Tribute to Lynne Sachs: Memorial Work with Winnie the Pooh
by Jan-Philipp Kohlmann
April 29, 2023
Tribute to Lynne Sachs
Memorial work with Winnie the Pooh
by Jan-Philipp Kohlmann
The Oberhausen International Short Film Festival honors the feminist filmmaker and poet Lynne Sachs whose work questions the relationship between the body and the environment.
In 1998, the experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer spends lonesome weeks in a dune shack in Cape Cod, a picturesque peninsula in southern Massachusetts. She keeps a diary and shoots playful 16mm footage of insects, grass and plastic bags in the wind – sometimes with a color filter, sometimes with the shower head running in front of the camera.
Twenty years later, when Hammer was sorting her estate, she left the material to her friend Lynne Sachs for the short film “A Month of Single Frames”. The film reflects the former filmmaker‘s attempts to inscribe her own presence with the camera onto the images of the landscape. As part of the Lynne Sachs retrospective at the 69th Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, this film now seems like a perfect introduction to her work: “A Month of Single Frames” is a homage to the influential colleague, who died in 2019 when the film was released, and at the same time sums up Sachs’s collaborative approach to filmmaking in a nutshell.
“Body of the Body, Body of the Mind”
“We’re not striving for perfection, and we will never replicate reality,” says Sachs about her own and Barbara Hammer’s cinematic ideas in an interview, shortly before she heads to the airport on her way to Germany for the festival. “Instead, we’re constantly looking for a way to present a subjectivity in relationship to reality.”
“A Month of Single Frames” won the Grand Prix of the City of Oberhausen in 2020, when the festival was one of the first to take place online due to the pandemic. This year, twelve intelligent and idiosyncratic short films by Sachs, created between 1986 and 2021, can be discovered in the Oberhausen program “Body of the Body, Body of the Mind”, curated by Cíntia Gil. The retrospective includes Sachs’s early feminist experimental films, several documentary essays from the series “I Am Not a War Photographer” and more recent works that deal with the problem of translation, among other things.
Found Footage Films and Fragmentary Essays
The latter include “The Task of the Translator” (2010), inspired by Walter Benjamin, as well as “Starfish Aorta Colossus” (2015), a film adaptation of a poem by the Filipino-American writer Paolo Javier. In addition, Sachs’s latest film “Swerve”, also a collaboration with Javier, is screened in the festival’s International Competition.
The Brooklyn-based director and poet, born in 1961 in Memphis, Tennessee, willingly references the influence of other artists on her work and relies on close collaborations. Rather than claiming individualist authorship, in our interview, Sachs mentions numerous people from her student years in San Francisco who influenced, trained, or worked with her, thus shaping her own aesthetics.
Her mentions include two especially formative figures in experimental filmmaking: the conceptual artist Bruce Conner, who introduced Sachs to working with found footage in an essayistic fashion; and the filmmaker and cultural studies scholar Trinh T. Minh-ha. With Minh-ha, Sachs shares the conviction of making one’s own position visible, most notably in documentary films set in different communities or cultural environments.
A specific technical aspect adapted from Minh-ha, Sachs explains, is to not use zoom lenses when shooting, making sure she has to approach the people in front of the camera and introduce herself. A film like “Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam” from 1994, for example, is therefore not an ethnographic travelogue, but a fragmentary sketch in which poetic impressions of everyday life, Vietnamese idioms and her own memories of US television reports on the Vietnam War stand side by side.
Another essay film, “The House of Science: a museum of false facts” can be regarded as the feminist core of the Oberhausen program. Sachs first presented the film in 1991, at her first trip to Oberhausen, and it’s only fitting that the retrospective’s title features a quote from it. A collage of patriarchal attributions about women’s bodies, “The House of Science” re-contextualizes educational films about menstruation, scenes from feature films, historical writings about the body features of sex workers and Sachs’s own diary entries about a consultation hour at a male doctor’s office.
Created under the impression of the theoretical writings on écriture féminine, this found footage masterpiece is much more than a document of early 1990s feminist zeitgeist. Sachs herself is convinced that contemporary feminist debates can tie in with “The House of Science”: “The film isn’t exclusively relevant for what we now call cis women, but it’s about inhabiting the feminine. I think it speaks about femininity in a more fluid sense.”
A Commemoration With Winnie the Pooh
For Sachs, personal documents – diary entries, home movies – are often the starting point for a cinematic search for clues. “The Last Happy Day” is the best and at the same time most curious example of this approach: when her younger brother, the fiction film director Ira Sachs (who presented “Passages” at this year’s Berlinale), appeared as Winnie the Pooh in a children’s play in the late 1970s, the Sachs siblings learned of the existence of a distant relative named Sándor Lénárd.
Sachs’s 2009 film chronicles the life of the Budapest-born Jewish doctor and writer, who escaped from Nazi persecution in Austria, worked for the US Army in Italy, and eventually completed a stunningly successful Latin translation of “Winnie the Pooh” in Brazil. With her own children and their friends as “Winnie the Pooh” performers in front of the camera, Sachs brings the unknown relative back into the family, adapting her collective approach not only to filmmaking, but also to a moving work of remembrance.
Lynne Sachs in Oberhausen
The 69th Oberhausen International Short Film Festival dedicates the three-part retrospective “Body of the Body, Body of the Mind” with a total of 12 films to the US director Lynne Sachs. The programs run on April 30th in the Gloria Cinema and on May 1st in the Lichtburg Cinema. In addition, her current short film ”Swerve” is presented in the International Competition of the festival. Twelve films by Lynne Sachs are available online on the platform of Doc Alliance (dafilms.com), the network of seven European documentary film festivals (1.50 to 2.50 euros per streaming).