INTERVIEW: Two Filmmakers Take On a Genius; Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick Discuss "Derrida"
by Michelle Handelman
‘What can we say of Aristotle’s life? He was a philosopher. He was born. He thought. He died. All the rest is pure anecdote.” — Jacque Derrida
(indieWIRE: 10.24.02) — It’s hard to imagine a scintillating documentary on an academic figure, but when the subject is none other than revolutionary French theorist Jacques Derrida, master builder of cultural deconstruction, post-modern thought, and non-linear evaluation, the levels of cinematic inquiry become endless. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman‘s documentary on the French master “Derrida” opens this week at Film Forum at a time when our own cultural identity is desperately in flux with issues of national security and social morality. Like Dick’s 1997 portrait of controversial body artist Bob Flanagan (“Sick: the Life and death of Bob Flanagan“), “Derrida” approaches biography through nuance, thought patterns, contradictions, and visual form.
Fast approaching a new language of documentary that hovers on the border between act, thought, and the witnessing of those moments, Dick and Kofman have made a film true to the subject’s own invention, and that’s what makes it worth watching. It’s a cinematic experience that deconstructs itself with every scene, with the telling and untelling of the process of biography. But even more than that, we find that Derrida, the man, is a thinker and a charmer who can easily keep you engaged well after the lights in the cinema come up. Michelle Handelman interviewed Kofman and Dick on the man himself, the evocative score by Ruchio Sakamoto, and the relationship of co-direction.
Winner of the San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award, Derrida opened theatrically in New York at Film Forum on October 23, and will close November 5.
indieWIRE: I know you studied with Derrida at Yale in the mid-’80s. Did you have a close relationship with him at that time?
Amy Ziering Kofman: No. I studied with Derrida as a grad student in 1983 and the spark for this film started 10 years later when I ran into Jacques at a public lecture. I was just sitting there thinking how important he is, and I went up and asked him if anyone had approached him about making a documentary on his life. He said he had been approached but was reluctant, but if I wrote up something he would consider it. So I sent him a proposal and after much discussion he agreed. I had been struggling with the film for about 3 years when a friend brought me to meet Kirby as a potential collaborator.
iW: Were you familiar with Kirby’s body of work at that time?
Kofman: Well my friend had been encouraging me to meet other filmmakers, because I was not a filmmaker of any kind. She knew Dody Dorn, who was editing Kirby’s “Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan,” brought me to a rough-cut screening. I thought it was not only brilliant, but intensely theoretical in a way I wasn’t used to seeing in American documentaries. I could see Kirby had a strong political sense, which was very important to me. So I asked him to look at what I had.
Kirby Dick: I was very struck by the footage Amy had shot so far. The naivete of Amy’s approach and Derrida’s newness to the filmmaking process was interesting because neither of them knew what the limits were of documentary filmmaking. They didn’t know when to say no. It’s really one of those projects that come along once in a lifetime. We discussed how we didn’t want this to be a primer or a standard biopic. We did want this film to be very ambitious theoretically; to give a sense of Derrida’s work and at the same time make it cinematic and pleasurable, and funny as well. Because Derrida is actually very funny, even his writing is funny.
Kofman: The film itself had to do the work of deconstruction without doing the explication per se, because the study of deconstruction is about the dance between the passive and the active. You can’t just say it, so we had to figure out a way to visually convey that so that the viewer comes away with an experiential understanding of deconstruction without consciously having it fed to them.
iW: You premiered the film at Sundance earlier this year to overwhelmingly positive response. Was this a surprise? I mean, did you really expect many people to know who Derrida was?
Kofman: That was the most exciting thing at Sundance, because we had no idea how it would play. People had purchased ticket packets came even though they had no idea what they were coming to see, and it was the one doc Redford actually made a point to see. After the screening, people came up to me and said, “Thank you so much, this is something I never would have seen, and it made me think again.” You know it’s nice to listen to philosophy. Even if it’s not in your training, it’s nice to have someone sit down and say, “Hey what does love mean?”
Dick: I think there’s a conception in the media that American film is being more and more dumbed down, and both Amy and I see that there is an audience, and a desire to see these kind of ideas presented in the films. People have read Derrida and referred to him for decades, but nothing has ever come out about him in the more popular media of film. There’s been a very strong response to that.
iW: Derrida arrives as a man of deep meaning and reveals much about himself without revealing many deeply personal feelings or stories. At times, he contradicts the whole possibility of biography. What was working with him like? Did he ever give you feedback on how the film should be edited?
Dick: He’s very charming and wonderful to work with. He’s insistent about things being done his way. You know you definitely had to be on time, and if you were late, you heard about it.
Kofman: We were constantly showing him footage. Sometimes when he would watch things, he would say “Can you keep that in?” but it was more as schtick, than theoretical conceit. He would say he like the way he looked in one scene, or that his hair looked good, keep it in. When we showed him the footage we had shot with he and his wife, it was like watching home movies and in some way I think it caught him off guard. We used his footage as a motif through the film.
Dick: Derrida’s very rigorous. If you ask him a question he will address it from all angles and these answers would be very fascinating, but sometimes they would go on for 10 minutes, and you knew you couldn’t use it. So the challenge was to create improvisational settings — like when he talks about hands, when he talks about love — where we would just throw a subject at him. It’s interesting because there you see him in the process of thinking and pulling his ideas together, which is different than the process of writing. In that case, we used 3 cameras because we didn’t know what would happen. Throughout production, we shot on several formats, including PAL Beta, NTSC Beta, DVCam, and mini-DV. We really wanted an array of different looks to give a different level of formality.
iW: Shooting 90 hours of footage over an 8-year period, how did you finally create a structure for your story?
Dick: We edited on and off all along. The first thing I did after Amy and I joined forces was to cut what she had already shot. I made a half-hour cut in a 2 week period to see what the tone of the film could possibly be. We had also acquired a lot of archival footage of him, but one of the weaknesses of that footage was that people were so deferential to Derrida, they didn’t try to break through to his center. Amy’s style, which at times was very irritating to him, but ultimately extremely effective, was to push and charm him by being very sophisticated one moment, very naive the next. One of the reason documentaries are so strong is because there’s a great amount of editing time process. To stop and start, work on another project, then come back and say “What do I have here, what have I learned and how can I bring it in?” It’s very important to reach the documentary’s full potential.
iW: The score by Sakamoto adds a haunting resonance to Derrida’s words and life. Was Ruychio Sakamoto your first choice?
Amy: We came up with a wish list. We tried classical music, piano music, and then Curtis Clayton, our former editor recommended Sakamoto. Ironically, Sakamoto had written an opera and used some of Derrida’s text for it, so his manager thought I had naturally heard it. But actually I follow music very little and didn’t know anything about him before this project. We had one meeting with Ruychio in NY where we watched footage and brainstormed together. But we didn’t give him anything to score until the very end when we finished our final cut. He was very quick. He finished it in less than a month. Then we made some changes and about four months later he did an additional two weeks of work. He really ended up being the perfect choice.
iW: What is the greatest challenge of making a biography on a living person?
Dick: Well, Derrida did have final cut, so that was probably the biggest challenge! (laughter) I do want to mention that there were two scenes he took out. A wonderful scene of him eating yogurt, a very intimate, over the shoulder shot, and the other was at one point after we had been working for a while Amy presented him with another contract, for him to give up his right s to final cut, which in the end he never did. However there is a good reason for editing it out, because otherwise it would seem like he had approved everything, and then he would be author of the film. Yet the scene is so interesting — it’s this dance between him and Amy, and how it references the formal structure behind their playful banter.
Kofman: Considering his stature, he has a lot at stake and he had the right amount of caution, I don’t begrudge him that. It’s a lot to give yourself to some one. It’s interesting, because a lot of Derrida’s work talks about the supplement and the parasite, what’s the original and what’s the duplicate. So making a film with him as a subject is so rich in working through those very paradigms. It’s our film, but it’s about him, he’s in it, but he’s not in control, yet he has final cut, his work is in it. It’s interesting because now people give me the authority of being his biographer, which is a very, very strange place to hold. Especially since he’s still alive. It’s also interesting because he becomes part of the audience. It would have been a lot less interesting to me to have made this film if he was dead. In terms of raising the bar, you want to see your subject’s response — you’ve got to step up to the plate. I liked that pressure.