request - Filmmaker Magazine

By Peter Bowen

Photo by Gil Kofman

AMY ZIERING KOFMAN AND KIRBY DICK (Sick; Chain Camera) are completing a documentary on Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher whose name, just a decade or so ago, was a touchstone for fierce debate in almost every university in America. Derrida's "deconstructionism" weaves together semiotics and psychoanalysis in order to interrogate assumptions about language, meaning and order. Picked up originally by literature departments as a mode of literary criticism, deconstructionism — or at least the idea of it — soon swept through nearly all academic disciplines and departments, appearing in architecture, fashion, art and even science. For more conservative scholars, deconstructionism was a virus, infecting every academic structure with relativism.

Derrida was patient zero, introducing his ideas to the U.S. during his tenure at Yale University in the late 1970s and 1980s. It was there that Kofman, who was a comparative literature graduate student doing a dissertation in theory, met Derrida and learned to appreciate his charismatic genius.

When she met up with him years later in Los Angeles, she realized that there was no visual record of Derrida for others to witness what she had experienced firsthand. She decided to make a documentary, and, after a flurry of written requests and grant applications, she found herself in Paris filming Derrida for the first of many interviews. During this process Kofman met up with Dick at a screening of his documentary Sick and was so intrigued by his own sense of documentary portraiture that she asked if she could work with him.

For Dick, "When I saw the footage [of Derrida] I was really struck. There was something in the open-ended approach, and I was very intrigued by [Amy's] ambition. And I read a lot of Derrida's work."

Although they want to preserve a record of Derrida, neither filmmaker has any desire to create a BBC-style documentary. Derrida's prose, which does not so much explicate deconstructionism as demonstrate it, requires a specific visual strategy to express itself onscreen. That approach, Kofman explains, is to not to create a primer on deconstructionism, but something "that is provocative and informative, something that gestures to Derrida's intellectual ethos." The film, Dick suggests, aims somewhere "between his thinking and his person, and at the divide between the two. For example, he was involved in a conference on biography whose issues are obviously appropriate to this film. Then there is footage of him eating yogurt, which seems like a question: Does this tell me something about him? Does it tell me anything at all?"


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