All of Lynne Sachs‘ films blur the lines between avant-garde, documentary and narrative, but few employ as many different styles and mediums as States of Unbelonging. This essay film, as much rumination as documentary, traces Sachs’ three-year journey to learn about Revital Ohayon, an Israeli filmmaker killed in her home with her two children during the conflict of 2002.
To explore Ohayon’s life, as well as her own anxiety about death, conflict and distance, Sachs uses TV news/documentary, her own impressionistic footage from New York, her collaborator Nir Zats’ serene “objective” videos from Israel, super 8 shots of Ohayon’s kibbutz, clips from Ohayon’s narrative films, home movies and straightforward interviews with the victim’s family. “The Medium & The Message: 7 Forms of Filmmaking in States of Unbelonging” examines each of these strategies in turn. Appropriately, this video essay not only reflects the removed analysis of the filmmaker’s work but also the path of my own emotional engagement with the material.
SAT. 11/16/13: LYNNE SACHS’ YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT + CHRIS MARKER Prodigal daughter Sachs returns with a dramatic ethnography on a little-seen subculture: older residents of “shift-bed” apartments in New York’s Chinatown, where immigrants are jammed into shared rooms, beds in use around the clock. Non-professional actors play out issues of privacy, intimacy, and ownership, as their shift-bed experience finds cinematic expression through vérité conversations, character driven fictions, and integrated movement pieces. Collaborating with cinematographer Sean Hanley and composer Stephen Vitiello, Sachs’ mixture of reportage, play-acting, and memory opens up an Other hidden world. Preceded by: Lynne’s collaboration with Three Cheers for the Whale, directed by Chris Marker with Mario Ruspoli.
La cita era para las 8:00pm y el studio de Sofía Gallisá en Fort Green, Brooklyn empezó a llenarse de amigos puertorriqueños. Éramos cerca de diez. Habíamos sido convocados por la cineasta y profesora, Lynne Sachs. Lynne quería conocer nuestras historias de cama, grabarlas y estudiarlas. Sofía, su colaboradora, confiaba en nuestro poder narrativo y extrañezas, de ahí la invitación.
La discusión fue entretenida y alegre. Se habló de dormir rodeado de almohadas por todas partes, de intolerancia al ruido, de estar envuelto en sábanas como momias, de pelearse por el lado de la cama con la pareja, de idiosincracias de limpieza; loqueras y rituales de cada cual al momento de acostarse.
Una semana después me enteré de que aquel encuentro fue una audición y que tres de nosotros (Veraalba Santa, Pedro Leopoldo Sánchez y yo) habíamos sido seleccionados para participar en el proyecto de Lynne, Your Day is my Night. En mi caso como escritor.
Una vez me reuní con Lynne me informó que simultáneo a nosotros un grupo de chinos fueron igualmente entrevistados/audicionados para el filme que se empezaba a gestar: un documental híbrido acerca de las camas itinerantes en los apartamentos de Chinatown. Parte de mi tarea fue ir con ella a realizar nuevas entrevistas con los seleccionados. Mi misión sería la de co-escribir unos monólogos basados en lo escuchado.
“My way of filmmaking is all about process – Tell me who you are and I’ll tell you what I’m trying to do and let’s work on something together. I was taken by a Chinatown activist to the Lin Sing Association on Mott Street, where he told me I could find willing performers. Most of Lin Sing’s members are retired, so they have time. I happened to come during a karaoke contest. The place was packed. I said I am auditioning –as a documentary filmmaker I usually say I’m interviewing– I am making a film about beds. I didn’t explain any more than that. About 40 people signed up to come to audition and 26 people showed up. Working with a Chinese translator, I interviewed every one of them but I only asked them about one thing. I said, “Do you have any interesting stories about beds in your life? Did you ever have to share a bed? Did you ever live in a really crowded apartment where there were many beds? I taped the interviews with these 26 people. It ended up that seven people actually had these stunning and haunting stories to tell me.“ -Lynne Sachs on Asian Cinevision, Cinema Spotlight: Your Day is my Night
Las historias de los siete chinos, cuatro hombres y tres mujeres, se distanciaban bastante de lo que había escuchado o contado con los puertorriqueños. En sus historias no había mucho espacio para celebrar la cotidianidad o las selecciones de comodidad. Todas estas historias remitían a pasados devastadores, separaciones familiares, traumas, violencia y eventos horribles que finalmente llevaban a experiencias de imigración. La mayoría como hijos de comerciantes fueron sacudidos de mala manera por la revolución. Debieron abandonar el país. En una primera instancia el hacinamiento en Chinatown, New York, tenía la pinta de progreso.
“Interestingly, the disturbing stories that you hear in the film surprised Jenifer Lee, one of our translators. She’s from Taiwan originally and she said that she’d never heard about so many terrible things happening as early as the 1940s in China. Things like gangs breaking into someone’s house and beating up parents in front of their children. People were not really talking about this kind of violence in history very much. Still, most of our performers did bring their kids to the show. To me, this is important, because they were proud as performers and a lot of them wanted to reveal their tragic stories to their own families.” Ibid.
En esa primera etapa de atento escucha en pos de un texto se me presentaron varios retos. Primeramente andar a ciegas en el laberinto idiomático en el cual me había metido. Los entrevistados solo hablaban mandarín. Sus historias pasaban por el sedazo de una traductora. Sabía que algo siempre se me escapaba: un matiz, una entonación, un comentario de doble sentido, quién sabe. No había manera de identificar los aspectos emotivos del habla o de corroborar cuan fiel era la traductora.
De este escuchar sin referencia yo tomaba notas en inglés que luego condensaba y le daba algo de tono cinemático. Lynne escribía por su cuenta y luego yo editaba ambos textos en una versión casi final. El proceso se invertía y se les hacía una traducción en mandarín para que ellos se aprendieran o improvisaran, como terminó siendo el caso, a partir de sus monólogos. En todo ese recorrido de capas lingüísticas se quedaba la sensación de un algo incomunicado, lost in translation.
El siguiente reto consistió en introducir a los personajes puertorriqueños de Veraalba y Pedro en el mundo de Chinatown. Lynne no estaba interesada en repetir el proceso de filtrar la realidad y contar una versión estudiantil y artística del inmigrante en NY. Su interés era el de crear una ficción acerca de unos boricuas de clase baja que terminan viviendo entre estos señores chinos. Los personajes servirían como catalizadores para las historias chinas. La película era tanto una propuesta documental como un invento de ficción. Había que nadar en ambas aguas.
Muchas preguntas surgieron: ¿Cómo manejar la yuxtaposición de ambos acercamientos? ¿Cómo serle fiel a la cruda historia china? ¿Cómo mantener una credibilidad con estos puertorriqueños de la ficción? ¿Deberíamos enfocarnos también en las dificultades de la emigración puertorriqueña? ¿Es este filme el foro indicado para ello?
El trabajo con Lynne propone retos muy interesantes pero rara vez conclusiones o métodos fáciles. Su acercamiento como cineasta da muestra de su visión poética del mundo. Una visión personal y de referencias eclécticas que toma tiempo descubrir, pero estimulante y sui generis sin duda. Su proceso fílmico señala a las prácticas de directores como Jean-Luc Godard oTerrence Malick, quienes privilegian la improvisación actoral y visual y la intertextualidad. Fue en la misma filmación y posteriormente en la sala de edición, donde se fueron tomando las decisiones de tono, construcción narrativa y de utilización de los textos. En la película se mezclan escenas actuadas con momentos puramente documentales como una boda china o un talent show en un centro comunal de chinatown.
Los monólogos chinos los mantuvimos bastante fieles a los datos recibidos por los actores. Se agilizaron y sintetizaron en una prosa coloquial que podía encajar en cualquier situación. En un inicio escribimos ciertos rodeos literarios que demostraron no ser necesarios para comunicar sus historias. El poder de las anécdotas era suficiente. Mientras menos adornos mejor. Los personajes cuentan sus historias mientras cocinan, comen, tejen, tocan el piano, dan un masaje, ven una película en la laptop o simplemente están tirados en sus catres. La cámara explora sus rostros y partes del cuerpo desde muy cerca y se sumerje en los distintos objetos del apartamento. La visual es tanto íntima como claustrofóbica. Esto fue tanto una decisión estética de los cinematográfos como una necesidad traída por las circunstancias espaciales. La narrativa visual en Your Day is My Night es tan importante como la palabra hablada y en muchos momentos incluso más evocadora.
“Because of the tight quarters, some parts of your body cannot move. What you can move more freely is your hands. In this circumstance the performer’s hands became two bodies. They are interesting and sculptural. So we tried to use the hands and the sheets as two kinds of landscapes. From the very beginning this was a visual plan we had. I always wanted the sheets to become like caverns, to have a feeling of adventure over the sheets. There was one shot of Mr. Huang’s pink sheet right after his first monologue. I wanted it to feel like the Grand Canyon, or the Steppes in Eurasia, something very far out there.” Ibid.
Los personajes puertorriqueños fueron más dificiles de componer y sostener en el filme. Como no estaban basados en datos reales se les inventó una vida. Lourdes, el personaje de Veraalba, trabajaba como empleada en un Ikea arreglando camas (showroom beds). Carlos, su hermano (Pedro) había muerto en un accidente de carro pero ella se lo imaginaba por todos lados cargando una planta de moriviví. Lourdes se va de Puerto Rico tratando de escapar de su propia angustia (la muerte de su hermano, una madre opresiva) pero algo de su motivación queda ambigua. Su proceso como inmigrante es históricamente menos trágico aunque advertimos vive perdida tratando de encontrar un ancla. Lourdes, quien también es bailarina y escritora, se muda a Chinatown buscando conocer una cultura lejana a la suya. Sentirse despatriada es su manera de encontrar su esencia como persona.
Creo que con Lourdes alcanzamos construir una historia rica en matices, tipo novela de aprendizaje; pero desarrollarla, contar todos esos detalles, significaba alejarse del tema principal que motivaba a Lynne: las camas itinerantes; el chinatown oculto y hacinado. Dejar que el personaje moviera la trama era hacer otra película teniendo a la comunidad de chinatown como trasfondo secundario. Ese no era el balance que se buscaba entre ficción y documental. Aunque se filmaron muchas escenas acerca de Lourdes y Carlos, poco a poco Lynne y Sean Hanley cinematógrafo, co-editor y productor, las fueron extirpando (la historia sobre Carlos fue eliminada por completo, por ejemplo) para mantener el foco del filme y una duración adecuada.
“Originally the film was a little bit more narrative. For example, we had this whole part where Mr. Huang disappears, because Lourdes originally tries to get him out of Chinatown after he claims that he never leaves. They walk across the Manhattan bridge and she says: “I have to go to work”. When she leaves to go to work, he’s never seen again. It didn’t work in the film. It turned it into a narrative film that had a forced story and people judged it on the acting.” Ibid.
A pesar de este proceso de eliminación, el personaje de Lourdes cumple una función importante: crear un puente entre el apartamento y el exterior, un afuera que va más allá de la comunidad de chinatown y de la generación de los protagonistas chinos.
“One thing that I didn’t want to happen in this film was to portray either the shift-bed houses or Chinatown as isolated enclaves that didn’t exist anywhere else…I wanted to say that in 21st Century America, life is more porous. People have accidental interactions that affect them, and so I felt like bringing in not just another language, but also another person with a slightly different immigration experience, would add to that conversation. I also felt that for an audience, it broke the snowglobe feeling of “I’m looking in, but I cannot go in.” That would imply that Chinatown was a kind of hermetic space. So I thought that by having a new person in the apartment who’s a little bit wide-eyed, who wanted to learn from her older “roommates”, we could offer the audience the opportunity to become more involved.“ Ibid.
Durante año y medio mientras se editaba la película Lynne regresó con Sean varias veces para filmar tomas ambientales y aveces pequeñas escenas extras. En una de estas escenas se logró acceso a un apartamento repleto de camas itinerantes. La landlady y algunos inquilinos se dejaron filmar y hablan cómodamente con Huang, el cantante de bodas, uno de los personajes más curiosos del reparto. Esta escena es de las más impresionantes por la tristeza y resignación que esta manera de vivir trae a los implicados.
Ese juego entre escenas orquestradas y escenas documentales culminó con unas tomas en que se filmó a los protagonistas chinos en uno de los performances del “work in progress”. Estas tomas, por tener iluminación teatral y movimientos del tai-chi, tienen un aspecto surrealista siendo a la vez un registro híbrido entre ficción y documentación de las actividades del grupo.
“Far into our production, as I was documenting one of our live performances, I thought “This is really expressive and totally non-verbal, why aren’t we using it in the film?” Again, the idea, the process, revealed itself, whereas the more plot driven story was what I was forcing on them. It was artificial. So I took out all of that and allowed the film to become more improvisational and intuitive. This switched everything. We spent a year edit the other way and then just threw it all out when we realized how lucky we were to work with people so confident about their bodies, very willing to go on the stage and move freely. They had that ability and confidence.” Ibid.
Mi presencia en la etapa de post-producción fue mínima y se limitó a verificar unos subtítulos para una escena en español. No fue hasta que el filme estrenó el pasado 24 de febrero en el Museo de Arte Moderno de Nueva York (MoMa), en que finalmente vi entrelazados todos los niveles de escritura audiovisual. El filme tiene una cualidad atmósférica y voyeur que lo acerca más al género del documental, aunque ciertamente es una propuesta híbrida y con una estética muy trabajada.
Me sorprendió cómo decantar la palabra hablada ayudó al ritmo de la película. Los monólogos pueden considerarse islas dentro del tema-archipiélago de las camas y la vida en chinatown. Con las capas de traducción y la improvisación de algunos diálogos desapareció la autoría o los trucos de estilo, míos o de Lynne. El personaje de Lourdes terminó encajando muy bien como ese ojo externo dentro de las circunstancias. Las escenas estrictamente visuales no dejan de crear un texto pero este se manifiesta desde unas instancias poéticas y emotivo-arquitectónicas. Sin carecer de narrativa, Your Day is My Night no alardea de grandes peripecias sino de una observación cuidada al cotidiano de los personajes. Nunca victimiza sino que reconoce y valida la presencia de los por lo general anónimos habitantes de este barrio nuyorkino.
Lynne Sachs labora en el medio fílmico y en el del video. Otras facetas de su trabajo incluyen instalaciones y proyectos para la red. Su obra explora la relación intrincada que existe entre la observación personal y las experiencias históricas. Su estilo entrelaza poesía, collage, pintura, política y complejos diseños de sonido. Los filmes de Lynne se han presentado en el Museo de Arte Moderno de Nueva York, el Festival de Cine de New York, el Festival de Cine de Sundance y el Festival Internacional de Cine de Buenos Aires. Lynne enseña cine y video experimental en la Universidad de Nueva York y vive en Brooklyn.
In the future, we may all be personal filmmakers, making the kinds of films that fit few genres but truly express our innermost creative impulse. Lynne Sachs is just that filmmaker, and she’s this month’s guest at Speakeasy Cinema.
Lynne takes you to the other worlds in your peripheral vision – the questions you want to ask re-invented with the space and room to hear yourself think. Her work is often hybrid – cultural commentary spanning documentary, poetry, experimental, drama, comedy, biography and autobiography, falsification, meditation and weird international ambient adventure. She’s made films in Vietnam, The West Bank, Argentina, Rome and the minds of many children. Her collaborators include Chris Marker, George Kuchar, Revital Ohayon, Sofia Gallisa, Mark Street and many others. The San Francisco Cinematheque recently published a monograph with four original essays in conjunction with a full retrospective of Lynne’s work. Lynne’s choice for our next Speakeasy is going to surprise you (on 16mm!) on Sunday, October 27, 7 PM.
Her latest film has screened at Union Docs, Maysles Cinema and is touring the country. “Your Day is My Night” is a weird, wonderful film that delighted and kept me on the edge of my seat. It features a collective of Chinese performers living in New York City exploring the history and meaning of “shiftbeds” through verité conversations, autobiographical monologues and integrated movement pieces. It’s quite human and funny and screened at
Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art, the Vancouver Film Fest, the New Orleans Film Fest and other venues in Mexico and Argentina. Michael Moore recently gave the film the Best Experimental Film Award at his Traverse City Film Festival. Here is an interview from the Brooklyn Rail: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2013/09/film/lynne-sachs-with-karen-rester
Check out her wonderful website, and the connection to its youtube channel, which features many of her films. http://www.lynnesachs.com/
Page 22 Studio, a workplace for emerging and established Writers, Directors, and Actors, dedicated to the spirit of Geraldine Page.
435 W. 22nd St, 2nd Floor, NY NY 10011.
The cost is $10 suggested donation. Please bring libations you consume responsibly.
SPEAKEASY CINEMA is created, produced and hosted by Matt Kohn, Director of CALL IT DEMOCRACY and THE MANUTE BOL SUDAN FILM PROJECT
WHAT IS SPEAKEASY CINEMA? WHY IS IT DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SCREENING SERIES?
If you’re new to this list, I created and hosted the independent and underground movie screening series Speakeasy Cinema. Between 2006 and 2009 it was housed at the Collective Unconscious and then Soho House. Every month Speakeasy Cinema featured at least one guest who choose an exciting, controversial movie they would like an audience to discuss. However, before the screening no one in the audience knew what they were coming to see. After the film was screened, the audience participated in conversation, with only one purpose: what did you see? What did it mean to you? How did it make you feel?
For our most recent event Bob Berger screened The Loved One. In the Spring 2013 Season Tony Torn brought PERFORMANCE, Kim Jackson brought F IS FOR FAKE, Alix Lambert brought DEATH BY HANGING and Miao Wang brought WOMAN IN THE DUNES. Previous seasons’ guests included Tom Gilroy, Peter Mattai, Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, Jem Cohen, Norman Spinrad, Debra Eisenstadt, Josh Gilbert, Nelson Cabrera, Pedro Carvajal, Signe Baumane, Jonthan Stern, Robert Milazzo, Michael Badalucco, Joe Maggio, The Zuvuya Collective, Avram Ludwig, Ian Olds, Ira Sachs and Scott Saunders. Every single conversation they inspired was a success because the films they brought are off the beaten path and worthy of our time. We screened AMERICAN JOB, SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, BONE, BLOOD OF THE BEASTS and PSYCH-OUT, DAY OF THE LOCUSTS, “Films Rescued from Fire (of Chilian censors)”, TOGETHER (TILLSAMMANS), SECUESTRO EXPRESS, SEVENTEEN, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942 version), MICKY AND MAUDE, 13 TSAMETI, and “A Short Film About Killing” from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s DEKALOG,VIVA ZAPATA!, COME AND SEE, PSYCHOSYMBIOTAXIPLASM, and SOMETHING LIKE HAPPINESS. (Stesti). Bill Griffith, the creator of Zippy, brought BEING THERE. Many of our conversations took us out of the theater and into nearby bars and restaurants.
As attendees of any experience, our schedules have become more programed, our plans more specific to what we think we want or don’t want. Speakeasy Cinema returns becuase movies were also meant to be enjoyed as an intellectual and emotional surprise and with friends, lovers, family members, dates, strangers or even someone else’steenager.
Speakeasy Cinema has a few rules:
1) our guests bring a film and no one one knows what it is until the lights dim
2) the film can’t be a film the guests have worked on, only a film they love or hate, think is important, inspiring and want to talk about
3) after the film, the audiences and the filmmakers share their experiences watching the film. We talk about ART.
4) industry talk is verboten!
5) we can drink in this theater, so bring a bottle – we provide the corkscrew
6) we do it the third Sunday evening of each month
7) we don’t don’t show documentaries, whatever documentaries are
8) photographs are OK, but no audio or video records of what you say or think. What’s spoken about at Speakeasy Cinema stays at Speakeasy Cinema. END OF STORY.
The ground rules were set early on in the IFP Film Week panel “Neorealist Features & Hybrid Documentaries.” There was to be no talk about “business.” We were here to talk about art — the art of cinema and how to transcend categorization. Moderated by David Wilson, co-conspirator, True/False Film Fest, the discussion involved ways in which filmmakers can defy categorization with films that are not quite documentary and not quite traditional narrative features.
“I’ve submitted my film to various festivals and I’ve won awards in the documentary category, the narrative category and the experimental category,” said Lynne Sachs, director, “Your Day is My Night.” The audience laughed at the notion of a film that is able to straddle all of those categories, but the filmmakers on the panel nodded because they understood the situation all too well. As Tim Sutton, director of “Pavilion” put it, “I’m not a documentary filmmaker. I’m a narrative filmmaker. I just don’t believe in scripts.”
Sutton explained, “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as non-narrative. I wanted to create the world of these kids, not a story, not a plot….To me it was creating this landscape of constantly wondering about these kids — Is it real? Is it not? Does it matter?” All of the projects blur the lines between fact and fiction, leaving the audience to wonder if what they’re seeing on screen really happened.
In the case of Sachs‘ film, the answer is “yes” and “no.” While looking to cast a film about shift-bed houses (where people, usually immigrants, share sleeping quarters in time-shifted periods), she auditioned people who actually lived in shift-bed houses. “It all went in a circle. The people were standing in front of my camera. There was an artificiality to it because they were performing their lives, which I decided to push into a performance.”
As she might for a documentary, Sachs interviewed the subjects of her film. But rather than capturing “talking heads” as she might for a documentary, she transcribed the subject’s answers, which she said “was basically a script.” She then had people perform their own story, along with improvisation. “People performed their own story, but they could improvise as much as they wanted. It wasn’t that I had subjects. I had people in the film who were also my collaborators.”
“12 O’Clock Boys.”Oscilloscope Laboratories
With “12 O’Clock Boys,” director Lofty Nathan set out to make a movie about a young boy who aspires to join an illegal dirt bike gang. “I started ’12 O’Clock Boys’ passively,” said Nathan. “But by the end of it, I was into making it a more cohesive film. I don’t have a problem with steering it. Audiences want things to be entertaining and grounded.”
With “Pavillion,” Sutton said he set out to make a film about youth in general. I always approached it as a dramatic film. Working with non-actors, you have to approach the film in a certain way, which is using a documentary aesthetic.”
Of course, the filmmakers realize that some audience members might be confused by their films which refuse to define themselves.
“I really enjoy cinema that is complex and confusing and you’re not on solid ground — possibly ever — which may not be the best way to approach an American audience. But it’s important to me to always keep the audience in a question,” said Sutton.
“Snow on tha Bluff”
With Damon Russell’s film “Snow on ‘tha Bluff,” it was essential to keep the audience guessing about what was real because the material involved a crack dealer and “a lot of people could get in trouble,” said Russell. “For legal reasons, we decided we could never tell people what is real and what is not.”
Russell’s goal was to “do whatever was the most authentic thing that no one would ever question was real. That’s what exciting — there’s no rules. It’s not like a narrative film where you’ve got to get coverage or a documentary where you’re just waiting around for something to happen. You just do what you want to do.”
When the experimental filmmaker Lynne Sachs taught avant-garde filmmaking at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1992, few if any in our class had ever heard of the essayist Chris Marker, with whom she later collaborated on Three Cheers for the Whale, or Trinh T. Minh-ha, whose approach to filmmaking strongly influenced her own. In an interview we did back then, Sachs talked about Trinh’s ability to maintain a certain distance in her work in order to create a non-hierarchical space in which events unfold. At the same time Sachs was adamant about being “participatory” and, for her first long format film Sermons and Sacred Pictures: The Life and Work of Reverend L.O Taylor (1989), “interacting with the people that I was talking to in a very physical way.”
Sachs, who is also known for incorporating poetry, collage, and painting as well as dramatic performance in her films, continued to explore and develop this approach over the course of 25 works, including her latest, Your Day is My Night (2013), a hybrid documentary about residents in shift-bed apartments, a virtually unknown phenomenon of New York’s Chinatown. Like her previous films TheLast Happy Day, a portrait of her distant cousin who survived the Holocaust, and Wind in Our Hair, a loose adaptation of a Julio Cortázar story, the film weaves in fiction elements—some are jarring, others are so seamless they’re hard to pinpoint.
The film is especially notable for the unexpectedly personal monologues the residents of this insular community deliver, which are based upon her interviews with them. How an outsider got a group used to staying out of the public eye to open up is largely the subject of our conversation.
Karen Rester (Rail): Let’s start off with the Uncle Bob story that launched you on this project.
Sachs: So I have a 93-year old distant cousin named Uncle Bob. He told me that in 1960 two planes crashed over New York. One went down over Staten Island and the other one crashed onto Flatbush Avenue. I said, “That’s horrible! I’m sure all the people on the plane died, and they did—‘but what about the people on the ground?’” He said, “Well, Lynne, there were so many hotbed houses in that area, who knows?” So, of course you hear the expression “hotbed house” and you think, “Hmm, that seems pretty racy!”
Turns out a hotbed house is where workers, and, in this case, people who worked on the docks in Brooklyn, shared beds. One person was on the night shift, one person was on the day shift, and that really sparked my imagination as a platform or a location. Then I discovered that these shift-bed houses—which is another name for them—still exist in Chinatown today.
That’s what led me to the Lin Sing Association, where I met the group of older Chinese immigrants who would collaborate with me on the film.
Rail: And, as you told me, you asked some of them this one great question, about beds, that led to some of the most intimate stories in your film.
Sachs: It wasn’t a clever question at all. It was just what I needed to ask: Can you tell me anything interesting that ever happened to you in a bed? I thought they would tell me something like, “When I first came to the United States I lived in a room with eight people. Let me tell you, it was hard.” Instead, they were the ones who opened it up to stories that were very personal, very revealing of the larger story of Chinese history and Chinese immigration. It went from one Chinese man telling me about living on a mattress in a closet in Chinatown for three months to another woman talking about lying in bed and dreaming about the father she never really knew. That question sparked their imagination.
That’s a key to documentary for me. When you can work with the people in your film and get them to harness their own imagination.
Rail: I think I mentioned I’ve been recording interviews with some Chinese relatives in the Mississippi Delta, and even being a member of the community it’s not easy getting them to open up. So when I saw your film the first thing that came to mind was, how in the world did a non-Mandarin speaking white woman get them to reveal some of their most intimate details on camera?
Sachs: [Laughs.] I think one of the keys to working in reality and working with people is allowing the extraordinary to appear familiar rather than exotic. If you immediately respond, “Oh that is so heavy!” then you’ve introduced a level of intimidation. So if someone was telling me how during the Cultural Revolution his father was beaten to death by a group of farmers, I’d say, how did you feel about that as a child? If you didn’t have any food what did you eat? I tried not to make these issues, which have this mythic horror, seem that big, because then it becomes scary to talk about them. So I’d guide them to revisit these moments in the most vivid way possible, not as a symbolic event in the history of China.
Rail: This isn’t your first film about beds. You made Transient Box in the early ’90s. I understand you, camera in hand, asked your now–husband, Mark, whom you’d only known for a few weeks, to accompany you to a motel room and remove his clothes?
Sachs: [Laughs.] I wanted to film the marks a man leaves on the bed and in the room, but I wanted him to remain invisible. All the detritus that people want to erase, the pieces of yourself that you leave behind, are interesting to me.
Of course in your own bed you can leave as much as you want and people aren’t going to sweep it away. That’s what intrigued me about these shift-beds. People aren’t able to leave an imprint of themselves and that became very unsettling to me.
Rail: The British artist Tracey Emin once did a controversial installation called My Bed. She took her bed, which she’d been sleeping in when she was depressed, and put it in the Tate. It was blood-stained and there were condoms around it.
Sachs: That’s exactly what would never happen in a shift-bed apartment. You wouldn’t leave that detritus because that’s saying, “This is mine.” By erasing your presence you’re inviting another person to establish theirs.
Rail: How did you see Chinatown before and after the making of this film?
Sachs: Before I made the film, Chinatown was a place to feel out of place. A place in New York where you had the sense you were in another country. I’m really interested in this French word dépaysé, to be out of your country. It also means to be disoriented. I like the idea that when you go into another community you have this sensation of being an outsider. And for most people so much of it is about gratification. You feed your eyes. You feed your mouth.
Then I started making the film and Chinatown became a neighborhood. It’s not just a destination for outsiders to go and experience the pleasure of another culture. It’s a place where people have very intricate relationships, and they work, and they sleep. They don’t want to leave it because it’s so supportive. I didn’t know any of that, for sure, and I didn’t know what happened above the ground level. For me, Chinatown was all on the first floor—
Sachs: Exactly. It’s almost as if I never looked up. Now I look up and I can imagine looking in. And I have friends to visit.
Rail: I’m half-Chinese and Chinatown is a foreign place to me, though seeing your film helped change that. I think movies have trained me to think of Chinatown as background or an exotic setting where the protagonist chases the bad guy through a maze of crowded streets.
Sachs: You never know how a film will draw open curtains on various worlds for audiences. There’s the New York City audience that sometimes responds, “Oh, you’ve forever changed the way I walk into Chinatown.” And maybe not just Chinatown, but any place where you feel you are benefitting from its differentness. Then there’s the audience made up of young Chinese immigrants who say the film harkens back to a time in Chinese life that was closer to their grandparents.
Rail: At least two of your performers have lived in New York since the, 60s. They’d never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art until you took them there. What inspired you to do that?
Sachs: One of the things I tried to do was take them out of their comfort zone. I think this is what creates unpredictable, almost theatrical situations. We went to the Met to see two things. The first was an exhibit called The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City. It was a simulation of a grand palace in China in which the emperor created different seasons in different rooms. So if it was winter outside and he wanted to be in spring time, he would go to the Spring Room. I just love that idea because it’s the antithesis of living in a shift-bed house, where you have such little control over your environment. Then I took them to the 20th century wing to see Andy Warhol’s floor-to-ceiling portrait of Mao Tse Tung. I actually wanted to trigger something, I wanted to rock everyone’s world. I thought, big things are going to happen! We get there and they really couldn’t have cared less.
Rail: [Laughs.] Let’s talk about the wall you hit during the editing process. The film suffered from a dramatic storyline you couldn’t make work. People didn’t like it, you were devastated, and you didn’t know what to do.
Sachs: Mark actually said to me, “Stop sitting in front of your computer editing, editing, editing, and not going anywhere—it’s getting worse!” [Laughs.] Then, out of the blue, someone sent me an email about an abandoned hospital in Greenpoint looking for artists to put on performances. So I called everybody up and said, “Let’s do our show live, I’ll bring two beds.” We did it again in the Chinatown public library. Then at University Settlement, a community center in the Lower East Side. I grew to love the performance more and more, and saw it as a way to lay bare the structure of the film.
Rail: Did that help you finish it?
Sachs: Enormously. Especially with the transitions. Once you listen to these really intense monologues you can’t just move onto something else that quickly. Where do I take the viewer afterwards? I realized I could integrate scenes we recorded from the performances as transitional places where people could meditate on what they heard.
Rail: By the way, I misinterpreted your title. I realize now it’s dialogue between two people sharing a shift-bed. One has the day shift, the other has the night shift. How did you come up with it?
Sachs: I knew the film was called Your Day is My Night before I even started shooting. It’s a little bit of a tribute to Truffaut’s Day for Night and also, the history of narrative filmmaking where if you needed day but were shooting at night you just created it. It’s sort of like the Forbidden City where the emperor had so much power that he could create seasons. The hegemony of everything. I’ve always resisted that in my filmmaking. I didn’t want to be a director per se; I wanted to be a filmmaker who didn’t work in such hierarchical situations.
Your Day is My Night will screen September 25 and 26 at Maysles Cinema and October 26 at New York Public Library’s Chatham Square branch. Upcoming festivals include Vancouver Film Festival, New Orleans Film Festival, and Bordocs in Tijuana, Mexico. For more information visit yourdayismynight.com
Window Work by Lynne Sachs 9 minute, color, sound video 2000
Music by Tom Goldstein Sound Recording by Mark Street
A woman drinks tea, washes a window, reads the paper– simple tasks that somehow suggest a kind of quiet mystery within and beyond the image. Sometimes one hears the rhythmic, pulsing symphony of crickets in a Baltimore summer night.. Other times jangling toys dissolve into the roar of a jet overhead, or children tremble at the sound of thunder. These disparate sounds dislocate the space temporally and physically from the restrictions of reality. The small home-movie boxes within the larger screen are gestural forms of memory, clues to childhood, mnemonic devices that expand on the sense of immediacy in her “drama.” These miniature image-objects represent snippets of an even earlier media technology — film. In contrast to the real time video image, they feel fleeting, ephemeral, imprecise.
“A picture window that looks over a magically realistic garden ablaze in sunlight fills the entire frame. In front, a woman reclines while secret boxes filled with desires and memories, move around her as if coming directly out of the screen.” Helen DeWitt, “Thresholds of the Frame”, Tate Modern Museum of Contemporary Art, London
“On screen images of ordinary objects seem weirdly evocative. A duster complete with a bushy top of feathers begins to resemble a palm tree. You will discover that a great deal is happening, some of it inside your own mind. The magic of the piece occurs in the moments between sounds.” “Art Portfolio”, The Baltimore Sun, Holly Selby
Dallas Video Festival; Delaware Art Museum Biennial; Athens Film Fest; European Media Arts Festival, Osnabruck, Germany; New York Film Expo; Black Maria Director’s Citation; Moscow Film Festival; Tate Modern, London