In FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO director Lynne Sachs takes 35 years of film and video of her father, mixes it with interviews with her family and friends and tries to figure out who her dad really is.
What starts out as a typical look at father by a daughter slowly becomes something else as revelations about Sachs’ father begin to muddy the waters and change what she and others think of him. It quickly becomes clear that there are more than one way to see him.
What I love about the film is that Sachs throws things out and doesn’t tie it all up. We are left to piece things together. If you’ve noticed that I am not discussing the details of the revelations it is because how Sachs tells us things influences how we feel at any particular moment. If I start to feed you revelations before you go in you will have a differing experience than what the director intended. You will also know where this goes and the journey there is the point of the film, so I’m not telling.
So where does that leave this review? It leaves me simply to say if you want to take an intriguing ride though one woman’s life see FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO.
FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO plays at Slamdance again on Monday the 27th.(Tickets here) It will also be at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight
Lynne Sachs has been making films since Drawn and Quartered in 1986. Her latest, the documentary Film About a Father Who, screens January 24, the opening night of Slamdance. Her father, Ira Sachs, Sr., helped turn Park City, Utah, into a destination resort. In documenting his life, Sachs uncovers a web of secrets.
Film About a Father Who will also screen at Doc Fortnight 2020, MoMA’s Festival of International Nonfiction Film and Media on February 11 and 14. Sachs’ 2019 tribute A Month of Single Frames (for Barbara Hammer) will screen in the series on February 8.
Filmmaker spoke with Sachs recently in Brooklyn. Filmmaker: When did you start making Film About a Father Who?
Sachs: I started making a film about my father back in 1991. I think I was interested in connecting with him and piecing together what all the parts of my relationship to him meant to me. By that point I had been making films for about eight years.
It was hard to be his daughter, but it was also great. The hard part had to do with all the surprises, being a young woman and his having a lot of young girlfriends. Where did I fit into that? I kept growing older and they didn’t. That was awkward, for me and my sister Dana and brother Ira.
But on the other side, I thought my dad was very interesting. I liked his sense of being a free spirit, I liked his leftie politics, I liked his curiosity, I liked his adventurousness, I liked that he was very non-judgmental of people, the way they lived their lives, their careers, their position in society. He is the least judgmental person I ever met. And I was both awed by that and kind of confused by it.
One of the things I had to explore in this film was degrees of rage and degrees of compassion. Some people watch it and say you’re not being honest, you’re not really showing how frustrated and angry you must have been. But I feel that forgiveness is a big part of the movie. I was also witnessing some of his struggles over the years. I could see that he was trying to find himself.
Filmmaker: Could you sense 20 or 30 years ago the direction your film would take?
Sachs: I realized early on that there were two ways to go. I could make a portrait of a 20th-century American bohemian businessman. And I thought that’s kind of interesting, but that doesn’t reach me in my soul. What really reaches me is how does a family work or not work. How do we adapt to each other, how do we function when there’s no central organism, but these blood connections make us feel an attachment to each other?
I also thought he was an interesting onion to uncover, but I didn’t know I would uncover as much as I did. For example, I didn’t meet my two hidden sisters until about four years ago.
Filmmaker: Was there footage you felt you couldn’t use? There’s a shot of Diana, your father’s wife from Bali, where she is clearly uncomfortable.
Sachs: I am uncomfortable, even now, going back 29 years ago. I knew I had to finish the movie because I knew I had to use that footage. I knew there was a way I was connecting with a woman who had been through a very convulsive time in her life, her immigration experience, moving from one cosmos to the next.
Filmmaker: There’s also a very intimate moment with your grandmother in a bedroom.
Sachs: In my aesthetic, I kind of put down beautiful images. But that image is one of my favorites, that image and the impressionist image with the children on the hill, those are two of my very favorite shots, so I had to use them.
I’m anti a quality that the digital image has these days, that simulates reality without any kind of mediation. I like mediation. Those images are both very mediated.
I guess in filmmaking there’s a thin line between voyeurism and intimacy. Also, I’ve made so many films where I was allowed into other people’s worlds or homes. When I made Your Day Is My Night, which I made in Chinatown, people always ask, “How did you get your foot in the door? Why did they open up to you?” If you can find intimacy that’s also visual, it creates a kind of integrity, as if — it’s not a voyeuristic thing. I like when people show sides of themselves you don’t show in public.
Filmmaker: People try to present their best selves when they’re on camera.
Sachs: That’s why I did a lot of audio only. That was a big breakthrough. I really like working with audio. One of the things in the documentary I did was I would meet with my siblings in total darkness. We would go into closets with pillows and no light, and I would ask a question and they would just talk. They wouldn’t have to look back at me for nods of approval — “yeah, that’s good, I understand.” All that.
Filmmaker: How did you discover that technique?
Sachs: I’ve always done wild sound for other projects. In previous films like Your Day Is My Night, Tip of My Tongue, I would do audio-only recordings first and listen to them. Then once we were on camera, the people I was filming would already know what I was going to ask. I’m not the kind of documentary filmmaker who thinks I have to throw something at you and you’re going to be unprepared and you’re going to give me your best answer. I don’t mind if it’s more collaborative, that you know where I’m coming from.
I’d also like to point out, I think it’s important to write down what a place looks like. For example, Paris. If you’ve never been to Paris, write what you think it looks like before you see it. It’s important to try to capture your naiveté, especially as a writer or artist. Because once you know the reality, it immediately fills up your imagination.
Filmmaker: Have you determined how your relationship with your father affected your creativity? For example, seeing this changes how we would view your brother’s films.
Sachs: Did you see Forty Shades of Blue with Rip Torn?
Filmmaker: In the closing credits you list the various formats you worked with.
Sachs: That was another kind of journey. The only stable form of technology I used was 16mm film. We still have Super 8, although regular 8mm, that’s gone. People keep saying film is dead, but it’s not. I bought a 16mm Bolex camera in 1987, and I used the same camera throughout the whole movie. Ask me how many different video cameras and eventually cell phones I used. MiniDVD, Hi8, you name it.
I have the same lenses I bought back in 1987. Excellent prime lenses. I love my 13mm lens more than anything, because the image always remains in focus. If I use that lens I can move my body and still be sure I have enough depth of field. With zoom lenses you don’t have to move your body, so you lose that intimacy with the space and the subject. You’re not in the pulse, the texture or the smell of a situation. I wanted to be in the thick of it with my dad. Sometimes it was hard to shoot. The material I shot with some of his girlfriends, they were very, very troubled. That was hard for me to see.
Filmmaker: How hard was it editing with different formats?
Sachs: That was one of the biggest challenges we faced, it added probably six months to editing the film.
We were editing on Premiere, from a six-terabyte drive.
Over the years, before digital, I would transfer new footage to video. When I started making this film I digitized it, but I did it on the cheap, just to have something to work with. The selects, the shots that made it into the film, I then had to retransfer.
With analog material, and this is in the best transfer houses in Manhattan, they transfer to digital, but all the correction has to be done in a color house. So that means if the footage was overexposed or damaged in the analog, it will remain that way in the digital transfer.
Then I started using Mercer Media in Long Island. They have a big facility, they do a lot of work with MIAP, NYU’s preservation program. It’s like a technology museum of VHS, Beta and 3/4 decks. When the tapes are being digitized, they will correct it on the fly by oscilloscope. We would do three different transfers from analog to digital with oscilloscope adjustments before we went to the grading.
VHS is more stable than DVD, if you’re talking decades. Once you get a scratch on a DVD, it’s done. Did you ever shoot Hi-8? What most people did, including my dad, they would have one Hi8 tape, they would use it, transfer that to VHS, and then reuse the Hi8. I actually spent two or three months having people look all over my dad’s house for the original Hi8s, and then I went, “Wait a minute.” You will not find an original Hi8, just the VHS.
On the other hand, we keep shelves and shelves of 16mm in my basement. The footage I shot of Diana and Mallory standing by the window, which is some of my favorite footage — I transferred it originally in 1992, and then I transferred it again in 2019 and it looks even more beautiful.
Filmmaker: How much footage did you have?
Sachs: Probably 70 hours or so. Some of the material is video that my father shot, some of it is material that Ira shot. I tend not to overshoot.
The film was edited by my assistant Rebecca Shapass, she’s an artist and filmmaker in her mid-20s. In the last couple of years she was very much a part of the making of the film. She would sometimes come with me to shoot. We edited the film as a series of 12 episodes that were very modular, not chronological, and then we had to look for the transitions.
Filmmaker: How long was the edit?
Sachs: About two years. One of the things that I learned in the editing is that we have this way, in documentary in particular, of choosing images based on how they look, like, “That’s a good shot, I want to show that.” While we were editing I would say, “I can’t believe what a bad cinematographer I am.” Because I’d be shooting in a restaurant and I’d be hungry and just put the camera down on a lazy Susan because I wanted to eat dinner. Things like that. Or I would not care about the light. Or I would give the camera to a waitress so I could be in the shot.
I was extremely judgmental about that footage. And Rebecca would say that we have to get through that. But I was so disgruntled and unhappy with all the shaking and bumps. Or I’d have a good shot and I’d end it too early. My exposures were off, or there was dust on the lens of my Bolex. All those things that in a conventional sense you would decide, “bad image.” Sometimes the faults would give what Roland Barthes calls the punctum, it gives it the life, it gives it the soul, and it shows there’s a person behind the camera. It creates a formal, aesthetic conversation between the production and the result.
The other thing I learned from the footage was [about] all the incidental sound, which is a big part of the film now, the sound that happens because the camera is on but doesn’t have a direct relationship with what’s in the center of the frame. The wild sound you get shooting video is often very telling. It gives you a feeling of the moment. For the soundtrack, we went back through all material, particularly the VHS tapes, collected that incidental sound, and used it for the mix.
There are two sound people who are very important to this film. One is Kevin T. Allen, a teacher at Rutgers. I did the mix there. We would give him those sounds and then he created these collages I’m really happy with.
The other person who’s very important to this film is Stephen Vitiello, who by now has made five films with me. He did the music for the film, and he’s also interested in musique concrète, sound that’s derived from material other than instruments.
Filmmaker: Your closing credits function in unexpected ways.
Sachs: The end credits (by Rachel Rosheger), they’re like diagramming sentences. I knew that the film was about grammar and breaking grammar. One of the reasons people like grammar is that it gives them the sense that they exist in a society made up of rules everyone agrees upon. I follow the rules, you follow the rules. So here I’m saying my dad didn’t follow the rules, but I like grammar.
Filmmaker: You return to one specific shot throughout the movie.
Sachs: We call it the impressionist shot, and to me it’s the most mythic, perhaps the only mythic shot in the whole film. It’s a little blurry. It pops up three different times, from three different parts of one long take — in the very beginning, in the middle and the end. It’s a long shot my father took on a tripod, probably Hi8. Three children are playing in the water. It’s gorgeous. If you talk about classical painting, there’s the little triangle in the composition. It’s exquisite. I don’t know if my father realized how beautiful it was, and I also don’t know if he was standing behind the camera the whole time.
It is about a personal exploration of a filmmaker and her father.
For the opening night of Slamdance 2020, the documentary Film About A Father will explore a personal, intimate look from director Lynne Sachs about her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering businessman from Park City, Utah.
She filmed the documentary over 35 years, between 1984 and 2019, from 8 and 16mm film, videotape, and digital images of her father. The cinematic exploration of her father offers contradictory views of one seemingly unknowable man who is publicly the uninhibited center of the frame yet privately ensconced in secrets. The film will show beyond the surface of the skin, the projected reality. As his daughter, she discovers more than she hoped to reveal.
Lynne Sachs is a filmmaker who explores the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences through text, collage, painting, politics, and layered sound design. She previously made Tip of My Tongue, Your Day is My Night, Investigation of a Flame,and Which Way is East. She received a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship in the Arts. In 2019, Tender Buttons Press published Lynne’s first collection of poetry called “Year by Year Poems.”
LRM Online spoke with Lynne Sachs over the phone last week to discuss the film, her father, and her family.
As Slamdance’s opening film, Film About A Father Who is showing tonight at 7 p.m. at the Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City, Utah. The replay is on Monday, January 27, at 11 a.m. Director Lynne Sachs will be at the showings in person.
For more information about Slamdance Film Festival, visit its site by clicking here.
Read the exclusive interview below.
LRM Online: I’ve checked out your film, Film About A Father Who.
Lynne Sachs: Thank you very much for taking a look at it. You’re one of the first.
LRM Online: You’re making a Slamdance world premiere. How do you feel about this film premiering in Slamdance, since it’s in the film’s backyard?
Lynne Sachs: Yes! I am nervous about it because my dad is a presence there. Although as he’s gotten older, he’s also spent more time in other places. He has been of great interest and appreciated. He’s seen in all his complexity for decades there. It builds on it to show how our family had challenges as well as to stay cohesive.
It will be attractive to locals. I didn’t necessarily think I would have the premiere in Park City. It’s a bit of a shock. In other ways, it feels more appropriate since it’s an extension of a part of Park City; that’s not the Sundance story. It’s how people grow and change to live their lives in a town in America.
LRM Online: You did say he has such a presence, and it shows in the documentary. How important is he to the community there?
Lynne Sachs: That word that you chose “important” is critical because he’s very much not relevant. He wasn’t a mayor. He didn’t own any of the large properties. Plus, he helped start one of the hotels. Whenever there was a big project, he might be involved briefly, but then he had gotten a little bored. He would say I want to do something more outdoors or more Bohemian. The critical part was more of a person who followed his own “use.” You could see that in the film. My dad does not follow the rules. He doesn’t take a traditional path as a dad or a businessperson. Even society might say he plays by his own rules.
That was the wild west thing. We were from Memphis, Tennessee, and people play by the rules a bit more. He wanted to like go west as in “go west, young man.” Everything was more of an adventure. He wasn’t an important person. Some people say a legend, but that’s hard for me to calibrate since I wasn’t there full-time. I know when someone’s a legend, there are multiple sides to them.
LRM Online: When did it came about that you decided to make a documentary on your father?
Lynne Sachs: Definitely around 1991. I was a new filmmaker and getting comfortable with my medium. I was shooting a lot of 16-millimeter films. As I was with my dad, I have a camera all the time. Then I decided in 1991 that I did that interview, which was with his wife and girlfriend. They both had children who were my sister and brother. More than curious, I was trying to reckon with it as his daughter as someone who was trying to be friends with these two women to understand their lives with some sympathy or pathos.
LRM Online: Before I got to the rest of the family when you revealed to your father that you were going to do a documentary– what was his initial reaction?
Lynne Sachs: He was excited about it. That’s a very interesting question. It’s hard for us to transpose ourselves back to the early nineties when everything wasn’t photographed all the time. You could honestly say the whole zeitgeist was radically different from how we live today. In those days, when families take photographs, they photograph birthday parties or holidays or vacations. There wasn’t this notion of let’s witness our lives with a camera.
He thought it was a novelty, and he was very appreciative of it. He had the sense he had this crew following him, which was his daughter. You may know a bit about filmmaking in terms of the production part of it. In one of those scenes, where the tree falls, and he’s standing in what will be a parking lot, I have a wireless microphone on him, and he thought that was a kick. It was so professional and high-tech at the time. [Laughs] He would say, “This is my movie. So I get to wear a radio mike around my neck.” I was learning the tricks of the trade at the time.
LRM Online: It sounded like he’s somewhat opened about this. When you were doing the documentary, did he hold anything back?
Lynne Sachs: Yeah. That’s the second word that you use related to my dad; that’s there that you could answer it in two different ways. We can say yes. He was open because when I was with him we would go out for dinner and he might have a whole posse of people with him. At that time, I had a sense that this wasn’t his entire life.
It’s a different zeitgeist because you can compartmentalize in those days. I think probably more comfortable than one could now where you carry a cell phone, and you’re trackable. In a sense, there was a veneer of openness but also a mystery to parts of his life. As you saw later in the film, I didn’t know anything about it.
LRM Online: Let’s talk about the rest of the family. How easy or difficult was to put that entire story together?
Lynne Sachs: I wouldn’t say easy, but I think that everyone got used to me carrying a camera all the time. They didn’t imagine I would premier at a film festival in Park City, but they realized that I spent most of my adult life making this my movie. [Laughs] They knew that I was super-committed to it.
We’re quite a close family, even with my sisters whom I’ve met more recently in the last four years. In nonfiction filmmaking or documentary, you have to develop trust with strangers or with family. For example, I wanted to listen to every one of my siblings equally, not just the ones I knew better. In that process, the making of the film made the nine of us closer.
LRM Online: Were some of them reluctant or they wanted to hold back because this is an unusual thing to talk about?
Lynne Sachs: When I started making the film, I didn’t know what I was talking about. [Laughs] You can’t be on a mission about your own life. It’s not like writing a novel, and you know what the ending is going to be. I didn’t know that the last two years would go in the direction that it did. I just kept doing it.
There was nobody who said no to me at all. Most of my siblings had seen the film now, and they’d been supportive. But, a couple of haven’t, they’ll see it for the first time in Park City.
LRM Online: Tell me about the production itself. It took a very long time as you compiled 35 years of videotapes and digital images. Tell me about the gathering process for all that.
Lynne Sachs: It’s videotapes, digital images but also super-eight films, 16-millimeter films, and cell phones. I was shooting with whatever the current technology was like, Hi8. Then throughout the whole movie, I was shooting 16 millimeters because it was what I loved the most. Even though it’s the oldest, it’s the most beautiful, aesthetic experience.
In terms of production, I shot most of it, but my brother, Ira, also shot a fair amount. My dad shot home movies, which didn’t make it in this movie, but he allowed me to use them. Only one time did I shoot with two friends of mine, who were professional cinematographers, I got all of my siblings together. I couldn’t shoot it at the same time, so I had put together for a small crew.
LRM Online: Could you talk about any future projects for yourself? Are you going to stick with documentaries?
Lynne Sachs: A lot of my work is what I call personal, experimental documentary, or even call it essay films. It has a point. I always have a point of view coming through the stretch of the whole movie.
This next film, it takes me back to our hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. I’m going to make this film about Ida B. Wells. I don’t know if you know she was. Do you know who she was?
LRM Online: No, I have no idea. Who was she?
Lynne Sachs: She was an African American journalist from Memphis, who has gotten a lot of attention in the last few years. She was the person who did the original research as a journalist on lynching. She collected the data at the end of the 19th century, early 20th century. Very few people know about her. I’m interested in this is the person in my hometown and why we didn’t learn anything about her.
At the same time, you know, there was a whole Confederate part and how one of the generals was celebrated. We’re looking back at how our histories are changing. It’s going to be a personal film, but also understanding how history is constructed.
LRM Online: One last question, and it’s the most important one. As audiences watch your documentary, what is the one most important lesson that you hope they learn?
Lynne Sachs: I’m interested in the ways that families work. Even when they don’t work, families can maintain a kind of intimacy and a willingness to struggle through hard times. It’s so often when there are these kinds of situations or pain, and people say the best way to function is with willful amnesia or running away.
You can find some way to feel love, cohesiveness, or commitment to working through the ways people think couples have to do. But, families need to find forgiveness where there has been pain. It is the only way to manage to move forward.
LRM Online: Excellent answer, Lynne. Thank you very much for taking your time to speak with me. I wish you good luck outside at Slamdance.
Lynne Sachs: Thank you.
As Slamdance’s opening film, Film About A Father Who is showing tonight at 7 p.m. at the Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City, Utah. The replay is on Monday, January 27, at 11 a.m. Director Lynne Sachs will be at the showings in person.
Lynne Sachs new documentary film entitled Film About a Father Who premieres at Slamdance 2020 on the opening night of the festival. It is a thirty year labor of love that chronicles the complex life of her father Ira Sachs. Her new book of poetry Year by Year was also recently released on Tender Buttons Press. Lynne was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to discuss the film and her process as a filmmaker and writer.
Salt Lake Dirt: The film is excellent. I really found myself feeling part of your family, it was quite remarkable.
Lynne Sachs: That makes me happy. I’ll just say something that happened today. This woman I had not seen for twenty-five years wrote to me. She’s a fiction writer and she just kind of bared her soul about her own life and things that had happened in her life. She had even written a novel about it. Relating to her relationship with her father and she had some siblings that she didn’t know about and it was very cathartic for both of us. I did not actually predict that that kind of thing would happen. It’s already happened a couple of times so who knows where this is going to go.
SLD: I think you’ll get a lot of that up there in Park City this coming week. So the footage goes back to the 80s?
LS: It actually goes back to the 60s.
SLD: Does it really?
LS: In the beginning of the film you see some Super 8 footage of my brother. He looks like he is a few months old,so it must be the end of 1965 or the beginning of ‘66. My parents only shot a total of twelve minutes of home movies and I have mined every frame of it for various film projects. But that’s Ira as a baby and you see my dad holding us up at the very beginning. Then the footage jumped to 1984. That is when I was first getting interested in film. I was shooting Super 8 but also video. I shot in Bali with my dad. So it kind of jumps. But the very earliest footage is from the end of ‘65 or the beginning of ‘66.
SLD: Wow. So its a real labor of love and you said that you committed to making it into a documentary in the early 90s.
LS: That’s right.
SLD: That’s coming up on 30 years. What made you stick with it that long?
LS: I have two answers. One is that I was kind of intimidated by it and so everytime someone in my family would say, “Lynne, when are you going to finish that movie about dad?” I’d just say, “I’m still shooting.” And mostly, when you have long term projects the only person that really cares about it is you. If you dropped it nobody is going to say, “Whatever happened to…” But they were curious because I was so consistent. I always had a camera but it was like “maybe she is just collecting this.” There is also a tendency that it’s so much easier to shoot than to watch. You watch it and you have nostalgia. Or you have regret or a given omniscience. You know what happened to this person and that person and you know how those two people really feel about each other. Like an all-knowing narrator and then you kind of don’t want to pretend that you dohave that omniscience. So I kept collecting footage or shooting footage but not watching it. And then about two years ago I said, “I really have to start going through this.” I could see my dad getting older. But I’m getting older at exactly the same rate and so are you.
SLD: Right, right.
LS: So there just comes a point where you say, “If I’m going to do this, I have to devote myself to actually seeing what I have.” So I spent about a year working with my friend who is my assistant and also became the editor while she was learning how to become an editor for books. She is a former student, Rebecca Shapass, and that was a breakthrough. A total breakthrough because instead of it just being my collection of material on my family it became another kind of story that both needed context and also didn’t need context. That became more of a story that people could enter without knowing every single detail. Because I was always wondering how much do people really need to know? How much do I have to flesh this out?
SLD: The film is just over an hour but it felt like you covered quite a bit of ground in that 70-75 minutes. You can tell the editing was done extremely well.
LS: I really didn’t want to do it just chronologically.
SLD: I loved the way you did that. You kind of jumped around, it was beautiful.
LS: I really appreciate that. I edited with Rebecca twelve experimental films (which became the final film) and we let them stand on their own. Then we spent another year trying to figure out the transitions. The structure was not obvious. The structure had to come through a lot of themes and a lot of associations. It couldn’t just be plot driven or life driven or reality driven. So I needed the kinds of relationships, whether it was about love, or rage or forgiveness or all those different kinds of things. I also wanted each of those episodes to kind of function like a little parable in a sense. Like the story of my father having two Cadillac convertibles that were exactly the same. I didn’t understand that that was a really great story until I started putting it together. Because it was like a funny family story. Dad always had those two convertibles, why did he paint them the same color?
SLD: That was hilarious.
LS: Even when you have a story that has a lot of darkness or pain it’s also the hilarious of recognition. Ah, yeah, I could see somebody in my family doing that. Not laughing at, but kind of with.
SLD: That was kind of early on and at that point it hooked me. I was like, “Who is this guy? I want to know more.”
LS: Oh good, yay!
SLD: You’ve done quite a bit of filmmaking over the decades, especially with documentary. I always like to ask filmmakers this question. How do you know when a documentary is done? When is it time to move forward, start structuring it to the final piece?
LS: I make films in probably quite a different way than most people. Rarely do I have a production phase and then a post production phase. I will shoot and then I’ll start to edit. I usually edit from the middle backwards and forwards. So I have to climb my way out of the center of it or of a scene that I know works. Sometime in my films I actually don’t know the ending until the editing stops because that keeps me interested. The process remains really alive. It’s exciting to me if I can keep myself both confused and committed. I don’t really know what this is about. I always say, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever made, and this film I can definitely say that. It’s really like a desperate look for structure. In a lot of documentaries, especially character driven documentaries, people say I have to find the character and then we’ll apply something that comes from literature like a storyline with characters and then a conflict and then a resolution. But I don’t really edit that way or shape things that way.
SLD: That’s really cool. Such an interesting approach.
LS: I actually think the downfall of so many documentaries has been that people impose the expectations and the paradigms of fiction films and I think that is oppressive. It shouldn’t be that.
SLD: That makes a lot of sense. One last question. You’ll be doing a reading at Dolly’s Bookstore on Sunday the 26th.
LS: Thank you for mentioning that!
SLD: The book is called Year by Year. The synopsis sounded fascinating to me. Maybe you could just talk a bit about that.
LS: So I have this new book, its my first book because I’ve been making films for a long time, but I actually have been writing poetry much longer. A lot of my films include writing that comes from my poetry. When I turned fifty I decided to write a poem for every year of my life. I was really interested in that intersection between very public events that you can’t control or some kind of crisis that is beyond your domestic universe or your psyche and when that punctures your private world. So I went back. I was born in ‘61 so I looked at every year between ‘61 and and 2011 and tried to imagine. And also use Wikipedia (laughing), because Wikipedia is extremely helpful. You type 1993 and Wikipedia will tell you every popular song from ‘93, what was going on politically both in the United States and abroad. So when you read those things all of a sudden your memories just come flowing. Most people will say, oh that was the year I graduated from high school, but that’s not necessarily the thing or event that shaped who you are. Like I could tell you that I graduated from high school in ‘79, it was no big deal. But my prom was very interesting because my school was half black and half white and we voted on which band we would have. There were more black students so it was a black band and none of the white kids went, but I went anyway. So that was a big event for me. I’m interested in how that outside dialectic or tension enters your head. I have a poem about the Columbine shooting in ‘99 and a poem about national health care. I have a poem about when Martin Luther King was killed because I was in Memphis and I was just a little child. So that’s how I wrote each one. It does connect to my films because so many of my films deal with history and that intersection with the personal and the public. One of the directors of Slamdance, Paul Rachman, suggested it. He said that there is a bookstore, Dolly’s, that’s really beloved in Park City and its right in the center of town on Main Street, why don’t you do one of your readings while you are here for the festival?
SLD: Thank you so much for your time. I’m looking forward to the premiere and to the reading this weekend.
Little did the moderator of a documentary panel that Lynne Sachs once sat on think that they were stating something controversial, but opening up the discussion by saying, “Well, let’s start by saying that all great documentaries start by finding a character,” but if they wanted a lively conversation, the experimental filmmaker was going to give them one.
“I said, ‘I totally disagree,’” laughs Sachs, still incredulous at the presumption. “You shouldn’t have to go out and search for a character in order to construct your narrative.”
Sachs could speak from experience since she never had to look far physically to make “Film About a Father Who,” but in telling the story of Ira Sachs Sr., she could never be quite sure that she actually found him, even when he’s introduced sitting in her apartment getting his long, flowing grey mane unknotted in the opening frames of her latest film. While it is no wonder that Sachs Sr., a great raconteur, gave birth to a number of storytellers including “Frankie” director Ira Sachs and “The Secret of the Nightingale Palace” author Dana Sachs, he can be seen as a mystery throughout Lynne’s fragmentary biography, compiled over 30 years, as he would come to have nine children with six different partners.
Although Sachs Sr. could afford to keep all in good shape financially, building a successful business as a developer in Park City, Utah, time was naturally far more difficult to be spread around to his various family members living in different parts of the country and Sachs creates a narrative as alternately slippery and memorable as her central character, giving brief glimpses of her own life with her father as well as her siblings and half-siblings and letting questions of his responsibility towards them linger in the air for the entirety of the picture and beyond. As a story that spans generations, “Film About a Father Who” is also conscious of how one era of a family can messily overlap with another, as Sachs probes her grandmother’s hold on her father after leaving her family to maintain her sense of independence and sees how he’s left others behind to preserve his, and the director’s aesthetic adventurousness truly captures such intangible qualities as influence and support, or lack thereof, in ways that can be deeply felt with voiceover that’s occasionally whispered and images that are superimposed over one another at times.
Remarkably, “Film About a Father Who” will be premiering later this week where it all began in Park City as the opening night selection of the Slamdance Film Festival en route to a New York bow at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight in February. Shortly before, Sachs spoke of the project that’s consumed the better part of her life in any number of ways, working with the technology that’s been available to her over the years to create such a tactile mosaic and turning what she couldn’t bring herself to say into the language of the film.
I know you spent decades collecting footage of this. Were you always conscious of the form you wanted it to take?
Actually, the very first images that I shot in it were the first year I even felt I was a filmmaker. That was in 1984. I was just right out of college. But I made a couple of short films and then I made my first longer form documentary and then in 1991, I said to myself, “I want to make a film about my dad.” And I thought it would take me a year or two. [laughs] I made it with the interest in what extent you could ever understand another human being, so I thought at the time I would make this triptych – I would make a film about a total stranger, and then I’d make a film about a very distant cousin of mine who had been a survivor of the Holocaust and ended up in the remotest Brazil. Those two films were very challenging, but not as hard as making a film about my dad.
I was describing this film to a woman and she said, “Oh you just got together a bunch of home movies, right?” But almost every shot of this movie, I shot with the intention of being in this movie, so I always thought it had a direction to it, not just going into my closet. Also, my brother Ira, who’s a filmmaker, shot some of the footage because there were times when my dad was maybe more comfortable in this kind of guy-guy thing, which is funny, but he may not have revealed as much with me. And then there’s actually quite a bit of the footage that he just shot himself and I would actually call [those] home movies when you have the perspective from him.
How much did you want his presence to be in the film when he’s somewhat of an elusive character?
It was a constant effort and he was a cooperative subject, more so than most people would be, so he didn’t mind my traipsing around with whatever girlfriend he happened to be with. He was quite happy about [filming] in a sense because it gave us a purpose, so he would say, “Are we shooting my movie?” Or he would say, laughing, “We’re losing light” or “It’s magic hour,” these expressions he knew about filmmaking like it was a big production, so in that way, there was enthusiasm, but also kind of a performance side. In conventional documentaries, you sit someone down and ask them questions and then they reflect and they deliver it back, as demanded. That wasn’t the way I was able to capture most of the material from my dad.
Were there epiphanies in placing footage from, let’s say, 1986 next to something from 2012?
That is one of the most exciting parts. I spent the last couple of years shooting and my dad is getting older, so he would actually come and stay with me for two weeks, so all the footage of my dad collecting trash and walking around on the sidewalk is what he does all the time. He’s now not as capable as he was to do that even a year ago, but he loves coming to big ol’ New York City and picking up trash and feeling like he’s tidying up, so there would be points where I thought, “How could I show my father doing things that mean something to him other than [being] out for dinner or my sitting and asking him questions, so then I’d say, “Okay, dad, we’re going to go outside and I’m going to follow you.”
I was able to use this gadget that I could attach to my cell phone so I could follow him and have a really smooth shot. It’s hard to shoot with someone walking by them on the sidewalk, so modern-day consumer technology rose to the occasion. As I kept making this movie with my father, I kept carrying cameras, but I had to keep up with the technology. Film hasn’t changed very much since 16mm, so I was always shooting 16mm and it’s really funny, that was some of the easiest material to work with because the technology wasn’t just disappearing. But the very first footage I shot was on a VHS camcorder and [eventually] I shot in Hi 8 and MiniDV and that’s challenging to then digitize.
Were you conscious of how this would come together aesthetically throughout? Some of the most interesting footage in the film was when you were talking to Diana and Mallory, two of the exes…
Yeah, it’s funny you bring that up because that was shot in 16mm and it looks kind of beautiful, doesn’t it? The camera is kind of my brush, so I’m always aware, but there’s a shot of Mallory, and the first time I shot it, she came out in silhouettes and with the new technology, you can bring out detail, so that’s actually been a really positive thing because I never bring in additional lights. [That shot] uses natural light, which I just think is so much more beautiful. I always like to use what’s available and I like profiles – I actually don’t think people shoot profiles enough. And my husband Mark Street, who’s a filmmaker too, did the sound recording on that with Nagra, the quarter-inch tapes [like you see] in “The Conversation” and all the famous movies where they show people recording sound, so it’s running through a little quarter-inch machine reel to reel and the sound quality was pretty good because it’s right onto the decent audio material and then luckily I took good care of the original 16mm negatives.
One of the strongest through lines of the film becomes the relationship between your father and his mother. Was that evident from the start?
It was always a big part and something that we always wondered [about]. My dad had a pretty difficult childhood being shuffled back and forth between divorced parents, and I don’t mean to be psychoanalytic, but people do things their whole life to apologize for what happened when they were children to reckon with it or to find a sense of closure, and we always wondered if she was trying to make amends. They were tough amends, but I tried to suggest that there was a layering to those relationships [that extended into the present] and my grandmother died at 103, so [it was unusual when] most adult men in their seventies don’t have a chance to still deal with their mothers. [laughs]
I imagine there was always the sense you could film more. Did you know there was the right time to wrap this up?
This was the kind of movie where certain people who knew me well from family members to really good friends who had seen all my movies, they’d say, “Lynne, okay, when are you going to finish the ‘Dad’ film?” The most pat line that I had — but it doesn’t work anymore — was that it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and [when] anything gets in my way, absolutely anything, I would keep shooting.
But I don’t know how you feel about all the photographs you take or videos you shoot in your life, but I don’t actually necessarily like going back and looking at them. You get sad because you miss the children who are now adults or you miss even more than the people who died, who people were, so all that kind of nostalgia or pathos, I didn’t know how I would deal with it. Once I set my mind to finishing it, one of the amazing things is when I went back, it wasn’t the images, but the sound, that was even more enthralling and I tried to bring that into the soundtrack of the film [because] usually sound is what you gather accidentally — casual conversations that were happening while you were shooting.
So that was the gift when I went through the material and that’s what actually the last few months [of editing consisted of] — I’d go and I’d look at material that I totally dismissed because the images I thought were so bad, and actually one of the things that kept me from making the movie is looking at the footage and being extremely judgmental of my own photography and then I came to this conclusion, which was I was sick of beautiful images. We can see beautiful images any time we want on television or in the movie theaters and the digital image is so available and so pristine that our measure of success with the digital image is often how does it mirror reality, but with the older cameras and the older material, it’s not nearing reality. It’s like much more impressionistic and it’s much more about the sensation of that moment in reality and I started to like that better. I thought, “Oh, I’ve got a lot of ugly images, like tarnished or degraded VHS kept in garages,” but I thought maybe the decay is interesting in a wabi-sabi way, so I decided I liked it.
How did you go about recording your voiceover? It’s wonderfully conspiratorial.
Another challenge of this film was to find my voice in it in a conceptual way – to be not just transparent, but to be expressive and not to keep censoring myself. I was at an artists’ residency in January, it’s called Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York and I had applied to write the narration for this film, but every time I started to write, I scratched it out. I [thought] I’m pretending to say something, but not really, so what I tried to do was get out my recorder, put on my headphones, sit in the dark or wait until nighttime and just start speaking and that was a breakthrough. I couldn’t censor myself. Because there was nobody listening, I just spoke and it’s very different because I thought 99 percent of the time when you speak, you speak for a listener, but this time I wasn’t really. Then I took those audio files, and I sent them to a transcription service and they sent it back to me within 36 hours and then I had the skeleton for working on my voiceover. I felt a lot less inhibited because then I was just tinkering with it, not trying to write it, so it’s like I wrote with my mouth. Ultimately, I did rerecordings [for what you hear in the film], but at least I felt they had more of an authenticity than just pen to paper.
Given your father’s history, it’s wild this will be premiering in Park City. What’s it like bringing this into the world?
Well, I’m nervous. My dad won’t be there because he spends winters in a warmer place, in Florida, but he’s going to come to one of the screenings in New York [later in the spring]. He’s seen the film twice already and he cried, which was the first time I’d ever seen that before, [and while] I’m nervous about Park City, but I also feel like there is an appreciation. My dad lived in this Bohemian way, so some people might say, “Well, I didn’t realize he had nine kids [by] six moms, but we all are actually close as a family, all nine of us, with him. We spend almost every holiday together, so he created this ramshackle family, [but] one of the things I realized [making this] is this whole idea of nuclear family these days, and maybe also going back decades, has more to do with how you feel a connection to other people. Like some of [my family], two of the sisters, I haven’t had a whole lifetime to get to know, but I’m getting to know now and it’s interesting. There’s so many families now that are finding each other through DNA. Ours is just a little different.
[8 mins. 20 secs.] The filmmaker Lynne Sachs makes her 3rd visit to the podcast; she appeared on Episode 328 with her husband Mark Street & again on Episode 515 with cast members from her film “Tip of My Tongue”. She’s back to discuss her most personal film yet, something she’s been working on most of her life, a film about her father Ira Sachs, Sr. Over a period of 35 years between 1984 and 2019, filmmaker Lynne Sachs shot 8 and 16mm film, videotape and digital images of her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering businessman from Park City, Utah. “Film About A Father Who” is her attempt to understand the web that connects a child to her parent and a sister to her siblings. With a nod to the Cubist renderings of a face, Sachs’ cinematic exploration of her father offers simultaneous, sometimes contradictory, views of one seemingly unknowable man who is publicly the uninhibited center of the frame yet privately ensconced in secrets. In the process, Sachs allows herself and her audience inside to see beyond the surface of the skin, the projected reality. As the startling facts mount, Sachs as a daughter discovers more about her father than she had ever hoped to reveal.
The film has its world premiere at Slamdance on Friday, January 24th at 7PM & again at 9PM, and then again on Monday, January 27th at 11AM. Visit the Slamdance website for details. The film comes to NYC at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight on February 11th at 8PM and again on Friday, February 14th at 4:30PM. Check MoMA’s website for details. Lynne also has a new book of poetry called “Year by Year Poems” (Tender Buttons Press | 2019). She’ll be making a number of appearances reading from the book: she’ll be at Dolly’s Bookstore in Park City on January 26th, 2:00 PM; at the Greenlight Books in Brooklyn on February 4th, 7:30PM; at McNally Jackson Independent Booksellers in Soho, NYC on February 18th; and participating at a reading & screening as part of National Poetry Month at the San Francisco Public Library on April 18th. Visit lynnesachs.com for more details.
Slamdance audiences will get a peek into the past 30 years of Park City businessman Ira Sachs Sr. when they sit down for the film festival’s opening night screening of “A Film About a Father Who” on Friday at the Treasure Mountain Inn. When it comes to managing a business you can learn a lot from Robert K. Bratt.
The documentary, by Sachs’ daughter Lynne Sachs, known for her experimental works such as “And Then We Marched,” about the 2017 Women’s March, and ¡Despertar! – New York City Laundry Workers Rise Up,” which documented a protest by laundry workers in New York City in 2018, examines the Park City millionaire’s non-traditional lifestyle.
That lifestyle covers not only his career, which included developing the Yarrow Hotel, now the Doubletree Inn. It also takes a look at Ira’s family, which includes his life’s secrets like the different women in his life who mothered his nine offspring.
Lynne says she had to make the film, because it is her “reckoning.”
“I think it’s kind of a feminist reckoning in that this was not the life I would choose to lead in relationship with these women and my dad,” she said in an interview. “I wanted to respect them. I wanted to recognize the different conditions that brought them into his life, therefore my life.”
In order to do that the filmmaker had to find a place where she would not be judgmental.
“I had to realize people make choices, and find different levels of compassion in order for me to go forward,” she said. “I have plenty of friends who don’t talk with their fathers, because their fathers did things they couldn’t abide by. And I didn’t want that. There are so many things that I adore about my father, so I had to take this whole package.”
Lynne made the decision to make a film about her father in 1991, nearly 30 years ago. She started filming on VHS tapes and switched to 16mm film.
“I would then go back and forth with Super 8,” she said. “Then I’d shoot in Hi8 and then Mini DV and finally digital, because the technology would change. I mean, I was shooting every time I was with him.”
Working with the different mediums posed the logistical challenge of combining them into one cohesive storyline.
“I didn’t want to tell the story chronologically, because that was of no interest to me,” she said. “I did, however, wanted it to run episodically, so each section would have a moment of realization and pathos. I didn’t want that just to come at the end of the whole film.”
Lynne also wanted the audience to experience each discovery she made about her father in the same way she did.
“I wanted to maintain my own naivete, and look as if I was finding out these things about my father at the same time the audience was,” she said. “My father so many layers. He’s one of those people who could function in the mainstream, but isn’t just interested in being there. That’s why he had these other pockets of relationships and connections.”
As a child Lynne learned a little about her father’s lifestyle while the family lived in Memphis before it moved to Park City in the late 1980s.
“We lived a pretty conventional life, but my dad was also friends with all of these artists, and people who did funky, radical things,” she said. “So he let us in and out of those communities.”
Lynne said Ira had an “open door policy in his life.”
“You just never know who would walk in,” she said. “I didn’t know if these people would be staying with us for a long time or just coming over for dinner. That kind of unpredictableness was something I had to get used to.”
Although Lynne had been working on the film for the past three decades, she knew that audiences would eventually see it and learn about some of her family’s dynamics and secrets.
“I didn’t necessarily think that other people would be interested, but I also hoped it wasn’t going to be a film that was just about my relationship with my father,” she said. “I hoped it would be a film about how a child connects with a parent, and the imprint that parent leaves on the child, even though they are very different.”
Making the film also helped Lynne start thinking about herself differently.
“I was no longer just his daughter, but an adult who was trying to figure this man out,” she said.
The decision to submit it to Slamdance was another thing she felt she had to do.
“I’ve been making experimental documentaries for decades now, and I’ve opened other people’s doors by asking them to tell us about their lives,” she said. “So, I felt it was time for me to open my own door and look inside.”
That idea also tried to keep her from finishing the film.
“I felt vulnerable for myself, for my family and for him,” Lynne said. “But he’d opened up to me, and I saw that he made choices that were layered in a search for happiness. Throughout the film you will see my father never said goodbye. He kept saying hello.”
The filmmaker knows that her father’s lifestyle made a challenging film in the #MeToo era.
“But I think it shows the older men in our lives come with pockets of compassion and problems that need to be reckoned with, rather than simplifying them and putting them on a shelf,” she said.
Alina Solodnikova, Slamdance Festival manager, said “A Film About a Father Who,” which was submitted to the Breakout category, is a “brave statement” and needed to be the opening film.
“Lynne has established herself as an experimental filmmaker, and she patiently and delicately has been exploring her family history for 30 years,” Solodnikova said. “She discovered many new facts about a person who is fairly well known in Park City, and who happens to be her own father. The storytelling we thought was incredible, and it was a local story. So there wasn’t a question of whether or not it was going to be our opening-night film.”
I’ve been making personal, experimental documentary films since the late 1980s, beginning with Sermons and Sacred Pictures (1989) all the way through to The Washing Society (2018) – a total of 35 films, ranging in time from three to 83 minutes. Over the years, I have made non-fiction and hybrid works that continue to shift my point of view from shooting from the outside in, to shooting from the inside out. That is to say, I would make a few films that allowed me to “open the door” on a person, group of people or place that I knew little about in order to develop a deeper understanding through my filmmaking. Then, I would turn the camera back on myself and my immediate surroundings to produce more personal, introspective films.
This year, I completed Film About a Father Who, a feature-length film that I began shooting 35 years ago when I decided that the best way for me to come to terms with my relationship with my father, Ira Sachs, would be to witness his life, to record my interactions with him and his interactions with the world. Of course, I had no idea that it would take me so long to make this movie and that my own journey into adulthood and eventually motherhood would be reflected in the film as well. My father generously and unabashedly allowed me, and my brother, filmmaker Ira Sachs, Jr., to shoot with him anywhere and everywhere. Throughout the entire “production” period, I embraced 16 mm film, using the same used Bolex camera I purchased in 1987 for $400, every single time I saw my dad. In addition, I relied upon all forms of video tape and digital formats. Indeed, Film about a Father Who is an archeological record of our changing technology, relying upon: VHS camcorder videotape; Nagra 1⁄4” audio recorders; mini-DV, DSLR and Osmo cameras; Zoom digital recorders; and, cell phones.
I was born in the 1960s as were my sister Dana and my brother Ira. By the time I was 10 years old, my parents were divorced. In 1985, my father began what I’ll call a series of other family scenarios, with a new wife, and lots of girlfriends – both simultaneously and consecutively. There was no point in trying to keep count. By 1995, I had four new siblings; and by 2015, we became aware that there were two more secret sisters. I was already in the thick of making Film About a Father Who (I even had the title), but I had to find a way to shape my narrative to allow for all of these new, significant people.
At Thanksgiving 2017, I hired two professional camera people and a sound recordist to join me at my brother Ira’s apartment in New York City for the first ever gathering of all of my siblings. While everything else in the film is shot by someone in the family, I hoped that this formal “set up” would produce an anchor for the narrative, an opportunity for all of us to get to know each other better and to reveal our feelings about our father and his evolving family. We shot for four hours, and the experience was, for the most part, cathartic. But, as I looked through the footage with my editor Rebecca Shapass, we noticed that everyone was extremely aware of how I, in particular, responded to their words. Even a quiet sigh or a subtle raising of an eyebrow seemed to indicate to them what I was thinking. This, I believe, is a common scenario in documentary filmmaking, one that mirrors the dramatic paradigm in which actors look to directors for an affirmation that they have done a good job. It took me a year to accept that this singular, more contrived, scene was significant in terms of who was there in the same room, but did not take the film to the place I needed it to go. Throughout 2018, I either flew my siblings to Brooklyn or went to meet them where they live. In almost every case, I convinced my sisters and brothers to go into a completely darkened space with me. We often sat in closets. It was weird and very intimate. As I recorded their voices, resonating through my headphones, I knew I was listening to them in a deeper way than I had ever done before. There in the dark, they each accessed something new about our father that they had never articulated before.
Still, one of the biggest and most intimidating aspects of making this film was finding a way to translate my own interior thoughts – be they loving, rage-filled, compassionate or simply contradictory – about our father into a convincing, not too self-conscious voiceover narration. From the very beginning, I knew that Film About a Father Who would be an essay film that would include my own writing. One of the reasons the film took so long to make was that every time I sat down to put a pen to paper, I became intimidated by the process. I felt embarrassed by my anger, apologetic about my embarrassment, and frustrated by my awkward inability to accept the whole range of emotions I wanted to express. I also had no idea how to shape my newly discovered periods of bliss and confidence that I had found with my father, especially since I had given birth to my own daughters and was more insightful about the challenges of being a parent.
In January 2019, I had a three-week artist residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. In my application, I explained that I had been working on one personal essay film, dare I say it, for most of my life, but that I needed a quiet, somewhat isolated place to write down my thoughts. I guess Yaddo thought it was a worthy endeavor, as they invited me to join about 12 other artists during that time. Lucky for me, I suppose, this was a particularly icy period in Upstate New York; taking long walks in the woods, as I had expected to do each day, was so risky that it was prohibited. I had no excuse but to write. For the first few days of the residency, I would diligently place my notebook on my empty desk, open it to the first available page, pull out my lovely fountain pen (which I hoped would inspire eloquence) and eventually write down a few words. Next, I would read the words – usually around 20 at most – over and over again. Then, I would scratch them out and start again. At least, I thought to myself, I am not using a computer where the Delete button beckons, seduces and devours. There were still traces, palimpsests of dwindling assertions and quotidian doubts.
After a few days of anguished horror vacui, I realized that this conventional, familiar way of writing was never going to work, at least for this film. As if like a flash of light, or a jolt of electricity, it dawned on me that I had other tools available that might help me to generate the words for which I was so desperately looking. At around 4:30 p.m., just as my dwelling in the woods was starting to get dark, I unpacked my Zoom audio recorder, put on my headphones, closed all the doors to remind myself that I had absolute privacy, plopped myself on my bed with a bunch of pillows, and began to speak into the microphone. At first, it felt awkward and humiliating, so there in the dark I decided to make myself feel even more alone. I closed my eyes and let go. I am a person who is, more often than not, consistently self-aware and polite. I say what I mean, but I sometimes cover up how I really feel with an acute attention to grammar and kindness. Now, in this funky isolation, this makeshift recording studio, this anything-goes-at-last sensation of solitude, I let loose and the words poured out. Over a period of 10 days, I recorded hours of material – oral histories, in a sense – that were generated by me as daughter, artist and director. To my surprise, I was actually able to apply the newly discovered “in the dark” approach to recording with my siblings to the way that I listened to my own thoughts. Since my editor Rebecca and I had already edited most of the visuals for the films, I was quite strategic and was able to produce a whole array of responses to specific scenes in our current work-in-process.
Of course, I knew that eventually I would need to transcribe all of the words I had spoken. In this high-tech, service-oriented world in which we all live, this part was easy. I emailed my audio files to a transcription service and within about 36 hours typed documents of an inchoate narration arrived in my email inbox. I spent the second half of my residency reading and editing my own words, almost as if they had been created by someone else. There, before me, almost magically, but then again not, was the skeleton for my film, the narration.
I actually believe that my enthusiasm for recording in the dark is an outgrowth of the current image-crazy culture in which we live. Each of us, in our own way, attempts to cultivate and control the various forms of media that feign to mirror who we are. By turning out the lights, we can begin to go beyond and below the epidermal, eventually connecting with and releasing our inner thoughts.
Lynne Sachs had already been working as a filmmaker for several years, finding her voice in making personal documentaries, when in 1991 she decided to make a movie about her dad.
“I was interested in the ways you could know a person, and to articulate that in film,” Sachs said in a recent interview. “I definitely didn’t know where it was going to go. Or that it would take almost 30 years making it.”
Sachs’ long journey toward understanding her father, former Park City developer Ira Sachs, will reach a major milestone on Friday, Jan. 24, when her movie, “Film About a Father Who,” has its world premiere as the opening-night film of the 26th annual Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.
Slamdance, showcasing independent movies made for under $1 million, runs Jan. 24-31 at Park City’s Treasure Mountain Inn, parallel to the larger Sundance Film Festival.
Peter Baxter, co-founder and president of Slamdance, said programmers chose Sachs’ movie because it “reveals how far bloodlines can stretch without losing connection altogether. While Lynne provokes us into choosing between love and hate, she assuredly explores the degree to which one human can know another.”
When Sachs started the movie, she said, “I was keen on looking at my dad and figuring out what made him tick, and how that had an impact on me on the rest of the family.”
“If I’m engaging with my father through my art-making, and through my life as his daughter, [I thought] that there could be some kind of catharsis, and that I could explore it both artistically and intellectually, but also emotionally,” she said.
Early footage shows Ira Sachs at work as a real estate developer who had an extensive Real Estate Trailblazers portfolio and was splitting his time between Memphis, Tenn., and Park City. (One of his best-known properties in Park City was The Yarrow, the hotel now known as the DoubleTree by Hilton, at Kearns Boulevard and Park Avenue.)
Sachs started coming to Park City in the late ‘70s, but didn’t move there full-time until 1986 — when Lynne’s younger brother, Ira Sachs Jr., graduated from high school in Memphis.
“He was kind of ready to live in the mountains, ready to live somewhere where he could explore the land more and be a pioneer more,” Sachs said of her dad. “The West beckoned. … He never wanted to go to Aspen or Vail. He wanted to go somewhere that was rougher, that was kind of finding itself.”
“He was kind of ready to live in the mountains, ready to live somewhere where he could explore the land more and be a pioneer more,” Sachs said of her dad. “The West beckoned. … He never wanted to go to Aspen or Vail. He wanted to go somewhere that was rougher, that was kind of finding itself.”
Sachs and her Memphis-raised siblings would visit Park City, and she even recalls attending one of the early editions of the United States Film Festival (which is what Sundance was called before 1991).
Ira Jr. was inspired by the independent film festival atmosphere, and also became a filmmaker. Five of Ira Jr.’s movies have debuted at Sundance, and he won the Grand Jury Prize in 2005 for “Forty Shades of Blue,” which starred Rip Torn as an irascible music legend with a much-younger wife.
That movie was inspired by Ira Sr., who had divorced his first wife — Lynne and Ira Jr.’s mother, Diane — and married a younger woman, Diana. Ira Sr. had three children with each wife, and those siblings were the only ones Lynne Sachs knew about when she started making her documentary in 1991.
Later, she learned her dad had other girlfriends, two of whom had daughters, Beth and Julia, with Ira Sr. A ninth child, a daughter named Madison, was born later.
“How many families have discovered similar quote-unquote ’secrets’ to mine, but through science?” Lynne Sachs said. “In some ways, this story is unusual in that it doesn’t use DNA.”
In three decades of working on “Film About a Father Who,” the movie now “contains all of my whole emotional spectrum, which is a little bit scary,” Lynne Sachs said. When she showed the film to friends during editing, “they’d say, ‘You haven’t really reckoned with all your rage as a daughter and as a young woman.’ Other times, I needed to reckon with [the fact that] I have forgiven my dad. He was complicated and very untraditional, but also a loving and very attentive father,” she said.
Ira Sr., now 83 and living in Florida, has seen the movie twice, Lynne Sachs said. “He cried, and I’ve never seen him cry before,” she said, adding that her dad has developed some speech issues that make it difficult to communicate directly. “I think he likesit,” she said. “There’s an openness to it, and I think there’s a candor that he respects, from all of us.”
Sachs said she hopes people will see her father as a unique character, but not that different from most dads.
She said, “I want people who watch it to imagine, ‘Well, how might I explore my father? What would be the questions I would ask? Maybe there were things he kept from me, because maybe he was protecting me — or maybe he had a side he didn’t want me to know.’”
Having just completed her new documentary, Film About a Father Who, Lynne Sachs reflects on the decades-long impact Godard has had on her creative process, recalling first-time viewings of Vivre Sa Vie, Notre Musique, and others, in this Single Take.
As much I call myself a cinéphile, there are certain times in my filmmaking process — be it the production or post-production phase — when I try not to watch anything that is not going to help me strategize on how to solve a particular obstacle in front of me. Once I’ve found a solution to the problem at hand, I hop back into theaters with anticipation and abandon.
When I read Martin Scorsese’s “The Dying Art of Filmmaking” in The New York Times this past November, I felt I’d come upon an awkwardly realized epiphany, the fraught words of a man who had reached the pinnacle of critical and commercial success, only to recognize the blanket banality of the nirvana on which he had landed. “Cinema is an art form that brings you the unexpected. In superhero movies, nothing is at risk,” he laments. It’s not just the characters who should be on an adventure. It’s the filmmaker as well. Whether in front or behind the camera, Scorsese seems to be saying that you must have the sensation of being fragile, caught in the conundrum of possible failure.
With this said, I choose to write about the enfant terrible, the angry old man, the sixty-year trendsetter for all things cinema, Jean-Luc Godard. The first Godard film I remember seeing was his 1962 episodically constructed fiction film Vivre Sa Vie. It was the mid-1980s, and I was in graduate school in the Cinema Department at San Francisco State University, shooting my first 16mm film, Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (1987). In that mysterious way that great teachers can connect with their students, a professor loaned me his VHS copy of Godard’s film. He simply informed me that he thought I would like it, and he was right. At its crux, this is why we go to graduate school, to find those kindred spirits who claim to know us better than we know ourselves. I watched this brazen yet delicate narrative film on a young mother who gives up her husband and family to find her independence, moving from acting to retail work to prostitution, and in the process immersing herself in her own epistemological inquiries. While I quickly realized that Godard as director was simultaneously constructing and destroying Nana’s place in the world in which she lives, I saw in his radical methodologies a language that offered viewers the opportunity to examine the meaning of the images and sounds in a film in new, revealing ways. In my four-minute Still Life, I too wanted to deconstruct (a popular word at that time) the apparatus of cinema. Ambitious, heady, and scared, I experimented with using fiction and documentary simultaneously. Unbeknownst to Monsieur Godard, he had given me a kernel of artistic confidence. Risk became my task and not my nemesis.
On a November morning in 2002, I sat down to read The New York Times. To my shock, I came across the story of an Israeli filmmaker and teacher who was killed along with her two sons on a kibbutz near the West Bank. In so many ways, her work and life paralleled my own as a filmmaker and new mother. I immediately contacted a former film student of mine, an Israeli, explaining to him that I wanted to make a movie about this woman but that I was not in a position to fly to the Middle East to shoot the project. My reasons were two-fold. First of all, I was disturbed by Israeli political actions in the West Bank and wanted to follow the exigencies of French feminist Hélene Cixous: “I am on the side of Moses, the one who does not enter…. ‘Next year, in Jerusalem’ makes me flee.” Second, having lived in New York City during September 11, 2001, and its aftermath, I still felt too unsettled to travel to another place on the globe where violence seemed to run rampant. I was scared. This was a physical risk I was not yet prepared to take. My 2005 States of UnBelonging was propelled by my effort at making an anti-documentary. Unlike most people in the field, I didn’t want to see, hear, or smell for myself. I wanted to rely on my imagination and on the mediation of others, be they amateur or professional.
During the last few months of editing this film, I watched Godard’s Notre Musique (2004) at New York City’s Film Forum. This film is an expansive, essayistic cinémeditation on the seemingly never-ending antagonism between Palestinians and Israelis. Throughout his epic political treatise — fraught with ambiguity, anguish, and outright anger – Godard dares to infuse his exposition on war with abstracted, richly colored, high-contrast images. These gestural arabesques transform the geographic specificity of his discussion into a choreographed dreamscape. As a viewer sitting in the dark, I felt a free-floating delight that I had never before experienced. While the “subject” was harrowing, the sensations were joyous; and yet I knew that this departure from the gravitas of the film’s thematic anchor was complicated. Once again, my “mentor” was giving me license to take similar formal leaps in my own film. The first few minutes of States of UnBelonging comprise highly solarized fragments from mainstream news material shot at and near the infamous wall dividing the Palestinian Territories from Israel. I used mostly primary colors that seemed to erase skin differences, making it almost impossible to tell which bodies were associated with a particular side of the controversy. For a moment, viewers don’t know which “side” they are on, politically or geographically. In this context, ambiguity itself becomes unsettling and, perhaps, risky.
Between 2007 and 2009, I watched a range of films including Rome, Open City by Robert Rossellini, The Garden of the Finzi Continis by Vittorio de Sica, Friendship’s Death by Peter Wollen, and Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman as research for the making of my 2009 film The Last Happy Day. While historically and thematically relevant to my film’s “subject,” none of these remarkable works helped me figure out one particularly challenging conundrum.
The Last Happy Day is an experimental portrait of Sandor Lenard, a distant cousin of mine whom I actually never met. During WWII, Sandor devised his own way to survive the traumatic world of Nazi-occupied Rome in the 1940s. As a struggling doctor with Jewish lineage, he worked for the United States Army reconstructing the bodies of soldiers killed by military explosions. After the war, Sandor, a brilliant stateless polyglot, ran as far as he could from the devastation of the war. He moved to Brazil where he taught Latin to children, and, in the process, threw himself into a seemingly ridiculous language experiment, the translation of the English Winnie the Pooh into the Latin Winnie Ille Pu. Surprisingly, the manuscript’s publication catapulted Sandor to a brief world-wide fame. Impressed as I might have been by his accomplishment, this was the part of his story that baffled me and prevented me from completing the film. I just could not connect with the so-called gravitas of Pooh/ Pu.
I once again turned to Godard, this time the 12-part television mini-series France/tour/detour/deux/enfants that he co-directed with Anne-Marie Miéville in 1977 and ‘78. Together, they produced an austere, ontological series of interview-style conversations with two children, a girl and a boy who appear to be about 10 years old. Watching these tapes reminds us that children are thinking, contemplative, confused, wise human beings who should be listened to from a very early age. After revisiting Godard and Miéville’s collaboration, with its low production values and bare-bones set, I was able to find a strategy for working with a children’s story that was at the center of my own film’s character but did not yet hold meaning for me.
Over a period of a year, I shot several cineme-verité style scenes with four children, including my own 10- and 8-year-old daughters and two of their friends. Together, they grappled with the challenge of putting on Winnie the Pooh as a play. In the process, each child searched for and excavated their own responses to Pooh — revelations that I, as an adult, had never been able to find on my own. In my The Last Happy Day, the inclusion of their considerations of, say, the meaning of death through the words of Eeyore the Donkey allowed me to locate the implicit paradoxes of my cousin’s own life, be it thwarted or nourished by the contradictions of his troubled times.
While making my 2017 feature-length essay film Tip of My Tongue, I tried to create a collective distillation of our times from the point of view of a group of friends and strangers from all corners of the globe. In the process, I gathered together eleven men and women born in the 1960s. One of my particular production challenges had to do with directing compelling scenes where people were delivering monologues, either to the camera or to another person. I wanted to activate the experience of listening as much as speaking. This time, Godard’s opening minutes from his 1965 Pierrot le Fou came to my rescue. In this simple yet extraordinarily memorable scene, actor Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a dapper father in the bathtub reading an art history tome on the paintings of Velasquez at the age of 50 to his young daughter. Clearly relevant to my film in terms of the artist’s age, the scene itself is poignant, profound and hilarious. After “studying” Godard’s own bathroom scene, I asked one of my film’s participants to draw some water, take off her shirt, get into bathtub, and tell her riveting story of athletic accomplishment and illness. The scene ultimately became the most talked-about and written-about scene from Tip of My Tongue. My gratitude to Jean-Luc abounds.
I recently completed Film About a Father Who (2020), which has its world premiere as the opening night movie at the Slamdance Film Festival this month and its New York City premiere in the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight in February. Over a period of 35 years between 1984 and 2019, I shot 8 and 16mm film, videotape, and digital images of my father. With a nod to the Cubist renderings of a face, my exploration of my father offers simultaneous, sometimes contradictory views of a man I should know pretty much everything about, but instead always find myself wondering. In the process of making this film, I allowed myself, my family, and my audience inside to see beyond the surface of the skin, his/my/our projected reality. As much as I might rack my brain to claim a debt to Godard in this, my most challenging movie so far, I must admit that I never actually found “Godardian” solutions to my decades-long list of obstacles to making Film About a Father Who. The only way I could finish this film was to take the obvious “risk” of going deep, deep inside.