Conversation with Mania Akbari and Lynne Sachs
April 4, 2023
Conversation between Mania Akbari and Lynne Sachs
Mania: You are an American experimental filmmaker and poet based in Brooklyn, New York. Strongly committed to a dialogue between cinematic theory and practice, you search for a rigorous play between image and sound, pushing the visual and aural textures in each new project. Over the course of your career, you worked closely with fellow filmmakers Craig Baldwin, Bruce Conner, Barbara Hammer, Chris Marker, Gunvor Nelson, Carolee Schneemann, and Trinh T. Min-ha. Could you let me know what is the form of cinematic dialogue you bring to working with moving images? What is the relationship between sound and images in your works?
Lynne: Sometime very soon, I am going to return to my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee to shoot a film that will be part of an omnibus collection of projects that are currently being created to examine the shrinking of women’s rights in the United States. As you may know, women have had the right to stop their own pregnancies in this country for decades, but recently this country has been swept up by conservative, misogynistic legal changes that have made it impossible to obtain an abortion in many states. So what is an angry, frustrated filmmaker to do in this situation? I decided to join a group of artists who are acting collectively to “speak out” against this form of oppression. I bring this charged situation up with you now because of the formal, structural nature of this endeavour. Each of us will shoot silent footage of a women’s health clinic in a “RED” (ie Republican-dominated) state which at one time provided abortion services, but now no longer does because of recent restrictive legislation. The surgical procedure is legally forbidden in the state, forcing women to go to another more welcoming clinic across a state line perhaps hours or days away. We will then add a separate voice-over from a recording we will do with a health care provider (like a nurse or a doctor) or a woman who was unable to obtain an abortion. What makes this construct so interesting is the fissure between the sound and the image that will be the same in all of the projects. Together, all of the artist participants in the project are committing themselves to moving away from the more conventional, sound-image marriage in the documentary where what you see is also what you hear. Honestly, we are bringing a rigor to our process that follows the way that I have worked pretty much all of my life as a filmmaker. Yes, it is often more “dramatic” to see a synchronous interview, but is it as conceptual, or thought-provoking? By constructing a third, cinematic reality through the juxtaposition of two disparate aural and visual experiences, we will offer our audiences radical interpretations of meaning, representation and power. No one can know for sure if our work will change even one mind or one law. It is just as important to use our cameras to witness, interpret, and preserve a moment in history when anguish can be supported through art.
Mania: Throughout your career, we can trace the ways that your experimentation dares to confront social and political issues by embracing both familiar and intimate processes. You investigate the implicit connection between the body, the camera, and the materiality of the film itself. Embracing archives, letters, portraits, confessions, poetry and music, your films take us on a critical journey through reality and memory. Regardless of the passage of time, these films continue to be extremely contemporary, coherent and radical in their artistic conception. How do archival images and photos help your practice? What is your relationship to the archive? Do you think we can find our history through the archive an rebuild our history and memory?
Lynne: It’s interesting to think about an archive versus The Archive. For me, there is a difference. As a filmmaker, I am interested in and dependent on access to archives where I can find images and sounds that help me work with, articulate and revise history, both very recent and long the past. This is the material for which I feel awe and reverence, lucky to have my hands on images that might never have been seen before. In my film “Sermons and Sacred Pictures” (1989), I portray a Black minister who was also a filmmaker with an interest in documenting his own community in the mid-20th Century. Prior to my film’s release, his images had only been seen by members of his own congregation. In my film “Investigation of a Flame” (2001), I spent a year trying to get my hands on a single roll of original, black and white 16mm film footage of a 1968 civil disobedience action against the Vietnam War. I worked extremely hard to find this material which had previously been censored by the local government. I felt like a detective on an investigation, making so many phone calls, writing letters, driving for hours to meet a journalist who had hidden and protected the film for decades and then convincing him to release the material to me for my movie. I was obsessed. Once I did obtain the footage, I treated it like precious cargo that I needed to protect and then share with the world. My reverence for the celluloid itself was profound. Then there is The Archive, comprised of images from our visualized collective unconscious (to use Carl Jung’s term). These are the shots and scenes from popular movies, commercials, and educational films, created to entertain and inform our entire society, from birth to old age. I work with this kind of material in a completely different way, allowing myself to investigate its subliminal meaning and its intent to manipulate. I carve away, colour, and fragment these images, all in the process of looking for levels of representation, humour, irony, or unintentional pathos. You can see examples of this kind of irreverent exploration in my films “The House of Science: a museum of false facts” (1991), “Atalanta: 32 Years Later” (2006), and “Tip of My Tongue” (2017).
Mania: You’ve produced over 40 films as well as numerous live performances, installations and web projects. You tackled topics near and far, often addressing the challenge of translation — from one language to another or from spoken word to image. These tensions were investigated most explicitly between 1994 and 2006, when you produced five essay films that took her to Vietnam, Bosnia, Israel/Palestine, Italy and Germany — sites affected by international war — where you looked at the space between a community’s collective memory and your own subjective perceptions. What is the relationship between political subjects and the essay film for you? Do you think essay films could show us the truth about history — where the system itself is actively controlling and hiding? What is the relationship between the essay film and truth?
Lynne: What a profound and complicated series of questions, ones that make me think deeply about my own process of making work and the politics of every decision I make. In my own essay films on war including “Which Way is East” (Vietnam, 1994), “States of UnBelonging” (Israel/Palestine, 2005), “Investigation of a Flame” (Vietnam/US, 2001) and “The Last Happy Day” (Italy/ Brazil/US, 2009), I explore my thoughts around war and its far-reaching impact on people’s lives. I have done my best to search for ways of witnessing and experiencing periods of crisis, death, fear, regret, and anger. I know that I cannot fully understand these expressions of pain, but I can be open to their resonances. In my embrace of the essay film, I have also tried to articulate my own doubt, which is at the core of the essay film — doubt of government, doubt of institutions and, most importantly doubt of my own position of authority. In addition, in my understanding of the essay film, we are called to examine the politics of the image – who made it, why and for whom.
Mania: You are also deeply engaged with poetry. How do you find connections between your cinematic practice and poetry?
Lynne: I started writing poetry as a child, long before I picked up a film camera. My mother is just about to move from the home in Memphis, Tennessee where I grew up and where she has lived since 1967. I was there a few weeks ago and happened to find a collection of poems that I had written at age eight on small coloured pieces of paper. Yes, the poems were rather simplistic and the spelling was atrocious, but it was clear too that, at the least, I loved playing around with words. Now half a century later, I can see that writing poetry and making films comes from the same place of observation, invention and introspection. The edit between two shots in my films is very similar to a line break in a poem. For me, there must be intention in both places, a subtle or assertive rupture that also works with rhythm. In addition, both poetry and filmmaking depend on the viewer/ reader. When you read a poem or watch a non-narrative film, you become critical participant a synaptic event, an experiment that the artist has imagined in their mind but has no idea if it will work. Like a scientist with a hypothesis, I anticipate what might happen but I never know until I give it a try. It’s a risk worth taking.
Mania: Feminist theory has been foundational to the establishment and development of film studies as a discipline. Although it often gets reduced to key theoretical—primarily psychoanalytic—analyses of spectatorship from the 1970s and 1980s, it has always been and continues to be a dynamic area with many objects of focus and diverse methodological practices. We have many books and films that are samples of this breadth, historically and topically. Researchers will find how the subfields of authorship, genre, star studies, film history, spectatorship, and reception studies have been enriched and evolved through feminist approaches. Research that highlights facets of identity such as sexuality and race is given special attention throughout, and this emphasis is also addressed in separate sections. Global and/or transnational approaches are highlighted, as are feminist approaches to thinking about the body and cinema. The diversity of scholarship included in our contemporary life testifies that feminism moves beyond thinking purely about gender or sexual difference toward the ways in which power and difference shape the cinematic terrain. What do you think about it? Could you find any connection between feminism and your essay films too?
Lynne: I’ve been revisiting all of my ideas around my own art practice and feminism over the last few months, so you could not have asked a more vital question. Thank you for this. In a few weeks, the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival in Germany, the oldest festival of short films in the world, will present a three-program Profile of my work. They invited Portuguese film curator Cíntia Gil to organize and write about the program. Cíntia has chosen to follow a feminist thread in my work that comes out of a book I wrote entitled YEAR BY YEAR POEMS, published by the feminist press Tender Buttons Press. So, here audiences and readers will be able to see the connections between these two intertwined practices. This gives me the chance to think back on some of the writers who have been most important to me in terms of my growth as an artist who works with images and words. This list includes the French writers who embraced Hélène Cixous’s notion of an écriture féminine, including Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigeray and Monique Wittig. I read their texts in my twenties and was forever transformed. So, with their radical approach to writing from the physical self in mind, I was freed to use a somatic approach to every aspect of my art practice, even the making of an essay film, which most people would think of as strictly cerebral. For example, these authors understand and celebrate Kristeva’s concept of the abject, which suggests a radical separation from norms and rules, especially in relationship to society and morality. It’s also a rejection of given states of identity. This all becomes so much more resonate in our culture today when many people – both men and women – are questioning their relationships to their given bodies and to power. I heard Kristeva speak when I was 22 years old. Now looking back, I can see what a
Mania: For months now, the world has been witnessing the incredible courage of the women of Iran, as the brutal killing of Mahsa-Jina Amini has catalyzed massive protests against a regime that compulsively controls the bodies, minds and lives of women — a regime that has responded to the uprising with lethal brutality. In a desperate wish to control the narrative and hide the government’s crimes and atrocities, journalists have been arrested, phone networks are being jammed and the Internet censored. And still, the women of Iran aren’t backing down. Instead, the protests are spreading, and Persian, Azeri, and Kurdish women, many of them very young, are paying the ultimate price for freedom with their lives. What do you think about this important women’s movement?
Lynne: I bow with respect and awe to the spirit of Mahsa-Jina Amini. She was punished for her spirit. Witnessing the oppression of Iranian women, through the news and through personal testimonies that are released through social media, shakes me to my core. I deeply appreciate the way that so many people of the world are rallying in support of the women in Iran who are speaking out against the regime. Sadly, we also know that “speaking out” can bring enormous repercussions for these brave Iranians, so as a person who lives outside of Iran, I am searching for ways that I can be supportive of this transformation, this freeing, of a society wrapped in the constraints of state control.
Tanide is a collective platform for disseminating and reflecting on the voices of independent feminists living in Iran and around the world. The mission of Tanide is to unite the realms of knowledge and action in order to amplify ongoing efforts and resistances, which are intersectional and intergenerational in nature, and to strengthen and facilitate regional and transnational solidarity in the Middle East and beyond. Feminist uprisings in Iran and the MENA region in recent years have led to new encounters and the emergence of a new social imagination that transcends narrow identity and centrist frameworks and challenges (neo)oriental and global neoliberal hegemonic ideas. With the progressive, comprehensive Woman, Life, Freedom/Jin, Jiyan, Azadi uprising, we have gathered to continue fighting for the decades-long struggles of women and marginalised bodies in the region and explore new spaces and paths that have opened up. The voices of Tanide mirror the increasing reverberation of plural languages that speak in a multitude of tongues of and for the suppressed and excluded bodies that have been marginalized by patriarchy, tradition, theocracy, centralism, and the imposed order of capitalism. These bodies have reached an irreversible turning point in their historical battle to reclaim their subjectivities and make other futures possible. Our work at Tanide focuses on multiple actions: we write, we compose, we connect, and we act. We do not remain women; we become women. This knowledge is linked to life, and life is resistance – resistance that can make another world possible.