"Filmmakers seem to rely on an obviously masculine [narrative] model that offers no vertical access to their stories"
- FLMTQ Interview
One of Filmmaker Magazine's 25 New Faces of Independent Film 2015, Zia Anger is an American filmmaker intent on exploring the cinematic distinctions between masculine and feminine experiences. Her 2015 short I Remember Nothing eschews traditional narrative structures in favor of a vertical experience— diving straight into the five stages of a seizure.
Based on conversations with an epileptic family member, Anger's surreal, hypnotic short screened at Locarno, AFI and New Directors/New Films. Filmatique conducted an exclusive interview with Zia Anger on the occasion of I Remember Nothing's screening this week on Le Cinéma Club.
FILMATIQUE: In I Remember Nothing, the lead character Joan is portrayed by five actresses in sections that correspond to the five phases of a seizure. Can you discuss the choice to cast five separate actresses as Joan?
ZIA ANGER: On one hand, I always knew I wanted to split the character between the 99.9% of the time an epileptic is seizure-free, and the 0.1% they experience a seizure. It was so literal though, I couldn't very well infer that I knew what both these sides were like. On the other hand, I was thinking practically. I knew it would be hard to have one actress commit to 3-4 days of unpaid work with an unknown director.
In my research I discovered the five stages: a less simple, less literal way to explore my original curiosity. The marriage of these two ideas came very organically.
FLMTQ: What motivates your preference of non-linear storytelling over traditional narrative structures? What are the advantages? The drawbacks?
ZA: I find traditional narratives to be passive and apolitical because the main concern is catharsis. I don't think that, if you're privileged enough to be making films, that should be acceptable. If you want to make films where the biggest concern is how much money you can spend and how much money you can make back, you're living in the dark ages. I wouldn't say I favor non-linear storytelling— but rather that I'm interested in making films that investigate ways of talking about things in a non-cathartic way.
The advantage of this is that because I recognize my collaborators and audiences as capable of understanding, rationalizing, and changing, it is very easy to work. I acknowledge them as peers.
The drawback is that we (artists, audiences, investors, programmers) have been convinced that we are commodities, to be bought and sold. This works directly against the advantage. It is not easy to work in a commodified field, when your entire practice is based on moving through and beyond that notion.
FLMTQ: You've expressed a kinship with Maya Deren's theory of film's vertical access— diving in rather than traveling across the surface— as an inherently feminine experience. Do you believe that all linear narratives are necessarily masculine? Equally, that vertical experience in film cannot be told from a male perspective?
ZA: Filmmaking is in its infancy. For some reason, from the beginning, the Aristotelian structure— a narrative with beginning, middle, and end— became the most accepted. And behind the scenes the only model that existed is based on some kind of warped reality where, historically, there were only male actors and being a playwright was a matter of life or death and you had to be male and only men were in charge of the polis (in Western civilization).
It's no wonder that Hollywood, independent film production, experimental film and even to an extent academia and its relation with Western structures resonates as masculine. The entire art form is a product of capitalism, which is a system divined by old white men. It takes everything that is good— music, theatre, the plastic arts, written word, et al— and commodifies it. And yes, I do think commodification was originally a masculine impulse.
We have arrived at a place, though, where we understand that gender impulses are not confined to whether you were born with a penis or a set of ovaries. I would say that linear narratives do come from a male-run society, but vertical access comes from all types of places. Think of the way a young child tells a story that is full of lies, but is obviously, to them, truth. Or certain Native American story-telling traditions based on the seasons, the Korean idea of Haan, oral traditions of Black Americans. Both men and women have been diving into narratives since the beginning of time.
Filmmakers, however, seem to rely on an obviously masculine model that offers no vertical access to their stories.
FLMTQ: Who have been your other influences?
ZA: Brecht, of course. And specifically his Lehrstück [learning-play, dissolving the separation of audience and actor]. And my mothers, actually. One who performed in a radical mime and storytelling troupe throughout my childhood, and the other who is a self-taught folk artist. To understand the true meaning of catharsis, I've always watched a lot of Law and Order: SVU. Macrobiotic cooking.
FLMTQ: Any new projects in the works?
ZA: I have a feature script we are trying to make happen. But apparently features take a lot of time. In the meantime I am trying out new ideas through shorts.