Ann Marie Fleming: Queen of Disaster (an interview) (1996)
Ann Marie Fleming is a prolific storyteller, keeper of her family’s often fantastical narratives, and self-confessed “disaster magnet.” The lighter side of her filmmaking features stick-figure animations, brief parables about the dangers of growing older in which the catastrophes that are such a commonplace in the world of cartooning are given a more personal touch. Much of her work lies on the fringes of documentary, founded in real life experience that is replayed in associative images and a riveting first-person recounting. Fleming changes speed in her work, stopping to remember, to pick up the pieces, before accelerating into headlong encounters with death. Funny, startling, and witty, Fleming’s travelogues of disaster remind us that we the living are the exception while death is the rule, and that we bear traces of the dead in our speaking, our bodies, and our imagination. This interview was conducted in three parts over the course of a decade. It begins in 1990.
AF: I had this strange dream. There were all the usual things in it: falling down, not being able to walk or speak, my mother making out with her hairdresser … and there were all these animals in it. The only reason the animals were moving was that their bodies were filled with maggots. Later on in London, a bird fell on my head in the middle of the night. My calling. [laughs] Then I saw this film by Peter Greenaway called A Zed and Two Noughts where a swan crashes into a car, killing the wives of two biologists in the Amsterdam Zoo. They become obsessed with the decomposition of flesh and begin making time-lapse films that show the rotting corpses of animals. Which looked just like my dreams. It was déjà vu all over again. But what could I do? I wrote to Greenaway begging to become his lackey, but he didn’t find this of sufficient interest to write back. So I went into film. Film animation to be precise.
By 1984, I’d finished a degree in English literature and started handpainting T-shirts, teaching flute, doing standup comedy, and writing a biography of my great-greatgrandfather. Two years later I saw a couple of animated shorts I liked from the Emily Carr School of Art, so I thought that’s where I had to go. I wanted to make short, didactic animation pieces. You know, “A noun’s a special kind of word, it’s anything you’ve ever heard/I find it quite interesting, a noun’s a person, place, or thing.” Those little educational spots really made an impression when I was young, and I wanted to do more of them. Then I discovered I wasn’t very good technically, so I just started making something else — my own films. I made an animated short called Audition (1.5 min 1987) which shows mostly black leader as the director’s voice sets the scene. He says, “It’s midnight. You’re thirsty. It’s dark. You go downstairs to get a glass of milk. But when you open the door of the refrigerator, instead of finding milk, you find the severed head of your boyfriend. Suddenly, you feel a hand reach towards your throat. What is your reaction?” The rest of the film shows a blue-green frog woman screaming. After a few seconds the director says, “Next,” and the audition is over.
There was another film I was working on at the same time, Waving (7 min b/w 1987). Waving began by interviewing a number of mothers and daughters on video. In much of my work, I’m really just trying to find a way to let people tell their stories, to preserve an oral history. My family has thousands of photographs but I’m the one that has to point out, “This is you and this is your mother and your cousin,” because they don’t remember anything. They document everything but don’t have any memory. It’s really funny. So the mother/daughter video was an extension of those concerns. And I wanted to work with my grandmother. She used to be a ballerina in vaudeville and would have stayed on stage if she hadn’t gotten married. That ended everything. So here was a chance to tell her story. Less than a month after I did the interview, she had an aneurysm and fell into a coma for several days. All of my family was out of the country and I was left in charge. No one had expected it at all. I just sat there talking to her all the time because some believe that people in a complete coma can still hear things and you should just talk. And as I went every day to visit her in the hospital — hoping against hope that she would wake up and everything would be okay and would go on like it always did, yet knowing full well that it wouldn’t — I had this image of a woman falling. Falling not necessarily to death, but away from me. Away from everything.
We had been told that one of my grandmother’s frontal hemispheres had completely collapsed and if she were ever to regain consciousness she would be a vegetable. Vegetable. What a strange word. So, one morning, at ten minutes past three, I watched almost with anticipation as the line on the monitor told me she was dying, even though another machine was still breathing for her. It was the monitor that told me she was dead. And then the quick creep of cold up her fingers. And I felt so tired. So relieved. So angry. The funeral was three days later, after an open coffin lying in state. The next day I shot Waving. At the Aquatic Centre there’s a porthole by the diving board for the coaches. I wanted to show someone falling slowly through the air but got footage of a woman swimming in a pool. I was so disappointed. When I watched it slowed down on a Steenbeck it looked better, but I was running out of time. There was a week left in school and I’d never seen an optical printer, so I took a video-8 camera and shot it in slow motion off the editing machine. I dubbed in the voice of my grandmother talking and had it transferred back to film. Waving is all shot underwater and shows me floating up and down with these large, viscous bubbles streaming from my nose. I put my grandmother on the soundtrack and felt the connection was so strong. She’s talking about having to marry a Chinese man because her father demanded it, and how her daughter married a European and the stink that caused, talking about things I’ve heard her say her entire life. But when I showed it to my family my grandfather wouldn’t speak to me any more. He thought I’d drugged her to say those things, even though she’d said them a million times. It was like he’d never heard her before. And then I showed it to other people. Who didn’t get it. What did this voice have to do with this image? What did the history of this old woman have to do with me? “Okay,” I said, “I am going to make it so clear that you will have to understand. This is a film about death. About how we have only empty rituals to help us deal with this inevitable part of our lives. This is a film about how I feel ,when I lose forever the most important person in my life. And I want to communicate that to you, because that is why I am making a film. Because I want you to know. This is an elegy to my grandmother.” This is the voiceover of the film:
“Throw her in the water,” my father said, “It’s the only way she’ll learn.” Plunging down for what seemed like an eternity, only to float to the surface on inflatable wings. My mother has a picture in her album of my grandmother teaching me how to swim. But I don’t remember that at all. I remember, later, floating in the water, waiting for the jellyfish to bite. I used to scream when I saw them, so, mainly, I just kept my eyes closed. Instead of smacks, she offered me chocolate. Chocolate till I was sick. I wore chapsticked lips and blew kisses to everybody. I was just like Granny. I was four years old. At five I was alone in cold Vancouver, writing, “I miss my Granny.” But I don’t remember that at all.
At six, she came to be with us, beckoned by my letters, no doubt. She was always up early, and snored, too. Grandpa and her shared a bed for the first time in thirty years. I think that’s when my time stopped for Granny. The measurement now how far from then I’d come, how far from that lonely little girl. The doctor told me to get away from her. Spreading nerves from generation to generation. When I refused to go to graduation, Granny wanted to wear my cap and gown. She hated all my friends and loved everything I ever made. I wrote a poem for her.
My mother and I discussed her to no end, trying to explain things. How she was a Eurasian show-biz princess, a ballerina, a saxophone player, a magician’s assistant who never knew where the doves went to. She borrowed Andrew’s saxophone this year, but I only ever saw her play cards, short of breath from all those cigarettes she sneaks. You know, as long as I’ve known her, she’s never done anything except walk the dog, curse in Austrian, attempt to bake bread, buy pyjamas for Grandpa, cross me when I went on a trip, and ask, “What do you want out of your young life?” Last time I talked to her she said, “Ann Marie, be careful, it’s cold out. It’s snowing.” And as I said goodbye, I couldn’t see she was not waving but drowning.
I wrote a script that took me half an hour because I had spent my entire life writing it. And now I have to put it in festivals where people tell me that I’m not technically proficient, or that they didn’t like the “Ave Marie” that my aunt sings at the end, or that I speak a little fast, or that the Satie music (which isn’t Satie) is too familiar. But some of them say, “Haven’t I seen that somewhere before?” And of course they have. They dreamt it. The title comes from a poem by Stevie Smith called “Not Waving But Drowning.” It’s about someone drowning in a lake who’s ignored because people think she’s just trying to get attention. I thought that was a metaphor for my grandmother’s whole life. It was a film that was never supposed to be seen, it was just for myself. But once you show it, it becomes something else, it has its own life. That’s why it had to keep changing until I was actually communicating with other people. A lot of people were really touched by it, but I don’t know how to react to that, because it has nothing to do with me, the film is separate.
MH: The film is so personal and yet it’s enjoyed a very long public life, and far from retreating from that division you deepened it with your next film.
AF: I find my work really painful. I don’t know why I choose to make these films, they’re all hell. Since I started I’ve aged fifteen years, and they all scare me because each reveals more or less than I want to. Every time I finish a film I swear it’s the last one. Two events precipitated the next work; both were unexpected and violent. The first was a rape in Brindisi, the second a car accident in Vancouver. I saw these two events as related and wrote a text that became the voice-over for You Take Care Now (11 min 1989). Chronologically, my grandmother’s death in Waving fits in the middle of these events, in the bit of video snow in the film’s middle. But this was so different from my grandmother’s death. The rape happened in a different country, you don’t know how to react. The second occurs right outside your door but completely incapacitates you. There’s no context for either of these events because they’re not supposed to happen. It’s odd, because you’re distanced from the situation. It’s not a shared experience until you go through it, and then you have this thing in common with others who have. Like being a mother. The car is much more real and emotional for me than the rape. While I was being raped there were a million things going through my mind. If I was being passive physically, at least I wasn’t passive mentally. Whereas getting hit by the car, there was no time for thought. Just a few seconds of screaming terror, like an animal, and then nothing, a void. I’m a complete nihilist now because when you get to the end there’s nothing there. Nothing.
There’s a lot of guilt involved in both situations. I still haven’t gone to court yet. Lawyers for the drivers are going to try to blame me for being in the street. Because we have different stories, my word is going to be doubted. But it’s not my fault. I don’t even know whether it was the car’s fault. Someone turned wide on a dark, rainy night. These things happen. I get defensive because so many people suggested I was jaywalking, that I ran into the street. And with the rape a lot of people wouldn’t agree that it was rape or might feel that I had more control than I took over that situation. Not knowing whether I’d get hurt, I chose to be completely passive. I just wanted to get out. I didn’t want to do anything that would leave a mark, so no one could tell I’d ever been in that place. It was important for me to acknowledge that these things happened, but to show them in a balanced way, without prejudice, to get people to listen without turning off. I don’t know how many times I recorded the same words to get the right tone. It was important to do it in one take, to have it be all of a piece, like the voice in Waving. It’s a performance, and when I’m saying it, I’m there, I’m in it. I’m seeing it. After recording the text I began collecting images evoked by the experience.
Now you’re lying there waiting for something violent to happen, to be hit or beaten or for yourself to do something, like scream or fight or maybe pull out that ever-handy Swiss Army knife. But nothing like that passes. Because you’re afraid you might hurt him, or you’re afraid he might get angry and hurt you, or he’ll call the police and tell them that you stole something and you don’t speak Italian. And you’ve heard all about the police. So you lie there, passive and violated, feeling like someone told you you were going to win an award, and then you didn’t get it. Except the award was your dignity, your sanity, your middle-class inviolability. It was taken away and given to someone else who never made the mistake of going to a hotel room, in a strange place, with a strange man. And all you were worried about was how to get out of there with your luggage intact, how to avoid upsetting this man who not only had a black belt in tae kwon do but also your ticket for the boat out of that nightmare land, and how to get somewhere safe to sleep. God, you wanted to sleep so bad. But he’d told you that you look just like La Gioconda, and she hasn’t closed her eyes in over four hundred years. You take a picture of yourself so that you can remember what the Mona Lisa looks like when she realizes Leonardo is just another letch.
Outside again, amidst the shuffling feet of grape pickers waiting for a job by the Piazza fountain, you find yourself followed by a midget who says you look like Brooke Shields. All tall women probably look like Brooke Shields to a small man. You’ve already had your life’s worth of trauma so you’re not expecting it when he locks you in a small room and tries to push his tongue down your face. You don’t throw him across the room but push him gently under the rock where he came from and go out into the street with his tiny, offended ego following you, crying, ‘Slut, bitch, not good enough for you, am I? Slut, bitch. You don’t think I know your type? Slut, bitch, hey, wait up? What’s the matter? Wait up? Did I say something wrong?’ You go back to your ticket taker, now your board of refuge; after all, what else can he do? He gives you a lecture on how you’re too trusting, and to remember that men here are assholes. “Even I’m a little bit of an asshole. But then, you know that. He he he.” So, he buys you dinner, kisses you on the cheek, and tells you to keep in touch. Gives you his name and address. Oh, sure. You take a taxi to the pier. It’s dark out. Your friend from the train is there, and asks how your day was. You say, “I had a really bad day, a really bad day.” But then you look down at yourself, and you’re all in one piece, and you think, “At least I’m still okay.” [voice-over excerpt from You Take Care Now]
Originally, I was going to do the whole rape scene from my point of view. Then I started going into this personal iconography thing. It was Peg Campbell who suggested maybe I should film details of rooms, like ceilings and floors and corners, all those things you’re looking at when you’re trying to pretend you’re not being raped. She said I should go to this hotel in Victoria, so I did. Nothing worked until this bird started tapping at the window. I don’t know why I filmed it. The seagull is like the bird that fell on me in the park in London. It’s the bird that made me want to make films when I saw it rotting in Peter Greenaway’s film. It’s the same fucking bird. And I show myself flying through the air, like a bird. All the women in my films wear white and have pointy hats like beaks and they’re always around birds. They look like birds. I don’t know why. The bird is pecking at a piece of glass trying to get in, reminding you of something you can’t ignore. Like memories that have to return. Then I wanted to get footage of roads from Brindisi, until I realized this story could be happening, is already happening, everywhere. So I filmed from a car, moving through the streets here in Vancouver. I wanted to use footage from Raging Bull, but people said there would be copyright problems, so I found an amateur boxing league under the Astoria Hotel. And this guy went crazy. Tony was standing behind me with the sun gun to get some light on the boxer and I asked him to punch towards my hand which I held just off-camera. He started punching me for real and I fell back into Tony who was holding me up, and I realized he’d completely lost it. Mr. Boxer’s covered in sweat and breathing hard and I’m trying to tell him it’s over, it’s finished. Except for the re-enactment of the scene in the ambulance and the midget harassing me in Brindisi, all of the images are associative. They remind me of things. The images are a place where the audience can begin to make their own Brindisi, their own violations.
MH: You show two photographs in the film, one in each half. The first shows you in a mirror. The second closes the film, showing you resting in bed.
AF: They’re the two real things in the film. After I was raped he left the room and I took a picture so I could see what I looked like. And it doesn’t look like anything. Because you can’t tell from looking. Just like at the end of the film when Ross takes a picture of me, it’s just me lying in bed. But no, it’s the evening I’ve been run over by two cars and I can’t move.
MH: What about the ambulance re-creation?
AF: I wanted to bring the film back from its lyrical images to something real and to put the title in context. I lay on their stretcher and said, “Just pretend you’ve come upon an accident, and I’m a suspected spinal injury.” When it was over they said, “Is that it? It’s just like work.” That’s what they do every day, it’s a routine catastrophe. People are always getting raped or run over. You could be there later on tonight.
MH: Can you describe your early relationship with pictures?
AF: I was brought up with images I can’t shake. They showed me what I’m supposed to say and look like, what is an acceptable image and what isn’t, the wrapping on cheese slices… There are a lot of things that disgust me, I can’t help it. I have a problem with skin because I was brought up with cartoons. I hate the way I am, but can’t change it. The way I think has so much to do with what I’ve been allowed to see and what’s been in the minds of those creating the images. Now I want to do it. Not simply as a reaction, but to show they’re okay, too. I’m amazed I can put my gritty pictures up there. I’m not happy with them because I’ve been so conditioned. That’s why my work is so hard for me to look at. I don’t like the kind of films I make. I like what’s out there. Movies are rarely inventive and often boring, but the way they’re presented and the way they manipulate you — I buy into that and I’m happy with it. But I’m not happy that I’m happy with it. That’s my whole life, this dissatisfaction. I always feel there’s something wrong. I have ways of being and seeing that are different from what’s out there. I’m making films that look the way they do because I can’t make them look any better. But that’s okay. People are more open to it now — I don’t think I would have been as well received five years ago.
MH: Your next film was called New Shoes?
AF: I wanted to make an experimental film about a friend of mine who was chased down an alleyway and shot in the back by her ex-fiancé. He didn’t realize she wasn’t actually dead. I’m a disaster magnet and related to this story because it was so much like nightmares I’ve had myself. Then the National Film Board announced a competition that allowed fifteen women to make five-minute films with a budget of $10,000 each. I was lucky enough to get one and made New Shoes: An Interview In Exactly Five Minutes (5 min 1990). Gaye tells her story in a documentary style, talking-head shots intercut with videotaped scenes. They show a fairy princess with a long blond wig and pointy hat, jumping on a trampoline, playing with birds, laughing and being shot and falling. I broke up pieces of coloured glass and animated them on top of a video monitor to show the shattering of my childhood conventions. The film is framed with a tune by a local singer: “My old flame/can’t even remember his name … / my old flame/my new lovers all seem so tame … ” I bet they do.
In New Shoes, I was completely concerned with Gaye. I wanted her to come across as a multi-dimensional person, not just an onscreen prop for my own ends or, worse, as a victim. Fuck, all my films are about guilt; in this one I felt guilty about Gaye and wanted to do her justice. Gaye told me the story many times, she’s very glib, together, in control. Then I film her and what happens? It falls apart. I wanted to show how manipulative documentary can be. I wanted to coach her, ask her why she didn’t say it like the manuscript. But with the crew, the equipment, and the artificial importance film imparts to everything, she crumbled and I tried to work around that in the editing. I wanted to undercut the authority of the documentary form, which insists, “This is the truth.” That’s bullshit because all filmmaking is exploitative and documentary tries to hide that. Because this film had to be cut to fit a five-minute length, a format as artificial as the notion of truth in film, I made the time of the film a central theme. Just as she gets to the most dramatic, gut-wrenching part of the story, I pick up the watch and say, “We have ten seconds left — tell me about the new shoes.” Flustered, she responds, “I was lying on the ground and turned my head to see Albert lying beside me, but all I could see was the soles of his shoes. He wore new shoes and I wondered why he bought them if he knew he was going to kill himself.”
MH: Why do you laugh hysterically when she describes his suicide?
AF: The laugh is the fulcrum of the entire film, it contextualizes everything. People are offended until they realize they’ve been laughing all along, because the film’s beginning is funny. Gaye replies, “I don’t think that’s very funny.” This is the only chance she actually gets to participate in the film. The film is about a woman and her story until I laugh, at which point it becomes the filmmaker’s story. It draws attention to the film’s making, of who’s letting you see what you’re seeing. It’s all shot from my point of view, looking over a table at her. But this was just one aspect of her story, so I began work on a long film, also called New Shoes (75 min 1990). Together they make a pair of new shoes. [laughs] After Gaye became pregnant, I wanted to tie these two events together — the life and the death, the shooting and the birth. The film follows a day in the life of a young woman (played by me), interrupted by past events. One of these is a long dinner conversation with the actress who plays Gaye, who tells her story — about being shot in the back by her ex-fiancé before he blows his head off.
There are a number of animated sequences that show a woman photographed through nine months of pregnancy and video inserts of the fairy princess playing in a soap-bubble universe. Meanwhile, the film’s lead is trying to make a film and deal with a couple of lovers, and she has her purse stolen. Nothing big happens in the film. Many things occur, but at the end of a day how different are you from at the beginning? There’s a point to every moment, but it’s not a big point. New Shoes is about living on different planes at the same time. Did you ever read A Wrinkle in Time? It’s an elementary school novel which poses the question: what’s the shortest distance between two points? Normally you would say a straight line, but sometimes there’s a wrinkle, which forms a loop, and I think of experience like that. As something you can’t get over. A lot of my interest in Gaye’s story was with her guy, someone who felt so disenfranchised that his reaction to rejection was an attempted murder/suicide. My whole life I’ve tried to fight the violence in myself. I think people like me are completely lost. Some people are reaching back to older values — the family thing, money, falling in love. A person like me who has a lot of opportunities: why all the anger, frustration, the total dissatisfaction with everything? It’s some core that’s missing. Everyone has something to fill that hole with. A thinking person today knows the hole is real and there’s no way to fill it. But you can’t live like that, or you can individually, but not as a society. That’s why the film raised the possibility of the central character’s pregnancy. I did it to fill the hole, but you don’t know whether she’s really pregnant or not, it’s just a worry that moves through the film. I don’t know if it’s even hopefulness, because I don’t feel hopeful. This film is about being a woman my age, living now. All I’m doing is showing patterns of experience. It has a number of threads, it’s like embroidery, except in the end you don’t get a cloth you get… a bunch of threads. [laughs]
MH: Because most of the characters in the film deal with images of each other in place of relating, the film demands that these images be held accountable to some kind of moral structure. It suggests that violence isn’t a random event but an integral part of our sign systems.
AF: My work comes out of anger, but that isn’t what I want to get across. It always surprises me that people are shocked by my stories, because they’re the same ones you hear every day on the news. But when you make it personal, attach a name and a face, it becomes something else. I don’t want to be shrill because I want to be listened to. I feel all of my work is constrained because I don’t want people to be afraid of it.
MH: How much have your films cost?
AF: The feature will cost $60,000 which came from Cinephile, BC Cultural Fund, and the Canada Council. The National Film Board gave me $10,000 for the small New Shoes film. Before that I paid for everything myself and it didn’t cost much.
MH: Does an avant-garde exist in Canada?
AF: I don’t like the term because it’s elitist and filmmaking is elitist enough without those labels. I don’t think anyone’s ahead. There have to be different ways of speaking and many haven’t been explored. I have a problem when it comes to innovation because I can’t just manage it. In elementary school, we had a project where we had to invent something, and all I could dream up was an automatic grape peeler. When I was eight, I thought that everything that needed to be invented already had been.
MH: So what about the avant-garde?
AF: It’s like an east wind. No matter where you are something moves through you. All over the world people are working on the same idea at the same time, like a virus. There’s something in the air — the avant-garde?
(The remainder of this interview was conducted via letter and then in person, seven years later, in 1997.)
MH: What are you doing now?
AF: I’m back in Germany, a month sick with some stomach bacteria from Egypt, and my grandfather is dying. As of the day before yesterday. I saw him in Vancouver, and he’s old (really old), but I was confident when I last saw him that he would easily make a run of it for a few more years. Unless a miracle happens, which I’m always counting on, now I think it is only a few more days. It was very all of a sudden. He has kidney failure and pneumonia and can’t walk to the bathroom. So much for dignity. He is also about three feet tall now. After the initial shock, we’re into a holding pattern. Morphine has replaced whiskey. Not as much fun to take, I think. For me life has been sleep, trying to eat, and rushing to the bathroom. Hmm … sounds like Grandpa, but with fewer drugs and visitors.
MH: Wasn’t your grandfather’s house haunted?
AF: A few years after my grandmother died, my aunt in Virginia began to hear strange noises. It was the sound of wine glasses coming from nowhere, two bell-like tones a fifth apart. And the smell of Shalimar, which was my grandmother’s perfume. At Christmas there was a big family reunion and everyone had been hearing/smelling the same things, all in separate places at different times. I don’t believe in ghosts, but the mind is a strong thing, so I thought there was a kind of mass family hysteria that allowed everyone to hear it. Over Christmas, most of the family stayed at my grandfather’s house. The night before my three cousins were to leave, my uncle got up for the toilet, but when he passed the living room he found them wide awake and terrified. Every hour on the hour the bells sounded, and the hour was about to strike again. They waited. Sure enough, the bells sounded again, and my uncle began to pray to the ghost of my grandmother, saying she could rest now. She responded by insisting that she didn’t want to share Grandpa after death. And everyone went, “Uh oh.”
After my grandmother died, my grandfather did something no one’s ever forgiven him for. He looked up his old girlfriend from before he was married. They’d met in Hong Kong when she was a translator for the Vatican. Seventy years later she’s had a stroke and lives in an English nursing home where he visited her. He took a video camera with him, and later we all watched Grandpa showing an affection we’d never seen him give to Granny. Everyone was pissed off. So my uncle figured this is what the ghost meant, that there were two women waiting on the other side for Grandpa. The next day, after the cousins had gone home, my uncle was sitting at the piano playing Grandma’s favourite song, “I’ll Be Seeing You in All the Familiar Places.” And he hears Granny’s voice saying that everything will be all right, and that Ann Marie should make a film about this, a small film called I’ll Be Seeing You. But it turned out he’d got it wrong. He wasn’t playing that song at all, and couldn’t remember her words exactly. So what was going to be another small autobiographical film changed into something else. La Fabula della bella Familia auf du Monde (15 min 1993) was made at the Canadian Film Centre. I wanted to make a film out of this ghost story, to show what happens to a family after the matriarch dies. I wanted to make it without language or with a multiple, tower-of-Babel language to get away from my monologue-based work. The multi-ethnic cast reflected the mixed races of my family. The Film Centre allowed me to make what is basically an experimental film with a television crew, studio conditions, and decent equipment. It is the first and only film I did not touch myself in the editing, which was the hardest part for me. Everything else was quite wonderful, having all that stuff at my disposal.
MH: Can you describe the film?
AF: It begins with a family worried about Grandfather’s health. His wife looks after him, then we see her feeding the dog and she dies. Which is basically what happened. My Grandmother was cleaning up her dog’s vomit one morning and had an aneurysm. In the film, her death is followed by the opening of a door with white light pouring through it. After Granny’s death, the family comes together for the will. The doorbell keeps ringing and people keep disappearing into the white light. At last the grandmother and her little dog come back to see how Grandpa’s doing. You think maybe she’s bringing death but she’s not, because Grandpa doesn’t die. The granddaughter in the film is clearly me; she’s watching the situation unfold without exactly being a part of it. I’m the one who’s been reporting via all these films on the various machinations of our history. I’ve taken myself out of the situation so I can present it.
MH: What’s been the reaction?
AF: Not too many people like this film. A lot of people said I’d let the infrastructure of commercial filmmaking run me over. I disagree. I’m quite happy with it, and more than anything else I’ve ever made, it looks exactly how I thought it should. I wanted the music to be a tango because that’s what the film is: life, death, and overly dramatic symbols. Some issues can’t be handled in naturalistic ways. I thought I was being blatant but most think it is obscure and alienating. So go figure.
MH: You’ve made three animated films: So Far So (1.5 min 1992), I Love My Work (2 min 1994), and My Boyfriend Gave Me Peaches (2 min 1994).
AF: They happen when I don’t have the energy to do the other films. In 1991 I had this little film I wanted to shoot, but I was hit and run over by two cars. I was in a wheelchair for a while, but wanted to do something in film, so I drew these stick figures that presented my life from birth to the age of 26. Three years later I applied for money to finish it and to make a couple of other small films. Except for getting a bad neck, I find animation very relaxing and fun, especially after the hard slog of my other work. I don’t define myself as an animator, so I don’t have to worry about it. My Boyfriend is a schoolyard ditty I sang as a kid. Everyone thinks I wrote it but I didn’t, it’s a clapping song from school. The whole idea is that from the start you’re prepared for dysfunctional relationships. Shall I sing it for you? It goes like this:
My boyfriend gave me peaches,
My boyfriend gave me pears, pears, pears,
My boyfriend gave me twenty-five cents,
And kicked me down the stairs, stairs, stairs.
I gave him back his peaches,
I gave him back his pears, pears, pears,
I gave him back his twenty-five cents,
And kicked him down the stairs, stairs, stairs.
My boyfriend gave me punches,
My boyfriend gave me glares, glares, glares,
My boyfriend took away fifty cents,
And kicked me down the stairs, stairs, stairs.
I gave him back his punches,
I gave him back his glares, glares, glares,
I took back my fifty cents,
And kicked him down the stairs, stairs, stairs.
An ambulance arrives to bear the bruised boyfriend off, and then the police lock her in jail. The fantasy over, one of the girls on the soundtrack says, “Let’s do something else.” And then they begin to sing again, laughing in their evocation of lives to come.
MH: Do you remember all the songs from your childhood?
AF: Sure. That’s what we were singing when we were six and seven. Everyone knows these songs. Girls, that is. And they’re still singing them. But we forget these things. It came to me 25 years later. I’ve been learning guitar and singing cowboy songs and they’re all about people killing others because they’re pissed off. Stories of jealousy and unrequited love. But even after learning all the words you don’t know what they’re about, they’re just background somehow. That’s why I like these short films; I’m just showing what’s right in front of your face.
MH: How did It’s Me, Again (45 min 1993) begin?
AF: My best friend’s mother had been adopted as a child. When she was 60, Lois discovered that her birth mother had secretly looked after her and her twin sister all their lives. Her mother had loved her after all. Lois’s relationship with her adopted family was terrible, she felt it ruined her life. I was interested in how she reinvented herself according to this fact, although her twin sister didn’t want to hear about it. She thought it was all fantasy. It was a story about love, family, and twins. Everyone would like to imagine we’re not alone, that there’s someone else who has shared everything from womb to tomb, and this perfect union is suggested by twins. I wanted to make a film that would tell Lois’s story while we watched the making of a buffet. Lois and her sister inherited things after people died, and because Lois wound up with the buffet, they don’t talk any more. There’s obviously more to it than that, but it was a symbol. I wanted to show this big family heirloom getting made, and the love, care, and craft that go into its making. It sits in the living room and watches everything. After it was finished, I wanted to show it getting destroyed, except it’s so well built I wouldn’t be able to burn it completely. A metaphor for family. You can never separate yourself completely. But after I got the money, Lois didn’t want to do it any more. She was worried it might cause more problems with her sister. I started doing research on twins as well as systems of organization — chaos theory and coincidences. I wanted to present so much conflicting evidence you wouldn’t know what to believe. I began shooting twins in a studio setting: identical twins, fraternal twins, and fakes. I didn’t have much money or time, and people weren’t always familiar with the camera, but because they came with their twin they felt instantly comfortable. They brought their own space with them, it was really sweet. The film plays with theories, but it’s really about how people need others. Even in a two-minute studio meeting you can feel the history between people.
Once the film was finished I went back to Vancouver to do my thesis defence. When I was in town I dropped off a new script to Praxis, a script development workshop, only the woman there said they already had my script. And I said, “What script?” And she handed me something called Let’s Get Mad by Ann Marie Fleming. I said, “This isn’t my script,” and she showed me the signature and it was one of my signatures. Then I went to a party and met a woman who said, “Remember me? You used to have a big crush on my roommate,” and I didn’t know what she was talking about. It turns out that in Vancouver there’s a woman my age, Vietnamese-American, named Ann Marie Fleming, who’s making films. And she looks enough like me that people mistake us. At my going-away party someone came thinking it was the other person.
MH: You haven’t met?
AF: No, never. We could make a film together. By Ann Marie Flemings. I never want to meet her. It’s horrible. There’s someone who’s watching her stuff and getting us mixed up. It’s very strange. A name means something. It’s your profession, something you grow into.
MH: Like a trademark?
AF: Yes. It’s not a big name, but it’s mine. My friends don’t call me Ann Marie Fleming, they don’t call me anything. I don’t need a name for people who know me, I need a name for those who don’t. My name is shorthand for all I’ve done.
MH: Will you continue making autobiographical work?
AF: Absolutely not. I’ve spent parts of the last fourteen years working on the biography of my great-great-grandfather. I lived for a year in a castle writing a book about a friend of mine. And my grandfather just died. And that’s it. I can’t do personal work any more because it’s too painful, it’s too hard to put yourself on the line all the time. Many artists begin with autobiography and then move on, and I feel that need now. I’m going to live in Germany where I can’t rely on language any more, so I have to find some new way of making work. I define myself by my speaking, but over there I sound like a three year-old.
MH: Tell me about Automatic Writing (85 min 1996).
AF: My great-great-grandfather wrote an autobiography which was translated into English fourteen years ago. He was born in the middle of China, in the middle of the nineteenth century, amidst famine and rebellion. His father died when he was five. His family was so poor his mother was forced to remarry a man from another village. After they left the village he had bad dreams and returned to his grandparents. They died and he begged on the streets for three years until he was kidnapped and taken to Hong Kong, where he was sold to a madam who ran a brothel on a junk. She sailed to San Francisco and set up business, leaving him in the care of one of her johns. When he was fourteen she came back, wanting to take him back to Hong Kong. On the journey there was a big storm, they thought they were going to die; he said a prayer that calmed the waters, and he underwent a Christian conversion. He quit the brothel and worked as a houseboy for a German doctor, and then returned to China to study medicine. He became an ocular surgeon. He married, had seven kids, and then at the age of 38 he heard a voice that reminded him of the voices he used to hear in his native village. He didn’t know his own name because he only had a nickname, so he returned to his village, learned his real name, found his birth mother, and tried to bring her back with him.
MH: Big story.
AF: He had a bed that combusted regularly, and there were flaming hands which were the bones of dead slaves igniting in the dungeon. Legend has it a wealthy lady had once tortured her slaves down below. I couldn’t get the funding to do the Gone with the Wind epic version, so I made a little deconstructionist film where his ghost returns and worries about the telling of his story. He struggles with me over his representation and the size of the budget. It’s more about searching than telling. Trying to understand who this person was. It’s a film very much about God. That’s the point of his diary. He’s a real bible-thumping fundamentalist; his writing was about his search for God. That’s what he wanted to share first of all. And I don’t want to make fun of that. But I also wanted to make my own point.
(The following was added, via post, a few weeks later.)
AF: Automatic Writing was about trying to make work with someone looking over your shoulder all the time. There’s responsibility as long as there is someone who cares. And now there is no one. It was a great, sad shock when Grandpa died, even though there was really very little else for him by that point. Apparently he died after tasting a drop of whiskey off a syringe. Don’t ask. It was very frustrating not being there while he was failing, and the funeral and the whisking away of all his things. Everything is gone. The house is sold, his ashes are spread on the water. All in less than two weeks. I can’t stand it. I got off lucky, I think, because I was only fond of the old coot, and didn’t have the problems his children had. Still, I think you may have had an idea of how important he was to me. He’d outlived almost all his friends and relatives. How depressing.
As far as deaths go, it was okay, I guess. I’ve spent the entire year writing a book on grief, about my friend Anne’s suicide. That was something I couldn’t deal with at the time, because of the distance emotionally and physically. Grandpa’s death came at the end of a long life. He didn’t suffer so much, he still had a nasty sense of humour, and he was very sweet. I got to see him before he went downhill and shared him with so many by talking about him and the films. Everybody knows him through those films he doesn’t even like. So I feel happy about that. Well, not happy, but it doesn’t feel strange, so much.
Ann Marie Fleming Filmography
Audition 1.5 min 1987
Waving 7 min b/w 1987
So Far So 2.5 min 1988-92
You Take Care Now 11 min 1989
Drumsticks 2 min 1989
New Shoes: An Interview in Exactly Five Minutes 5 min 1990
New Shoes 75 min 1990
Pioneers of X-Ray Technology: a film about Grandpa 15 min 1991
So Far So 1.5 min 1992
It’s Me, Again 45 min 1993
La Fabula della bella Familia auf du Monde 15 min 1993
Buckingham Palace 7 min 1993
I Love My Work 2 min 1994
My Boyfriend Gave Me Peaches 2 min 1994
Pleasure Film (Ahmed’s Story) 5 min 1995
Automatic Writing 85 min 1996
Great Expectations (not what you’re thinking) 1.5 min 35mm 1997
The Day My Grandfather Spied on Vladimir Ashkenazy 5 minvideo 1998
AMF’s Tiresias 5 min 35mm 1998
Hysterical: the musical 2 min video 2000
Lip Service ~a mystery~ 45 min 35mm 2001
Originally published in: Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada, ed. Mike Hoolboom, 2nd edition; Coach House Press, 2001.
Ann Marie Fleming: Waving to Automatic Writing (1992)
Ann Marie Fleming is a prolific spinner of yarns who hails from Vancouver. Her work is a blend of personal anecdote and home-brewed image reworkings that uses oral histories and a metaphorical image practice to heal the divide between past and present. Serving consecutive post-secondary school sentences in literature and animation, these two disciples have been pressed into the service of an autobiographical project that is uniquely pitched. This is a cinema that moves to the rhythm of the word, it is a confessional which summarizes even as it reveals, cauterizing the loss of the past with the balm of speech.
In film after film, Fleming takes on mourning as an expressly individual concern, accompanied by a personal dream symbology and a first person recounting of circumstance. Her work figures death as a private limit, as the vanishing point of language and representation. In an image world in which we are able to produce pictures with the push of a button, and where images of untold devastation, famine and war are part of our daily diet, Fleming struggles to speak of her own loss. She begins by displacing the tragic image: there are no bloody hands here, no wounds uncovered or gravesites visited. Instead, allegorizing both event and response, Fleming searches for pictures that will feed our ability to mourn, to make pictures for ourselves, as if the reasons for our incessant doubling of the world around us might be found in remembrance. Sounding from the limits of representation, Fleming’s travelogues of disaster remind us that we bear traces of the dead in our speaking, our dress and our imagination.
Waving (5 minutes b/w 1988) was made after her grandmother’s sudden death of an aneurysm. A poetic monologue impels the film’s narrative, the filmmaker’s voice evoking images drawn from a lifetime of family. Her text hinges on an identification with her grandmother that begins as an infant and carries on into adulthood. “I was just like granny,” she says, but goes on to hint of a compact too closely drawn — of a bodily sympathy that relates the ills of one generation with the next. Their common ailments join the bodies of young and old beneath the sign of mortality, sharing the certainty of a body’s failure. If illness became the body’s way to manufacture consent between these two, then the history of their relations might be said to be written in flesh, the younger one carrying the physical traces of the older — inside and out. To be a son or a daughter, doesn’t this mean bearing the image of the dead like some living memorial, dead aunts and uncles resurrected in a nose or thumb? Each body owes its bearing to the past, even as it plots to carry its own physiognomy into the future. The body is already a site of mourning, the first tomb, and all those that can read its signs can see the history of our ancestors written there.
In drafting images for this work of mourning, Fleming withholds an image of her grandmother until the very end of the film where she appears in a single photograph. In place of her grandmother, the filmmaker shows herself, slowly floating underwater. Her movements arrested through re-photography, her white smock an iridescent glow, Fleming appears as the incarnation of transference, embodying the mysterious join between generations. She is an angel of grieving, come to offer her final benediction.
A year later she finished You Take Care Now (10 minutes 1989). Here Fleming’s travelogue recites, in first person voice-over, a tale of two cities. The first is Brindisi, where the patent sexism of her surround leads her to seek refuge in the hotel room of her unscrupulous tour guide. The second moves closer to home — where the simplest of street crossings becomes a nightmare journey when she is struck by a pair of cars. While the stories she narrates are her own, Fleming relates them both in the second person (you), emphasizing the way in which film turns documentary into fiction, while implicating the spectator in the story’s unfolding.
That one should speak of going to ‘see’ the movies, narrates the way in which film privileges the sense of sight above all others. But Fleming reverses this convention by beginning with the soundtrack, laying down a weave of voice and music which triggers an associative montage. Her rapid fire delivery and sure sense of dramatic timing underscore images which bear the signs of retrieval and re-processing. These reproductive sites are not simple illustrations of the events described in voice-over. Instead, they provoke an allusive chain of associations which move alongside the filmmaker’s confessional narrative. Employing a variety of styles from sand animation, dance, animated photographs and dramatic re-enactment, these images are set in the present, while her sounds remain rooted in past events, and it is this tension that lends the film its power. Between the story of the past, and images of the present is ‘you,’ the narrated subject of herstory; the audience itself made to shuttle between the demands of an impossible present and a tragic past.
A year later she finished another short film about catastrophe and death, New Shoes: An Interview In Exactly Five Minutes (5 minutes 1990). Its subject is not the filmmaker but a friend, Gaye Fowler. After breaking up with a lover, Fowler is subject to phone calls, sudden visits and threats. One day, just before going to work, he arrives at her front step waving a shotgun. She tries to run back inside the house but he shoots her in the back. He then walks over to her and shoots himself. He dies instantly while she is left behind — to speak and to remember. While Fowler recounts her horrifying experience in a conventional documentary talking head, numerous cutaways show the filmmaker dressed in fairy princess garb performing many of the events described by her friend. Coloured objects dance through the air around the princess, lending her a whimsical, fairy tale air. Like Waving, this work hinges on an act of identification that allows Fleming to assume the role of her friend, now transfigured and allegorized as the fairy princess. Laughing, she plays alone in the emptied fields and beaches of Vancouver. When Fowler speaks of being shot, the princess falls to the ground several times, but the look on her face is clear. Her falling is clearly a put-on, she is only playing. Her isolation and dress clearly mark this image as a childhood fantasy, now cruelly juxtaposed with the obsessively psychotic behavior of the boyfriend.
The image of the princess is most expressly aimed at the audience, as an allegory for the spectator. Our stories of disaster are popularized in tabloid form, typically aligned in rows of print that homogenize tragedy and hardship. The princess is the tabloid reader, or the cinema audience, who have vicariously experienced the end of life thousands of times. If the princess is always shown laughing and mugging into the camera, it is because she knows the games she plays won’t hurt her. The princess is accompanied by a swarm of coloured particles floating through air. They are part of her wonderland of invention, of innocence and invention.
After Fowler relates her own shooting the princess falls to the ground and the colours follow her down. This is the final image of the princess. Fowler returns, speaking about her boyfriend putting a gun into his mouth and blowing his brains out. At this point the filmmaker, who is seated across from Fowler as she speaks, but out of view of the camera, bursts into hysterical laughter. Fowler says, “I don’t think that’s very funny.” It isn’t. But this laughter joins with the laughter of the princess to re-frame Fowler’s narrative in a meta-narrative of voyeurism and media spectacle. By laughing into the camera as an image, and then aloud, the filmmaker reminds us that she is in control, that Fowler is speaking on command, surrounded by lights and cameras. The laugh turns attention back to the filmmaker, foregrounding the act of representation and thus implicating the manipulation attendant in any act of personal confession made public. But Fleming isn’t simply content to show herself showing, or to make a spectacle of Fowler’s tragedy. Instead, she insists on showing Fowler’s depiction of the event alongside the response this recounting will eventually engender. In a savage parody of audience indifference, Fleming laughs out loud, as if this story means nothing to her, as so many like-minded stories have passed all of us by without touching us. Pressing her point, she pulls out a watch and says, “We’ve only got ten seconds left — what about the new shoes?” Fowler responds by saying that her boyfriend arrived wearing new shoes. Why would he buy a new pair if he was thinking about killing himself?
New Shoes was exfoliated in feature length form the same year — dramatizing Fowler’s address in a mosaic montage that followed Fleming’s excursions over the course of a single day. Fowler’s tale is narrated by Toronto actress Valerie Buhagiar in a light hearted dinner discussion with Fleming that belies the severity of her speech. Meanwhile, we watch Fleming run through everyday activities — shopping, eating, visiting friends and dodging the calls of her unseen lover whom she fears has made her pregnant. Mysterious black-and-white photographs appear throughout the film — dissolving stills, shot in half-light, show a woman swell into pregnancy. The princess imagery of New Shoes‘s prequel is refrained — showing its white clad wonder blowing enormous soap bubbles into the snowy hillocks of British Columbia. Visiting a park, a thief attempts to steal her purse which prompts an extended tearful recantation of the world’s woes. While her alliteration of disaster continues, we see her jogging on a beach with a friend, their fresh scrubbed smiles and slow-motion stance a frank parody of heterosexual convention. It is these harlequins-in-motion, she decides, that keep us from residing in the present, all of us caught in our own impossible pictures. By the film’s end her dream lover has vanished, and in his stead she places a call to her real life amour. An episodic portrait of a threatened and isolated female middle-class, New Shoes relates an everyday banality interrupted and informed by death. It is a testament of political consciousness, deploying the homely stage of Fleming’s everyday circumstances to enact rites of mourning and reconciliation.
Pioneers of X-Ray Technology (15 minutes 1991) is a portrait of the filmmaker’s grandfather. Dr. To is a ninety-one year old Chinese man, his gravelly voice answering in response to the filmmaker’s questions — turning over the subjects of his schooling, profession, the war and his trips abroad. In each of these incarnations he is an insatiable producer of images — setting up the first public darkroom facility in Hong Kong, winning awards as an amateur photographer, x-raying potential immigrants and shooting miles of movie footage on his innumerable travels. Now, nearing the end of his days, he has been brought before the camera to tell the story of these images, the story in which he names himself. At the close of the film he announces, “I like to shoot big buildings.” In voice-over the filmmaker describes her search through thousands of feet of these buildings, photographed in countries around the world. What she is searching for are images of her beloved grandmother (his wife), and herself. These brief domestic interludes restate the relation between grandmother and granddaughter first conjured in Waving. As Dr. To speaks with a growing warmth and humour about events in his own life, we are not witness to illustrations of these events, but to moments of his wife caught in passing, looking over her shoulder to greet the camera’s stare in Athens, Hawaii and Hong Kong. He never speaks of her, but she is there all the same, looking back over a lifetime spent together, not so much accompanying his speech as emblematizing all that cannot be said. Her look is finally met by the filmmaker’s five year old stare, similarly drawn into the camera. This closed circle of matched gazes completes an identificatory figure that finally impels the filmmaker to take the place of her grandmother, now seen walking alongside her grandfather on the beach, sitting beside the old man on a couch, waving together from her new car. In voice-over she recounts, “When Granny was alive she used to always speak for him. And now it seems like I do all the talking.”
The following year Fleming moved to Toronto and began a new cycle of work which was both a recapitulation and elaboration of her unique, first-person cinema. She began with a trilogy of animated shorts which utilized crude, stick figure drawings to conjure moments of her past.(2 minutes 1992) is an autobiographical brief, tracing the filmmaker’s life in deft strokes whose rapid transformations charmingly convey the flux of growing older. It begins at birth, with parents who both adore her and squash her with a hammer. She goes to school, hangs on the telephone with friends, graduates and flies to Europe which erupts in word balloons of greeting. Then, in a few pithy seconds, Fleming summarizes her aspirations in art — showing herself painting at an easel, taking photographs, and finally performing in front of her own movie camera in alternating gestures of distress and contentment. Parodying her own predilection for distress, as well as her penchant for performative autobiography, this summary compression owes as much to Fleming’s lampooning wit as Earle Peach’s driving blues piano score.
My Boyfriend Gave Me Peaches (2 minutes 1994) features a pair of stick figure girls clapping hands and singing a schoolyard rhyme. Both a genuine childhood song and eerie forecast of gender division, it features a boyfriend dishing peaches, money and punches before finally kicking her down the stairs. She responds in kind. An ambulance arrives to bear the bruised boyfriend off, and then police come to take her in jail. The fantasy over, one says, “Let’s do something else.” Then they begin to sing again, laughing in their evocation of lives to come.
I Love My Work (2 minutes 1994) is another stick-figured slight, chronicling a morning’s misadventures on the way to work. Narrated in voice-over by the filmmaker, Fleming posits the desire of others as distractions to her own, showing life as an accumulation of accidents, while the lead character, clearly the filmmaker herself, works to maintain her own will. In her coy parting line “I love my work — don’t you?,” Fleming suggests that power, which in her universe is never far from language, resides with the one permitted to speak.
Buckingham Palace (7 minutes 1993) is a dramatic brief, underscored as usual by a monologue. In an overcast beach setting, two lovers stroll, though the woman keeps a marked distance from her companion, as he skips stones, reciting lists which compare the ambitions of his life with his accomplishments. A phone rings and she answers it. A male voice asks, “What’s taking so long?” He jumps her, throws her to the ground in a choak hold, but backs off when he sees she has a gun. Then he disappears.
The entire film is a revenge dream set in the mind of its female lead. Their featureless surround is a blank against which she can ponder how they will end. Here language has been reduced to an accounting of events, the oral equivalent of that fabled moment before the last breath, parodied in movie trailers, when the whole of your life flashes before your eyes. While Fleming’s previous recitals had used language to retrieve the dead, here it is the harbinger of distance and disappearance. Not only is it unable to mend the rift between them, it signals their isolation, each caught in their own monologues of fantasy and isolation.
Pleasure Film (Ahmed’s Story) (6 minutes 1995) is a duet of sorts, insistently cross-cutting between storyteller Valerie Buhagiar and upright bass player Howard Szafer. Photographed alone, like so many of Fleming’s protagonists, against her signature black backdrop, Buhagiar narrates a digressive tale which finally tells of a famished desert wanderer who arrives at an eatery which accepts only fingers in exchange for food. After eating ten loaves of bread, the traveller is fingerless, and still hungry. Taking pity, the owner grants him another loaf, but without fingers to hold dinner he’s unable to eat at all. This parable of desire is woven between Szafer’s blues refrains, which similarly insists on the cost of getting what you want.
It’s Me, Again (49 minutes 1993) is a multi-layered complex which examines the way identity is constructed. This self-styled mockumentary examines the notion of the twin using a blend of personal anecdote, scientific rhetoric and wayward statistics. The statistics, which appear in a series of intertitles throughout the film, are typical of Fleming’s approach. Offering the appearance of fact, they appear as unsystemized fragments, wedged between first person accountings, their proliferation finally reducing them to signs of meaning, without the assurance of a totalizing science. “The chance that both twins stutter is five times more likely than getting a full house in poker.” Similarly the twenty-one sets of twins (real and faked) that speak in the film offer testimony, often moving and humorous, about shared illnesses, premonitions and parallel lives without ever cohering into some larger design. Their speaking instead offers patterns, moments of coincidence, which suggest that their lives have a discernible shape. But are these only the longings for order, the descriptions of the world we’ve dubbed science or religion — or do they speak of something more essential?
What to make, for instance, of Maria Insell’s story of a rare argument between her parents which caused her mother to gather her up from the supermarket, hail a cab, and leave their father there, only to have him swerve into a terrifying accident on his way home alone, crushing the passenger side of the car? Or the elder Gray twins, who share phobias about bridges and hills, both terrified about being left alone, and who appear exactly alike, with the same tastes in food and clothes. Their resemblance is so complete, one remarks that she has often mistaken her own reflection in a department store mirror for her sister. Or Ron and Don, identical except for a mustache, who insist that the six minutes separating their births, making one the “older” brother, has made a great difference in their lives and identities. As young children, when one was taken to hospital for an operation, a mark appeared around the healthy child’s mouth, as if in sympathy with his twin, who bore the same mark in the hospital. Fleming stages these confessions in a studio setting against a black background, the twins appearing “in relief,” all seated on the same wooden bench. This darkness is the existential ground from which their stories emerge, and return to. In this, as in all of Fleming’s work, the abyss is never far.
Always a storyteller, Fleming’s early work was characterized by a first person address founded on the need to grieve and to remember. In her second period, signaled by her move to Toronto, her divergent interests — in documentary, fiction and animation — have been released in their own forms, in place of the mixed-genre compressions typical of her earlier work. But the most profound shift has been in her use of language. Once a guarantor of truth, it has become a slippery and uncertain tool, weaving a proliferation of facts around an uncertain centre. While many film formalists take aim at the materials of their medium, Fleming’s concerns have put language itself under scrutiny, and by extension, identity, as her subjects struggle to finish the sentence that began with their own naming.
Originally published in: Millennium Film Journal No. 26 (Fall 1992)