In The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991), Lynne Sachs curates a moving-image exhibition of womanhood, carefully sampling artifacts from the past (fabricated truths built to sustain male dominancy), intertwined with empirical artifacts of her own history (personal truths and memories). Through the power of visual and aural association, several domains of the exhibit simultaneously unfold in front of us: the personal, the public and the historical. Sachs drifts between these domains smoothly until a whole network of information is gently bestowed upon us. We start with the image of a doctor guiding a woman into a glass booth, followed by him setting a model house on fire, and the sound of Sachs’ voice, telling us about her experience of being examined by an apathetic gynecologist while pregnant. The image of the detached male doctor lingers with us for the whole length of the movie, along with his perverse power over a female body, over her right to “bare armor”—as in, contraception—and over her right to give birth. Together with Sachs, we wince at the story of her obtaining a contraceptive diaphragm. The doctor has no issue sending her off into battle with her new armor and zero instructions on how to do it. “I leave his office fully equipped, protected, and completely incapable of placing that plastic sheath over my cervix. Where is my cervix?” Next, we see a naked woman rolling up and down a sand dune unceasingly.
Another moment sat with me throughout the movie, that of a little girl. A little girl learning to read, stumbling through the grotesque words of Dr. Cesare Lombroso, naively walking us through his diagnosis of a nine-year-old female, a “born thief”. Sachs explores the concept of criminal atavism by juxtaposing her daughter’s voice with the delusional criminalization of women based on their physical appearance. By pairing images of female child-like playfulness and purity with delusional artifacts of the late 19th century, she amplifies the gap between the male study of women and women themselves. She flows between the public, mainstream, male rationale and the private, subjective female counter-experience. We are left with the uncomfortable ambiguity of child-like giggles of lightness and historical screams of darkness.
At the core of Sachs’ exhibit lies her most intimate gaze upon womanhood. It is articulated into unspoken words on the screen:
“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.” (We hear pencil scratches.)
The body of the body of a woman is biologically destined to be softer and therefore more fluid. All this fluidity, open space, holes, smells are often psychologically coupled with shame. Sachs’ words here represent the experience of most girls becoming women. This body of ours is too visceral for both us and the world to accept.
“The body of the body moves in cycles, and with every repetition there is a sensation of pain. 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” (We hear a person peeing and a loud flushing of the toilet.)
Not only is the body of the body full of liquids and smells, but they threaten to spill over into the public domain. Our bodies and all their products are trained to be confined.
“Filled with infectious, infected liquids, we hold in the blood, the water, the sneeze, the wax, the hair, the pus, 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.”
To defeat this imposed belief system of male ideas which we were fed throughout our lives is to inspect and observe your body for yourself. It takes a lot of courage to look into your own body with curiosity, rather than shame.
“I trace a path across my chest, searching for surprises I’d rather not find, knots in the fabric.”
Women are being re-educated to examine themselves instead of being examined by the cold metal-handed gynecologist. However, self-examination carries a burden of unforeseen surprises. Releasing our juices into the public, into the mainstream. Bravely facing the knots in the fabric as early signs of our bodies decaying.
“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, but not arson.
When we are brave enough to look into the stretch marks, the scars, the wobbles, the curves, we own our space, our fluids and our bones. We collect and process our data, introduce new terminology. We allow for the soft to be malleable, buoyant, rather than flaccid and weak. We allow for differences. We allow for change. We allow for expression to re-place suppression. We become safely vulnerable instead of avoidant or anxious. We spit our words and meanings out instead of swallowing them.
In between the personal and the public domain lie Sachs’ women. These are real, physical women, subjects of anatomical studies, as well as women in paintings, subjects of the male painter’s gaze. The first, forced silent, the latter, painted static, confined to a space in history, “to be taken”. We witness a female artist looking at men looking at women.
Despite the immanently observational, passive and saddening tone of the movie, there is a promise in this exhibit. A promise that by carefully unfolding and studying the history of womanhood, one is already shaking the habitual. Sachs’ voice is not passive at all, it is rather filled with precisely focused meditative anger, an eloquent scream for justice, live from the gynecologist’s office, calling for help and cooperation.
To aid and support this novel conception of womanhood, we seek out new imagery, new viewpoints, new forms. Sachs’ filmography is a great start. The House of Science shifted my gaze to earlier works of art, predating celluloid. I searched for an alternative museum of womanhood. In particular, the Viennese modernist painters Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka stood out as engaging with the representation of women: as neither virgins nor whores, allowing their female subjects to escape this demeaning cage. They let their subjects move around freely, be comfortable, take up space, lie down wrapped up in themselves. Schiele went one step further: painting anger and anxiety on the faces of his subjects. “By exploring such subjects, the three artists simultaneously exhumed their own sexuality: their fears, sorrows, hopes, and ecstasies…their women do not necessarily submit passively to the male artistic gaze. They look back and demand to be understood on their own terms.”1 These were not the only attempts by men to redefine womanhood in a feminist way. However, the others were often buried and forgotten, most likely because they were single, isolated sprouts of change.
Although revolutionary, the idea that cooperation could displace competition has certainly taken root lately. This idea insinuates that equality is actually a lot more functional and productive for all parties involved. A very timely example would be the evolution of a virus (or a random constituted body of persons, empowered by the state, with a specific aim, e.g. to enforce the law). If a virus were to survive, it would have to evolve in a cooperative manner with its host. Eventually, many highly infectious and pathogenic viruses have decreased their pathogenicity in order to keep their hosts alive. Some have even been completely eradicated over time. This gives me hope, both for us as a species and us as women. However, to put this into practice, we need both the unspoken voices to be heard and the destructive, competitive voices to fade out. It would have to be a cooperative effort.
Jane Kallir, ‘Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka – Men Looking at Women Looking at Men’, p. 59, in: Agnes Husslein-Arco Jane Kallir and Alfred Weidinger, The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka, 2015
I feel a closeness to writers, poets and painters, much more than to traditional film directors. For one thing, we ciné experimenters are not bound by the plot-driven mechanics of cause and effect that, for me, often bring the transcendent experience of watching a movie to a grinding halt. The kinds of films I make give the space for mysterious – at least initially — sequences that don’t simply illustrate why one event or scene leads to another. More like an artist than a traditional documentary maker, I am interested in a kind of meaning that is open to interpretation. Once a film is complete, I often learn things about it from my audience — how the convergence of two images actually expresses an idea or how a non-diegetic sound expands the meaning of spoken phrase. I hope it’s doing one thing, but I might discover that it’s doing something completely different. In this way, the films are kind of porous and flexible; they are open to interpretation. My essay films, in particular, are full of association. Some are resolved and some are adolescent; they’re still trying to figure out who they are. Through the making of the film, I learn about myself in the context of learning about the world. My job is not to educate but rather to spark a curiosity in my viewer that moves from the inside out. The texts for these films come to me in both public and private spaces: on a long train ride, during a layover in a strange city, at a café, in a hotel room, on the toilet.
Throughout the 1990s, I gravitated toward the simultaneously visceral and cerebral French feminist theory of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. As a moving image artist searching for a new discourse that spoke to radical issues with an equally radical form, I embraced this kind of writing as it led me toward the non-narrative, unconventional grammar of experimental film as well as the self-reflexivity of the essay. My first essay film was “The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts” (1991), a personal rumination on the relationship between a woman’s body and the often-opposing institutions of art and science. While I was shooting this film, I was also keeping a diary:
“My memory of being a girl includes 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.”
I will never forget a cross-country plane ride I took near the end of editing this film. Throughout the time I was in the air, as I flew across the Mississippi, the Great Plains, and the Rockies, I was searching frantically for the hidden skeletal structure of the film. I’d committed to a premiere at the Los Angeles Film Forum, and I only had a couple of months until my screening date. (Stupid me. I’ll never do that again!) Midway into the flight, I realized it was all laid out before me in the form of the poetry journal I carried in my backpack. The writing had been with me all along; I simply hadn’t realized that this text was more than a dispensable traveling partner in the “journey” that was the production of the movie. Over the next few weeks, my poems began to guide my editing of the images and sounds,. Ever since that early period in my filmmaking career, I’ve kept a handwritten journal during the making of my films. In addition to contributing an often times essential narrative element, this kind of writing can also be the critical link to the “naïve” yet curious person I may no longer really “know,” the person I was when I embarked on the intellectual and artistic adventure that is the creation of a film.
In my 1994 essay film “Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam” (1994), I built a voice-over narration out of two surprisingly oppositional perspectives on post-war Vietnam. My sister Dana Sachs, one of the first American journalists to live for an extended period of time in Vietnam, offered expansive, highly informed insights on Vietnamese daily life. In contrast, my writing traced my own transformation from earnest, war-obsessed American tourist to more keenly observant traveler:
“Driving through the Mekong Delta, a name that carries so much weight. My mind is full of war, and my eyes are on a scavenger hunt for leftovers. Dana told me that those ponds full of bright green rice seedlings are actually craters, the inverted ghosts of bombed out fields. At Cu Chi, we pay three U.S. dollars so that a tour guide will lead us through a section of this well-known 200-kilometer tunnel complex. This is the engineering masterpiece of the Viet Cong, a matrix of underground kitchens and living rooms and army headquarters. As I slide through the narrow, dusty passageway, my head fills up with those old war movies Dad took us to in the ’70′s. My body is way too big for these tunnels. I can hardly breathe. After five minutes, I come out gasping. We decide not to spend the extra ten dollars it costs to shoot a rifle.”
Only by reconnecting to the developing stages of my awareness through my journal could I provide an opening to my American audience. The narrative trajectory of this half-hour film follows our evolving understanding of the landscape and the people of Vietnam. Honestly, my sister Dana and I fought all the through the shaping of the film’s voice over. If she hadn’t been my sister, I probably would have fired her as a collaborator! The fundamental tension between the two of us grew out of several distinct differences between our points of view. While she had very much completed her own reckoning with the destruction of the war between Vietnam and the United States, I, like most tourists, was still dealing with the war’s echoes and the guilt that came with that psychic burden. While she wanted to follow the order of events to the letter, I felt free to articulate our experiences by distilling our stories into anecdotes that could function like parables. By recognizing the inherent tension between my position as a non-narrative experimental filmmaker and my sister’s commitment to a more transparent commentary, we were able to find a rhetorical strategy that mirrors the most fundamental conflicts around discourse and truth facing an essayist in any format. In several quintessentially self-reflexive moments, my sister expresses exasperation with almost every aspect of my production process:
“Lynne can stand for an hour finding the perfect frame for her shot. It’s as if she can understand Vietnam better when she looks at it through the lens of her camera. I hate the camera. The world feels too wide for the lens, and if I try to frame it, I only cut it up.”
In 1997, I completed “Biography of Lilith” (1997), a film exploring the ruptures both women and men must confront when transitioning from being autonomous individuals to parents with responsibilities. I began making this film when I discovered I was pregnant with my first daughter and by the time I finished three years later I was able to punctuate the final sound mix with the cries of my second child. Inspired by the theoretical texts of Julia Kristeva and Antonin Artaud, in particular, this film celebrates my most intimate and abject concerns about the changes in my body and my place in the world as a woman. My film on Lilith, Adam’s first mate, is also a portrait of a female archetype who boldly wanted to be on top during sex. The film matches a non-authoritative exposition of Lilith in a multiplicity of cultures – both ancient and contemporary – with my own pre and post-partum writing. In this way, I juxtaposed two years of historical and cultural research and interviews with intimate ruminations on my own sexuality and motherhood.
“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. I lie on my side, talk to myself, rub my fingers across my skin, from left to right. I read out loud, and I hope you can hear me. I’m learning to read all over again, but this time I have a teacher.”
In “States of UnBelonging” (2005), my fourth film in a five-film body of work I call “I Am Not a War Photographer”, I turned to Terence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” and to the “Hell” section of Jean Luc Godard’s “Notre Musique” for lessons from makers who were capable of articulating the horror of war. I constructed this film around an epistolary friendship I had with an Israeli student who moved back to Tel Aviv during an extremely volatile period in Israel-Palestine. A meditation on war as well as land, the Bible, and filmmaking, this essay film is built from over three years of emails. With enormous hesitation and intimidation, we reveal our anguish and bewilderment in the film’s soundtrack as well as on the screen as text. With an awareness of my own position in this charged political landscape, I start the film with a kind of meta-historical lamentation on the way that human beings organize time:
“Do you ever have the feeling that the history you are experiencing has no shape?
Even as a teenager I was obsessed with history’s shifts and ruptures. Wars helped us order time. A war established beginnings and endings. There is “before.” There is “during.” There is “after.”
I am currently working on “Tip of My Tongue”, a film on memory that began with 50 autobiographical poems I wrote about each year from my birth in 1961 to my 50th birthday. Unlike my previous films, in which the research and shooting themselves prompted the text, this project grew directly from my poetry. Without the slightest concern for how the poems would eventually shimmy their way into one of my movies, in 2012 I gave myself the unencumbered freedom to write about my own life. In each poem, I looked at the relationship between a large public event and my own insignificant, yet somehow personally memorable, connection to that situation. Now, three years later, I am working with a cast of eleven people from almost every continent, each of whom was born around the year 1961. Together we are creating an inverted history of our collective half-century through a series of spoken story distillations that place the grand in the shadow of the intimate. From glimpsing a drunken Winston Churchill on the streets of London to watching the Moon landing from a playground in Melbourne to washing dishes during the Iranian Revolution to feeling destitute during the Recession, we are working collaboratively to construct our own recipe for a performative sound-image essay film.
Excerpt from Review by Tanya Goldman in Cinema Journal:
“There is often a poetic dialogue extending between sections when a voice of the past rhymes with the present. In 1948, Alexandre Astruc wrote of a cinema that should function as “the seismograph of our hearts, a disorderly pendulum inscribing on film the tense dialectics of our ideas.” This quality is echoed in Lynne Sachs’s 2016 reflections on her own practice through which she feels a stronger sense of kinship with writers, poets, and painters than film directors. She states that her job “is not to educate but rather to spark curiosity in my viewer that moves from the inside out.” Observations such as these bestow the essay film with a distinct emotive quality much at odds with classical documentary’s association with sobriety.”
Tanya Goldman Cinema Journal, Volume 57, Number 4, Summer 2018, pp. 161-166 (Review) Published by University of Texas Press DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/cj.2018.0064
I feel a closeness with writers, poets and painters, much more than with traditional film “directors.” We share a love of collage. In the kinds of films I make, there are fissures in terms of how something leads to something else. Relationships and associations aren’t fixed. I always learn from an audience, about whether or not the convergence of two images is actually expressing an idea. I hope it’s doing one thing, but I might learn that it is doing something completely different. In this way the films are kind of porous; they are open to interpretation. One thing I realized recently is that I have this rhythm when I make films—ABABAB or yesnoyesnoyesno. For example, I call The House of Science a “yes film” because any idea that came into my head, pretty much made its way into the movie. The yes films are full of associations—some of them are resolved and some of them are adolescent; they’re still trying to figure out who they are. Other films are “no films.” Window Workis a single eight-minute image of me sitting in front of a window. It’s very spare and kind of performative. I felt like it had to be done in one shot. “No, you can’t bring in any clutter.” Sometimes I try to make films that don’t have clutter; other times I make films that are full of it.
Watch ‘Lynne Sachs’ Yes and No Films’ by Kevin B. Lee
Here is a list of my films in the Fandor collection. Critic Kevin B. Lee gave me the assignment to designate films that fall under the YES or NO category. Please keep in mind that these rather black-and-white distinctions do not imply a positive or negative disposition within the film. Instead, they indicate an integrated philosophical approach to the artistic rigor I brought to the creative process. I didn’t actually figure out that I was following this approach until about 2010, so I am actually imposing this nomenclature on my filmography retroactively.
Selected Films and Videos by Lynne Sachs
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (4 min. B&W 16mm, 1986)
A film portrait that falls somewhere between a painting and a prose poem, a look at a woman’s daily routines and thoughts via an exploration of her as a “character.” By interweaving threads of history and fiction, the film is also a tribute to a real woman—Emma Goldman. (This is a YES film that was inspired by my viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie and Yvonne Rainer’s Lives of Performers. For the first time, absolutely any idea that came to my mind had to squeeze its way into my four-minute film. Sometimes big ideas were distilled into a gesture or a cut. So was born an experimental filmmaker. . . .)
Drawn and Quartered (4 min. color 16mm, 1986)
Optically printed images of a man and a woman fragmented by a film frame that is divided into four distinct sections. An experiment in form/content relationships that are peculiar to the medium. (This is a NO film. I shot a film on a roof with my boyfriend. Every frame was choreographed. Both of us took off our clothing and let the Bolex whirl and that was it. Pure and simple.)
Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning (9 min. color 16mm. 1987)
Like an animal in one of Eadweard Muybridge’s scientific photo experiments, five undramatic moments in a man’s life are observed by a woman. A study in visual obsession and a twist on the notion of the “gaze.” (Another YES film intended as a pair with Still Life with Woman and Four Objects. I tried to put way too many ideas into this film and it ultimately didn’t work very well. It was a risk, and that in and of itself I am happy about.)
Sermons and Sacred Pictures: the Life and Work of Reverend L.O. Taylor (29 minutes, 16mm, 1989)
An experimental documentary on Reverend L.O. Taylor, a Black Baptist minister from Memphis who was also an inspired filmmaker with an overwhelming interest in preserving the social and cultural fabric of his own community in the 1930s and 1940s. (A teacher of mine in graduate school said to me “Why don’t you put yourself into the movie? Make yourself visible on the screen.” I felt that my fingerprint on the film and the three-year production expressed my personal presence far better than my actually being in the film. I said NO.)
The House of Science: a Museum of False Facts (30 min., 16mm 1991)
“Offering a new feminized film form, this piece explores both art and science’s representation of women, combining home movies, personal remembrances, staged scenes and found footage into an intricate visual and aural college. A girl’s sometimes difficult coming-of-age rituals are recast into a potent web for affirmation and growth.” — SF Cinematheque (This film was the beginning of unbridled YES-ness.)
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam(33 min., 16mm, 1994)
“A frog that sits at the bottom of a well thinks that the whole sky is only as big as the lid of a pot.” When two American sisters travel north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, conversations with Vietnamese strangers and friends reveal to them the flip side of a shared history. “The film has a combination of qualities: compassion, acute observational skills, an understanding of history’s scope, and a critical ability to discern what’s missing from the textbooks and TV news.” —Independent Film & Video Monthly (I shot this film during a one-month visit to Vietnam. I traveled around the country with my sister and shot only forty minutes of film, as much as I was able to carry in a backpack. The post-production required absolute precision, focus and a willingness to work with the bare minimum. I learned about editing in this film because it was so self-contained. I could not return to Vietnam to shoot more and this in and of itself taught me to see. A definite NO.)
A Biography of Lilith(35 min., 16mm, 1997)
In a lively mix of off-beat narrative, collage and memoir, this film updates the creation myth by telling the story of the first woman and for some, the first feminist. Lilith’s betrayal by Adam in Eden and subsequent vow of revenge is recast as a modern tale with present-day Lilith musing on a life that has included giving up a baby for adoption and work as a bar dancer. Interweaving mystical texts from Jewish folklore with interviews, music and poetry, Sachs reclaims this cabalistic parable to frame her own role as a mother. (This film started with my first pregnancy in 1995 and ended with the birth of my second child in 1997. So many ideas came to my mind during this early period of being a mother, from superstitions, to feminism, to archeology, to my performing nude in front of the camera. I would even say this film is my first musical. It’s a YES.)
Investigation of a Flame (16mm, 45 min. 2001)
An intimate, experimental portrait of the Catonsville Nine, a disparate band of Vietnam War peace activists who chose to break the law in a defiant, poetic act of civil disobedience. Produced with Daniel and Philip Berrigan and other members of the Catonsville 9. (I lived and breathed this movie for three years but from the beginning I knew what it was about and I didn’t really deviate from that except on a metaphoric level and that doesn’t count. It’s a NO.)
Photograph of Wind(4 min., B&W and color, 16mm, 2001)
My daughter’s name is Maya. I’ve been told that the word maya means illusion in Hindu philosophy. As I watch her growing up, spinning like a top around me, I realize that her childhood is not something I can grasp but rather—like the wind—something I feel tenderly brushing across my cheek. “Sachs suspends in time a single moment of her daughter.” —Fred Camper (I kept this one very spare and I like that NO-ness about it.)
Tornado(4 min., color video 2002)
A tornado is a spinning cyclone of nature. It stampedes like an angry bull through a tranquil pasture of blue violets and upright blades of grass. A tornado kills with abandon but has no will. Lynne Sachs’ Tornado is a poetic piece shot from the perspective of Brooklyn, where much of the paper and soot from the burning towers fell on September 11. Sachs’ fingers obsessively handle these singed fragments of resumes, architectural drawings and calendars, normally banal office material that takes on a new, haunting meaning. (This film is a distillation of what I was thinking right after September, 11, 2001. It had to be a NO film. If I had added anything else, it would not express the anguish of that moment in New York City.)
States of UnBelonging(63 min. video 2006)
For two and a half years, filmmaker Lynne Sachs worked to write and visualize this moving cine-essay on the violence of the Middle East by exchanging personal letters and images with an Israeli friend. The core of her experimental meditation on war, land, the Bible, and filmmaking is a portrait of Revital Ohayon, an Israeli filmmaker and mother killed in a terrorist act on a kibbutz near the West Bank. Without taking sides or casting blame, the film embraces Revital’s story with surprising emotion, entering her life and legacy through home movies, acquired film footage, news reports, interviews and letters. (A NO movie that wanted to wander in every direction but the one where it eventually led.)
Noa, Noa (8 min., 16mm on DVD, B&W and Color, sound 2006)
Over the course of three years, Sachs collaborated with her daughter Noa (from 5 to 8 years old), criss-crossing the wooded landscapes of Brooklyn with camera and costumes in hand. Noa’s grand finale is her own rendition of the bluegrass classic “Crawdad Song.” (I followed my daughter wherever she took me, so that limitation makes it a NO film.)
Atalanta 32 Years Later (5 min. color sound, 2006, 16mm on DVD)
A retelling of the age-old fairy tale of the beautiful princess in search of the perfect prince. In 1974, Marlo Thomas’ hip, liberal celebrity gang created a feminist version of the children’s parable for mainstream TV’s “Free To Be You and Me”. Now in 2006, Sachs dreamed up this new experimental film reworking, a homage to girl/girl romance.
(This film had very strict parameters that were given to me by curator Thomas Beard so I suppose it is a NO.)
The Small Ones (3 min. color sound, 2006 DVD)
During World War II, the United States Army hired Lynne Sachs’ cousin, Sandor Lenard, to reconstruct the bones – small and large – of dead American soldiers. This short anti-war cine-poem is composed of highly abstracted battle imagery and children at a birthday party. “Profound. The soundtrack is amazing. The image at the end of the girl with the avocado seed so hopeful. Good work.” — Barbara Hammer.
(A YES film that allowed me to include an avocado and a spider in a film about war.)
Georgic for a Forgotten Planet(11 min., video, 2008)
I began reading Virgil’s Georgics, a First-Century epic agricultural poem, and knew immediately that I needed to create a visual equivalent about my own relationship to the place where I live, New York City. Culled from material I collected at Coney Island, the Lower East Side, Socrates Sculpture Garden in Queens, a Brooklyn community garden and a place on Staten Island that is so dark you can see the three moons of Jupiter. An homage to a place many people affectionately and mysteriously call the big apple. (Not sure if my catagories work for this film so I won’t commit.)
Cuadro por cuadro/ Frame by Frame( 8 min., by Lynne Sachs and Mark Street, 2009)
In Cuadro por caudro, Lynne Sachs and Mark Street put on a workshop (taller in Spanish) with a group of Uruguan media artists to create handpainted experimental films in the spirit of Stan Brakhage. Sachs and Street collaborate with their students at the Fundacion de Arte Contemporaneo by painting on 16 and 35 mm film, then bleaching it and then hanging it to dry on the roof of the artists’ collective in Montevideo in July, 2009. (I made this film with my husband Mark Street. It is one of our XY Chromosome Project collaborations so my usual rhythms don’t really apply.)
The Last Happy Day (37 min., 16mm and video, 2009)
The Last Happy Day is a half hour experimental documentary portrait of Sandor Lenard, a distant cousin of filmmaker Lynne Sachs and a Hungarian medical doctor. Lenard was a writer with a Jewish background who fled the Nazis. During the war, the US Army Graves Registration Service hired Lenard to reconstruct the bones — small and large — of dead American soldiers. Eventually Sandor found himself in remotest Brazil where he embarked on the translation of Winnie the Pooh into Latin, an eccentric task which catapulted him to brief world wide fame. Perhaps it is our culture’s emphasis on genealogy that pushes Sachs to pursue a narrative nurtured by the “ties of blood”, a portrait of a cousin. Ever since she discovered as a teenager that this branch of her family had stayed in Europe throughout WWII, she has been unable to stop wondering about Sandor’s life as an artist and an exile. Sachs’ essay film, which resonates as an anti-war meditation, is composed of excerpts of her cousin’s letters to the family, abstracted war imagery, home movies of children at a birthday party, and interviews. (I had wanted to create this film for about 20 years but could never figure out how to make it work. Only when it transformed from a NO film to an anything-goes YES film did it find its voice.)
Wind in Our Hair/ Con viento en el pelo (40 min. 16mm and Super 8 on video, 2010)
Inspired by the stories of Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, yet blended with the realities of contemporary Argentina, “Wind in Our Hair” is an experimental narrative about four girls discovering themselves through a fascination with the trains that pass by their house. A story of early-teen anticipation and disappointment, Wind in Our Hair is circumscribed by a period of profound Argentine political and social unrest. Shot with 16mm, Super 8mm, Regular 8mm film and video, the film follows the girls to the train tracks, into kitchens, on sidewalks, in costume stores, and into backyards in the heart of Buenos Aires as well as the outskirts of town. Sachs and her Argentine collaborators move about Buenos Aires with their cameras, witnessing the four playful girls as they wander a city embroiled in a debate about the role of agribusiness, food resources and taxes. Using an intricately constructed Spanish-English “bilingual” soundtrack, Sachs articulates this atmosphere of urban turmoil spinning about the young girls’ lives. (Again this film moved from being a NO narrative film based on a short story by an Argentine author to being a YES film that included lots of documentary material. This shift is an indication of a move toward hybrid filmmaking.)
The Task of the Translator(10 min., video 2010)
Lynne Sachs pays homage to Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” through three studies of the human body. First, she listens to the musings of a wartime doctor grappling with the task of a kind-of cosmetic surgery for corpses. Second, she witnesses a group of Classics scholars confronted with the haunting yet whimsical task of translating a newspaper article on Iraqi burial rituals into Latin. And finally, she turns to a radio news report on human remains. (Not sure what to call this one.)
Sound of a Shadow (10 min. Super 8mm film on video, made with Mark Street, 2011)
A wabi sabi summer in Japan–observing that which is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete– produces a series of visual haiku in search of teeming street life, bodies in emotion, and leaf prints in the mud. (Another blissful NO film that recognized the integrity of keeping it simple)
Same Stream Twice (4 min. 16mm b & w and color on DVD, 2012)
My daughter’s name is Maya. I’ve been told that the word maya means illusion in Hindu philosophy. In 2001, I photographed her at six years old, spinning like a top around me. Even then, I realized that her childhood was not something I could grasp but rather—like the wind—something I could feel tenderly brushing across my cheek. Eleven years later, I pull out my 16mm Bolex camera once again and she allows me to film her—different but somehow the same. (There is an organic logic to this so I will designate it a NO.)
Your Day is My Night (HD video and live performance, 64 min., 2013)
Immigrant residents of a “shift-bed” apartment in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown share their stories of personal and political upheaval. As the bed transforms into a stage, the film reveals the collective history of the Chinese in the United States through conversations, autobiographical monologues, and theatrical movement pieces. Shot in the kitchens, bedrooms, wedding halls, cafés, and mahjong parlors of Chinatown, this provocative hybrid documentary addresses issues of privacy, intimacy, and urban life. (Because I brought in the performance and fiction elements to this documentary I must call it a YES film.)
Drift and Bough(Super 8mm on Digital, B&W, 6 min., 2014)
Sachs spends a morning this winter in Central Park shooting film in the snow. Holding her Super 8mm camera, she takes note of graphic explosions of dark and light and an occasional skyscraper. The stark black lines of the trees against the whiteness create the sensation of a painter’s chiaroscuro. Woven into this cinematic landscape, we hear sound artist Stephen Vitiello’s delicate yet soaring musical track which seems to wind its way across the frozen ground, up the tree trunks to the sky. (One very cold day in the park and some music. If there were more, it would melt. It’s a NO.)