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OPEN YOUR EYES
Experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer looks back on her thirty-plus years in film.

BY ASTRA TAYLOR

BARBARA HAMMER’S POOLS.

When feminist film pioneer Barbara Hammer was studying at San Francisco State University in the late ’60s and early ’70s, she was influenced by experimentalists like Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage, whose first wife, Jane, starred in Hammer’s master’s thesis film. Brakhage ended up buying it for his private collection.

Over three decades and 80 films later, Hammer hasn’t lost her avant-garde sensibility. Though the topics she’s tackled are staggeringly diverse, her innovative and playful approach to form is constant. Concerned with the kinds of taboo subjects and marginalized people often wiped from the historical record, Hammer’s films overflow with stylistic breaks and ruptures, highlighting the fact that the stories she uncovers have been fragmented, suppressed and mostly forgotten.

Hammer’s latest feature-length documentaries, Resisting Paradise and Lover Other, take her experimental techniques to new heights; they are multilayered, mesmerizing and moving. Set in southern France against the backdrop of World War II, both films ask the perennial question, How can art exist in a time of political crisis?

BARBARA HAMMER.

Resisting Paradise contrasts the choices made by painters Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, who continued to produce landscapes and portraits as the war raged around them, with the courageous actions of resisters and refugees, including Matisse’s wife and daughter and an astounding woman named Lisa Fittko, who led philosopher Walter Benjamin on his ill-fated trek over the Pyrenees. Lover Other, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year, is a double biography of two fabulously creative Surrealist artists, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, who created daring work during the Nazis’ occupation of France.

Though she spent much of this year battling cancer, Hammer remains as vital and visionary as ever. She’s also joined the ranks of “experimental elder,” with a slew of awards and retrospectives. Most recently she received the first Shirley Clarke Memorial Avant-Garde Filmmaker Award from New York Women in Film and Television and the Women in Film Award 2006 from the St. Louis International Film Festival.

What were your expectations when you were just starting out as a filmmaker, and have they been met? I don’t know if I had any. I didn’t really think of an audience then. All I knew was that I had an incredible amount of energy and so much to say, so much to express, and I hadn’t found a form. I was 30 years old when I went to film school. I had already tried other occupations, and none of them had worked. I tried painting, I taught in a juvenile hall, I worked in a bank, I worked as a recreation director in a playground after school. I had myriad jobs, and I wasn’t happy. They were all okay, except for the bank, which was boring. For grad school I was required to make about four films and I made 13! They were for myself, not for a class. And only later did I say, “Oh, people may want to see these.” And so I showed them at women’s coffeehouses and bars. Then finally, in 1979 I had my first show outside of the San Francisco lesbian-feminist community in a little experimental place called Pasadena Film Forum. That screening broadened my world.

How would you characterize the evolution of your work over the last few decades? How do you see your creative trajectory? Once you’ve worked for 30 or 40 years, you really have a chance to look back and [see] periods — sort of like Picasso had a Blue Period. [laughs] The early period was lesbian feminist: that was work from the ’70s where the subject matter was critical to the film. But I was very influenced by experimental film, so it was always experimental; at the same time the subject [matter] was crucial. And then, during the ’80s, the art world, which I was always aware of and still am, turned to minimalism, and the subject became the form, so to speak. But [the minimalist movement] divorced heart from form. I decided to work with structural practices but put the heart and feeling back in. Those were my films during the ’80s. Optic Nerve would be a prime example. My grandmother was in a nursing home, and I worked with Super 8mm film, rephotographing it, showing the frame and the frame line, and paying attention to structural principles. In the ’90s I decided to work in a longer format because I wanted to explore a subject more deeply. I was inspired to make a long film, Nitrate Kisses, and I did it by making a series of shorts of about 20 minutes and putting them together with quotes.

Ah, that’s how you made the transition from short to long form. Yes, because I really didn’t know how you conceived of a long film at that time. The three films in the Invisible Histories trilogy — Nitrate Kisses, Tender Fictions and History Lessons — are all essay documentaries in the long form. Over the last 15 years that work, which all originated on film, has been interspersed with global concerns where I’ve used video. I’ve made a work on Ogawa Shinsuke and his documentary collective in Japan called Devotion, and My Babushka, where I went to the Ukraine and sought out my Ukrainian heritage. With Resisting Paradise I returned to the essay documentary form.

How would you characterize this phase you’re in now? Your most recent films, Resisting Paradise and Lover Other, seem very related. They are.

Lover Other struck me as a response to the questions raised by Resisting Paradise. Resisting Paradise left me with a sense that there’s a division between the artist and the resister that’s irreconcilable. And then in Lover Other, this wonderful and inspiring example emerges of a duo, Cahun and Moore, who have a foot in both worlds. That’s great. It’s so funny because when you make work sometimes, you’re making it out of blind faith — you’re doing it intuitively. I saw Lover Other as a coda to Resisting Paradise, as a smaller film, a more intimate film on the same subject matter, and as a postscript. I knew I wanted to make a film about lesbian resisters, so that was my rational idea. But I didn’t see it as, Yes, it’s resistance by the artist, resistance and art together rather than at odds with each other. Beautiful!

Supposedly we’re in the middle of this documentary renaissance, and video technology has democratized access to the filmmaking process. And yet access to equipment hasn’t necessarily encouraged more experimental work. Do you have any thoughts on this? It immediately makes me think of all the films I’ve seen and how literal they are. Just because you can pick up a camera doesn’t mean you have looked at the history of filmmaking and seen what kind of forms are available. You may be unaware of all the great documentary films that have broken traditional rules. Like Errol Morris, especially his The Thin Blue Line, or Chris Marker and his use of abstraction and freedom of cutting. Or Chantal Akerman and her documentary installations. Just because the video camera is inexpensive doesn’t mean people know how to go beyond a Reader’s Digest approach to telling a story.

Can you talk about your current project? I am working on a film shot in Korea, The Diving Women of Cheju-do. The women are my age — they’re in their sixties and seventies — and they dive in the ocean for what they call “merchandise”: sea cucumbers, whelks, urchins, and octopus. It’s a matrilineal culture, where the women inherit the right to this job. But the daughters want to be modern women and live in Seoul, so the tradition is fading. I am documenting this tradition before it dies. It continues my interest in recording histories that are being lost.

It sounds like an amazing movie to shoot. Any final thoughts? The thing I’m thinking about these days is mortality. So much of my life has been caught up in filmmaking. When you get older and you look back, there’s an enormous commitment to this one form. Yet if one were to open the door, there are millions of genres, ideas, disciplines, ways of being in the world, and they all look so exciting! And I guess I’ve been able to dip into many of those — skin-diving with these women in Korea, meeting the collective in Japan, playing in a field nude with women in the ’70s, going around the world on a motor scooter. All of these I’ve done, but there are still so many other possibilities. I guess this is sort of a letter to a young artist: don’t close your eyes to all the other ways of living in the world besides making film. And let film be your entrée to many of those.

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