An exhibiting filmmaker’s thoughts on the recent online festival, Prismatic Ground.
It began, as so many things do these days, with a tweet: in October 2020, Inney Prakash, programmer of the Maysles Cinema’s “After Civilization” series, put out a call for experimental documentary films. The resulting festival, Prismatic Ground, debuted in early April with a diverse line-up of new and repertory non-fiction films that ran the gamut of genres, styles, and techniques. Imagine: a programmer directly engaging with his community of filmmakers with an open-hearted all-points-bulletin was the antithesis of conventional festival gatekeeping. The refreshing prospect was a beacon to filmmakers struggling to create and exhibit work during a traumatic and hostile time.
Prakash’s call for submissions caught my attention on that fateful October night: for once, my endless Twitter scrolling put me in the right place at the right time. For the last four years, I’d been dutifully at work on a narrative feature concerning Julian of Norwich, an obscure 14th-century woman mystic. With development and production on indefinite hold, I resolved to keep in “fighting shape” by making whatever I could—however I could—about Julian’s ecstatic religious experience. I had originally set out to make a companion piece, a sort of altar to this long-overlooked religious icon. What began as a few standalone tableaux eventually turned into The Sixteen Showings of Julian of Norwich, a bricolage of stop-motion animation, back-projection, and collage.
I was very fortunate to have a job for most of last year, but working well beyond the customary 40 hours a week in these new circumstances was disastrous for my mental health and creative practice. For the first few months of this solitary arrangement, I was lucky if I ended each day with just enough energy to bathe and feed myself. Readers, no doubt, will recognize this feeling immediately—a pervasive fogginess, a dearth of initiative, contained on all sides by fear, dread, and exhaustion. The immediate reaction for many of us possessing an artistic temperament is to heal through the work, to create from a place of self-preservation as a therapeutic exercise (because, to be perfectly honest, very few working artists can afford traditional talk therapy).
After a nights-and-weekends work schedule, I finished a short film in my little office consisting of whatever I had on hand. It’s a wild departure from my usual narrative practice of snappy dialogue and meticulously-designed sets, edging my practice into a heretofore unexplored aesthetic and style.
Sixteen Showings was my first attempt to make a film without in-person collaborations: Tessa Strain’s narration, Matt Macfarlane’s original score, and Eliana Zebrow’s rich sound mix were directed entirely over email. The film was tangential to my would-be narrative feature, but very much apiece with my overarching vision. Finishing this solo effort was a balm—somehow I had made something new despite… well, you know, everything. But what now? Surveying the fruits of this months-long process, I struggled to conceive of a suitable afterlife beyond the customary Vimeo upload. Where could I screen this? What context could there possibly be for a theological exploration of isolation, plague, and revolt? Calling it a “shut-in watercolor movie,” or “moving altar,” while elegiac, didn’t quite fit the bill.
Enter Inney Prakash’s well-timed tweet and timely festival. Emboldened by his transparency and programmatic voice, I steeled myself for yet another humbly-toned inquiry. When Sixteen Showings was selected, I was shocked, ecstatic and, in a way, relieved: if there was an audience for this film, surely I would find it at Prismatic Ground. Having never enjoyed a virtual premiere, I went into the experience as a total neophyte. But for every gripe there was praise in equal measure: the pleasure of connecting with an otherwise distant viewership, public recognition for work made under great duress. Prismatic Ground helped me recontextualize what felt like a moving target. More than a descriptor or genre, “experimental documentary” affords artists a wide berth to do just that: experiment with cinematic and journalistic techniques within a nonfiction framework. To that end, I began to understand the dual significance of Sixteen Showings as a documentary about Julian of Norwich’s life and, by extension, my own.
In a festival space laid low by last year’s pandemic, Prakash saw an opportunity to challenge “the toxic or tedious norms governing festival culture, and to emphasize inclusivity and access.” Where the year’s higher-profile festivals sought to replicate the exclusivity of their in-person events with geo-blocked premiers and Zoom happy hours, Prismatic Ground promised viewers a deliberate antithesis. Its programming, ethos, and even web presence were tailor-made for the online space, prioritizing widespread access and a filmmaker-centered focus on screenings and Q&As. Prakash’s curation was mission-driven: “It was important to me to strike a balance,” he said, “between early career and established filmmakers, palatable and challenging work, passion and polish.” The line-up generously gave equal weight to artists at every stage of their process. Instead of single-film, time-sensitive screenings, audiences enjoyed free reign to explore and engage of their own accord, a heretofore unheard of format—online and off.
Organized in a series of “waves,” Prismatic Ground was structured around four separate collections touching on simultaneously personal and societal themes. It was reassuring to screen Sixteen Showings alongside equally intimate works, each with a different visual and philosophical approach. I was, and still am, grateful to Prakash for including my film. Despite being a newcomer to experimental filmmaking and documentary, I never once felt like an impostor. That feeling carried over to my experience as a viewer as well: these were films unlike any I’d seen, whether due to their newness or, in the case of repertory titles, my own lack of access. I am grateful to the festival for offering an avenue through which to engage with the work of other like-minded artists.
I was eager to hear from my fellow filmmakers about their road to the festival and experience as participants in this bold experiment in public exhibition. While we all arrived through different avenues, I immediately noticed a shared resonance. A wide net-approach to programming naturally attracted filmmakers reeling from the exclusionary nature of the mainstream festival circuit. Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Max (Two Sons and a River of Blood, 2021) was quick to note how “Inney was able to really access all of the different layers of what the piece was doing.” For director Sarah Friedland (Drills, 2020) it was the fervor of how Prakash had “created the festival he wanted to exist, instead of trying to reform an established festival” that drew her to the event.
For filmmakers navigating constraints brought on by the pandemic, and its ongoing economic aftermath, social media provided the sense of community missing from in-person festivals. Elias ZX (You Deserve The Best, 2018) was already familiar with Prakash’s programming work on “After Civilization” when they submitted their film. “We became friends through Twitter, [and] he told me about his plan to make an experimental documentary festival.” Screening online “gave my film space to breathe in a way that is really uncommon for festivals. Every viewer was allowed to have a completely unique experience with the film.” Virginia-based filmmaker Lydia Moyer (The Well-Prepared Citizen’s Solution, 2020) saw the festival as a chance to broaden and strengthen these seemingly disparate filmmaking communities. “As a person who lives in a rural place, it’s great that so much interesting work has been available this year to anyone who’s got enough bandwidth (literally and figuratively).” Moyer said. “The way this is set up is for online viewing, not just trying to transfer an in-person experience online.”
Programming the work of early career filmmakers alongside more established artists was more than a canny curatorial choice. The variety presented across these four waves expanded the audience’s access to repertory titles, while simultaneously reiterating the connection between both older and more recent offerings. Prismatic Ground’s streaming platform and presentation stood out for director Chris Harris (Reckless Eyeballing, 2004), who “had some streaming experiences that weren’t so happy in terms of the technical aspects.” The festival’s creative exhibition format was especially taken by “the mix of programming, special live events, and the flexibility of accommodating filmmakers with the option of live and recorded Q&As.” For prolific filmmaker Lynne Sachs, Prismatic Ground represented “an entirely new, unbelievably adventurous, compassionate approach to the viewing of experimentally driven cinema,” emphasizing that the festival itself was “beyond anything I have ever seen in my life.”
Among the filmmakers I spoke with, Prismatic Ground’s liberal approach to exhibition belied a tremendous sense of potential for artists navigating a post-COVID festival ecosystem. Harris noticed an “[increasing] festival bandwidth for underseen/emerging Black experimental filmmakers,” a tendency that he “[hopes] to see continue after COVID.” In lieu of a return to in-person only screenings, the general consensus saw streaming as a fixture in future festivals. “I don’t think it is going to be possible to put the toothpaste back in the tube here,” noted Zx, emphasizing that “more access will be good for filmmakers… and will challenge programmers to be more competitive, to release more obscure films that are harder to find.”
Prakash’s groundbreaking work has already heeded the call, citing critic Abby Sun’s Berlin Critics’ Week essay “On Criticism” as a guiding principle. “Festivals aren’t merely reacting to social conditions,” Sun writes. “They are often the primary creators of them.” Prismatic Ground’s focus on diverse curation and access reaches well beyond the artistic ramifications. Prakash’s end goal is emboldening, a manifesto of sorts: “Enough of premiere politics, prohibitive pricing, playing only the same handful of films at every festival. Let’s create better conditions. There is a moral imperative to keep doing virtual screenings now that we know we can and how.”
Prismatic Ground is a new film festival centered on experimental documentary. The inaugural edition of the festival, founded by Inney Prakash, will be hosted virtually in partnership with Maysles Documentary Center and Screen Slate. Catch the ‘Opening Night,’ ‘Centerpiece,’ and ‘Closing Night’ events live via Screen Slate’s Twitch channel. The rest of the films, split into four loosely themed sections or ‘waves’, will be available for the festival’s duration at prismaticground.com and through maysles.org. On April 10, at 4PM ET, Prismatic Ground will present the inaugural Ground Glass Award for outstanding contribution in the field of experimental media to Lynne Sachs. Other live engagements TBA.
1. How did Prismatic Ground get on your radar, and what drew you to the festival?
I met Prismatic Ground Film Festival director Inney Prakash about a year ago when I was teaching my very first virtual film and poetry workshop at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem where Inney works as a programmer. Of course, the workshop was supposed to be a face-to-face experience, but it was May of 2020 and there was no way that was going to happen! We were living in the beginning of a global pandemic! Inney was a critical part of our pivot to an online experience that could nourish participants from anywhere in the world. To our surprise, it worked extraordinarily well and 17 participants from the US, Ireland and Uruguay collaborated on making a series of fantastic video poems. From that point on, I have a feeling that Inney started to think that anything was possible in terms of making and viewing non-commercial, experimental documentaries. A few months later, he wrote to me to ask me if I would accept the first ever Ground Glass Award from his new founded Prismatic Ground Film Festival. I love the name of the award and thoroughly understand the meaning of the term “ground glass” since I have been making 16mm films since the mid 1980s! By the way, “ground glass” is the frosted glass surface in a film camera that allows the light projected from the lens to bounce off of a mirror and then be recorded as an image on the film surface.
2. What has your experience been with virtual premieres and screenings? And how has Prismatic Ground been different, if at all?
I had four films circulating in 2020 and 2021, “A
Month of Single Frames” (14 min) and “Film About a Father Who” (74 min.), “Girl
is Presence” (4 min.), and “Epistolary: Letter to Jean Vigo” (5 min.), plus career
retrospectives at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City and at the
Sheffield Doc/ Fest in the UK. I was also on the jury for the Ann Arbor Film
Festival and the FestCurtas Belo Horizante Film Festival in Brazil. It’s been a
daunting but exciting year. Everything was virtual, but somehow it worked. I
loved these experiences and felt that they successfully brought filmmakers from
all over the world together. The “in real life” experience can often be quite
elitist just because air travel and hotel accommodations are so extraordinarily
Ground embraced an entirely new, unbelievably adventurous yet compassionate
approach to the viewing of experimentally driven cinema, beyond anything I have
never seen in my life. Inney presented
such an astonishing array of FREE work, never privileging a feature film over a
shorter work, or a more accessible film over a more challenging one. His Q and A’s were informed, respectful and
want to say something about the festival website design and graphics which
subtly forced all of us as audience to watch the films with focus and
commitment. You could not scroll through
a film or go backward or forward. While you were allowed to pause, you could
not be a dilettante and hop around from one film to another without losing your
place in a movie. This created the
closest experience to the one we have in a theater that I have ever witnessed
online. In addition, the aesthetics of the website allowed Inney to frame each
film on a page in relationship to others in the same “wave” which meant that
you were always aware of his curating and the intricate relationships and
themes he wanted you to recognize between the films.
Do you have a dream vision for a post-COVID festival ecosystem? Can be as broad
as “more digital screenings,” or as specific as “curated
specifically for underseen/experimental artists,” anything at all.
I think that the virtual is here to stay, but I also am praying for a return to being in a space with other people, with all the breaths, whispers, laughs, weeping, and shuffling of our bodies. We must accept that the virtual is vital. It allows homebound, less affluent audiences to access work outside mainstream, commercially driven movie culture. It can also put less emphasis on box office revenue which means experimental, underground, alternative cinema can travel on the magic carpet of the internet. I have noticed that more and more people throughout the world are becoming interested in the history of avant-garde film. They are discovering the work of artists like Jonas Mekas, Chick Strand, William Greaves, Carolee Schneemann Fernando Solanas and others, not just in museums or in classrooms, but at home. This is a revolution of the mind, the eye and the ear!
4. How has the last year of relative isolation influenced your work, if at all?
Despite the annus horribilis of 2020 (and
beyond), I have actually met really interesting, dynamic, risk-taking people in
the filmmaking community, all through the virtual portal of Zoom. For example,
I was incredibly sad not to be able to attend the retrospective of my work at
the Sheffield Doc/ Fest and at Prismatic Ground, but I was still able to meet
Trinidadian essay filmmaker Che Applewhaite through our shared screenings at both
festivals. Over the last few months, we have corresponded a great deal and recently
even managed to meet in person here in NYC.
As I mentioned, I was on the jury for the 2020
Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Belo Horizante International Short Film
Festival in Brazil. While I was not able to talk, face-to-face, or hang out in
local bars with my fellow jury members after the screenings, we did develop
quite profound relationships that allowed us to share our aesthetic passions
and our personal pandemic struggles.
artist, I was able to make several short films that reflected my thinking
during these troubling times. One of my most lasting discoveries has been that
you can actually make collaborative work with artists from anywhere on the
globe, and that this interactive experience can be revelatory. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this
could be possible. Over the course of the last year, I found creative and
intellectual comrades with whom I could work on such a surprising and
generative level. Who knew?
Prismatic Ground is a new film festival centered on experimental documentary. The inaugural edition of the festival, founded by Inney Prakash, will be hosted virtually in partnership with Maysles Documentary Center and Screen Slate. Catch the ‘Opening Night,’ ‘Centerpiece,’ and ‘Closing Night’ events live via Screen Slate’s Twitch channel. The rest of the films, split into four loosely themed sections or ‘waves’, will be available for the festival’s duration at prismaticground.com and through maysles.org. On April 10, at 4PM ET, Prismatic Ground will present the inaugural Ground Glass Award for outstanding contribution in the field of experimental media to Lynne Sachs. Other live engagements TBA.
Logo: Kelsey Kaptur
Opening Night: Thursday, April 8th at 8PM ET on twitch.tv/screenslate
The Films of Anita Thacher
Co-presented by Microscope Gallery. Film critic Amy Taubin in conversation.
Centerpiece: Thursday, April 15th at 8PM ET on twitch.tv/screenslate
Newsreels of the Distant Now, a special presentation by Creative Agitation (Erin and Travis Wilkerson)
Filmmakers in conversation.
Closing Night: Sunday, April 18th at 8PM ET on twitch.tv/screenslate
Second Star to the Right and Straight on ‘Til Morning (dir. Bill and Turner Ross) + Dadli (dir. Shabier Kirchner, 2018, 14 min.) Filmmakers in conversation.
Ground Glass Award Prismatic Ground will present the inaugural Ground Glass award for outstanding contribution in the field of experimental media to filmmaker Lynne Sachs on April 10, 2021 at 4PM ET. A selection of Sachs’ work curated by Craig Baldwin will be available for the festival’s duration, courtesy of Baldwin, Sachs, and Canyon Cinema:
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (4 min., 1986) Sermons and Sacred Pictures (29 min., 1989) The House of Science: a museum of false facts (30 min., 1991) Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (made with Dana Sachs) (33 min., 1994) A Month of Single Frames (for Barbara Hammer) (14 min., 2019) Investigation of a Flame (45 min., 2001) And Then We Marched (4 min., 2017) The Washing Society (co-directed with Lizzie Olesker) (44 min., 2018)
Drawn & Quartered will also be streaming in the program- wave 4: through the flowering fields of the sea
Home in the Woods (dir. Brandon Wilson, 2020, 96 min.) Bodes In Dissent (dir. Ufuoma Essi, 2021, 6 min.) Make Sure the Sea Is Still There (dir. Gloria Chung, 2021, 8 min.) The Aquarium (dir. Paweł Wojtasik, 2006, 22 min.) hold — fuel — when — burning (dir. dd. chu, 2020, 11 min.) Depths (dir. Ryan Marino, 2020, 5 min.) Look Then Below (dir. Ben Rivers, 2019, 22 min.) Drawn & Quartered (dir. Lynne Sachs, 1986, 4 min.) End of the Season (dir. Jason Evans, 2020, 13 min.) Learning About Flowers and Their Seeds (dir. Emily Apter and Annie Horner, 2021, 4 min.) A Slight Wrinkle in the Strata (dir. Ryan Clancy, 2021, 30 min.) Back Yard (dir. Arlin Golden, 2020, 7 min.) In Our Nature (dir. Sara Leavitt, 2019, 3 min.) By Way of Canarsie (dir. Lesley Steele and Emily Packer, 2019, 14 min.)
About Prismatic Ground Prismatic Ground is a New York festival centered on experimental documentary. Hosted by Maysles Documentary Center and online NYC film resource Screen Slate, the festival will be primarily virtual for its first year barring a timely end to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
We seek work that pushes the formal boundaries of non-fiction in the spirit and tradition of experimental filmmaking. This “spirit” is somewhat amorphous, undefinable, and open to interpretation, but refers to work that engages with its own materiality, and that privileges a heightened artistic experience over clear meaning.
For a better sense of what we’re looking for, here are some filmmakers that inspire us: Chris Marker, Lynne Sachs, Kevin Jerome Everson, The Otolith Group, Black Audio Film Collective, Pat O’Neill, Cecilia Condit, Edward Owens, Chick Strand, Barbara Hammer, Khalik Allah, Michael Snow, Janie Geiser, Isaac Julien, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Sky Hopinka, Fern Silva, Akosua Adoma Owusu…
“For more than thirty years, artist Lynne Sachs has constructed short, bold mid-length, and feature films incorporating elements of the essay film, collage, performance, and observational documentary. Her highly self-reflexive films have variously explored the relations between the body, camera, and the materiality of film itself; histories of personal, social, and political trauma; marginalized communities and their labor; and her own family life, slipping seamlessly between modes, from documentary essays to diaristic shorts.” (Edo Choi, Assistant Curator of Film, Museum of the Moving Image)
Note: The following programs can be rented individually or as a package. A new video interview and between Lynne Sachs and series curator Edo Choi is also available as part of the rental fee.
For rental and pricing information, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
All films are directed by Lynne Sachs. Program notes by Edo Choi.
Lynne Sachs in Conversation with Edo Choi, Assistant Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image
Program 1: Early Dissections In her first three films, Sachs performs an exuberant autopsy of the medium itself, reveling in the investigation of its formal possibilities and cultural implications: the disjunctive layering of visual and verbal phrases in Still Life with Woman and Four Objects; un-split regular 8mm film as a metaphorical body and site of intercourse in the optically printed Drawn and Quartered; the scopophilic and gendered intentions of the camera’s gaze in Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning. These experiments anticipate the range of the artist’s mature work, beginning with her first essayistic collage The House of Science: a museum of false facts. Itself an autopsy, this mid-length film exposes the anatomy of western rationalism as a framework for sexual subjugation via a finely stitched patchwork of sounds and images from artistic renderings to archival films, home movies to staged performances.
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (1986, 4 mins.) –New HD transfer Drawn and Quartered (1987, 4 mins.) – new HD transfer Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning (1987, 9 mins.) The House of Science: a museum of false facts (1991, 30 mins.) – new HD transfer
Program 2: Family Travels One of Lynne Sachs’s most sheerly beautiful films, Which Way Is East is a simultaneously intoxicating and politically sobering diary of encounters with the sights, sounds, and people of Vietnam, as Sachs pays a visit to her sister Dana and the two set off north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. The film is paired here with a very different kind of family journey The Last Happy Day, recounting the life of Sachs’s distant cousin Sandor Lenard, a Jewish Hungarian doctor who survived the Second World War and was ultimately hired to reassemble the bones of dead American soldiers. Here Sachs journeys through time as opposed to space, as she assembles a typically colorful array of documentary and performative elements, including Sandor’s letters, a children’s performance, and highly abstracted war footage, to bring us closer to a man who bore witness to terrible things. This program also features The Last Happy Day’s brief predecessor, The Small Ones. Program running time: 73 mins.
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994, 33 mins.) – new HD transfer The Small Ones (2007, 3 mins.) The Last Happy Day (2009, 37 mins.)
Program 3: Time Passes Twenty years unspool over nine short films: portraits of Lynne Sachs’s children; visits with her mother, brother, niece and nephew; a tribute to the city where she lives; and scenes of sociopolitical trauma and protest. Nearly all shot on super 8mm or 16mm, and often silent, each work is at once a preservation of a moment and a record of change, seamlessly weaving together the candid and the performed gesture, the public and the private memory, in a simultaneously objective and subjective posture toward the passing of time. Program running time: 51 mins.
Photograph of Wind (2001, 4 mins.) Tornado (2002, 4 mins.) Noa, Noa (2006, 8 mins.) Georgic for a Forgotten Planet (2008, 11 mins.) Same Stream Twice (2012, 4 mins.) Viva and Felix Growing Up (2015, 10 mins.) Day Residue (2016, 3 mins.) And Then We Marched (2017, 3 mins.) Maya at 24 (2021, 4 mins.)
Program 4: Your Day Is My Night 2013, 64 mins. “This bed doesn’t necessarily belong to any one person,” someone says early in Your Day Is My Night. It could be the metaphorical thesis of this film, perhaps Lynne Sachs’s most self-effacing and meditative work. A seamless blend of closely observed verité footage, interpretive performance, and confessional monologues and interviews, the film doesn’t document so much as create a space to accommodate the stories and experiences of seven Chinese immigrants from ages 58 to 78 who live together in a “shift-bed” apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Sachs’s quilted sense of form achieves a new level of refinement and delicacy in collaboration with her cameraman Sean Hanley and her editor Amanda Katz, as she works with the participants to exhume a collective history of migration and struggle.
Program 5: Tip of My Tongue 2017, 80 mins. Sachs’s richly generative Tip of My Tongue finds the filmmaker responding to her 50th birthday by gathering twelve members of her generational cohort—friends and peers all born between 1958 and 1964, and originating as far as Cuba, Iran, and Australia—to participate in the creation of a choral work about the convergent and divergent effects history leaves upon those who live it. From the Kennedy assassination to Occupy Wall Street, the participants reveal their memories of, and reflections upon, the transformative experiences of their lives. Set to an ecstatic, pulsing score by Stephen Vitiello, the film interweaves these personal confessions with impressionistic images of contemporary New York, obscured glimpses of archival footage, and graphically rendered fragments of text to create a radiant prism of collective memory. Preceded by Sachs’s frantic record of accumulated daily to-do lists, A Year in Notes and Numbers (2018, 4 mins.).
“This is not a portrait,” states Lynne Sachs, near the end of Film About a Father Who, after the last in a string of revelations. “This is not a self-portrait. This is my reckoning with the conundrum of our asymmetry.” Shot on a procession of film and video formats from 1965 though 2019, Sachs’ fascinating new film isn’t therapy, either.
Sachs studied and made films in San Francisco from the mid-’80s through the mid-’90s, bridging the experimental film and documentary worlds. Several of her pioneering works from that period, including The House of Science: a museum of false facts (1991), are included in the Roxie’s accompanying shorts program “Inquiries Into Self and Others.” A second collection, “Profiles in Courage,” showcases Sachs’ recent work, including A Month of Single Frames (for Barbara Hammer).
Sachs’s films are, generally, intentionally unpolished, willfully undercutting the popular presumption that the job of documentaries is to provide answers. Film About a Father Who excavates her (now-elderly) dad’s messy, lifelong love life through a pastiche of loose ends, unanswered questions and unresolved emotions. The film imperceptibly gets deeper and darker as it goes, ultimately amassing the power of an indictment.
Svetlana Cvetko lives in L.A. and shoots all over the world, but her roots as a filmmaker are in the Bay Area. After gravitating to San Francisco from the former Yugoslavia several years ago, Cvetko took film classes and turned her eye from photography to cinematography. She was a quick study, making narrative shorts while shooting local docs like Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning Inside Job, Jacob Kornbluth’s Inequality for All and Jason Cohen’s Silicon Cowboys.
Cvetko’s wonderful and wise second feature as a director, Show Me What You Got, is infused with an L.A. vibe filtered through the French New Wave. Shot by Cvetko in joyous, handheld black-and-white, the movie depicts a ménage à trois between a barista-slash-artist (Cristina Rambaldi), the son of an Italian TV soaps star (Mattia Minasi) and a would-be actor (Neyssan Falahi) postponing his return to Tehran.
A seductive yet mature study of love, freedom and responsibility, Show Me What You Got returns for a virtual run after screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2019. Play dates are limited, so hurry and schedule your play date (pun intended).
Film festivals continue to test and tweak virtual models, trying to conjure the group experience of live screenings and the connective threads of community. The first is a hard nut for anyone—even Sundance—to crack. This year’s SF Urban Film Fest, though, has mastered the second challenge, of bringing people together online to brainstorm on issues and seed solutions.
The theme of this year’s edition is “Wisdom Lives in Places,” which evokes the street-level experience and expertise on offer in the films as well as the accompanying panel discussions. The program “People-Led Solutions: Models of our Shared Future” centers on evictions and homelessness and features local filmmaker Irene Gustafson’s collaboration with the Tenderloin ensemble Skywatchers, reimagining the city, as our own. An inspiring group of activists and advocates convenes after the film program.
Who can resist an event called “Times Like These: An Inflection Point for Food & Our Cities”? The film component includes Aaron Lim, Anson Ho’s uplifting short doc about a young man doing his part and more to keep Chinatown restaurants going through the pandemic. The diverse group talking turkey following the films includes La Cocina Program Director Geetika Agrawal. Bring your wisdom; join the conversation.
Fresh from her early 2021 retrospective at New York City’s Museum of the Moving Image, filmmaker Lynne Sachs returns to San Francisco where she lived and went to school (SFSU & SFAI) between 1985 and ‘95. It was here that Lynne really immersed herself in our city’s experimental and documentary community, working closely with local artists Craig Baldwin, Bruce Conner, Barbara Hammer, Gunvor Nelson and Trinh T. Minh-ha and spending time at the Film Arts Foundation (RIP), Canyon Cinema, SF Cinematheque, and Other Cinema.
“For more than thirty years, artist Lynne Sachs has constructed short, bold mid-length, and feature films incorporating elements of the essay film, collage, performance, and observational documentary. Her highly self-reflexive films have variously explored the relations between the body, camera, and the materiality of film itself; histories of personal, social, and political conflict; marginalized communities and their labor; and her own family life, slipping seamlessly between modes, from documentary essays to diaristic shorts.” – Edo Choi, Assistant Curator of Film, Museum of the Moving Image.
Accompanying our Bay Area premiere of Sachs’s Film About a Father Who, the Roxie offers two accompanying shorts sidebars programmed by filmmaker and Other Cinema curator Craig Baldwin.
Over a period of 35 years between 1984 and 2019, filmmaker Lynne Sachs shot 8 and 16mm film, videotape and digital images of her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering businessman from Park City, Utah. Film About a Father Who is her attempt to understand the web that connects a child to her parent and a sister to her siblings. With a nod to the Cubist renderings of a face, Sachs’ cinematic exploration of her father offers simultaneous, sometimes contradictory, views of one seemingly unknowable man who is publicly the uninhibited center of the frame yet privately ensconced in secrets. In the process, Sachs allows herself and her audience inside to see beyond the surface of the skin, the projected reality. As the startling facts mount, Sachs as a daughter discovers more about her father than she had ever hoped to reveal. (74 min., 2020, A Cinema Guild Release)
Critic’s Pick! “[A] brisk, prismatic and richly psychodramatic family portrait.” – Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times
“Sachs achieves a poetic resignation about unknowability inside families, and the hidden roots never explained from looking at a family tree.” – Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times
“Formidable in its candor and ambition.” – Jonathan Romney, Screen International
Tickets for FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO will be available on February 12
SACHS SHORTS SIDEBARS
Sidebar 1: INQUIRIES INTO SELF AND OTHER
Still from “The House of Science: a museum of false facts”
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (4 min., 1986) Sermons and Sacred Pictures (29 min., 1989) The House of Science: a museum of false facts (30 min., 1991) Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (made with Dana Sachs) (33 min., 1994)
“As sidebar to her fresh Father feature, here is the first of two shorts programs, showcasing the astonishing cinematic artistry of Lynne Sachs…all made during her san fran years and recently digitally restored. Her ‘89 Sermons offers an early glimmer of her sensitivity to both marginalized communities and their archives, as she gracefully threads ultra-rare ‘30s & ’40s footage from Rev. LO Taylor into a tapestry of visibility and respect for Memphis’ Black community. Her facility for celluloid extrapolation is demonstrated in even more creative ways in House of Science, a personal essay on female identity, told through found footage, poetic text, and playful experimental technique. Which Way is East raises its eyes to engagements in international waters, and to insightful exchanges with her expat sister Dana, towards new understandings of and in the oh-so-historically charged Republic of Vietnam. Opening is Lynne’s first ever 16mm, Still Life.” – CB
TRT: 96 min.
Tickets for Sidebar 1: INQUIRIES INTO SELF AND OTHER will be available on February 12
Sidebar 2: PROFILES IN COURAGE
A Month of Single Frames (for Barbara Hammer) (14 min., 2019) Investigation of a Flame (45 min., 2001) And Then We Marched (4 min., 2017) The Washing Society (co-directed with Lizzie Olesker) (44 min., 2018)
“Characteristically, Sachs speaks in first person to cultural difference and dissent, here particularly valorizing acts of resistance and struggles for justice. Her collaboration with the recently deceased lesbian maker Barbara Hammer keynotes this ‘Solidarity’ set, with Lynne literally framing/finishing her mentor’s last project. Younger allies are also acknowledged in Sachs’ inspiring 2017 celebration of women’s political power on contested Washington, DC turf. The 2001 Investigation is a tribute to the courage and conscience of the epochal Berrigan-led burning of Baltimore draft records, made while Sachs was teaching in that town. And the local debut of The Washing Society, produced with playwright Lizzie Olesker, stakes their support of NYC’s low-paid laundry workers—mostly women of color—in even another radiant illumination of the little-seen truths of contemporary race/class inequity.” – CB
TRT: 107 min.
Tickets for Sidebar 2: PROFILES IN COURAGE will be available on February 12
DOCS IN ORBIT – INTRO Welcome to another Masters Edition episode of Docs in Orbit, where we feature conversations with filmmakers who have made exceptional contributions to documentary film.
In this episode, we feature part one of a two part conversation with the remarkable and highly acclaimed feminist, experimental filmmaker and poet, Lynne Sachs.
Lynne Sachs is a Memphis-born, Brooklyn-based artist who has made over 35 films. Her work explores the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences by weaving together text, collage, painting, politics and a 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 every new project.
Sachs’ films have been screened all over the world, including New York Film Festival, Sundance, Oberhausen, BAMCinemaFest, DocLisboa and many others.
Her work has also been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Walker Art Center, and other venues, including retrospectives in Argentina, Cuba, and China.
She’s also received a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship in the Arts and in 2019, Tender Buttons Press published Lynne’s first collection of poetry, Year by Year Poems.
Lynne Sachs is currently one of the artists in focus at Sheffield Doc Fest where her most recent feature documentary film, FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO is presented alongside a curated selection of five of her earlier films.
I caught up with Sachs recently to discuss the many aspects of her work, including feminist film theory, experimental filmmaking, and her collaborative approach. We also discuss her short film, A MONTH OF SINGLE FRAMES (FOR BARBRA HAMMER), which is currently available at Dokufest until August 25th.
Christina: I’m just so grateful to have you here today. I have to first say that I’m emerging from this journey of reviewing many of your films and your work over the past 30 years, as well as a video lecture, MY BODY YOUR BODY OUR BODIES: SOMATIC CINEMA AT HOME AND IN THE WORLD, which is a fascinating guide through your work and evolution as a filmmaker. And it’s also available online. I’ll include links to all of this on the website so that our listeners are able to easily find it.
You know, it’s kind of very difficult to figure out where to start after reviewing so much of your work, but I figured maybe it would be nice to just kind of start off with what has shaped you as a filmmaker?
Lynne: First of all, I wanted to say that it’s very interesting to talk to someone who has taken that journey through my work, because one of the things that I think is very much an aspect of my way of making films is that they are so interconnected with my own life.
So if you saw my film, THE HOUSE OF SCIENCE, you’d see that I write within it. I keep journals within it. And I talk a lot about the day that I left for college and I had this male gynecologist, I went to check in with him and get Portia birth control, but I wasn’t even sure where my cervix cervix was.
And then you all the way to my more recent films from 20 years ago, and they were a lot about having children. And then in between that there’s films that include a lot of travel and a kind of exploration as a young filmmaker.
And then, I have a whole group of films that I made usually in the town where I lived. So partially in Baltimore and a lot in New York. And that was maybe because I didn’t believe that documentary film had to come with a big, expensive airplane ticket. And also I had young children at a certain point.
So there’s a kind of way that each film, whether in subject or in execution, reflects what was going on in my life, in those decades.
Christina: There is this very personal aspect of your work as well. This link of what’s happening historically in the world around you, but then also through the lens of how it connects to something that you’re experiencing.
And I love that you mentioned this notion of going to your gynecologist, because there is also another element of your work that is very much exploring feminism. In a lot of your previous lectures of when you were talking about or writing about what has been influential, you mentioned feminist film theories in your work, and I would love to hear from you- I know it’s a big topic – but what feminist film and feminist filmmaking means to you and why it’ s still important today.
Lynne: I think that in the world of that it has built up around the film industry. There’s been an enormous emphasis on access to the means of production. Are women able to break into the hierarchy and even climb or be given the opportunity to access the top.
So there’s this idea that you become a director and therefore you have accomplished what any other woman would want to do.
But unfortunately that does not necessarily come with what maybe you or I would call a feminist sensibility. So there is this breaking of the glass ceiling on the level of job opportunities, but then once you’re there, you’re still replicating what the men have already done.
So important filmmakers and thinkers around film who’ve really shaken me up on the level of image making and encouraged or compelled me to, to bring a feminist commitment to my work would probably start with Maya Deren.
She’s probably the best known grandmother. And I say that in this very broad way. She was a grandmother to many men also. But this person who believed in the possibility for personal filmmaking to break through, to be accessible to many people and in the process to speak to her own experience, which was a woman’s experience.
And then thinking about theory, I would say, Laura Mulvey’s article on Visual Pleasure, because I think even putting those two things together, visual pleasure – and she was writing about narrative cinema. We look at art for pleasure. Yes, we eat food for pleasure, and we travel for pleasure, and we do many things, but art also offers that.
But if the visual pleasure is replicating the desires of a male cinematographer or director, then what she is asking us. And she did this in the early seventies. What she’s asking is, is that really progress?
So Maya Deren, Laura Mulvey, and then I think other people writing on film, who demanded that we not only talk about women’s experiences, but be very vulnerable in our openness to talking about the body, because that’s what distinguishes us from men.
I think a kind of hero in that respect would be Carolee Schneemann, who was a great performance artist, conceptual thinker and filmmaker.
Christina: Yeah, so it’s not just about being able to give a woman a camera and access to making a film, but it’s about actually putting on screen, the way that a woman sees the world, the way that a woman sees her body and it not being through the lens of this male perspective
Lynne: Yeah.. How the body is framed and how we articulate a point of view and being really thoughtful about that. And eventually, maybe there’s the, there will come a time where we don’t have to be as self-conscious, it will just happen. But I think right now we have to investigate that.
And I think particularly in the year, 2020, we also have to look at how the articulation or the expression is also open to a kind of freedom around race too. A freedom of expression that’s not tied down to stereotypes and tied down the burden of what, what cinema has done for so long in terms of how women and women of color have been represented.
Christina: Yeah, and I was going to ask about this because this feminist movement in cinema, as you had mentioned, has been around since the seventies. And you were exploring that when you were in college as well in the eighties, and reading about these theories and then taking your camera up to the roof and exploring the way bodies were represented in film. But how about today? What more can you say about how this is still important?
Lynne: I think one of the people who kind of broke through our, our way of thinking would be bell hooks. She writes a great deal about those forms of representation. I personally have been very influenced by Kara Walker’s work, and by the imagery that she boldly has presented to the world of art.
Then there’s a few filmmakers whose work has been very influential to me. These Black women filmmakers. Cauleen Smith is a super interesting filmmaker. Her work is very much about Afro surrealism.
I actually really liked the way Ja’Tovia Gary integrates these interview processes. She takes a kind of a convention of the reporter on the street, but she has this intimacy at the same time, which I find very empowering as a woman, you know, like let’s do it the old fashioned way with this phallic thing, the microphone, but let’s do it in this way that’s like female bonding. So I love, I really love her work.
Christina: Yeah, I do too. It was one of the delights to discover at Hot Docs this year. I think it’s been around for a while, that short film, but I had only come to see it when it was on display at Hot Docs.
So another thing that you’re known for … I’m trying to pull the threads of how to describe you as a filmmaker and the adjectives that are most commonly used and the word feminist always comes up, but then also experimental filmmaker.
For me, this is very visible in your work and how you play with textures in your films. I would describe your work as being very idea centric, not so much plot driven, but it’s very much that there’s a thought in the center that you’re exploring and you’re using film as a way to bring that to life.
So can you speak a little bit about this idea of experimental filmmaking and what that means for you?
Lynne: I really appreciate your saying that because I actually do think the kernel, the seed is a thought and there’s an expectation in documentary film that we start with a story. And that I feel a bit resentful of because story also applies to plot also applies to the whole condition or expectations of literature as in you have a protagonist or character, and everything is revolving around that character.
And I find that to be kind of derivative. So if you, with an idea, as you’ve suggested, then the aesthetics have to build up around that and they have to take on a more complex approach.
So, if I have an idea or a curiosity or something I want to investigate, then I have to think about how I will hold the camera? You were talking about texture, how will I hold the camera to make that evident?
Or sometimes it goes the other way. Does the fact that the camera shook give you the sense that we have doubt? So there’s a give and take between process instead of always judging what you did.
Like if you did something all by yourself, the production values are often let’s say disappointing on first view.
But if the idea rises to the top, the idea says to you, well those obstacles, those production value obstacles actually lead us to something more real. Revealed something about the situation, for example, that you were shooting in a place where you felt scared.
Those things can come through the texture, but the problem with, what I think a conventional approach to documentary is there’s always this expectation that you’re going for something that’s perfect that follows a template that is beautiful in the most obvious ways.
But sometimes beautiful is opaque and not so beautiful adds a transparency of process that actually can be very stimulating to the viewer.
I mean, I really believe we’re sick of looking at the perfect image.
And actually you were asking about theory, and I would say another big influence is the German theorist and filmmaker, Hito Steyerl. She definitely identifies as highly conceptual and highly committed to the documentary impulse.
She wrote this article about the perfect image versus the degraded image. She sort of thinks it’s really interesting to look at the degraded image, the one that you find on the internet and how it moves from hand to hand, and that we become aware of its demise and we see all like all its wrinkles. Instead of thinking it has to be like fresh out of the camera and an unaffected by its life journey.
Christina: Another aspect of your work that really drew me / collaboration is a really important element in your process. Somewhere I read that there’s a point in your career as a filmmaker where you note this shift in your approach, as you begin to consider your subject as a collaborator. Can you speak a little bit about this and how it shaped sort of where that insight kind of came from and how it shaped the work that you do now?
Lynne: I’ve had this notion that historically in filmmaking, that actors are, have been treated like props, especially women. So if you allow those participants to become creatively involved, I actually think they feel more, there’s more gratitude.
Maybe that’s part of a kind of feminist resistance to the power that comes with being a director that’s never about listening? Like in my film TIP OF MY TOUNGE, I wanted that film to be a lot about listening – my listening to the people in the film and they’re listening to each other and not just about my directing.
Christina: I think, for me, that’s very resonant in your work. So I want to talk a little bit about that film also, but within the context of collaboration, because I’m really intrigued by the nature of your collaborations, because there’s always a degree of it and it’s really interesting to look at, I’ll just pick three –
Tip of My Tongue, and then Film About a Father Who, and A Month of Single Frames. So I think these three films, maybe we can just talk about these three films and the collaborative nature of them?
LYNNE: I also thought about Which Way is East, which I made with my sister. Yeah, this could be interesting, like in a curatorial way, I hadn’t thought about it.
In TIP OF MY TONGUE, it’s a film that started off with a collection of poems that I wrote for every year of my life, between 1961 and 2011, 2011 was the year I turned 50, but it took me about five years to write all those poems.
And then I started to think about, well, why do I just want to know about my own experience, this sort of documentary maker in me reared its head and said, well, how would other people who lived in Iran or lived in Australia or lived in the Netherlands – how would they have seen those years from very distinct different points of view?
So I am the director of it, but a big part of it was bringing this group of people together. And I didnt say I was making a movie, I just said I’m looking for people to collaborate on a project and I’m looking for people who were born between 1958 and 64.
A couple of them were friends, but others had been recommended like, Oh, I know a woman from Iran and she lived those exact years. And, you know, so I figured, okay, when I was graduating from high school and worrying about whether I was going to go to the prom, she was dealing with a revolution.
And we spent three days basically living together and talking to each other and I filmed it. And then I tried to, in a sense, collaborate with the city of New York, which was the only thing all of us have in common. We all lived in New York at that point, and so New York also becomes a collaborator with us as a backdrop and also as unifying aspect of our lives.
And so, what I did was I got together with them and I did an audio interview and I asked them to pick five moments in their lives where a public event affected something very personal or transformed or allowed them to understand something very intimate in their own lives.
So that was the prompt. That became a way by which they could think about Richard Nixon, or they could think about the first moon landing or they could think about 9-11. Some of those are more obvious than others.
So we processed that and filtered those mate, those big events through our own lenses and experiences.
Once I had those interviews, then I started to see intersections between the stories. And then I came back to them and acted a little bit more like Director.
So I have all this openness, anything goes, and then when we actually shot everything was storyboarded.
I think there’s an interesting connection between something you brought up earlier, which is the idea. I think the link between the idea and the aesthetics has to do with finding formal strategies that resonate both conceptually and visually. That’s what I spend all my time thinking about it in the shower. Or dare I say it, driving my car on the subway. Or I’ll wake up in the middle of the night. I think I need a strategy that works on both of those levels. And I’m very rigorous about that. And if it doesn’t work on both of those levels, then I kind of reject it. And sometimes that takes them years to figure it out.
Christina: Right. And there’s different, I imagine, drafts of strategies that you’re trying and trying and trying until you finally find one that does work.
Lynne: Yeah, sure. So that’s the process for that film. So maybe I’ll go on to A Month of Single Frames?
Christina: Yes! Please!
Lynne: So A Month of Single Frames is a film I made with Barbara Hammer who was a renowned lesbian, experimental filmmaker. And she always said intersectional; lesbian, experimental, and filmmaker, all all once! Woman.
So, I have known her for about 30 years – she had been a mentor of mine back in San Francisco, which was very formulated for both of us and then we both came to New York.
Then, just about two years ago, when she knew that she was dying, she came to four different artists and asked, would we like to work with material that she had?
The material she gave me was uncut, 16 millimeter film that she shot in 1998 of an artist residency.
And I said to her immediately, Barbara, why didn’t you make this? You’ve been so prolific, why didn’t make it? She said, well, it was too much about me. Which is funny because she made a lot of films about herself. But my feeling was maybe she thought the material was too beautiful. It didn’t have an edge to it.
So I was faced with its absolute beauty. Cape Cod, and the dunes, and the sunset. The sound effects of the waves and the insects, and all that.
And so there, I was in a sense collaborating with her work just by editing it. And that didn’t seem like enough.
So I thought I needed to talk through the material to her and to audiences and even to a more epistemological engagement with cinema. Like, what is cinema? What is it in terms of the way it looks at time at place as it once was and now what has changed? And how does cinema allow two people to be in the same space and not in the same space?
And then I’m in the same space with Barbara, with you as viewer, with anyone who watches the film people. Total strangers. We’re all in the same space.
So that actually came to me and I just started writing, as you’ve seen, in a lot of my films writing can find its way as voiceover or on the screen.
So the collaboration in a sense for me didn’t really happen until I was able to create my own place in it. Otherwise it was, it was more like, hagiography, and I didn’t want it to just be a portrait of a woman who had recently died. I needed to engage deeper in the deeper way.
Christina: You said it’s about cinema. It’s also about the making of cinema too and on that level, it resonated with me. It’s very clear from the beginning, when we hear you setting up the interviews, there’s a very reflexive mode in there. “I’m setting out to collaborate with this filmmaker and make a new creation out of her work”.
I found it very moving, not just because the images were incredibly beautiful and the soundscape and the way that those worked so well together, but I found it really balanced in terms of the space you gave yourself in the film while you’re paying an homage to Barbara Hammer and her work during that residency.
Lynne: One of the things that comes about when you’re making a work that uses this word, “about”. Or we talk about the elevator pitch, like, how can you describe your film in the 20 seconds that you’re on an elevator with someone? And the word that always comes in is “about”.
That’s the preposition, right? If the object of the preposition is only the name of someone, then I think it’s very reductive.
But if you can say the about, can become more expanded and more reflective that about is also within, and it can be multiple prepositions, within or underneath or behind or with, like all of those things.
Then we start to think about our engagement as being more fluid, more unpredictable, and more about point of view.
So, if I had just said, this is a film about a woman who had cancer, or this is a film about a woman who was a lesbian experimental filmmaker, then you would enter those 14 minutes and you’d come out knowing more like in an educational experience.
Like I know more about Barbara Hammer. Or in, Film About A Father Who, I know more about this filmmaker’s father. But I didn’t want either of those films to function on that narrow a level. I wanted it to be about process and about failure.
That’s why with A Month of Single Frames, you hear us setting up and you actually hear a place where, Barbara and I are talking about looking through her journal and she kind of gets a little irritated with me cause I don’t find the right part that she should read.
Normally you would cut that out, because it sort of shows my failures or that I felt pressured, or I really didn’t know what I was doing.
But if you leave it in, it becomes more human.
That’s like the calling card of all essay films is those moments where the attempt to do one thing leads to something else and so you go one direction and then you find a kind of obstacle and you go another direction.
There’s another part of A Month of Single Frames that you might not have noticed, but I almost took it out and it also shows failure. Barbara wanted to animate these little toys and she wanted to film them, but she was there all by herself in this remote shack in Cape Cod.
So she’d wind up the toys and then she kind of like run back to her camera. But by the time she got your camera, these wind up toys didn’t move anymore. So you actually see her hand and so called “good animators” wouldn’t include the hand moving the toys. They would only include the success. But I actually thought what was more interesting was her attempt to do something which basically failed.
Christina: I do remember that. I do remember that bit, but I wasn’t, to me, it was just playful.
Just to see somebody that is so renowned that, you know, it’s it’s, but at the same time, so devoted to the work as well and seeing how playful she is with her environment, it was just very nice to see.
Lynne: Well, I think one of the things about that film that’s so extraordinary is that her situation while beautiful is also quite basic.
And there’s a way that the film validates movie production on a budget. It doesn’t elevate access to funds and to locations. It just sort of says what the barest of tools you can make a movie. And I think that also is super validating and important to remember in our high tech and quite money oriented – our industry is a lot about money.
So when you see someone who’s working in this very austere way, I think it’s quite (inaudible)
You asked earlier what makes for an experimental film. I think it’s the notion that work can be play and play can be work. That if you allow yourself to play for a while, rather than judging yourself immediately, which we all do, especially when we call it work, we call it work and we don’t think it’s good enough, then we pretty much stop. We censor ourselves and stop.
But if we move into a realm of play, then I think we often end up in a place of discovery.
And Barbara was always doing that. And so she was most definitely a kind of role model for me.
CHRISTINA: That was it like when you first received this set of archives and watching and hearing them for the first time?
Lynne: You know, I had a student about three years ago who asked me, why do I make movies? And I guess I kind of gave her an answer. And then I asked her because she was learning to make films. And she said to me, I think I make films because I want to give gifts.
And I really loved that. I really loved that you do it because you’re sharing something or that you do have an experience that you want someone else to be able to engage with. And might give them joy. Or might make them feel about the world in a deeper way.
So, when Barbara gave me this imagery that she had, and she is giving me the gift of witnessing her solitude. So I felt that I needed to enter that experience of solitude and that was a gift that was from her to me.
So I needed to find a way to give back to her and I knew that it would be posthumous. So I needed to give to her legacy, not just to her. There’s a real exchange between the two of us.
And it’s interesting to find that I’m referring to her so much now that she’s not with us. I have this very profound belief that when we lose someone, someone who dies, that as much as we don’t want to say their names because it reminds us of them, that each time we say their name, we get to be with them a bit longer.
I really love when I dream about someone who’s died. And so the film is a little bit like my dream of Barbara that I keep getting to have.
Because, as you know with anyone who has died in life, you dream a lot about them, and you’re chit chatting with them and having dinner with them and all of that. When they appear in your dream, you feel wistful. And so the film was a little bit like that.
Christina: That’s wonderful. It’s actually a really wonderful way to close on, on the film too.
DOCS IN ORBIT – OUTRO
Thanks for listening. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss part two of the conversation where we discuss more of Lynne’s work, including her feature film, FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO.
Also, head over to our website, www.docsinorbit.com, for our show notes that include links to films and articles referenced in this episode.
This podcast was produced by Panda Ray Productions.
With music by Nayeem Mahbub in Stockholm. And Produced by Christina Zachariades in Brooklyn. Special thanks to Sylvia Savadjian.
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In my twenty year relationship as audience to Lynne Sachs’ filmworks, I have always admired her amazing ability to connect the very personal, physical relationship of ‘selfhood’ to film and film history and to collage a variety of complex themes into one complete film, often with challenging ambiguity and open endedness.
I first heard of Sachs as part of an active cadre of “downtown” avant-garde feminist filmmakers working in New York City, who were –in the late eighties–reading the new radically feminist theory of Helene Cixious, Luce Iriguay, and Julia Kristeva and who had strong links to San Francisco’s experimeantl feminist film scene. These women were busily exploring the great personal and political themes of, the ‘then’, feminist culture: gender, body, sexuality and language–how to develop womens’ language. Later, I had the good fortune to meet Sachs in person at Other Cinema.
The recent West Coast retrospective of Lynne’s work demonstrated just how far-reaching, intimate, and astute her work can be and given my personal connection to that past, radicalized period of feminist culture, and the admiration I have for Lynne and her work, I decided to ask her about some of the influences, opinions and practices she’s formed over a nearly thirty year career.
Molly Hankwitz Cox: Drawn and Quartered (1987) and House of Science (1991) revolve around your own body. House of Science also radically investigated the male dominance in consciousness of the female body, as it enshrouds personal understanding of female selfhood and the incompleteness of this picture. You may say that it was about your own preparation for becoming a mother or exploration of self, but I’ve often wondered if you anticipated how meaningful that film would be – has been – to your audience?
Lynne Sachs: In the late 1980s and early 90s, my deepest concerns as a woman and an artist revolved around issues of gender and sexuality. I was in a reading group with a group of very intellectual and creative women – including Kathy Geritz ( film curator at the Pacific Film Archive) and Peggy Ahwesh, Nina Fonoroff, Jennifer Montgomery, Lynn Kirby and Crosby McCloy (all filmmakers) – and we were reading some of the most powerful, eye-opening literature I had ever experienced. For each of us, the discovery of the expansive, rigorous and playful essays of French writers Luce Irigeray (Speculum of the Other Woman) and Hélène Cixous (The Newly Born Woman) completely changed our sense of language and the body.
Both my films Drawn and Quartered and The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts were informed by these radical texts and the discussions we had as we sat in one another’s apartments drinking tea and eating. I think these films express my own reckoning with the sense of fragmentation I felt throughout my adolescence, my desire to be removed psychically from the me that was a body. I appear naked, briefly, in both of these movies as well as in the later Which Way is East (1994). For a girl who hated to go bra shopping because she would have to undress in public, these movies were minor watersheds, I guess. Now that I have lived through two childbirths, my daughters Maya and Noa claim I am too comfortable taking my clothes off wherever I feel like getting undressed.
MH: Ha. (Smiles) Feminist filmmaking unmasked the camera as spectator and the power that gave us to explore our collective disavowal of physicality was huge. But times have changed since then and discourse on spectatorship is less pronounced or fresh. In Wind in Your Hair /Con viento en el pelo (2010) you expand your vision well beyond your own camera and/or any use of archival footage. You’ve enlisted a number of super8 filmmakers/students from Buenos Aires and Sofia Gallísa in New York, for example. Are you simply casting your net wider by being more inclusive — developing more of an international and global film community in your work?
LS: Ever since I first started making films, I have resisted the traditional pyramid-shaped production hierarchy of a director and her crew as well as the model of the director and her obedient cast of actors. On both fronts, I wanted to develop a more porous relationship in which we would all listen and learn from each other. Watching Yvonne Rainer’s Lives of Performers really rocked my world; she included these frank interior dialogues in a piece that ostensibly looked like a dance documentary. The levels of perception that she created were astounding.
MH: It’s true. Yvonne’s films are so complex in that way. Just great. She deconstructs without pretension.
LS: When I made the short film Still Life With Woman and Four Objects (1986), I asked my actress to bring a prop (one of the four objects) that would reveal something about her thinking and shake things up a bit. She brought a black and white photo of the revolutionary feminist Emma Goldman and things were never the same again. More recently, one of the key participants in my film was an Argentine psychoanalyst who came to our set during the nightmare scenes to help us infuse this dream with another psychological dimension I didn’t think I had access to. Her training was critical to the shaping of the mise-en-scene. Then there was the bilingual aspect of (Con viento en el pelo). I didn’t speak a word of Spanish until I started showing my films in Argentina in 2007 and a year later decided to spend two months in the city making the film. Integrating a language I was just beginning to speak, read and understand problematized the whole process in such interesting and dynamic ways. I often had to release the presumed power I had as director, and these moments were the times when I learned the most from the children and from the members of my crew. These kinds of fragile collaborations are vital to my way of making films.
MH: In other dialogues, you have sometimes defined two types of film–YES films, which include putting everything into the mix, allowing the maker to invent and intuit, arriving at a different place than where one began, and NO films which are “Think of a topic and carry it through” works. This categorization includes, arguably, the sensibilities of many film works, regardless of genre, and also separates modes of imagining and creating, from the end result. You suggested to Kathy Geritz that is a NO film, but when the young “actresses” invent freely (choose costumes daily, create dialogue, choose locations) in their “kingdom” isn’t this a YES dimension?
LS: It’s interesting that you bring up this Yes/No dichotomy that occurred to me about ten years ago, when I realized that there was a pattern emerging in my work, a rhythm between films that were open to changes brought by the times and films that followed a very clearly defined vision or concept. For both you and me, as mothers, we have spent the last few years of our lives using these terms as a way to define the liberties our children could have, what was allowed or at least not dangerous, and what was out of bounds. But in my artistic practice, I sometimes feel that I am too distracted, too lenient on myself and not capable of working in a more pared down, essential way. So a NO work is one that implies a discipline of the mind. , which is essentially my first narrative film, grew out of a short story by Julio Cortázar about three preadolescent girls performing by a train track. I thought it was a NO film and that I would adhere to the author’s vision rather closely. Instead, I took liberties by integrating the inner thoughts of my “actresses” and by engaging head on with the social unrest that was whirling around us in Buenos Aires during our production. Maybe the most important rules to break are the ones you impose upon yourself.
MH: touches upon the delicate transition from childhood to adolescence taking place in girls when they begin to navigate the real world. The film bears the marks of a parent’s sensitivity to this period when children learn judgment in caring for themselves, hence, personal independence and the need to protect themselves. Their fears and dreams sometimes disclose unconscious concerns with detaching from what is familiar into that which is unknown. On some level, you have expressed the primordial, parental need to fix their play to architecture, building in both your own concern, and their immature need, still, for protection. Can you comment?
LS: I really love the way you talk about a parent who wants to fix – even transform – her child’s play into architecture. If Gertrude Stein – the experimental poet and grand-dame of the mid 20th century avant-garde – had been a mother I wonder if she would have succumbed to this desire to reign in the amorphous spirit of a child. What I so love about her writing is its resistance to conventional syntax and prescribed meaning. In the language of the semiotician, she wanted to create provocative ruptures between the sign and the signified, between the way we are taught to speak (to communicate) and the way we ultimately choose to express ourselves (art). We experimental filmmakers are trying to do the same thing, not only with words, but also with images and sounds. So if you and I believe with all our hearts in the paradigm of the avant-garde, where does that lead us in terms of bringing up our children in a society with a whole set of explicit and implicit rules and expectations? Does a piece of architecture need four walls, a window and a door? Does a story need a conflict and a resolution? In my short film Atalanta: 32 Years Later (2006), I played with two different versions of the myth of Atalanta. The story is a retelling of the age-old fairy tale of the beautiful princess in search of the perfect prince. In 1974, Marlo Thomas’ hip, liberal celebrity gang created a feminist version of the children’s parable for mainstream TV’s Free To Be You and Me. Clearly, this is a classic tale with a conflict between a daughter and her father and between a young woman and the society at large. For the first time in my life, I embraced the tale in its entirety and remained true to the original structure. Let me tell you, this is not my style. My 2006 twist on the myth’s storyline was to give it an explicitly lesbian conclusion and to split the screen in two in order to show the 1974 version forwards and backwards simultaneously. While the essence of the “architecture” is still there, I celebrate “play” to its fullest. I dedicated this film to filmmaker Barbara Hammer.
MH: You always enjoy trying out new ideas, new experiences and places, and meeting people with unique stories?
LS: I remember hearing Stan Brakhage say once that maintaining an element of play in the filmmaking process was at the very foundation of his practice. In my mind, what he was saying was that the exploration had to remain constant. I have tried to do that all of my life, and this can sometimes slow down the process because you end up letting the materials speak back to you, telling you how to make the work, sending you in directions where you feel awkward and out of your element. This way of working, however, comes out of the traditions of painting and sculpture much more than story-based moviemaking. When I find kindred spirits who want to work with the medium of film or video in this way, I naturally gravitate toward them!
MH: What drew you to Argentina? You and Mark Street, curated an Argentine experimental film program and screening. Is this how it all happened?
LS: In 2007, I took my daughter Maya to a mini-retrospective of my films in Buenos Aires, met some Argentine filmmakers and was immediately convinced that I wanted to return not only to shoot a film but also to begin learning Spanish. While Mark and I were in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Uruguay with our two daughters during July and August of 2008 and then again in 2009, we each collaborated with experimental makers in those cities to make new artwork. I made Wind in Our Hair / Con viento en el pelo with a Leandro Listorti and Pablo Marin, two Super 8 aficionados who probably know more about American avant-garde film than most artists in the States. They love the whole history of experimental filmmaking – Man Ray, Carolee Schneemann, Bruce Conner, Ken Jacobs, Jem Cohen, Marie Losier and more – and watch it whenever or wherever they can. In Uruguay, Mark and I introduced a group of artists to the wonders of “hand-made” film. We taught them how to make their own movies with found footage, dyes, q-tips and razors. The two of us then made a film about this workshop experience which we call Cuadro por cuadro/ Frame by Frame (2009). It’s a film about our sharing of our love of experimental filmmaking and our students’ discovery of its wonders.
MH: Other Cinema screened that film last year and I couldn’t believe I was seeing yet another Lynne Sachs film; this one such an adventure in handmade film and working with people. It was great. There are such a variety of motivations in all of your works. I’ve always admired that relaxed, almost lackadaisical editing style you have in many of your films. Its like you are offering something luscious to the audience, for us to take in, like the hostess for the experience–an invitation to participate in the way you think. You make filmmaking seem effortless. You’ve described editing yourself out of Drawn and Quartered, shot on 8mm as trying to ‘erase’ yourself, and then? re-purposing the outtakes and putting yourself back in. In Wind in Our Hair, you have a larger group collaborating and editing as you go. Could you talk about these processes, in hindsight, and how you see them having changed or not?
LS: You have such an astute way of thinking about the plasticity, shape, surface and structure of film. I really appreciate this approach to your questions because it gets me thinking about the dialog between material and concept. I actually made Drawn and Quartered with an old boyfriend, John Baker, and so the dance of images between the man and the woman and between the camera and the performers (the two of us) is a visual love poem that articulates our intimacy as well as our problems as a couple. While we are on the screen together, we are never actually in the same frame. As they say “Appearances can be deceiving.” I was still so uncomfortable with my body at the time that I initially took out my face from the movie and then, with pressure from some feminist-minded girl friends, put it right back. Since the film is made on regular 8mm film, these “cuts” (yes, this is a double entendre) show. Now, many years later I am still fascinated by how the series of images were actually photographed in a particular order; and, I am sad to see the way digital technologies obliterate the spirit of the initial chronology of shots. So you are somewhat right when you speak about and the way that it was edited. My co-editor, Sofia Gallisa, and I tried to keep the physicality of the small gauge film materials in as close to the original order as we could. In this way, it felt truer to the moment in time in which it first breathed. In my other recent film The Last Happy Day (2009) I videotaped a rather conventional headshot interview with an 85 year old woman sitting in a chair. I adored they way she talked about the past, and her candor in regards to her inability to recount something that happened long, long ago with any accuracy. She told me she could no longer distinguish between her own reality and fantasy. I tried to celebrate this poignant awareness of memory by leaving black spaces between cuts in her monolog. This formal fissure in the diagetic space upsets some people because it is a bit ugly and raw, but I think it is critical.
MH: Slight change of subject…Some of your work is about war. Instead of explaining it as a political event in an obvious way, you explain it instead from the perspective of how humanity responds to the ongoing crisis. In The Last Happy Day, a man, a distant relative, I believe, whose job it is to sort the remains of the dead is the central character. I know you were in Brooklyn –because we contacted you–during the events of September 11th. You described the ash in the sky falling near your home in Brooklyn. Is your interest in the process by which we absorb war’s atrocities, a means through which to articulate your own feelings about that horrific event? Is there a conscious connection for you there?
LS: I remember you and David contacting me from Australia soon after that day, and it meant so much to hear from you from so far away and with such compassion. A group of Bosnian artists actually wrote to me the afternoon of September 11, 2001. I, along with SF artist Jeanne Finley, had recently returned from working with these artists during a two week fellowship in Sarajevo. We were collaborating over the internet on a web art project we called The House of Drafts, 2001. Since, they had lived through the mid-1990s bombings of the Balkan wars, they were keen to convey to me that they knew how it felt to be attacked from the air. As you said earlier, this kind of international collaboration is critical to my practice – on both an artistic and an emotional level.
MH: The beauty of the Internet.
LS: In terms of The Last Happy Day, I think you are the first to see the connection between my interests in war and the human body. Even back in 1994 when I made Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam, I was aware of this exchange between the physical self and the social self. As I was traveling through the Mekong Delta, just a few months after they opened Vietnam to American travelers, I wrote “I am a bone collector who knows nothing about anatomy” in my journal. Whether I am rummaging through the Twin Towers ashes that floated into our neighborhood playground (Tornado, 2001) or listening to stories about my distant relative who worked for the US Army reconstructing the bodies of American soldiers, these issues keep coming back to haunt me.
MH: Thank you so much, Lynne. I hope we can talk again soon and in more depth.
Find more on Lynne Sachs’ work at: www.lynnesachs.com
Stills from House of Science, Wind in Our Hair , and The Last Happy Day, respectively, and courtesy of Lynne Sachs.
Opening Doors in the Red Light District: Making Films in Buenos Aires by Lynne Sachs
Filmthreat.com review of THE LAST HAPPY DAY (Sept. 2010)
Essay by Susan Gerhard for Lynne Sachs Retrospective
Film Comment Review of Abecedarium:NYC an interactive website by Lynne Sachs (june 2010)
Last Address: an elegy for a generation of NYC artists who died of AIDS by Ira Sachs, Lynne Sachs and Bernard Blythe
“The House of Science: a museum of false facts” 30 min., color, sound, 1991
“Offering a new feminized film form, this piece explores both art and science’s representation of women, combining home movies, personal remembrances, staged scenes and found footage into an intricate visual and aural college. A girl’s sometimes difficult coming of age rituals are recast into a potent web for affirmation and growth.” (SF Cinematheque)
“A disturbing discovery and a remarkable exposition. The film demonstrates Sachs’ natural gifts as an autobiographer, a philosopher and a true artist.” (Melbourne Film Festival)
“The film takes off on a visual and aural collage…combining the theoretical issues of feminism with the discrete and personal remembrances of childhood.” ( San Francisco Bay Guardian)
“Throughout ‘The House of Science’ an image of a woman, her brain revealed, is a leitmotif. It suggests that the mind/body split so characteristic of Western thought is particularly troubling for women, who may feel themselves moving between the territories of the film’s title –house, science, and museum, or private, public and idealized space — without wholly inhabiting any of them. This film explores society’s representation and conceptualization of women through home movies, personal reminiscences, staged scenes, found footage and voice. Sachs’ personal memories recall the sense of her body being divided, whether into sexual and functional territories, or ‘the body of the body’ and ‘the body of the mind.'” (Kathy Geritz, Pacific Film Archives)
Charlotte Film Festival, First Prize Experimental; Atlanta Film Festival, Honorable Mention Experimental; International Audiovisual Experimental Festival, Arnheim, Netherlands; Black Maria Film Fest, Juror’s Award; Hallwalls Center for the Arts, Buffalo, NY; Humbolt Film Festival, Teffen Filter Award; Museum of Modern Art, Cineprobe; Portland Museum of Art, “Icons, Rebels and Visionaries”; Athens Film Festival, Experimental Prize; Oberhausen Short Film Festival, Germany; Utah Film Festival, First Prize Short Film.
In The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991), Lynne Sachs curates a moving-image exhibition of womanhood, carefully sampling artifacts from the past (fabricated truths built to sustain male dominancy), intertwined with empirical artifacts of her own history (personal truths and memories). Through the power of visual and aural association, several domains of the exhibit simultaneously unfold in front of us: the personal, the public and the historical. Sachs drifts between these domains smoothly until a whole network of information is gently bestowed upon us. We start with the image of a doctor guiding a woman into a glass booth, followed by him setting a model house on fire, and the sound of Sachs’ voice, telling us about her experience of being examined by an apathetic gynecologist while pregnant. The image of the detached male doctor lingers with us for the whole length of the movie, along with his perverse power over a female body, over her right to “bare armor”—as in, contraception—and over her right to give birth. Together with Sachs, we wince at the story of her obtaining a contraceptive diaphragm. The doctor has no issue sending her off into battle with her new armor and zero instructions on how to do it. “I leave his office fully equipped, protected, and completely incapable of placing that plastic sheath over my cervix. Where is my cervix?” Next, we see a naked woman rolling up and down a sand dune unceasingly.
Another moment sat with me throughout the movie, that of a little girl. A little girl learning to read, stumbling through the grotesque words of Dr. Cesare Lombroso, naively walking us through his diagnosis of a nine-year-old female, a “born thief”. Sachs explores the concept of criminal atavism by juxtaposing her daughter’s voice with the delusional criminalization of women based on their physical appearance. By pairing images of female child-like playfulness and purity with delusional artifacts of the late 19th century, she amplifies the gap between the male study of women and women themselves. She flows between the public, mainstream, male rationale and the private, subjective female counter-experience. We are left with the uncomfortable ambiguity of child-like giggles of lightness and historical screams of darkness.
At the core of Sachs’ exhibit lies her most intimate gaze upon womanhood. It is articulated into unspoken words on the screen:
“I am two bodies—the body of the body and the body of the mind. The body of the body was flaccid and forgotten. This was the body that was wet with dirty liquids, holes that wouldn’t close, full of smells and curdled milk.” (We hear pencil scratches.)
The body of the body of a woman is biologically destined to be softer and therefore more fluid. All this fluidity, open space, holes, smells are often psychologically coupled with shame. Sachs’ words here represent the experience of most girls becoming women. This body of ours is too visceral for both us and the world to accept.
“The body of the body moves in cycles, and with every repetition there is a sensation of pain. The arrival of the body of the body forces the body of the mind to take notice, begrudgingly so. With legs crossed, the blood is caught just before it crosses the border into the public domain” (We hear a person peeing and a loud flushing of the toilet.)
Not only is the body of the body full of liquids and smells, but they threaten to spill over into the public domain. Our bodies and all their products are trained to be confined.
“Filled with infectious, infected liquids, we hold in the blood, the water, the sneeze, the wax, the hair, the pus, the breath. All that is ours to let go, to release onto this earth is held in, contained. I am the cauldron of dangerous substances.”
To defeat this imposed belief system of male ideas which we were fed throughout our lives is to inspect and observe your body for yourself. It takes a lot of courage to look into your own body with curiosity, rather than shame.
“I trace a path across my chest, searching for surprises I’d rather not find, knots in the fabric.”
Women are being re-educated to examine themselves instead of being examined by the cold metal-handed gynecologist. However, self-examination carries a burden of unforeseen surprises. Releasing our juices into the public, into the mainstream. Bravely facing the knots in the fabric as early signs of our bodies decaying.
“Undressed, we read our bodies like a history. Scars, muscles, curves of the spine. We look at ourselves from within. Collect our own data, create our own science. Begin to define.”
Built from the inside out, this new laboratory pushes against the walls of the old structure. An incendiary effect, but not arson.
When we are brave enough to look into the stretch marks, the scars, the wobbles, the curves, we own our space, our fluids and our bones. We collect and process our data, introduce new terminology. We allow for the soft to be malleable, buoyant, rather than flaccid and weak. We allow for differences. We allow for change. We allow for expression to re-place suppression. We become safely vulnerable instead of avoidant or anxious. We spit our words and meanings out instead of swallowing them.
In between the personal and the public domain lie Sachs’ women. These are real, physical women, subjects of anatomical studies, as well as women in paintings, subjects of the male painter’s gaze. The first, forced silent, the latter, painted static, confined to a space in history, “to be taken”. We witness a female artist looking at men looking at women.
Despite the immanently observational, passive and saddening tone of the movie, there is a promise in this exhibit. A promise that by carefully unfolding and studying the history of womanhood, one is already shaking the habitual. Sachs’ voice is not passive at all, it is rather filled with precisely focused meditative anger, an eloquent scream for justice, live from the gynecologist’s office, calling for help and cooperation.
To aid and support this novel conception of womanhood, we seek out new imagery, new viewpoints, new forms. Sachs’ filmography is a great start. The House of Science shifted my gaze to earlier works of art, predating celluloid. I searched for an alternative museum of womanhood. In particular, the Viennese modernist painters Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka stood out as engaging with the representation of women: as neither virgins nor whores, allowing their female subjects to escape this demeaning cage. They let their subjects move around freely, be comfortable, take up space, lie down wrapped up in themselves. Schiele went one step further: painting anger and anxiety on the faces of his subjects. “By exploring such subjects, the three artists simultaneously exhumed their own sexuality: their fears, sorrows, hopes, and ecstasies…their women do not necessarily submit passively to the male artistic gaze. They look back and demand to be understood on their own terms.”1 These were not the only attempts by men to redefine womanhood in a feminist way. However, the others were often buried and forgotten, most likely because they were single, isolated sprouts of change.
Although revolutionary, the idea that cooperation could displace competition has certainly taken root lately. This idea insinuates that equality is actually a lot more functional and productive for all parties involved. A very timely example would be the evolution of a virus (or a random constituted body of persons, empowered by the state, with a specific aim, e.g. to enforce the law). If a virus were to survive, it would have to evolve in a cooperative manner with its host. Eventually, many highly infectious and pathogenic viruses have decreased their pathogenicity in order to keep their hosts alive. Some have even been completely eradicated over time. This gives me hope, both for us as a species and us as women. However, to put this into practice, we need both the unspoken voices to be heard and the destructive, competitive voices to fade out. It would have to be a cooperative effort.
Jane Kallir, ‘Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka – Men Looking at Women Looking at Men’, p. 59, in: Agnes Husslein-Arco Jane Kallir and Alfred Weidinger, The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka, 2015