Tag Archives: Investigation of a Flame

“The Accidental Outside” by Genevieve Yue in World Records Journal thinks through doc festivals and form

The Accidental Outside
World Records Journal
By Genevieve Yue
Volume 6/Article 3

For certain types of films, festivals are an end in and of themselves. This is especially true of experimental film festivals and, within the past fifteen years, experimental documentary film festivals. Such venues offer few commercial off-ramps: there is little to no hope of a licensing deal following the festival, and while some bigger titles might get a museum or microcinema event, the short year that a film travels the festival circuit is likely the only time many films will ever screen publicly. At these festivals, a filmmaker may connect with funders on the strength of a previous film, or a critic may take note of a new work in their festival report. In an ideal situation, the filmmaker will then leverage this support to burnish their CV, write grant applications, and, if also employed in the university system, bolster their case for tenure and promotion. They will make new work, to screen at the following year’s festivals, and the cycle repeats.

Despite the limited horizon of experimental documentary festivals, there has been a remarkable proliferation of these events in recent years. This has occurred within a broader increase, beginning in the early 2000s, in all types of film festivals, including those solely devoted to documentary. In this span, the even more niche area of experimental documentary grew at all levels: many experimental documentary festivals were conversions of preexisting festivals, while others were fortified sidebars at established festivals.{1} Dozens more were newly invented, including a first wave in the 1990s; then a flurry in the early 2000s; followed by a smaller but still substantial group into the 2010s and later.{2} There were also a number of non-competition series that began during this period, such as Doc Fortnight (est. 2001) at MoMA, and Art of the Real (est. 2013) at Film at Lincoln Center. 

The term experimental documentary is fraught, and I use it only provisionally. Undeniably, it raises a host of objections, some of which are inherited from twentieth-century avant-garde film, which rejected both experimental (unserious and amateurish) and documentary (too conventional a framework for describing formal innovation) as descriptors. The alternatives that have arisen in the names of festivals and programs—among them nonfictionart of the realartist film, and avant- or post-doc—raise new problems as they resolve the old. Indeed, it is a well-established tradition among avant-garde scholars to bemoan the inadequacy of terms like avant-garde and experimental, and for anyone invested in transgressive, radical filmmaking, a tidy fit into any category, much less one called experimental documentary, is just as discomfiting.

INVESTIGATION OF A FLAME (Lynne Sachs, 2001), which was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s inaugural Doc Fortnight program.

Rather than entering into the debates around terminology, I am interested in examining the tension within the phenomenon of experimental documentary between its claims to radicalism and the institutional and material conditions, namely, the film festival, that shape it. In this, experimental documentary inherits various long-standing debates within avant-garde film, including the debate over how aesthetic and political radicalism, inherent in the avant-garde’s very name, can be reconciled with each other, and over the degree to which institutional and industrial supports compromise the avant-garde’s autonomy. 

To the extent that experimental documentary can be recognized as a salient mode of practice, circumscribed within the space of international film festivals, it allows us to think through these questions differently, because its unique bounded structure provides an opportunity to understand how such films are made, selected, and seen. Traditionally, avant-garde film, and indeed much of film history generally, has been approached by scholars and critics through textual analysis. While I am indebted to the method of close reading, I shift my emphasis here to the self-contained culture and conditions of making and viewing, a reframing that provides a different view of the relationship between institution and art. How does the social existence of a film, especially as something that exists among many other, likely similar films, shape what Annette Michelson called its “radical aspiration”? To answer this requires approaching experimental documentaries not only as richly signifying texts, but as complex cultural and material objects that travel from city to city on hard drives, film reels, and downloaded media files, to be projected on all manner of screens, and finally discussed and debated in ephemeral conversations and published criticism. This limited arena of circulation makes visible what are often overlooked relations between material conditions of production and claims to radicality.

For what it’s worth, I still believe in film’s radical aspiration, even if I (like Michelson herself) hold many reservations about its viability. As Abby Sun has recently argued, “If the purpose of programming and exhibiting subversive films is to undermine systems of cultural power, one way to do so is by awakening us to our unwitting complicity with these institutions, and offering a model for escaping them through non-commercial production and circulation practices.”{3} I am less hopeful than Sun about the possibility of escaping “unwitting complicity,” but I share with her the conviction that self-awareness is fundamental to any kind of radical project. If cinema is to be politically revelatory, then it must keep its eyes fully open, including to the contexts of its own production.

While there are few off-ramps from experimental documentary festivals, on-ramps are plentiful. Generally speaking, film festivals are attended by the people directly involved in their production, namely filmmakers, programmers, and critics. Though different festivals will make more or less of an effort to engage a local audience, experimental documentary festivals often cater to their own constituents. By and large, experimental documentaries are not widely available outside of these spaces, a sharp contrast to the buzzy features and documentaries that get picked up after their premieres at Cannes, Sundance, and the like. Instead, experimental documentary festivals are highly insular and self-sustaining. For example, museum curators and other festival programmers will attend festivals to scope out new work, replenishing the ecosystem when their own festivals or series occur. 

For many of us (and I count myself among those who, since entering this world, haven’t left it), it begins with personal connections, often through college instructors who themselves regularly travel the festival circuit.{4} Students might attend a festival because they worked on a professor’s film, or they might have submitted to a festival on the encouragement of their mentors. For a young person especially, it can be thrilling to discover a large and thriving community of like-minded film enthusiasts. My path to criticism was similar. I started going to film festivals after studying avant-garde film in college and interning at a museum and an experimental film distribution company. These experiences, in turn, shaped how I approached festivals. When I first began attending festivals in 2001, I was excited by the prospect of seeing so many films and also daunted by the task of selecting which ones to watch. With no industry contacts and no real connections, I scanned the program for the familiar and found it in experimental work: a series of Ken Jacobs’s work at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, a Robert Beavers program at Views from the Avant-Garde, a guest-programmed screening by Jean-Marie Téno at the Images Festival. I had only known these filmmakers through a classroom setting, and outside of that protected space I was surprised and delighted to learn that they mattered in the “real world” too. It was thrilling to encounter filmmakers whose work I had seen in my classes, and, after mustering a bit of courage, to chat with them after a post-screening Q&A.

Within these avant-garde film spaces, I began to encounter a newer form of experimental-friendly documentary. Like avant-garde film, these films frequently employed elliptical structures, an attention to surface effects and framing, deliberate temporal manipulation (especially as it contributes to a sense of slowness), and small-scale modes of production. Meanwhile, these works were also rooted in the specificities of a situation, issue, or historical event. This is to say not that avant-garde films eschew documentary concerns, but that the experimental documentaries I started to see at this time prioritized what Okwui Enwezor described as “art’s engagement with social life,” no matter how oblique their treatment.{5} Some examples:

the films produced through the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, like Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s LEVIATHAN (2012), which includes the defamiliarizing view of GoPro cameras on a North Atlantic commercial fishing vessel;

blended docufictions like Mati Diop’s MILLE SOLEILS (2013)

or Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A SPELL TO WARD OFF THE DARKNESS (2013);

and essayistic or observational investigations of history and place, like Nicolás Pereda’s EL PALACIO (2013),

Kevin Jerome Everson’s PARK LANES (2015),


Important antecedents to this work include James Benning’s structural landscape films (involving considerable fabrication behind what appears to be unaltered documentary footage), which began to circulate widely in European television and art spaces in the mid-90s; Agnès Varda’s celebrated The Gleaners and I (2000), which blended the forms of diary, social-issue documentary, and essayistic rumination to widespread acclaim; and a 2010s interest in essay films, from Jean-Pierre Gorin’s traveling program, launched at the Austrian Film Museum in 2007, to Timothy Corrigan’s book on the subject in 2011.

The documentary emphasis of experimental documentary—namely, works that address real, often exigent situations—revives a key debate of the historical avant-garde film. Famously, Annette Michelson argued in 1966 that film’s inherent revolutionary potential could best be glimpsed when its formal and political aspects were unified, as in the Soviet cinema of the 1920s and 30s, in the work of Godard and other French New Wave directors, and in the American avant-garde. The radical aspiration of these moments was imperfect and short-lived, however, dissipated by co-option by the state and absorption into industrial cinema. Even in the case of New American Cinema, whose cooperative distribution structure preserved some degree of economic, if not political, autonomy, Michelson was still cautious. About the films of Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, she warned, “the formal integrity that safeguards that radicalism must, and does, ultimately dissolve.”{6} In her formulation, form cannot exist in a void. A film is always an entry into a set of sociopolitical conditions. Hence there can be no guarantee, no fixed form of radicality. The radicality of a film lies in its aspiration, which is a gesture toward a “sense of the future”: the revolution it awaits and also makes possible.{7} Paradoxically, then, a radical aspiration aims toward what remains unfixed, even as it can only accrue meaning in situ. The film itself is the means of changing the possibility of the future.

Much has changed since the time of Michelson’s writing. The horizon of revolution has shifted: it is more discrete, concrete, and aligned with activist efforts, and it occurs both inside and outside the world of art. Doubtless the struggle continues, but no longer is there a sense of a unified film front, a manifesto-scribbling cinema culture leading the anti-capitalist charge. While experimental documentary inherits the mantle of formal-political radicalism, most films of this type do not express an overt, pointed politics, such as one would find in the case of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Hito Steyerl, or Harun Farocki (and it may be telling that most examples of this type of overtly political work are made outside of North America, in an art-world context). More frequently, a film’s engagement with the real occurs alongside lyricism, extended observation, and sensorial immersion. Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden (2021) offers a case in point. The film, which depicts the uprooting of centuries-old trees and their relocation to a billionaire ex–prime minister’s island, embeds its critique within long and otherworldly mises-en-scène. It is ambiguous whether this blunts or sharpens the film’s politics. Is the film attuning to politics in a different register—and thereby advocating for this cordoned-off form of political critique—or is it overwhelming it with nonverbal information? A case could be made for any and all of these possibilities. A similar issue arises with Sensory Ethnography Lab films, where the privileging of sensorial detail over spoken language can be seen as either phenomenological enhancement or evasion of expression. Some of this can be understood as a response to mainstream documentary’s emphasis on moral and political emergency, or what Pooja Rangan has productively described as “immediations,” where documentaries serve as tools of a neoliberal, humanitarian (interventionist) agenda.{8} A more ambiguous, observational nonfiction film may be less useful to such a cause, and thereby more resistant to co-optation. I do not mean to qualify the value of politics in documentary, nor to suggest a right way to do it. Rather, my point is descriptive: Given its roots in the overt politics of Michelson’s era, experimental documentary has drifted to something more obscure. The configuration of this moment tends to locate experimental documentary’s relationship to political movements in the backseat.

Experimental documentary generally takes aim at politics out there, but it is rarely directed inward, toward the institutions that support and sustain it. Unlike the historical avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, which attacked the bourgeois institutions from which they sprang, there are exceedingly few instances where an experimental documentary has critiqued film festivals, museum showcases, streaming platforms, test screenings, film schools, grant applications, artist residencies, or anything pertaining to the social existence of a film. (The exceptions that exist come from filmmakers that tend not to show in these spaces, being either too experimental or too documentary: Owen Land’s satirical Undesirables, 1999, is a portrayal of New American Cinema as imagined by Hollywood; Caveh Zahedi’s The Sheik and I, 2012, features the filmmaker confronting the taboo topics that shape the condition of his participation in the Sharjah Biennial; and Claire Simon’s more straightforward documentary The Competition, 2016, examines the entry process at the famously grueling French film school La Fémis.) Perhaps because, in experimental documentary, there is already an assumed oppositional stance toward mainstream film and documentary, there is a corresponding, though less explicit, protectionism toward the institutions of avant-garde film itself. Still, we should remember that even the most ramshackle, labor-of-love screening series is an institution, and as such it is subject to demands that may differ from those of the works it exhibits. Sun reminds us that institutions strive for permanence, and often the stability they seek is gained by regularly showing oppositional, “edgy” work. That is to say, subversive work often cooperates quite well with the preservative interests of the institution.

Just as formal integrity is no safeguard for radicalism, the reverse is also true, that radicalism is possible even under circumstances of formal impurity.

Currently, the festival structure materially sustains the vast majority of experimental documentary films being made. Experimental documentary film festivals serve both as exhibition venues and as engines for marketing, though they sometimes provide direct material support for filmmakers through prizes and production funding. While avant-garde filmmakers of previous generations would likely reject this level of institutional entanglement, contemporary makers have found ways to thrive within it. The festival is itself a manifestation of form, an enlarged social sphere that contains and makes possible certain types of work. If we consider the festival as a formal determinant, we might hear Michelson’s words differently. Just as formal integrity is no safeguard for radicalism, the reverse is also true, that radicalism is possible even under circumstances of formal impurity.

This kind of festival infrastructure has been supported by three major factors: a new interest in documentary form in the art world, the contraction of state funding for experimental work, and the expansion of public funding in Europe for film productions and festivals. First, there has been an increase in supply, largely supported by the supposed documentary turn in contemporary art (or what may well have been the result of the European influx of funding).  Much of this began as moving image–based, and typically digital video, installation, and it was largely made by younger artists. Among an earlier generation of artists, many began as filmmakers, including Isaac Julien, Joan Jonas, Hito Steyerl, and Harun Farocki, while others maintained a documentary sensibility from the start. Mark Nash and Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11, in 2002, marks a watershed moment when documentary aesthetics in moving image form became a dominant mode of artistic practice. Following that event, artists began to seek out spaces beyond galleries and museums to exhibit their work. Many, like the Otolith Group, converted works from gallery formats to single-screen versions for the theater (or vice versa, as in the case of Morgan Fisher); or, like Garrett Bradley, Dani and Sheilah ReStack, Laure Prouvost, Ben Rivers, Ana Vaz, Sky Hopinka, Luke Fowler, and Leslie Thornton (the list could include almost every experimental filmmaker working today), and, among an older generation, James Benning, Jonas Mekas, and Phil Solomon, began making works alternately for both gallery and theater spaces. 

Second, funding for experimental work has diminished, especially, in the US, at the state and federal levels. The “culture wars” of the 1980s and 90s led to significant cuts to NEA funding. At the state level, too, there was a substantial decline. For example, B. Ruby Rich, who directed the film and video programs at NYSCA from 1981 to 1991, recalls budget cuts for films as well as staffing cuts made by Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York. Meanwhile, competition among filmmakers has increased. While in the 1970s more funding was devoted specifically to experimental film, the 1980s saw demand from independent, feminist, and Black artists, as well as various groups experimenting with video and public access television. Rich explains: “The funding had to be spread across many different sectors of the state’s film world—which the experimental folks saw as a ‘betrayal’ often.”{9}

The major awards that remain today come from private foundations, as in the case of the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Herb Alpert Award, and the LEF Foundation Moving Image Fund. Even then, the size of the grant has diminished. For example, in 1978 and 1979, the first years in which the Jerome Foundation (est. 1964, originally as the Avon Foundation) began regularly funding experimental film, awards hovered around $10,000 and favored avant-garde filmmakers and artists: Marjorie Keller received $10,000 in 1978; Robert Gardner, $10,000 (1978); Lizzie Borden, $15,000 (1978); Ken Kobland, $10,450 (1979); John Knecht, $11,000 (1979); Martha Haslanger, $9,000 (1979); and Bette Gordon, $10,000 (1979). Meanwhile, the twelve awards given by the Jerome Foundation in 2019 were, with one exception, $30,000 grants (worth roughly $8,000 in 1979), and, similar to the situation in NYSCA funding in the 1980s, these grants covered a broad range of genres, including “animation, documentary, experimental or narrative genres, or . . .  any combination of these forms.”{10} While it is difficult to determine what counts as experimental versus experimental documentary, it is perhaps notable that there is only one project among the 2019 award recipients that uses the word experimental in its description (Mónica Savirón’s The Ledger Line).

Third, a rise in state funding in Europe has supported increased production as well as festival spaces. This is owing in part to the formation of the European Union and a conscious effort to support a sense of economic as well as cultural integration and collectivity. Film festivals offered an opportunity to fund national projects as well as assert regional hegemony. Notably, this is a phenomenon that takes place largely in Europe, with European festivals and European filmmakers and artists, and there is significant overlap and interaction with the US context, which has historically provided a strong base for experimental work. Important exceptions to the European-US context include Festival International de Cine de Valdivia, Chile (est. 1993); the Expanded Cinema section of the Jeonju International Film Festival (est. 2000); Encuentros del Otro Cine EDOC, Ecuador (est. 2002); Experimenta India (est. 2003); and Ambulante (est. 2005).

To varying degrees, existing festivals adapted to accommodate these works, making room for experimental film, digital video, longer-form films, and hybrid approaches to nonfiction. These include festivals whose entire focus shifted, like the Locarno Film Festival (est. 1946), the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (est. 1954), the Flaherty Seminar (est. 1954), the Ann Arbor Film Festival (est. 1963), International Film Festival Rotterdam (est. 1972), FIDMarseille (est. 1989, with Jean-Pierre Rehm becoming director in 2002), Cinéma du Réel (est. 1978), and Onion City Experimental Film + Video Festival (est. 1980s and run by Chicago Filmmakers starting in 2001). They also include sidebars created to accommodate such work at more mainstream festivals, including the Paradocs (est. 2004) section at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (est. 1988), and the addition of Views from the Avant-Garde (1997–2013) to the New York Film Festival (est. 1963).  

It can be useful to track the development of festival spaces through the career trajectory of individual filmmakers. This is not to conflate the institutional space with the form and stakes of the work in question, but to examine how each has been responsive to the other in terms of aesthetic possibility. Take, for example, the work of Deborah Stratman, whose films sit at the intersection of experimental, observational, and essayistic practice. She began exhibiting her work in 1990, and soon after began regular festival appearances. Her 2002 film In Order Not To Be Here is the first I’ve found to have been called an experimental documentary, and in 2002 and 2003 it traveled to over seventy screening spaces, including festivals like Sundance, Visions du Réel (est. 1969), and PDX Fest (2001–9), as well as predominantly experimental film spaces, including the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Media City Film Festival (est. 1994), the New York Underground Film Festival (1994–2008), Pleasure Dome (est. 1989), and Conversations at the Edge.{11} The many awards it won were in best experimental film categories. Later in the decade her work appeared more regularly in documentary venues. O’er the Land (2009), an examination of the secular rituals of American life, went to Sundance, Full Frame Documentary Festival (est. 1998), PDX Fest, Courtisane Festival (est. 2002), True/False Film Fest (est. 2004), and CPH:DOX (est. 2003). It won the Ken Burns Award for Best of Festival at Ann Arbor, and Best Documentary Feature at L’Alternativa, Barcelona Independent Film Festival (est. 1993). Stratman’s The Illinois Parables (2016) likewise picked up awards in both experimental and documentary categories. 

 Stratman herself has been explicit about her interest in extending beyond the concerns of experimental film. Her consistent interest in history, whether woven into vernacular practices or inscribed in the language of film, maintains a view that departs from the inwardness of traditional avant-garde film. In a 2018 interview, she distinguished her approach from what Tom Gunning called “minor cinema” filmmakers of the late 1980s and early 1990s: “Their works have an inner politics. But from early on I wanted more of the accidental outside. More of the street. Some socio-political to aerate the work.” A film like The Illinois Parables exemplifies her developing commitment to a history “without words.” In the film’s eleven vignettes, Stratman traverses the historiographical terrain of the state, including the violent expulsion of Indigenous peoples, the utopian experiment of a community of French Icarians, and the murder of Fred Hampton. She visits gravesites, mounds, living rooms, and forests, all the while watching, measuring, and listening for “something ineffable, a force of another dimension, call it God, or sorrow, or awareness, or the burden of the past.”{12} Similarly, it may be possible to observe in this film the invisible presence of the experimental documentary festival, the subtle pressure exerted by the social milieu in which films are made and shared. Stratman’s method indicates the often indirect ways these traces might be detected, beyond the directness of words and other representational strategies.

Words, in fact, can obscure as much as they elucidate. Scholarly and critical writing on experimental work tends to privilege textual features, no matter how engaged with social life a film might be. Stan Brakhage, for instance, called himself a documentarian (of the “inner eye”), and despite his towering stature within the avant-garde, he is most often discussed in terms of his formal practice of hand-painted film and poetic allusion. (The word documentary only arises in relation to Brakhage’s Pittsburgh Trilogy, as if the domain of documentary could be crudely demarcated by the use of a camera in an institutional setting.) The impulse to taxonomize, to make clear-cut distinctions between aesthetic and political concerns, leads to overvaluation of textual analysis and undervaluation of the conditions of production, and the treatment of these two areas as distinct.

This tendency can be seen in various attempts to identify previous moments of overlap between avant-garde and documentary film. In Avant-Doc: Intersections of Documentary and Avant-Garde Cinema (2014), Scott MacDonald selects strains of lyricism within ostensibly nonfiction work, including the city symphonies of the 1920s; the films of Robert Flaherty, Stan Brakhage, and Peter Kubelka; diary films; found footage works; and other instances of formal convergence. Though MacDonald would seem to be offering a corrective to the type of pigeonholing I just described, his emphasis on form ends up reifying the categories he challenges. Absent a serious engagement with the political and historical circumstances of how and why these categories came about, both documentary and avant-garde film become reduced to a set of signifiers. The result is a circuitous taxonomy where the entirety of avant-garde film starts to look like a subset of documentary, or, conversely, documentary a subset of the avant-garde. 

MacDonald’s description can be understood as symptomatic of a situation in which exhibition spaces for avant-garde film were largely pivoting either to experimental documentary or to moving image art.{13} Take, for example, the mid-2010s restructuring at Film at Lincoln Center: the experimental documentary series Art of the Real began in 2013, and Views from the Avant-Garde, which for many was the premier destination for American experimental film, was replaced in 2014 by the gallery-friendly Projections program and rebranded as Currents in 2020. Though there was overall an increase in the amount of screen time given to films that fall under the broad umbrella of the experimental, there was less room for abstract, hand-processed, animated, and lyrical work associated with the traditional avant-garde. In many ways, MacDonald’s crossover approach and others like it provided these new festival spaces with a language for describing the innovative, genre-busting works they showcased. These films may also be said to be expensive, in that most are supported by grants or other subsidized sources of support. As Josh Guilford observes, “The prioritization of work with socially and politically relevant content within such exhibition contexts has been co-extensive with a valorization of technical and aesthetic polish. It’s another of the many paradoxes animating this culture.”{14}

What we typically call form does not sufficiently account for the specificities of experimental documentary.

MacDonald rightly identifies the role of the academy, where canons are formed and deepened in courses organized according to genres, methods, national cinemas, auteurs, and the like. Canonic revisions along the lines of avant-doc ultimately reinforce this discursive framing. The role of writing at and about the film festival is equally significant for shaping the types of films deemed acceptable, laudable, or forgettable. At a traditional festival, criticism tends toward best-of-the-fest capsule reviews, seeking to identify trends, breakout talents, and new waves. Though festival reports might devote a few sentences at the beginning and end to describing the flavor of the festival-going experience, they generally avoid delving too deeply into a more ethnographic sketch. 

Criticism at the experimental documentary festival inherits and exacerbates these tendencies, as well as their problems. I know of no mainstream critics—that is, critics employed by a major newspaper—who are regularly assigned to cover such festivals. Those that attend and write generally do so on their own initiative, as when Amy Taubin or Manohla Dargis have stepped in to write about Projections for the New York Times. It is important to note, too, that the vast majority of film critics today are freelance, working by pitch at one or more publications, rather than writing exclusively for a single outlet as a staff writer. Furthermore, freelance film critics almost always need to work some other kind of job to earn a living wage. Festivals, even when press credentials are handed out, are expensive to attend. For filmmakers, of course, (formal) participation must be conferred by the festival itself, and even then filmmakers often must pay their own way there. Programmers and other industry professionals must have access to funding to travel. Critics, meanwhile, enter festivals through either application or invitation. The latter usually comes with some incentive, often in the form of hotel accommodations. There is an unspoken assumption that critics will favorably review the festival in return for these perks, and even if a critic is outwardly unbound by these obligations (because the critic may be protected by the reputation of their publication, for instance), they might still feel a sense of constraint. Further complicating matters are the multiple ways a critic might be pulled into festival operations. On a few occasions I’ve been asked to speak on festival panels, moderate director Q&As, or introduce screenings, all while still ostensibly on assignment for a publication.

Given the significant personal investment required, it is unsurprising that there are few critics who cover experimental documentary. Those who do select what they write about tend to isolate individual films to discuss, often tracking a thematic throughline across festival offerings. There is also little incentive to write disparagingly about any film. In my own criticism, I have been acutely aware that my writing might be the only press a film will ever receive, and that it is often used for program notes, catalog text, and grant applications. The festival community exerts its own social pressure as well. It is often easier to simply avoid writing about a film than to take issue with it in writing, and the result is that the criticism is skewed toward an abundance of praise with a narrowing of selection. Surely, too, are programmers aware of the influence they exert. The shared perception of experimental documentary’s fragility, of its scarcity and vulnerability, invariably shapes the value system of the festival. This skews the public understanding of the festival, and also misrepresents it to its own community, which ends up reproducing the same distortion. Undoubtedly, more and more diversified criticism, including negative takes but also writing that does not adopt an evaluative framework, is needed. We should recognize, however, that publication venues operate on their own financial models, and that, for better and for worse, they are not beneficiaries of the sources that fund experimental documentary films and festivals.

One unusual result of these pressures is that critics have sought out other ways of participating in film culture. This is also a historical phenomenon, where a number of critics that were writing in the late 1990s and early 2000s shifted to programming, including Rachael Rakes, Dennis Lim, Ed Halter, Jean-Pierre Rehm, Federico Windhausen, and Mark Peranson. Where in the 1960s the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma became directors, the experimental documentary space of the 2000s was largely shaped by critics turned programmers. This coincides with the enlarged role of the programmer more generally at film festivals, cinematheques, and other exhibition venues, and it should be noted that a number of filmmakers, like Sylvia Schedelbauer, Ben Russell, and Ben Rivers, were also active programmers during this time. The critic’s sensibility in programming is perhaps evident in the strong thematic cohesiveness of programs organized by these critics- and filmmakers-cum-programmers. For instance, Rakes and Lim’s Art of the Real is recognizable for its essayistic, intellectual, and political character, while Windhausen’s Pueblo program at the 2016 International Short Film Festival Oberhausen assembled films reflecting the historical and contemporary possibilities of collectivity in Latin America. Such programming departs from mainstream festival programming—which emphasizes heterogeneity and variety—and in its narrower focus is closer to a curatorial model of selection. Hence the critic’s turn to programming, or programming in a critical vein, motivates much of the coherence of experimental documentary as a formal category with institutional endurance.

What we typically call form—namely, the aesthetic characteristics of an artwork—does not sufficiently account for the specificities of experimental documentary. It’s time to enlarge the notion of form beyond the text, to the social world in which it is made and received. MacDonald’s point about predecessors for experimental documentary is an important one, and we might look to earlier examples of radical film form and the institutional supports that sustained them to better understand the contours of the present. How do Cinema 16 and other early incubators of avant-garde film differ from the festival spaces that dominate the contemporary landscape? To address these important concerns, one would need additionally to unpack the historiographical record where discussions of form have prevailed at the expense of institutional analysis. Though they are beyond the scope of this essay, I hope that these reflections might prompt a more integrated understanding of the relationship between aesthetics, politics, and institutional formation in the many histories of experimental moving image work.

Festival infrastructures are as important as aesthetic markers in determining what counts as experimental documentary. One cannot fully comprehend experimental documentary outside of the festival ecosystem in which it is made, programmed, viewed, and written about. It is precisely this outside that has been largely excluded from most writing on avant-garde and experimental documentary film. I hope that both critics and scholars can find new ways to invite texts and contexts into dialogue. Or, as Stratman reminds us, both in her films and in her own words, to remain “attentive to the accidental outside.”

Acknowledgments: I thank Walter Argueta-Ramirez, Erika Balsom, Colin Beckett, Chris Cagle, Jason Fox, Leo Goldsmith, Josh Guilford, Pacho Velez, and Chi-hui Yang for helping me think through the many vectors of experimental documentary film festivals.

Genevieve Yue is an assistant professor of culture and media and director of the Screen Studies program at Eugene Lang College, the New School. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Flaherty, and has written criticism for Film CommentFilm Quarterlyart-agenda, and Reverse Shot. She is the author of Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality (Fordham University Press, 2020).

“Still Life with Woman and Four Objects” & “Investigation of a Flame” to screen in Canyon Cinema Discovered Programs

Announcing the Canyon Cinema Discovered Programs!
May 3, 2022

We’re thrilled to finally announce the screening line-ups for our inaugural Canyon Cinema Discovered programs, which will debut this fall in San Francisco and online. Stay tuned for details!

Prime Time Reverie
Curated by Aaditya Aggarwal
From cosmetic commercials to women-led talk shows to narrative melodrama, television catered to feminized viewers is a formally diverse genre, nudging, socializing, and mirroring its spectators in intimate and discerning ways. Capturing the urgent, anchoring spirit of prime time telecasts, Prime Time Reverie stages a fragmented history of television as a women’s medium. The works in this program engage multiple tides of broadcasting, from soapy to confessional, from sensationalist to documentarian. Weaving an absent or corporeal presence through each work, televised portrayals of womanhood—hermetic, large, versatile—incite daydreams among a mass populace, flirting with histories of technology, desire, and visuality. 

  • Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron) (Cauleen Smith, 1992)
  • No No Nooky TV (Barbara Hammer, 1987)
  • Removed (Naomi Uman, 1999)
  • Waiting for Commercials (Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut, 1966-72, 1992)
  • No Land (Emily Chao, 2019)
  • MTV Artbreak (Dara Birnbaum, 1986)
  • Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry (Dara Birnbaum, 1979)
  • That Woman (Sandra Davis, 2018)
  • 10:28,30 (Paige Taul, 2019)
  • Still Life with a Woman and Four Objects (Lynne Sachs, 1986)

Playing in the Dark: Watery Experiments
Curated by Chrystel Oloukoï

Playing in the Dark engages the various ways in which blackness haunts the sea and is haunted by the sea. Borrowing from Toni Morrison, “playing in the dark” references the subdued Africanist presence which mediates imaginations of water in the wake of variegated yet entangled transoceanic slave trades but also takes seriously darkness as a subversive ecological milieu, against lures of transparency. In the works gathered here, nothing is left untouched by the confounding qualities of water and its corrosive opacities, from bodies to the environment, to the materiality of film itself. As such, “playing in the dark” also references attempts in Black experimental filmmaking to chart paths in which cameras do not write with light but probe shadows in search of  “an aesthetics of turbulence whose corresponding ethics is not provided in advance” (Glissant, Poetics of Relation).

  • By the Sea (Toney W. Merritt, 1982)
  • What the Water Said Nos. 1-3 (David Gatten, 1998)
  • Aqua (Samba Félix N’diaye, 1989)
  • The Dislocation of Amber (Hussein Shariffe, 1975)
  • Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) (Ja’Tovia Gary, 2017)
  • Pattaki (Everlane Moraes, 2019)
  • What the Water Said Nos. 4-6 (David Gatten, 2006-07)
  • Towards the Colonies (Miryam Charles, 2016)
  • Song for the New World (Miryam Charles, 2021)

Trajectories of Self-Determination: Experimental Cinema’s Embrace of Jazz
Curated by Juan Carlos Kase

Experimental cinema has long embraced American vernacular music as a generative model, whether it supplied a formal template, an affective inspiration, or a point of cultural reference. From the collective polyphony of Charles Mingus’ kinetic ensembles to the gale and squall of Joe McPhee’s storming cornet, the improvisational energies of jazz – as well as blues and other popular-modernist musics – have continued to inspire American avant-garde filmmakers. Collectively, the films in this program explore the myriad ways in which experimental cinema has drawn from African-American improvised music and embraced its spontaneous, collaborative, polyrhythmic, and lyrical energies.

  • Dufus (aka Art) (Mike Henderson, 1970/72)
  • Up and Atom (Doug Wendt, 1970)
  • Not a Music Video (Toney W. Merritt, 1987)
  • Pilgrim (Cauleen Smith, 2017)
  • Mirror Animations [Film #11] (Harry Smith, 1957)
  • 28.IV.81 (Bedouin Spark) (Christopher Harris, 2009)
  • The Clown (Donna Cameron, 1998)
  • Many Thousands Gone (Ephraim Asili, 2015)
  • Four Women (Julie Dash, 1975)
  • All My Life (Bruce Baillie, 1966)

Insurgent Articulations
Curated by Ekin Pinar

A strong interest in the social, political, and cultural contexts has always been part and parcel of a good variety of experimental filmmaking practices, even though canonical works on experimental cinema tend to focus solely on the formal explorations that supposedly reflect the filmmaker’s own (hermetic) subjectivity. Because of this exclusive focus on formal experimentation, the socio-historical, cultural, and representational politics, ethics, and concerns of much experimental work remained unnoticed until recently. Focusing on the theme of the aesthetics of socio-political unrest and protest, this program showcases examples of experimental filmmaking that fictionally constructed or experimentally reconstructed in formally explorative and reflexive ways demonstrations, rallies, marches, and sit-ins.

  • Pig Power (Single Spark Films, 1969)
  • Demonstration ’68 (Dominic Angerame, 1968-74)
  • Solidarity (Joyce Wieland, 1973)
  • Sisters! (Barbara Hammer, 1973)
  • New Left Note (Saul Levine, 1968-82)
  • Gay Power, 1971/2007/2012 (Sharon Hayes, Kate Millett, and The Women’s Liberation Cinema, 2012)
  • On the nature of the bone (Elena Pardo, 2018)
  • A Protest, A Celebration, A Mixed Message (Rhea Storr, 2018)
  • B.L.M. (Toney W. Merritt, 2020)

Supplemental screening:

  • Investigation of a Flame (Lynne Sachs, 2001)

Lynne’s Films Currently Streaming on Criterion, DAFilms, Fandor, & Ovid

Film About a Father Who available on Criterion Channel: https://www.criterionchannel.com/film-about-a-father-who

Available on DAFilms: https://americas.dafilms.com/director/7984-lynne-sachs
Drawn and Quartered
The House of Science: a museum of false facts
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam
States of UnBelonging 
Same Stream Twice
Your Day is My Night
And Then We Marched 
Carolee, Barbara & Gunvor
The Washing Society
A Month of Single Frames
Film About a Father Who

Available on Fandor: https://www.fandor.com/category-movie/297/lynne-sachs/
Still Life With Woman and Four Objects
Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning
The Washing Society
The House of Science: a museum of false facts
Investigation of a Flame

Noa, Noa
The Small Ones
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam
Atalanta: 32 Years Later
States of UnBelonging 

A Biography of Lilith
The Task of the Translator
Sound of a Shadow

The Last Happy Day
Georgic for a Forgotten Planet
Wind in Our Hair
Drawn and Quartered
Your Day is My Night

Widow Work 
Same Stream Twice

Available on Ovid: https://www.ovid.tv/lynne-sachs
A Biography of Lillith
Investigation of a Flame
The Last Happy Day
Sermons and Sacred Pictures
Starfish Aorta Colossus
States of Unbelonging
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam
Your Day is My Night
Tip of My Tongue
And Then We Marched

A Year of Notes and Numbers

Fandor Celebrates Women’s History Month with a Spotlight on Artists on Both Sides of the Camera

Fandor Celebrates Women’s History Month with a Spotlight on Artists on Both Sides of the Camera

Fandor • Yahoo News!

March 1, 2022


Fandor to showcase independent films featuring women filmmakers and stars and will focus on the Indie Spirit Awards and filmmaker Lynne Sachs

LOS ANGELES, March 01, 2022 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Cinedigm, the leading independent streaming company super-serving enthusiast fan bases, announced today that Fandor, the premier destination for cinephiles, will highlight Women in Film in honor of Women’s History Month.

Featured films will range from early Hollywood titles to today’s leading independent filmmakers, including Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (2013), Reed Morano’s Meadowland (2015), and Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine (2012).

Filmmaker and poet Lynne Sachs, creator of multiple genre-defying cinematic works, will be showcased. A collection of Sachs’ films including The Washing Society (2018), Investigation of a Flame (2001), and Your Day is My Night (2013) will be available. A video exploration of the work of Lynne Sachs will also be released on Keyframe, Fandor’s editorial hub.

Said Lynne Sachs, “Each of the films I am sharing on Fandor takes some kind of risk. Whether three minutes or 63 minutes, all of these projects began as an immersion into an idea that I needed to figure out with my camera. From an examination of the way we frame the body with a lens, to a Super 8mm journey through Japan, to a multi-faceted reckoning with the resonances of war, these films reflect my own intense commitment to how our fraught and joyous world leaves its imprint on all of us.”

Coming to Keyframe will be a showcase on the Indie Spirit Awards, in celebration of the Film Independent Spirit Awards on March 6, featuring past nominees and winners including Short Term 12 (2013), starring Brie Larson, and Rami Malek and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014).

Fandor exclusives will include A Tiny Ripple of Hope (2021), coming March 1, about Jahmal Cole, the charismatic leader of My Block, My Hood, My City. Coming March 15 will be All in My Power (2022), following 12 healthcare professionals battling the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 22, Fandor will premiere The Sound of Scars (2020), following three friends who overcame domestic violence, substance abuse, and depression to form Life of Agony. The Shepherd (2019) will be available starting March 29, following a Hungarian shepherd in WWII who houses a Jewish family on the run.

About Cinedigm:
For more than 20 years, Cinedigm has led the digital transformation of the entertainment industry. Today, Cinedigm entertains hundreds of millions of consumers around the globe by providing premium content, streaming channels and technology services to the world’s largest media, technology and retail companies.

About Fandor:
Fandor streams thousands of handpicked, award-winning movies from around the world. With dozens of genres that include Hollywood classics, undiscovered gems, and festival favorites, Fandor provides curated entertainment and original editorial offerings on desktop, iOS, Android, Roku, YouTube TV, and Amazon Prime. Learn more at http://www.Fandor.com.

Lynne Sachs’ Films on Ovid

Lynne Sachs’ Films on Ovid

Films Available:
A Biography of Lillith
Investigation of a Flame
The Last Happy Day
Sermons and Sacred Pictures
Starfish Aorta Colossus
States of Unbelonging
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam
Your Day is My Night
Tip of My Tongue
And Then We Marched
A Year of Notes and Numbers

About Lynne Sachs
Lynne Sachs makes films, installations, performances and web projects that explore the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences by weaving together poetry, collage, painting, politics and layered sound design. Strongly committed to a dialogue between cinematic theory and practice, she searches for a rigorous play between image and sound, pushing the visual and aural textures in her work with each and every new project. Between 1994 and 2009, her five essay films took her to Vietnam, Bosnia, Israel, Italy and Germany — sites affected by international war – where she looked at the space between a community’s collective memory and her own subjective perceptions.

Recently, after 25 years of making experimental documentaries, Lynne learned something that turned all her ideas about filmmaking upside down. While working on Your Day is My Night in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York City, she came to see that every time she asked a person to talk in front of her camera, they were performing for her rather than revealing something completely honest about their lives. The very process of recording guaranteed that some aspect of the project would be artificial. She decided she had to think of a way to change that, so she invited her subjects to work with her to make the film, to become her collaborators. For Lynne, this change in her process has moved her toward a new type of filmmaking, one that not only explores the experiences of her subjects, but also invites them to participate in the construction of a film about their lives.

Her films have screened at the New York Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, Toronto’s Images Festival and Los Angeles’ REDCAT Theatre as well as a five-film retrospective at the Buenos Aires Film Festival. The San Francisco Cinematheque recently published a monograph with four original essays in conjunction with a full retrospective of Lynne’s work. In 2014, Lynne received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Film and Video.

About Ovid
With the help of an unprecedented collaborative effort by eight of the most noteworthy, independent film distribution companies in the U.S., Docuseek, LLC launched an innovative, new, subscription video-on-demand service, OVID.tv.

OVID.tv will provide North American viewers with access to thousands of documentaries, independent films, and notable works of international cinema, largely unavailable on any other platform.

OVID’s initial offerings fall into roughly three categories: a) powerful films addressing urgent political and social issues, such as climate change, and economic justice; b) in-depth selections of creative documentaries by world-famous directors; and c) cutting-edge arthouse feature and genre films by contemporary directors as well as established masters. And new films in all three areas will be added to the OVID collection every two weeks.

OVID.tv is an initiative of Docuseek, LLC, which operates Docuseek, a streaming service for colleges and universities which was established in 2012, streaming a library of over 1600 titles.

The eight founding content partners are:

BULLFROG FILMS The leading U.S. publisher of independently produced documentaries on environmental and related social justice issues, in business for more than 45 years, it currently distributes over 750 titles.

THE DGENERATE FILMS COLLECTION dGenerate Films distributes contemporary independent film from mainland China to audiences worldwide. They are dedicated to procuring and promoting visionary content, fueled by transformative social change and digital innovation.

DISTRIB FILMS US An independent distributor of international feature films, Distrib Films US is known for its strong collection of French and Italian fiction feature films.

FIRST RUN FEATURES Founded in 1979 by a group of filmmakers to advance the distribution of independent film, First Run has been honored with a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art for its significant contributions.

GRASSHOPPER FILM A distribution company founded in 2015 by Ryan Krivoshey, dedicated to the release of independent, foreign, and documentary film.

ICARUS FILMS A leading distributor of documentary films in North America, with a collection exceeding 1000 titles. It recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

KIMSTIM A distribution company dedicated to the release of exceptional independent, foreign, and documentary film.

WOMEN MAKE MOVIES Women Make Movies (WMM), a non-profit feminist social enterprise based in New York, is the world’s leading distributor of independent films by and about women.

Lynne Sachs Featured on The Screen’s Margins Podcast

The Screen’s Margins Podcast
Oll Obout Ovid! No. 21 – All the World’s Memory, Lost Course, the works of Lynne Sachs, and more!


The segment on Lynne Sachs

Welcome to the 99th and final podcast from THE SCREEN’S MARGINS of the year! What a year it’s been, and what better way to round out 2021 than by…okay there’s nothing special, it’s just B Peterson and Witney Seibold talking good film that’s available on Ovid.tv, aka the premise of OLL OBOUT OVID! We talk Alain Renais’ 1956 tribute to libraries, Madeline Anderson’s documentation of Civil Rights activism and activists, Lynne Sachs’ experimental explorations of history, language and the documentary form itself, Jill Li’s chronicling of a democratic movement in Southern China, and more besides! We hope you enjoy, and thank you for your time.

Link to B’s new podcast, launching Jan 1st: anchor.fm/bluegreycloset

See Lynne’s films on Ovid.tv here:

Welcome to the queer-led podcast network from @bluegreycloset, @haroldtxt, @iamthecampion, @the_hoyk and @WitneySeibold exploring lesser-known films/filmmakers.

OBSERVE AND SUBVERT: Lynne Sachs interviewed by Inney Prakash for Metrograph

December 2021

An interview with experimental documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs.

Our Lynne Sachs Series plays at Metrograph December 10–12.

Several of her films are currently available to watch on the Criterion Channel

Whether portraying artists, historical figures, family members, or strangers, filmmaker Lynne Sachs has always found rivetingly indirect methods of representing her subjects. The San Francisco Weekly called her 2001 film Investigation of a Flame, about the Vietnam War and the Catonsville Nine, a group of Catholic activists who burnt draft files in protest, an “anti-documentary.” Sachs herself now uses the phrase “experimental documentary” as shorthand for describing the formal elements that constitute her particularly idiosyncratic and collage-like cinematic vernacular, notable in work like the decades-in-the-making Film About A Father Who (2020).

Rooted in her days in San Francisco’s experimental scene, Sachs’s concerns are deeply material; they regard the matter that makes up the world as inextricable from the technology that reproduces it. Her investigation of New York City laundromats, The Washing Society (2016), co-directed with playwright Lizzie Olesker, struck me as an apt departure point for our wide-ranging discussion about and around this material awareness, as well as the larger concerns that bridge the gap between her films as works of art and Sachs’s  advocacy for worldly change.


I like weird questions.


I have been thinking about lint so much over the last few years. It started with my thinking about skin, and the epidermis, and about clothing being a second layer of our skin—which means that when we collect lint out of the dryer, we’re also catching aspects of our bodies. Sometimes it’s our own bodies, sometimes it’s the bodies of people we love. Sometimes it’s the bodies of people whose clothes are being washed in a transactional way…Iin that flow, you collect something most people think of as detritus. But I actually think of it as material, in the way that Joseph Beuys was really interested in wax and felt. So, lint is material for sculpture, and for an examination of our bodies. When that comes together, I find it very compelling.


That attention to the microscopic aspects that are residue of the much larger social relationships around service, hygiene, and the exchange of money for someone who performs something for somebody else—lint represents all those things.


When we look at traditional 16mm film, we see scratches and hair, like we see in lint. It’s not that different. Because lint collects through the months or ages, it collects aspects of the world. Film does the same thing; it is changed by its journey in time.

My co-director, Lizzie Olesker, and I wanted to figure out ways to examine the interplay between economics, aesthetics, and politics. You look at the form of cinema and you say, “I want to create ruptures. I want to create a radicalization of the way images are represented.“ But it’s also important to look not just at the way the camera reproduces our reality, but what is produced by the reality that might be dismissed or ignored. … Lint is not invisible, but it’s about as close to invisible as it gets. It moves from clothing to the trashcan in a kind of rote way. By breaking up that [journey], we’re trying to look at the mechanisms of labor.


It occurred to me about a year ago that every single film is a document of a performance. Even a fiction film, which is a bunch of people doing this crazy thing—to reinvent themselves, pretend that they’re different from who they are—we film it, and it’s called a fiction film, but it’s actually a documentary of a group of people together.

What’s started to interest me in the last year is that woven quality that takes seriously that anyone in, for example, a documentary film is performing an aspect of who they are. As soon as they turn their head and they see the camera, they’re performing. And there’s this, you could call it a leash, or an invisible thread [that runs] between my eyes and the eyes of any human being in front of the camera. They’re always looking to the director for some kind of affirmation, like, “Yes, you’re doing a good job.“ It’s the same in documentary. If you actually recognize that this is a form of exchange, then you can try to subvert it. People who are supposed to be ‘real’ become performers, or we have performers who open up about their lives . And so, obscure that rigid differentiation. That’s why I’m not really happy with the term ‘hybrid’ yet. Because it’s saying that this ontological conundrum doesn’t really exist, and that we have to create another category that says, “That’s ambiguously real and that’s ambiguously fiction.“


With filmmaking, there’s always two answers. There is the production answer: we tried one thing and it didn’t work, so we decided to go another way. And then there’s the more theoretical, maybe conceptual answer.


Okay, the conceptual answer first. We wanted to research the experience of what it is to wash the clothes of another person. Particularly in a big city, where people and workplaces can be taken for granted. Lizzie comes out of playwriting, and this notion that you observe the world in which you live, and then you re-create characters who inhabit those experiences you’ve witnessed, or those interactions that confuse you, and that you’re trying to grapple with. And I come out of experimental filmmaking, with documentaries. So you observe and then you subvert.

She asked me if I would help her to investigate laundry workers in New York. We started, and we got really hooked, but most of the people who do this kind of service work in America are also immigrants, and many don’t have the formal paperwork to give them the freedom to be on camera, to talk about the struggles of their workplace or their bosses, who they’re supporting, all those things. So we would have very informal conversations, but we couldn’t record and we couldn’t film.

Our answer was not to give up, but to listen really actively, and then to write the characters, or to write three characters who appear in the film as composites of these conversations. So, there’s Ching Valdes-Aran, Jasmine Holloway, and Veraalba Santa. They’re all performers—the film started as a performance called Every Fold Matters, which we did live in laundromats in Brooklyn and in New York City, and at places like University Settlement, The Tank.

But then, okay, the answer to the conceptual side is that, even though I’ve been making work that you could call reality-based or documentary-based for a long time, I’m always questioning this notion of asking people to open up their lives for me. That’s why I made Film About a Father Who, because I felt like it was my turn to be in that vulnerable position.

One thing I’ve done for years now, I always pay people [who appear] in my films. That’s kind of anathema in documentary. People don’t do that. Especially journalists, which I do understand… But why shouldn’t you pay them the way you would pay an actor?

Often we measure the success of a documentary by how real it is, by the spontaneity of the reveal of information; “I can’t believe you got in that door.“ Or, “I can’t believe you got those people to say that for you with your camera on.“ There’s a lot of registers of success that have to do with the people in front of the camera letting it all hang out, and that’s an awkward exchange… I wanted to have people who felt confident in their place in the world, to speak from that position. If people didn’t feel confident, then we listened, and we tried to embrace their sentiments and struggles in a fictionalized way.


It’s both. We used parts of it, but often we wrote in a more free-form way. It’s really a composite, and there’s a freedom that comes from making a film like this. .. I call it the Maggie Nelson effect, [which is] this idea where you lay bare the research. In The Argonauts, she tells this personal story about her relationship, and she has these fantastic tangents, which are about her research, what she happened to be reading, letting all of that come in.

I can [also] say that we were influenced by Yvonne Rainer. She was such a visionary when it came to choreography, and a celebration of the body through dance. Because she looked at the quotidian, and she ‘deconstructed’— in the word of that period— how we move through the world. We took that approach to how we thought about the dance movements in The Washing Society, how we could re-examine the gestures of the everyday, and think about how they might be beautiful, in the way that Roberta Cantow’s film Clotheslines celebrates the beauty of laundry work. [Lizzie and I] wanted to think about recognising washing as a form of physical dance. Especially because there’s so much repetition, which dance also uses.


Clotheslines is fantastic. It’s giving attention, again, to urban life, and to things that people do that maybe they feel ashamed of doing but that they have to do. It’s interesting to look at Roberta Cantow’s film, because it’s a twist on the whole idea of being a feminist. Barbara Hammer did something similar; I think the term ‘feminist’ is evolving all the time.

What Roberta Cantow did in her work, I think, is say, “Let’s acknowledge the beauty of what mostly women do. But it doesn’t mean that they’ll become stronger women than when they don’t do it.” … I should add that today I had a conversation with Roberta Cantow. A woman she knew who organizes washerwomen in New York City told her about the screening. Anyway, she told me today that this whole group of organizers around washerwomen, 10 of them, are coming to Metrograph.


Yeah. And I’m hoping [for] a group from the Laundry Workers Center, which is a union I’ve done a lot of work with, who organize workers in the small laundromats all over New York City…  If they’re trying to shut down a laundromat or bring attention to conditions that are really, really bad—where people are required to work 12 hours, and they can’t look at their phones, or all the different rules that are had—[Lizzie and I] make videos for them sometimes.


I was thinking about this last night. I went to an event at E-flux, and I was listening to Eric Baudelaire, the filmmaker, talking about this too…. I don’t think I’ve ever made a film that had the ability to make someone act differently, or to push them in a direction. But I always hope it makes them think about who they are differently, or about how the world works in another way. Maybe the result of that would be an action. But if it’s just a thought, that’s pretty good too. I guess it has to do with results, how you measure your reach… I get very excited, like with Investigation of a Flame, by people doing things with passion, and pushing themselves to extremes from which they can never turn back. I mean, that actually goes to Barbara Hammer. [She] lived life to its fullest, and with so much conviction.


Well, when I made Which Way Is East (1994), I didn’t at first understand that it really is about how we look at history, and how we analyze or reconstruct the past. That film is made from the perspective of myself and my sister. We were children who experienced the Vietnam War through television, mostly black-and-white images on a box in the living room. Being typical American, middle-class kids, our parents and their friends had not gone to war. The war was really far away… But you then grow up and you realize that it does touch you; you heard all the numbers of people who died, and you recognize that those statistics were always emphasizing the Americans, but what about the Vietnamese? How does war have an impact?

When we made the film, in the early ’90s, my sister, Dana Sachs, was living in Vietnam. I visited for one month, and, like a typical documentary filmmaker, you arrive in a place and you say, “I’m going to make a film.“ It came to me later that the film is a dialogue with history, but it’s also a dialogue between two women from the same family, who thought about that past in extremely different ways. She looked at Vietnam in this contemporary way, as survivors. Whereas I looked at Vietnam with this wrought guilt, trying to piece together an understanding of a war that still seemed to bleed. That’s what gave the film its tension, that our perceptions were so different. Ultimately the most interesting films are the ones that ask us to think about perception, that don’t just introduce new material.

So that was a gift, to be in dialogue with my sister… Another way of looking at dialogue, [if] you’re in dialogue with [someone like] Jean Vigo, who’s not alive… then you’re creating a dialectic between the materials. In A Month of Single Frames, I’m in dialogue with Barbara Hammer literally, but I’m also in dialogue with her through the form of the film, and with the audience. That was intentional, to have this ambiguity.

In A Month of Single Frames, she also does something that’s not about activism, it’s about solitude… thinking about her place in nature. It’s all about being delicately and boldly in the landscape. When she cuts up little pieces of gel and puts them on blades of grass, she’s doing the opposite of what a feature film made in Cape Cod would… You’d have all these people stomping on the dunes, getting permission to shoot, to take over a whole house, you’d need light, electricity… She wanted to do everything with the least impact. It’s not a film that she probably announced as a celebration of the environment. But to me, it is so much about not leaving your footprint on the land, but being there. I really admire that work.


The last year of Barbara Hammer’s life, she gave footage to filmmakers and said, “Do whatever you want, and in the process use this material that I love but could not finish. Because I can see that my life will not last long enough to do so.“

She gave me footage from 1998, which she had shot in a residency on Cape Cod. I asked her why she didn’t finish this film and she said, “Because it’s too pretty, and because it’s not engaged, it’s not political.“ She felt that the fact that it delivered so much pleasure just in its loveliness made it problematic. It was this gorgeous landscape, and a woman alone in a cabin. She thought there wasn’t a rigor to it. So she had never done anything with it; it just moved around with her, and it was bothering her, of course: “Finish me. Finish me.“

She gave it to me, and I started to edit. On the second visit, I showed it to her, just without any sound. I asked if she did any writing while she was there, and she said, “I kept a journal.“ She’d forgotten all about it, so she pulled it out.


She even writes about herself in the third person, which is fun, and different…

Everything was so pressured: she had to go to chemotherapy, she was trying to finish Evidentiary Bodies, a film that she was going to show at the Berlin Film Festival in 2019. It was one of the last things she did. So I had the material, and when she died… I needed to finish it. That’s when I wrote the text, because I needed to be in dialogue with her more than just editing the material. I needed to concentrate on that energy between us.


I’ll give you a little background. I’ve been on and off involved with the Punto de Vista Film Festival, which is a really interesting small festival in Pamplona, Spain, where they acknowledge and appreciate alternative ways of looking at documentary film practice. They asked 10 filmmakers to make a film in the form of a letter to a filmmaker who had influenced us.

I chose Jean Vigo; I love his film, Zero for Conduct (1933), because it is so much about rule breaking. It is so much about trying to exist in society, but knowing when there is a time to break the law. I had made my film Investigation of a Flame; I was interested in those moments where you have to turn inward and say, “This is wrong.“ And I wanted, again, to talk to a ghost. To talk to Jean Vigo.

Then, right at the beginning of this year, there was the attack on the US Capitol. A group of thousands chose to break the law, with absolute abandon in terms of the sacredness of other people’s bodies. I’m not even saying the US Capitol is sacred. But to go to a place of heinous destruction, that really disturbed me. I was already thinking about Jean Vigo, and I thought, “This is really complicated.” Because at what point do we learn to understand how to respect, how to have compassion, how to have empathy? That you can break rules, as in paint graffiti or burn draft files, but that once you start invading another person’s body— it’s a violation I couldn’t accept. And this space between anarchy and authoritarianism, and between compassionate rule breaking and violence was very interesting to me.


Oh. Well I have to say, a feminist socialist revolution probably would come with a lot of compassion. I think, I hope. But I would never say that women… I don’t think that there’s anything innate.

One other thing about E•pis•to•lar•y: I really like all the syllables in epistolary, so I like that it sounds like bullets. And yet it’s about dialogue… It may be silent, but audiences are writing back in their heads. I think a lot about that in my filmmaking, all the sounds that go on in audiences’ minds.


My interest in people who break the rules goes way back. I mean, I was protesting the implementation of imposing draft registration on American men when I was in high school. I’ve always been committed to trying to articulate a critique. But when I heard about the Catonsville Nine and this group of people who had nothing to gain by criticizing the US government’s presence in Vietnam, except that they were so upset that they felt they had to speak out against it…

They were Catholic antiwar activists: two priests in particular, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and a nurse, and a sister, and others. But they broke the law in the most performative way. To take draft papers and burn them [with] napalm…. Napalm is not that different from lint. It’s just soap mixed with chemicals. You can make napalm at home. It’s domestically produced napalm, which was being used in Vietnam. But [the Catonsville Nine] wanted to make it and burn it symbolically. This, to me, was the ultimate art performance piece. Let’s burn files, photograph it, disseminate it, and say that these files represent bodies.

People said that they changed so much thinking. It was effective because it was an image that… You were asking about activism, that’s an image! To see priests burning draft files, that’s going to change things. That’s real activism on their part, and that happened in the 1960s.


I never thought… But it’s made with soap!

Inney Prakash is a writer and film curator based in New York City and the founder/director of Prismatic Ground.

Lynne Sachs Series at Metrograph (NYC) – Decemeber 10 – 12th

December 10 to December 12, 2021

Since bursting onto the filmmaking scene in the 1980s, Memphis-born Lynne Sachs has compiled an inimitable, astonishing body of work which includes essay films, diaristic shorts, gallery installations, and quite a number of simply uncategorizable hybrids. Sachs’s wide-ranging, restless ingenuity is on full display in this program, which includes her 2020 documentary portrait A Film About a Father WhoThe Washing Society, her collaboration with playwright Lizzie Olesker, which premiered in 2015 at a Clinton Hill laundromat; and this year’s E•pis•to•lar•y: Letter to Jean Vigo, a ruminative, surprising response to the January 6th Capitol Hill riots. A blast of engaging, and engaged, cinema.

Sachs will be present for all three programs.

Friday, December 10th @ 7:15 PM
2020 / 74min / DCP

Made up of footage shot by Sachs between 1984 and very nearly the present day, Film About a Father Who represents her endeavor to better understand the outsized personality and myriad affairs of one Ira Sachs, Sr.: Park City, Utah, hospitality industry mogul; bon vivant hippie businessman; serial womanizer; and the filmmaker’s father. Analog and digital video shares space with 8 and 16mm film in Sachs’ decoupage of home movie formats, creating a tenderly critical mosaic portrait that’s as energetic, multifaceted, and messy as its subject.

Saturday, December 11th @ 3:45 PM
2018 and 1981 / 90min / DCP

Sachs’s The Washing Society, co-directed with playwright Lizzie Olesker, uses a combination of interviews, re-enactments, and patient observation to pay lyric homage to the little-acknowledged but essential labor of dealing with dirty laundry, as it occurs every day in New York City’s laundromats. Screening with Roberta Cantow’s feminist forebear Clotheslines, a film that takes laundry seriously as a form of folk art, a fraught social signifier, and a lens for women to reflect on the joys, pains, and ambivalences of household chores. With Sachs’s short “A Month of Single Frames” made with and for Barbara Hammer.

Co-Directors Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker will be present with special guest feminist scholar Silvia Federici for a post-screening conversation. Hosted by Emily Apter.

Post-Screening Conversation for

Co-Directors Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker with special guest feminist scholar Silvia Federici in a post-screening conversation. Hosted by Emily Apter.

Sunday, December 12th @ 4:30 PM
1994, 2017, 2021, 2001 / 100min / DCP

Four shorts exemplifying the breadth and tireless curiosity of Sachs’s film practice, as well as an ongoing engagement with issues of justice and resistance. The Ho Chi Minh City–Hanoi travel diary Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam offers an encounter between lived experience and mediated memory of a televised war. And Then We Marched juxtaposes 8mm footage of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C. with archival images of earlier struggles for justice. E•pis•to•lar•y: Letter to Jean Vigo looks at the January 6th Capitol Hill uprising through the unlikely but revealing prism of Vigo’s 1933 Zéro de conduite. Investigation of a Flame revisits the story of the Catonsville Nine, Catholic activists who burnt draft files in protest of the Vietnam War.

Director Lynne Sachs will be present.

Lynne Sachs on “Into the Mothlight” Podcast

EP.32 – Lynne Sachs
by Jason Moyes

Since the 1980s, Lynne Sachs has created cinematic works that defy genre through the use of hybrid forms and collaboration, incorporating elements of the essay film, collage, performance, documentary and poetry.  Her films explore the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences. With each project, she investigates the implicit connection between the body, the camera, and the materiality of film itself. 

After comprehensive career retrospectives at Sheffield Documentary festival in 2020 and the Museum of the Moving Image in New York this year, her latest feature ‘Film about a Father Who’ is being screened on the Criterion Channel along with seven other short films. Over a period of 35 years between 1984 and 2019, filmmaker Lynne Sachs shot 8 and 16mm film, videotape and digital images of her father, Ira Sachs Sr. a bon vivant and pioneering businessman from Park City, Utah. ‘Film About a Father Who’ is her attempt to understand the web that connects a child to her parent and a sister to her siblings. 

We chat about ‘Film About a Father Who’, her approach to experimental documentary making and living and working in San Francisco in 80’s

You can stream 8 of Lynne’s films including FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO on the Criterion Channel here

Interview Transcript

People, places and films Lynne references include:

The work about civil disobedience is ‘Investigation of a Flame:  A Portrait of the Catonsville Nine’ (2001) 

We discuss the films that feature Lynne’s daughter Maya, including ‘Maya at 24‘ (2021) 

Photograph of wind‘ (2001) – the title taken from an expression used by the photographer Robert Frank   

And ‘Same Stream Twice‘ (2012) 

Quote from the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa from The Book of Disquiet

“Everything that surrounds us becomes part of us, it seeps into us with every experience of the flesh and of life and, like the web of a great Spider, binds us subtly to what is near, ensnares us in a fragile cradle of slow death, where we lie rocking in the wind.” 

People and places in San Francisco. 

Lynne worked with the Vietnamese filmmaker, writer and composer Trinh T. Minh-ha 

She learned cinematography from Babette Mangolte  who had also worked with Chantal Akerman  

A mention of Walter Benjamin, and in particular his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ 

She studied with the Swedish American filmmaker   Gunvor Nelson – Read Lynne’s throughs on the films of this artists here. 

The underground film maker George Kuchar 

Barbara Hammer – read about Lynne’s film ‘A Month of Single Frames’ (2019) here, and see an excerpt from ‘Carolee, Barbara & Gunvor’ here

Filmmaker and curator and her “compatriot big brother and dear dear friend Craig Baldwin and the programmes he would curate at Other Cinema  

Seeing Stan Brakhage films at the San Francisco Cinematheque and the Millennium Film Workshop (New York) 

Stan Brakhage’s annual programme at the Anthology film Archives where he included Lynne’s work ‘The House of Science: a museum of false facts’ (1991)  

Lynne mentions her husband, the filmmaker Mark Street – read about Mark here

The First Person Cinema Salon that Stan Brakhage ran in Boulder, Colorado, and showing silent works by Joseph Cornell from his own collection.  

Teaching filmmaking at the Flowchart Foundation 

And remember that you can support Into the Mothlight on Patreon here

About Into the Mothlight Podcast

Experimental film and installation artist Jason Moyes lives and works in rural Scotland and has been exploring the moving image since 2007. His work has been shown in the UK, North America, Europe and Asia. He is a founding member of the Moving Image Makers Collective.

Writers on Film – “Lynne Sachs: Portrait of a Filmmaker Who”

Writers on Film
Season 1, Ep. 23
by John Bleasdale


John Bleasdale talks to Lynne Sachs, the Memphis born, Brooklyn based filmmaker on the eve of a season of her works being streamed on the Criterion Channel. Since the 1980s, Sachs has created cinematic works that defy genre through the use of hybrid forms and collaboration, incorporating elements of the essay film, collage, performance, documentary and poetry. Her films explore the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences. With each project, she investigates the implicit connection between the body, the camera, and the materiality of film itself.

Over her career, Sachs has been awarded support from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NYFA, and Jerome Foundation. Sachs has made 40 films (including Tip of My TongueYour Day is My NightInvestigation of a Flame, and Which Way is East). Her films have screened at the Museum of Modern Art, Wexner Center, the Walker, the Getty, New York Film Festival, and Sundance. In 2021, Edison Film Festival and Prismatic Ground Film Festival at Maysles Documentary Center awarded Sachs for her body of work.

Sachs is also deeply engaged with poetry. In 2019, Tender Buttons Press published her first book Year by Year Poems. In 2020 and 2021, she taught film and poetry workshops at Beyond Baroque, Flowchart Foundation, San Francisco Public Library, and Hunter.  www.lynnesachs.com

After comprehensive career retrospectives at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020 and the Museum of the Moving Image in 2021, the Criterion Channel is delighted to announce that director Lynne Sachs’ films will join the Channel in October 2021 along with a newly recorded director interview exploring her works. Sachs will be making her the Criterion Channel debut with seven earlier works followed by her latest feature, Film About a Father Who, recently released theatrically by Cinema Guild and receiving its exclusive streaming premiere with the Criterion Channel. 

Interview Transcript