A Reality Between Words and Images: Films by Lynne Sachs
At the center of Lynne Sachs’s short film Task of the Translator (2010), a group of classics scholars are translating a contemporary New York Times article about Iraqi burial rituals into Latin. Sachs’s intimate camera probes the faces and scribbling hands of the instructor and her students as they wring the right words out of each other (cadaver for dead body, vestigia for footsteps, but aegritudo for grief? Maybe luctus instead.). Sachs uses sound poignantly—fading and layering the scholars’ suggestions, affirmations, and nervous laughter so that the exercise feels arduous and drawn out. As form changes, can meaning remain? It’s a question for translators and experimental filmmakers.
Task of the Translator is one of six films in “A Reality Between Words and Images: Films by Lynne Sachs,” a program screening at e-flux Screening Room. Though not explicitly about translation, a number of the other films in the program deal with how meaning is communicated and what can stand in the way of its conveyance. In The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991), Sachs explores the representation of women in science and art through a collage of home movies, original narration, and found footage and audio. Detailing misconceptions, humiliations, private rituals, and even a bit of wry humor, the film showcases how the changing female body is willfully denied understanding in a patriarchal society.
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994) is a diaristic travel film that switches between the perspective of Sachs, a brief visitor to Vietnam, and that of her sister Dana, who has been in the country for a year. Sachs layers gorgeous footage she shot on a northward trek from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi with poetic narration and subtitled conversations with Vietnamese strangers and friends. Sachs initially tries to make sense of Vietnam through an understanding of the war. But as the film and her trip wears on, and Dana’s more nuanced observations take over the narration (including a moving anecdote about the region’s seasonal fruit cycle), Sachs develops a meaningful account of experiencing a place as it is.
In Carolee, Barbara & Gunvor (2018), Sachs visits a trio of filmmakers in their own spaces: Carolee Schneeman in her 18th-century farmhouse, Barbara Hammer in her New York studio, and Gunvor Nelson in her childhood village in Sweden. Through these brief portraits, Sachs communicates something essential about these artists (Hammer’s boundless energy, for instance) and how their personalities influence the language of their cameras.
In contrast to much of the other work in the program, Window Work (2000) feels purely experiential. Shot on video, a woman sits near her window, drinking tea, reading the paper, cleaning. Passages of time elapse in idleness without narration; instead the sounds of running water, a child playing, and a passing jet drone on. Two boxes dot the video image, hurling abstracted images onto the screen—taken from celluloid home movies. Though Window Work features two distinct film languages, it resists translating between them; it doesn’t attempt to parse out a mode of communication. Daylight beats on the window, and its glass becomes a mirror. In its iridescent reflection, the viewer understands solitude, reminiscence, the heat of the sun she’s felt before wherever she is.
“A Reality Between Words and Images: Films by Lynne Sachs” screens tonight, October 27, at e-flux Screening Room as part of the series “Revisiting Feminist Moving Image.” Filmmaker Lynne Sachs and her collaborators Kristine Leschper and Kim Wilberforce will be in attendance for a conversation.
Lynne Sachs’ film output is prolific and varied, encompassing documentaries, essay films, non-narrative experiments, and installations. Like many feminist filmmakers, a theme running through her work is the insistence that the personal is important. Whether one’s own body, private moments in a doctor’s office, or one’s sense of family and home, our personal lives are saturated with socio-political meaning. Many meanings are imposed upon us by culture (such as how we experience gender in the world); some meanings we create ourselves (what we choose to value in the face of our acculturation); and some meanings are a rebellion, an attempt to press against the harmful constrictions within culture (reformulating a fluid experience of gender).
Sachs has explored this theme of the personal in different ways across her career, sometimes reflecting inward and sometimes turning the gaze of her camera outward. In The House of Science: a museum of false facts (1991) and A Biography of Lilith (1997), Sachs turns her attention to the complicated relationship cis women have with the maternal.
The House of Science begins with an anecdote of a woman attempting to prevent pregnancy. The narrator tells us about visiting a male gynecologist to request a birth control device. Onscreen we see a mid-century image of a man in a lab coat putting a woman in a cage, and the voiceover tells us about asking this male authority figure for permission to have sex, to have sex while still controlling whether to have a child. He grants her this permission, giving her a diaphragm, but doesn’t tell her how to use it, deflating her power over her own body.
Thirty-one years later, this anecdote should feel like a relic of a previous era when male doctors adjudicated under what circumstances women were allowed to control when they have children. However, the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe and Indiana’s own abortion ban that went into effect this past week expose the fragility of all rights and the enduring power of patriarchal authority over our bodies. The salience of The House of Science persists.
A Biography of Lilith uses the mythological Judaic figure of the first woman as synecdoche for misogynistic ideas that continue to plague Western culture. At the same time, the film offers a counternarrative, celebrating birth and the enjoyment one can experience by the feeling of their own body. It’s a contradiction of freedom and constriction.
In her contribution to Essays on the Essay Film (2017), Sachs describes Lilith as “exploring the ruptures that both women and men must confront when transitioning from being autonomous individuals to being parents with responsibilities.”
The film contains footage from the birth of her second daughter. It’s not a birth film, per se, but Lilith exists in conversation with the home birth films of Stan Brakhage and Gunvor Nelson. In a 2007 Camera Obscura article, Sachs reflects on the impact Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959) has had on her film practice. In some ways, her interests mirror Brakhage: “Shooting my own material and engaging with the detritus of popular culture in found footage, I, too, am exploring the intimate, often problematic relationship that exists between the camera and the body.”
However, the gaze of the person experiencing childbirth and pregnancy is not the same as the partner watching from a distance removed. The embodiment that Sachs has experienced and her feminist values cause her to reflect, “…I watch this film with great ambivalence, wondering how Jane might have felt there, sprawled out before her husband’s camera, and later across thousands of movie screens. Is she painfully vulnerable, or is she the essence of strength and courage?”
Perhaps both. Lynne Sachs’ films remind us that we move through life carrying this contradiction — bodies vulnerable, but strong.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.
pair of films from singular filmmaker Lynne Sachs investigating the connection
between the body, the camera, and the materiality of film itself.
A Biography of Lilith:
Sachs explores the possibilities of a new creation myth in A Biography
of Lilith through a mixture of collage, mythology, cabalistic parable,
folklore, interviews, and memoir to provide a narrative of the first woman and,
perhaps, the first feminist. Situated on the margins of both documentary and
experimental narrative, the film spans Lilith’s betrayal by Adam in Eden to her
revenge story in the present-day, as a mother who gives up her baby for
adoption and works as a bar dancer. Featuring music by Pamela Z and Charming
Hostess. [35 mins; documentary; English]
Sachs | 1991 | USA | Not rated | 16mm
The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts:
The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts inspects and interrupts representations of women in the house, the museum, and in science, bridging between public, private, and idealized spaces to generate a new, dual image of women, of “a ‘me’ that is two—the body of the body and the body of the mind.” Through a lively assemblage of home movies, personal reminiscences, staged scenes, found footage, and voice, Sachs’ feminized film form reclaims the body divided among these spaces: “We look at ourselves from within, collect our own data, create our own science, begin to define.” [30 mins; documentary; English]
may seem old hat to say an experimental filmmaker’s career defies easy
classification, but in the case of Lynne Sachs, it’s necessary. Sachs has
produced over 40 films in as many years, as well as web projects, multimedia,
and live performances. Additionally, she has written original fiction and
poetry which appears in her films. Sachs has worked closely with filmmakers
like Craig Baldwin, Bruce Conner, Barbara Hammer, Chris Marker, Gunvor Nelson,
Carolee Schneemann, and Trinh T. Min-ha. Based in Brooklyn, New York, Sachs’
recent work includes five films with sound artist Stephen Vitiello, a
collection of site-specific live performances featuring two years of research
with NYC laundry workers, and a poetry collection, Year by Year Poems,
published in 2019 by Tender Buttons Press.
wide ranging the works of Sachs may be, there are common themes and concerns.
Her films frequently expose intimate and private details—often with personal
memories—and explore the problem of translation, not only between one text and
another but between text and image as well. Her predilection for collage,
mixed- media, and hybridized form is intrinsic to the themes she explores,
which often traverse public and private experiences. There is an ever- present
connection to be found between the concept and the material, the form and the
late 1980s and early 90s marks a period in Sachs’ career when her biggest
concern as a woman and an artist were the political and personal themes of
gender, the body, sexuality, and language. Like many of the “downtown”
avant-garde filmmakers working in NYC at this time, Sachs was inspired by
feminist literature, finding herself in a reading group with fellow filmmakers
such as Peggy Ahwesh and Lynn Kirby that engaged with the challenging ideas of
Irigery (Speculum of Other Woman) and Hélène Cixous (The Newly Born
Woman). In Sachs’ words, this was “some of the most powerful, eye-opening
literature I had ever experienced. For each of us, the discovery of the
expansive, rigorous and playful essays of [these authors] completely changed
our sense of language and the body.”
impact that this had on her perspective as a filmmaker can be directly sensed
in the narration in The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991,
30 min., 16mm), not simply through an abstract, intellectual stance, but also
through a visceral, lived experience:
A speculum before me, I hold the mirror just inches away and learn to
look—sometimes shyly, occasionally detached, and now, more often than not,
bravely. I touch myself with knowledge. I trace a path across my chest,
searching for surprises I’d rather not find, knots in the fabric.
voice from the movie: Look!!!
Undressed, we read our bodies like a history. Scars, muscles, curves of the
spine. We look at ourselves from within, collect our own data, create our own
science, begin to define.”
is through the form of the film itself that Sachs seeks to define not just
women’s experience but her own personal experience of fragmentation she felt
throughout adolescence. Narration here is not an overdetermined explanation of
events, but one among many types of media ranging from home movies, staged
scenes, found footage, and even Sachs’ own body, as the film explores the
fragmented divide between what it names “the body of the body” and “the body of
the mind.” This split is not just between the body and the mind but between
what is felt and experienced in the body versus what is said and shown in
private and public spaces from the home to the museum to the clinic, unable to
be fully defined in any of them. The House of Science is a means of not
only detailing these stories but of reclaiming authorship of one’s own body.
A Biography of Lilith (1997, 35 min. 16mm), Sachs expounds on this
theme, this time exploring the broader cultural narratives that define the
experience of gender and identity. A mixture of narrative, collage, and memoir,
the film reimagines the creation myth of the first woman as a modern tale of
revenge following Lilith’s betrayal by Adam in Eden. Sachs juxtaposes high-art and
mundane images of Lilith: in haunting silver, in Medieval Hebrew protection
amulets, Baroque paintings, Mesopotamian ceramics, in Jean Seberg’s portrayal
of the crazed Lilith in a mental hospital, in the TV-sitcom “Cheers.”
in the critical examination of sources in House of Science, here in
Lilith Sachs plays text against image in an attempt to rewrite these received
narratives: “I’m learning to read all over again, / a face, this time,
connected to a body. / At first, I feel your story from within– / Nose rubs
against belly, elbow prods groin. / Your silent cough becomes / a confusing dip
and bulge. / You speak and I struggle to translate.”
in many of her films, Sachs’ personal life and struggles are deeply connected
with the themes she presents. In this case, it was her first child that raised
the issue of the historical roots of our social definitions of motherhood for
her: “I was captivated by this story and all of the folklore that came with it,
especially since new mothers were historically told to be afraid of Lilith. She
was too willful and aware of her sexuality, which was exactly what attracted
me. I discovered Lilith when I was pregnant with my first daughter and finished
the film right after I gave birth to my second. My film Biography of Lilith is
a reflection of all the awe, fear, frustration, and excitement that was part of
artist who continues to inspire and innovate, Lynne Sachs’ films have been
presented at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), Tate Modern, Image Forum Tokyo,
Wexner Center for the Arts, and festivals such as New York Film Festival, Oberhausen
International Short Film Festival, Punto de Vista, Sundance, Vancouver IFF,
Viennale and Doclisboa, among many others. In 2021, she received awards for her
lifetime achievements in experimental and documentary fields from the Edison Film Festival and Prismatic
Ground Film Festival. A Biography of Lilith received prizes at NY Film
Expo; Black Maria; New York Women’s Film Festival and The House of Science has
received numerous prizes at national and international film festivals and
venues. As part of the IU Underground Film Series at the IU Cinema, The
House of Science: A Museum of False Facts and Biography of Lilith will be
shown on Saturday, September 24 at 7pm. The event is free but ticketed—visit
cinema.indiana.edu to reserve tickets.
The Underground Film Series, curated by IU graduate students, explores the artistic and subversive possibilities of film through the unique vision of noncommercial or otherwise marginalized filmmakers. The series encompasses modes of filmmaking from full-length feature films to documentaries, to short films, to video art. The Underground Film Series works to bring unconventional films that are not easily accessible by other means to the attention of the IU and Bloomington communities. By screening avant-garde and experimental films, the Underground Film Series brings audiences to films in danger of being lost or forgotten.
– The retrospective category has been dedicated to the American filmmaker and poet Lynne Sachs –
Displaying independent films from 37 countries and in 15 different languages, the tenth edition of the Costa Rica International Film Festival begins on Thursday.
According to the Ministry of Culture, the festival will take place in two parts. First from June 9 to 18 and then from June 29 to Aug. 26.
The categories of the festival include retrospective films, panorama, young people and pioneers of cinema, among others.
The retrospective category has been dedicated to the American filmmaker and poet Lynne Sachs, who has made 37 films, some of which have won awards or have been included in retrospectives at major festivals.
Sachs’s 2019 film, “A Month of Single Frames,” made with and for Barbara Hammer, won the Grand Prize at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in 2020.
In 2021, both the Edison Film Festival and the Prismatic Ground Film Festival at the Maysles Documentary Center awarded Sachs for her body of work in the experimental and documentary fields.
Last year the Festival displayed “Film About a Father Who” (2020), directed by Sachs, which is defined as “a poignant and moving film,” by Fernando Chaves-Espinach, director of the festival. “(Sachs) mixes fiction, documentary, experimental film, performance among others,” he said.
“Sachs demonstrates the energy of contemporary cinema and the multiple forms that this art takes, from an intimate and reflective perspective that dialogues with certain forms of filmmaking in our context,” Chaves said.
The festival will be held in several movie theaters in San José, as well as in different communities of the country in rural areas so that more people can enjoy the event, the ministry said.
In San José, the films will be shown at Cine Magaly, the Film Center of the Ministry of Culture and the French Alliance of the France Embassy in Costa Rica.
In rural areas, the festival will be presented at the CCM movie theaters, located in San Ramón and San Carlos in Alajuela Province, in Jacó Beach in Puntarenas Province.
Also, CitiCinemas movie theaters in rural areas will present the festival in Grecia in Alajuela Province, Limón City in Limón Province and Paso Canoas in Puntarenas Province.
In addition, the festival will be presented at Multiplexes in Liberia, Guanacaste Province.
The jury is made up of directors, producers and people of the film industry from Costa Rica and other places such as Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, Colombia, the Basque Country, Germany and Hungary.
The festival will award three mail films for their formal quality and content. In addition, the winning films will receive about $11,000 in prizes in the categories such as Best National Short; Best Costa Rican Feature Film, Best Central American and Caribbean Feature Film, among others.
The tenth edition of the CRFIC is celebrated from June 9 to 18, in its first stage, and from June 29 to August 26, in a second itinerant stage, in communities outside the GAM.
The public will be able to enjoy 87 films in competition and screening, from 37 countries and in 15 different languages.
69% of the films in programming are directed or co-directed by women.
With the presence in the country of the American filmmaker Lynne Sachs, the CRFIC10 pays tribute to her career.
RETROSPECTIVE DEDICATED TO LYNNE SACHS
The CRFIC Retrospective section is dedicated to the renowned American filmmaker and poet Lynne Sachs (1961), who has 37 films to her credit, including short films and feature films, some of which have won awards or have been included in retrospectives at major festivals. .
Regarding the Retrospective, the artistic director of CRFIC10, Fernando Chaves, mentioned that last year the Festival showed Film About a Father Who , a poignant and moving film.
“In this tenth edition of the CRFIC we have the honor of having its director, Lynne Sachs, as a guest of our retrospective,” continued Chaves, “whom we are excited to present for her mixture of fiction, documentary, experimental cinema, performance and other media. ”
According to Chaves, with this solid filmography, Sachs demonstrates the energy of contemporary cinema and the multiple forms that this art takes, from an intimate and reflective perspective that dialogues with certain ways of making cinema in our context.
To close with a flourish, Sachs will hold a workshop where he will experiment with national artists.
Program includes: • Film About a Father Who • Con viento en el pelo • Tip of My Tongue • A Month of Single Frames • Carolee, Barbara & Gunvor • Epistolary: Letter to Jean Vigo • Drawn & Quartered • Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning • Maya at 24 • Same Stream Twice • Photograph of Wind • Still Life with Woman and Four Objects • House of Science: a museum of false facts • Cuadro por cuadro
San José, Costa Rica, May 20, 2022- With a program of outstanding independent films from 37 countries and in 15 different languages, the tenth edition of the Costa Rica International Film Festival (CRFIC10) is held from May 9 to June 18, in a first stage, and from June 29 to August 26 in a second itinerant stage.
The CRFIC10 will be held in person in downtown San José, as well as in different communities in the country outside the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM), with the aim of reaching larger audiences that can enjoy the alternative audiovisual experience proposed by the festival program of the Costa Rican Center for Film Production (Cinema Center).
The artistic director of the 10CRFIC, Fernando Chaves Espinach, stated that “the Festival brings us the opportunity to confront ourselves with the most challenging, innovative and inspiring cinema that is being made today, with different languages and approaches, from very different countries. We have chosen winning films at renowned festivals such as Sundance, San Sebastián and Locarno, films nominated for Oscars and winners at other competitions, but we have also rescued titles that otherwise would not reach our theaters, true discoveries that show us the effervescence of contemporary cinema and its ability to shake us” .
The venues of the Festival will be located in the Magaly Cinema (the Main Hall and La Salita), the Gómez Miralles Hall of the Cinema Center, the French Alliance (in Barrio Amón) and the CCM San Ramón, CCM San Carlos, CCM Jacó rooms. , CitiCinemas Grecia, CitiCinemas Limón, Paso Canoas and Multiplexes Liberia.
In the itinerant stage, it will take place in the communities of Matambuguito, Shiroles, Boruca, Térraba, Sarapiquí and Grano de Oro.
The 10CRFIC program is made up of a careful selection of 87 international, regional and national films directed and co-directed, 69% by women, with varied content for audiences of all ages.
“We are proud to present a diverse programming in gender and geographical origin, which shows that cinema has never been monolithic in its language or in its origin; this programming allows us to articulate a defense of cinema as a diverse, complex art whose permanence as a vehicle of artistic expression requires spaces for debate and enjoyment such as festivals” , commented Chaves.
OPENING WITH UTAMA FEATURE FILM For the inauguration of the 10CRFIC, the curatorial team chose the feature film Utama (2022), by Bolivian director Alejandro Loayza Grisi.
The feature film is a co-production between Bolivia, Uruguay and France and is set in the arid Bolivian highlands, where an elderly Quechua couple have lived the same daily life for years.
In the middle of a drought, Virginio (80 years old) gets sick and aware of his imminent death, he lives his last days hiding the illness from Sisa (81 years old).
Loayza Grisi (1985) began her career in still photography and later entered the world of cinema through film photography.
As director of photography, he worked on the documentary series Planeta Bolivia, and on multiple short films such as Aicha, Dochera and Polvo.
Attracted by the stories that can be told through moving images, he ventured into writing and directing his first feature film titled Utama.
The competitive categories of the programming for this tenth edition are the following: Central American and Caribbean Feature Film Competition, with films from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and the Dominican Republic; and the National Short Film Competition, with eleven Costa Rican productions.
The 10CRFIC will award a statuette to three films that stand out for their formal quality and content, as well as 8 million colones (approximately US$11K at the exchange rate) in total in incentives and support to the filmmakers selected as winners of the Competitive categories: a 1 million colones prize for Best National Short Film, a 3 million colones prize for Best Costa Rican Feature Film, and a 3 million colones prize for Best Central American and Caribbean Feature Film, as well as two 500,000 colones prizes for special mention Jury Mention in Feature Films and Jury Mention in Short Films, respectively.
The other sections of the program are: Panorama, Radar, Approach, Last batch, Young people, Memory, Pioneers of cinema and Retrospective.
COMPETITION JURIES The jury for the Central American and Caribbean Feature Film Competition is made up of Peter Taylor (Northern Ireland), programmer and curator, and currently director of the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival; Christina Newland (United Kingdom), journalist for Vice, Sight & Sound, BBC, Mubi and Empire, on topics such as cinema, pop culture and boxing; and Pablo Hernández Hernández, (Costa Rica), professor at the University of Costa Rica with a doctorate in Philosophy from the Universität Potsdam and specialist in Aesthetics, philosophy of art and culture.
The jury of the National Short Film Competition is Alexandra Latishev (Costa Rica), a filmmaker who graduated from the New Film and Television School of the Véritas University; Juan Soto (Colombia), editor, director and archivist, who currently works at the Filmoteca de Catalunya as Film Preservation Project Manager; and Vanesa Fernández (Basque Country), director of the Zinebi Festival and coordinator of the Degree in Audiovisual Communication at the University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea (UPV/EHU).
For their part, the CRFIC Industry juries are Gudula Meinzolt (Germany), with training and experience in cultural management and cinema in areas such as research, promotion, organization of festivals, distribution, exhibition and co-production; Karolina Hernández (Costa Rica), founder and general producer of Dos Sentidos SA and coordinator of the Audiovisual Production area of the Office of Communication and Marketing of the Tecnológico de Costa Rica and professor at the University of Costa Rica; and Zsuzsi Bankuti (Hungary), who since 2020 directs the Cutting Edge Talent Camp, since 2022 is the interim director of Open Doors, and also works as an international strategy consultant for the Doha Film Institute, the Torino Film Lab and Cinemart.
Figuring out the unique grammar of your life can be difficult. People, situations, can give us question marks with no answers and ellipses that lead to nothing. Lynne Sachs, a Memphis-born experimental filmmaker, attempted to answer some of these questions in her own life with the 2020 documentary, Film About a Father Who. She offers an in-depth look at her father and titular character.
Ira Sachs Sr. is an enigmatic hotelier out of Park City, Utah, with an unmissable mustache and a penchant for colorful button-ups. His approach to love parallels in eccentricity. He despises loving like a “swan,” the idea of mating with a single soulmate for life. Sachs Sr. chose instead to surround himself with a steady flow of young women and went on to marry—and divorce—a number of them. Many of Lynne Sachs’ childhood peers were enamored by the bravado and Hefner-esque life her father led. But this way of life caused tension at times with those closest to him, to say the absolute least.
Beginning in 1984, Lynne Sachs chronicled moments in Sachs Sr.’s life for thirty-five years and those in his mother’s, ex-wives’, children’s, and others close to him. Her mission was to elucidate his tucked-away interior life, not just to an audience but to herself. Two years after the release of the film and two years younger than when Sachs began this project, I got to speak with her about it and her greater body of work. Sachs gave a lecture at Sarah Lawrence in the fall of 2021—for those who took Tanya Goldman’s “Experimental Documentary”course. I sat in my apartment in upstate New York and called Sachs, who was in a hotel room in Paris. She’d left her Brooklyn home for a few weeks to attend a screening of her work. In our hours of conversation, what stuck with me the most was what she said about the image above. Sachs stated that it is “the most important in all of Film About a Father Who.” A scene that wasn’t even filmed by Sachs, instead by her father. It’s a tranquil look at three of her siblings as children playing in a creek. For a film that follows a bon vivant and his unorthodox lifestyle, I was taken aback that this scene was the most important.
The scene occurs once in each of the three acts, all different segments of the same shot. Why? Well, it’s part of what makes this film, like each of her films, have a unique “feeling”—or “grammar”—to them. “Grammar,” as a metaphor, is illustrated in another wonderful scene in act one. I told her,
I really loved that scene in Film About A Father Who.
In it, Sachs, her brother, and her sister sit on her childhood bed talking
about how [your father] doesn’t have a grammar and your mother does when you’re living with each of them. Do you feel that your work as a filmmaker has some sort of grammar behind it? Or is it just question marks when you go into each project?
I think that what really, really distinguishes an experimental film from a more conventional film, whether you’re talking about a documentary or a narrative or any other form, is a refusal to embrace a formula around grammar or a template—the grammar of cinema. Because people say things like, “well, a great documentary is character-driven,” or they say “you can’t break the 180-degree rule when you’re shooting,” or you must have the exposition sort of identified and articulated in a narrative film by fifteen minutes in.
There’s all these rules about the shape of things. The way shot-reverse-shot insinuates that two people are in the same room and doing things simultaneously. If you know about making films, you know that they’re probably not, but it relies on an assumption on the part of the audience that the grammar of the film will be accessible and key to that—key is familiar.
So then you jump over to something that is more playful, experimental, distinctive in terms of each work, having its own cosmos. And you think that the audience at first might be a little disoriented because the audience doesn’t understand its distinctive grammar, but through the shaping, evolution of the film, the audience starts to register how meaning is constructed. And I think that’s really exciting. And I think that is an opportunity to constantly reinvent how you work with the medium of film. When I hear about someone who says, “well, I bought this software that helps you to write your screenplays, it comes with a template.”
I think, okay, if it comes with a template, then you are going to construct time in a certain kind of way. You’re going to create your characters in a, probably, formulaic way. So I’m scared of that kind of stuff. I think it’s problematic. So, then you asked that in relationship to Film About a Father Who, and I think that every family has its own grammar as well and that the grammar is significant because it guides you in terms of how you relate to people of different generations or new members of your family. It has to do with how transparent you are. What it means to do something like tell a lie, or what is a white lie? How many different people in your family do you tell white lies to, to protect them?
What does a white lie really mean? People either withhold information or you shift information because you think the truth is going to be complicated or intimidating or painful. So you were asking about the punctuation marks—are my films question marks? I do actually like when people leave my films, asking questions of themselves or questions of society or questions more ontologically about how we construct meaning. I like that. I think that’s an opportunity for being changed by a work of art. Or perhaps being just slightly shifted by it.
There was kind of a shift at the end of the film when you bring in your sister—the one that had been removed from you for so long. A lot of stories about your father- there’s some sort of way you and your other siblings in your minds might have justified them a lot of times, but in that one, there’s no justification for what happened.
Sachs’ half-sister went on a pre-college trip with a best friend from high school, staying in a ski lodge with Sachs Sr. At the end of the vacation, her best friend announced that she had fallen for and would continue to live with her father.
I felt like that really changed the perception of the film.
Sometimes we do that with things that upset us. We create justification in order to move forward, but then it keeps gnawing at us. So if we finally come to terms with our own anguish with the recognition that the reality is not what we want it to be, but it is there and that we can’t make any more excuses for it. Then I think it’s like a cathartic experience, even if it is difficult.
Also what I loved about that film is I felt you’re really comfortable not only behind the camera but also in front. Your  short film, Drawn and Quartered, you talked about how you at first edited out your face because you were so embarrassed [to show yourself nude], but then you ultimately decided to put it back in. And I felt like that was a moment of growth?
In English, we say, “oh, don’t you feel exposed.” We the word exposed on a physical level, and we use it on a psychological level.
So at that point, I was not very secure with showing my body, and I felt vulnerable and I felt too observed. But then later I made a film called the The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts, and I take my clothes off a little, other people do too—it’s a lot about the body.
But what was more of an exposed feeling was the writing. The idea of that you write about things that go on in your body and the grit of it all, the pus, the urine, and all those things. But the thing is, by exposing that, you’re actually saying I’m just like everybody else.I’m a woman. My body’s like all the other women; we’re just shaped a little different. It’s when you open up and expose the narrative of your life and all the compromises that come with that–that’s even more revealing. So there’s all these layers of what it means to be exposed.
As you’ve made films throughout your career, have you felt you’ve been able to be more comfortable [in front of the camera], or was this something from the beginning you felt—
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, definitely not. Sometimes I go back — not that I do this very much — and look at my progress reports from elementary school. And my teachers would say, “Lynne is a good student, but she’s so shy.” I wasn’t a very forthright child. I wasn’t the first person to raise their hand, you know, in those situations. But I think it’s come to me, and I think part of it is, let’s say, making a film like Film About a Father Who. I was so profoundly nervous about making this film.
It’s not just because I was exposing myself to you or to anyone else in the audience, but I was exposing myself, my life to myself. Does that make sense? I’ve never explored this word in this way. You are really making me think! Like I was saying, “Hey, this is really how it is,” because you can get very wrapped up in the day-to-day activities of your life and not really allow yourself to think in an analytical way, an emotional way about how, how you’ve lived your life. And so the film gave me that chance. I realized as I was making Film About a Father Who that two things happen when you’re interviewing and when you’re trying to write.
If I’m talking to one of my siblings and I’m asking them to tell me about how they feel about something, they’re looking to me, and I’m saying, “yes, yes,” and I’m nodding, and I’m affirming as if that’ll fit perfectly into my edit, you know, [like] that’s exactly what I needed. So I found that if we went together into a very dark place, like a closet, there wasn’t that constant affirmation and perhaps, manipulation. So that’s one thing. But then the other thing had to do with the writing and the construction of a voiceover or narration was that I kept censoring myself. So I used a method that has really proven to be super helpful. That was to just record my thoughts in this kind of unfiltered way and then to send it to a transcription service. And then you come back, and you have 20 pages of text. That was how I did it since I kept writing in my moleskin diary and scratching it all out.
I know you got your start with feminist filmmaking.Seeing Film About a Father Who, I wondered was there any sort of [internal] conflict?
I was actually editing Film About a Father Who during the Me Too movement. So I was cognizant of the fact that I was talking about a man who led a life, well, he’s still alive, in which he had a certain kind of power over different women in his life. Maybe not in the workplace, but you know, in his personal life. And I knew that there were contradictions, but I felt that I was not only making it as a feminist but also as a daughter. You look at your parents as role models, but you also look at your parents for ways to be completely different.
They’re your first models of how to exist in the world and for how to define what their sexuality is—how they define the meaning of their gender. And so either you adhere to that, or you move away. And for example, in Film About a Father Who, I think my brothers were all positioning themselves in very different ways in terms of their own identity as men. I think that they were confronting those things in just as complicated ways as we as daughters were. I mean, my brother Ira said he thinks the gist of the whole movie is a kind of search for a new or refined definition for masculinity in the 2020s.
So I was trying to deal with that all the time to move between my rage at my dad, but also my attempt to forgive him or to recognize his flaws.
I also found it interesting that from the beginning of your career, you started filming people in a unique way, compared to traditional documentarians that do shot-reverse-shot and have them look at a certain place. Whereas I feel like a lot of people that you film will look right at the camera or look right at you. How did you even think to do that? Break that rule.
Oh, you really picked up on something. That happened particularly in a film called Investigation of a Flame
(a 2001 documentary by Sachs that illuminates the story of the Catonsville Nine, who were Catholic activists in 1968 who peacefully yet poignantly burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War.)
When I was shooting that film, most of it, not all of it, I shot by myself. I was shooting it, but I was also using it as an opportunity to get to know these incredible anti-war activists, people who had been fighting the fight—the good fight. And even breaking the law in an absolutely nonviolent way as a statement against the Vietnam war. So I was on my way to interviewing someone near Boston. And a friend of mine who worked for National Geographic [said to me], “How are you going to shoot that by yourself? Because where will they look?” But that’s part of a grammar, that conceit, that idea that you have to look like three-quarters off. I think it was Errol Morris, the documentary filmmaker, who came up with a camera which he reconfigured so that people could simultaneously look at him while he was shooting and appear to be looking off at something. He invented some form of refraction to kind of work against that formula for setting up a relationship that isn’t about that the director controlling—[even though] we know the director is controlling. I mean, one of my very favorite places to do interviews is in the car because I think when people look off at a horizon line, even if the car isn’t moving, they become very introspective. Have you ever noticed all the deep conversations you might’ve had in a car?
Yeah. No, I never thought about that. There must be something with like the horizon—
The horizon, the sort of hermetic solitude—removed from the rest of the world but not really. You’re not in a silent chamber. You’re actually watching the world go by. But people become very— what’s the word? Meditative.
I definitely remember you having a couple of interviews where a person is looking out a window, looking outside.
I’ve been criticized for that. Oh my God. I had an interview in Investigation of a Flame where I’m interviewing this man. And then I look out the window— the camera looks out the window. And a lot of people were surprised that I kept that. They said, “why didn’t you just put in ‘B-roll’?” But I actually hate the term B-roll. I can’t stand it. It’s so disrespectful of the image, but also, I wanted the shot to convey that I was listening to him. I mean, I thought it was honest. I was listening to this man so intensely that I needed to not look at him. I needed to take in what he was saying.
I think that’s so interesting that you hate that term “B-roll.” Because I definitely feel like for a lot of your films, what makes them so good is that you have like an eye for beauty in all moments. No moment is B-roll.
I think that I said it was “disrespectful to the image,” but it actually doesn’t allow for the dialogue or the voiceover to have multiple layers of meaning. It just provides a little bit of distraction. I mean, I would say if the idea of B-roll, as in filler, is all you can do, just put in black.
The attention to dialogue is evident in each of Sachs’ films. Her 2013 documentary, Your Day is My Night, documents the lives of Chinese immigrants living in Manhattan’s Chinatown. In a scene where a middle-aged man gives another a back massage, he apologizes for bringing trashed mattresses into their shared living space. He likes to clean them and give them back to people in need. Sachs cut back and forth from a close-up of his hands gingerly rubbing the other’s back to a close-up of his face as he speaks, the window reflecting in his glasses. The audible rhythm of the massage combined with the focus on the scene presented—no, B-roll—makes it feel immersive. It made me linger on every word, every sound.
Sachs cares greatly about the spoken word but also the written. Many of her films intersect both of these mediums. Her 2020 abstract short film, Girl is Presence, silently follows her daughter arranging items from shark teeth to film strips while a poem is recited as a voiceover. For this short, she collaborated with poet Anne Lesley Selcer. I thought it was intriguing that Sachs, being a documentarian who tend to concern themselves with prose-oriented storytelling, has such a strong interest in poetry. Though, it is not surprising because Sachs herself is a poet. In 2019, her first book was published, Year by Year Poems (Tender Buttons Press) which inspired her 2017 documentary Tip of My Tongue.
I know you write poetry as well.
Yeah, I think there’s an interesting intersection between film and poetry that isn’t just about two different disciplines coming together, but it’s a way of listening. So poetry is like a confrontation with or a disruption of more conventional ways of constructing meaning, of organizing sentences. Poetry asks you to think in more associative ways and in speculative ways and redefines words you thought you knew. It asks you to listen in this kind of super-engaged way. And I also like that poetry thinks about the words in collision with each other and overlapping each other like the songs of words and even the fact that we break lines based on sound and based on rhythm, which is not how prose works. And that’s also how I like to edit, for example, dialogue in my films. I like to think about the ways that things are iterated, not just a cause and effect. Like I say this, and then you say that, and then I say this back to you. So I think poetry pushes you to engage with the oral experience in really revealing ways. I have recently, like in the last four or five years, integrated poetry more and more into my own film work, like with “Tip of My Tongue.” Then I made quite a few films in collaboration with other poets, like Bernadette Mayer or Paolo Javier.
Watching your films, I felt like there was a unique flow to the dialogue a lot of times.
One thing that’s been helpful over the years is I often shoot images separate from recording sound. So when you shoot what we call video image or digital, it’s like the sound and the picture usually, as they say, it sounds so terrible, [are] “married.” So you get the image, and you get the sound, and people tend to privilege the hearing of clear, clean sound in order to convey information. But if you let that go, you can allow dialogue to transform into sound effect. Like in conventional filmmaking, you have a track which is dialogue, a track which is effects, and a track which is music. But if you think of it all as an opportunity for dialogue to become music or for a sound effect to register almost like voice, then you start to get surprises that I think are super interesting.
That just reminded me of like- I love that opening of The Washing Society, where it was cutting to different [exteriors of] laundromats [around New York City]. I just remember watching that, and, you know, I had the volume turned up. And I felt like each laundromat, each area, had its unique sounds to it and really flowed into each one quite nicely, but then became distinct.
Thank you for saying that. In that film and about five others, I’ve worked really closely with Stephen Vitiello, who’s a wonderful sound artist and performer. We started working together on Your Day is My Night in 2013. Then he worked with me on Tip of My Tongue , Drift and Bow and Film About a Father Who. I’ll send him sounds from laundromats, then he’ll send me back musical pieces, and they’re usually much longer than the image. So then I have to find more image. And so it’s really like a back and forth the whole time. It’s never simply that he just creates the music track.
That’s the main methodology [for] him making music for your films? You’ll send him soundbites, and he’ll send you music?
Sort of. A lot of times, I’ll send him an image, and then he’ll come up with something, or he’ll say, “listen, [I] sent you all these sounds I made.” He also uses instruments. Sometimes he’ll hire a clarinet player, and then they’ll make these longer pieces, and then I love the piece so much that I think I have to meet him with more image. For me, the places where we have his music are very evocative and also places for thinking so that my films aren’t too much dialogue. I call them a sound vessels so that you can be in this place of resonance without exposition or information or anything like that, listening in a more relational way.
So, sometimes he’ll send you music, and you’ll actually respond by filming more?
Yeah. Yeah, sometimes.
I think that’s awesome.
It’s a lot of pressure, but I try to rise to the occasion.
I think in that way it makes the films breathe a little more, you know, so that you have some kind of scene where you have all this activity and energy and conversation, and then you have, a time that’s more sort of more cerebral. It’s not like a rest time. In fact, I think the audience has to kind of work with what they’ve just experienced in the previous scenes. That’s what I think happens in those sections.
Also, I see that you’re very interested in the ephemeral with a lot of your work. I’m wondering, for something as permanent a medium as film is, what is your interest in that?
Hmm, that’s really a lovely question. So, I guess I explored that most… I’m going to think about a couple of films, but I don’t know if you’ve seen them. Did you see Maya at 24?
Maya at 24 is a four-minute short film she released in 2021, which captures her daughter, Maya, at ages 6, 16, and the titular, 24. It’s comprised almost entirely of three paralleled scenes of Maya running in circles around a camera at each of those ages. Sachs shot it in black and white film on her 16mm Bolex.
So I was thinking about this while my daughter was spinning around me and then later as I was watching those moments on film. There on the screen are aspects of her that are no more—like I can’t touch anymore, that I can’t access anymore. But film itself can remind me; it’s almost like saying film is the antidote to the ephemeral? It’s sort of saying, “well, nothing is ephemeral because we can contain it and put it in our computer or put it in a can,” but yet it is also constantly reminding us that it no longer is. Did you see a Month of Single Frames?
No, but that’s the one about Barbara Hammer?
Yeah. You know, Barbara Hammer’s work?
A little bit. I’m not too knowledgeable of her, though.
Well, she was definitely a mentor of mine and a dear friend—she was never a teacher—but I admired her. She was exactly the same age as my mom is, and she was a powerhouse, “lesbian, experimental filmmaker,” that’s what she called herself. And when she was dying, a year before that, she asked me and some other people to make films with materials she had never been able to finish. And so the film that we made, which is a Month of Single Frames, or that I made in homage to her, is also about the ephemeral because it’s a recognition of the mortal coil as well as the changing landscape that you’ll see in the film. The landscape is- has- will always change. So it’s only there to hold onto and to touch in that exact moment. It’s like the Heraclitus, you know, “you can’t step in the same [stream] twice.” And so, it is always passing us by. I’m working on a new film now called Every Contact Leaves a Trace. It’s about people who’ve left imprints on me, but that expression comes from a forensic study. That if you come into my home or space and you take something from me, you leave something of yourself, a residue. So I’m interested in that. What happens when a tangible, touch-based experience is investigated, which is sort of like, how do we confront the ephemeral?
So for that film, Every Contact Leaves a Trace. Are you trying to take like a neutral stance and pull in people that have had any sort of contact with you—negative or positive?
I actually only have a pool of 550 people.
That’s a lot, though.
But I’m not using all of them. No, I’m not. They are people who, at one point, gave me a card. We had a haptic intersection. It could be a doctor. It could be someone from like a hardware store. I have both of those types of people. I met a man on the border between the United States and Mexico, right in Tijuana. We met for about an hour. He gave me his card. So, I’m actually constructing scenarios in my mind about those. Yeah, it’s kind of similar; you said “ephemeral.” It’s like a passing in the night. That man left something with me. Maybe I left something with him. I don’t know. That happened in 2014, but I have these cards going back all the way to the ’90s. I’m interested in not so much the trajectory of their lives but in the detritus of the moment. I might do kind of playful reenactments. I’m not quite sure.
Like Lynne Sachs’ use of business cards to recall moments with strangers, near the end of the interview, I brought out stills from her films to recall scenes. The image I brought for Film About a Father Whowas one of my favorites, but the one I had the most trouble understanding. It’s the image you have seen twice thus far—Sachs’ siblings playing in a creek. I was first drawn to it by the use of color and light. Then, when I noticed she repeated it across the film it made me believe it had to hold more significance than I understood. Though, I was not prepared for how important. I said to her,
I noticed that you repeated this image in Film About a Father Who.
Oh, thank you. Okay. I love that you brought that up. What happens in Film About a Father Who is that I have a seven-minute shot that my dad recorded with his own camera. So it’s the world and his children perceived by him. In many films that one makes, you talk to people, and they tell you exactly how they feel about things. But that was really a challenge for me with my father. So, to see the world through his lens, through his eyes, was such an opportunity for me to think about the positive things that he brought to his children. I had that material, and at first, I absolutely dismissed it because it had been completely degraded by time, by the weather, by the fact that the material had been in a garage for decades. Then I looked at it again, and I realized it was the most important image in all of Film About a Father Who. Because it has this compassion, but also as an image, it’s like the classical golden triangle. It’s constructed graphically like what you’re taught in design school or in drawing class—to create this perpetual motion inward towards the center through a triangle. And so, I was interested in using that as a marker three times in the film, but it’s not exactly the same shot. It’s different parts of the same seven-minute shot. Each time you, as the viewer, have a different level of engagement. The first time the children are sort of archetypal children playing in the water. The second time you know that they’ve grown up and you’ve seen them in other places, and you’re able to have a kind of comprehensive understanding of life live; they have become thinking, engaged adults. The third time that you see it, you bring a kind of gravitas. Like these people have been through some pain. They have wisdom; they have interesting and complex interactions. So I’m interested personally in how you change as viewer because each time you see that frame, you are slightly more knowing. By the end, you’re almost omniscient, but in the beginning, you’re just engaging with it as material image.
That was so profound. I absolutely love that explanation.
It was really a reversal because I was so dismissive of that shot, and then I was so enthralled by it. There’s one other shot in Film About a Father Who that’s kind of like that. At the very end, there’s this static-y black and white shot where you only see the silhouette of my father, and he’s going off towards the horizon line. It probably was at the end of a tape and was damaged in some way. But I liked that it was pared down to these high contrasts blacks and whites, and that was it. It is my father, but it could become your father or anyone in your life you’re trying to hold onto.
You can find many of Lynne Sachs’s films on the Criterion Channel, Fandor, DAFilms and Ovid:
We are delighted to present a program of films by experimental documentarian Lynne Sachs, who has been prolifically creating works for cinema for four decades. Her non-fiction films, represented here in 11 works of varying lengths, powerfully evokes the curiosity and richness of a life lived through art.
Living in Brooklyn, New York, Sachs is part of a community of active experimental and documentary filmmakers and has long eschewed conventional forms of making movies. Her work, perhaps inevitably, defies easy classification. Instead, it is best understood collectively as a sprawling adventure playground, stretching across continents and blending influences across the borders of distinct art forms. Our focus maps a path through some of the ideas and forms that recur time and again in Sachs’ cinema.
The marks of war that linger in the background of a society—from Vietnam to the Middle East—are an ever-present specter in her long format films, as are the transformative effects of time on members of one’s own family. Feminism in all its forms is an animating subject and drive for Sachs, from the early formal experimentations with bodies and spaces in Drawn and Quartered to the energy of the Women’s March fragment And Then We Marched to the love, artistic kinship, and solidarity between female friends and comrades evident in Carolee, Barbara & Guvnor or, more implicitly, A Month of Single Frames.
Her latest feature length work, Film About a Father Who, whose title hints at Yvonne Rainer, provides a perfect entry-point into her style. This film is not only a torn and disrupted family album, but is also a document of the development of the evolution Sachs’ filmmaking over the years. A feature-length polyphonic portrait of her father, Ira Sachs Sr., taken over many years, it ultimately suggests that the man himself is unknowable, that his mysteries are too vast to be captured by a camera. Through reckoning with this fact, Sachs seems to suggest, the filmmaker is able to unearth other truths, about herself and about her family as a whole. A crucial early work, marking the end of a distinct period in Sachs’ work, The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts, is available to watch for free.
• Doc Alliance Selection – Since 2008, the Doc Alliance platform presents the Doc Alliance Selection Award. The award goes to the best European documentary film selected independently by each of the platform’s festival members. The individual festivals also nominate the representatives of the jury of experts, recruited among the film critics from the festival countries. Within the Doc Alliance Selection section, each of the Doc Alliance festivals screens at least 3 films nominated for the award in the given year.
• The online portal DAFilms.com is the main project of the Doc Alliance festival network formed by 7 key European documentary film festivals. It represents an international online distribution platform for documentary and experimental films focused on European cinema. For a small fee, it offers over 1900 films accessible across the globe for streaming or legal download. The films are included in the virtual database on the basis of demanding selection criteria. The portal presents regular film programs of diverse character ranging from presentation of archive historical films through world retrospectives of leading world filmmakers to new premiere formats such as the day-and-date release. DAFilms.com invites directors, producers, distributors, and students to submit their films, thus offering them the possibility to make use of this unique distribution channel. For more information, see FILM SUBMISSION.
director: Lynne Sachs original title: The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts year: 1991 running time: 30 min.
synopsis This defiant feminist mosaic subversively recontextualizes archived materials dating back to the 1950s. Footage taken from a medical laboratory, an educational film on menstruation, and an amateur fantasy film about a mermaid gain whole new meanings. The repurposed shots represent the female body as a kind of freak show of bodily processes, sexuality, and maladaptation. Opposing the distorted imagery of women rooted in our patriarchal world is American poet Gertrude Stein, who seeks to bridge the gap between the “body of the body” and the “body of the mind” and achieve the integrity denied to women by Western society.
“I deconstruct a purely cinematic reality that to me seems disturbing, humorous, and just plain visually provocative. The composition of a single frame displaces the seedbed where I can cultivate my paintings and collages.”
biography Lynne Sachs (1961) is an American experimental filmmaker and poet. She studied film and history in San Francisco and at Sorbonne. Her work blurs the lines between live-action film, documentary, collage, and performance. Sachs tends to explore feminist and socially critical themes. Ji.hlava IDFF 2021 will also present her film Maya at 24.
In The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991), Lynne Sachs exposes the edifice of scientific “facts” with which the male-dominated disciplines of science and medicine have constructed an image of what a woman is.
Opposing the distorted imagery of women rooted in our patriarchal world is American poet Gertrude Stein, who seeks to bridge the gap between the “body of the body” and the “body of the mind” and achieve the integrity denied to women by Western society. We bring here the script of this experimental film, that is screened online till 14th November at Ji.hlava IDFF online.
VOICE OVER: I met him while I was on the table, you know they you put on the table, put you in the stirrups and he walks in. At first, it’s a kind of an awkward introduction. Second, maybe he didn’t mean it, but I don’t think he had any inclination to be warm or kind or talking. It was a real quick examination. I was still on the table. I was pregnant. He said “Any questions?” His hand was on a doorknob. And I, of course, said “No.” I had a zillion questions. And I can’t tell you how tall he was. I was lying down. But he always struck me as short, cold and with glasses, and he may not look like that at all.
TITLE: The House of Science: a museum of false facts
RECORDING OF MALE DOCTOR GIVING A LABOR LESSON IN DELIVERY ROOM: Doctor: That’s the spirit I like, very nice indeed. I like that spirit when you take charge of yourself. Woman: Yes. Doctor: You won’t have anyone messing you about. That’s how it should be. Woman: Have you seen what the head looks like? Doctor: It’s covered with hair. Woman: What color? Nurse: Black. Woman: Dark hair. It will come out now showing, then go back. Popping in and out like that until it gets far enough out to stay out. Woman: Yes. Doctor: Then that’s what we call the crowning. Twenty minutes after that you’ll probably have your baby. Woman: You know it seems extraordinary that frail women must do all this pushing. Doctor: I often think that. Doctor: Yes, it’s a boy. Woman: Is he all right? Doctor: Oh yes. Woman: Listen!
LYNNE’S ONSCREEN DIARY & V.O: The doctor’s office is full blond Victorian women patting their stomachs, smiling, Monalisa-esque, knowing. They welcome 18 year old me to their coterie of framed ladies-in-waiting. Waiting for the “pop,” the baby. And meanwhile, they sell pharmaceuticals. They pose in their nicely framed images hung ever so carefully around the waiting room of Doctor L. I am waiting too, for sex, and much, much later the “pop.” But now, it’s sex, with a someone I don’t know, as of yet. It’s an abstract meeting but I want to be prepared. I’m here for one thing, Doctor L., the armor. It’s too bad though, I don’t say “sex.” I say “college.” “Give me a diaphragm, Doctor G., so I can go to college.” He gives me the shield but doesn’t tell me how to use it. I leave his office, fully equipped, protected, completely incapable of placing that plastic, or is it rubber, sheath over my cervix. Where is my cervix?
The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts
LYNNE’S VOICE: But, uh, I don’t know if you want to talk about this, so if you don’t want to talk about this, but it interests me. It’s not something you have to …Do you think that, at the time, I mean that a lot of women, for many women, that dealing with that, whether it’s abuse or exploitation or whatever from ….?
VOICE OVER POEM BY GERTRUDE STEIN READ BY THREE WOMEN: That’s wonderful …woops … okay girls … lifting belly is so strong, lifting belly is so strong, lifting belly together, lifting belly oh yes, remember what I say, do you? (Laugh) That’s a mother’s line. Okay let’s start all over and we’ll get it this time. It will give me a feeling of completion. Lifting belly is so strong, I want to tell her something, wax candles, we have brought a great many wax candles, some are decorated. They have not been lighted. I do not mention roses. Exactly. Actually. Questions and butter. I find the butter very good. Lifting belly is so kind. Lifting belly fattily. Doesn’t that astonish you? You did want me. Say it again. Strawberry. Lifting kindly belly. Sing to me I say. Some are wives not heroes. Lifting belly merrily. Sing to me I say. Lifting belly. A reflection. Lifting belly joins more prizes. Fit to be. I have fit on a hat. Have you. What did you say to excuse me? Difficult paper and scattered. Lifting belly is so kind.
LYNNE’S DIARY ON SCREEN: My memory of being a girl included a “me” that is two. I am two bodies – the body of the body and the body of the mind. The body of the body was flaccid and forgotten. This was the body that was wet with dirty liquids, holes that wouldn’t close, full of smells and curdled milk. Of course there was the skeleton. This was assumed and only reconsidered upon my very rare attempts at jumping farther than far enough, clearing the ditch, lifting the heave-ho. But the body of the body was not the bones. This body wrapped and encircled the bones, a protective cover of flesh, just on the other side of the wall I call skin.
ANTHROPOLOGICAL TEXT READ OUTLOUD BY LITTLE GIRL WHO MAKES MISTAKES (SUBTITLED): Let us take the next example, that of a born thief. Louis C. Magnan writes of her, aged nine, was the daughter of a mad father, always in …. a condition of sexual excitement. She was of weak intelligence. Her instincts had always been bad, her conduct turbulent, and her mind incapable of concentration. At three, she was a thief and laid hands on her mother’s money. At five, she was arrested and conveyed to the police office. She shrieked, tore off her socks and threw her dolls into the gutter and lifted her shirts in the street. But on looking at her photograph, one perceives that although only nine years old, she offers the exact type of the born criminal. Her jaws and cheekbones are emmense, the frontal sinews strong, the nose flat. She looks like a grown woman – nay, a man.
GIRLS WHISPERING: Remember … remember … the next day … tomorrow… the next day … tomorrow … remember … tomorrow … remember … tomorrow … remember … this movie and there were these women … with elephant snouts … and really long …. I know I saw that movie too … they jumped off the screen …the next day … remember.
LYNNE’S DIARY ON SCREEN: The body of the body moves in cycles and with every repetition there is a sensation of pain. The reminder, emanating from the core, the indefinable marrow that can never be touched, is a cleansing, scarring, tactile, silent exclamation. The arrival of the body of the body forces the body of the mind to take notice, begrudgingly so. With legs crossed, the blood is caught just before it crosses the border into the public domain.
WOMAN’S VOICE: But I always thought black widow spiders spit, cause I really loved black widows, and I would always go out and stand by them and I ran to get my father to show him, and he said that I couldn’t go near it, and I said that I wouldn’t ever touch it. You know, I was just going to watch it. And he said “No, cause it will spit at you!” And I believed that unquestioningly, until, I was, and I told everyone “Oh yeah, black widows spit….” I don’t think black widows spit. It doesn’t even sound logical. I don’t even think they have any apparatus to spit.
VOICE FROM ARCHIVAL DOCUMENTARY SCIENCE FILM: Body hair appears, most noticeably under the arms and in the pubic region. Menstrual or monthly periods usually happen every four weeks, however they’re likely to be quite irregular for the first two or three yeas while a girls is still maturing. And later a cycle of perhaps five weeks or three weeks is perfectly normal. It takes time to get used to the changes of adolescence which at first may seem so strange. However, for many girls menstruation brings no problems and little discomfort, only the extra time needed for cleanliness.
LYNNE’S DIARY AND V.O.: Filled with infectious, infected liquids, we hold in the blood, the water, the sneeze, the wax, the hair, the puss, the breath. All that is ours to let go, to release onto this earth, is held in, contained. I am the cauldron of dangerous substances.
WOMAN’S V.O.: Well, as a young child I always had a lot of coughing and stuff and my mother would never allow me to spit what came out of my chest. Because she said that “Girls don’t spit. They swallow it. You know you don’t do that because it’s vulgar.”
MAN’S VOICE FROM OLD DOCUMENTARY: Science began when man began to observe and make note of his observations.
GIRL WHISPERING: … the next day … tomorrow …the next day tomorrow I know I saw that movie too … the next day … tomorrow.
GIRLS’ VOICES FROM OLD MOVIE: For someone who has so many outside activities. She’s smart, that’s why. Sure she’s smart, but she’s also human. Besides, this thing is all over school now! Is that true? Have the rest of you heard about this?
THREE WOMEN ON SCREEN SPEAKING: Woman #1: Prostitutes have longer hands and larger calves but their feet are small. Woman #2: While criminals have the darker hair and eyes, it is the prostitutes whose fare and red hair now surpasses the normal. Woman #3: Female thieves, above all prostitutes, are inferior to moral women in cranial capacity and circumference.
GIRLS WHISPERING: I saw this movie called “The Secret Garden.”
WOMAN’S V.O.: My dad was always disappointed because my mother never gave him a son. We rode his butt when we found out men are the ones that give a child gender. Cause he had really harassed my mom for years because she didn’t have a son. So we had to tell him that it was his fault. Cause he really, really wanted a boy. I was the closest thing that he had to a son for years.
MALE V.O. FROM OLD MOVIE THAT TEACHES DRAWING LESSONS: … is to support the framework and to give a framework to the body and to give it contour … There’s no difficulty in looking at a subject such as this to see that it’s symmetrical.
SAME THREE WOMEN ON SCREEN SPEAKING: Woman #1: Prostitutes have longer hair and larger breasts, but their thighs are smaller. Woman #2: But I have dark hair and dark eyes and I like my hair red. Woman #3: No way, they’re rough, they’re tough, they’re hard to bluff.
WOMAN V.O.: Like I can remember when I learned about martyrs. I was going to be Joan of Arc or I was going to be different saints and then I was going to be the Virgin Mary. Then I remember when I read about Nancy Drew. Then I was going to be her. So I had more recollection from the inside out. Visually, from the outside in, I remember putting on make-up like my mother, but would always cover my whole face with lipstick.
MALE VOICE FROM SCIENCE RECORDING ON BABIES: No one has yet come up with a complete and precise interpretation of each type of cry. There are catalogued some twenty different non-normal cries and fifteen to twenty different normal need cries. In a moment, you will hear four different normal need cries. The cries illustrated are hunger, pain, fatigue and fretfulness.
LYNNE’S DIARY AND V.O.: I remember my first introduction to the bridle, the bra. I was a horse irritated by such constraints. My bosoms were a keen, smooth extension of my growing, extending torso – all one piece. The cusp between my breast and my rib was a hiding place for my lanky, unwieldy arm. I was triangle, feeling a wholeness somewhere between my elbows and the nape of my neck — until the bridle came and created divisions, areas of artificial mystique, a separation between the functional arm and the sexual breast. Territory.
WOMAN’S V.O.: We have Rubens’ women. They are, I assume they are purchased for this purpose, like chubby, flesh women swinging on swings or lounging around, always kind of grotesque looking and there – just to be taken, just right there for the taking. And I assume that is why they were purchased, though we pretend that they were just purchased for art. Or there’s another, the Venuses, there’s a period of time when they were shaving all the pubic hair from the Venuses. There’s something I think about power in removing that hair and also a few perversions in the male culture that made that so popular. I think they become less powerful images for the male. And I think a lot of times, the more the visual images can be disarmed the better the male artist feels.
LYNNE’S DIARY V.O.: A speculum before me. I hold the mirror just inches away and learn to look – sometimes shyly, occasionally detached, and now, more often than not, bravely. I touch myself with knowledge. I trace a path across my chest, searching for surprises I’d rather not find, knots in the fabric.
MAN ON A HORSE IN OLD MOVIE: Look!
GIRLS WHISPERING: There was a secret garden and she had been in it, and she found it and she dug a hole everywhere she could find it and she found the key and she found the door and the next day she told another boy ….
LYNNE’S DIARY V.O AND TEXT ON SCREEN: Undressed, we read our bodies like a history. Scars, muscles, curves of the spine. We look at ourselves from within, collect our own data, create our own science, begin to define. Built from the inside out, this new laboratory pushes against the walls of the old structure. An incendiary effect, yes, but not arson.
GIRLS V.O.: Girl #1: Doctor, doctor, I can’t talk very well, I lost my voice. Girl #2: Okay, let me take a strep test. Girl #1: Okay, what do I do? Girl #2: Just open your mouth, and I’m going to put this down your throat. Okay, now we’ve got to put it in the chemicals. You have strep! Girl #1: I do? Mom, I have strep. What’s strep? Girl #2: It means you have a very soar throat. Girl #1: I do? Oh, thank you. What do I have to do for it? Girl #2: Well, just take the aspirin and wait a few weeks. Girl #1: Okay, bye! Girl #2: Bye!
An exhibiting filmmaker’s thoughts on the recent online festival, Prismatic Ground.
It began, as so many things do these days, with a tweet: in October 2020, Inney Prakash, programmer of the Maysles Cinema’s “After Civilization” series, put out a call for experimental documentary films. The resulting festival, Prismatic Ground, debuted in early April with a diverse line-up of new and repertory non-fiction films that ran the gamut of genres, styles, and techniques. Imagine: a programmer directly engaging with his community of filmmakers with an open-hearted all-points-bulletin was the antithesis of conventional festival gatekeeping. The refreshing prospect was a beacon to filmmakers struggling to create and exhibit work during a traumatic and hostile time.
Prakash’s call for submissions caught my attention on that fateful October night: for once, my endless Twitter scrolling put me in the right place at the right time. For the last four years, I’d been dutifully at work on a narrative feature concerning Julian of Norwich, an obscure 14th-century woman mystic. With development and production on indefinite hold, I resolved to keep in “fighting shape” by making whatever I could—however I could—about Julian’s ecstatic religious experience. I had originally set out to make a companion piece, a sort of altar to this long-overlooked religious icon. What began as a few standalone tableaux eventually turned into The Sixteen Showings of Julian of Norwich, a bricolage of stop-motion animation, back-projection, and collage.
I was very fortunate to have a job for most of last year, but working well beyond the customary 40 hours a week in these new circumstances was disastrous for my mental health and creative practice. For the first few months of this solitary arrangement, I was lucky if I ended each day with just enough energy to bathe and feed myself. Readers, no doubt, will recognize this feeling immediately—a pervasive fogginess, a dearth of initiative, contained on all sides by fear, dread, and exhaustion. The immediate reaction for many of us possessing an artistic temperament is to heal through the work, to create from a place of self-preservation as a therapeutic exercise (because, to be perfectly honest, very few working artists can afford traditional talk therapy).
After a nights-and-weekends work schedule, I finished a short film in my little office consisting of whatever I had on hand. It’s a wild departure from my usual narrative practice of snappy dialogue and meticulously-designed sets, edging my practice into a heretofore unexplored aesthetic and style.
Sixteen Showings was my first attempt to make a film without in-person collaborations: Tessa Strain’s narration, Matt Macfarlane’s original score, and Eliana Zebrow’s rich sound mix were directed entirely over email. The film was tangential to my would-be narrative feature, but very much apiece with my overarching vision. Finishing this solo effort was a balm—somehow I had made something new despite… well, you know, everything. But what now? Surveying the fruits of this months-long process, I struggled to conceive of a suitable afterlife beyond the customary Vimeo upload. Where could I screen this? What context could there possibly be for a theological exploration of isolation, plague, and revolt? Calling it a “shut-in watercolor movie,” or “moving altar,” while elegiac, didn’t quite fit the bill.
Enter Inney Prakash’s well-timed tweet and timely festival. Emboldened by his transparency and programmatic voice, I steeled myself for yet another humbly-toned inquiry. When Sixteen Showings was selected, I was shocked, ecstatic and, in a way, relieved: if there was an audience for this film, surely I would find it at Prismatic Ground. Having never enjoyed a virtual premiere, I went into the experience as a total neophyte. But for every gripe there was praise in equal measure: the pleasure of connecting with an otherwise distant viewership, public recognition for work made under great duress. Prismatic Ground helped me recontextualize what felt like a moving target. More than a descriptor or genre, “experimental documentary” affords artists a wide berth to do just that: experiment with cinematic and journalistic techniques within a nonfiction framework. To that end, I began to understand the dual significance of Sixteen Showings as a documentary about Julian of Norwich’s life and, by extension, my own.
In a festival space laid low by last year’s pandemic, Prakash saw an opportunity to challenge “the toxic or tedious norms governing festival culture, and to emphasize inclusivity and access.” Where the year’s higher-profile festivals sought to replicate the exclusivity of their in-person events with geo-blocked premiers and Zoom happy hours, Prismatic Ground promised viewers a deliberate antithesis. Its programming, ethos, and even web presence were tailor-made for the online space, prioritizing widespread access and a filmmaker-centered focus on screenings and Q&As. Prakash’s curation was mission-driven: “It was important to me to strike a balance,” he said, “between early career and established filmmakers, palatable and challenging work, passion and polish.” The line-up generously gave equal weight to artists at every stage of their process. Instead of single-film, time-sensitive screenings, audiences enjoyed free reign to explore and engage of their own accord, a heretofore unheard of format—online and off.
Organized in a series of “waves,” Prismatic Ground was structured around four separate collections touching on simultaneously personal and societal themes. It was reassuring to screen Sixteen Showings alongside equally intimate works, each with a different visual and philosophical approach. I was, and still am, grateful to Prakash for including my film. Despite being a newcomer to experimental filmmaking and documentary, I never once felt like an impostor. That feeling carried over to my experience as a viewer as well: these were films unlike any I’d seen, whether due to their newness or, in the case of repertory titles, my own lack of access. I am grateful to the festival for offering an avenue through which to engage with the work of other like-minded artists.
I was eager to hear from my fellow filmmakers about their road to the festival and experience as participants in this bold experiment in public exhibition. While we all arrived through different avenues, I immediately noticed a shared resonance. A wide net-approach to programming naturally attracted filmmakers reeling from the exclusionary nature of the mainstream festival circuit. Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Max (Two Sons and a River of Blood, 2021) was quick to note how “Inney was able to really access all of the different layers of what the piece was doing.” For director Sarah Friedland (Drills, 2020) it was the fervor of how Prakash had “created the festival he wanted to exist, instead of trying to reform an established festival” that drew her to the event.
For filmmakers navigating constraints brought on by the pandemic, and its ongoing economic aftermath, social media provided the sense of community missing from in-person festivals. Elias ZX (You Deserve The Best, 2018) was already familiar with Prakash’s programming work on “After Civilization” when they submitted their film. “We became friends through Twitter, [and] he told me about his plan to make an experimental documentary festival.” Screening online “gave my film space to breathe in a way that is really uncommon for festivals. Every viewer was allowed to have a completely unique experience with the film.” Virginia-based filmmaker Lydia Moyer (The Well-Prepared Citizen’s Solution, 2020) saw the festival as a chance to broaden and strengthen these seemingly disparate filmmaking communities. “As a person who lives in a rural place, it’s great that so much interesting work has been available this year to anyone who’s got enough bandwidth (literally and figuratively).” Moyer said. “The way this is set up is for online viewing, not just trying to transfer an in-person experience online.”
Programming the work of early career filmmakers alongside more established artists was more than a canny curatorial choice. The variety presented across these four waves expanded the audience’s access to repertory titles, while simultaneously reiterating the connection between both older and more recent offerings. Prismatic Ground’s streaming platform and presentation stood out for director Chris Harris (Reckless Eyeballing, 2004), who “had some streaming experiences that weren’t so happy in terms of the technical aspects.” The festival’s creative exhibition format was especially taken by “the mix of programming, special live events, and the flexibility of accommodating filmmakers with the option of live and recorded Q&As.” For prolific filmmaker Lynne Sachs, Prismatic Ground represented “an entirely new, unbelievably adventurous, compassionate approach to the viewing of experimentally driven cinema,” emphasizing that the festival itself was “beyond anything I have ever seen in my life.”
Among the filmmakers I spoke with, Prismatic Ground’s liberal approach to exhibition belied a tremendous sense of potential for artists navigating a post-COVID festival ecosystem. Harris noticed an “[increasing] festival bandwidth for underseen/emerging Black experimental filmmakers,” a tendency that he “[hopes] to see continue after COVID.” In lieu of a return to in-person only screenings, the general consensus saw streaming as a fixture in future festivals. “I don’t think it is going to be possible to put the toothpaste back in the tube here,” noted Zx, emphasizing that “more access will be good for filmmakers… and will challenge programmers to be more competitive, to release more obscure films that are harder to find.”
Prakash’s groundbreaking work has already heeded the call, citing critic Abby Sun’s Berlin Critics’ Week essay “On Criticism” as a guiding principle. “Festivals aren’t merely reacting to social conditions,” Sun writes. “They are often the primary creators of them.” Prismatic Ground’s focus on diverse curation and access reaches well beyond the artistic ramifications. Prakash’s end goal is emboldening, a manifesto of sorts: “Enough of premiere politics, prohibitive pricing, playing only the same handful of films at every festival. Let’s create better conditions. There is a moral imperative to keep doing virtual screenings now that we know we can and how.”