Astra Taylor, Examined Life
Still in her twenties, documentarian Astra Taylor has already brought a philosophical bent to non-fiction filmmaking and is looking to push the form in new and exciting directions. Taylor was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1979 and grew up in Athens, Georgia. She studied first at the University of Georgia and then got an MA in sociology, philosophy and cultural theory at the New School for Social Research in New York. In 2001, she co-produced and co-directed the 45-minute documentary Miracle Tree: Moringa Oleifera, about infant malnutrition in Senegal, and the following year acted as associate producer on another doc, Allison Maclean’s Persons of Interest (2004), which looked at the treatment of Arabs and Muslims following the 9/11 attacks. Taylor made her feature debut with Žižek!, a portrait of Slavoj Žižek, the inimitable “Elvis of cultural theory;” the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2005 and was released in the U.S. by Zeitgeist later the same year to glowing reviews. Taylor, who is married to Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum, currently runs Hidden Driver Productions with fellow filmmaker Laura Hanna.
With her sophomore feature, Examined Life, Taylor once again brings together her two main passions: film and philosophy. The title is derived from a quote by Socrates (who deemed that “the unexamined life is not worth living”), and over the course of the film Taylor introduces us to eight contemporary philosophers who delve into the issues and problems of the modern world. Though Cornel West talks to Taylor as they drive around New York, the other seven participants – Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler, Sunaura Taylor and Žižek – hold forth on foot, as Taylor conceived the film as “philosophers on walks.” Going against the norm of “serious” documentaries tending to be depressing, Taylor here creates a film of substance that is nevertheless light on its feet. Neither the walking philosophers nor their conversations stop for a moment during Examined Life, so the result is physically and mentally energetic piece of filmmaking. And as the ideas in Taylor’s film are engaging and thought-provoking without being overly complex, we are left invigorated rather than bamboozled.
Filmmaker spoke to Taylor about the challenges of making philosophy cinematic, following in Ari Folman’s footsteps at Hot Docs, and why she always skips the previews at movies.
Filmmaker: How long have you been interested in or preoccupied with philosophy?
Taylor: Well, I’ve been interested in philosophy for many years. One of the definitions of philosophy that I like comes from Isiah Berlin and he said that philosophers are people who persist in asking childish questions, questions that often have no answer and that people often just want to put to the side. I think I got interested in philosophical thought as a kid. I read a copy of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation when I was 12 years old, so I’ve had a longstanding interest in this subject matter. I was always also interested in art and in activism, and documentary film is the perfect vehicle for me to mix all of these interests. The thing that attracts me most about philosophy and filmmaking is that both those disciplines are concerned with shifting perception, shifting the way you see a problem when you have a new theory – it’s illuminating, you suddenly see the world in a new way. And going to a really good documentary film can have the same effect: your whole sense of the world is different.
Filmmaker: Did Examined Life evolve directly out of Žižek!?
Taylor: Yeah, definitely. Even when I was editing Žižek!, I had this strong desire to do another film about philosophy and to do an ensemble piece. I felt that it was such a pleasurable experience and the whole challenge of communicating abstract ideas in a visual format really compelled me. So when I was wrapping that film up, I was already planting seeds and writing proposals for what would become Examined Life, but it’s interesting because right now I don’t have that sense that a strictly philosophical film is on the horizon for me. I don’t have the same desire to tackle it again and I feel like Examined Life is the culmination of approaching philosophy.
Filmmaker: How did you pitch the film to people?
Taylor: “Philosophers on walks.” That was it. I wrote a proposal for Examined Life, but I actually put it in the drawer in this self-defeatist way because I assumed that nobody would be interested in financing such a film. But then I met Ron Mann, a documentary filmmaker based in Toronto and an incredible guy, who mentioned he’d had a longstanding interest in doing an ensemble piece about philosophy, because he’s got a history of doing these anthology films, like Poetry in Motion, on poets, and Imagine the Sound, about jazz. He’d seen Žižek! and we instantaneously had a very good rapport, so I got the proposal out of the drawer showed him what I was thinking about. Once I met Ron, everything came together with this amazing ease and enthusiasm. In fact, my producers believed in the film more than I did at first, because I wasn’t quite sure I could pull it off. However, I did pitch the film at the Hot Docs forum, and – in my opinion – it went over like a lead weight. The people around the table, from one country after the other, told me, “The people of my nation do not want to see this movie. There’s no audience for this. We wouldn’t know how to market it or show it on television.”
Filmmaker: It’s funny, I recently spoke to Ari Folman, the director of Waltz With Bashir, and he said that he had exactly the same experience at Hot Docs.
Taylor: It was really funny because it was in front of 500 people and 50 commissioning editors, and for the whole week these people in the audience – a lot of whom are filmmakers, so were at least sympathetic to me – would come and pat me on the shoulder and say, “Oh, philosophy girl, that was really painful… Good luck.” [laughs]
Filmmaker: How clear was your vision for the film? Did you have an idea how everything would cohere?
Taylor: The people I sent the proposal to had pretty strict requirements, so I ended up making a really in-depth 40-page proposal and was really challenged to create a vision and articulate it on the page. I thought that it was just jumping through hoops, but it was actually so helpful and it’s kind of remarkable how the final product is so close to what I had on the page. I knew that I wanted to have some kind of thread or walk that recurred through the project and someone who served as narrator (or anti-narrator), but I didn’t know that that would be Cornel West, that he would play that role. And then the focus on meaning and ethics, and the emphasis on what I would call the brokenness of the world and discarded populations and unfinished theories and social justice and inequity – all that was on the page, but I couldn’t have imagined really how it would manifest itself. So in one sense my vision was quite clear but in another sense it was a total surprise when I got into the editing room and actually had to figure it out.
Filmmaker: And what about your conception of the visual style?
Taylor: I really wanted there to be a visual diversity and I wanted each section to feel like a short film that fit a person’s individual energy, the theme they were talking about. [Cornel West in] the car diverged from the whole walking motif, but it’s a way of updating the whole peripatetic motif: this is how we move through space in 2009. And the accelerated stop and start of me driving him around Manhattan really fits with his presentation. Also, I wanted to create the sense that the viewer was on the walks and that there was space for them to insert themselves so it would almost feel like a conversation, even if it was actually a monologue. My biggest thing was not wanting it to feel like a lecture that happens to be moving.
Filmmaker: Was the film conceived as a series of monologues or of conversations? We don’t hear much of you at all but it feels very conversational.
Taylor: The thing is that they all are conversations: my style of interviewing is basically to have a conversation, so I had questions unique to each subject based on months of reading and research and thinking about how it would all tie together. But then, we would keep talking and just see where it was going. I would be walking backwards, typically speaking to them, so it feels like conversations because that’s what they are, and I edited myself out as much as I could.
Filmmaker: The footage is extremely dialogue-heavy, so did you edit at all on paper?
Taylor: I experimented with that, and did that more than I did in the past. Mainly, it was because I had the luxury of having transcribers, whereas with Žižek! I developed my own crazy Žižek shorthand and my own bizarre logging system. I did do some paper editing, but because I’d already conceived the themes in advance, it was first a matter of instinct – picking out the great moments – and then building around them. One thing that did surprise me in the editing room was the lack of space for digression. I couldn’t lose momentum. It’s all moving so fast and the arguments are coming at such high speed that I wasn’t able to go as off-topic as I imagined I would be. They all stay on-message [in the film] more than they did in real life.
Filmmaker: Avital Ronnell comments that she will only have 10 minutes in the final film. Did you tell everyone in advance about this? And do you feel it was helpful to do so?
Taylor: Yes. She did a great job of making it into a joke, but basically when I proposed this project to them, I said, “It’s a series of walks, each person will get 10 minutes, and you won’t get intercut with anyone else, so I’m not going to play your comments off someone else’s You will have your own coherent universe, but we have to speak in a way that’s free of jargon and directly relates to the audience’s experiences and you’ll have 10 minutes to do it.” People were very enthusiastic.
Filmmaker: One of the analogies I was thinking about for the film was that of a concert film, and it struck me that there’s a certain resonance with films like The Last Waltz, which also showcases a series of great, virtuosic performances.
Taylor: Oh yeah, that’s neat. It’s interesting because The Last Waltz was the one film the producer from my previous film, Žižek!, made me watch. I do like the theatricality and formality of that film a lot. These walks in Examined Life are quite naturalistic but, obviously, they’re a total spectacle and the subjects speak to the camera, so I really liked playing with that. I don’t have any desire to portray something that seems authentic – in the sense of “Oh, they’ve forgotten the camera and now they’re being themselves” – and showing these people at home having a sandwich. That, to me, isn’t nearly as compelling as them staring into the camera and saying, “This is what I believe. This is my truth. This is where my conviction lies. This is me.” To me, that’s far more authentic, even though obviously there’s a six-person film crew and they’re completely aware that they’re being filmed. They were all very enthusiastic about the element of spectacle, that was something they all embraced readily. I expected that from Žižek, because I’d worked with him before and he has a great love of cinema, but everyone else shared this enthusiasm so that was a real pleasant surprise.
Filmmaker: The first films you were involved with, Miracle Tree and Persons of Interest, were both about global social issues, and then you shifted towards philosophy for your next two. Was there a particular reason for this?
Taylor: In 2001, when I was 21, I dropped out of grad school. I was doing a humanities based curriculum, and I felt this calling to do something more hands-on, a more direct to call attention to social injustice, so filmmaking seemed like a perfect forum for that. I think after my experience in West Africa dealing with malnutrition and then associate producing Persons of Interest, where my job was basically convincing people who were in very precarious positions to appear on screen, people who were risking a lot, I had an epiphany about the futility of documentary filmmaking as a direct step towards social change. But that liberated me to focus on film for its own sake, so it made sense for me to mix philosophy with cinema since those were the two things I really enjoy. Also, I think there’s a shortage of films that are cerebral but entertaining. Seriousness is equated with sadness or staring into the heart of darkness, but there’s space for a film of substance that leaves you enthused and maybe impassioned and emboldened. I’m not saying Examined Life totally does that, but that’s the sort of emotion I’d like people to leave the theater with, to leave energized and elevated.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Taylor: I watched Blindsight, which is a great documentary by Lucy Walker, and the protagonist is such an inspiring, powerful woman that I actually just felt like I was wasting my life in isolation and I should just go and follow her example. But the real answer is that this is such a fucking privilege to be able to make a film and have it open in New York. At this point, I’m just awash in gratitude that I’m getting to do this work. So it would be hard for me to wish I was doing something else right now.
Filmmaker: Do you always try and get into the theater early enough to watch the previews?
Taylor: No, because of the stupid advertisements. Last time I went early and saw the previews, they played some heavy metal music video for joining the army and I nearly killed myself. So I try to get there as late as possible without missing any of the film.
Filmmaker: Finally, If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Taylor: I think that would be a deadly idea. I like things to be humble and organic and challenging, so the idea of having a limitless budget and access to anybody on the earth sounds terrifying and completely unappealing. I enjoy scrounging for things at thrift stores and having to make do with what I can find. The whole creative process is breaking boundaries and figuring out how to integrate the mess around you and give it form.