Tag Archives: The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts

Lynne Sachs Focus at Camera Lucida (Ecuador)

October 14-17, 2021 Loja Teatro Bolivar
November 11-19, 2021 Cuenca Teatro Sucre
November 20 – December 10, 2021 Online Ecuador 
https://www.ecamaralucida.com/2021-lynne-sachs


Program in English

Mirada Epicentro (Ceter Focus)

Authors who have made their way looking inward, achieving a work where the constant regression to aesthetic searches, thematic investigations and particular narratives, have a point at which the gaze gravitates, infects and expands.

In this edition, we are happy to share in Mirada Epicentro the work of Lynne Sachs, Bruno Varela and Ecuador de Territory, a program made up of the authors Alberto Muenala, Eriberto Gualinga and Sani Montahuano.

A Month of Single Frames
2020 – U.S.A – 14’
In 1998, filmmaker Barbara Hammer had a one-month artist residency in the C Scape Duneshack which is run by the Provincetown Community Compact in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The shack had no running water or electricity. While there, she shot 16mm film with her Beaulieu camera, recorded sounds with her cassette recorder and kept a journal.

In 2018, Barbara began her own process of dying by revisiting her personal archive. She gave all of her Duneshack images, sounds and writing to filmmaker Lynne Sachs and invited her to make a film with the material.

Carolee, Barbara & Gunvor
2018 – U.S.A – 8’
From 2015 to 2017, Lynne visited with Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Hammer and Gunvor Nelson, three multi-faceted artists who have embraced the moving image throughout their lives. From Carolee’s 18th Century house in the woods of Upstate New York to Barbara’s West Village studio to Gunvor’s childhood village in Sweden, Lynne shoots film with each woman in the place where she finds grounding and spark.

E•pis•to•lar•y: letter to Jean Vigo
2021 – U.S.A / España – 5’
In a cinema letter to French director Jean Vigo, Lynne Sachs ponders the delicate resonances of his 1933 classic “Zero for Conduct” in which a group of school boys wages an anarchist rebellion against their authoritarian teachers. Thinking about the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the United States Capitol by thousands of right-wing activists, Sachs wonders how innocent play or calculated protest can turn so quickly into chaos and violence.

Drawn and Quartered
1987 – U.S.A – 4’
Optically printed images of a man and a woman are fragmented by a film frame that is divided into four distinct sections. An experiment in form/content relationships that are peculiar to the medium, 1987

Film About a Father Who
2020 – U.S.A – 74’
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.

Following the Object to its Logical Beginning
1987 – U.S.A – 9’
Like an animal in one of Eadweard Muybridge’s scientific photo experiments, five undramatic moments in a man’s life are observed by a woman. A study in visual obsession and a twist on the notion of the “gaze”.

Maya at 24
2021 – U.S.A – 4’
Lynne Sachs films her daughter Maya in 16mm black and white film, at ages 6, 16 and 24. At each iteration, Maya runs around her mother, in a circle – clockwise – as if propelling herself in the same direction as time, forward. Conscious of the strange simultaneous temporal landscape that only film can convey, we watch Maya in motion at each distinct age.

Photograph on Wind
2001 – U.S.A – 4’
My daughter’s name is Maya.  I’ve been told that the word maya means illusion in Hindu philosophy.  As I watch her growing up, spinning like a top around me, I realize that her childhood is not something I can grasp but rather  – like the wind – something I feel tenderly brushing across my cheek.

Same Stream Twice
2012 – U.S.A – 4’
In 2001, I photographed her at six years old, spinning like a top around me. Even then, I realized that her childhood was not something I could grasp but rather – like the wind – something I could feel tenderly brushing across my cheek.

Still Life with Woman and Four Objects
1986 – U.S.A – 4’
A film portrait that falls somewhere between a painting and a prose poem, a look at a woman’s daily routines and thoughts via an exploration of her as a “character”. By interweaving threads of history and fiction, the film is also a tribute to a real woman – Emma Goldman, 1986 .

The house of science: a museum of false facts
1991 – U.S.A – 30’
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.

Viva and Felix Growing Up 
2015 – U.S.A – 10’
Capturing fragments of the first three years of her twin niece’s and nephew’s lives with their two dads (her brother Ira Sachs and his husband Boris Torres) and their mom (Kirsten Johnson), Sachs affectionately surveys the construction of family.

Which way is east
Lynne Sachs / Dana Sachs
1994 – U.S.A – 33’
When two American sisters travel north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, conversations with Vietnamese strangers and friends reveal to them the flip side of a shared history.  Lynne and Dana Sachs’ travel diary of their trip to Vietnam is a collection of tourism, city life, culture clash, and historic inquiry that’s put together with the warmth of a quilt.  “Which Way Is East” starts as a road trip and flowers into a political discourse.  It combines Vietnamese parables, history and memories of the people the sisters met, as well as their own childhood memories of the war on TV.  To Americans for whom “Vietnam” ended in 1975, “Which Way Is East” is a reminder that Vietnam is a country, not a war.  The film has a combination of qualities: compassion, acute observational skills, an understanding of history’s scope, and a critical ability to discern what’s missing from the textbooks and TV news. (from The Independent Film and Video Monthly, Susan Gerhard)


Program in Spanish

Mirada Epicentro

Autoras y autores que han labrado su camino mirando hacia dentro, logrando una obra donde la regresión constante a búsquedas estéticas, investigaciones temáticas y narrativas particulares, disponen un punto en el cual la mirada gravita, se contagia y se expande.

En esta edición, nos alegramos compartir en Mirada Epicentro la obra de Lynne Sachs, Bruno Varela y Ecuador de territorio, un programa conformado por los autores Alberto Muenala, Eriberto Gualinga y Sani Montahuano. 

A Month of Single Frames
2020 – U.S.A – 14’
En 1998, la cineasta Barbara Hammer tuvo una residencia artística de un mes en Cape Cod, Massachusetts. La choza no tenía agua corriente ni electricidad. Mientras estuvo allí, filmó una película de 16 mm, grabó sonidos y llevó un diario. En 2018, Barbara comenzó su propio proceso de muerte revisando su archivo personal. Ella le dio todas sus imágenes, sonidos y escritura de la residencia a la cineasta Lynne Sachs y la invitó a hacer una película.

Carolee, Barbara & Gunvor
2018 – U.S.A – 8’
De 2015 a 2017, Lynne visitó a Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Hammer y Gunvor Nelson, tres artistas multifacéticos que han abrazado la imagen en movimiento a lo largo de sus vidas. Desde la casa del siglo XVIII de Carolee en los bosques del norte del estado de Nueva York hasta el estudio de Barbara en West Village y el pueblo de la infancia de Gunvor en Suecia, Lynne graba una película con cada mujer en el lugar donde encuentra la base y la chispa.

E•pis•to•lar•y: letter to Jean Vigo
2021 – U.S.A / España – 5’
En una epistolar fílmica dirigida al director francés Jean Vigo, Lynne Sachs reflexiona sobre su clásico de 1933 “Zero for Conduct”, en el que los escolares libran una rebelión anarquista contra sus maestros autoritarios. Al pensar en el asalto del 6 de enero de 2021 al Capitolio de los EE. UU. Por parte de activistas de derecha, Sachs se pregunta cómo un juego inocente o una protesta calculada pueden convertirse tan rápidamente en caos y violencia.

Drawn and Quartered
1987 – U.S.A – 4’
Imágenes impresas ópticamente de un hombre y una mujer fragmentadas por un fotograma de película que se divide en cuatro secciones distintas. Un experimento en las relaciones forma / contenido que son peculiares del medio, 1987.

Film About a Father Who
2020 – U.S.A – 74’
Desde 1984 al 2019, Lynne Sachs filmó a su padre, un animado e innovador hombre de negocios. Este documental es el intento de la cineasta por entender las redes que conectan a una niña con su padre y a una mujer con sus hermanos. Con un guiño a las representaciones cubistas de un rostro, la exploración de Sachas ofrece visiones simultáneas y a veces contradictorias de un hombre aparentemente incognocible que públicamente se ubica de forma desinhibida en el centro del encueadre, pero en lo privado se refugia en secretos.

Following the Object to its Logical Beginning
1987 – U.S.A – 9’
Como un animal en uno de los experimentos fotográficos científicos de Eadweard Muybridge, una mujer observa cinco momentos poco dramáticos en la vida de un hombre. Un estudio sobre la obsesión visual y un giro en la noción de “mirada”.

Maya at 24
2021 – U.S.A – 4’
Conscientes del extraño paisaje temporal simultáneo que solo el cine puede transmitir, vemos a Maya en movimiento en cada época distinta.

Photograph on Wind
2001 – U.S.A – 4’
El nombre de mi hija es Maya. Me han dicho que la palabra maya significa ilusión en la filosofía hindú. Mientras la veo crecer, girando como una peonza a mi alrededor, me doy cuenta de que su infancia no es algo que pueda comprender, sino más bien, como el viento, algo que siento acariciar con ternura mi mejilla.

Same Stream Twice
2012 – U.S.A – 4’
En 2001, la fotografié a los seis años, girando como una peonza a mi alrededor. Incluso entonces, me di cuenta de que su infancia no era algo que pudiera comprender, sino más bien, como el viento, algo que podía sentir con ternura rozando mi mejilla.

Still Life with Woman and Four Objects
1986 – U.S.A – 4’
Un retrato cinematográfico que se sitúa entre una pintura y un poema en prosa, una mirada a las rutinas y pensamientos diarios de una mujer a través de una exploración de ella como un “personaje”. Al entrelazar hilos de historia y ficción, la película también es un homenaje a una mujer real: Emma Goldman, 1986.

The house of science: a museum of false facts
1991 – U.S.A – 30’
Ofreciendo una nueva forma de película feminizada, esta pieza explora la representación de las mujeres tanto en el arte como en la ciencia, combinando películas caseras, recuerdos personales, escenas escénicas y metraje encontrado en una intrincada universidad visual y auditiva. Los rituales de mayoría de edad a veces difíciles de una niña se reconvierten en una potente red de afirmación y crecimiento.

Viva and Felix Growing Up 
2015 – U.S.A – 10’
Durante los primeros tres años de la vida de mi sobrino y mi sobrina gemela, usé mi cámara Bolex de 16 mm para filmarlos mientras crecían en la ciudad de Nueva York con sus dos papás (mi hermano Ira Sachs y su esposo Boris Torres) y su mamá (Kirsten Johnson). . La película termina con un abrazo por el Día del Orgullo Gay.

Which way is east
Lynne Sachs / Dana Sachs
1994 – U.S.A – 33’
Cuando dos hermanas estadounidenses viajan al norte desde la ciudad de Ho Chi Minh a Hanoi, las conversaciones con desconocidos y amigos vietnamitas les revelan la otra cara de una historia compartida.

Mubi Notebook: Experimenting and Expanding at Prismatic Ground

Experimenting and Expanding at Prismatic Ground
MUBI Notebook
By Caroline Golum
May 31, 2021

https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/experimenting-and-expanding-at-prismatic-ground

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 Hosts Two Programs of Films by Lynne Sachs


Lynne Sachs in Conversation with Brett Kashmere (Canyon Cinema) – Ground Glass Award Presentation

Transcription of Conversation with Brett Kashmere:

Inney Prakash: Welcome, everyone. Just going to give it a few seconds for people to trickle in here.

Hello, my name is Inney Prakash, and I am the founder and director of Prismatic Ground, which in case you haven’t heard, is a new film festival centered around experimental documentary, hosted virtually for the first year, in partnership with Maysles Documentary Center and Screen Slate. We’re here today for a reason that is very special to me, which is to honor Lynne Sachs with the festival’s inaugural Ground Glass Award, which recognizes outstanding contribution to the field of experimental media.

I wanted to include this as part of the festival, because paying homage to people who have sort of led the way is important to me. I think there’s a lot to be learned from those who have done exemplary work, and have a body of work to show for it. Lynn’s body of work is extraordinary. What I really love about it is the way it’s simultaneously very personal and also outward looking, interested in the world.

I think of her Vietnam film and the way it’s both a travelog that is examining a country in the world that’s foreign to her, but also a portrait, a self-portrait of family, and the way in which that’s so extraordinary. You can follow this through line throughout her work to her most recent film as well, Film About a Father Who, which she’s been shooting for a long time, in which in the way it examines, again, it’s a portrait of family, but it’s also a portrait of the effect that her father has had on other people’s lives.

She’s still interested in looking outward while reflecting, and I think that’s really cool. I am really excited to introduce her today. Unfortunately, because this is such a scruffy fest, Lynne, I owe you a physical award. I will eventually come up with that. That will happen. In the meantime, I just want you to know how much your work means to me, and how much it means to me that you’re such a champion for the experimental community, and the importance you place in community, and your willingness to engage with others, to collaborate, to recognize the work of others, to uplift others.

It means a lot to me personally, and I know it means a lot to others as well, so thank you. We also have here, Brett Kashmere, who’s the Executive Director of Canyon Cinema. He’s done a lot of extraordinary things. You can look up his website, one of which he’s working on an epic tome about Craig Baldwin that he’s been editing for some say up to 10 years. He and Lynne are going to talk, and I think they’re going to focus on Lynne’s early years in San Francisco, which, again, there’s another extraordinary example of a way a community came together to build what, in my eyes, is something like a movement dedicated to formally daring work.

With that, I want to step aside and give it away to them, but thank you so much, Lynne. Yeah, that’s it. Nothing but gratitude.

Lynne Sachs: Well, I’ll just say that it’s such a exciting moment for me to be here, and Prismatic Ground represents and celebrates exactly the kind of work that sparked me to want to be a filmmaker. I feel like it kind of comes full circle that you all are, that Inney and the community that you have created is giving me this recognition.

It really does go back to San Francisco, and that was Brett’s idea for us to talk about why that city, that community, has left such an imprint on so many of us. Even if you haven’t ever lived there, you’re feeling it. We can kind of articulate why that is over this conversation.

Brett Kashmere: Okay. I guess maybe I’ll take it from here. First off, it hasn’t been 10 years that I’ve been working on the Craig Baldwin book with Steve Polta. It’s been maybe three years at the most. It only sometimes feels like it’s been 10 years. Second of all, kudos to Inney for the incredible accomplishment that is Prismatic Ground, which is truly astonishing, and inspiring, and so beautifully curated, and expertly organized. I think it’s an ideal in many ways of what’s possible in the digital space.

Then, of course, congrats to Lynne for this very well-deserved honor in recognition of your 35 year contribution to the fields of experimental media and documentary art, and vitally to their cross-pollination and contamination. I mean that in the best possible way. To provide a little bit of background, I’ve known Lynne for about 15 years, I believe, and I’ve always associated you, Lynne, with New York. I’ve always thought of you as a New York filmmaker, kind of quintessentially New York.

Since moving to the Bay Area five years ago, and particularly since joining Canyon Cinema last June, I’ve come to understand that your roots as a filmmaker and your sensibility, your repertoire, are really formed in and by San Francisco. I don’t know, maybe you don’t agree with that assessment. We can get into it, but it’s something that I’ve really sort of picked up on in looking at your films, re-watching them over the past few days and over the past year.

In full disclosure, Lynne is currently a member of Canyon’s Board of Directors, to our great benefit. I thought it would be fun to use this opportunity, perhaps selfishly, to learn more about your relationship with San Francisco, and your time in the Bay Area, the various influences and key figures from that period spanning the mid-eighties to the mid-1990s.

I thought we could start there, or here, depending on where you are, and then eventually move into talking about some of your films, nine of which are currently streaming on the Prismatic Ground site, eight of which are split across two programs curated by San Francisco’s own Craig Baldwin, and then an additional early film, Drawn and Quartered, which is part of the lovely Wave Four program. Lynne, can you explain what drew you to San Francisco initially, and then what kept you planted here for more than a decade?

Lynne Sachs: Actually, I never made a film in college, but I moved to New York in 1983, and I thought, oh, I’ll move. I’m excited about filmmaking. I had just recently discovered Chantal Akerman’s films and Marguerite Duras. I had gone to school in Paris for a year, my junior year. It was there that I began to understand, oh, you could love poetry, you could love image making, and they could come together in this vessel called a film.

When I got to New York, I thought, I’ll just work on other people’s films and I’ll learn how to make movies. It didn’t work that way. That was a way to get into the industry and build skills, but it wasn’t a way necessarily to learn to make your own films. I took a few classes, and they didn’t at first go that well. I took a class at the School of Visual Arts, and I wrote, I made this film called The Tarot that the teacher there said, “You need a punch line at the end.” I didn’t want to make that kind of movie.

Then I started to hang out at Downtown Community Television, and it was there that I started to understand this what we would now call hybrid work. I was doing dance performances with friends, and then shooting documentary footage, and it was all kind of mixing up. Then I thought, well, maybe I’ll go to school. I need to learn how to make movies or film. I always said that when you’re working on them, they’re films, and then when you finish them, you’ve got to say movie.

I moved to San Francisco, and I ended up going to San Francisco State and the San Francisco Art Institute because I didn’t get into the San Francisco Art Institute right off. Both of those sensibilities really left a big imprint on me, San Francisco State mostly for kind of the intellectual rigor there. I was learning film theory, and working with people who were really bringing a conceptual rigor to filmmaking, and then the Art Institute to begin to understand what it meant to be a film artist.

One of the connections to Prismatic Ground that was so much in the air in San Francisco in the eighties, and into the nineties, and to the present, is this idea that experimental and documentary weren’t completely discrete ways of working, because everywhere else, it seemed to me in the country, and particularly in New York, you had to decide, “I’m going to make reality-based work, or I’m going to play with form.”

In San Francisco, the expectation was that you could do both, and that you could make work that asks questions about society, and about politics, and culture, but also in the process, ripped up all the templates that came with that analysis.

Brett Kashmere: You started your MFA at SF State, and then you transferred to SFAI? How did that work?

Lynne Sachs: I actually finished at both, because I started at San Francisco State, and so I got to take film history classes. I had never seen Citizen Kane before I started there, and luckily in that program, they really supported people who were intellectually curious, but didn’t even come with any of the tools, or the baggage, or the knowledge of the practice, but wanted to bring everything. I had been working in art, but I had a degree in European history, and so there was an encouragement for just having that foundation.

Then I applied to the Art Institute, and part of it was that San Francisco State had a MA degree, and San Francisco, at that point, San Francisco Art Institute had an MFA, but there were artists at both schools who were so profoundly influential to me and became dear friends with whom I still share a bond.

Brett Kashmere: Do you have any distinct memories of what the film scene in San Francisco was like during that era? Also, curious about the things that you were reading and responding to, and the films that you were looking at during that period?

Lynne Sachs: Well, I took a semiotics class at San Francisco State, and just the word was so enticing to me. It was the word of the day in the eighties, this notion of studying the signs, and symbols, and what the meanings were of images that were both connotative and denotative, and how that all had sort of started in a dialogue in Europe. I was perhaps more moved by cultural theory, so Roland Barthes in particular, not necessarily Christian Met, not necessarily the film theory, but all of it was new to me.

I knew that I was taking those classes because I would feed into my work. I actually think that the film in the Prismatic Ground, Still Life with Women and Four Objects, really reflects all of those influences, from discovering Jean-Luc Godard, but also thinking he had no sympathy or understanding whatsoever of what women’s lives were like. I actually felt he exploited women in his films, but I still loved his films. There were all these contradictions, and Yvonne Rainer’s films, all of it was just coming into my consciousness.

Also, to be in San Francisco at that time, and to be making your own films was to be circulating and visiting the Film Arts Foundation. Everything that you did was in relationship to that building on Ninth Street. You would go there to edit, you would go there to watch movies, you would go there to hang out. We lived in such a different place now. Our homes are places to make films, but at that time, you had to go out in the world to shoot and to edit.

Brett Kashmere: Do you recall what kind of impact that feminist theory and feminist art making had on the culture and the curriculum of SFAI at that time? The film department specifically, because as I understand it, I think film was a separate department from video and performance.

Lynne Sachs: When I tell you the people who came through for, they always had a visiting artist for the graduate program who would teach classes, the evening class, and I think it was always on Monday night. For example, I met Peggy Ahwesh then, I saw her work. I loved how informal it was, but I also loved how assertive it was about issues related to women and in our culture. That thin line between play and polemic was exciting to me, and not exactly when I was in school there, but later, Carolee Schneemann came, and so I would visit her class.

I actually showed the film that’s in the program, the House of Science, A Museum of False Facts, I was invited to screen by Carolee in her class and we just sat there for hours, talking about it. That was such a gift to me, to be able to talk to someone who’d had such a adventurous and thoughtful impact on women and art, and I mean art in general, but what it was to embrace the body. I had made this film where my body was involved, and I was writing about the body, and she was engaged with that.

Also, I worked really closely with Gunvor Nelson, and that sort of was another side. She’d made a film called Schmeerguntz, which I just loved, because I loved how much it celebrated the sort of dirtiness of the body. I hadn’t had children yet at that point, but it was all about motherhood, and it was raw. She’d also made My Name is Oona, and that film had an impact on me in that it was a celebration of the connection between the person behind the camera who could be a mother, but might not be, and the person in front of the camera who was her child. There’s this intimacy that comes through the arteries of the camera out to the child.

Brett Kashmere: It’s interesting that you mentioned Carolee, because as I was watching Drawn and Quartered the other day, her films really kind of came to mind, especially Plumb Line and Kitch’s Last Meal. Just in terms of the look and feel, and I know that Drawn and Quartered, or I believe Drawn and Quartered is one of your earliest films that was shot on the rooftop of SFAI? I’m curious if that film sort of led you someplace, in terms of thinking about relationship of form, and content, and visual strategy.

Lynne Sachs: You asked me about feminist theory, and I think that Laura Mulvey’s essay on the female gaze, or trying to address and challenge the male gaze, was probably about 10 years old by the time I read it, but it already was, I’m not going to say seminal, but it was already such an important article. When I read that article on Visual Pleasure, I connected to it immediately.

For example, when I was in school, there was a woman who asked me to shoot her film for her, which people do sometimes, they crew for other people. She wanted me to shoot it in a way that I felt was replicating a male gaze. I was in the middle of working for her and I said, “I can’t do this anymore.” I had probably assumed I’m shooting this film for a woman, and we’re going to challenge the ethos of Hollywood or of a conventional formation of the female body.

We weren’t. We were actually trying to just erase her place as a woman. It was horrifying to me. Then when I shot Drawn and Quartered, I believe, I’m trying to remember, but I believe that I had read Laura Mulvey’s article. I had the camera, we never looked through the camera, we would just sort of shoot it in the… I was shooting with my then boyfriend, John Baker, and I would have him shoot my body, and I would shoot his, but it had to be an extension.

There was a man who worked in the cage, the equipment room at San Francisco State, and he always said, “Shoot from the hip.” I liked that. It’s an expression, but I always tried to do it. I want to say something, that Nina Fonaroff just wrote a little note, and I adore her films. We were in graduate school together. I saw that she wrote something in the chat, so I have to respond to that.

She was the most, I got to say it, sophisticated person I had ever met in the realm of theory and practice. She was in school. I remember, this was probably 1987, and she did a presentation in this graduate seminar, and it was like a watershed for me. It was a way of looking at experimental film, because so often in film studies classes, you’re looking at Hollywood films, and you’re breaking them down and analyzing. She was sort of guiding, I won’t say teaching, but guiding the rest of us to understanding experimental film for all its possibility.

It was such a gift to see her work, like Accursed Mazurka, and other films at that point, and to also feel like she was a comrade.

Brett Kashmere: Yeah, besides Nina, are there other classmates or teachers who stand out as important kind of influences or interlocutors for you in the development of your work during that time?

Lynne Sachs: Well…

Brett Kashmere: I can just sort of just say that as I was rewatching your films, I was kind of noticing traces of Trinh Minh-ha’s work in terms of its self-reflexivity, and the poetic narration, and the visual lyricism, and traces of Marlon Riggs, and Lynne Hirschman in terms of their personal introspection, and the collage essay techniques, obviously, of Craig Baldwin in the use of the archive, Barbara Hammer and the focus on the body.

Lynne Sachs: Clearly, I was a sponge, but I will say that Trinh Minh-ha was a teacher of mine in a couple of classes at San Francisco State, and then she asked me to be her assistant. First of all, it was to pick up her mail when she was on sabbatical, and then I became a sound recordist and an assistant on some editing of some of her films. She was also very important to, for example, to the making of Sermons and Sacred Pictures, which is in this program.

That was my graduate thesis at San Francisco State. This is the eighties when identity politics were really so, so vital, and the way that they’ve kind of come back in an extremely important and empowering way. We were thinking, and she had made Reassemblage, and she, as a Vietnamese American woman, had made this film in West Africa, and was aware of her outsider place. I was making a film about a black filmmaker and minister in Memphis, Tennessee, which was a return to my own home.

My home in that city was also very different from his home and his Memphis. She was really so helpful in pushing me to think about being open enough about your own place, but not flaunting it. For example, when I made Sermons and Sacred Pictures, there were some people who thought I needed to show my face. Then there are other people who said, “No, your imprint is in the shaping, and in being on the other side of the camera, and in listening.”

I’ve always wondered about that around documentary, how you learned… I think you learn in that film about Reverend Taylor’s world, because you’re seeing his world through his eyes, but you didn’t need to see me seeing his world. That was a really kind of complicated issue to investigate. She helped me with that step-by-step, because she was actually my advisor.

Brett Kashmere: It reminds me a little bit of her ethic of speaking nearby, rather than speaking about or speaking for.

Lynne Sachs: Yeah, I’ve been kind of, let’s say, preoccupied with prepositions like that ever since. You say the word about, and I Film About a Father Who, like that word about comes up so often not in experimental filmmaking, but in documentary filmmaking. It always has to have a subject. People rarely ask, “What’s the subject of an experimental film?” In documentary, there’s sort of an assumption that it will lead us to an about, and that therefore, we will have a more developed knowledge, and we will leave better, empowered, better.

I think what Minh-ha was saying, you’ll leave in parallel, or you’ll leave with an ability to ask more questions, rather than to confirm a complete kind of knowledge, that you have a fragmented knowledge.

Brett Kashmere: I know that you also worked intensively with Bruce Conner for a year while you were in San Francisco, talking about the other poll from Minha.

Lynne Sachs: Yeah.

Brett Kashmere: Could you say more about your experience working with Bruce? Are there any short stories that you want to share about that?

Lynne Sachs: Yeah. You definitely could say you have the found footage, assemblage approach to commenting on culture, and then you have this other approach, which is more reflective and verbal in Minh-ha’s work, that the notion that you are recounting your position in a more explicit way, and maybe self-conscious way. Both of those things left in imprint, and in certain times, I felt I got lost in that.

Now, I accept that lostness and I’ve felt tension. Am I an experimental filmmaker, or am I a documentary filmmaker? Jonas Mekas hated the word experimental, and lots of people hate the word documentary, and you could say it’s just a creative way of working with reality. Actually, both of those are, in that case. I met Bruce Conner because I had a friend who had done some shooting with him on his film that never got finished, but is now going to get finished, about The Soul Stirrers.

Also, I had gone to the Flaherty in 1984, believe it or not, as a kind of intern fellow. That year, the focus was on Bruce Conner’s work and Maya Deren’s work, none of which, I’d never even heard of either one of them. There I am, at the Flaherty, helping them to give out programs, and doing some things that interns do. Then at the end of the day or throughout the day, I’m seeing work by Maya Deren and work by Conner. They’re completely different. One is looking inward in this very sort of dream-like, and intensely personal way, and the other has a detachment, but an intense engagement with culture.

That started at the Flaherty Film Seminar, and then I ended up moving to San Francisco. I had these little teeny contacts with Bruce Conner, and then he asked me if I wanted to work with him putting together his film negative, I say negative, because that’s how important the work was, for the Museum of Modern Art. They were acquiring all of his work, and they needed the negatives to be organized. I had essentially never spliced a 16 millimeter film in my life. There I would be, every once a week, I would go for the entire day with him, and he would watch me work, and be so frustrated by my inability to do it.

He did all the work. I just sat there, listening to him tell stories. Then we would take a break, and we would have lunch. Then he would take a nap because he was always a little bit compromised physically, or he said he was. Then in the afternoon, we would kind of run errands for him in his, I remember it as a convertible, and one of the funniest, it wasn’t funny at the time, but when I look back, one of the craziest things we did was we would go shopping for Geiger counters, because he was sure there was a lot of radio activity under his house.

We did all these just kooky things. Actually, I’m going to show you this book, which came, this is, have you heard of this book?

Brett Kashmere: Yeah.

Lynne Sachs: Yeah. Bruce, as his health declined, set up brass handles all over his whole house, these brass handles, probably 50 or 60 of them. This is a book of his brass handles, and his house was in Bernal Heights. It had a lot of levels, and he would need to grab things. Anyway, Bruce has been a big part of my life. He gave ink drawings to my daughters when they were born, and he just was super supportive. It actually comes full circle to Sermons and Sacred Pictures.

He always loved that I was making this film about a black minister and filmmaker, and he was curious about it. He would ask me about how it was going, and then he came to the premiere, which was on a church on Fillmore Street, and it was just so scary. It was filled with members of the congregation of that church, the premiere in San Francisco, and then Bruce was there. I was nervous about both.

That’s kind of like the nature of my work, because it was all about that. It wasn’t about the San Francisco black church community, but they were interested. Then it was about playing with form with Bruce.

Brett Kashmere: Another point of connection between you and Bruce is Craig Baldwin, who we’d be remiss not to talk about at some point.

Lynne Sachs: Definitely.

Brett Kashmere: Craig was a student of Bruce’s at SF State in the eighties, early eighties, I think. I know that you and Craig have a very close relationship. I’ve read many of his letters to you, actually, which you provided us for the book that we’re working on. How did you and Craig meet, and what has he meant to you and to your work on video?

Lynne Sachs: Craig is a brother and one of the dearest people in the world to me. I just adore him. I will say that in my file cabinets downstairs, I have two big file cabinets, but about half of one of the whole drawers is filled with things related to Craig, from all of his calendars for other cinema, to letters that we’ve written, to film materials he sent me. Then I’ll go backwards, but lately, he’s been sending me a film either by or about a woman, women’s lives, almost every week since the pandemic started. He somehow thinks that I am going to create a feminist archive.

I kind of am now, because I have so many films and I’ve looked them all up, and found them, and actually know where they were made. If there was a director, I know about it, and I’ve labeled them, so I guess I’m doing my job. Craig and I met around in 1987 when Other Cinema was still around, but it wasn’t at 992 Valencia Street. The first place I went to his series was there. When I saw his film, Rocket Kit Congo Kit at San Francisco State, which was his thesis film there, I was just awed.

It was kind of life transforming. It was life tran… This way of working with images to tell us about ourselves. I never looked back. I would say half the movies I’ve ever made have some piece of film that came from Craig’s basement. I would say that the House of Science, which is in the program at Prismatic Ground, really couldn’t have happened without some of the material that I found in his archive, or that he found and shared with me, or he’d kind of like a frisbee, throw me a reel of film, “You’re going to find something here.”

He knew I was looking for women in science. Then I would just go for it. Lots of my film have material from Craig, so much. He’s just been so supportive. The first one woman show I had, he called The Complete Lynne Sachs, and that was in the late eighties. Luckily, that wasn’t the complete, that was the word he used. I don’t know if my pronunciation is right, but we just believe in each other as makers and people.

Brett Kashmere: By the way, when did you become a member of Canyon Cinema? Do you have any memories or stories about Canyon from that time? Did you ever go to membership meetings?

Lynne Sachs: I felt like I was such an active member of Canyon Cinema. I don’t remember meetings. I actually remember being in the Canyon vibe more from a place called the Know-Nothing Cinema, where lots of Canyon kinds of shows would happen, and I would go there. I was such a part of the years in which Canyon was trying to decide, well, will we bring in video? I don’t remember meetings with the whole body of makers.

I do remember meetings for the Film Arts Foundation, but maybe I just missed those meetings. We definitely didn’t have internet then, but we had these newsletters, and Dominic Angerame would send them out. Is it 626-2255? Is that the phone number for Canyon?

Brett Kashmere: I have not memorized it yet,

Lynne Sachs: Oh, but see, these predate cell phones. I think it’s 415, somebody might verify that.

Brett Kashmere: Yeah, that’s right.

Lynne Sachs: 626-2255. I called it all the time. If that’s a verification of my relationship to Canyon, I think it’s been the same phone number for, it’s moved with Canyon as it’s moved locations. Also, I got to know Bruce Bailey a little bit, and I never really met Chick Strand, but I knew her films so well, so I felt a connection to those early years.

Brett Kashmere: I want to maybe transition into talking more specifically about some of the films that are currently streaming as part of Prismatic Ground, maybe starting with Still Life with Women and Four Objects, which you mentioned earlier. It feels kind of like a classical first film in the way that it was shot and edited, but then it’s also doing some interesting things with narrative and performance.

It has this critique of female representation and the conventions around that. I’m curious where the idea for the film came from. Was it made for a class? If so, was there a particular prompt that you were responding to?

Lynne Sachs: Oh, I have to tell you, there’s one embarrassing prompt, and that I was taking, at San Francisco State, they had a class, which was for those of us who didn’t know how to make movies, which actually, most of us did not. It was like a jump start into 16 millimeter production. We were shooting with Arriflex cameras, and recording sound on Nagras quarter inch tape, but there was one requirement, which was that you had to have at least one shot in sync.

That film has one, it allows me to always know if it’s out of sync. The woman who is the actor in the film, she says, “For women too.” That’s the only sync shot in the whole film. I actually didn’t shoot anything in sync for about 10 years after that. I was kind of resentful of having to shoot something in sync, but I actually liked the burst. It’s like a burst into the moment, a burst into the diegetic space, as they would’ve said back then. That film, I believe, was quite influenced by, let’s say, seeing something like Lives of Performers by Yvonne Rainer, where you could get into a person’s head.

I learned in those early years, or not learned isn’t the right word, but I started to believe that, for the most part, commercial cinema was working with actors as if they were props. I wanted to allow, and I’ve done this ever since that movie, to allow anyone who is in front of my camera to at least collaborate in an intellectual way. The woman who was in the film was a bit older than I was, and I thought quite wise. I said, “Okay, when you come to our set, please bring something that means a great deal to you.”

She brought a picture of Emma Goldman, and I didn’t know who Emma Goldman was at that time. Now I do, and I know what an important figure she is in history for women, and for owning our own bodies, and sort of empowerment, and freedom of sexuality, all of those things. Because she brought the picture, it stirred me, it made things happen. I had to find out who she was. This was before Wikipedia, but it was not that hard to find out who Emma Goldman was.

Then I had to integrate that. I wanted that, there was a kind of register around an important woman in history. Then there was the woman in front of the camera, and then my grandmother died at that time, so I dedicated the film to my grandmother around the time that I made the film. When you saw in the film that she does something three times, she puts on a coat three times, that artificiality of take one, take two, take three, that was part of the structuring and expectation of a search for perfection, which I felt commercial cinema, you would only do take one, take two, take three with the thought that they would get better.

I didn’t care about getting better, but I cared about the recognition that there was a process. That is your typical realization in a film which wanted to lay bare. I guess I was probably reading Brecht at this time, to lay bare the process.

Brett Kashmere: It’s interesting what you’re just saying about collaboration with your on-screen subject or your performer, because I feel like that also, that kind of slipping between narrative and documentary, or real people in real life, also is very much a part of your most recent documentaries, like the Washing Society, where you’re taking documentary tropes but twisting them a little bit.

They have this kind of uncanny effect that feels very fresh, but also is kind of like a throwback to the post-realist kinds of films that Jill Godmilow, and Harun Farocki, and Minh-ha were making, this more synthetic, kind of hybrid style of nonfiction cinema.

Lynne Sachs: I would definitely say that those three people, Jill Godmilow and Farocki, who were working in spaces, let’s say, in that could not be completely controlled. All of us wanted to throw ourselves into environments where things were porous, where the world was going to disrupt or fracture our hermetic space of the set, but we also were drawn to the set. There was this idea that the set was a place to kind of build up ideas, so build up theories and explorations.

That kind of fluidity between the real and the constructed was very exciting. One of the challenges was how do you reveal that through the making of the film? In the Washing Society, I worked with a dear friend, again, who is a playwright, Lizzie Olesker, and we would go into laundromats, and talk to laundry workers, but then we would take what we heard, and create scripts for actors. There were all a bunch of different ways that we could analyze. I’m sorry, there’s a little noise out there, so just one second.

Brett Kashmere: Sure.

Lynne Sachs: Can you all be quiet, please? Hey, you know what? That was a perfect example. We’re on our set, and there’s all this noise going on out there. Anyway, so in the Washing Society, the fact that we moved over to theater came from the obstacle of trying to talk to people who are living in the United States in very compromised situations, where their documentation, as we alluded to in the film, was always in question. We liberated them from being, and they liberated us, by refusing to be on camera most of the time.

Then we would start to work with actors, but then we had other people who felt comfortable enough being on camera, or maybe didn’t have such an awkward or vulnerable position in the United States. Sometimes I think that those kinds of obstacles force you to think about new forms, ways of working.

Brett Kashmere: Speaking of new forms and ways of working, I wanted to ask about House of Science and Which Way is East, which are from the early nineties, are maybe two of your best known films. They feature a lot of what I associate as signature elements of your work, the use of the first person voiceover, but also bringing in multiple voices and multiple narrators, on-screen text, like seeing your handwritten text, optical printing, the mixing of self-shot and archival footage, and just this very layered sort of construction that’s using a lot of different kinds of strategies.

I’m curious how you arrived at this form of personal documentary. Was this a conscious choice that you were working towards, like wanting to make essayistic, first-person films, or was this a more just natural development of where your interests were going and your sensibility as a filmmaker?

Lynne Sachs: I will tell an anecdote that happened in the, let’s say, mid-eighties. I saw Chris Marker’s film, Sans Soleil, which had such an impact on so many filmmakers, still to this day, this freedom of engaging with everything in his life. He wrote about it. He wrote in the first person, but it wasn’t his first person. There was a refraction that happened. You actually have a woman’s voice.

I saw that film, and it just rearranged everything in my head. It allowed for this exploration, it allowed for manipulation, with the hope that some kind of poetry might come out of it, it created a character who wasn’t really a character, but was the self. I loved everything about it. I watched it many times on a VHS tape that had been given to me. Then I wrote a letter to Chris Marker, and I said, “I’m in graduate school, but I’m thinking I need to take a break. Maybe I’ll move to Paris. Do you need an assistant?”

He wrote me back and he said, “Oh, no, no, no, I don’t need an assistant, but let’s get together when I come to San Francisco.” We started a friendship that lasted, I don’t know, till his death, actually. I ended up working on a film with him through Icarus Films here, and helped with the translation from French to English. We made this film together about whales called Three Cheers for the Whales that he had made in the seventies, but wanted to make a new version of it.

There was something about seeing his films that allowed me to better understand the notion of writing, and the doubt that comes, that we associate with the essay film. That film was so important to me. Also, while I was making the House of Science, I was actually keeping a diary that had to do with my physical self, like what I would call a somatic recognition of things I was going through.

I was on an airplane, and I was writing it, and then all of a sudden, it occurred to me that, and I was having a hard time making the House of Science, and I said, “Oh, my goodness, actually, this writing is the skeleton for the whole film,” and it just fit right in. I loved doing it. The way that I tried to do that, and people will see this in the film, was you see the handwriting in the beginning of the film with a voice. It’s very complete. The body is solid.

Then you see the handwriting, and you hear the sound of the pencil on a hard surface or paper, and then you see, you’re reading the writing, which is very much about my body, but it could be any woman’s body. You hear, I’m urinating, actually. I wanted to have that, and I’ve been doing that kind of thing ever since, where you play with what is there and then what is pulled away.

Also, in the text in Which Way is East, which I made a few years later, it plays with the translation. I think all film is translation, but this is translation from Vietnamese to English, and there’s an awkwardness in it, and a sort of fragility. My sister and I made that film together, so Dana, her name is Dana Sachs, and she was living in Vietnam then as one of the first journalists to really set herself up there, and to observe the changes in post-war Vietnam.

I went there, and the writing that we both did had to do with her understanding of the culture and my confusion, or my relationship to, my inability to give up, seeing it as an American, and not being able to listen, really listen. We played also with the idea of a parable from one culture, giving you an insight into that culture, as much as words or interviews would do. Both films kind of explore the possibilities of writing, but also the obstacles of text of any kind.

Also, I think the Washing Society does that too. It continues that conversation around translation, because Lizzie Olesker and I used Spanish and Chinese, both translated and not translated, in the film.

Brett Kashmere: I don’t quite have straight the chronology of your filmography, but…

Lynne Sachs: That’s okay.

Brett Kashmere: I think, correct me if I’m wrong, but sometime closely after the completion of Which Way is East, you made Investigation of a Flame. Maybe there was a film in between?

Lynne Sachs: No, there’s about a six-year difference. I made another film called Biography of Lilith.

Brett Kashmere: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Lynne Sachs: I had two children around that time, so maybe I wasn’t quite as able to finish things, but I tried. Yeah, Investigation of a Flame was made in 2001, and mostly it was made while I was living in Baltimore with my husband, Mark Street, and our daughters. I was very, very, very immersed in the activist, political, progressive, civil disobedience community of Baltimore, but also with people who were there who had done actions like that, as protests and actions against the Vietnam War. That came in 2001.

Brett Kashmere: I wanted to talk about that film, because it feels like there’s a turn, or at least a sort of movement away from the self-reflexive style of House of Science and Which Way is East. It’s a more straightforward documentary.

Lynne Sachs: It’s funny, when I made it, there was actually, I think, a radio station in Berkeley. They did some sort of review of it, and they called it an anti-documentary. It does fit into the documentary practice because I’m listening to people, I’m allowing them to express their opinions, there’s a kind of thesis about breaking the law, and I agree that it is not as introspective in that way the other two were.

Brett Kashmere: I’m curious how you became convinced that that’s a film that you yourself should be making?

Lynne Sachs: I mentioned Biography of Lilith, which I made in 1997. It’s full of poetry about Lilith, and that Lilith, there was a night, I’m just mentioning it was super personal, and I was trying to explore the myth of Lilith who wanted to be on top and sex, and she was thrown out of the garden of Eden, and it’s very raw that way, and it’s also about what you gain and lose in becoming a mother.

It was very personal. I was kind of ready to have a little distance, I guess, now when I look back on that. Also, I had, at one point, thought I wanted to be a lawyer, like a civil rights lawyer or something, or maybe a human rights lawyer or a civil. I know a lot of filmmakers who actually did consider law at one point. Then lastly, you’re kind of thinking, how can I maybe naively think you could change the world, or how could I pursue? We didn’t use the word social justice back then, but now we’d say, “How can we right wrong?”

I thought, well, I’m not an attorney. I’m not really an activist. When I moved to Baltimore and we were there three years, I heard about this group of anti-war activists who broke the law for what they believed in. I was just taken by that, that, notion that you make a certain choice in your life and you can never go back in a bigger way. Not just in that political action, but I don’t think getting married is a decision like that, or moving to a new town.

When you make a choice that puts you right in front of the legal system and then throws you in jail, you give up everything, your freedom, for some belief. I was so drawn to the actions of it, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and the other members of the Catonsville Nine. I just wanted to understand how it happened, and sort of celebrate that, but also not just to elevate them, but to think about those decisions.

Yeah, it was quite different, and it was very much engaged with another side of me that I had mentioned to you. I’d been a history major in college, so it’s a bit about history, but also about something more wrought, like making a decision of that sort.

Brett Kashmere: It’s such a striking film, and I feel like it’s very much of the moment again. I feel like it’s kind of ripe for re-investigation.

Lynne Sachs: Yeah. I made the film, I started making Investigation of a Flame, and people thought it was quaint that I was looking into this anti-war actions of 1968, like people who were interested in hippies in 1968, or people who were interested in the songs of ’68. That’s what people thought. I found in general, people were rather kind of patronizing about it. Then keep in mind, I finished that film at the same time that September 11th happened.

All of a sudden, the issues around breaking the law, as in the people who enacted, the terrorists who did what they did, they also did it in the name of their God. People started to, even on the left, were super critical of what the Catonsville Nine did, to walk into a selective service office, and take draft files, and burn them with Napalm, was an assault on the structure of government, even though it was done with a kind of spiritual faith.

When that film showed towards the end of 2001, it was very controversial, and actually, ever if you did an action like that now, if you walked into a draft office or some kind of US government office and took files, you’d be called a terrorist. Actually, one of the members of the Catonsville Nine, Philip Berrigan, was put in solitary confinement right after September 11, this gentle priest, because people felt threatened by that.

The film on a personal level threw me into a lot of very, very political situations that were remarkable. I feel lucky, like I got to travel around with Daniel Berrigan, who was an incredible hero of mine, and for political reasons, and he was also a poet. To spend all that time with him was real gift.

Brett Kashmere: I guess maybe to move towards wrapping up, can you maybe speak a little bit about the process of working with Barbara Hammer, who I know was one of your early mentors, and your posthumous collaboration, A Month of Single Frames?

Lynne Sachs: Oh, thank you for asking about that. Yeah. I met Barbara Hammer in San Francisco. Both of us were completely enthralled, I can say, by the experimental, and experimental documentary, and maybe even documentary world that was being supported, I mean supported by the community in San Francisco. Actually, she and I were very similar in that we would make films that were, you could say, about, like she made films about Elizabeth Bishop, or she made a film about Maya Deren, but they were also so much more, more complex and more resonant than just being a straight ahead documentary.

We both had feet in those worlds, and she was teaching a class at the Film Arts Foundation on optical printing, and I took it. She was an extraordinary craftswoman in printing. To optical print is to take a frame from one original piece of film, and then to play with it, and replicate it, and stretch it out, or shorten it, or change its colors. She could do all of that so beautifully. I never was the craftswoman that she was.

Then we both moved to New York and we were friends, and especially when she was diagnosed with cancer about 14 or 15 years ago, my husband Mark and I started to become very involved in supporting her through that. She agreed when she turned 70 to allow me to shoot film, a short film, like a one roll of film of her and her partner, Florrie Burke. She was so busy, it took us at six years to get the appointment for me to shoot it.

When I finally shot it, we became even more bonded. I made a film with her, and Gunvor Nelson, and Carolee Schneemann called Carolee, Barbara & Gunvor. Then when she was about a year away, she knew from the end of her life, she asked four of us to make films with materials she had never completed, including Mark and Deborah Stratman.

I made A Month of Single Frames, and that film is comprised visually of material she had shot at a residency on Cape Cod, but through working with the film, I tried to be in conversation with her, with the audience, with the environment in which she was living in, and wondering in a more, call it epistemological way, wonder how the film could allow us to understand our relationship to time and to space through this unusual and very particular medium of cinema.

Brett Kashmere: Well, I think it’s an extraordinary film. It’s so beautiful. It’s close to a perfect film. I encourage everyone, if you haven’t seen it, please check it out. It’s streaming as part of Prismatic Ground until April 18th. It’s also still streaming on Mubi, I believe. Lynne, it was such a pleasure to spend this time with you. Thank you for your words and your work, and thanks again to Inney and Prismatic Ground for having us.

Lynne Sachs: Yeah, I just want to say, ooh, boy, to have the Ground Glass Award. I know what the Ground Glass is because it’s that little piece inside my Bolex that you have. It’s like if you don’t know what the Ground Glass is, you don’t see the grain. It’s so wonderful that he named this award that. All the words that he uses are part of the, in this festival, it’s like they’re part of the materials that we need to make cinema, but they’re also the things that you might ignore.

I love the subtlety that’s part of his, call it nomenclature, of Prismatic Ground, and it’s such an honor to be part of this whole experience. Thank you very much to you for all your great San Francisco-based questions.

Brett Kashmere: You’re welcome. Okay, I think we’re going to leave it there. Thanks, everyone, for tuning in, and bye. Bye for now.


Hosted April 8-18 , 2021
Here: https://www.prismaticground.com/

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.


MUBI and Prismatic Ground Film Festival

Questions from Mubi Notebook interview for the article Experimenting and Expanding at Prismatic Ground

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 expensive.

     Prismatic 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 inviting. 

     I also 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.

3. 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.

     As an 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?

Lynne Sachs

Lynne Sachs Awarded “Ground Glass Award” at Prismatic Ground

Prismatic Ground 
March 2021
Screen Slate 
https://www.screenslate.com/articles/prismatic-ground

Hosted April 8-18 
Here: https://www.prismaticground.com/

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.

Streaming through the festival’s duration at prismaticground.com and through maysles.org:

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…

Retrospective – “Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression” curated by Edo Choi, Asst. Curator, Museum of the Moving Image

https://canyoncinema.com/2021/02/17/lynne-sachs-between-thought-and-expression-five-program-retrospective-now-available-for-rent/

“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)

This five-part retrospective offers a career-ranging survey of Sachs’s work and includes new HD transfers of Still Life With Woman and Four Objects, Drawn and QuarteredThe House of Science: a museum of false facts, and Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam.

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: info@canyoncinema.com

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

FULL TRANSCRIPT



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.).


Thanks to:

KQED: Now Playing! – Lynne Sachs at the Roxie

Now Playing! SF Alums and Urban Film Fest Find the Connective Threads

KQED
By Michael Fox
February 11, 2021
https://www.kqed.org/arts/13892725/now-playing-sf-alums-and-urban-film-fest-find-the-connective-threads

This week’s offerings commemorate the intersection of Valentine’s Day and Black History Month with an overlap of class reunion.

The Films of Lynne Sachs
Opens Feb. 12
Roxie Virtual Cinema

“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.

Show Me What You Got
Feb. 12, 14–15
VOD

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).

SF Urban Film Fest
Feb. 14–21
Online

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.

THE FILMS OF LYNNE SACHS Curated by Craig Baldwin at the Roxie (San Francisco)

THE FILMS OF LYNNE SACHS 
Curated by Craig Baldwin 

https://www.roxie.com/the-films-of-lynne-sachs/

Film About a Father Who +

Two Sidebar Programs

Starts February 12

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.

Special thanks to Other CinemaCanyon Cinema, and Cinema Guild for their support in organizing this program.

FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO 

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 / Masters Episode – Lynne Sachs – Part 1

Docs in Orbit / Masters Episode LYNNE SACHS PART 1 Transcript

Page Link:  https://www.docsinorbit.com/lynne-sachs

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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. 

And for more goodies follow us on twitter, instagram and facebook for all the updates.  

Otherzine Interview w/ L. Sachs by Molly Hankwitz

Otherzine Logo

Between Women: The Filmworks of Lynne Sachs
an interview published by OTHERZINE
http://www.othercinema.com/otherzine/?issueid=24&article_id=115

by Molly Hankwitz Cox

11 Sep 2010

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.

(pause)

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.

Links

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

Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000

BAM/PFA’s Radical Light-book, film/video series, and gallery exhibition-places the San Francisco Bay Area as the epicenter of an explosion of avant-garde film and video in the second half of the twentieth century

Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000

Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid
Publication date: October 15, 2010
https://bampfa.org/press/radical-light-alternative-film-and-video-san-francisco-bay-area-1945%E2%80%932000

This kaleidoscopic collection of essays, interviews, photographs, and artist-designed pages chronicles the vibrant and influential history of experimental cinema in the San Francisco Bay Area. Radical Light features critical analyses of films and videos; reminiscences from artists; and interviews with pioneering filmmakers, curators, and archivists. Special sections of ephemera-posters, correspondence, photographs, newsletters, program notes, and more-punctuate the pages of Radical Light. Among the contributors are Rebecca Solnit and Ernie Gehr on Bay Area cinema’s roots in the work of Eadweard Muybridge and others; Scott MacDonald on the Art in Cinema film series; P. Adams Sitney on films by James Broughton and Sidney Peterson; Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Lawrence Jordan, and Yvonne Rainer on the Bay Area film scene in the 1950s; J. Hoberman on films by Christopher Maclaine, Bruce Conner, and Robert Nelson; Craig Baldwin on found footage film; George Kuchar on student-produced melodramas; Bérénice Reynaud on the films of Trinh T. Minh-ha and Leslie Thornton; Michael Wallin on queer film in the 1970s; V. Vale on punk cinema; Dale Hoyt and Cecilia Dougherty on video in the 1980s and 1990s; and Maggie Morse on new media as sculpture.

Pages 12-13, 158-161, 212-216, & 298-303 transcribed below

Form from the Fog: A Book Takes Shape

Steve Seid pgs. 12-13

“You have in your hands a compendium of critical thoughts, reclaimed that swept westward, part of that (not-so-)great manifest expansion, documents, backward glances, pointed scholarship, and rescued ephemera. The sum total of this compendium can be termed a history, centered on image-making practices particular to the avant-garde and springing quite unsurprisingly from a specific locale, the fogbound scape of the San Francisco Bay Area.

This history-though “cultural geography” might also apply-begins in the late nineteenth century, in 1878 in nearby Palo Alto. It was then that Eadweard Muybridgc began his pioneering experiments with the photographic image and the incremental improvements that would result in the motion picture. We, the editors, are quick to embrace those experimental tendencies so that our own history might claim a birth- place, no matter how romantic, fanciful, or appropriative that might be.

But our role here is to explain how this history found its natural form in these cornucopic pages. San Francisco’s topography-and by extension, that of the Greater Bay Area-lends itself to a certain rumination about verdant folds and gusty vales, about dusty undulations and rock-tumbled shores. These countless permutations of soil and stone arc known no better than by the fog that commingles intimately with each crevice, niche, and drizzly dell. To be a true San Franciscan is to become the fog, to become a familiar of the land in all its minute and diverse splendor.

This unspoiled diversity seems to nurture and promote the arts like no other region. Witness the historical presence of untamed artists-the poets, painters, composers, and moving-image makers- who are unified less by a central aesthetic than by a promiscuity of purpose that draws inspiration from the variegated surrounds. If the land can breed anything, as T. S. Eliot might say, the Bay Area breeds its own community of anarchic artists known for their indiscreet, unorthodox, and mongrelized tendencies.

The Bay Area also has the de facto (and damned) privilege of being perched on the edge of the continent. The unruly and enterprising hordes brought their own tradition not of settling but of unsettling a place, of bringing a restlessness and obstinance that, by reflex or reflection, rejected the normative, favoring the outlandish, the eccentric, and the self-possessed. Settling the West, then, was not a matter of transplanting the East and its civilizing force but more a matter of creating a refuge for the malcontents and revelators. Thus within its every crease and furrow, San Francisco seems to foster the wild thinking we associate with the arts.

Not surprisingly, irascible moviemakers and single-minded experimentalists were drawn to this place that has beckoned to artists, who in turn have found great nurturance in the area’s thorny hillocks and temperamental light. No apparent happenstance can lay claim to this attraction: It wasn’t just that out in Niles, Charles Chaplin created his signature film, The Tramp, in 1914, or that the next year, at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the “Scintillator;• a barge float- ing in the Bay packed with colored searchlights, may have constituted the first of the great light shows. Or even that Philo T. Farnsworth, the young television inventor from Utah, found quick investment in his enterprise from the city’s bankroll. It came more from a nascent awareness of the aesthetic notion that the land (and its human monuments) was already, in effect, an “enormous photograph”‘ beckoning to be viewed. Ever visionary, artists sensed the innate cinema of this place, and drew strength from it, while pursuing countless other cultural interests and points of reference from well beyond the Bay’s bounds. From the mid-forties on, the true focus of our book, a postwar influx of the artistically predisposed could be found squatting the charmed upheavals of the land, like phototropic fanatics turning toward light. They were filmmakers, many of them not-so-recovered painters and poets, ill at ease with cinema as an entertainment but rather fondly fixated on the apparatus, the alchemy of light and chemistry, and their own eccentric admixture that might make this all art.

The title of this book, Radical Light, emerges from this sense of a cinema that considers its origins in a substrate of emulsion and luminescence.The title also calls forth those early experiments with a medium still raw, unchecked, and as boundless as the visible world.

It should be clarified that these film artists weren’t the Indies of their time. They weren’t tenacious directors existing outside the studio system but still paying heed to the parameters of commercial distraction. Rather, these were artists of film who entrusted a time-based medium, an industrial apparatus, with the stuff of their enchantments. For their ecstatic visions to find form, something almost miraculous had to occur: the notion that cinema had an innate shape had to be banished. The apparatus itself was not predisposed to the mandates of linear time, classical composition,or blatant exposition. Plasticity was embraced, lyricism sent soaring,abstraction loosed,a painterly manner much trumpeted, the personal slyly promoted, and all this was unified by the discernible mark of the artist in a cinema handcrafted and poetically hewn.This was the “experimental” cinema of Sidney Peterson, James Broughton, Sara Kathyrn Arledge, Stan Brakhage, Lawrence Jordan, Bruce Conner, Jordan Belson, Bruce Baillie– the ranks would swell and, in time,be joined by a  new wave of artists,some turning to video, others to installation.

But how does one capture the reigning sense of this place and, more specifically it’s community of sublimely inspired image makers? How does encapsulate without homogeneous reduction the plethora of artists who have contributed so much to the global enterprise of freeing the moving image from the stranglehold of the mundane?

In modern parlance, one might diversify. And that is what we have done:cut loose from the unified text to embrace a style of collage like portraiture in which studied critical writings by Scott MacDonald, Margaret Morse, Konrad Steiner, Rebecca Solnit, and Irina Leimbachershare the field with vintage posters and graphically intriguing newsletters. In this varied volume, first-person recollection,by distinguished media artists such as Bruce Conner, Cecilia, Dougherty George Kuchar, and Yvonne Rainer are counterpointed by artists pages, production stills, and pithy Focuses zeroing in on seminal films and videoworks. It should be noted that the latter were not gathered to construct a pantheon but to speak acutely about individual works. That said, the Focus writers form a pantheon of their own among them, J. Hoberman, Britta Sjogren, Tom Gunning, Bérénice Reynaud, P. Adams Sitney, and Marita Sturken.

Substantial and original interviews with local luminaries such as Sidney Peterson and Lawrence Jordan unfold as cohesive stories, while other interviews are deployed to refract singular moments from multiple vantage points. In the latter mode, the formative days of Canyon Co-op are relayed through excerpted conversations with Bruce Baillie, Chick Strand, Ernest Callenbach, Robert Nelson, Edith Kramer, and others. Kathy Geritz’s mélange of reminiscence about smalI-format filmmaking by a handful of significant Bay Area artists, Janis Crystal Lipzin, Scott Stark, Lynne Sachs, members of silt, Daniel Plotnick, among them, is a prime example. Steve Polta’s shotgun collage of quotes concerning the insurrection that inspired No Nothing Cinema is another; in Polta’s “Emergency Cinema,” you’ll hear from Lynne Marie Kirby, Nathaniel Dorsky, Carmen Vigil, Dean Snider, and many other witnesses to the tumult.

Histories abound as well, such as Steve Anker’s revelatory explication of Bay Area pedagogy in film, since the mid-forties; Deirdre Boyle’s take on the collective spirit of seventies video freaks; Eric Schaefer and Eithne Johnson’s account of the crossover between San Francisco’s expansive porn industry and the body’s liberation in experimental film; Steve Seid’s resurrection of the all-but-forgotten National Center for Experiments in Television; and V.Vale’s pointed essay on the infiltration of avant-garde media by the bristling punk scene-or was it the other way around?

Our polyphonic approach favors unreserved diversity over the cliche of a cohesive film-video community; media practices– subsets of genres, aesthetics, and cultural preference– are keenly dissected to reveal,in some cases, their indigenous origins. Konrad Steiner on poetics, Irina Leimbacher on the essay film, Craig Baldwin on found footage, Kathy Geritz on feminist film pioneers, Steve Seid on conceptualism and the video apparatus, Michael Wallin on queer cinema, Scott Stark on film performance and installation, Maggie Morse on the emergence of the digital: these essays of varied aspect and entry attest to the multifarious makeup of a region whose artistic community has refused easy amalgamation. Rather like the land itself, a media practice has emerged that would require a map of lake proportion to chart its every unsettling fold and seismic thrust.

And like a farmer’s almanac, this volume pays heed to the cyclical nature of aesthetic seasons, the native patterns of growth and the tidal pull of artistic change. We include a chronological aspect to gather weight, resonate for a spell, then recede. And where some essays bore deeply into the soil of a particular artistic practice, such as found- footage film or queer cinema, other essays scan the field, remarking broadly on the panorama of artists’ works and sustaining landmarks.

No survey of cinema culture would be complete without resurrecting visual artifacts that reflect the mood and aesthetics of the time. Reclaimed documents and rescued ephemera are arranged as “Cutaways” in each part, grouping captivating posters, fanciful newsletters, significant correspondence, candid photographs, and other objects that project light onto intriguing aspects of the history.

We hope this survey culminating in the year 2000 shows how film artists have drawn inspiration from the San Francisco Bay Area and, more important, how they in turn have enriched and transformed its generous culture. And this transformation can be felt far beyond the region, in the global circulation of cinema culture. What you have in your hands, then, is a diverse study of an experimental media community bound to a place but not bound by it.”

Radicalizing Vision: Film and Video in the Schools

STEVE ANKER pg. 158-161

San Francisco State University 

FILM: 1963-1980

(Film added to Radio and Television in 1963; established in 1969) San Francisco State is a community-based school that draws from all sectors of the population and has one of the largest international student bodies of any American university. A swarming metropolis for the everyman and everywoman, State has long been a center of activism. The film program is a model of democratic education that supports all forms of independent filmmaking, and its early history was deeply intertwined with the turmoil that embroiled the country through the sixties. Here I want to focus on those parts of the program that were most instrumental for avant-garde and experimental filmmaking.

San Francisco State’s Department of Radio and Television (RTV) specialized in broadcasting and management during the fifties. In the art department John Gutmann, Jack Welpott, Herb Zettl, and, later, Fred Padula were also teaching Cinematography and Film as Art (much of it with an interest in the experimental), but by the early sixties this couldn’t satisfy the growing interest in film production and history. In 1963 RTV hired the UCLA-trained filmmaker Jim Goldner to join John Fell and Joan Reynertson, already on the program’s faculty, as coordinator of a new film area, and the department became RTVF.

Goldner wanted to bring the new spirit of independent filmmaking, as exemplified by Ricky Leacock and John Cassavetes, to campus. One of his first decisions was to purchase lightweight 16mm equipment, which was met with hostility by the studio-based broadcast

Faculty (who accepted 16mm only after Los Angeles colleagues supported the validity of hand-held camerawork). The broadcast film faculties continued to clash. Goldner recollects one meeting in which a news production faculty member asked, “Jim ,why are the film students so dirty? There’s film all over everything.” Goldner replied “That is the nature of filmmaking.” The new film courses proved immensely popular and helped convince the administration to build a media arts center, yet the schism deepened as students increasingly chose to specialize in film. Film students felt that the broadcast curriculum was conservative, and provocation permeated the said broadcast studio environment. Goldner recalls:

A film student, David Wescott, did a television show in 1964-65 in which Jesus Christ comes off the cross and buggers Santa Claus. Now we have two broadcasting faculty who are very religious,and I get called into chair Stuart Hyde’s office .He says,”Jim, from now on, all student work has to be pre-scripted and approved before it can be produced. told him, “This film was improvisational and couldn’t have had a script. That would be ‘prior restraint,’ and film faculty and students will have nothing to do with reviewing scripts.”

Though their backgrounds were largely in documentary and dramatic narrative, the film faculty wanted to support all kinds of filmmaking. In 1965 they hired Fred Padula, whose hand-processed, documentary, Ephesus (1965), portraying an African American church in Oakland, was winning awards. Padula, who first became excited about cinema after attending John Gutmann’s Art Movies screening series (1949-63), found “the surprises and chaos coming from stud who were experimenting exciting.” Padula complimented another newcomer, the KQED-TV filmmaker lrving Saraf. Padula focused experimental work and Saraf on documentary, but their classes often overlapped. Padula stressed untutored, intuitive technique:

I did not have a pre planned curriculum, a set notion of what film should be.These students came from many backgrounds: art, music, anthropology and architecture. They were all uninhibited and highly motivated and had no patience for anything that stood in their way.

Short, silent, black-and-white experimental exercises led to final productions with sound that students were expected to finish each semester. Tim Blaskovich, student (1966-69) and later staff technician (1982-92), recalls, “You might photograph things like popcorn. We put the camera on the stove with a pot of popcorn on it and let it run. In the earliest classes you didn’t know any rules-you were!ear” film grammar, exposure, and hand-held movement, in a sense, everyone would critique these rolls.”

Students could use small 8mm or 16mm cameras and makefilms for $10 or $20, or they could opt for more sophisticated equipment larger documentaries and narratives. This led to a stream of uncensored and idiosyncratic films. Some had no story and seemed crudely made others were documentaries dealing with hot issues. A head-on collision with the RTVF faculty was inevitable. “They didn’t see the point” Padula recalls. “They didn’t see experimental film as legitimate.” When Hyde asked students to abandon personal projects and make a group instructional broadcasting film, “the students started a rebellion, really raised hell,” Padula remembers. “They had a clear idea of what they wanted to pursue and felt like they were not able to within the Radio Television environment. Then RTVF chairman Hyde fired me.”

This act was short-lived. That 1966 spring semester concluded with San Francisco State’s second annual (and continuing) Film Final show, several hours of films interspersed with rock performances and hundreds of cheering students.  Most were, to everyone’s surprise, experimental and had been made in Padula’s classes. Chair Hyde, dumbfounded but impressed, asked Goldner to notify the students that Padula would be reinstated. Hyde could no longer deny the excitement this new cinema was generating and began to realize the value of keeping it within the RTVF.

Radical impulses were cutting across all aesthetics by now, and Padula and Goldner produced nontraditional projection events off campus.

In 1965-66 the San Francisco Mime Troupe, led by Ronnie Davis and Peter Coyote, performed a scathing agitprop that led to Davis’s arrest.Troupe producer Bill Graham decided to sponsor benefits at Fillmore auditorium raise money for Davis’s defense and asked me to participate One student, Jerry Slick, had a band (Great Society) in which his wife Grace, as a lead singer, and they and other rock groups were added. The first night we were stunned when thousands of people showed up. Bands were playing downstairs, people were dancing, and the lights went out. Then my students and I turned on hand-held 16mm projectors from the mezzanine, projecting abstract loops, and those became the only light. After the second night, Graham came up to me excited, saying “This was amazing. Should we put on more of these?” and soon Graham began his concerts and light shows. (Goldner) 

During the 1968 student antiwar strike, the film and radio and television faculties found themselves opposed to each other. The film faculty had reinforced its left-leaning sympathies by hiring the blacklisted writer Lester Cole and the animator David Hilberman, the leader of the acrimonious Disney strike, and there was general support from student activists. The campus had become a laboratory for spontaneous documentation, and portable cameras permitted on-the-spot, independent reporting for the first time. Records of numerous off-campus meetings include the riveting account of a student who was arrested and brutally treated in a paddy wagon.

The campus was sequestered for days.Hayakawa Was The President. There were cops on campus, helicopters overhead. People with nightsticks were trying to smash your skull and there were German shepherds, so people began documenting what happened. You’d grab a Bolex or Bell & I lowell in case there was a riot or sit-in or your classroom building was chained and locked that day. Experimental filmmaking certainly incorporated political awareness then. (Blaskovich)

My students believed in the strike, and many were out attempting to grab shots of the chaos. But most experimental class students wanted to continue to work on their own productions, and this led to my classes meeting off campus until strike issues were no longer a distraction. (Padula) 

One outcome of that tumult was the final split between film and RTV, brought to a head after the revolt of irate film students, with the faculty encouragement of Fell and Goldner. When the film depart- ment was finally formed in 1969, Fell was its chair.

Filmmaking at San Francisco State was itself enmeshed with the radicalized climate. On one occasion Warren Haack (who later joined the staff) was asked by another student to record the latter’s protest after he was drafted. This formerly conservative student then shot himself in the foot, enduring an agonizing and blood-drenched wait for an ambulance. Haack filmed this with verite immediacy, and the resulting film, Selective Service (1969-70), became a mainstay of national screenings that still horrifies viewers. Haack recalls that at its Film Finals premiere, one viewer left the theater and “fainted flat on her face. The administration considered it my fault.”

In another incident, Ben Van Meter, a San Francisco State student, barely escaped arrest when he tried to retrieve his film from the Multichrome lab. Having filmed a female friend dancing nude, Van Meter was greeted by the lab owner, who-after stating, “You can’t show the pussy hair; you do that, they take away my lab and put us both in San Quentin”-called the FBI. An agent soon arrived and confiscated the film. The film was returned only after Van Meter wrote a letter to J. Edgar Hoover in which he explained that he had never sent this material through the mail and that the film was an art project in which the body parts would be covered over. After getting his material back from the FBI, Van Meter blotted out the objection- able parts frame by frame, and The Poon-Tang Trilogy (1965) became a celebrated critique of censorship. 

Scott Bartlett and Tom DeWitt are two other students invariably mentioned by contemporaries as pivotal forces in the experimental scene. Each premiered first films during that 1966 Film Finals show, DeWitt with AtmosFear and Bartlett with Metanomen. Their visible drive set them apart from other undergraduates. “Bartlett was usually serious and intense, while DeWitt played the clown in ways that disguised his genius” (Padula). DeWitt had worked with Stan Vanderbeek in New York and is credited with inventing the printing techniques central to their work. Their next film, OFFON (1967), was collaboratively made and received exceptional acclaim for a student film. OFFON uses pulsating light, complex reworkings of film loops, multiple special effects, different film stocks, and sounds from a Buchla 100 synthesizer to create an extraordinary sensory experience.

Other faculty members expanded the presence of experimental film in the new department. James Broughton showed contemporary and historical work, focusing on archetypal imagery and dream interpretation; Gunvor Nelson taught filmmaking for a few influential semesters; John Fell, primarily a narrative film historian, focused on pioneers Maya Deren and Germaine Dulac; and Ron Levaco advocated alternative and experimental film in a global context. Robert Bell was a pivotal figure in keeping avant-garde film alive at San Francisco State from the seventies through the following decades by bringing key visitors to campus and through courses that focused on important classic and contemporary experimental work.

As at the Art Institute, the division between teacher and student frequently blurred since so many were learning or unlearning how the medium could be used. Blaskovich recalls, “A lot of students were older than the faculty, so students were teaching students and students were teaching teachers. Some students were born artists, like Scott Bartlett … you would hardly know he was a student.” San Francisco State had gained a national reputation as one of the hotbeds of radicalism by the late sixties, and Look magazine covered what was rumored to be an especially provocative course created by Bartlett. Warren Haack: 

Scott taught a class where everyone got nude and filmed each other (in four locations), then the next semester a huge “sensorium” was constructed with fifteen movie projectors going at once, projecting all these images. The class was called Experimental Film, and we got three units each semester. Can you believe that?

Bartlett later shared his thoughts about filmmaking and art education at a 1970s conference, a utopian vision reflecting his sixties San Francisco State experience:

The filmmaker teachers gathered to this assembly are similar in one respect: their work is self-generated; born of an internal necessity to communicate that which requires the development of new modes of expression, new manipulations of the mediums available. 

(Scott Bart “Teaching Making,” unpublished paper, SFAI Archive’s) 

Bartlett proposed an idealized “personal program for creative exploration” organized around “the old craftsman-apprentice approach; unrestrictive, nonhierarchical system in which “the student would be allowed to transfer any time from one affiliated institution to another as his needs dictate.” Bartlett’s fantasy echoed an idealism and energy from a fading era. Padula recalls that by the mid-seventies students at San Francisco State were demanding traditional technical training could help them get employment in that recession era, and the earlier experimental approach had become “irrelevant.” By contrast, at SFAI where he also taught briefly, students remained more interested in self-expression than in looking for ways to make a living. 

Despite the changing cultural climate, there were reminders of the politicized recent past. By 1974 gay liberation was in the air, some lesbian and gay filmmakers, such as activists Barbara Hammer and Michael Wallin, were boldly exploring their sexuality on film. Hammer “came out” at San Francisco State when she premiered openly sexual Dyketactics (1974) during Film Finals, and though generally felt unsupported there as a student, this film was greeted enthusiastically. A year later, Wallin’s thesis film, The Place Between Our Bodies, also depicted sex, this time between the filmmaker and his lover. At its premiere in that year’s Film Finals, it elicited fascination and horror. Padula recalls that screening, one of his last experiences before leaving

Wallin’s film was very graphic and personal, and there he was, sitting next to me. The department secretary was also sitting nearby, a middle-aged woman who knew him, since she dealt with all of the students. After five minutes she stood up, gasping, and walked out, totally horrified. Many other Faculty and students couldn’t take it and also left, but for me the film was fascinating.

Although a number of important avant-garde artists and scholars– among them Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Peter Kubeika, Stephen Dwoskin, Annette Michelson, and P. Adams Sitney– they were exceptions to the dominant focus on documentary and dramatic narratives. Karen Holmes was one of the few students during those years who found the support needed to make experimental, visually oriented films. “If you were an experimental filmmaker at State in the 1970s,” she recalls, “you were on your own. My thesis advisers were from the art department as well as from film. I had more of a kinship with art.”

Reflecting the influences of Kubelka and Gunvor Nelson, Holmes’s work was concentrated and elegant, carrying some of her concerns with painting over to film. On graduation she was hired to teach part wasn’t discouraged by the program’s marginalization of experimental filmmaking: 

The philosophy within the cinema department has always included support for all genres. So despite my experimental bent,I have to be able to critique narrative as well as documentary. My impulse may be to encourage students to fragment narrative patterns, make the structure a bit more oblique so one has to work harder to see it, to move us away from conventions that we all know and are comfortable with so that we can ask the viewer to discover and reflect on each film for its unique nature. 

In 1981 Holmes became a tenured member of the faculty, with a specialty on the optical printer as a creative tool. She helped usher in an experimental rebirth during the 1980s.

CODA: 1980s-1990s

Film at San Francisco State (the department name changed to Cinema in the early 1980s) exploded with experimental film activity during the eighties by hiring artists and scholars with strong avant-garde sensibilities and by initiating an ambitious guest artist and scholar program Exciting and challenging new faculty members arrived, experimental theory-based essayists Trinh T. Minh-ha and Steve Fagin formal iconoclast Leslie Thornton, and, later, creative scholar Akira Lippit, personal filmmaker Greta Snider, and new narrative maker Britta Sjogren. Bill Nichols, a historian and theorist edited a book on Maya Deren, reinforcing this focus. Among an impressive range of visiting artists and scholars were narrative deconstructivist Mark Rappaport, autobiographical ethnographer Kidlat Tahimik seminal theorist Peter Wollen, feminist multimedia artist ValieExport and experimental filmmakers and former students Craig Baldwin and Jay Rosenblatt.

Staying true to the department’s origins, avant-garde forms existed with other forms of independent filmmaking, especially documentary. But when support for the guest artist program ended in the late eighties, emphasis again shifted toward traditional forms. The nineties saw the validity of avant-garde or experimental work challenged, often bitterly, in the face of an inevitable generational shift, continuing drops in budget that underscored the differences between film and digital technologies, and the realities of the job market, exemplified by an increased interest in Hollywood filmmaking. Films without an overt social or political message often had little support, and some filmmakers and scholars found themselves embattled with culture-based or skill-focused teachers and students. 

Beginning in 1994, Cinema initiated an MFA track to further emphasize creativity and more deeply integrate current theory, and this program, along with the BA and MA programs, emphasized more of an experimental bent. Strong filmmaking that emerged from San Francisco State included a significant vein by students of color, especially African Americans. Cauleen Smith made assertive films and installations that probed her sense of herself as a young black artist; Portia Cobb and Ulysses Jenkins confronted social injustice as African Americans living in the aftermath of sixties activism; and Anita Chang used her experiences growing up as a Chinese American to consider Asian American identity. Queer filmmaking was embraced, and Ray Rea and Cathy Lee Crane playfully tested traditional comfort zones between sex and gender. Kathy Geritz and Irina Leimbacher, later significant curator- critics, studied in the program, as did the autobiographical essayist and future independent producer Jack Walsh, the found-footage psychodramatist Jay Rosenblatt, and the cross-cultural personal essayist Lynne Sachs. Early in the new century another experimental rebirth seems under way, keeping the spirit of adventure and radical discovery alive in one of the nation’s most pluralist academic cultures…”

”Smaller Is Better”: Bay Area Artists and Small-Gauge Films

KATHY GERITZ pg. 212-216

Until artists embraced the scale and unique characteristics of these formats, regular 8mm (dating to 1932) and Super 8 (introduced in 1965) were consumer products largely used to record family life and to mark celebrations and vacations. They measured one-fourth the size of 35mm, the most common theatrical exhibition format, and half the size of 16mm, the scale once used for educational, job training, and industrial films and by most experimental and independent filmmakers. Regular 8 and Super 8 are distinctive mediums, small and intimate, and often aptly referred to as small-gauge film. I interviewed a number of artists who have lived or worked in the Bay Area and used regular 8mm or Super 8 as a means of personal expression. Some artists talked specifically about making and exhibiting work in the Bay Area, illuminating aspects of a regional history. Others spoke about the properties they value in small-gauge film, comments that can also inform us as viewers. For some, the intention to be filmmakers originated with their families’ home-movie making, its amateur standing the source of their love of the medium. For others, small-gauge film is an artistic medium with particular qualities, particular ways of seeing-a singular language. Varied, yet overlapping, these artists’ visions of the medium extend from its heyday to its current endangered status. Their comments about the history and evolution of small gauge bracket this essay; the remaining quotations are grouped to follow the life of a film, from camerawork, film processing, and editing to screening. 

EVOLUTION FILM HISTORY WITH A SMALL F AND A SMALL H
The Bay Area has long been home– a haven even– for small-gauge artists. Lenny Lipton began to write about Super 8 for Popular Photography in the early 1960s and went on to write primers on Super 8 filmmaking. In the 1950s and 1960s Bruce Conner turned to regular 8mm as a more intimate and home-based alternative to 16mm; Bob Branaman, in part, saw it as more economical. The first Gay Film Festival held in San Francisco, in 1977,opened with free screenings of Super 8 films-homemade erotica and experiments subverting the sexual and aesthetic status quo. Around the same time Joe Gibbons was making Super 8 chronicles of his own life, as well as using his unobtrusive camera to peek into the lives of other San Franciscans; and Sherry Milner and Ernie Larsen, more overtly political, were filming their lives in what might be the first American situationist film, ultimately a double- screen Super 8 projection.

While making Super 8 films, Janis Crystal Lipzin initiated teaching Super 8 production to eager SanFrancisco Art Institute students in 1978.At the time it was easy to buy small-gauge film and get it processed; some labs would even make prints. George Kuchar, who began making his lavish 8mm films as a twelve-year-old in the Bronx, moved to San Francisco in 1971 and in 1986 began working in 8mm video, claiming that home format to explore parallels between the weather and his digestion in his renowned Weather Diaries. Also in the 1980s, artists such as Peggy Ahwesh, Nina Fonoroff, Ellen Gaine, Peter Herwitz, Jennifer Montgomery, Danny Plotnik, and Jacalyn White were largely identified as Super 8 filmmakers, drawn to the medium for its particular low-end qualities, much as later artists would turn to pixelvision or cell phone cameras. They worked with diverse aesthetics that included abstract landscapes, on-camera confessions, and low-budget narratives.

Whether with the goal of working ecologically or exploring neglected film technologies, Scott Stark, Owen O’Toole (a member of Wet Gate), silt (the filmgroup consisting of Keith Evans, Christian Farrell, Jeff Warrin), and others in the late 1980s and the 1990s began to rescue discarded small-gauge cameras and projectors, as the medium’s demise seemed imminent. From 1998 to 2000 the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted an exhaustive and exhilarating survey of small-gauge filmmaking, Big as Life, organized by San Francisco Cinematheque’s then-curator, Steve Anker, and MoMA’s Jytte Jensen, with selected screenings in the Bay Area. Today, against all odds, as regular 8 and Super 8 film stock, labs, and equipment are threatened with extinction, artists continue to work in small-gauge formats. 

I DON’T SEE WHY Super8 should be a smaller part of film history than any other kind of film. Art is art, it’s not a question of institutional validation. -Ellen Gaine

SUPER 8’s RELATION TO film history may not be so much about film history with a capital
F and a capital H.Its relation to American culture maybe better articulated in terms of connections between the American family and travel photography, and the rise of affluent consumer culture in the postwar years, which made it possible for many people to buy consumer goods and appliances for their homes, including cameras of various natures.That is really the area of exploration that I think is most fruitful-a cultural history of Super8 rather than Super8 as part of a grand narrative that we may call film history. -Nina Fonoroff

I’M SURE THERE MIGHT have been people making 8mm films in the fifties, but I don’t remember seeing any of them at the occasional film showings in North Beach. When there were film programs– Christopher Maclaine put on programs at an Italian hall– they were all 16mm. You didn’t see 8mm projected in experimental film shows. -Bruce Conner

STAN BRAKHAGE HAD MOVED to San Francisco at that time-I think this was the early sixties. He said,”All this time I’ve been trying to figure out how to go from 16mm to 35mm, and there’s this guy named Branaman who showed me you can go in the opposite direction.” -Bob Branaman 

MY INTENTION WAS TO produce the films in a lot of different formats so they’d be seen in a variety of ways. Between 1959 and1965 I did 16mm films and reduced them down to 8mm. I wanted to reach a larger audience, people who could purchase the seat at a cheap price, $5.00 or $7.50, and they could run them to death. -BruceConner

THERE WAS A SUPER 8 movement; it was like a religion. It was a worldwide subculture. It was partly ethnographic, partly people making feature films.It was very similar to the underground movement that was based on 16mm. In the late sixties and early seventies there were thousands and thousands of people all over the world involved. It was especially attractive to people in Third World countries where the low price of the medium was important and where there was no 16mm infrastructure.There was so much enthusiasm and love for the medium, and I was caught up in that. I wanted to tell people what I had learned. I felt there was a common cause. I really believed what Cocteau had said about filmmaking becoming a democratic medium when it wasn’t any more expensive to make a film than it was to write a poem.- Lenny Lipton

IN THE MID-1970s THERE were a lot of itinerant filmmakers moving around and sharing ideas, because it wasn’t something that you would learn in school. Hardly anybody who was teaching had done anything with Super 8. It really was a kind of guerrilla activity in a way, strangely supported by some of the film industry at the same time. -Janis Crystal Llipzin

I KNOW THAT SOME of my passion for 8mm film in general comes from my childhood experiences with it; I think on some level that’s what makes me a filmmaker. And then I guess politically or socially,I also value the fact that the cinema apparatus was made available to almost everybody- the fact that you could walk into a K-Mart and buy a camera and produce movies. -Owen O’Tool 

THE EQUIPMENT REALLY WAS well constructed, especially the early equipment that came right after regular 8mm. My first Super8 camera is much sturdier than the equipment that came twenty years later, even though it was less sophisticated. In the halcyon days of Super8, there was so much equipment available and so many facilities that could actually take these little films. People were making them and giving them the kind of treatment that a larger format would be given.- JanisCrystal Lipzin

FOR ME, WORKING IN Super8 in the early 1980s in San Francisco was a continuation of the DIY [do-it-yourself] ethic and aesthetic of the late 1970s punk scene that I was part of as a teenager in Washington, D.C. I borrowed my first Super8 camera from Klara Lusardi, who I was playing with in punk bands in San Francisco and Berkeley from 1983 to 1985. I found Super 8 easy, gritty, poppy, expressive, and poetic, like the electric guitar. I loved how you didn’t need a whole band, rehearsal space,van,gas money, etc.,to do it. You could get your little three-minute spool of film (the same approximate time length of most great pop songs),your borrowed camera, your little splicer, and really do it yourself. -Leslie Singer

WHEN WE FIRST STARTED considering what it meant that we were working in Super8, it was something political, to be the champion of the small- that we were working in this tradition of these singular genera of film and that we were collaborating in small gauges. -KeithEvans

WITH SUPER 8 THERE’S always going to be that funky edge that gives it something more low art and sort of avant-garde and home movie-things that turn a lot of people off, because they are so funky, messy. That combination has worked well for me. -Peter Herwitz

IT REALLY WAS AN inexpensive way to make work that had the power of what we would consider mainstream movies– a way to create a sort of a bridge between the moments of one’s everyday life and the requirements of constructing a public work of art. -Janis Crystal Lipzin 

AS AN EAST COAST outsider transient, who was quite lonely out there, I experienced the Bay Area rather toxic place, and the real toxicity of the chemicals and emulsion I found myself working with intimately paired inextricably with that rather paranoid vision of Bay Area beauty. I also associated my experience as being, ironically, quite impoverished economically despite the wealth of wonderful artists and sensual pleasures, and so Super8 met with my constricted  means, and each roll had the value of a fetish object. So everything there was at once very dirty and very clean and bright. The pornographic uses of Super 8 were not lost on me, and it helped that I experienced the visual beauty of SanFrancisco as emitting a kind of pornographic light. -Jennifer Montgomery

SAN FRANCISCO IS A deeply creative town, where artists make the most out of scrap heaps. It was great to be part of the film-projector performance arts during the late nineties and early nothings; so many passionate people salvaging projectors and turning them all on at the sametime! Cinema performance is now even some sort of genre being discussed in graduate programs. The moody weather of the Bay Area contributes healthy skepticism of creativity, the unrest that turns over stones and finds things. At the same time all of California has become too expensive to live in; I don’t know how some people survive since the economic climate has changed so drastically. Selling projector parts on eBay? -Owen O’Toole

IN SOME PARTS PRODUCING inaccessible work in defunct gauges would be ridiculed; around here it’s just some minor lifestyle choice, like listening to LPs or playing the accordion or something. -StevePolta 

CINEMATOGRAPHY: AN EYE ON THE END OF YOUR HAND

Small and lightweight, Super 8 and regular 8 cameras lend themselves to particular ways of working. Some artists have a favorite camera; others collect them at flea markets and yard sales, amassing a history of small-gauge equipment and drawing on the strengths and peculiarities of various models. Many filmmakers carry their cameras with them, using them in a diaristic manner to record daily life or their own thoughts and feelings. Often their presence can be sensed on-screen: the movement of their body, their voice offscreen, their shadow across the landscape. Then there are the filmmakers who stage low-tech extravaganzas with friends, providing all the glitz of a Hollywood production at a fraction of the cost. 

YOU COULD HAVE A camera sitting there in your pocket, and whenever something occurred in your life-these little epiphanies-it was available. -Janis Crysta Lipzin

THE FACT THAT THE camera is light means one’s body can become a dolly, crane, or track. The presence of the human body behind the camera is very visible with Super 8 because of the way it is held or moved. -Nina Fonoroff

MY IDEA OF THE camera was something like an eye on the end of your hand that you could stick anywhere. – Bob Branaman

SMALLER IS BETTER -George Kuchar

IT’S LIKE PERIPHERAL VISION it’:s really out of the corner of my eye that I find something. It’s always something that reminds me of something else. It’s like a trigger. Once a thing becomes conscious, with a conscious intention, it’s almost dead. It’s very much in a half-awake state that things acquire something else; it’s very full of meaning. When you try to explain it, it’s completely elusive. -Julie Murray

I BECOME INSPIRED BY any number of different things, which then turn into images, which are then completely altered by the way I use the camera. The closer I stay to the way those images are in my head, the worse the film usually is. With Super 8 in particular, you have to be very sensitive to what happens around you. It’s about discovering poetic images, as opposed to planning them. -Peter Herwitz 

ONE OF THE GREAT things about small portable media is the ability to do self-portraiture and to perform for the camera in ways that you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing say on a stage. -Owen O’Toole

IT REQUIRES MY ABILITY to be honest with myself first and to be open to what emotions I might feel other than what I think I should feel, or plan to feel. I have to approach filming myself, my family,and friends with openness and a willingness to show whatever comes up. People have described my work as being raw and honest, embarrassingly so, and I think that’s the reason for that, but it’s also my intention to have that kind of honesty. -.Jacalyn White

THE HOME-MOVIE ASPECT WAS a way of turning your friends into stars and not just people in the house, you know, cleaning or something. You got your friends, and places where they lived, but it was all done in a movie format, where they went through makeup and we had some lighting and we put in dramatic episodes. -George Kuchar

I SHOT MY FIRST films to music in my headphones.I had a primitive button on top of the Super8 camera trigger, so that every time I ran the cameraI also triggered the cassette player. Yeah, I had this on my ears way before Walkmans came about. -Andrej Zdravic

WITH MY WORK, I like to inhabit spaces and see what’s going on in them, and part of that involves being a little inconspicuous. Being able to capture the sound with the image– for me, that’s like magic. It really opens up the space that you’re looking at to hear the image and sound together and know that it was not doctored. -Scott Stark

ERNIE LARSEN AND I made the two-screen Super8 Disaster while living in Project Two, on Alabama Street in San Francisco in 1975-76. It was a moment when the Bay Area
was a burgeoning outpost of oppositional culture, a lively and often contentious scene. Influenced by situationism, I was interested in depicting the disjunction between Hollywood’s form of spectacular representation and what I regarded as the true site of disaster: everydaylife. The use of two screens to evoke that abyss seemed inevitable.Since this was very definitely pre-VHS we started smuggling our Super8 camera into theaters showing The Towering Inferno-using Tri-X to shoot off the screen. We also “appropriated” (in those days, we thought of it as theft) texts from many sources, including a story from Time magazine imagining in properly lurid detail the destruction of the Bay Area by an earthquake. In the midst of a deep recession, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, the spectacle of disaster seemed at once a diversion from and the embodiment of the malaise of contemporary American Life. -Sherry Milner

MEMORY ISN’T SOMETHING THAT goes on forever. We don’t have memories in 120-minute reveries. We have memories in little bursts. That’s why a single roll of Super8 is so appropriate. -Owen O’Toole

THERE IS SOMETHING MAGICAL about affecting film as an artifact. This is the film that we buried, that we glued bird feathers to; this is the film that went through a camera at a specific place ,at a particular time. -silt

BACK THEN [in the late fifties and early sixties] we didn’t have any money. You could put one of the old reversible regular 8mm rolls in, and you could just keep turning it over and over; that way you could shoot the thing two or three times.I even used to hold up bits of glass and thingsI found in front of the camera and make my own little filters. -Bob Branaman

THERE ARE A LOT of idiosyncrasies, a lot of play-error-with the [used] equipment [we collected]. All of these eccentricities of the different kinds of equipment have really informed the language we employ. -Keith Evans 

A LITTLE FILMO REGULAR 8mm camera my uncle had given me had an aura I couldn’t resist. On one of those rare warm San Francisco afternoons in 1987 I convinced my new boyfriend, John, to follow me to the roof of the Art Institute to make the first movie I would ever shoot in regular 8mm. My uncle had carefully explained to me that I needed to shoot half the reel one way, then open the camera, flip the reel and cam and shoot the rest. “After you shoot all three minutes send the film to the lab to have it processed and split down the middle,”he said.I surprised John by in him that we would both have to take off our clothes would shoot images of him for the first one and a half minutes of film, and he would shoot the second half of me.  When I took the roll to the lab I begged them not to split the film as they normally would. There were two nude bodies on the same screen but also divided four equilateral frames. Within the parameters of the image gestalt, we are dancing together without touching. -Lynne Sachs 

ONE ASPECT OF SUPER 8 that makes it distinct from other mediums is the cartridge. There is something about the fluidity, the ability to change stocks to put a cartridge on your shelf for a year. It creates impossible combinations on one reel, of different places, different cameras.-silt”

Where the Truth Lies:

Bay Area Essay Films and Experimental Documentaries

IRINA LEIMBACHER  | pg. 298-303

“There is a strange breed of film that consists of a confluence of documentary, experimental, and personal-lyricaltraditi that intertwines questions of form and questions about the world. Having emerged early on, when the genre was not yet rigidly categorized by specific forms and functions, particular television slots, or funding sources, it encompasses numerous ways of cinematically seeing and projecting the world.

Already in the 1920s Dziga Vertov (Kina Eye, Man with a Movie Camera), Alberto Cava lean ti (Rien que les heures), Ivens (The Bridge), Hans Richter (Inflation), and others were making films that spoke of contemporary reality without merely reflecting that reality. They analyzed, deconstructed, and reconstructed their worlds using specifically cinematic techniques of framing, superimposition, temporal manipulation, and montage. They acknowledged the power of performance, poetry, and lyricism, and also of irony, metaphor, and wit. Thus before documentary was even a descriptor, cinema was emphatically engaged with the world. Film passionately embraced the world’s beauty, mourn edits cruelty, and mocked its injustice. With the late 1930s and the 1940s came increasing consolidation of cinematic borders between documentary and fiction and poetry, between ostensible fact and idiosyncratic opinion. But in the late 1950s and the 1960s there was a resurgence of films that challenged some of these boundaries, as well as the very idea of the presentation of “truth” with no acknowledged voice and no aesthetic form. In France in the 1950s Alain Resnais made Night and Fog, Jean Rouch shot Jaguar, and Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard began their careers. In Cuba in the 1960s Santiago Alvarez made radical newsreels, and in Argentina Fernando E. Solanas and Octavio Getino were developing a “Third Cinema.” In the same decade in Germany Alexander Kluge and Ha run Farocki made their first politically provocative and formally inventive films. These are just a few of the works that took up and confronted the world, acknowledging their position and declaring their stakes. Not only were the voices of the participants and the makers often reflexively brought forth and the processes of exploration and construction recognized, but reappropriation, irony, and lyricism were seen as allies-not enemies-in the analysis of social realities.

What shall we call such films? Experimental documentaries, since “reality” is at stake and form is explored rather than given? Essay films, since the inscription and description of the world are fore-groundedand often problematized? Personal documentaries, since experience and knowledge are often embodied through the voices or traces of the makers? Part of the fascination of such work is its elusive and eclectic nature, its refusal to be categorized and its refusal to categorize or to exclude anything a priori from the realm of relevance to the real. Writing about the visual essay, Michael Renov suggests a possible definition: the speaker and the speaking, the filmer and the filmingare an intrinsic part of the essay, “a representation of ‘historical real’ (digressive, fragmentary) through sound and image in a manner which embroils the subject of enunciation.”‘ While such films explore our shared social world, there is a simultaneous investigation of,and perhaps even a challenge to, the cinematic means of doing so.

Though there is no single or even dominant tradition of the experimental documentary or essay film, California has long been home to some of the most accomplished and diverse of its practitioners: James Benning, the late Chick Strand, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Steve Fagin in the south, and artists such as Craig Baldwin, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Jeanne C. Finley, Lynn Hershman, and the late Marlon Riggs in the north. In the Bay Area the explosive collage films of Bruce Conner or the lyrical portraits of people and places by Bruce Baillie in the 1960s can be seen as precursors to this work. San Francisco State University, where many of the artists discussed in this essay were faculty members and/or students at one point in their careers, was a breeding ground for various forms of experimental documentary beginning in the tumultuous late 1960s and continuing throughout the seventies and eighties. There seems to be something about the BayArea- the diversity of its communities, the eclecticism of its exhibition spaces, its disdain for convention- that is conducive to experimentation that challenges notions of the world and the paths of our knowledge to it.

The decade between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties was especially fruitful for Bay Area experimental documentary, as can be seen in the wide-ranging and prolific output of films and videos by Baldwin, Finley, Fagin, Trinh, Hershman, and Riggs. While these mediamakers’ formal and political strategies, as well as their choices of subject matter, are incredibly diverse, they all, in their own ways, turn documentary conventions upside down and challenge naive and circumscribed notions of “truth” or “fact.” Whether explicitly or implicitly, they take on the traditional media and its claim to authority, and they ironically play with their own discursive strategies Many of these artists work across and between genres, between experimental and conventional documentary (Finley, Riggso)r between experimental documentary and experimental narrative(Fagin,Trinh, Hershman). In fact, their work simply cannot be pegged down, as they simultaneously explore and expand the very language and scope of moving images.

Paul Arthur writes that essay films “hold up for scrutiny precisely those conventions that other documentary genres suppress and, in that sense, fuel meta-critical speculation on nonfiction cinema’s blind spots.”‘ Certainly this can be said of these Bay Area films. They all undermine traditional documentary authority, the underlying claim to veracity and representational transparency that is the premise of most nonfiction film. This is done through the heterogeneity of their materials-their images and sounds, both found and original-and their modes of address, which belie the usual forms of “discourses of sobriety” in favor of irony, intimacy, performance, or poetry. The subversive combination of elements in these works refuses any simple reading and calls instead for a complex, multifaceted attitude of uncertainty, constant curiosity, and a willingness to let go of the habits that constrain our attitudes toward media, the world, and ourselves. Indeed, the eclectic Bay Area experimental documentaries of the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties teach us to watch images skeptically, to listen to voices usually excluded from mainstream media, and to appreciate the aesthetic force of film and video and the worlds they embrace. Here I shall touch on just a few of the works of this period. 

The found-footage alchemist Craig Baldwin began working in film in the mid-1970s and subsequently did graduate work at San Francisco State’s film department in the 1980s. In the spirit of some of the collage films of Bruce Conner (with whom he studied), as well as the situationists, Baldwin subversively plays with images and sounds, using techniques of repetition and ironic juxtaposition to estrange us from our habitually passive viewing attitudes. In the mid-1980s his work became explicitly political, his found-footage collages wryly commenting on not only the ideological content of images but also the unconscious imaginary at work in U.S. neocolonialist foreign policy. Both RocketKitKongoKit (1986) and Tribulation 99:Alien Anomalies Under America (1991) set a combination of reappropriated educational, industrial, sci-fi, and other kinds of cinematic detritus against an onslaught of disembodied commentary that ostensibly explains and narrates what we see. Yet we quickly realize something is awry: these commentaries don’t really explain at all, and the footage slips and slides between possible “fact” and egregious fiction. Rather than conventional explanation, the combination of images and voice-over satirizes the very act of explaining and the very idea of fact, drawing on humor to call critical attention to mainstream history’s ideological lacunae and Manichaean excesses. 

RocketKitKongoKit uses disembodied narration in the conventional voice-of-god documentary tradition alongside its found visual mate- rial to “tell” us about various moments of Western military-industrial and CIA involvement in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). However, we become more and more unsettled by the narration, knowing some of the events are true and suspecting others are too outrageous to be possible, especially when narrated alongside the images, whose sources range from seemingly documentary footage (but of what precisely?) to1950s science and educational  films and Tarzan and other movie escapades. The film begins at the end of the colonial period and recounts a series of political events, including President Mobutu’s lease of one-tenth of the country to a West German rocket firm, and culminates in a disastrous Cold War Armageddon set one year after the film was completed. The narra-tion, subverting the typical college-educated-white inflection that we have been trained to associate with authority, shifts from one voice to another, distinguished by U.S.,French, German, and Congolese accents and hence suggesting varied ideological or geopolitical positions. In addition, frequent jokes made through the sound-image juxtapositions constantly unsettle our ability to decide how, precisely, we should be engaging with the film and the information with which it barrages us. Is this serious or funny or, more disconcertingly, both? Taunting and teasing us with its parody of documentary form, RocketKitKongoKit speaks eloquently about power, whether that power is military, industrial, or simply discursive.

Viewers of Baldwin’s films are ultimately forced to read everything against the grain. The fissures between text and appropriated image, between mode of address and message, between political facts and apocalyptic fantasies (and we are not always sure where one ends and the other begins) all work to destabilize any single claim to truth. Yet RocketKitKongoKit and Tribulation 99 are not mere postmodern pastiche; the historical events and political turmoil that underlie them are all too real. Instead they are lessons in critically approaching history, ideology, and media, lessons wherein laughter and lies play crucial pedagogical roles.

Jeanne C. Finley’s experimental videos of this period also often mock documentary conventions while offering sardonic social commentary. Coming from a background in photography, Finley began working with video in the mid-1980s and was hired at the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1988. Her works of the late 1980s, as well as several of those codirected in the 1990s with her collaborator John Muse, incorporate a characteristic mix of psychic anxiety, political critique, and humorous, ironic distance. Unlike in Baldwin’s work, the anxieties and paranoias in Finley’s oeuvre tend to be articulated at the level of individual bodies and experiences and only secondarily at the level of grand political narratives. Some of her work of this period incorporates appropriated footage or texts, and these are often used alongside her own staged scenes. For example, the short Common Mistakes (1986) intersperses excerpts from an educational film about childhood safety-in which unsafe games lead to horrific accidents-with short segments about “mistakes” resulting from political or cultural practices that have momentous social consequences: the forced assimilation of Native Americans, the medical use of lobotomies to “cure” mental illness, and nuclear contamination at Three Mile Island. Linking events of such entirely different magnitudes and forms and juxtaposing melodramatic footage of wounded children with acted testimonies of witnesses to socially cataclysmic events create a disturbing tension. The irony is effective in making us aware of representational conventions and of our own psychological investment in various forms of historical storytelling. Finley’s piece activates our critical faculties and emotional responses, as well as a new awareness of their imbrication.

At the Museum: A Pilgrimage of Vanquished Objects (1989) is both a critical documentary and a documentary parody, somewhat in the spirit of Luis Buñuel’s 1932 Land without Bread. An omniscient and invisible male narrator, with an exaggeratedly mellifluous tone of voice, takes us on a tour of “a California museum” (in Oakland). However, rather than the institutionally legitimizing discourse we might expect from such a narrator, this one analyzes, mocks, and historically recontextualizes several of the items on display. These include a seemingly innocuous nineteenth-century painting linking progress to white western expansion; Dorothea Lange’s famous portrait of a dust bowl sharecropper and her children (actually a California family, as the daughter-now grown-explains); a model of government housing for workers at Hunters Point Naval Base; and a multiethnic, multiracial plaster diorama of a happy group of so-called California dreamers. Each segment is a brief exposé of the display, revealing concealed ideologies and hidden histories of the collected and reified objects. Complemented by written excerpts from James Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture, the text of which periodically unfurls across screen, the piece carefully constructs an uncompromising critique of the very premise of museum collecting and decontextualized display. It ensures that we will never experience museums, or any other factual presentation of “cultural artifacts,” including the voice-over documentary we are watching, in the same way again.

Both Baldwin and Finley use irony and exaggeration to subvert naive beliefs in truth and documentary authority. Steve Fagin, who moved between San Francisco and San Diego during the period 1987-2003 and taught film history and theory in San Francisco State’s film department from 1978 to 1986, also analyzes and mocks conventional forms of authority and mass-media representations of reality. Having worked as a video artist since the mid-eighties, Fagin uses an eclectic and multilayered formal palette to create highly inventive, classification-defying videos. His early works such as Virtual Play (1984) and The Amazing Voyage of Gustave Flaubert and Raymond Roussel (1986) construct and reimagine psychic, philosophical, and literary landscapes drawn in part from his examination of and fascination with figures such as Lou Salomé, Flaubert, and Roussel as they simultaneously engage in a complex reflection on video’s (as well as history’s) discursive processes. With postmodern flourish and delight Fagin mixes textual, painterly, cinematic, and historical references into a collage of wildly imagined and roughly acted scenes, tableaus, and off- and on-screen testimonies.

Several of Fagin’s works also interrogate geopolitical power relations. The Machine That Killed Bad People (1990) is a critical parody of televisual rhetorical strategies, more analytically elaborate and stylistically baroque than that found in Baldwin’s or Finley’s works. It isa  penetrating examination of contemporary Philippine politics in the context of U.S. neocolonialist domination. Fagin says that he wanted “try to write a history … using the stylistics of infotainment television” and “initiate a discussion of the CNN-ification of the planet.”‘ The dominant trope of the two-hour video is that of a news broadcast on the television station KSKY, replete with bleeding-eye logo ,attractive anchorwoman, shopping ads, travel suggestions, and weather announcements. Within and around the “news” broadcasts, Fagin uses a wide array of material: archival footage of the revolution, the Marcos’s home movies, fictionalized Pixelvision rantings and readings of an American journalist stuck in his Manila hotel, and Fagin’s own “direct cinema” footage and interviews shot with political activists as well as guerrilla fighters in the New People’s Army in Mindanao, to name just some. These diverse and compelling fragments of “fiction” and “fact” (and we are forced to see the fictions in the so-called facts and the facts embedded in the so-called fictions) are alternately contained, interrupted, and deferred by the anchorwoman’s address and shuffling of papers: “Coming up … ,” “Please stay with us,” “Next: An Amazing Story.” Weather reports, shopping channel sound bites (cleverly reappropriated or reinvented, with corrupt politicians featured as the big “shoppers”), and the constantly reiterated channel identification for KSKY punctuate the piece, turning recent Philippine history into bite-size spectacles and destroying any possible sense of overarching narrative or political closure.

Fagin’s use of diverse video formats and his eclectic collage of footage, rhetorical registers, and truth claims create a dystopic cacophony of fragmented and competing realities. There is no obvious controlling voice in this piece, only a shocking, discordant polyphony. We work hard to discern a position, to forge our own, for we have become as fractured as what we see. Underlying this cacophony, of course, is a deft critique of the omnipresence of U.S. neocolonial power and the televisualization of history. The use of Marcos home movies, including shots of an assassination attempt on Imelda, become both ironic spectacle and a morally obscene, aesthetically sensuous interlude when set next to Fagin’s straightforward interviews with political activists in various regions of the Philippines. His observational footage of the healer Alex Orbito’s psychic surgery as he extracts a bloody mass from an American patient, the least “believable” footage from a Western epistemological stance, becomes yet another challenge to our faith (or its lack) in the image. No part of this video, which Fagin has called a cross of “Brecht with Ted Turner,” can be read as simply “real” or simulated, and it is an explosive and darkly humorous tour de force of media criticism.

As deeply subversive, but without the parodic or satirical elements so central to Fagin, Finley, and Baldwin, are the essay films of the writer, poet, and composer Trinh T. Minh-ha, who was also on the faculty of San Francisco State’s film department in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before moving to the University of California, Berkeley. Her earlier Reassemblage (1982) and Naked Spaces-Living Is Round (1985) were provocative and formally elegant films shot when she was living in West Africa. Reassemblage, whose images and sounds circle around women’s lives in various parts of Senegal, challenged rigid notions of documentary truth, ethnographic authority, and the bland visual and aural conventions of most nonfiction work and was a source of much controversy in anthropological circles. Naked Spaces, with its multiple voices and lyrical visual and verbal reflections on forms of place, space, and knowing, likewise challenged reductive norms of documentary while exploring West African architectural forms.

Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) is Trinh’s first film both shot and edited in the Bay Area and her first sync-sound work. Whereas the works of Fagin and Baldwin develop through an accretion of parody and postmodern excess, Trinh’s Surname Viet, also on one level a work of media criticism, gently transforms itself and us in a spiral of constant reframing, revelation, and refinement. Full of sensuous visual and aural rhythms, colors, and textures, the film uses archival images, songs, proverbs, poetry, and stories of women in Vietnamese history and literature, in addition to the interviews around which everything else is woven. Like its antecedents in her oeuvre, it also embodies and enacts a rigorous epistemological critique.

Surname Viet is structured to provoke a series of revelations in the viewer. Things are never what they seem: whenever the frame is enlarged, figuratively and/or literally, we realize that there is much more than first meets the eye and ear. Early on, graceful young women in a photograph are revealed, when the frame shifts, to be holding guns. Later, interviews are discovered to have been scripted and acted. Almost every certainty and expectation in this film is subverted, so that watching it becomes a process of self-discovery for the viewer as well as a discovery of some of the manifold forms of Vietnamese women’s experiences, cultures, and histories. Based on a series of oral interviews of South Vietnamese women published in French, the film elegantly reenacts these interviews in beautifully shot and unusually framed sequences that slowly under- mine our belief in their spontaneity. When texts begin to appear on screen, the subtle differences between what we read and hear again force us to question our assumptions. (Why are these texts here? we ask. Why is there a discrepancy between what we hear and what we read?) Only much later is it revealed that these are not professional actresses but Vietnamese immigrants living and working in the Bay Area; their real lives are explored in the last part of the film. In this section we see how the women experience, defy, and/or perform in accordance with a number of cultural expectations, how they articulate themselves and their sociocultural histories in different ways. Trinh, who holds that one cannot theorize about but only with film, has created in this work a compelling philosophical commentary on the nature of our expectations of and access to “truth,” as well as a critique of any kind of essentialism, whether of culture, gender, or knowledge. With the slow, revelatory unfolding of Surname Viet Given Name Nam, we experience viscerally the tension between the world and its representations. Nothing is fixed, nothing is certain, neither the labels and names we use to speak about cultures and politics nor, most of all, our own assumptions.

Trinh’s piece obliquely incorporates bits of her own family’s stories in its larger field of excavation and reflection, but it is not a work enunciated in a first-person or confessional mode. Other Bay Area experimental works of this period, however, explore forms of first-person direct address in innovative and challenging ways. While a focus on personal experience and the acknowledgment of the political stakes of personal narrative had become common in some feminist and political documentaries of the 1970s and 1980s, the BayArea artists Lynn Hershman (now Lynn Hershman Leeson) and Marlon Riggs developed this form in very distinct and extremely provocative directions.

Hershman was already a major figure in California installation and performance art when she became director of the Inter-Arts Center at San Francisco State in 1984. (She had also received her M.A. there.) In the 1970s she had created a number of radical site-specific pieces, including an installation with Eleanor Coppola in room 47 of the low-rent Dante Hotel in San Francisco and a series of twenty-five window installations for Bonwit Teller in New York. She had also created and enacted persona pieces such as Roberta Breitmore, who led quite an adventurous life, on and off, with Hershman’s help for seven years. In the 1980s she began to work in video and interactive media, continuing to create complex fictional female characters in works that confounded the usual boundaries between fact and fiction, self and alter ego, viewer and participant. She herself became the explicit subject of her confessional series The Electronic Diaries.

Begun in 1984 and continuing through 1996, TheElectronicDiaries is a first-person excavation of Hershman’s psyche and personal history at the time. The series was later reedited (and recontextualized) by Hershman into a single work, but this discussion is based primarily on the original tapes, released singly. These tapes of different lengths are keenly attentive to the complex performative and cinematic aspects of testimony and confession. On their video-screen surface, the first three parts of the series- Confessions of a Chameleon (1986), Binge (1987), and FirstPersonPlural (1988)- consist of an outpouring of diaristic declarations and reflections addressed directly to the camera by Hershman, sitting alone and often somewhat self-consciously, in close shot. Each of the tapes focuses on one or 1\10 core issues and grapples with the complex nature of identity,memory, desire, and self-revelation. Her reflections explore the ambiguity of childhood memory and fantasy, the trauma of abandonment, body image, eating disorders, incest, abuse, and the cross-generational effects of the Holocaust. These are all spoken directly and insistently to the camera, as if to an intimate witness, who is both herself and her imaginary (now real, as we watch) audience.

The obsessive and often disturbing revelations of her current and past personal struggles, however, have been carefully recomposed into a fast-paced, fragmented video collage. In several instances she manipulates her image, using the video effects of the day to double, mirror, and multiply her “self” in many ways. Images are placed within images, and freeze frames and cuts dissociate her voice from her body. In her visual deconstruction and reconstruction of her own image and her fragmentary, sometimes disjointed but nonstop narration, she seems to throw into question the very notion of the unitary subject and the possibility of cohesive identity. She uses the medium of video to question and analyze and also create a/her persona in the context of a troubled family history. At one point Hershman asserts that she only tells the truth, yet the very notion of truth is troubled by this assertion as well as by her attempts to disentangle and come to terms with her past and its shifting representations. Confession and performance blur in these tapes, or perhaps they are one and the same. Her interlocutor, too, is multiple, at once herself alone and us, the future anonymous viewer. Periodically she disrupts her monologue with a disconcerting question in the second person: What was your first sexual experience? How did you feel? What about your body? The camera, the screen, we ourselves now watching and listening are integral elements of the piece, as our self-identity is fractured by our simultaneous presence and absence, by our dispersal among Hershman’s and our own myriad representations.

Subsequent segments of Hersh man’s Electronic Diaries incorporate other voices and testimonials as well, those of fellow travelers in arenas of shared struggle, such as the battle with cancer in Shadow Song (1990) and women who have survived experiences of traumatic violence in Recovered Diaries (1994). The earlier video interweaves an African American friend’s testimony of his experience with cancer and Hershman’s own diaristic entries on her recent discovery of a brain tumor. Filmed over several months, the piece poignantly but also disturbingly juxtaposes their shifts in attitude over the course of their illnesses, as one dies and the other survives. The later piece seems indicative of Hershman’s gradual extension out from the realm of individual pain and trauma to her appreciation and analysis of its societal roots and the potential of collective empowerment.

Drawingon very different strategies, Marlon Riggs in Tongues Untied(1989) also sought out radically new forms to express profoundly personal experiences. For Riggs, it was the collective force and political ramifications of testimony, in all imaginable manifestations-shared as well as individual, artistic as well as straightforward-that were crucial. A professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, beginning in 1987 (also where he received his M.A.), Riggs also made more traditional documentaries that were remarkable in their subject matter, scope, and form. In Ethnic Notions (1986) and Color Adjustment (1991) he analyzed racial stereotypes of African Americans, first in various forms of popular culture over the past century and a half and then in commercial television from the late 1940s through the 1980s. Alongside these investigations of insidious mass-culture stereotypes and representational practices, Riggs turned to the project of representing and presenting one of his own communities, that of black gay men.

Tongues Untied mixes personal testimonies from a number of voices with narrative reenactments, poetry, performance, snapping, voguing, observational footage, and archival sequences. This piece eschews the supposedly natural and unrehearsed speech that so many political documentaries rely on to instead deliberately and proudly articulate its joys and suffering, its hope and rage. Not only heads but bodies talk. Full bodies-naked, clothed, and in drag-move, dance, recount, or rhythmically recite their stories in their own chosen gestures and words. In a euphoric whirlwind of intensely moving performances that make no concessions to mainstream norms of “proper language” or television standards of taste, Tongues Untied unabashedly lets loose many tongues, calling out and affirming their pains and pleasures, fantasies and fears, and grappling with desire, sex, politics, and death. The piece demands to be heard, engaging us viscerally and insistently, as it enacts identities and histories as part of a collective, creative, and politicized process. Part of the outcry and shock that Tongues Untied elicited from politicians and public television administrators at the time of its release stems from the fact that it was clearly made for, with, and by its own community of black gay men. It refused to compromise its language and its form for middle-class white and heterosexual television audiences. Rather, it is a cry of love, compassion, and rage in the context of racism, homophobia, and AIDS. It addresses and engages its own community on its own terms, and the rest of us are lucky enough to be invited along.

With the exception of Riggs, whose untimely death in 1994 was a great loss to the Bay Area and to the field of documentary as a whole, each of the artists discussed here is continuing to work in the realm of moving images, even if some have shifted toward fictional or installation work. At the same time, in the early 1990s, other, younger filmmakers (many of whom had studied with one of the artists above) emerged in the realm of essayistic and experimental nonfiction in the Bay Area-makers of short films and videos such as Lynne Sachs, Valerie Soc, Greta Snider, Cauleen Smith, Claire Dannenbaum, and Erin Sax. Like their predecessors, they too are extremely diverse in their representational and political strategies, their aesthetic predilections, and the emotional charge of their work. Soe, with Cynsin: An American Princess (1991) or Picturing Oriental Girls: A (Re) Educational Videotape (1992), and Smith, with Daily Rains (1990) and Chronicle of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron) (1992), use video and film respectively to challenge the reification of identity (individual and/or social) in the context of race, employing a variety of experimental and essayistic techniques from collage (Soe) to performance and false confession (Smith). Sachs, who continues to work actively in experimental or personal documentary, incorporates a medley of voices and texts, installation, and performance to confront a history of gender stereotypes in her best-known film of the period, The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991). Snider’s body of experimental work also includes several pieces of nonfiction-from intimate feminist narratives using found footage, such as Futility (1989), to her elegant exploration of various forms of personal environmental politics and millennial anxiety in NOZONE (1993). Dannenbaum’s beautiful hand-processed, essayistic travelogues– Hajj, drinking from the stream (1992) and The pupil of her hand in the palm of her eye (1994)-reflect on the representational process and her interactions with women in Turkey and Morocco. Sax’s wordless essay, Seven of Worlds (1994), is a profound meditation on death through the slow, gentle cinematic observation of the embalming process. With the exception of Snider and Soe, these artists have left the Bay Area.

Although the diverse works discussed in this essay never formed a movement or school, they embody a historic moment of intriguing innovation in the field of nonfiction-innovation that is still tremendously radical today. Like some of the early films made before documentary existed as a distinct category, these films and videos explode officially sanctioned boundaries and conventional containers of knowledge to create new ways to experience our shared world and its multiple representations. In their often puzzle like constructions and juxtapositions of diverse forms and elements, they undo certainties to actively engage us in a process of conscious and critical questioning. These films suggest that our habitual ways of truth telling often lie and that our not-so-innocent lies, as well as our creative fictions, often reveal the most profound and disarming truths.”