"You know when you stand on a beach and look out across the ocean and you think about how someone is standing on the other side doing the same thing? I wanted to find a group of people who have lived in the same time period as I have but whose lives were perhaps very different from my own,” Lynne Sachs said of her experimental documentary feature, Tip of My Tongue, which screens as part of Currents New Media.
As she approached her fiftieth birthday, Sachs, whose art tends to sit at the intersection of personal knowledge and world history, sought out other New Yorkers who were born between 1958 and 1964, invited them to her apartment for the weekend, and filmed them telling stories about their memories. Though some of the participants came from within her social circle, others joined the project via Facebook postings or recommendations from mutual acquaintances. She wanted people of different ethnic, cultural, and racial backgrounds, as well as subjects who had grown up outside of the United States but now lived in the same city as Sachs.
“For example, there’s a woman who grew up in Iran during the cultural revolution there. When I was graduating from high school in Memphis, Tennessee, and thinking about my prom, she was going through a shift from an open society to a fundamentalist society and wound up having to get married when she was eighteen,” Sachs said. “In the film, she talks about adjusting to that, about having a baby and being in the post office, trying to tend to the baby and keep her veil on at the same time. That’s an interesting parallel existence.”
Visually, Tip of My Tongue resembles a moving collage, with bits of text, archival film, video, and photography mixed in with voice-over excerpts from poems Sachs wrote — one for each year of her life — and more standard footage of people talking. Though they are not scripted, the conversations in Sachs’ apartment are not spontaneous, either. She spent a couple of years deciding who to include in the film and interviewing people about their memories to get a rough idea of what they had to say. To avoid making a documentary that looked like a daytime talk show, with people sitting in a row on a couch, Sachs elicited some of the stories with the tellers in unusual formations, such as sitting back to back, lying on the floor, or pacing in a circle. A Spanish-speaking woman tells a story while carefully attempting to draw her own face in marker on a full-length mirror. Such a layered approach to sound and visuals can at times be challenging to absorb all at once, and viewing experiences will differ from person to person; those who understand Spanish can pay attention to the drawing while listening to the woman’s voice rather than looking back and forth from the drawing to the subtitles provided.
Among the earliest memories common to the participants who grew up in the United States are the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Sachs was six years old when King was killed. The primary impact of the event on her as a little white girl in Tennessee was that local curfews were imposed. In the movie, an African-American man who grew up north of the Mason-Dixon line offers a surreal memory of the way the shadows and light looked in the room as he listened to adults discuss what had happened and how he was handed a ring commemorating King so that he would never forget his legacy. It is an example of how much issues of race were part of the early childhoods of people born in these years and of how such formative memories can become encapsulated and pared-down, almost like art objects in and of themselves.
The sometimes-uncomfortable arrangements of Sachs’ participants were as much for visual variety as for the opportunity to take people out of their physical comfort zones as they talked and listened. “Usually you wouldn’t record interviews with three people simultaneously with them sitting back to back, unable to see each other, but I wanted them to have to listen to each other — the listening became as important as speaking in the film, and I thought I could draw attention to that. I thought they would dive more deeply into their memories if they weren’t looking at each other.” In this scene, two men and one woman talk about being young adults in Ronald Reagan’s America, their parents’ relative wealth, their first job opportunities, and how the men felt about having to register for selective service as a prerequisite for attending college. “By re-inhabiting other moments in their lives, they kind of became actors in their own stories,” Sachs said.
As the narrative arc of the film moves through the decades to the present, some of the stories venture into difficult childhoods or traumatic experiences, but most are more esoterically personal, even when they are anchored to a historical moment. Time is marked in many ways, including in the poetic and visual interludes that are interspersed throughout the stories. In one instance that falls within the 1990s, Sachs refers to the flower called columbine, which is also the name of the high school in Colorado where one of the first mass school shootings took place. Sachs did not want to belabor the point, which no one in the movie discusses, but she said that she included it because, for her, that time was about being a young mother and imagining what it would be like to be the mother of a victim or killer. “Some people will pick up on that in the film, and some people won’t. It might depend on how close they were to the event.”
Tip of My Tongue hurtles into Sept. 11, 2001, and after that, time seems to collapse. There is war, the recession, and then comes the rise of Occupy Wall Street, when hundreds of activists camped out in a city park to protest economic inequality. Sachs was there to document the leaderless movement. “I knew I’d use the footage in the movie, so I shot all of it out of focus. I thought it was so near the present that people in the audience, even if they didn’t live in New York, would still have their own relationship with it. I thought it would help people project their own experiences.”
“Tip of My Tongue” screens as part of Currents New Media at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 15, and Thursday, June 22, at Violet Crown (1606 Alcaldesa St., 505-216-5678); no charge.