Interview by Katya Yakubov
Filmmaker and professor Sasha Waters Freyer notices how her formal social documentary training, her approach to teaching students and her own personal filmmaking all sculpt and change her understanding of the medium. With her short film, You Can See The Sun In Late December, Freyer turns a critical lens onto a subjective experience, yet with incorporating actual texts from online ‘confessionals,’ she also evokes the fears and concerns of an entire community of isolated women.
Was there one incident or moment that led you to conceive and create You Can See The Sun In Late December?
Well, there were two separate moments of inspiration, both related in time. One was seeing a screening; we had brought a filmmaker named Michael Robinson in to the University of Iowa to screen a bunch of his short works. One of the things I admired about seeing his body of work was the evident commitment he had to just getting out and shooting. You could just see it, he’s out there, making work, making work, making work, all the time. As a viewer I found some more successful than others, but I just really admired his commitment to an every day practice.
At the same time, I was searching for something on Frameworks, the experimental film LISTERV. And I came across a thread, the title of which was, “Strategies For Overcoming Deflated Motivation.” I thought, that’s got to be a really long thread. But I really liked that title. In fact, for a while the working title of the December film was, Strategies For Overcoming Deflated Motivation. The content of the film didn’t really relate to that, but I sort of decided, being inspired by Michael’s films and his every day film practice, I was going to have this strategy of going out to shoot every day in the month of December.
Still from Freyer’s You Can See the Sun in Late December.
I had no idea what the film would be, I just set it up for myself as a parameter or limitation to get myself moving because I was not doing anything I was particularly passionate about. It was the first time I had really started something without a conceptual outline in advance. It was extremely, extremely cold that December, so I ended up shooting a lot inside, as well as outside.
That cold is felt, even with the minimal stuff you shoot outside, the empty porches and vacant chairs, you can tell no one is venturing out.
But everyone leaves those chairs outside!
Yeah, the porches are this ugly remnant of people hibernating till the summer. As you were collecting all these images, did you start to get a sense early on as to what the film would become, or did the statement of intent only come as you were well into editing? When did the film come into its essence?
Early on I felt the film would function as the third film in a series of 16mm experimental shorts about motherhood, preceded by The Waiting Time (2005) and Her Heart is Washed in Water & then Weighed (2006). All three films use language, original and archival footage to explore the relationship between the real world and internal, psychic representations of that real world, mining that tension between the subjective, lived experience of women and mothers and the private life of fantasy and projection.
Still from Freyer’s The Waiting Time.
With the December film, was there some underlying pull to continue using celluloid?
That particular film is actually a mix of celluloid and HD, even though the HD is actually cropped, so it doesn’t switch back between the 4:3 and 16:9 frame.
What parts of the film were shot in HD?
The stuff shot off the computer screen. But that’s really the only film I’ve made that’s like that. Part of the reason I like shooting in 16mm is it’s an interesting way to activate conversations when you’re out shooting. There’s something about the practice of being out in the world with that particular camera that forces people, if they notice the camera, which they usually do, to respond in a way that’s interesting, and this can provoke some great conversations and engagements. It’s like the ‘slow food’ movement, only it’s slow film. It takes time and focuses one’s attention, I find, as a maker.
I also continue to strike 16mm prints, which I am committed to, although I have to admit I am wavering a tiny bit because it’s getting harder and harder to do. But I think of 16mm film as a capture medium, and one can either strike a print, or finish digitally. It’s also that it’s more archival. If you strike a print, it has this kind of archival quality, and that is very appealing.
As an educator, I can defend it more easily because I really believe in teaching 16mm film. I think it forces you as a maker to slow down and make really careful choices around what you shoot, and what you walk away from. It’s also important to tend to the image as a completely separate component from sound. Students coming in to school today who have only grown up with video, so for them the idea of image and sound being together is so natural. When you go and shoot film, and you can’t see it for a week because you send it to the lab, and when it comes back, it’s silent, it becomes a completely different viewing experience, and a different process altogether.
Right, so maybe it’s not so much the need to work with celluloid itself, but rather the process of separating the components of sound and image, and really thinking about what you are doing.
It also lets you think about light in a different way. When you’re thinking about film speeds, working with lenses, you’re much more careful and put more thought into all your settings.
Because with this and some other of your short films, you’re using images from your own family, and with your use of archival footage in other shorts, I was wondering if that also fed into the choice of using celluloid, since there’s a nostalgic aesthetic of both – family images and archival materials. There is something unpolished and familiar about the subtle shake of a handheld camera, or with a somewhat fuzzy image.
Definitely. I like to also mix archival materials and domestic images so that sometimes you’re not quite sure if an image is archival or if it’s contemporary. I have a film called Her Heart Is Washed in Water and Then Weighed, which has a whole section that looks like it’s old Super 8 shot in Rome, until you see people shooting with cell phone cameras, so you realize this is actually contemporary footage. It’s a way to hopefully activate people into thinking about the relationship between image making and the technology, and the reception of images of the past in our present contemporary moment.
Still from Her Heart Is Washed In Water and Then Weighed.
In You Can See The Sun In Late December, you cut off the text of the confessional messages that appear on an unknown website. They either continue offscreen or you cut to the next image without giving the viewer to time to fully read and comprehend the text. What we are left with are brief glimpses into the tumultuous minds of anonymous strangers. Can you speak about how and where you chose the text, and your decisions as to formatting it onscreen?
I think this is a theme that comes up in a number of films that are about families or motherhood. I’m really interested in this ‘shared subjective’ experience. I think of the films as being personal, and subjective, but I’m interested in how these experiences, despite being isolated, might still be shared by so many women.
Those quotes come from a website called We Feel Fine that aggregates comments from all kinds of different chat rooms based on certain key words having to do with how people feel. You can narrow down your search parameters. In the film, these parameters are ‘women in Iowa between the ages of 35-40′ – similar to my own experience at the time. The website pulls all these comments posted over a particular period of time. I can sit there and read that stuff for days. It’s intimate, but it’s also anonymous, and with that you can imagine and create a story around it.
Still from Freyer’s You Can See The Sun In Late December.
Part of the idea behind cropping the text was to see these as partial, individual experiences and also to accelerate a feeling of a shared experience in the film. You see people worried about aging, money, relationships with their partners, relationships with their children, sex – all of these concerns which are highly personal and individual but also an aggregate, a collective.
I didn’t realize that is was specifically an aggregate, so I think that further reinforces this idea that all this individual turmoil is out there, but you kind of have to collect it and find it. Just as with the internet, where you’re very connected but it’s only when you look that you see its content, the idea of ‘Neverland,’ seems to be a parallel of this for children. How did you end up incorporating the Peter Pan footage in your film?
I have an old VHS tape that is a collection of seemingly every song from every Disney movie imaginable with all the words underneath. That’s where that footage came from. In particular, I was really interested in that image of Tinkerbell being snatched out of the air, this fantasy figure for young girls growing up. My children are so interested in fairies and they have been for a long time. So it was partly motivated by that – a fairy being snatched out of the air by a little boy’s hand – that really resonated with me.
Still from Freyer’s You Can See The Sun In Late December.
In the internet confessionals, there are these animated virtual circles, floating around, just like a fairy. Were the circles something you digitally created to further draw a link between the kid’s reality and the adult’s confessional forum?
The circles around the text was actually just something on the site.
That’s great because it works so well, both elements floating, both these sort of virtual fantasy worlds.
Still from Freyer’s You Can See The Sun In Late December.
The introduction you wrote on your website, and the way you present your work is really interesting.“Outsiders, flops and dark horses fascinate me. Coal miners and sex workers; poets, artists and activists; dead and dying media formats. Whether in a social justice or lyrical mode, my documentaries and experimental shorts explore displacement and invisibility as subject and metaphor.” Yet in this film, as in many other shorts, you focus on the familiar, on the domestic images that perhaps breed complacency, until you provoke your viewers to see them in a new light. Can you talk about how you see motherhood and domesticity within the context of your other work? Why is it important for you to make a film about this subject?
I think that for a long time I made work, and it wasn’t easy to see what connected some of the things I was interested in, in terms of why the same person would make a social justice environmental film on the one hand, and then a personal experimental film about motherhood. What’s the connection there? I was trained as a documentary filmmaker, and for a long time I worked on traditional PBS documentaries, as an associate producer and researcher for other people. I was very interested in social justice documentaries, and I still am, but I also feel like my interests as a filmmaker have evolved, and with the shorter, experimental work, I am able to feel a little more liberated from what I think of as the formal constraints of the documentary, even though documentary film itself has become more liberated now.
Another part of it is that even the shorter more personal work is connected to the idea of being interested in outsiders and marginalized populations. We don’t necessarily think of mothers as being outsiders, but if you think about how mothers are represented, they are always seen as objects of a child’s attention or the object of a marketer’s attention. Their subjective experience of motherhood is not often represented. So in that sense, I think of them as being outsiders. Actually I think of children as being marginalized in the culture as well, in the sense that so much of the culture is quite toxic to a truly healthy childhood.
Still from Freyer’s You Can See The Sun In Late December.
With the Chekhov For Children, that’s very much a focus as well. In this documentary you look at the 1979 staging of a Chekhov play by 5th and 6th graders, directed by writer Phillip Lopate. This play was something you took part in yourself as a child, working as Lopate’s assistant. But you voice this nostalgic understanding that a few decades ago there was much more room for children to play and experiment, to perhaps be pulled out of the classroom as with that project. Now, with You Can See The Sun In Late December, and your other short film, The Summer Made Her Light Escape, what is the interest and desire to turn your camera onto the subject of childhood?
One of the things that Chekhov For Children is about is this idea that childhood resonates throughout our entire adult life. It totally animates adult life in a way that we are not necessarily keyed into (on a conscious level) but that shapes us. It is through the arts, through play and imagination, that we stay connected to that living childhood within us. At the same time, it’s important not to be nostalgic for some prelapsarian ‘lost innocence’ or to think of childhood as a “walled garden” (as in the Victorian ideal).
Our Summer Made Her Light Escape is a very different piece from Chekhov and from my other shorts in that, while it has a rich soundtrack and is inspired by a poem by Emily Dickinson, the film uses no formal language or text at all. It is entirely comprised of images of children in imaginative play, dancing, exploring the natural world, yet these images are woven together with images of death and decay in the animal world (a smashed robin’s eggs, a stumbling bumblebee, a dying mole). What Our Summer shares with the Chekhov film, thematically, is an inclination to explore the darker side of childhood, its effervescence and discomforts.
Still from Freyer’s feature length documentary, Chekov For Children.
The mood that you weave together in You Can See The Sun In Late December is so heavy, so oppressive – the winter stillness, the empty furniture, the sounds of a baby shrieking, the despairing internet confessionals. By the time we see the images of the baby, wide eyed and needy, I personally felt very hostile towards it, as if it is the cause of all this emotional anguish. Do you feel any reservations about using your children in your work, worried at all about the kind of criticisms that Sally Mann received when photographing her kids in the 90s?
I just moved to Virginia, and Sally Mann shows here in Richmond, so I’m so excited because I love that work. But yes, her work is sort of ethically charged and complicated. But for now, my kids love it. They are like, “let’s see that movie we’re in again!” It’s great. I don’t know what they’re going to think when they’re older, but for now they’re interested in it. Again, I think about filmmaking as a sort of everyday practice that I’m sort of doing in and around the house, though sometimes I get out and shoot in the world, but otherwise they are such a huge part of my life.
I imagine, too, that it is a really great way to engage with your kids, and engage in a way that is sharing something you’re passionate about outside of your role as mother.
Definitely. The one frustration they have already is that they are such video-literate kids, that when I shoot something on the Bolex, it’s like, “let’s see it!” But it’s not the iPhone!
Do you know the filmmaker Lynne Sachs?
I do, she was my professor at Temple.
She’s great, and I brought her up because she also shot her children a lot, and now her daughter Maya and her are making films together, which I think is great.
It’s funny because Lynne Sachs studied with Gunvor Nelson, who made My Name Is Oona, and she made this amazing film called Schmeerguntz in the 60s, really ahead of its time, a sort of feminist rant against motherhood, just this hilarious black and white film she made with Dorothy Wiley. It’s all of this interior domestic stuff and then a giant poopy diaper. It goes all over the map. So she was someone Lynne studied with in San Francisco, and I studied with Lynne. Gunvor lives in Sweden now, and I lived in Sweden a couple of years ago for just six months, and I met her, it was this great connection, like she was my film grandmother!
Right and yet you both made feminist films in a very different way; that’s wild.
Lopate’s undertaking is kind of radical, having students act as adults in Chekhov For Children, and it brings up the question of where there is a distinction “between experimentation and self-indulgence,” something he himself writes about. You are a professor, and have a very formal training and background in filmmaking, so where do you set the line for both yourself and your students between “experimentation and self indulgence”?
With Chekhov For Children, it was really on my mind a lot. To be in a social situation, and say, “I’m making this documentary about a play I was in with all my friends when I was ten.” It’s like, “Oh, yeah, that sounds fascinating.” Yikes! So with that film in particular, I felt like it was very self-indulgent. That was the film where I just embraced this fact. In some ways, when that film premiered, and people asked, “who is this movie for?” I mean, everyone who was in the film was there, and I said, honestly, I made the film for 12 people. If other people like it, it’s a blessing. 80 or 90 percent of the film footage is made by the kids in the school at the time, so it has this very funky, wacky, old video/Super 8 film aesthetic. Yet the film took an extremely long time to edit, precisely because of struggling with the question of self indulgence.
I think it’s the hardest thing to teach, not necessarily how to reign in the self indulgence, but how to know what’s working and what’s not. Everybody is going to be indulgent at certain points, but it’s a question of being a really brutal self-critic and curator.
Still from Freyer’s feature length documentary Chekov For Children.
Do you think that focusing on subjects that are outside a subjective, every-day view, can help with that? I think a lot of young writers and filmmakers want to just create work about themselves, about their demographic. Is that something you ever present to your students?
On a practical level, it depends specifically on what kind of class I’m teaching. If I’m teaching an advanced documentary class, then yes, you need to get out into the world and find a story. But I also think that sometimes students need to just work through their narcissism, their bad stereotypes and cliches, their parents’ divorce, whatever it is before they can move on and make something more meaningful for an audience. Personally, I’d rather see a student film about a weird personal romance than another zombie movie or a film about a poker game gone bad starring 20-year-old Iowa kids who don’t look anything like gangsters and it makes no sense at all! That’s a different kind of self indulgence.
Right, trying to mimic a type of film that is itself a stereotype.
Yes, a total recapitulation of the kinds of media that they consume. There’s a part of me that thinks you can push people away from that, but if that’s what they need to do in the moment, that’s what they need to do in the moment. I’ve said, you are going to be so embarrassed by this film in five years, but I will help you make the best zombie film you can make!
I definitely have crewed on a bunch of zombie films in the past. It’s just a staple of the film student experience! But I’m glad that you said that you made Chekhov For Children for 12 people, because it brings back this idea that Lopate talks about, that you could be an amazing writer, and come into a room full of third graders who wouldn’t care at all; that you have to engage with your subject, do something with them,for them. So this idea that the subject of your film should also somehow relate to the spectator, do you feel there has to be some connection there, especially with your making “films about outsiders”? Who are you making these films for?
I think that’s part of what I think about and have struggled with, in terms of having come from a background of traditional social justice documentary, because I think the media landscape has changed so much. Even though there are amazing social justice documentaries being made and they’re important, I feel like it’s increasingly hard to understand why a person would spend four or five years going through the brutal headaches of fundraising to make a feature length film about, for example, bullying, when there is a really successful grassroots campaign that gets lots of attention through Facebook and the internet about the same issue with the short form, anti-harassment campaign. So the efficacy of feature length social justice documentaries, and their ability to address an issue quickly, in a timely fashion, is something I think about a lot, in terms of the relationship to audience. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t made a film like that in a long time. Other people have maybe solved this problem, and I haven’t been able to.
The film about the financial meltdown that won an Oscar a few years ago, Inside Job, a lot of people saw that and even those who aren’t traditional documentary goers saw it and learned a lot. That was a film that had a fairly quick turnaround; it came out in 2010, and maybe took a year and a half to make, and it was able to respond to that issue, and because of its length, to go fairly in depth. So I think there’s a place for feature length social issue films but I also think that people are learning about contemporary social issues and responding to them in ways that are gravitating away from the long form social documentary. So that’s part of the appeal to me of making short work.
In terms of the more personal work, or the work that is about motherhood, I want to be the lazy student and say the film is for “everyone” but that’s such bullshit, that any film is for “everyone.” When you walk into Barnes and Nobles, there’s not an “everyone” section; there’s a gardening section and a fiction section and a travel section. But the venues for short experimental film, as you well know, are very few and they are shrinking. So these films might reach a population that is interested in those alternative venues and forms, but I do think that it is showing a particular kind of female experience that I think is under-represented.
But that question, ‘who is your spectator?’ especially for a student, can sometimes, when asked too early on, be oppressive. You have so many things to think about, you haven’t even made a film yet. But coming from the documentary world, it’s this huge thing: who is your audience? How will you measure impact? With the shorter work, I’m not necessarily thinking about it till I’m finished.
In You Can See The Sun In Late December, you are incorporating un-staged moments of intimacy in your house with your children, as well as pulling real confessionals from the internet. Do you see this work as a document, or an experimental fabrication? Why do you choose to label most of your works, like Our Summer Made Her Light Escape, as “experimental doc” and do you see yourself first and foremost as a documentary filmmaker?
I think of myself broadly as a non-fiction filmmaker, in a way that can encompass the more traditional documentary forms that I tend to work in with longer works, and experimental non-fiction, which is how I would describe the more personal, artistic work.
Right, because you’re shooting images of your kids, so it’s not that they are staged, but the reason for shooting them isn’t necessarily to expose something inherent in them as a subject, but rather to have their images working for this larger idea with other images and sounds.
Still from Freyer’s You Can See the Sun In Late December.
I’m definitely influenced by a number of women filmmakers who work in what I would call both realms. Lynne Sachs, Chick Strand, Abigail Child and Su Friedrich come to mind.
Part of it is a practical question, like when you’re sending your film off to festivals, which box do you check? It’s interesting for me to see where things get programmed. Our Summer Made Her Light Escape is screening at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. So with this particular film, it’s a really broad use of the term ‘documentary’ film.
I was able to find some of your films on Fandor.com, a site where you have to join and pay to see works, and that’s great way to support an artist. If you could briefly talk about your feelings on sharing content online, just because the nature of our festival is that we did find so many works online. There are so many good artists that might not necessarily be in a fine arts world, or in the cinema world, but are rather just making things and putting them out there. So it’s a personal question for us, how artists want to show work online, because so often it’s a benefit for them to do that.
I’m ambivalent about sharing work online only because, and I know this is where we are headed potentially in terms of spectatorship, but I have a hard time imagining someone seeing my film on a phone. In some ways, it makes more sense to me that people watch big feature films that way. I used to have a student who loved the Pirates of the Caribbean movies with Johnny Depp. And she would watch this movie over and over again on her phone, like it has this metonymic function for her. She knows the movie so well, that she doesn’t actually need to see it on a big screen anymore. She just needs to have something that points to it in terms of the image.
Right, like you already know the language of edits, and close ups, and other cues so well, that you just need the signifier, you don’t need to see the actual thing in a large format.
Exactly. I think it’s great to have work online. Fandor doesn’t have my last two pieces yet. With other works, I have a clips on the web, but not the whole film. Partly that’s just a concern about festival programming and its life on the circuit. Some festivals won’t program films that are available on the web. But honestly, I don’t research these things too carefully.
I should add here that You Can See the Sun in Late December is not distributed by Fandor because I used Disney footage (the Tinkerbell clip) without permission or rights clearance.
The way you present yourself, you are very vocal and proud about being not only a filmmaker, but also a mother, an artist, a professor, an amateur dressmaker. I think it’s great, and it’s so seldom that people get more personal in describing themselves. Even younger filmmakers want to present themselves in a very serious, professional way. Do you think it is beneficial to see an artist in a more dynamic, integrated way, not to isolate them with an ‘artist’ label?
If you look at my bio for VCU where I just became the Chair of the Department of Photography and Film, I don’t think it says ‘amateur dressmaker’ because even my husband was like, don’t put that, that’s too much, you should be a little more professional. Partly it’s a function of being middle aged. I’m 44 and I don’t care about being cool anymore. I’m not hip! I like things I would never admit to liking before. I like Journey! So maybe that’s part of it – I’m more interested in embracing my idiosyncrasies, not concealing them.
I was looking at a bunch of fine art experimental filmmaker’s websites recently and one thing I noticed is that they have this super minimalist aesthetic. They’re all white with a tiny, black font and tiny thumbnail images. Totally pared-down and simple and I thought, damn, I have a funky pattern and a picture of a half eaten cheese-stick on my website, what the hell is that, I missed the memo!
That’s great that you say that because, though I can’t speak at great length about the definitions and differences between experimental film and video art, when I was presenting your work to the team, I felt that you are someone that comes from this tradition of avant garde filmmaking, like Michael Robinson who screened at Iowa, someone who shoots because they feel compelled to. There is a different feeling between very minimalist video art that’s very slick and conceptual, versus filmmakers who want to experiment, and to just shoot. I think your film resonates more with this latter genera.
That’s also a product of my age in terms of my training because I was so influenced by so many filmmakers from the 70s, 80s and early 90s. You’re in New York and you know that in every gallery, video art is exploding and has been exploding. But I think at the level of art school training, more photographers are using video, sculptors are using video, and painters are thinking about video. So there is this way that video is being incorporated and deployed by all of these different disciplines, that video art can be overwhelming, hard to screen and program, especially in those works where the space is part of the project.
Still from Freyer’s Her Heart Was Washed and Then Weighed.
As a professor yourself, do you foresee that teaching film will no longer incorporate experimental film, because fine arts departments are taking video arts under their wing?
I think it depends. I think of them as having really distinct histories. This is a question with photography too. The department I’m a Chair of is the Department of Photography and Film, and they have different tracks, but photography and film are headed in the future in a direction in which they’re merging more and more, which is interesting from the perspective of studying technology and where it can go. But I also think that they are distinct disciplines with divergent pasts. Photography, film, video art, they have totally distinct histories, so it’s hard to pack all of that in to one ‘education’.
Sasha Waters Freyer currently serves as Chair of the Department of Photography and Film at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Her themes of motherhood and the ‘shared subjective experience’ are common threads found in her work as a filmmaker and ‘amateur dressmaker’, a title she no longer pastes on her bio. In her own words, she “desires to make visible that which remains unseen in industrial cinema, and tells stories from the margins of culture.” Both her longer documentary works and shorter personal films have been screened nationally and internationally in festivals as varied as Ann Arbor Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Australian International Experimental Film Festival, Athens Int’l Film + Video Festival, and the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival.