TEXTS ON ART
Oct. 16, 2020
By Esther Buss
TACTILE TRANSLATIONS Esther Buss on Lynne Sachs’ retrospective at the Sheffield Doc / Fest
Try about the encounter. This year’s Sheffield Doc / Fest, which took place exclusively online due to the pandemic, dedicated a carefully curated retrospective to the filmmaker Lynne Sachs. This shows the community-creating moment of Sachs’ films, which are often the result of close collaborations – whether with family members, migrant communities or artistic companions like Barbara Hammer or Carolee Schneemann – especially under the restrictions of the pandemic: like the film critic Esther Buss argues, these films are always evidence of the ambivalence between ‘lonely’ art production on the one hand and shared experience on the other.
Lynne Sachs’ films usually begin with a tactile approach: touches with surfaces and textures of bodies, landscapes and fabrics – touches that always include or even affect the materiality of the image. Her most recent work, Film About A Father Who (2020) – the title refers to Yvonne Rainer’s 1974 film About a Woman Who… – begins with a close-up of two hands untangling the tangled white hair in a head of hair . Lynne Sachs cuts the hair of Ira Sachs, her father, who is over 80, the main character in the film and the center of gravity in a complex network of family relationships. From this concrete and symbolically legible entrance image, a fragmentary narrative unfolds that spans 35 years.
Between 1984 and 2019, Sachs repeatedly filmed his own father: a man who is still difficult to decipher for his family members to this day. A promiscuous hippie businessman who had the reputation of being “Hugh Hefner of Park City”, Ira Sachs, father of nine children from different women, is entirely a product of the 1960s. Sachs is only marginally concerned with the finding of a patriarchal order that was carried forward in a break with existing moral and sexual norms. The film About A Father Who is rather an attempt to decenter the enigmatic figure of the father in the form of a polyphonic, sometimes contradicting essay and to let it merge into a horizontal narrative of family connections. With every new memory, every new face, another mesh is woven in the fabric of the Sachs family, which has grown steadily over the course of the film. The result is a collage of different perspectives and voices, which also remains fragile on the level of the material. Grainy 8 and 16 mm images and muddy VHS line up with high-definition digital material, old and new recordings for interviews and home movies – a significant part of which was shot by Ira Sachs and Ira Sachs Jr., Lynne Sachs’ younger brother and filmmaker too. 
As part of Sheffield Doc / Fest, the film About A Father Who was shown to an international audience for the first time in early October. The documentary film festival, which took place exclusively online this year, also dedicated a carefully curated program of five films from 1994 to 2018 to Sachs. The selection focused on the term “translation”, with which Sachs is sometimes more, sometimes less explicit in her work (the first in The Task of the Translator, 2010, a film that answers Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same name with three body studies). What was meant was not just translating from spoken to visual language or transferring from a source to a target language.  The thematic bracket here was, in general, translation as a practice of encounter and communication and, connected to it, as an awareness of difference. There is a vivid picture of this in the film About A Father Who: The mother had mastered grammar, Sachs said in an interview with her siblings Dana and Ira. Everything was transparent, linear and in the right place, there were commas and points. The punctuation marks with the father, on the other hand, are exclamation marks and question marks.
The work of Lynne Sachs, born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1961 and trained at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she a. a. collaborated with artists such as Bruce Conner and Trinh T. Minh-Ha are hybrid structures. Since her first films, Drawn and Quartered and Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (both from 1987), which are strongly determined by Laura Mulvey’s feminist essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), she has made more than 30 mostly short and medium-length films. The aforementioned “encounter” is essential for Sachs’ artistic practice. Her films are often the result of close collaborations: for example with close or distant family members, migrant communities or artistic companions such as Barbara Hammer, Carolee Schneemann or Gunvor Nelson – she dedicated the film Carolee, Barbara and Gunvor to them in 2018.
As an experimental documentary filmmaker, Sachs always seeks the permeability of authorial authority and filmic subject. In relation to the concept of “fly on the wall” – the most invisible observer – that is decisive for US American direct cinema, she programmatically distanced itself: “As a documentary filmmaker, I am always reckoning with what it means to shoot ‘from the outside in ‘, using my camera to peer into the lives of people from other places, cultures, or communities. Honestly, it’s the foundation of the documentary paradigm that most disturbs me, “said the artist in an interview with the documentary film magazine Modern Times Review.  Sachs is always present in her films: as a body, as an off-voice, as a text. There are also fictional and performative elements.
Your Day is My Night (2013) and the film The Washing Society (2018), made in collaboration with playwright and director Lizzie Olesker, both provide insights into the undocumented cultural microcosms of New York, which has been Sachs ’hometown for many years. The subject of Your Day is My Night is a so-called shift-bed apartment in Chinatown – an apartment in which Chinese immigrants from the working class share a bed in layers (i.e. in coordination with their respective day and night jobs), sometimes over many years. With a precise and poetic eye for the economy of the rooms, Sachs portrays a household with seven residents, or rather ‘characters’, on the corner of Hester Street. In the form of autobiographical monologues and re-enacted conversations, these provide information about political upheavals and family separations, talk about exhausting journeys, fears and longings. In an abstract setting that looks like a theater room, the beds become a stage for a stylized body game. The camera touches lying, sleeping and stretching bodies in haptic movements.
The Washing Society is a document of the invisible work that has increasingly come into the public eye with the outbreak of Covid-19 ‘. The setting is in the laundromats that are increasingly being displaced by large laundries in urban areas. With a mixed cast of actresses and real laundresses, Sachs observes the repetitive gestures of reproductive work and gives a voice to the experiences of the predominantly African-American and Hispanic workers. The laundromat is increasingly contouring itself as a space in which underpaid work, racism and classicism become just as evident as solidarity and community. The historical anchor of the film is the eponymous “Washing Society”, an organization founded in 1881 by 20 African-American laundresses that fought for better working conditions. Looking at the remains of the washing process – the camera keeps pointing at an abject mixture of dust and hair – and the omnipresence of touch, Sachs also defines a moment of physical intimacy – “… there are still two hands … washing your skirt, your shirt, your socks, almost touching you, almost connecting with your skin. Another layer ”, it says from the off at the end.
A completely different touch takes place in A Month of Single Frames (2019), a 14-minute short film “made with and for Barbara Hammer”. Sachs processed the 8 and 16 mm film material that the pioneer of lesbian avant-garde cinema, who died in 2019, shot in the late 1990s during a month-long residency in a lonely hut with no electricity or running water on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. When Hammer began to organize her estate because of her progressive cancer, she handed the recordings over to her younger colleague with the invitation to make a film out of them. Sachs assembles tape recordings that she made in her studio shortly before the death of her mentor and on which she had them read from her Duneshack journal with Hammer’s pictures: recordings of insects, the barren vegetation in the dunes, of light reflections, shadow play and weather changes as well of banal everyday things that transform into lyrical objects when the camera looks at them. “I am overwhelmed by simplicity”, one hears Hammer say to the image of a shred of plastic film blowing in the wind. Another time she looks fascinated at a fly, in which she recognizes a miniature of the army helicopters patrolling the coast. Despite all the amazement, A Month of Single Frames is far from an essentialist view of nature. “Why is it I can’t see nature whole and pure without artifice?” Hammer wonders once. She experimented extensively with the possibilities of camera technology: for example, by slowing down the flow of film material to the point of taking individual images and playing with colored foils that throw colored lights in the sand or immerse the landscape in shimmering magenta. The most striking sign of the posthumous treatment by Sachs are the inserted text panels in which she addresses her girlfriend, who is both present and absent.
The ambivalence of isolation and, lonely ‘art production on the one hand, and shared experience on the other, could seldom be experienced as physically as in this film. A Month of Single Frames is a contemplation of nature, an homage to analog cinema and a testimony to a friendship between women without any claim to exclusivity, quite the opposite. The you in the film is always directed towards a counterpart who is invited to join together to form a community across social and geographical distances.  “You are alone” – “I am here with you in this film” – “There are others here with us” – “We are all together”.
Some of Lynne Sachs ‘films can be seen on her website: https://www.lynnesachs.com. A Film About A Father Who will soon be showing at various festivals, including Indie Memphis. The restrictions caused by the pandemic make online viewing possible.
Esther Buss works as a freelance film critic in Berlin. She writes u. a. for kolik.film, Jungle World, Der Tagesspiegel and Cargo. Last publication in: A story of its own: Women Film Austria since 1999, ed. by Isabella Reicher, Vienna 2020.
|With films like Keep the Lights On , Ira Sachs Jr. Early 2010s among the protagonists of the New Wave of Queer Cinema.
|The seemingly seamless transition from the ‘other’ to one’s own language is repeatedly questioned by Sachs. In her Travelogue Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994) there are decidedly untranslated passages that make one aware of the linguistic difference. In this film, Sachs also works with Vietnamese parables, the translations of which remain puzzling.
|When A Month of Single Frames was presented as part of the digital edition of the 66th Oberhausen Short Film Festival during the lockdown, its community-promoting message took on a larger dimension. The jury awarded the film the main prize.