachs: Yes, that was a late addition that I resisted. I shot it at the end of 2017. It was the first time we were all in the same room. One of my sisters was [calling in from] a cell phone, but it was the feeling of being in the same room.
I asked two friends of mine, who are professionals, to shoot it because I was in it. When I got the material back, I couldn’t stand it because it was shot in this very professional way. We had two perspectives at the same time. They had a certain way of lensing it [that I felt the fact that] they weren’t part of it. There wasn’t that visceral connection. So I said it was a disaster. I couldn’t connect to its polish. I had to watch it over and over again. And then, I had to tell myself that it was vital to the film. It had an emotional rawness like I didn’t have anywhere else in the film. We had to make it work.
7R: The film is a hodgepodge of different styles, but I think that’s kind of nice, because you feel the passage of time really strongly through the way the quality of the footage is shifting.
Lynne Sachs: I think that’s true. And I think that audiences today are able to do several different things. They’re able to, as we would say, multitask. Well, hopefully not do something else at the same time as they’re watching the film, but they’re able to process multiple terrains. You’re processing this as a narrative of a family, but you’re also processing it as different media textures that actually reflect how our society is witnessed through a camera for basically fifty years. It starts with Super 8 footage from 1965 when my brother was born, and then it goes all the way up to 2019. You’re seeing an American family that way.
7R: This film is made with your family and is about your family. As you’ve said, a lot of your films are made in collaboration with your family. What draws you to that kind of filmmaking?
Lynne Sachs: I think there’s too much of an emphasis, especially in documentary, on the location that was hard to get to, or a person that everyone else can’t believe you actually were able to talk with. In Agnès Varda’s film Faces Places (2017), in the last scene, she tries to go to visit Jean-Luc Godard. He doesn’t open the door for her. I actually think that is so lovely, and so, so revealing, and so much about the lack of control that happens with nonfiction filmmaking. Usually, people don’t show that they don’t have control. They always want to emphasise that they accomplished this, they got to the war zone, they were able to buy the plane ticket, all of those kinds of things.
That’s worthy of pride. But also, if you can turn your capabilities for insight or exploration to something that’s very available, it’s quite interesting, too. In 2013, I made a film called Your Day is My Night. It’s a film I made in Chinatown with a group of people who live in shift bed houses, meaning one person’s there in the day, another person is there in the night. I made it over a couple of years. It was a live performance, kind of like The Washing Society; the live performance became a film.
It started me on this commitment of making films in New York. I didn’t need to buy an airplane ticket;there was so much to explore here. With The Washing Society, we could go to those same laundromats over and over and eat meals with people, even when we weren’t in production. And I don’t think you have to have a big metropolis like this [to make these kinds of films].
7R: Has making a film about your father changed your relationship with him? Or changed the way that you think about your relationship?
Lynne Sachs: I think he really appreciated that I made the movie and that I wanted to spend that much time with him. He came to the premiere in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, and actually, his health has declined quite a bit [since then]. I think the film was a recognition that he lived a life, and a full life.
It’s actually created a lot of communication with old friends, people calling up. His fraternity brothers asked me [if they could] watch the film last year. He was in a fraternity in the 1950s. They call themselves The Boys of 1954. There’s only seven people left from that group.
I was very nervous because I thought they were going to see this side of my dad and they’re going to be very judgmental or shocked. Instead, they said to me, “I wish my daughter made a movie about me!” They knew that a project like this comes with all the flaws that a person has. It is the life he chose to live.
7R: I guess it’s easy to forget, but having a film made about you is pretty amazing.
Lynne Sachs: Yeah, that’s what they said! I had a friend who’s in his eighties, pretty much the same age as my dad, and he was extremely critical of my father. He can be, because it could have been his life. That’s something I’ve had to accept, that people will be judgmental. I’m judgmental. I have rage about a lot of things. But in the end, through the film, I’ve found a place from which I can grow up. When I finished the movie, I said, okay, that part of my life, that fraught ambiguity and that anger at situations that made me feel out of control [has come to a close]. I can now shape my own life.
7R: It must be an interesting experience to share a film that’s so personal in a cinema and be with people as they watch it, which you got to do a few times before the pandemic.
Lynne Sachs: It’s actually opened up conversations that I could not have imagined. It’s not specifically or exclusively with women, but talking about that dynamic between a daughter and father or the ways that a man can hide different parts of his life, and women can’t. Actually, a lot of people have talked to me and written emails, including men who had equally fraught, layered, and bruising experiences. It’s been a revelation in that way. Artists or people in the audience write me these really beautiful letters, and it shifts pretty quickly to their own life. I’m happy about that.
I showed the film in a documentary class, virtually. There was a woman there, a young woman, who said that she’d always wanted to make a film about her relationship to her father, but she was so ashamed. It’s kind of a mythic thing, that ability to grow into who you are from where you came from, and then also to find a way to articulate your feelings about it.
I have a friend called Alan Berliner, he’s a really great documentary filmmaker. While I was making the film, he said something to me about that impulse to try to understand a parent better. He said, it’s not like either of us has a renowned father, a painter father or an author. That would be a different movie. He said, we’re just trying to understand relationships. People don’t necessarily want to know about our dads, but they want to know about the process of a child and a parent. Novels are written about those things. Poems are written. In a way, I think the title gives that suggestion: Film About a Father Who. It’s a play on the grammar of a clause not being completed, but then you can complete it, actually, maybe with your backstory.
I think, in narrative filmmaking, there’s this emphasis on meeting the script: the script is offered, and can you deliver on the script? In nonfiction filmmaking, there is often the impulse to meet the thesis; meet the thing that you’re trying to say. People say, do we have the footage to prove this? Sometimes, that realisation that you don’t have the footage opens up the artistic process, and you say, okay, how do we talk about absence? How do we acknowledge these fissures? I think audiences can do that. You supply what is not there through your imagination.
7R: And even if it doesn’t end up being enough to be a great film, it’s still a great family photo album.
Lynne Sachs: I thought that’s what I was doing. I didn’t think that many people would watch this film. I was just committed to getting it out of my system. [I thought] I’ve got to finish this movie, because then I can go on to chapter three of my life or something like that, you know? (laughs)
7R: On the flip side, you’ve also been filming your daughters for years. Does it feel like you have the best family photo album you could possibly have?
Lynne Sachs: It’s true that when I look at, for example, Girl is Presence, the film with my daughter Noa, I feel that that is our articulation of the pandemic, in this strange way. I decided to make a movie with a poet, Anne Lesley Selcer, [while I was] living in New York during this harrowing time and my adult daughters had moved back home. I don’t want to walk around shooting at all. I have a house full of plastic gloves and old objects from my life. I responded to her poem and created a tabletop film.
Now, I’m very excited by tabletop films. It has just occurred to me, I would like to teach a workshop on tabletop films.
7R: Oh, yeah, that would be interesting.
Lynne Sachs: Like I said, I think there’s too much emphasis on the hard-to-attain location. There are so many great objects in your house. You can say a tube of toothpaste is a great object, depending on what you do with it, or the fabric you might put under it. I had these old shark’s teeth that a crazy boyfriend had given me so I thought I’d do something with that. They have this suggestion of violence, but they’re not really violent.
7R: Your films aren’t commercial in the traditional sense. Some of them have a tangible purpose, like The Washing Society, which can be used in an instructive, political way. I know you’ve said that you’ve screened it for organisations. But you’ve also made a lot of short, personal films with your family. Are you making those films for yourself? Are you making films for your family? Are you making films for an audience? What drives you to create?
Lynne Sachs: I get… let’s say joy. Life is the pursuit of joy. I get joy from the mode of communication that happens between two people. I get a lot of pleasure from exchanging something that I’ve made with someone else, to give them a new way of thinking. And then they share their new way of thinking back to me. That gives me joy. It’s not something I can hold on to. It’s not a tactile thing. But it can be a celebration of an object, or a celebration of something that makes us feel like life is worth living.
For example, I’ll talk about Wind in Our Hair. I made that film in Buenos Aires in 2008, during a time when there was a lot of tension around access to food and there was a lot of political tension. I didn’t really understand it. We went there because I knew people from going to the Buenos Aires Film Festival. My daughters were pretty young. I was teaching, so was my husband, so we had the summer off. We went to spend a few months in Argentina.
We could have just said, oh, we’re in Argentina, and we’re meeting Argentine people, and we’re learning the language. But to make a film there created a relationship with those other children [who are in the film alongside my daughters] and with a group of incredibly talented Argentine filmmakers who worked with me on the project. Then, we had a reason to meet every weekend to shoot with the girls. We would socialise, and we were making something together. All of that made that period of time in my life all the richer, because any time you have an endeavour with somebody that you all feel super committed to, it’s very exciting.
7R: Is it almost just as much about the process as the finished film?
Lynne Sachs: Hopefully, that process gives back. When I made Which Way is East in Vietnam with my sister, it was also a reason to understand the war in Vietnam through Vietnamese people’s eyes. I actually was a history major in college, so I was trying to understand how we could create a revisionist history. A US perspective on that war, which was a long and very destructive war, was not enough for me. So intellectually, a trip with my sister was also an opportunity to think about that legacy.
7R: I wanted to ask about The Washing Society, because I really, really liked that film. It was one of my favourites in the selection. It’s very different to a lot of the films of yours in the program, because it’s not about yourself or your family, and there are a lot of elements of dramatising and performance in it. What was that process like?
Lynne Sachs: I think when you see Your Day is My Night, you might see some similarities, too. There is a convention in documentary filmmaking of witnessing the other. Is that someone who’s different socio-economically? Is it a person who’s different racially? Is it a person who’s of a different generation? It’s a constant, deep question, and it’s not new to 2021. People were thinking about this a lot, about identity, politics, and the camera, going back a long time. It’s the question of, who am I to look at you?
For example, a woman named Trinh T. Minh-ha, she’s a Vietnamese-American thinker, theorist, and filmmaker. She made a film in 1985 called Reassemblage. She made it in Senegal, but she’s an Asian woman looking at Black culture in Africa. She makes it very transparent that she is aware of her outsider-ness, and also that she’s trying to celebrate a culture different from her own. She was actually a professor of mine at graduate school, so she left a big impact.
When I started making Your Day is My Night, I decided that I needed to be very involved with the community, and that moved over to The Washing Society. We were shooting in laundromats all over New York. and we were aware that the people we were shooting were mostly undocumented. We didn’t want to film them when that made them uncomfortable, because now their presence in America was documented. That opened up this hole, in both films, like a way of working that brings in fiction, because it’s freeing. The people in front of your camera can start to play with the process and become collaborators with you. That was a big shift.
We took comments, like when someone said, “I fold 1,000 pieces of laundry in one day, so that means in a week, I’ve done 7,000 folds.” Oh my god, there’s the math. We call it laundry math.
We wanted to create something that articulated that, which had to do with the body and the gestures of that folding. So we did lots of rehearsals, and we performed a piece, which was actually called Every Fold Matters. It was a live performance for two years, 2015 to 2017.
I said to Lizzie Olesker, my collaborator [on that project], who is a playwright, that maybe we should make a movie. It took another year and a half. And now, we’re actually making a book. The title is going to be Hand Book: A Manual. It’s about labour, but it’s also a manual for creating performance work in so-called real places.
7R: How do you think about sound design in your work?
Lynne Sachs: Oh, I’m so glad you asked that! I’ve noticed that I can edit the image maybe in a year, but then I’ll spend two years on the soundtrack, because I want it to be layered. I want it to be, as they say, contrapuntal. I want it to be both of the place, but also suggesting other things that are outside of the camera.
I’ve worked on six films with a man named Stephen Vitiello, who is a sound artist very interested in sound in gallery spaces, and also theatrical spaces without image. He’ll do sound performances. He’s just a marvelous artist. When I was making Your Day is My Night, I reached out to him. He lives in Virginia. I asked if there was anyone in New York who does sound work like you, because he doesn’t work on films almost at all. He’s a sound artist. He said, let’s just work at a distance from each other.
In fact, he has now released two albums of the soundtracks from all the films we’ve worked together on. You could just listen to it while you take a walk.
I worked recently with a man named Kevin T. Allen, who did the sound mix for Film About a Father Who. When I was making Maya at 24, he came to my mind. I sent him some little recordings that Maya and I made together, just kind of mom and daughter hanging out. He created this musical piece. That film is traveling a bit now, and you have to fill out these forms. They say, do you have subtitles? I love writing that there’s no dialogue. There is dialogue, but it’s just treated as sound.
7R: Are you doing that just after the picture edit, or while the picture is being edited?
Lynne Sachs: We go back and forth. I never just finish the image and then do the soundtrack, because sometimes, Stephen would create these sound pieces I loved so much that then I had to meet him with the image.
7R: I’m always very curious to hear how nonfiction filmmakers choose to label their work. I tend to like the term creative nonfiction, but not everyone loves it.
Lynne Sachs: The only reason I don’t like creative nonfiction is because it defines us by what we’re not. It’s kind of like when you say you’re an atheist. It means God exists for some people, but not for me; I’m against theology or theism. We’re all constantly positioning ourselves against what we are not.
So does nonfiction work? Really, reality came before fiction! (laughs) They should be defining themselves by not being documentaries! But I don’t really like documentary, per se. The term I’ve used is experimental documentary. But then, I will say, if you come up with a better term, I might take it.
7R: That’s so funny because that’s exactly what Kirsten Johnson said to me! And I know she’s part of your family. [Johnson is a co-parent with Lynne Sachs’s brother Ira Sachs and his husband, Boris Torres.] She said that she doesn’t like nonfiction because it’s a negatively defined word, and if I come up with a better word, let her know.
Lynne Sachs: Oh! Do you know how Kirsten and I know each other?
7R: Yes I do. I’ve talked to Kirsten a few times, and I saw the wonderful Q&A you did with her and your brother earlier this year.
Lynne Sachs: Yeah, that was a lot of fun. We have this really nice picture of Dick Johnson and Iris Sachs senior together, actually, from Park City last year when the films [Dick Johnson is Dead and Film About a Father Who] premiered [at Sundance]. For both of them, things have changed with their health, I’ll say. It’s been very special to know her, the last twelve years. Their kids are now nine, but I met her two years before [they were born].
7R: What are you working on next?
Lynne Sachs: I actually just finished a two-and-a-half minute movie that a really wonderful musician asked me to make. She gave me just a few weeks. That was really fun. It’s called Figure & I.
And then, I’m working on an essay film that I’ve been thinking about for many years. It’s kind of in contrast to the idea of making a film about your family. The title right now is Every Contact Leaves a Trace, which is a term that comes out of forensic studies. I have this box — it’s in the other room — of about five hundred business cards. I’ve collected them from people who worked in hardware stores or at doctor’s appointment or from filmmakers I met at film festivals or Chinese activists I met at the Chinese Women’s Film Festival, which now doesn’t exist anymore in China.
I’m interested in the way their lives pass through mine, like a little trace or an impact. But I’m also interested in those cards as material objects: the fingerprints on them, and also the labour that went into making the paper. I’ve been doing some shooting in a small, artisanal paper factory. I actually did some shooting in a forensics lab where they took cards and told me what they could find from them, beyond the font and beyond somebody’s website.
I even shot with my niece and nephew, Viva and Felix. They’re Ira, Kirsten, and Boris’s children. You saw them in Dick Johnson is Dead. I actually had them over here. I had a stack of the cards, and they made up stories [by imagining] that they got the group of people together and had a dinner party. It was like a dramatic play kind of thing.
It’s great to do with children because they don’t look at the cards and say, oh, this person is educated, or this person is from another country. You would look at the cards and say, this must be fairly recent, this person has an email. Or, oh, look at this! This phone number doesn’t even have an area code, what does that mean? [But children] have different registers for understanding it. It’s a hoot to have them play act with those cards. It’s like a documentary, but it also, I hope, invites people who are involved to collaborate with me and think about things.
Lynne Sachs’s films are now on the Criterion Channel.
You could be missing out on opportunities to watch great films like Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who at virtual cinemas, VOD, and festivals.