UNEDITED INTERVIEWS WITH SASHA WATERS FREYER
Can you talk a bit about your background and what led you to filmmaking?
My first love in image-making was black-and-white photography, which I studied at the University of Michigan and at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Inspired by Helen Levitt, I fancied myself a “street photographer” and stalked the city for hours – when did I ever have so much solitude and time? – Leica in hand. I installed a photographic enlarger formerly owned by Lee Friedlander in my bathroom and hand-processed all of my own film. The images from this time in my life – of plaster statues and playgrounds and naked bodies and skinny horses in rural Spain – are the ancestors of films I would later make about places as diverse as West Virginia and Rome and my own merciless backyard. The muteness of photography became a pebble in my show shoe, however, and I soon craved a more time-based and acoustic encounter with the world. “Why do you make films?” I have been asked. “To get out of the house,” I reply. I love how observation and reflection meet conversation and adventure in personal filmmaking and conspire to get one out of the house – or at the very least, to see one’s own house in a new light.
Can you talk about a moment, a film, a screening that really inspired you to become a filmmaker?
In the summer of 1991, about a month after graduating from college, I saw the Oscar-winning documentary American Dream in the theater. The film chronicles a bitter meat packing strike in Minnesota during the Reagan era. I went on a weekday afternoon accompanied by two photographer friends, all of us that age when one could squander a weekday afternoon thus, and with impunity. As we exited the theater, we discussed American Labor’s demise and noted the beauty of the sunlight strafing the cobblestone streets. Two weeks later while waiting tables, I recognized the filmmaker, Barbara Kopple, as the women to whom I had just served a bowl of miso soup. I confessed my admiration. Two more weeks passed and I was still waiting tables, but I was also Barbara’s intern on a made-for-TV-movie about boxer Mike Tyson. The first time I entered her sprawling loft, I saw a Steenbeck flatbed piled high with 16mm footage and thought: what the hell is that stuff? My “moment” is a string of chances: a sunny day spent at the movies; the soup hitting the table; the celluloid bait.
What is the genesis of You Can See the Sun in Late December?
I spied an email thread on an experimental film list-serve discussing “strategies for overcoming deflated motivation,” and thought: that’s what I need. I don’t recall the details of the thread or whether I read the messages back and forth, but that single sentence-fragment sparked in me the desire to tackle my own “deflated motivation.” The strategy? Get back to work. I gave myself the assignment of filming every single day in December. It was a very cold December, so sometimes I stayed inside.
What were some of the film’s influences?
You Can See the Sun in Late December is the third film in a trilogy of 16mm experimental shorts about motherhood, preceded by The Waiting Time (2005) and Her Heart is Washed in Water & then Weighed (2006). Using language (often as on-screen text), original and found/archival footage, these films explore the relationship between the real world and internal and external psychic representations of that real. I am interested in mining the tension between the subjective, lived experience of women and mothers; the interior life of fantasy and projection; and reality as refracted through our media-dense world. Influences for this work include filmmakers such as Su Friedrich, Chick Strand, Lynne Sachs, Gunvor Nelson and Vanalyne Green who in very different ways address women’s domestic and sexual experience and identity in their work. I am also indebted to my friend and fellow KOH filmmaker Kathryn Ramey, whose wisdom regarding the JK optical printer, feminist film history and the deployment of cloth diapers I have found indispensible over many years.
Can you elaborate on the process of making You Can See the Sun in Late December? How important is the process to you?
To paraphrase W. H. Auden, I make what I make to see what I think. I usually instruct, then beg, then demand my students not begin shooting without a clear sense of where a project is headed, but I am super guilty of this charge myself. My process is slow – this is a consistent feature across many films; I like to let my ideas and images stew and pickle a bit. I am a chronic note-taker and reader of old post-its to myself. I am a huge believer in the value of honest critical feedback of works-in-progress and of taking breaks in order to return to a film with fresh eyes and ears. One of the greatest gifts we can give one another as artists is the willingness, accompanied by trust, to say and hear: that is just not working.
Can you contextualize You Can See the Sun in Late December in relationship to your body of work overall. Does this film relate to themes that you typically explore or is this film a departure?
My experimental and documentary films have featured dominatrixes, coal miners, artists, children, populist poets and rural activists – outsiders, in short; inhabitants of the critical margins of our world that are, in the words of Wendell Berry, “always freeholds of wildness.” I am committed to a cinema of opposition to the industrial mass media, to disrupting status quo representations of conventional power relations and political structures in the spirit of engagement with an earlier age of radical-romantic image-making. Heretical and possibly anachronistic, my work draws inspiration from sources as varied as philosopher Gaston Bachelard, artist Jean Dubuffet and writers Joan Didion and Adrienne Rich, among others. You Can See the Sun in Late December extends my ongoing concern with expressing a feminist, political consciousness and multi-dimensional subjectivity.
How does your point of view as a mother and a woman inform your filmmaking? (Some women have felt that if they were to be taken seriously as filmmakers they had to be “closeted” mothers or choose between the two. Is that something you have encountered?)
Becoming a mother made me understand literally what scholar Julia Lesage describes as “women’s fragmented consciousness” – why are my keys in the freezer? I am too tired to be driving this car – and led me to understand how mothers, too, are Outsiders, in that we are outside of the sphere of representation in the culture at large. Mothers are Object and Other, seldom seen except as from a child’s point of view, or in the bulls-eye of commerce. Sometimes when I want to go for a good long walk with my bolex and tripod and microphone, I bundle up my gear and roll it around in an old stroller. Thus are parenting and filmmaking entwined and mutually dependent.
It occurs to me several hours after writing the above: there is a dark irony to the bolex-in-a-stroller – the evocation of a mobility that I do not always feel. There is an exciting trend in independent film exhibition in the U.S. today that relies upon the personal appearance of the filmmaker – the “indie rock band” tour model. I admire filmmakers who hit the road to share their work, but even with a rad support network, I find it difficult myself as the mother of two young children. Perhaps the image (and activity) of the bolex-in-a-stroller manifests my own process of sublimation: that desire for mobility and a vexation at its limits re-deployed towards aesthetic ends.
Does your role as a filmmaker inform how you see yourself as a mother?
Filmmaking, like parenting, requires patience. However parenting requires a deeper well of patience than I believed I could draw upon before becoming a mother, back when I was “just” a filmmaker. In that sense, the filmmaking was and is a kind of “practice” (in both meanings of the word) for real life.
Did you have reservations about including your kids in the project? Can you share a story about the process of working with your kids? How do you balance teaching, making films, your family, life, etc? Can you share a day in your life doing this balancing act?
[these have similar answers so I am going to combine]
For better or worse, the boundaries between work and play are very fluid in our household. One day I present a daylight spool to 3-year-old Ruby and “Panda Puff” (her teddy bear) at their make-believe session of Show & Tell; another I teach 6-year-old Georgia how to minimize handling noise while recording sounds around the house using a digital recorder. Their father is a media artist and teacher as well, and we instigate art making and family participation as a model of and opportunity for collaboration and risk-taking. This process includes not being afraid to let my kids see me fail or grow frustrated or bored. I value boredom as an endlessly renewable resource with enduring imaginative potential for myself, and my children.
We have shared the rationale behind putting together the Kid on Hip program. Do you have any thoughts on being included in this group of films as a screening program?
Received wisdom from the Land of Documentary Proper asserts a patrilineal genealogy of subjective documentary from Leacock and Rouch through McElwee and Moore to Spurlock. The “noble lineage of male textuality” – to quote art historian and cultural critic Griselda Pollock – is likewise cemented into the discourse on experimental film. From Brakhage and Mekas to Pierce and Rosenblatt, we might read the “father-son succession” as a relational structure that invisibly replicates itself as a fundamental building block of Western art and culture. Yet economic privilege; social relations, access and mobility and chance – these things matter. Very much. Kid on Hip brings together women artists responding to the material conditions of their world; I feel lucky to be in such excellent company.
How important do you think a subjective mode of storytelling is in media education? How do you use subjective storytelling in your teaching?
[my answers below are written more informally – I am running out of time! I assume these are not to be reproduced in the DVD catalogue – please let me know if they are to be included, b/c I’d like to edit them down and clean them up a bit]
I go wildly back and forth on this one. I think mining the personal is extremely important part of the creative process – especially in order to get students to write and think and see and hear in ways that are authentically their own and not filtered through recent popular TV shows/films. That said, I have grown increasingly impatient with my students’ seeming refusal or inability to analyze a text they cannot personally “relate” to outside their own narrow orbits of experience, i.e. ‘difficult’ (or just different in terms of their degree of exposure) readings or screenings. In terms of their creative work, I do stress the subjective voice. However, I think the dangers of this emphasis are a possible contribution to the extreme narcissism of the culture, which enables them to reject analysis except on the grounds of “identification.”
For a specific example of how I try to develop students’ subjective voice: I often have students do an extensive Written Self-Inventory which I have adapted from Rabiger’s Directing the Documentary. These are usually documents that they turn into me alone – not shared with the class – to encourage freedom and honesty without concern for their peers’ opinions or judgments. I also tend to show a lot of first-person, artisanal/ independently-created work as examples.
What are the important messages to convey to women filmmaking students?
Your stories matter, and there is an audience for them.
Does your point of view as woman and mother affect the way they you see your work in relationship to technology?
Not really, except maybe to the extent that filmmaking – at least in post-production – feels a bit like “crafting” for me. I love to edit and I love to sew and these activities seems connected. Stitching together scraps to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Do you think there is a relationship between choice of technology and development of concept? Can you explain the relationship between technology and concept in You Can See the Sun in Late December?
I think technology informs process and limits, sure, but I am wary of ‘technological determinism.’ I would say that two reasons I remain stubbornly committed to the bolex are the totally anachronistic qualities of the image it produces, and its function as a tool for inviting comment from (often leading to conversation with) total strangers on the street. You Can See the Sun in Late December is a mix of 16mm and HD footage mainly due to the desire to see some of the material in one format, some in the other. I do feel a tug of resistance to the sudden ubiquity of the 16:9 frame, having a visual preference, generally, for filling the boxier space of 4:3.
How do the different changes in technology expand or contract the storytelling possibilities? Can you give an example of how changes in technologies have changed the way you approach telling the story you want to tell?
My first film, Whipped (1998) was an hour-long documentary filmed in 16mm (on Kathryn Ramey’s CP-16), with sound recorded on ¼-inch audio tape on a nagra, synched up and edited on a Steenbeck! Those days are over (except perhaps for Fred Wiseman) and the end was in sight even as we began to shoot (in 1993) and weighed using instead the best video tool then available to us: Hi-8. My personal, more experimental films on 16mm are not created using synchronous sound recording; for that process – for example, to shoot interviews or observational documentary footage – I use digital video for ease of use, and of course, to keep costs down as well. I would love to make another synch-sound 16mm film, but it’s quite “impractical” both from a production and an exhibition perspective (i.e. striking a print versus film-to-video output). Some days that “impracticality” inspires me to think: I will do this again eventually – other days, I imagine I am being an absurdly old-fashioned curmudgeon to even consider it.
In your opinion, are there particular approaches to filmmaking that academia does not value as highly? How do you think this way of thinking affects approaches to media education?
There is a class in a different department at my institution entitled “Communicating for Success: Multimedia in Professional Environments.” This kind of instrumentalized, or so-called “professionalizing” trend in media education I find troubling in its narrow-mindedness of approach and expected “outcomes” (to use another maddening neologism of administrators). In our current age of rubrics-and-assessment fanaticism, the freedom to explore various tools and means of artistic expression is under siege. Yet statistics show that students [at the primary and secondary school levels] involved in the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, to participate in youth groups, and to perform community service. As linguistic anthropologist Shirley Bryce Heath reports, “The support of like-minded risk-takers (i.e., other young artists) builds confidence in one’s ability to take on challenges, solve problems and follow through on plans.”
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” warned poet W.H. Auden; (“it survives/ In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper…” he continues). But tampering they are, those executives of higher education today! I consider it central to my mission as an educator to, in the spirit of Auden, “make nothing happen.” Practically speaking, my position entails a commitment to sharing alternative, ‘outmoded’ and anti-industrial perspectives in media production and scholarship with my students. Daily. Even as I will also help them build a reel and apply for internships.