By José Sarmiento Hinojosa
Sarah Friedland is a filmmaker from California who’s been working in the intersection between performance and the moving image. This intersection, however, is specially arresting because of how she focuses on the quotidian and the political intertwined in public and private spaces, breaks up its elements and re-assembles the logical apparatus of individual and collective movement behind the camera, carefully choosing the vantage points which will connect with our perception. This work on the choreography of life travels through three fundamental works: “Home Exercises” (2017), “CROWDS” (2019) and “Drills”(2020) and a three-channel installation whose live version was showed in Bologne, Italy. We talked with her about her formation, her philosophy on movement and her experiences with different manifestations of performance, and share her 2017 film “Home Exercises” at the end of this interview.
You can find Sarah’s work at: www.motionandpictures.com
Desistfilm: Can you talk to us about your formation? How did this interest of fusing performance and the moving image come about?
Sarah Friedland: Well, for me images and movement were initially separate and then started on this collision course until it became wildly obvious to me that I was interested in making hybrid works. I was fascinated by photography as a child and started dancing in my teen years; it wasn’t clear to me that I wanted to make films. I was doing a lot of photography, and soon individual images turned into diptychs that turned into triptychs, then I started doing stop motion animation, and I had a wonderful photography teacher in high school who told me, “I think you want to make films” (laughs). “Do you know what? You’re right,” I said. It was wildly obvious to those around me but I was still unsure. My mom too was always showing me films and hinting this was what I was moving towards, but I had to figure it out in my own time. So, in college, I didn’t go to film school or art school, I went to Brown, where I was studying in the Modern Culture and Media Department, which is known, historically, as a Semiotics department but it has taken on a lot of names.
At the same time, I was reading critical theory around the formations of media and culture, I was starting to make some experimental short films and studying modern dance, choreography, the basics of dance composition and dance history. And it was while doing this simultaneously that I started realizing that, in my choreography, I wanted greater control: I wanted the viewer to see just a single angle, or to wrap around a body. So, I started feeling that intention towards a visual choreography while creating dances, and simultaneously while making films. I just wanted to make films focused on bodies, and was noticing that the films that I was making were all centered around gestures, postures, movement, exchanges between people. And that was when I realized, “Okay, I think I want to try to make dance films.” And I started studying the history of dance film and recognizing that so much of film history, its beginnings, is centered around capturing motion and trying to prove the continuity of motion on screen.
I came across this amazing book by a scholar named Erin Brannigan, Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image. She basically uses this combination of dance theory and film theory to make sense of this intersection in different ways. And I devoured this book and wrote her a cold email that basically said, “I love your work – it helped me make sense of my own creative interests.” She lives in Sydney so I asked her: “If I could make my way to Sydney would you teach and work with me?” And she, miraculously, said yes, and after a lot of bureaucratic enrolment issues with my university and having to drop out temporarily, I went to Sydney and worked with her for a while, and just focused on understanding this intersection of forms, and I think that really changed a lot for me.
Fast forward, I graduated college and started working for other filmmakers in New York because I felt I had a strong theoretical background and not a lot of practical sense. I knew thematically what I was interested in and I knew the very basics of filmmaking, but I didn’t have a strong grasp of what everybody else on the crew does, how to find your crew or fund your film, or anything. So for about three and a half or four years, I worked in production in New York City. I was a script reader, and I was a P.A., and an assistant production coordinator, and a director’s assistant, and a research assistant. I just did all of these different kinds of entry-level film jobs on set and in production offices, and sort of learned the practical side of filmmaking.
So I feel that’s the gist of my education. But what informs my work continues to shift. Recently I’ve been playing with… where do these works go? Because they’re hybrid, because they’re interdisciplinary. I feel like my first few years of making stuff after school, I was making some dance pieces for dance spaces and I was trying to make some narrative films that I think weren’t really true to me… I don’t want to trash any of my movies (laughs) because I care about the people, I made them with. But I think I was trying to figure out where does this work fit, you know? Is it in the world of arthouse cinema? Is it in the dance world? Is it in the visual arts? And I think that question is one that remains unanswered. The answer for me has been sort of sliding in between them, being okay with an instability of where this fits, which means that I’ve been making some works for gallery spaces; I’ve been making films that are on the festival circuit; and I’m also still making live dance works, that have been performed most recently as site-specific works.
Desistfilm: That makes a lot of sense actually, because your films seem to gravitate around the collective and the quotidian. The representation of the action behind its movements, and also underlines several underlying topics behind the action of your subjects. How do you find meaning behind this collective and quotidian actions, and find the topics you want to build upon? How does this narration is constructed in your mind?
Sarah Friedland: I think one of the huge gifts that dancers possess, and one of the opportunities of dance education, is really understanding and developing an atunement of how your body, and its full sensorium and proprioception, and all of the different sensations of being embodied, how crucial that is to one’s experience of being a human in a social world. For the most part, I feel a lot of our discourses around politics, around selfhood, etc., are impoverished when it comes to an understanding of movement, and of being a body that is not static and is not still. My friends like to tease me that I see choreography everywhere (laughs) and it’s true. My work in many ways is influenced by post-modern dance, and its opening up of quotidian movement and the experiences of daily life as dance. I get really fixated on the elements of being a human in our world that involve some corporeal or kinaesthetic element, and I start to look at them as dance, not to reduce them to something aesthetic, but using dance as a choreographic tool to break down and analyse the different experiences of being a human and of being a part of collective life, from this perspective of embodiment and movement.
Take CROWDS, for example. Part of how that came about was in hearing the discourses around collective life, social life, public spaces, etcetera, in recent years, and just locating in people’s language an invocation of movement, of choreography. For example: what physical movement and action is invoked when you use the word “riot” vs. “protest”? This is all to say, I’m fascinated by the choreography of how we experience this world, and I stage these choreographies through cinema, because you actually get to see a person in space, in place; you see them embedded in the web of forces that exist in real space. And to me that is sort of the opportunity there, of getting to position moving bodies in the world. There is so much to be said about what a stage space can do, but I’m really compelled by how we read bodily movement in the specific mise en scene that film allows.
Desistfilm: I remember reading this quote by Diana Taylor when she talks about the mimetic power of performance as a possibility of critique and creativity inside repetition. So, I was wondering if you see performative art as an active tool of resistance, and how do you see the mimetic possibilities of action and the possibilities to create a discourse about systems of power and learned social behaviour?
Sarah Friedland: Regarding the question around mimesis, a dance theory that really influenced me is by Susan Leigh Foster, who wrote about this idea of kinaesthetic empathy, that because of the mirror neurons we have in our brain, when we see a movement in a different body, we literally replicate it in our own. That’s a part of my practice too, in witnessing the movements of bodies other than my own, I’m aware of the way in which my own body is in some ways appropriating those movements, mirroring them, remembering them, and of the trace that they leave behind. So that’s why a lot of my work plays with embodied memory, using this memory to create choreography. So, for example, in CROWDS, a huge part of the process of making that was in the way we started each rehearsal with the dancers: we talked about a specific crowd type, and myself and the collaborating dancers would share memories of our experiences of being in those crowds or our experiences of watching those crowds, and we would then tease out the logic of how that crowd type moves together and we would either stage or re-enact a memory, or even just articulate the logic and then try to play it out. So, I’m really interested in this sort of archive of the body, of having witnessed movement all around us, of having remembered our own physical experiences that tell us so much about our experience of the world.
In terms of how that can be a tool of critique or resistance, I don’t identify as an activist, but I’m really interested in using these choreographic tools to critique from an embodied perspective. So then, coming back to mimesis, I think when you’re watching a body in a film or performance do something that is perhaps familiar to you, in the mirroring of the movement you create, there is some form of reflection of being in your own body that occurs, whether you are aware of it or not. I think our understanding of what it means to be social bodies in relation to one another often eliminates that component of embodiment. I think it’s incredibly political, how we feel ourselves move through space. So, I suppose the mimetic element allows us to reflect on how it is that we do and do not move through space in our own bodies, and who is watching whom do so. I’ve been playing more and more with fiction, specifically in creating, what my friend and scholar, writer, and programmer Tess Takahashi has called “pre-enactments”, and also in re-choreographing existing patterns, not to imagine entirely new worlds—I’m not creating surreal or utopic or magical realist spaces—but in playing out small modulations in choreography to imagine what new realities could be opened up by these subtle changes.
So, for example, in my last piece, Drills, that I’ve been finishing up recently, the opening shot is of an active shooter drill that we staged with a group of high school performers, and the question that I was asking them throughout making it was, “If you could re-choreograph this drill, how would you do so?” Not to be more efficient, not to be safer, but if you just were to think about what your body actually wants to do in this moment, what would you do? And I asked myself the same question, what is the effect of choreographic shifts? What is ideologically perturbed by altering movement? In Drills, I started with a sort of simple alteration to introduce this question, which is, the students do a loop-de-loop in exiting the school, rather than the usual straight line. And, coming back to your earlier question, I do think it is an act of resistance to imagine new ways of moving through this world and to critique the ways in which ideology is enacted as choreographies that shape how it is that we move and coexist. Perhaps by addressing social experiences and patterns choreographically, we can see them as mutable, adaptable, able to be changed and reimagined.
Desistfilm: We’ve been talking about authors and filmmakers. Do you have certain experiences with books or films that have shaped your career somehow?
Sarah Friedland: Yeah, many (laughs). I think that an early influence on me that persists was the work of arthouse filmmakers who are attentive to the choreography of daily experiences. For example, Kelly Reichardt, Lucrecia Martel, and Chantal Akerman, have been really formative for me. There are many others, but I’d say those have been really crucial from a choreographic standpoint: each has such a sensitive attunement to watching bodies move through space.
Desistfilm: Yeah, I was thinking about films, for example, as Jeanne Dielman…
Sarah Friedland: Yes, Jeanne Dielman was big for me (laughs).
Desistfilm: …that film really having a connection with you, because it’s such a performance-oriented film.
Sarah Friedland: Definitely. That film definitely changed my world. Another film that sort of, early on, changed the way I thought about movement in film was La Mujer Sin Cabeza by Lucrecia Martel and also Stalker by Tarkovsky. Even though these are three films that on the surface have very different genre elements, they all have this attention to watching a body traverse through space. I think I started watching arthouse cinema with this eye for gestural languages. Falling in love with Bollywood cinema at the end of my teen years was also a big turning point for me, discovering all of these hybrid genres of film centered around the moving body and dance numbers. Om Shanti Om and Sholay, in particular, really impacted me. These are some of the films that I gravitated towards as a student, so they remain closest to me in memory, even though there have been so many other films and filmmakers that have influenced me since.
From the choreography standpoint, early influences were Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who, for me, took all the opportunities of postmodern dance of looking at ordinary movement, pedestrian movement, and combined that with narrative and a theatrical perspective.
Desistfilm: Let’s talk about your individual films. For example, I was watching Home Exercises and wondering what drove you to decide on this particular subject of the habits and choreography of elderly people?
Sarah Friedland: It was a few intersecting forces. Part of what happened was that I had serious shoulder injuries from dance and had to have shoulder stabilization surgeries, and so, for about two and a half years I had very limited range of motion in my arms, and had to pause working on choreography that had a larger range of motion, that was more virtuosic. I stopped working with professional and pre-professional dancers during this time. And I think as I became much more aware of my daily movements, because I was tuning into those restrictions and limitations, I think I was becoming more interested in what movement happens just inside one’s home and what choreography can be produced by observing one’s own limits and honoring them.
That was part of it, and the other part of it was that I have a wonderful collaborator named Rachel Balaban, who teaches dance for the aging population and individuals with Parkinson’s. She is also a dancer herself and starred in most of my student films, and we wanted to collaborate again. I’d been watching some of her classes, and was incredibly moved by the performances of the seniors that she was working with. And so, there was a desire for our collaboration to intersect with the continuation of her work with these performers, her students, who were the vast majority of our cast. She produced the film, not in the traditional sense of a producer, who oversees physical production in certain ways, but she produced it in the sense that she was crucial in forging and shaping these intergenerational relations that played out on set.
That was part of it, and then another part was, I, for the last eight years had been writing a feature script focused on the experience on one elderly woman. And also, the last few years I’d been working part-time as a care companion for aging artists with dementia, so my head was already in this world and I was spending time with aging individuals and really valuing intergenerational exchange. So, all of this came together, it was the right time and it was the right collaboration and just somewhere my interests had been coalescing for a long time. I had been writing this script that was highly gestural, but I think I hadn’t quite honed in on how much I was drawn to looking at this movement. I think it also comes from starting to unpack the ageism that I’ve internalized from American culture. It’s such an ageist society and I think the ways it plays out physically is generally a lack of patience for slowness, disrespect for different relationships to time, a total ableism with expressions of disgust towards bodies that are not functioning in the way that we deem as supreme. I think it’s something so mundane, looking at how elderly individuals move, but I wanted to look at their movement as poetry, as dance, as a way to sort of speak back to the ways in which we’ve been cultured to look at their movement.
With many of the performers that I was working with, I would express the beauty I saw in their movement, and would hear back, “Well this isn’t dance,” and a scepticism towards my reflections of and interest in their movements. Like I was crazy to want to watch them in their daily routines. I work with a consent-based model when shooting, and so I’d describe to people what I was doing and invited them to participate, and my pitch was basically, “I’m a choreographer and I want you to tell me about what you do every day, and together we’re going to find the choreography in this.” And so, in some cases, that was just re-enacting people’s daily habits after an interview, in other cases that was saying, “Okay, do that again but, what if you hold a beat, here?” or “What if you slowed down by 10%,” so there was a combination of fidelity to their normal routines and a choreographic play where we would go back and forth to get there, and some people would get really into it and some people remained sceptical and would say, “Why would anyone want to watch this?” And so, for me, one of the moving moments was when we did a screening for this community of performers, and one of the people who had been most sceptical, came up to me afterwards and said, “You know what, you’re right, this is dance, I am a dancer!” That meant so much to me that she saw herself that way.
Desistfilm: Thinking about performances, usually they’re a live work, and you see it from a particular vantage point. But in films, these points of view can be carefully selected through certain themes, or actions. You’ve been talking about this a little bit but I’d like to go deeper into that. How do you choose the vantage point in your films? Because I see there are very precise camera angles and movements you select. What’s the general idea behind that, when you enter a new work?
Sarah Friedland: So much of the credit of those choices has to also go to Gabe Elder, the cinematographer that I have a really close collaboration with, who I made everything with except for CROWDS which was a project where I collaborated with an amazing Italian DP named Luca Nervegna. I think with all of my works there has been a different logic to the cinematography and the camera angles and positions we’ve chosen, and a lot has to do with re-imagining different forms. So, I’ve been playing with how to co-opt different forms of films and videos and re-imagine them to open up something new.
For example, Home Exercises, the film we were just talking about, is based on home workout videos from the 1950’s and 60’s. I do a lot of research, so, basically, I watched a ton of workout videos and tried to understand what shots do these workout videos use to embed the exercising body in their home spaces. There are these interactions between the materials of that mise en scene, such as couches and carpets, and the exercising people. I am interested in the aesthetic patterns of particular forms, so we did like a sort of shot analysis of workout videos and then tried to take up many of those positions for our own version. For example, using the centered wide shot that shows you a living room with a body in the middle of it, using an extreme close-up to show the detail of how a particular joint is exercising. And the same logic of form-specific shot deconstruction has gone for my other works too. With Drills, it’s largely based on the aesthetics of social guidance films from Cold War America, which were these films released by the government to instruct citizens on how to be the best citizens. And our film also simultaneously incorporates corporate instructional video aesthetics and so we tried to have those two aesthetics and their typical shots meet one another.
And then I think the one that is perhaps the most precise, because it’s the most limited, since there are only three type of shots, is CROWDS, where each channel is its own viewpoint, and that’s based on what viewpoints have been typical of how we imagine represented crowds, and how those viewpoints are taken up for different politics. So for example, the first channel is the birds’ eye view, a viewpoint that occurs over and over again throughout the last century of documenting crowds, and you have that viewpoint taken up for fascist propaganda, for example, Leni Riefenstahl films from Nazi Germany, but then you also have the bird’s eye view being replicated by people in different resistance movements, of shooting out a window or from a drone, of looking down below at a demonstration to display the immensity and power of the people en masse. So, I’m interested in how different vantage point and their aesthetics are used for different politics, and while there’s this sort of slipperiness between the political uses of these viewing positions, the angle per se, persists. This question is also part of an ongoing collaboration I have with Tess Takahashi. We’ve been talking a lot about the politics of the different vistas of looking at embodied masses.
So, the positions are specific to the needs of each project. I suppose the shortest answer to your question is that I’m maybe a little bit of a control freak (laughs). This is why I’m recently more drawn towards film and not live performance in a stage space. I want to shift and shape the viewpoint. There’s such a logic to different shots and I want to be very precise and intentional about which is used, even if the meaning it produces is actually really open.
Desistfilm: I want to connect what you just said with this question. You had a live performance of CROWDS in Bologna, right? How would you say this performance differ from the three-channel work you’ve done? And also, regarding the map of the spaces used in the installation of CROWDS, what was the logic behind putting the monitors in that way?
Sarah Friedland: I’ll start with the second question because it will help me with the first. The idea for that installation design, and the reason it is an installation, and not, say, a film that cuts back and forth between those viewpoints or even an installation where there’s sort of a split-screen, is because, for me, one of the most important crowds that had to be a part of the work was the viewers. There had to be that self-reflective element for the analysis of it to work, in my opinion, to reach the viewer in a way that is not distant, so that it is physically felt by you. And so I wanted to replicate the most basic form of crowd control in the positioning of the screens. The screens were in a zig-zagging pattern, and they overlapped in such a way that you can’t actually access all three of them at the same time, so that a viewer is really forced to reckon with the privileges and disadvantages of every viewing point, and therefore has to make choices about what position they want to privilege, what amount of access they feel drawn to, or entitled to, or scared by, or whatever. You’re going to be in that space and sort of reckon with your own sense of how you view other bodies, and how you want to be in that viewership from a decision of distance and closeness. But then also that zig-zag, as I was saying, the snaking queue, is one of the most basic forms of crowd control. But it’s not so tight, it’s not roped off, so there’s still a lot of space for you to look in other ways that I haven’t pre-determined or controlled.
That largely came from a place of curiosity for me. When there’s a certain number of humans in the gallery space, how are they going to congregate and move? Are they going to anchor together, are they going to dissipate, mirror one another? So, it was a way of really engendering my curiosity about individuals’ viewing habits in the gallery space. But also, to produce an inevitable loss, that you can’t actually view everything. The timing of it is such that something might occur in a channel in front of you and be delayed in the channel behind you by a minute or two, and so there is a sort of echo. The hope was to instil a little bit of anxiety of not actually being able to access fully the body of a crowd: that’s an impossibility.
For those reasons—that was always my intention in going into shooting, I had that design in mind already—I was actually resistant to doing it live. Well, that’s not entirely true. Originally, I was going to do one live performance in the actual space we shot in and then do the installation. We weren’t able to do the performance in that space, because it was already a challenge to get it for the shoot. Huge thanks to the Bologna Film Commission because they got it for us. The city of Bologna is very friendly to cinema because of the Cineteca, so it was a huge stroke of luck that I was working with dancers there. In another city I’m not sure I would have gotten that access. But I went back and forth whether I wanted to do a live version, because as we started shooting, I really was able to reckon with how crucial those viewpoints were for the understanding of the choreography and simultaneously how crucial the design of the installation was. So, by the time we actually were thinking about getting to do it live, I was excited to do so but also had a lot of questions for myself about why I wanted to and what the live performance accomplished, because I had been working so clearly on this other format. But I was still really curious and I tried to make it happen, and was really lucky to have the support and encouragement to do it live of a wonderful curator in Bologna, Veronica Veronesi, who brought the performance to Manifattura delle Arti, which is this alliance of all the galleries and art spaces in Bologna. So, the space that they performed in live is the piazza that is in the middle of the art district, so there are galleries on all sides.
It was a fascinating experience for me, because I felt such discomfort watching it. I felt myself wanting the people around me to see a given moment from specific angles, and I felt myself kind of grappling with having made a piece for film and then sitting in the audience with no power, as a live performance played out. I think that relinquishing power was so good for me and I’m so happy it happened. I was amazed by the interactions within the site-specific performance because you saw people who didn’t initially know that it was a performance, interacting with what they thought was a real emerging crowd. We had random people stopping to watch, and problematic things happened as well. Some individuals started replicating some of the movements of a section that references fascist and militaristic drills. One audience member said they saw a passer-by jokingly do a salute, which was horrifying to witness. We had people trying to join the dancers’ moshing and raving. These interactions in the performance really spoke to me of the draw and power of crowds and what they can represent and the anxiety and invitations they can produce. As much as my intention was really for this work to reach as broad a public as it could -because I think crowds are a really accessible language – it still attracted a more exclusive audience than I’d hoped for. So, I loved the broader invitation the performance created: all of these Italian nonnas (grandmas) in their apartments above the piazza starting leaning out their windows and ended up watching the entire performance. That was a huge opportunity, to see the body of our crowd interact in an actual public and open place. That was what and who I wanted this work to speak to, not just to video art audiences.
The live performance was a really wonderful experience for me to kind of contend with my own cinematic obsessions and realize that I can let the crowd play out and that’s going to produce other meanings I can’t script. It’s helped rekindle my desire to make live dance work, after a hiatus of a few years. So, it was complicated (laughs), but it was good.
Desistfilm: In the booklet for CROWDS you talk about destabilizing the relationship of ideologies and moving bodies. Are you talking about something in particular?
Sarah Friedland: Certain political ideologies are enacted and mobilized through physical means that play out in choreographies. So for example, thinking about in a nativist, nationalist state, you could argue that the control of bodies, of who’s going in and out of the border, is a type of choreography. Or, in perhaps a more obvious metaphor, the way in which fascism engages and uses parades and other choreographic constellations of people as spectacle. So, we see ideology play out in a lot of different choreographies, and I use the term “choreography” quite broadly, and I don’t mean that to weaken its meaning, but rather to open up the term as a way of looking at the patterning of bodies in space and time. I don’t say that to always invoke dance itself as a specific art form, but something a little bit wider than that. So, in terms of destabilizing that link, I think with this work, I was trying to understand the choreography of different ideologies, and the intrinsic choreographic language embedded in how we think about and talk about and exist in different collective and congregations. I think the understanding of that language is, in many ways, so known and so basic in our comprehension, though rarely articulated. I approached this work with the dancers just as a start, by teasing out what these languages are.
One of the ways I started to play with that was in recognizing where the slippages are between crowd types that reveal some of the violence of particular ideologies. So, for example, the ways in which a fascist spectacle can so quickly become militarized. Or the way which a drill can slide into a violent action. A lot of people are really scared when it comes to crowds, with their anxiety centered around a rapid rupture, for example of a protest becoming a riot. For me what’s more troubling is the sliding of something mutating into a different identity. This meant trying kind to look at, choreographically, where those slips happen in real crowds. But also, part of this idea of destabilizing the relationship, is understanding that crowds aren’t fixed, that they’re mutable and changing, just like any society. And so one of the ways that we played with this language in an attempt to understand what it does, how it operates, how we experience it, was to bring crowds, that are of seemingly disparate ideologies and identities, into contact with one another through their choreography. So, the example I always give is very early in the piece, where you see a group of religious congregants bowing, and the bowing turns into what’s known in Judaism as davening, this practice of rocking in prayer. If you take that movement and if you speed it up, and if you let the spine get loose, it looks a lot like moshing.
Much of the work of creating this piece for me was in trying to understand those thresholds: when does this crowd type become another and how do we identify that shift in terms of movement. Is it changing direction, changing speed, changing texture, does a leader emerge, what happens to formation? And all of those elements that I’m describing, the elements of choreographic composition, are elements that I think we have internalized in terms of identification of different crowd types and their meanings. It’s a type of thing where we know it when we see it, and so I wanted to actually figure out what that is physically, and then undermine it in different ways, both to articulate or illuminate what its actual language is, but also to see what other ways we can move together and where are the slips that are really problematic and where are the slips that are possibly liberatory or generative. I didn’t go into it with a specific argument, but rather I wanted to trust in the knowledge of the dancers and the choreographic practice that I have, which is collaborative, and to open up these understandings in the dance studio. This piece, in many ways, emerged over time.
Desistfilm: It’s a bit unsettling to watch Drills, it taps into this collective unconscious of a collective society living in danger, and also this space of constant anxiety generated since the Industrial Revolution, the advancement of technology… One thing that also attracted me to it was that it not only works with the actions per se but also with the empty spaces behind the actions. I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about spaces and what place do they have in that particular work, and also, what does those actions reflect about the society we live in?
Sarah Friedland: Yeah, that’s interesting about space… I think you’re really hitting the nail on the head with that. Obviously, we’re living in a moment of great anxiety in different ways, I don’t need to tell you that, but I think where I wanted to approach this was just recognizing how much of this anxiety and what we’re anxious about is clarified in how we think about preparing for the future. And it’s further clarified by what movements or choreography we do to prepare. For me, the idea of the drill is really fascinating because it precedes the future that we’re anxious about. But in preceding it’s speculating about what that future is, and revealing what exactly our preoccupations are about that future. I think drills give us a clear sense of what in this present moment we’re anxious about and we’re scared about, and what is expressed in that, what is expressed in the speculation that is choreographing to prepare, or choreography that prepares oneself.
To start, I wrote a list of all of these different things that I thought were types of drills, even if we don’t call them as such, any type of movement that anticipates a future experience or tries to prevent it. Then I really narrowed it down to just active shooter drills, and Boy Scout drills, which are reperformances of drills from the 1917 handbook for Boy Scouts, and, though some would doubt this is a drill, the corporate co-opting of mindfulness and meditation in start-up environments as a way to prepare oneself to be a better, more efficient, happier worker. I went about the experience working in those different segments in different ways.
About space… I guess it comes back to anxiety, right? If you’re in a state of anxious anticipation, the space in front of you is fraught, the space in which what comes next will play out is something that is going to be navigated with trepidation and conflict. I’m interested in the way in which anxiety can charge a space, and that the charging of that space impacts how you move through it before you even move through it. I suppose the relationship of space also has to do with that temporality of preceding a future that you’re anticipating. Certainly, I think this came up a lot in the section with the students. I brought in a friend of mine to collaborate, Jacob Gross, who works as a facilitator and mental health counselor, and he facilitated a workshop with the students before we started staging anything, where we just talked about their own experiences in these drills, what it felt like through their bodies, how they imagined the classroom space, how they imagined the exterior space where these drills played out. What came through was how much, because of the drill and their constant anticipation of a possible shooting, the classroom space had become fraught and conflicted for them before they even come into it daily. We heard just how much they’re aware of windows, the doors, and so that’s where that empty classroom shot came from. We hadn’t planned on that shot so much; it was something that Gabe and I decided in the moment, because of their awareness of the architecture influencing their understanding of their own safety, and being a part of their violent fears of a shooting.
The space informs the drills so much, thinking as well about the Boy Scout drills. Myself and Hayward Leach, the actor who plays the fictional Boy Scout… part of our process was talking about the history and aesthetics of the Boy Scouts and our own relationships to that history, as two people that occupy different positions and identities, but both of us whose bodies and identites have been, historically excluded from the mission of the Boy Scouts and their vision of American leaders that are straight, cis white men, as well as actively recruited as urban Jews and Black people. It is very significant, that those drills happen in the woods, because the Boy Scouts were founded in this moment that is historicized as a crisis of white masculinity that Teddy Roosevelt, Baden-Powell, the founders of the Boy Scouts, and their ilk are responding to, which is of course tied to nativist and racist fears about migration to US cities, both of African-Americans coming from the south but also of immigrants, such as Eastern European Jewish immigrants, my ancestors, and the fear of them polluting white masculinity. This retreat to the woods, to cultivate the right type of rugged white masculinity, the fact that it played out in the woods is so important. And so, the space is such a part of the politics of the choreography of the drill itself, of where the scouts are moving.
I guess the final piece of the answer to this question is regarding the aesthetics of these different segments of the film. The school drill has the most documentary aesthetics: it could be somewhere in between a documentation of the drill that could be used for instructions, or from news footage. It leans the heaviest into documentary aesthetics, whereas the office meditation is meant to really take on the tones of corporate video, with this desaturated and generic space, which our production designer Stephanie Osin Cohen perfected with these little details of a single plant and empty post-its. And then for the Boy Scout section, we watched the YouTube channel and official Instagram of the Boy Scouts of America, where a large part of their videos are of trying to entice boys to come join them, showing the greatness of the outdoors, so again the space comes in. We tried to represent the anxiety of this boy scout who is alone in this space, through distance in the final shot. That’s a long way to say that yes, space is really important (laughs).
Desistfilm: Talking about preparing for the future… we’re now in this context of quarantine and I don’t know if this moment has found you making new work related to that, to lockdown or private spaces or intimate coexistence? Can you talk us a little bit about what you’re doing today in this context or what are your plans for the future in this world?
Sarah Friedland: Yeah, the plans for the future feel so tentative… I’m revising a script now, because what I was hoping to make next is this feature that I’ve been writing forever that is meant to be made in collaboration with residents in an assisted living facility and with actors. And as senior homes are some of the hardest hit spaces and communities by COVID 19, we are going to have to wait a while before we can make this film in a way that is safe and ethical.
My sense of what’s next has completely changed, as it has for everyone. I’m in the middle of starting to write and research different projects: one is the third of this trilogy, because I’ve been imagining Home Exercises and Drills as a part of a trilogy of short hybrid films looking at different forms of movement exercises. Like my other works, there would be this blurriness between what are actual exercises and what is choreographic fiction.
You can watch an excerpt of Sarah’s Home Exercises below:
Dedicated to Carol Angela Smith. May her memory be a blessing – Sarah Friedland