San Francisco Mission District’s Other Cinema featured film experimentalist Abigail Child last Saturday night, with her new 57 minute film Acts and Intermissions. It was preceded by her 2004 short The Future Is Behind You. Child’s work blooms from the soils of the academic experimental film world, crafted with an East Coast sensibility: studious, meticulous, theory-based, and low-budget. Her films display a unique mastery of both form and content, graced with delicate editing, and colored by whispering sound designs which are all her own.
The Future Is Behind You, a work of sheer archival beauty, fabricates a film story of a Jewish family’s displacement and murder, interpreted from scraps of German home movies from the 1930’s. It delivers history from the inside out, bringing nuance to a familiar story of holocaust. Child interrogates the footage with repetition, zooms, slow motion, and flipflopping screen direction, foregrounding moments of laughter over impending terror. The daily joys of two sisters provide a filter — sifting historical events in bits and pieces, treating history as a moving, incomplete process, centralized by real lives.
Arts and Intermissions uses similar techniques from the point of view of famed anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940). The film challenges the viewer by creating an impressionist painting of her life, an assemblage of dots, with heavy use of onscreen text, drawn from Goldman’s letters and diaries. Child uses Emma Goldman to make a film that is not quite about Emma Goldman, but about cycles of political resistance in the last century and a half. The style undermines expectations of traditional historical biography, and may better coalesce if you study the basic facts of Goldman’s life before seeing it. When I asked the filmmaker about her choice to include only a handful of images of Emma Goldman, Child replied that she was trying to “disperse [Emma] into the present.”
Indeed, remarkable early-20th century protest footage interlaces with recent scenes of mass resistance. The film also includes contemporary scenes of workers in a yarn factory. These surreal shots of beautiful mess and mechanization, establish the film’s ground in a Marxist viewpoint. Another recent biographical documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, about author James Baldwin, similarly interweaves images of past and present. (See my February 12th blog post) The days of the traditional documentary, with its objectifying, distanced historical perspective, seem to be over. These films suggest there’s no longer space to simply observe. However we choose to act, history is living us, and we are participants.