For more than three decades, experimental documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs has been shining an intimate light on our hearts and minds in poetic works that explore who we are and our place in the world. The Memphis-born, Brooklyn-based auteur is being celebrated this month with the Museum of the Moving Image virtual festival “Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression,” being held in conjunction with the release of her latest work, Film About a Father Who. From January 13 to 31, MoMI will screen nineteen of Sachs’s films, from 1986’s four-minute Still Life with Woman and Four Objects, in which a woman goes through daily routines like preparing lunch, to the world premiere of the four-minute Maya at 24, comprising scenes of Sachs’s daughter, Maya, at six, sixteen, and twenty-four.
The festival is organized into five programs: “Early Dissections,” “Family Travels,” “Time Passes,” and the feature-length Your Day Is My Night and Tips of My Tongue. Each ticket comes with access to a new interview between Sachs and assistant curator Edo Choi delving into Sachs’s career and her unique, unconventional style, which evokes such avant-garde filmmakers as Chantal Akerman, Bruce Conner, Maya Deren, Bruce Naumann, and Martha Rosler. Sachs will also participate in the live, free “Discussion with the Sachs Family” on January 19 at 7:00 with her brother, Ira Sachs Jr., and documentarian Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson, Dick Johnson Is Dead), introduced by MoMI curator Eric Hynes.
Sachs’s films invite us into her personal life as well as the life of others. Which Way Is East (1994) takes us on her trip to Vietnam with her sister Dana, who says when Lynne gives her the camera, “Lynne can stand for an hour finding the perfect frame for her shot. It’s as if she can understand Vietnam better when she looks at it through the lens of her camera. I hate the camera; the world feels too wide for the lens, and if I try to frame it, I only cut it up.” Lynne’s framing is extraordinary, unfurling in a calm, hypnotic pace that can be claustrophobic in its immediacy. In 2013’s Your Day Is My Night, Sachs documents a group of Chinese immigrants crammed into a closetlike apartment in Chinatown, where they ponder the differences between their lives in America and their native country and wonder if they made the right choice in coming here. There’s a fascinating kind of intervention when a young Puerto Rican woman moves in with them. And in 2007’s The Small Ones, Sachs shares the story of her Hungarian cousin Sandor Lenard, who during WWII in Italy was tasked with “washing, measuring, and cementing the bones of American dead.” His straightforward narration is accompanied by abstract images of war and slow-motion home movies of children at a birthday party.
In an essay Sachs wrote about the four-minute 1987 silent short Drawn and Quartered, depicting a naked man and woman divided into four frames, exploring the tacit nature of the human body, she explained how she felt at the film’s San Francisco premiere: “Within those few painful minutes, the crowd went from absolute silence, to raucous laughter, and back to an exquisite quiet. I was shaking.” That’s how you’re likely to feel as you experience Sachs’s work all these years later.
“We’re pretty candid about who Dad is, and we’ve seen him through a lot, but we’re also able to shift what we might recognize as who he really is to what we want him to be,” experimental documentarian Lynne Sachs says in Film About a Father Who, a revealing look at the patriarch of her seemingly ever-expanding family, her dad, Ira Sachs Sr. Inspired by Yvonne Rainer’s seminal 1974 work A Film About a Woman Who . . . , a cinematic collage exploring sexual conflict, and Heinrich Boll’s 1971 novel Group Portrait with Lady, Sachs’s movie consists of footage taken over a period of fifty-four years, beginning in 1965, using 8mm and 16mm film, VHS, Hi8, Mini DV, and digital images, edited by Rebecca Shapass. Now eighty-four, Ira Sachs Sr. was a sex-loving, pot-smoking minor-league hotelier, a neglectful, emotionally unavailable husband and father, both selfish and generous, carefully guarding secrets that Lynne, her sister, journalist and author Dana Sachs, and her brother, filmmaker Ira Sachs Jr., discuss with their six half-siblings, children their father had with other wives and girlfriends, some of whom they did not know about for many years.
Ira Sr.’s mother, Rose Sachs, known as Maw-maw, who left him when he was young, says of his womanizing, “I can’t stand that way of life.” His first wife, Lynne’s mother, Diane Sachs, speaks about what an easy decision divorcing him was. “Marriage was just a lot of being up at night, going to the window, wondering when he was coming home,” she explains. His second wife, Diana Lee, says through tears, “He’s a mistake.” Yet nearly all the women in his life, relatives and companions alike, profess their undying love for the long-haired, bushy-mustached man who was able to cast a spell over them despite, at least outwardly, not appearing to be a particularly eloquent Don Juan type and never remaining faithful. But there’s also more than a hint of psychological abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother. “She treated me as an enemy,” he says.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the first three children of such a secretive man all went into the storytelling arts, mixing fiction and nonfiction in film and literature; Ira has won awards for such films as Forty Shades of Blue and Love Is Strange, Dana’s books include the novel If You Lived Here and the Vietnam memoir The House on Dream Street, and Lynne’s documentaries range from Investigation of a Flame and Sermons and Sacred Pictures to Your Day Is My Night and States of UnBelonging. There are numerous shots of family members filming other relatives; at one point, Lynne is filming Ira Jr. filming Ira Sr. while watching home movies on the television. A Film About a Woman Who . . . , which features music by sound artist Stephen Vitiello, is a striking portrait of an unusually dysfunctional family, a true story that has been in the making for more than a half century and even now provides only some of the answers. Perhaps you can find out more when it begins streaming January 15-31 in the Museum of the Moving Image festival “Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression”; Sachs will participate in a “Discussion with the Sachs Family” on January 19 at 7:00 with her brother Ira and documentarian Kirsten Johnson, introduced by MoMI curator Eric Hynes.