Lizard: an interview with Sarah Abbott (2008)
Mike: I have no memory of my childhood, but there are a few surviving pictures and these are more than enough. In each I am striking a pose suitable to my age, it seems that my media underexposure did not seriously affect my ability to play a part, to take on a role. The dutiful son, the wondering child. I wonder if there are any early encounters with pictures you might care to recount? Have they always been your trusted companions, or have they seemed, at times, to be fair weather friends, flickering in and out of favour as the mood strikes?
Sarah: One photo comes immediately to mind. I am three years old, standing next to my favourite tree by our driveway when I lived in Hudson, a small town in Quebec. I’m wearing a light-coloured little suit that my mother probably made — pants and a vest with a little shirt underneath. My hand is against the tree’s trunk. My hair is surprisingly very red. I’m wearing glasses that have translucent, salmon-coloured frames. No, I realize I’m six years old in this picture because I have a patch over my left eye. I had eye surgery when I was six and then had to wear a patch for a year. My mother tells me I never put up a fuss; each morning I would let her patch me over before I went to school. I don’t know why I didn’t resist. Nobody ever bothered me about it.
My left eye is now my strong eye, and the eye I shoot with. Since I have been teaching at the University of Regina, I seem to have developed some floaters in that eye that refract the light; it scares me that these foggy moments will affect my shooting some day. Thankfully, they come and go, though when they appear in the middle of a conversation, I am sometimes thrown off in a social way. I’m learning to deal with this.
I don’t have this picture that I just described; I’m going by memory. I think my mother has it somewhere, in an album buried in a box under too many other boxes in an overcrowded basement.
The tree in the picture came to be quite important in my life. It was a youngish, deciduous tree at the end of the driveway, and it had a branch that extended outward, over the lawn, at a slight upward angle. I would pull myself up onto it and sit in the crook. My sitting time became longer and more frequent because it was such a comfort to be there. I secretly named the tree Herman. I would sit in Herman when I was feeling down or upset. Thinking about this now, I realize that I probably spent a good deal of time with Herman when my parents were arguing, on their way to separating. When I was ten, my mother moved my sister and I from Hudson to Calgary. I took some time to say goodbye to Herman. Thinking about him now, I am missing him quite a bit.
When I was maybe five, I took an obscure art class with a woman with long, dark hair. We had to climb wooden stairs to get there up to her space. The only two projects I remember doing with her and the other students were making long, skinny batik dolls and scratching black emulsion off exposed 16mm film with a pin. She had some project in mind to do with the clear film and I was very curious about what it would be, but I was pulled out of the class before we could get that far. Or something happened to her. I’m not sure why I suddenly stopped those classes. Of course, it might have been a question of her sanity: who gets children to spend hours scratching emulsion off of film with a pin?! I wonder about the connection between this childhood encounter with film and my career in filmmaking. I also wonder about the very first colouring book experiences I had. My mother tells me I used to cover the whole page with crayon, usually black.
When my parents were together, my mother was great at making photo albums. After each summer that my sister and I spent with my father, he would make us mini-albums. Now, I don’t make time for photo albums, and since I bought my digital camera, I almost never print the photos I take.
Mike: Here is a riff from Jeffrey Paull, my former film teacher at Sheridan College. He is describing his relation with family snaps. “The family get-together involved cousins and aunts with handfuls of photos, jumping in and out of each other’s stories. Our multiple points of view and sudden story twists brought laughs; nothing bad ever happened. This was a floor activity, away from the civilizing influence of chairs and tables. Our pictures returned us to our bodies, granting us permission to speak, look and act, just like in the movies. By sharing we found a place to belong in each other. And it was a way of celebrating the safe (but unspoken) passage across an ocean and two world wars. Many Jews, we had only recently found out, had not been so lucky — though we rarely spoke about that.”
Jeffrey describes a family compact — embodied, safe above all, and a prompt for storytelling — which arrives through a shared picture heritage. In today’s parlance, his relation with pics might be named interactive. Could you could elaborate on the photo albums laid out by your mother and father? I sense something similar going on, if not in riotous on-the-floor assemblies, at least in the impression that pictures are part of the glue that holds the idea of family together, or at least offers an image of togetherness. And that there may be differences, fatal differences perhaps, between the pictured smiles and the lives they are intended to underline.
Sarah: I feel like crying when I read Jeffrey’s experience of sharing photos and memories with his family. There is still, 20 years later, an ache for a sense of family, togetherness, and also of feeling like I never learned how to maintain deep connection and generosity on a consistent, present basis in an intimate relationship that isn’t interrupted by emotional, temporal or geographical distance.
If I imagine/remember sitting with the people in my family, yes, there is laughing and stories of past moments and experiences and challenges that the photos spark. But there is a tension in this imagining/remembering. There are three scenarios, which indicate how fragmented my family life is.
When we moved to Calgary, my mother stopped making photo albums. No time, I guess, since she was nursing full-time and being a single mother. It feels like there is a visual gap on my mother’s side, though of course we still took pictures. My relationship with her, since moving west, has been close and disconnected, intimate and fierce. When she laughs hard, it’s a lovely release.
On my father’s side, my step-mother may have put albums together. There was always much photo taking. Alongside the laughter with her, my father, sister and two step-sisters, there is superficiality, disconnection and my own disappointment, all of which I try to override. I spent my youth trying to connect to this family situation. In my adult life, I consistently remind myself with kindness that there is little connection with my step-sisters. My step-mother had moved them from their childhood town outside Montreal into the house where my mother, sister and I used to live. We were all hurting and nothing was ever spoken about.
Sitting with just my father and my sister over albums, it would be different and warmer, but there would be memories of needing my father at a time when he didn’t realize he was so needed by us.
I tend to think of my sister last, yet she was a constant companion throughout all the traveling, changes and painful moments. I regret taking her for granted. With her, there would be an ease and freedom around the photo album — laughing, joking, commiserating.
Mike, I don’t know if this answer even makes sense. I feel like I’m pushing through thick, wet curtains of dark seaweed to understand the feelings that your question elicits. I am deeply resisting imagining my family gathering around photo albums. I wish I could move on from these sad, confining feelings. There is too much longing for something that was interrupted. My childhood was idyllic in Hudson. It was a beautiful, lush, small Quebec town in the days when children could still run everywhere without shoes or limits. My family life was happy and reliable until all of this was shattered in the middle of winter, the middle of the school year. We flew over the northern lights to arrive in a brown and stucco townhouse on a dull street with thin poplar trees in a young suburb on the edge of a prairie city.
Mike: While most of the world’s population continues to drift into cities, the metropolis each of us inhabits is often narrow; a few streets perhaps, a post office, a place of work or school, maybe a gym or a community centre, the living room of a friend. Do you think the maps we grow inside as children and teenagers — particularly in those parts of our lives when we don’t have the freedom to choose our own settings — lay the foundation for the pictures we will become later? When you are composing a shot, for instance, and finding a level for the horizon line (the hedge, the brim of a hat, the tip of the shore), is that some echo of horizon lines past, met and remet on early school walks? Or the emotional landscapes that we inhabit later, when we can repeat the cherished codes like soldiers of intimacy (I do, I love you, don’t ever leave…). Is there some trace of these ghost landscapes in every new face and touch?
Sarah: What an intriguing question. I was actually thinking about part of it recently, wondering if my tendency to put work before life comes from my mother’s militaristic stance that my sister and I, as teenagers, had to clean half the entire house every weekend before we could do anything social. Wondering if the isolated life in the townhouse and the suburb, as kids of a single parent, somehow stunted my understanding of the social norms of having friends over regularly for dinner, or aspiring to a status quo life. Was this the cause of my tendency to self-isolate, or have I been disguising my extroverted self because of shyness? I plague myself with these types of questions — thinking that I’m not the person I should be and trying to figure out why. Whatever that elusive “should” actually is…
I was speaking with a friend about this last point — the “should” of being — and he reminded me that our western culture is fixated on absolutes. There is little gentleness to remind us that we are constantly changing, becoming different people on the phone or in person, in parties and meetings at work. I wonder how much of this synthetic “absolute” thinking embeds us in those childhood/teenage landscapes, and how many of those landscapes are embedded because of the intrinsic ways human beings are imprinted and shaped by experience.
But I digress. That was Calgary. What about summers spent in Hudson, trailing after the friends who used to be close to me but were becoming better friends with my step-sister? Pining for that sense of family? The layers of shaping experience add up.
I have always been partial to medium-close and close-up shots, letting the frame be still and watching things pass between the edges according to their own will. Perhaps being short-sighted influences my penchant for wanting to be close to things, but I think my attraction to close images is also linked to needing a feeling of belonging and being close to family and friends.
Setting up the camera in a way that allows life to play out as it will within the frame reflects something different and contradicts what I just spoke about. It reveals acceptance, a love of the element of surprise, and an embrace of that which can only partially be seen. The beauty of mystery. Here, there is an ability to let go, whereas the close-up images are about holding on.
When I shot The Light in our Lizard Bellies, I connected this inherent style of composing images with my desire to collide the camera with Susanna Hood’s choreography and performance. Simultaneously, I hold steady or softly move the camera as she moves in and out of the frame (a collision/dance of our ways of seeing and being in the world). This new approach to shooting came just before I began to feel more active in my life, to understand and act with my own sense of agency, to shed some ties to those childhood ghosts. I finished that film in early 1999, the year my filmmaking career began to bloom. The Light in our Lizard Bellies is about the process of going through change.
Mike: The Light in our Lizard Bellies (8 minutes 1999) opens with a fable/poem you recite in darkness, told from one lizard to another, recounting a body-self in crisis. “Parts I knew so well would no longer be true to me.” How awful it is to change, how very much I would like tomorrow to faithfully replicate every instant of today, instead of holding out the promise, the seed, of something unforeseen, which is difficult not to experience as an unanticipated disaster. “My skin would hang hollow, like pears whose flesh had been eaten out by wasps. In all of this, she said, I would find my beginning.”
A small light becomes a hand, a line sketched in black arrives as an arm. Then there is a dancer-woman, Susanna Hood, moving in a field, her bright figure lit like a fuse surrounded by darkness. Vocal iterations skip and slide and breathe across these gestures she once named 4 Ways of Approaching a Door. The voice slows and stops and her breathing grows louder as the camera draws close, and she begins to put herself back together again, but not before running her fingers over the seams and fissures which let the light come through. How very broken she is here. She moves her hand slowly (it might take her entire lifetime, or more) up to her face and before she can hold it a blinding white light ensues, and the movie is over.
I am no fan of a dance movie genre overly stocked with televisual distractions, but here you manage to step into the skin of your dancer/double who offers us this testimonial and confession, using the wordless words of her hissing, aching, post-alphabetic speech, and the movements of approach. Can you talk about the poem you read at the movie’s beginning, and why you have it up on your perfect apartment wall, along with frame enlargements from this movie? While others show off family moments or diploma distractions, you have frames illuminated from this picture. It is a kind of fulcrum or turning point for you, isn’t it? It feels like home, somehow. Or at least: your new home.
Sarah: Changes wrung out/in/through the body. Beautiful. I think this comes down to cellular memory. The conditions of our lives penetrate and shape us, influence on that root level everything we do: the way we speak, nod our head, point our toes, fill our clothes, relate to people, fulfill our lives. This relates to your previous questions, too, about the impact of our childhood experiences. Our cells contain, and are shaped by, the experiences of the people we come from – genetic memory. So, it takes activity as strong and deliberate as wringing to twist the shapes of our being into something different.
Susanna Hood. We have been out of touch for a while, but I know she is doing extremely well as a choreographer, performer and vocal sound artist. She was a friend of my then girlfriend when I met her in 1996. I remember biking further across Toronto than I had ever been — sweaty, lost and late, trying to find this place I had never been to — when I went to see her riveting performance, Four Ways of Approaching a Door. After the show, I asked if she would be interested in working with me to make her choreography and performance into a film. She immediately said yes. Very simple. In my mind, I saw the film in black and white, likely a result of her white costume against the black space and my recent work with high contrast film stock.
I ended up writing a script to accompany the dance and my friend Barry Stone was going to shoot it on 35mm. We were doing tests at Deluxe Lab to superimpose the narrative images with the dance images in ways the timers there had never done before. It was exciting. Tom Berner was, of course, instrumental in setting this arrangement up. The five-minute film had a budget of $60,000 — which I found (and still find) very embarrassing. To spend that much on such a short film seems ridiculous in terms of the balance of social priorities. The money didn’t come through. I received 1/20 of the budget from the NFB’s Filmmakers Assistance Program, as well as a little cash from some family friends. This dramatically changed the trajectory of the film.
I did what I could. I focused solely on the dance, and shot it myself in a Toronto park that had tall trees. I never showed the horizon line so I could create a black, studio-like feel. Phil Hoffman kindly let me use his barn for two weekends of hand processing. The riddle of the Russian tank that I had so quickly figured out for Froglight three years earlier eluded me, so I had to process all the footage by hand. 1500 feet, each 100 foot roll broken into thirds in order to reduce the amount of scratching on the film. Remarkably, I wound up with consistent emulsion scratches that looked like stars and fit well with the character of light itself that I was working with in my concept for the film: light representing change.
There is a lot of luck in the way the Lizard turned out, and I’m proud that it is still being shown quite a bit. I think luck works silently as we release ourselves to what the present moments offer, like relaxing in the undertow of waves. Letting go is hard because we don’t necessarily know what the end result will be, but forcing things to work, to be a certain way in making a film – and in our lives, too – only leads to difficulty when we’re attached to certain results. I also think there are film spirits that influence films as they are being made. Usually, we encounter frustrations and strange things that happen in the process that turn out to be gems or film-savers in the end. What an honour to spend two weekends with Phil on his farm. It was actually Phil who pointed out that the emulsion in the Lizard rushes was shifting in unison with Susanna’s movements, and her breathing. The light was also breathing. I couldn’t see this because I was still holding onto the idea that the dance should look like it was shot in a studio, without the contamination of grass or mid-tones. Phil and I talked over a few meals, but I regret not spending more time with him during these weekends of work.
The Lizard enabled me to do a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts, which lead me to do my MFA in Syracuse. When I look back on all this, it seems remarkable and impossible that it happened in my little life. It’s been a ten-year whirlwind.
It is interesting that you noticed that the nine enlarged frames from the film are the only photos in my living room. It brings my attention to the fact that there are no photos of people in this space; the only other art is a piece focusing on the frame of a work — there is no painting or art inside a frame, the frame is the work — and a greenish etching of a small, pointy, pensive, waiting angel with wings that look like a piano keyboard.
Your comment that I am essentially living/finding home in the midst of a turning point is very unsettling for me. I thought I was past that. Yet your observation is quite uncanny in that it really does reflect how I have been feeling for the past five years, unsettled in Regina, and frustrated for not having/making time to create work that feels more reflective of myself (which I think may be a partial illusion, but that’s another topic). I’m intrigued and excited by the mystery of what lies behind the next door, unsure when it will present itself, wondering if I’ll continue to hang in for another turning point. I guess we always are shaping and being shaped by the next turning point, but I would also like to feel a sense of being settled for some time, even if the feeling is fleeting.
Mike: Why I Hate Bees (4 minutes 1997) is a whimsical catastrophe narrative, drawing out three near-death childhood incidents. Not nightmare, but daymare. A motorcycle slide, a bee sting and a partially successful attempt at saving a friend from drowning, are each remarked upon in voice-over as a suite of accompanying pictures, sometimes illustrative, sometimes allusively suggestive, punctuate the young girl address. I am guessing that part of the attraction of the Nancy Jo Cullen story on which this is based, is the way that death appears so quickly in the midst of familiar activities. Can you talk about what led you to this charmed fable, and why you chose to accompany this child’s dark dreams with such a smooth surface?
Sarah: My one-line for the film is “a comedic journey into a young girl’s memories of near death.” My choice of images reflects my interest in the way memory races ahead or lags behind when we tell stories, and the tendency it has to linger on things we do not mention in our storytelling. I never considered the girl’s near-death experiences as dark, actually, perhaps because I had had a few myself and recount them with humour and awe that I survived — falling down a long flight of wooden stairs to our concrete basement floor when I was three years old; nearly falling out of the car as my mother rounded a corner when I was about five because I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and my father hadn’t closed the passenger door properly; opening my eyes after doing a flip on a trampoline just in time to see the ground rushing towards me so I could put my hands out and prevent breaking my twelve-year-old neck. To name a few.
Somebody once remarked, after seeing Bees, that the film recalls a childhood that no longer exists in Canada: the freedom for children to run around their community, to get into trouble and adventures, learning about the world through direct experience, through their body and all their senses. That was my childhood in Hudson. I think what really resonated with me in the text is the final notion, that the whole film builds to, that the girl had gone through this huge ordeal with her friends and she feels invisible. For so long, I felt invisible.
When I first read the story, which has the same title as the film, the queer content didn’t register with me at all. It was Nancy Jo who pointed it out. This subtlety is why the film played at a variety of festivals, including queer fests and children’s festivals.
Mike: It’s hard not to notice, live or not, your appetite for detail. I imagine you rarely see shapes or silhouettes, but instead a complex of seething, sub-atomic protocols that require your oh-so-careful attentions. In one telephoned script conversation I overheard, you back and forthed over a single word for something like an hour, another instance of your tendency to stay up day after night, living inside the fine print, looking after moments that might be invisible to anyone else. Can you talk about how these fascinated, thorough-going, rigorous procedures have helped create necessary pictures for your life? Is this a quality you imported into the world of movies, or did you learn it there?
Sarah: There is a meticulousness that emerges from my attention to detail that is helpful to my filmmaking and to other people, but their massing can be a detriment. At times, I wish I could be less detail oriented, but when I see something potentially missed, I can’t help but attend to it because I might become anxious if I don’t do anything about it. It would be nice if someone offered a workshop on how to do become less concerned with details.
It also feels like this inherent obsession is about truth — making sure it is honoured, not lost. When details represent me, or other people, I feel it is imperative to make sure that they are accurate.
My mother tells me she used to point out details such as birds in trees on our walks when I was a toddler. Both she and my father are extremely detail oriented. I’m also seeing how my ability to quickly notice patterns and repetition of colour is related to this aspect of my personality.
Filmmaking requires a great deal of attention to detail. Administratively, it’s needed to bring elements together and to ensure good working relationships with people. Technically, it’s vital to the smooth coming together of the film during production and post-production. The more attention to the details of the content of a film, including its relation to the film’s form, the tighter the film — even if the film is ethereal in nature as opposed to fact-driven.
Mike: Froglight (3:30 minutes 1997) is a brief complication, largely comprised of high-contrast sunflowers and trees blowing in and out of focus, and a hardly-seen frog. Your episodic voice-over provides first person expositions like, “I’m walking down the road with my camera but I can’t see anything.” The point, if movies need to keep a sharp end always in sight, seems exactly to find some way to conjure what cannot be seen. Before the camera walk which delivers these pictures, you spoke with Marian McMahon, but by the time you wrote these words, she had died, suddenly and unexpectedly, of cancer. You never say the word ‘cancer,’ instead you say, “Now I am in something that Marian and I talked about this morning. Something that isn’t taught as normal experience. Something that you might not believe.” Can you run back over your conversation with Marian, and how you tried to show her, or your feeling for her, or some trace of her, in the surrounding countryside which she once called home? And could you riff a little further about this picture quest, raising the camera in order to make pictures of that which cannot be pictured, to show the border between the visible and invisible worlds. And finally, could you elaborate on these touching lines, “If you doubt me, I’ll doubt myself. This beautiful thing will disappear and life will get smaller.”
Sarah: Marian and I had set off in the heat to try and ease my frustration at not being able to release my feelings into the film that would be Froglight. It was a dream-like hour, punctuated by roadside, emerald-green plants, a river sparkling through gaps in a bridge, and an intense, windless sunlight. Phil later told me he wasn’t sure what to make of my focus on the sunflowers, frog, grass and trees. I knew what I wanted to explore in this film, but I had hit a wall. Talking with Marian turned out to be a gift and helped me find the key to bring the film together. I was following our conversation, helping to build it, yet our words and the surrounding air were swirling and ungraspable. Something I hadn’t encountered before kept oozing into my breath, but I couldn’t break its surface. All I could do was keep treading under water.
Back at the farm, I scribbled fragments from our conversation into my journal. “We have to resist others’ truths about ourselves. Yet we, ourselves, can’t tell or know the truth about ourselves… What I was experiencing versus what I was told I should be experiencing… When what you believe is never validated, your vision becomes limited and you can’t see as far.”
Marian spoke about walking through life with a stone in your shoe that shapes your gait, informing your every action, thought, feeling, and interaction. We don’t often think of removing the stone — if we realize it’s there at all — and so become paralyzed, blinded by the habits it forms. To remove it would mean negotiating unfamiliar territory, and this new blindness in ourselves is terrifying.
The exact line in the film, in which I reference Marian, is: “Now I am in the midst of what Marian and I were talking about this morning: experiencing something that is not taught as normal experience, something you might not believe.” I suppose I didn’t have to mention her, but our time together was very significant to me. I finished the film before she died, without knowing that it would be a small memory of a small part of her.
A few weeks after being at the farm, I moved from Toronto to Kingston and cut Froglight on the Film Studies’ Steenbeck at Queen’s University. I was so anal about scratches and splice marks because I was editing with the original reversal film that I cut the entire film with the rule that all picture cuts were final. I could only cut less, not add back any picture that I had removed. My voice-over and the background sounds were also cut at this time; the credits were added months later, in time for the film’s premiere at the Images Festival.
Sometime in August, the film was done. I took a final pass in the morning, then walked down to the post office to mail some letters. I walked in, and who was standing in the line-up but Phil and Marian — they were the last people I expected to see. They were passing through town and didn’t know I was there. They watched Froglight on the Steenbeck and liked it a lot. This was the last time I saw Marian.
Froglight is about having faith in the unknown, and is dedicated to Janine Fung, who I began dating not long before I went to the farm. She gave me the sunflower and the tiny ceramic frog that appears in the film. Sarah Lightbody actually asked me one day if the sunflower was my husband. I included her question in the voice-over because it reflects the assumptions we make about people. Why was the sunflower thought to be a significant man in my life and not a woman?
I drove to the farm with Sally Lee and her friend Lisa in Lisa’s van that didn’t have back seats. As we set up our tents in the campground, I noticed we would be sleeping beside a frog bog — incredible since Janine had a phobia of frogs. This inspired me to stand by the pond’s edge at 3:00 am to record the frogs as they, one after another, in rhythmic and regular succession around the perimeter of the pond, croaked from their spot. The coincidence also inspired me to find a frog with my flashlight and capture it on film that had an ASA of six. This took a couple of late night balancing attempts, pointing the Bolex and the flashlight in the direction of a croak to get a good exposure. For the film’s final, most exposed, image of the frog, Lisa helped by pointing two “frog lights” as she called them.
In theory, I knew people of the same sex could love each other, but the actual felt sense of that was a revelation to me, a jolt of a realization that the world had been lying all this time — that it was indeed possible to be in love with a person of your own gender. I was floating in this new world when I arrived at the farm. On one of the first days, I pulled a book of Nietzsche’s writing from the shelves overlooking a pair of flatbeds in Phil’s sunroom and randomly opened it to find this idea: “…for that to which one lacks access from experience, one has no ears. People have the illusion that where nothing is heard, there is nothing.”
I included this quote in my voice-over; it aligns with the element of searching in Froglight — in the grass, within the flowers, through the magnifying glass, through the camera. The magnifying glass was my grandmother’s, who had passed away a few months before. I don’t know what she would have said about my dating a woman — likely not much. The person I had in my mind as I wrote the words that would become the film’s voice-over was my father. I was trying to tell him about my amazing discovery and experience with Janine. When anybody, particularly parents, bring doubt to something that is brand new — an idea, an experience, a creation — there is the risk that that thing will disappear because doubt can be infectious. Doubt reduces the possibilities that life holds for us.
Mike: You have sometimes shown your work inside the burgeoning network of queer movie fests, though there are few explicitly girl-with-girl moments in your oeuvre. Do you think of yourself as a queer artist? I ask knowing that it is the first rule and role of the artist to refuse names of every kind. Please no definitions. Or boundaries. There is freedom, or at least the promise of a freedom, beyond these alphabetic cages. And yet you were the poster girl for Regina’s Queer City Cinema Fest. What was it like seeing your naked self posted across the city, swooning in a vertigo of reproduction?
Sarah: I identify as queer in that I avoid boundaries that limit my experience of being and artistic expression. I suppose there is some truth to what Lee Henderson, a Regina media artist, thinks about my work – that all my films explore the notion of “the oppressed body.”
The motivation for the work I make comes from within because passion for a subject is what gets us through the inner and outer difficulties of making a film. So, in this regard, I make my work for myself. But if it weren’t for the possibility of engaging an audience and evoking some degree of perspective change — individually or socially — I would not be interested in going through the arduousness of making a film. I do think it is the most masochistic art form.
Community is very important to me, but I don’t tend to work within it in a typical way. I work hard on the edges and usually feel like an outsider. I’m becoming increasingly aware of the importance of community to create a network of care and effect change. Because of my fragmented childhood, I think I’ve been slow to perceive this.
The Queer City Cinema 2006 poster, yes. Executive Director Gary Varro had the concept, and my rarely seen exhibitionist/performance side volunteered my back, which was looking great after a summer of power walking. I also thought my androgynous body would be fitting. Some people knew it was me immediately, while others had no idea of the gender of the person they were seeing. Stephen Andrews thought I looked like a cute guy with a nice ass, which made me very happy.
I had some fears that threatened my enthusiasm for poster posing — fears that the University of Regina would be up in arms when the poster came out. Nobody there said a negative word though. Spending the afternoon just being a back, not having to engage the myriad demands in my life, was a wonderful vacation. It was amazing that no one in the city defaced the posters. Seeing them around town was consistently a point of pride. The image is strong and beautiful; people still have the posters in their offices. QCC took place in the late fall and in February I passed a poster still pasted to the bottom of a power pole. I was surprised that it was still up, but mostly I flinched at seeing my naked body so exposed to the cold. Hmmm – perhaps a chill that connects to Out In The Cold, which came into my life toward the end of that year.
Mike: Live and in person you have the disconcerting ability to walk inside people and make a home there. All of a sudden every feeling they have is a feeling you have. Even and especially feelings which may seem like foreign territory to the one it belongs to. In the movies this knack is the unspoken lynchpin for every dramatic moment — the audience is required to feel whatever the onscreen talent feels. You have taken the process of identification to another level entirely, opening yourself, and then your camera, so that others can enter you, so that you can step inside their darkness and hopes and forgotten promises. I’m wondering if you can tell me more about this… what shall we call it? Your special super power? Your inclination, perhaps. When did you first realize that other’s feelings were becoming your own, and when did you imagine that you could make this part of your cinema?
Sarah: It’s a flattering observation that I both acknowledge and resist. The resistance comes because I sometimes feel I forget what people are going through when we talk. But I suppose I may be picking up on their emotions without realizing it. The first time I had an insight into this tendency was when a friend picked me up to go to some event in the mid-1990s. We met on a Toronto street corner. It was a sunny day and I was feeling great. I jumped into her car and suddenly felt very insecure as we drove away. At first I was bewildered by the intensity of this new emotion, but the difference in emotions was extreme enough for me to note them and wonder if the insecurity was actually my friend’s. So I asked her and indeed, it was. I wish I could always be aware of what is mine, and what isn’t, because it gets to be quite overwhelming and confusing, without my even knowing it.
The second time I became aware of my tendency/ability to take on other people’s emotions was not so simple. In 2001, I was dating a Japanese guy when we were both studying in Syracuse. We had an incredible energy together; I was in love with him. I showed him Froglight and we spoke briefly about its inspiration afterwards, so that he’d know that I had had sexual feelings and relations with women in my past. Soon afterwards, we were on a small trip to a bed and breakfast in the Finger Lakes in New York state when he began to talk about feeling sorry for children who are raised by homosexual couples. I’m not sure what sparked this topic, but he was going on and on about it, to my horror. I offered my perspective, but this proved to only inform him of my bisexuality — and he was shocked. Needless to say, we had a horrible, sexless night. The next morning, I woke up feeling completely flipped inside-out and upset. Although the feeling felt foreign to me, I ranted for quite awhile, until I realized that I was actually generally calm about the situation and had absorbed his emotions during the night.
Mike: Inside your body of work there is one movie which seems like it has drifted in from another body entirely. While the rest of your makings are short, this one is feature-length, and a social justice documentary no less, and shot in South Africa. Tide Marks (97 minutes 2007) follows a quartet of activists who were part of the engine of revolution, but now, ten years after the moment of liberation, they’ve been left behind as the fall-out of appeasement economics has left a largely white oligarchy in charge of the nation’s wealth. What led you to this faraway venture, and what was your hope in producing this long-play record?
Sarah: The problem which Tide Marks explores is that the people who fought for equality at a grassroots level sacrificed their lives, livelihood, physical and mental potential, and opportunities for education. There is a huge population that still lives in poverty, and is largely unable to take advantage of the fruits of the liberation they fought for; this now includes their children, a new generation. The government, by adhering to strict fiscal austerity and not changing the economic power relations in the country, has been slow to create opportunities that would help individuals be active participants in the economy. This financial austerity also means that the state cannot be generous with its social safety nets, which further impedes individuals trapped by poverty.
I didn’t plan to make Tide Marks. I certainly didn’t plan to make a long-form film. The project became my MFA thesis and I finished the film a year after I graduated from Syracuse University.
The long story, which I like to recount because it reminds me of the interconnection of everything, begins in Bardou, France. My entire adult life leads back to that place, but of course, my entire life preceding that was leading me there. In 1993, I wound up living in Bardou for just over three months, taking care of sheep and living in a stone house without electricity or running water. Bardou is a restored medieval village in the Haut-Languedoc region of the south. I fell in love with it. In 1997, I returned to develop a documentary, which is a long story in itself, and didn’t go as planned. I returned to Canada with fantastic footage and interviews with people made on cassette tape. When I moved to Syracuse, New York for my graduate work, I sought out people with the same nationalities as the people I interviewed, so their voices could be better quality stand-ins. One of the voices was South African.
This led me to have a brief relationship with a South African. When he returned home to Cape Town in 2001, I went to visit him for a couple of weeks and actually thought I’d never go back because the high crime rate was a near-constant stress. But as the summer of 2002 approached, there were many signs that I should go to South Africa to do an internship. My friend there connected me with Shirley Gunn and the Human Rights Media Centre (HRMC) that she founded and manages. I stayed in Cape Town for ten weeks. It was an intense time and one that was very important to my life. I grew immensely as a person.
The first thing I did with Shirley was to attend a day-long workshop on ethical research. It was hosted by the HRMC and The Centre for Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Regina that offers support for people who were victimized by the apartheid regime. This is where I met Brian Mphahalele, Maureen Mazibuko and Colin de Souza, who, along with Shirley, are the people whose stories form the spine of Tide Marks. There was an immediate warm and welcoming energy from them all; Brian actually asked me if we had met before. Shortly after Maureen sat down at the table, before the workshop began, she casually referred to the time when police sprayed acid on her head. Not wanting to be rude, I kept my composure and five minutes later excused myself from the table so I could go outside and cry.
It would be another six weeks before I asked Maureen, Colin and Brian if they would be interested in being interviewed by me, so we had a lot of time to get to know and trust one another before I worked with them. This is one of the reasons why there is such a strong sense of intimacy in the film. My plan, when I set off for South Africa, was to gather material and make two or three short videos. This changed into a half-hour film project with the HRMC on alimony issues that fell through. I then decided to gather as much footage as I could in the time I had left in the country. When I returned home with 27 hours of tape, it was all pointing toward a feature-length film.
My hope with Tide Marks was that it could tell the stories of three people who are struggling for daily survival after their experiences of oppression and revolt under the apartheid regime. Tide Marks was released on the tenth anniversary of the first democratic elections in South Africa, so there was a lot of attention on positive stories coming out of the country. And rightly so. But the world also needs to see the areas where the country is still struggling because change and improvement of this magnitude takes many years. Things don’t shift overnight, which is the impression given when the media turn their lenses elsewhere, to more sensational news. This impression is misleading; there are essential things to learn from the process that South Africa is going through in order to heal its decades of brutality.
Another reason I made Tide Marks, which evolved during the process of editing the film, was to provide some education and memory about apartheid. After I showed some of the first bit of cutting to my video class, a twenty-four year old woman asked “What is apartheid anyway?” Her question was horrifying. I realized that there is a generation of people who know nothing about apartheid because they became socially and politically aware after the end of the regime. Since it was no longer in the news, they wouldn’t have been as exposed to hearing about apartheid, unless their parents had cause to tell them about it. I deliberately chose not to include images of the brutality that took place because these images exist in most documentaries and are available with research. My approach was to involve viewers on an intimate level by engaging them with the people and stories in the film. Empathy is generated in the viewer and this is where the potential for a shift in consciousness lies.