March 2, 2007

Living With War

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I’ve never been much of a documentary watcher. When I go to see films, I prefer a personal narrative amidst the social commentary. I feel that quite often, documentaries lose site of the individual in their search for overarching truth. However, I was fortunate enough to have my earlier prejudice corrected after I saw a unique view into humanity by Lynne Sachs at her presentation, “I am Not a War Photographer.”

Co-hosted by Cornell Council for the Arts and the Program of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the program took place this past Tuesday night at the Film Forum in the Schwartz Center. Sachs, a veteran documentarian with a taste for experimental filmmaking presented a series of clips from an earlier set of films that focused on how human narratives and cultures gets lost within war.

After screening much of her oeuvre, Sachs screened her most recent film, States of Unbelonging. Between these segments she answered questions and introduced the following piece. While the films were all beautifully made, it was the insights into Sachs herself that made the night unique and inspiring.

The first film, Which Way is East, is a travel diary that follows Sachs and her sister Dana through Vietnam. From Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, Lynne and Dana spoke with different Vietnamese to get a sense of their culture, traditions and stories outside of the war. At the same time they literally reveal the gruesome underbelly of the war’s impact, going so far as to search in old hidden underground passages and foxholes. The shots in the film are a mix of confused, slow motion abstractions of Vietnam and slow, focused images of objects, scenery and people, lending an understated elegance to this cinematic record of a culture that is almost always perceived in our culture through the lens of a decades-past war.

The second film Sachs showed, Investigation of a Flame: The Catsonville Nine is the basis of her connection to Cornell. The film tells the history of the Catsonville Nine, a group of priests, nurses, and artists who, on May 17, 1968 chose to burn selective service records stolen from a draft office in Maryland. The unviolent protest was led by Father Daniel Berrigan, a former Chaplain of Cornell, and his brother Philip. During the trial, hundreds of Cornell students came down to Baltimore to protest in his defense. It was Sachs’s connection to him through her film that began her relationship with Cornell. The film, according to Sachs, was a look into not only this remarkable group, but also where the line between civil disobedience and a dangerous rebellion lies.

Sachs went on to show Tornado, a three-minute video made in the aftermath of 9/11. In a compelling twist, Sachs chooses not to focus on the faces of her subjects, but instead brings her camera to bear on their bodies and her own hands as she takes charred bits of paper, resumes, calendars and other detritus left over from the twin towers and repeatedly flips them over in her hands. This obsessive twirling gives character to these papers and, in a way, allows them to become silent memorials to the dead.

The last two films that Sachs showed were States of Unbelonging, a profound meditation on the terrorist murder of Israeli Revital Ohayon and her two sons, as well as a clip from The Small Ones, Sachs’s upcoming work. It focuses on her cousin Sandor, and his job reconstructing bones of dead American soldiers from the second World War (For a full review of States of Unbelonging, read Mark Rice’s column on Monday, February 23).
Each film presented was a special look into a time period and culture fractured by war. But instead of taking the traditional route and filming the obvious fractures, Sachs finds the undercurrents and reveals them through voice-over interviews, quotes from poems and images of life rather than death. There’s an intuitive sense to her work, as if she didn’t know what she was looking for but rather followed her instinct through each film.
As she explains it, rather than laying out each work in a linear fashion, she “start[s] from the center and works out” building layer upon layer until that eureka moment comes, after which she knows the movie is complete.

By not charting a direct course, Sachs has the ability to delve into the lives of her subjects and actually explore the struggles and problematic questions that arise from each war. She manages to make every film an organic, breathing entity. Her intense personal connection with her subjects is transmitted in every shot, still and shadow as well as through the narration. Taking her audience with her in her search for answers Lynne Sachs demonstrates that applying the term “war photographer” to her is truly doing her a disservice. In truth, she is a gatherer of worn photographic portraits of people brought together in a mosaic of tragedy, truth and human frailty.

For more information on Lynne Sachs or to see clips from her films, go to