a moving
X-ray

SEVEN FILMS BY
SANDRA LAHIRE
(1950 – 2001)

ENGLISH CAPTIONS SOUS-TITRÉS EN FRANÇAIS SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL 한국어 자막 LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUES 字幕  TÜRKÇE ALT YAZILI 

NB:
SCREENINGS FORTHCOMING
IN THE US!

ANTHOLOGY – NEW YORK (JULY 14–15)
LIGHTBOX – PHILADELPHIA (JULY 13 & 20)

Programmed and designed by Daniella Shreir
Texts edited by Daniella Shreir & Missouri Williams

With many thanks to Charlotte Procter (LUX & Cinenova), without whom this programme wouldn't be possible, and to María Palacios-Cruz who, together with  Procter, edited 'Living on air', a cahier on Lahire's work that has proved an invaluable resource in the creation of this programme.


You can purchase 'Living on air' here.

Thanks also to Tom Engels, who allowed Procter and I to be part of the Sandra Lahire programme on the occasion of the beautiful show he curated at the Grazer Kunstverein.

'Plutonium Blonde' and 'Night Dances' were digitised and restored in 2019/20 at Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola (San Sebastian), in the context of the research project “Their past is always present”.

 

The following works are distributed by LUX and Cinenova. The works are watermarked at their request.

Sandra Lahire was a central member of the feminist and experimental filmmaking community in London in the 1980s and 1990s. She made ten 16mm films, most of them under half an hour in length. Marked by corporeal vulnerability – her own, that of the female body, the body of the earth, the body of film – Lahire’s work proposes a comparison between the violence committed by patriarchal society against women and that committed by humans against the non-human world. Her four anti-nuclear films echo the feminist anti-nuclear, anti-war movement at the time. Formally, they merge documentary, performance, animation, experimentation (superimposition – both in camera and on the optical printer – re-filming, colourisation, changes of speed, layering of sounds). “Kaleidoscopic” is a word that many texts use to describe her work.

Lesbian, Jewish and feminist, Lahire was a proud queer activist in a troubled time of British history, Thatcher’s 1980s. In her essay “Lesbians in Media Education”, written when she was a student at the Royal College of Art, she discusses oppression and identity: “Wherever I am and come from, my tongue is Lesbian.” Her work — her films, her words — is of the present, her present, but it reaches both to the past and to the contemporary moment. From her first to her last film, Lahire was in sustained dialogue with the poetry and archive of Sylvia Plath and, like Plath, hers is a body of work that is retrospectively overshadowed by Lahire's premature death aged 50. The trauma of her loss, still painful to many, perhaps contributed towards a lack of visibility of her work until recent years.

–Extracted from Maria Palacios Cruz's introduction to 'Living on air: the films and words of Sandra Lahire', on the occasion of a retrospective of Lahire's work at Courtisane festival in November 2021.

Contents
 
I.
Terminals
1986

II.
Embracing Entropy: Sandra Lahire’s
‘Anti-Nuclear Trilogy’

by Phoebe Campion

The Anti-Nuclear Trilogy: 

III.
Plutonium Blonde
1987

'Radioactive Contamination: Our Legacy'

by Julia Knight



IV.
Uranium Hex
1987

V.
Serpent River 
1989

&

a review by Pam Cook (1990)

VI.
'Lesbians in Media Education'
by Sandra Lahire
1985

Two from the Sylvia Plath trilogy:

VII.
Lady Lazarus
1991

VIII.
"We Say the Same Thing in Different Ways":
On Sandra Lahire and Sylvia Plath

by Emily LaBarge

IX.
Night Dances
1995

End and Beginning:


X.
'Sandra Lahire: In Memoriam, 19 November 1950 – 27 July 2001'
by Sarah Turner

XI.
'Sandra Lahire: Swelling, Shrinking, Spoiled'
by Clio Nicastro

XII.
Arrows
1984


 

This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees are not. We receive no funding so please consider donating. This will help us keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

 

TERMINALS

1986

UK, 1986. 18 minutes, Colour, Stereo, 4:3. Original format: 16mm

In ‘Terminals’, the precursor to the anti-nuclear trilogy, Lahire explores the subjection of female switchboard operators to the “absolute commands” of the computer. The film also shows Lahire’s own torso with the names of dangerous chemical compounds – Strontium-90, Uranium-233 – inked across it. In the space of the nuclear plant such bodies are more than metaphor: their ailing states illustrate the literal internalisation and reproduction of the ‘techno-patriarchal’ logic of atomic industry –Phoebe Campion

“The ‘work faster’ ethic is written on the door to the terminals. Hazards to fertility or risks of cancer are not criteria in setting ‘acceptable’ levels of exposure to radiation at work. At the Visual Display Terminal, women are staring directly at a source of radiation. Bomb tests and waste disposal are the white man’s cancer imposed on the people of the Pacific.” – S.L.

This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees are not. We receive no funding so please consider donating. This will help us keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

terminals39.png
terminals8.png
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WITH ENGLISH CAPTIONS
AVEC SOUS-TITRES FRANÇAIS DE ZOÉ BARNES
CON SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL DE LUCIA DE LA TORRE
COM LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUÊS DE MATHEUS PESTANA
최모니카의 한국어 자막으로
TÜRKÇE ALT YAZI ÇEVİRİSİ: ÖYKÜ SOFUOGLU 
日本語字幕: 町田萌 

THE

ANTI-NUCLEAR

TRILOGY

 

Embracing Entropy:

Sandra Lahire’s ‘Anti-Nuclear Trilogy’

 

by Phoebe Campion 


In almost every one of Sandra Lahire’s films, a female body is exposed, eroded, or eviscerated by light. Throughout her work, light is both a substance that strikes with physical force, proving the porosity and permeability of bodies, and a tool with which the vulnerability of those bodies (along with their desires, lives and landscapes) to what she described as the instruments and armaments” of “techno-patriarchal culture, can be brought to attention. The filmic process – in which photographic chemicals burn latent images into the film strip upon its exposure to light – is a manifestation of this impulse and an abiding analogy for Lahire, whose cinematic subjects are often exposed to the point of erasure. Her signature methods – overexposure, hypersaturation and superimposition – emerged from her involvement with the London Film-Makers' Co-op (LFMC) a pioneering production and distribution workshop for artist’s moving image, which she joined in the early eighties. The experimental techniques developed there, such as optical printing, overlay and twin-screen projection, reflected the LFMC’s effort to foreground the filmic process, to demystify what leading Co-op filmmaker Peter Gidal called cinema’s “apparatus of illusionism”. Here, and in the chemic materiality of celluloid film, Lahire developed a language with which to express the contradictions and constraints of embodiment and desire. For Lahire, the power of film to bring the world to light had a radical political utility: “we illuminate for each other territories that we can no longer allow to be obscured.”[1]

 

Lahire’s ‘Anti-Nuclear Trilogy’ (‘Plutonium Blonde’ [1987], ‘Uranium Hex’ [1987], and ‘Serpent River’ [1989]), centre on the uranium mine: the industrial zone in which the raw materials of atomic technology are extracted and processed. Begun a year after the Chernobyl disaster, the trilogy reflects the contemporary unease around the threat of nuclear catastrophe and war, the legacies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the atomic tests of the early fifties, whose “luminous and incandescent” explosions still loomed large in collective memory. The ‘icy bright’ energy that propelled Lahire’s previous film work, and her sense of the double nature of light, found its purest form in the subject of nuclear power and its cold, unearthly glow. In illuminating the menace of atomic industry, the trilogy makes visible the excessive, erosive radiance of nuclear power and its inexorable effects.

 

***

 

‘Plutonium Blonde’ opens with an image of a woman in profile, her backlit perm like a glowing halo. The woman, Thelma, works in the control room of a plutonium reactor, and the source of her illumination is the glare from the many surveillance screens and de-canning monitors she operates. The film that follows is a cut-and-paste combination of Lahire’s own covert footage of the Winfrith nuclear reactor in Dorset, interspersed with material from promotional films produced by the UK Atomic Energy Authority and the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB). As Lahire tracks Thelma’s fractured narrative through a rapid-fire montage of the materials and techniques of the British nuclear industry, these latter voices extoll its “great care” and “fine safety record”. “It is physically impossible for an atomic explosion to take place here”, an avuncular voice assures us. But the threat of nuclear disaster is not the trilogy’s primary concern. Rather, these films depict the immediate, embodied consequences of extractive resource capitalism, and foreground the exploitation of female labour at the heart of the industry at a time when feminist anti-nuclear advocacy focused largely on the abstract environmental, ethical and economic consequences of nuclear dependency.

 

The power of Thelma’s spectatorial stance in the control room, overseeing the plant’s operations, is troubled by the lonely, dissociative nature of her role (“isolation is part of a nuclear worker’s job”) and the dangers that accompany it. By the eighties the harmful effects of habitual radiation exposure were well known to governments, corporations and the scientific community, but often undisclosed to workers. Victor Archer’s book Cancer Factories (1993) details the “conspiracy of silence” which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of uranium miners from lung cancer in the United States. Federal regulations for ventilation came “nearly 20 years after the need was clear, and only when many miners were obviously sick and dying.”[2] Lahire’s trilogy exposes these harms, the delayed, diffuse consequences of which are described by Rob Nixon as “slow violence”.[3] In ‘Uranium Hex’, bacteria proliferate under a microscope to suggest the exponential growth of cancerous cells; in ‘Plutonium Blonde’, X-ray footage from a simulated medical examination reveals the extent to which radioactivity has penetrated the bodies of the plant’s workers, resulting in disproportionate levels of bone and lung cancers, “high numbers of miscarriages, extraordinarily high rates of Down’s Syndrome.” “It is possible to control a nuclear reactor very precisely”, the same self-assured CEGB voice says. But as the radiant, irradiated bodies of the trilogy illustrate, the insidious spread of nuclear toxicity into the lives and bodies of those around it has historically gone unchecked and uncontrolled. ‘Plutonium Blonde’ ends with a child’s voice describing the contamination of coastal waters from Winfrith’s waste pipes: “it gets into our food and water, and air that we breath, and into our blood.” In ‘Serpent River’ the voice of a female worker complains about the dust in the mine: “it’s itchy, it burns, sometimes you get it in your mouth…”

By exposing the damaged and diseased bodies of its worker-subjects, the ecological degradation of the surrounding landscape, and the apparatus of power that produces these harms, the trilogy forms a full-throated resistance to the threat of nuclear entropy and the extinction of futurity that it represents.

 

Overlaid with a loud static crackle, the opening scene of ‘Plutonium Blonde’ is characteristic of Lahire’s style of cinematic collage, which fuses the vibrant primary colours of Pop Art with a lo-fi punk sensibility to explore the disciplining of the female body as a metaphor for broader forms of coercion and control. The film’s concern with technologies of surveillance plays out across jagged, frenetic sequences of industrial apparatus: switchboards, pylons, police patrols and military aircraft. Using flashing light and stop-motion, Lahire creates uncanny animations of photographic stills, staging the encounters (confrontations with cops, the process of extraction) that lie beyond her camera’s reach. This footage is accompanied by a sonic assemblage of radio broadcast, children singing, and babies crying and coughing, underscored at all times by the distorted dripping and drilling sounds of industrial toil. The presence of ambient noise throughout the trilogy evokes both the unrelenting pace of work in the plant, and the slow, imperceptible nature of radon exposure, which accumulates in the background of the body. The few images of ecological life in ‘Plutonium Blonde’– a field of sheep; the arsenic-yellow flowers that grow by the barbed wire fence at the site’s boundary – only heighten the claustrophobia of the control room. Later on, we see a sequence of sea birds flitting back and forth along a beach. Echoing the caged bird metaphor deployed in ‘Arrows’, Lahire lingers on this image, transforming it from a cipher for freedom and unconstraint into a trapped and pacing subject, unable to escape the surveillant gaze of the camera.

 

In ‘Terminals’, the precursor to the anti-nuclear trilogy, Lahire explores the subjection of female switchboard operators to the “absolute commands” of the computer. The film also shows Lahire’s own torso with the names of dangerous chemical compounds – Strontium-90, Uranium-233 – inked across it. In the space of the nuclear plant, such bodies are more than metaphor: their ailing states illustrate the literal internalisation and reproduction of the ‘techno-patriarchal’ logic of atomic industry. As if to resist the ‘big red button’ cliché of atomic warfare, the trilogy explores the distributed agency of nuclear industry. The camera returns repeatedly to footage of hands: submerged in a bucket at the end of a shift; pushing buttons around a switchboard; gloved, clasped and authoritative, surveying the scene. In ‘Serpent River’, hands leaf through a photo album, fill a bottle from a stream, cast elongated shadows on the walls of the mine, and operate machinery. In one scene, footage of fingers plucking at a guitar is superimposed over a colour-inverted ribcage: the image of an instrumentalised body. The effect of this distributed agency is to evoke both the atomisation and alienation of labouring bodies and of the networks of power that govern them. At the same time, however, the recurrent imagery of water across these films insists that the disparate lives of their subjects are connected, through their shared inhabitation of the land and dependence on its resources. If ‘Plutonium Blonde’ confronts us with questions about women’s complicity in and vulnerability to the nuclear-industrial complex, the later films in the trilogy turn a forensic attention to the consequences of contamination for both human and nonhuman life. Tracing uranium mining through the desolate frozen landscapes of Northern Ontario, ‘Serpent River’ and ‘Uranium Hex’ portray the slow immiseration of a largely female and indigenous labour force through hard labour and habitual radon exposure. The upstream industry, we’re told, has poisoned the water supply, and the vivid blue waters that run through ‘Serpent River’ inflict chemical burns on the children who swim in them. Eerie images of uniformed figures walking through snowy woodland appear to drip and bleed down the screen, like sci-fi projections of a post-nuclear holocaust. Footage of melting icicles accompany a worker’s description of the beads of sweat that run down her back in the dim, humid mines 2000 feet below ground.

 

In both its methods and its politics, Lahire’s anti-nuclear trilogy is ‘Materialist film’ at its most engaged, fusing the oblique experimentalism of art film with the plain-spoken specificity of activist documentary.[4] The documentary intent of the trilogy is at odds with the anti-narrative avant-gardism of Gidal and other first wave Co-op members, and reflects the broader shift towards social and political themes that accompanied the influx of female filmmakers into the organisation in the eighties: Lahire, Tina Keane, Lis Rhodes, et al. Out of sight and mind, spaces like the uranium mines in Lahire’s trilogy profit from their obscurity. Nuclear geographies and other extractive landscapes have been described by Naomi Klein as “sacrifice zones” – sites of industrial production given over to sustaining western consumer appetites, and whose inhabitants and workers are deemed expendable. Indeed, one feature that distinguishes the trilogy’s politics from the predominantly white and western-centric anti-nuclear discourse of the period is its attention to the disproportionate violence suffered by the indigenous population local to Canadian nuclear-industrial sites. The voice of a radiation expert interviewed by Lahire in ‘Serpent River’ notes that though the mining corporation eventually provided a water filtration system for their white workers, that same courtesy was not extended to the native community living on the opposite bank of the river, a community whose ancestral land sovereignty continues to be infringed upon by the nuclear industry to this day. The clean, clinical sublimity of atomic technology, whirring away beneath this ostensibly unspoiled territory, is exposed as a fiction. And though the nuclear industry purports to promote life – through heating homes, creating pharmaceuticals, even in the hypertrophic growth of fruit and flowers in the gamma gardens of the fifties – Lahire’s films sense a very different promise at the heart of the nuclear: entropy, and death.

 

Against the order and precision of the power plant, the unbridled force of the nuclear is anarchic and unpredictable, producing perturbations on both a cellular and geographic level. By exposing the damaged and diseased bodies of its worker-subjects, the ecological degradation of the surrounding landscape, and the apparatus of power that produces these harms, the trilogy forms a full-throated resistance to the threat of nuclear entropy and the extinction of futurity that it represents. Yet the activist mode of these films is tempered by another impulse, one that subtends Lahire’s work more broadly. In her 1985 essay ‘Lesbians in Media Education’, Lahire wrote of the (sometimes stymying) pressure for her queer feminist cinema to “make a positive imprint”: “I thought it was a lethargy that dulled me, a repressive force; but I’ve begun to understand it as an energy that strikes icy bright. I’m paralysed, caught for a while in its bright focus”. Torn between the obligation of reportage and the desire for self-expression, this paralysis informs Lahire’s paradoxical use of light, along with her fixation on skeletal forms and radiant figures. Having struggled with anorexia throughout her life, Lahire locates a form of resistant power in the effacement of the body that seeks to waste away, to empty out, to cut right down to the bone. As Marina Grizinic has observed, Lahire’s bodies are always “coming near the image of a spectre”, made up only of “air and bones, minimizing the flesh to zero”. In ‘Arrows’, Lahire’s voice laments, “I am so aware of my body, it hurts… If only I was not alone, in this big empty skin.” This drive towards self-effacement troubles the trilogy’s straightforward documentary status and political intent. Despite their explicit resistance to the logic of nuclear entropy, these films also encode a paradoxical sense of desire for entropic decline, and a flirtation with the very prospect of atomisation that they endeavour to critique.

 

In ‘Serpent River’, for example, Lahire establishes parallels between the processes of extractive industry and the breached boundaries of the female body. The holes bored in the rock face, marked with red paint, resemble the speared and sutured bodies in ‘Edge’ (1986), and the worker’s hands which gently prospect the rock face in search of an entry point echo the gloved hands of the nurse in ‘Plutonium Blonde’ as she handles the X-ray of her sick friend. Around Eliot Lake, spoil heaps of radioactive waste material left over from the refinement process lie above ground: “once you bring it out and you crush it, it can blow in the wind, it can wash down into the surface water and the rivers…”. The film condemns this carelessness, but it also inverts the sensuous ecofeminist association of body and nature (so prevalent in the period’s anti-nuclear discourse and its essentialist vision of pacifist femininity vis-à-vis the reckless machismo of nuclear weapons) by implying that this image of excavation and dissipation might – at least for Lahire – represent a welcome liberation from embodiment. The aspiration hose that collects waste dust from the extraction site has an earlier counterpart in the surgeon’s liposuction tube that Lahire describes in ‘Arrows’ (1984), which “literally dissolves fat and aspirates it” from women’s bodies. As Lahire recognised, the denial of the body through self-inflicted starvation was for some a means of escaping the male gaze: reclaiming power by opting out of the circuitry of normative desire. Her fascination with the nuclear as a destructive force, therefore, is linked to what Terry Castle has called the “cultural power” of lesbian “apparitionality”.[5] This desire – for a liberation from form, for its aspiration into air – would eventually contribute to Lahire’s premature death in 2001, and remains a latent inclination throughout her work.

 

Likewise, Lahire’s opposition to nuclear power (and the power of the nuclear family which she identified as the “foundation of capitalism”) emerged as much from her radical socialist politics as from her lesbian identity.[6] By embracing the negative character ascribed to it by a procreative definition of sexuality, does queer sexuality not exercise a similar oppositional power? In what Lee Edelman describes as its “disavowal of reproductive futurity”, queerness can find itself curiously linked with nuclear entropy, refusing the normative, linear labour of reproduction and associating instead with degeneration, with what is considered anarchic, excessive, or tending towards decline.[7] The trilogy gestures to exactly this in its apprehension of the ways in which the nuclear industry might queer the bodies of its worker-subjects, both in a positive, even erotic sense (the camera’s appreciative gaze at the women playing baseball in ‘Serpent River’, for example, or the female subject who brags “I’m not a petite little girl, I’ve developed muscles that I never knew existed”) and in a far darker one (bodies made abnormal or infertile by radioactive toxicity). ‘Plutonium Blonde’ engages with a version of this question too. If the film maps the precision and control that regulates nuclear production onto the disciplinary regimes imposed on women’s lives, bodies, sexualities, then is there something in the irrepressible power of the nuclear  –  unconstrained by borders, democratic in it destructive power – that is symbolically appealing for a feminist politics? Without detracting from its social impact, these contradictions remain unresolved in Lahire’s work and are part of its enduring fascination. Beneath its surface, the subtext of the anti-nuclear trilogy suggests that embracing entropy can be a utopian act: a commitment to excess in the knowledge of finitude, to the finite in the face of endless growth, to individual lives as not simply reproducible, and to a vision for futurity by other means. At the end of ‘Serpent River’, we hear a woman laugh: “There’s always tomorrow, as they say”.

Phoebe Campion is a writer and researcher from London, WHO workS at the intersection of literature, visual culture and the GeoHumanities. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, where she explores questions of attention and ecology in Anthropocene poetics. She is a staff writer for Another Gaze.

[1] Sandra Lahire, ‘Lesbians in Media Education’, Visibly Female: Feminism and Art, Ed. Hilary Robinson (Camden Press, 1987)

[2] Doug Brugge and Rob Goble, ‘The history of uranium mining and the Navajo people’, American Journal of Public Health, 92.9 (September 2002).

[3] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard UP, 2013)

[4] Gidal coins the term in the introduction to his Structural Film Anthology, published by the BFI in 1976.

[5] Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (Columbia UP, 1993)

[6] Lahire, ‘Lesbians in Media Education’.

[7] Lee Edelman, No Future (Duke UP, 2004).

PLUTONIUM
BLONDE

1986

UK, 1987. 15 minutes, Colour, Stereo. Original format: 16mm

'Radioactive Contamination: Our Legacy'

by Julia Knight

The origins of 'Plutonium Blonde' are slightly strange to say the least. In 1986, Sandra Lahire was working on a production called 'Terminals'. At the suggestion of its funders she sent the only print she had of the film for striping in France. Somewhere along the way, however, it got lost. Unable to obtain funding to have another print made, Sandra decided to apply for funding to finance a new production. The result was 'Plutonium Blonde'.

In broader terms, 'Plutonium Blonde' is about nuclear power in Great Britain. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster and in view of the innumerable media representations of nuclear power that exist, ranging from more mainstream films such as The China Syndrome and Silkwood, through the multitude of spine chilling drama-documentaries to various independent products like Tina Keane's 'In Our Hands, Greenham' and Dennis O'Rourke’s Half Life, one could be forgiven for thinking there could be nothing new to be said about nuclear power. However, through a reworking of footage from promotional films produced by the CEGB and the Atomic Energy Authority, combined with her own secretly filmed footage of the nuclear reactor at Winfrith, Sandra Lahire has produced an impressionistic kaleidoscope of images and voices that act as a highly thought-provoking reminder of the realities of nuclear power and point towards the radioactive legacy we have bequeathed future generations.

Plutonium Blonde revolves around the image of a woman, a nuclear worker, watching a bank of plutonium-decanning monitors. She can be viewed as performing a political function – that of monitoring nuclear power, in much the same way as the women at Greenham Common have – but the video is also an exploration of what such a worker might think about, faced as she is day-in-day-out with plutonium. The concern that dominates the video, however, is to do with the extent of the radioactive contamination of our environment and the difficulty of understanding the full implications and long term effects of such contamination due to both its invisibility and the sparklingly clean image the industry presents of itself.

This concern with nuclear power and radioactive contamination is a long-standing interest of Sandra Lahire’s and was sparked off by the high level of cancer cases among people she knew, which she felt could not be attributable purely to smoking. However, she locates her interest in these issues within a broader context – that of power in general, i.e. social, economic and political, and in fact questions of such power are central to all her film and video work. One of her earlier productions, 'Arrows', for instance, is about anorexia in women, which she views very much as one way in which women deal with their lack of power, i.e. since they are not in control of the representation of their own bodies, they try to efface themselves by not eating. In 'Plutonium Blonde' it is a question of the power structures that have developed and actively promote an industry that is doing untold damage to our environment, despite the lessons to be learnt from such catastrophes as Chernobyl. As if to underline the pervasiveness of such power structures, Sandra is continuing to pursue her interest in this area. Her current project is about the uranium mining that goes on in Canada and the pollution it is causing, with those affected powerless to get anything done about it. Hopefully, we can look forward to seeing it at next year’s festival!

–Published in Independent Media, November 1987.

This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees are not. We receive no funding so please consider donating. This will help us keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

vlcsnap-2022-05-11-11h14m37s855.png
vlcsnap-2022-05-11-11h15m07s954.png
vlcsnap-2022-05-11-11h15m21s750.png

WITH ENGLISH CAPTIONS
AVEC SOUS-TITRES FRANÇAIS DE ELIZABETH DEXTER ET MATHILDA RECKFORD
CON SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL DE LUCIA DE LA TORRE
COM LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUÊS DE MATHEUS PESTANA
최모니카의 한국어 자막으로
TÜRKÇE ALT YAZI ÇEVİRİSİ: ÖYKÜ SOFUOGLU 
字幕翻訳:西山敦子

 

 

URANIUM
HEX

UK, 1987. 11 minutes, Colour, Magnetic, 4:3. Original format: 16mm

1987

UK, 1987. 11 minutes, Colour, Magnetic, 4:3. Original format: 16mm

Well, then the air flows back into this drift. You gotta get back and get in the other man-way. There's a downcast airway, there's a lot of air going through. That's the atomiser to put moisture in the air to control the dust. Put on your ear-muffs!

“When bright yellow uranium oxide leaves the crushing mill to be refined to uranium hex, the waste is shot out through pipes, often into the drinking water of native Canadians’ reservations, mutating the only gene pool…these are the conditions underlying our electricity from nuclear reactors.” – Sandra Lahire.

“Lahire’s 'Uranium Hex' is free-form – a pointillistic Geiger-counter crackle of visuals that deploys a number of experimental techniques to find an image for the radioactivity that slips unseen into the air." – Steven Bode

This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees are not. We receive no funding so please consider donating. This will help us keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

vlcsnap-2022-05-11-19h11m39s050.png
vlcsnap-2022-05-11-19h12m50s994.png
vlcsnap-2022-05-11-19h08m19s410.png

WITH ENGLISH CAPTIONS
AVEC SOUS-TITRES FRANÇAIS DE ELIZABETH DEXTER ET MATHILDA RECKFORD
CON SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL DE LUCIA DE LA TORRE
COM LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUÊS DE MATHEUS PESTANA
최모니카의 한국어 자막으로
TÜRKÇE ALT YAZI ÇEVİRİSİ: ÖYKÜ SOFUOGLU 
字幕翻訳:西山敦子

 

 

SERPENT
RIVER

1989

UK, 1989, 30 mins, Colour, Original Format: 16mm

Occasionally, in shots of young children playing on blackened lake-side sand, miners toiling underground in dark and dangerous conditions, or in the voice-overs detailing how in drilling for uranium the crushed radioactive rock is blown by the wind into rivers to be carried far and wide, we glimpse the documentary Serpent River might have been.

 

For Sandra Lahire, however, the bare facts are not discomfiting enough in themselves. In this dense, paranoid film poem the aptly named torrent is transformed through dazzling colour effects and evocative use of sound into the poisoned bearer of death and destruction.

 

The luckless inhabitants of Serpent River and Elliot Lake in North Ontario, the location of a huge uranium mining operation owned by Rio Tinto Zinc, have had their lives radically changed by the presence of the forbidding plant of their once green and pleasant surroundings. Miner Diane Guillemette describes how employment was brought to the economically depressed area. Her decision to take on work in a male-dominated field is shown to be double-edged, her delight in equality mitigated by the deadly side-effects of high levels of radiation on the land and on the human body.

 

The film depicts a cold, desolate landscape reminiscent of science fiction projections of post-nuclear holocaust, a dire warning that the future is already with us. It is haunted by the image of a body whose skeleton glows red and black as though skin and clothes had melted away. A burnt-out terrain with blackened, stunted trees is accompanied by a voiceover telling how children suffer burns when they swim in the sulphurous lake.

 

At times, the imagery is positively gothic, as when a huge black bird takes flight, echoed later when its harsh cry is heard on the soundtrack. At others, a dark irony prevails: children play in the grounds of the Uranium Capital Nursery School; a roadside hoarding proclaims "After Death, the Judgment"; a jaunty Country & Western ballad mockingly celebrates the quick money to be made from the deadly uranium rock; and a sermon preached to the cancer-ridden congregation of the New Life Assembly promises that God will provide. The overriding impression, however, is of the filmmaker's own fascination with the eerie beauty of the doom-laden images she creates, many of which seem to be repeated as much for their aesthetic lure as for their impact as memento mori. While this may to some extent undermine the film's ostensible message that the devastation of natural resources by greedy capitalist enterprises must be stopped, it adds another, disturbing layer of meaning, a Romantic intimation that nature and life itself is always overshadowed by death. This fatalistic sense that it is already too late, that the human death drive is in the ascendancy, lends Serpent River an intensely obsessional air which makes it all the more compelling.

 

––Pam Cook, in the Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol 57, no 679, August 1990.

This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees are not. We receive no funding so please consider donating. This will help us keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

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WITH ENGLISH CAPTIONS
AVEC SOUS-TITRES FRANÇAIS DE ZOÉ BARNES
CON SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL DE LUCIA DE LA TORRE
COM LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUÊS DE MATHEUS PESTANA
최모니카의 한국어 자막으로
TÜRKÇE ALT YAZI ÇEVİRİSİ: ÖYKÜ SOFUOGLU 
字幕翻訳:西山敦子

 

Lesbians in
Media Education

by Sandra Lahire
1985

This is written in a building called the Darwin building at the Royal College of Art, London.[1] Darwin, whose revolution in science legitimated the socially created differences between men and women and gave them an apparent biological justification. Lesbians were excluded as “unnatural” or an impossibility (see the monument of Queen Victoria over the road).

This is what many women artists in education have said to me:

Women sit on the TV production line. Men take the fruits of this labour to use them against us. The tools of government, the means of evaluation in media education, the core disciplines to be learned, are dictated by the latest technological acquisition, by an establishment of design and media education that does not share its power. Let us take it.

I kept it silent, even in a group of women working with performance and media, because I feared it was disruptive of some more important struggle, which was predesigned for me to carry out. Now I know that it is my body, my room, our daughters’ employment that is at stake, and my filmmaking with other dykes – that could be all other women. Our tongues and eyes meet in our words, in the tastes, smells, sinking and biting that we enjoy together. In its growth, our media work does not coerce people, it is how we make ourselves self-responsible.

Wherever I am and come from, my tongue is Lesbian. I do not feel I should have to support the debate of middle-class intellectuals with it. I and others I have worked with have accepted my Lesbian identity. My Jewish identity is my work now in terms of “where is my homeland?”

If you have enough money and privilege you can separate yourselves from heterosexist oppression. Let us not forget, though white middle-class feminism would like us to, that Lesbians are constantly threatened. “Passing” – staying invisible and presumed to be heterosexual – is a central issue in Lesbian culture. Often, the less privileged you are, the more necessary is passing for survival in a harsh urban environment.

In the frightened mood of the eighties, there is a knee-jerk reaction to the economic recession that warns Blacks not to be too Black, Jews not to be Jewish, and the unemployed and Lesbians not to be too visible. The more we let ourselves be pushed out now, the less room we will have for manoeuvre and formulating our own imaginative tactics of resistance. The time to manoeuvre is now, with our work, whilst we still have a foothold.

Unless we are affirmed, the feeling that we often get is that Lesbians must stop being selfish and giving joy to each other when the birth of a nation is at stake. But precisely by eschewing the family and marriage structures of white society, free Black women negotiated their own forms of autonomy. This contrasts with the framework of the USA and its satellites in which the family has been defined as a closed nuclear unit, the foundation of capitalism.

Instead of being bound up behind veils and distortion, let us establish the forms that we need and begin to manipulate them for ourselves. As a teacher I see this works best in an atmosphere of warmth amongst women.

You read flashes of body language, some of self-dismissal and at the same time stubborn affirmation. And it is not necessarily that women would find out that they were Lesbian, but even to take that route and look at things from that angle is turning the world inside out. Turning negation back on itself. Adrienne Rich argues that when we stop lying about our love (sexual or not) for other women, when we stop mutilating ourselves simply to survive our subjection, we can begin to resist our mutilation by values and laws based primarily on male needs.[2] She posits our resistance as a Lesbian continuum or network for action, which women might move in and out of all the time. This must not be cut. As there have not been many Lesbian filmmakers, we study our lives to show the following generations. “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”[3] There is no aspect of the dominant culture that does not contribute to the enforcement of heterosexuality in some way, whether it is the witholding of technical knowledge, the burning of documents and archives, the burning of witches (“witches” meaning quite literally those who have wits, who know).

Who was that haggard twin of hers staring through the screen? The night was chilly. She summoned her in, and helped her unfreeze. They resembled each other.

Being a Lesbian is not in itself political. However, the conditions in which we live as women are available to political change because they can be seen to be socially caused and not naturally destined. This is about actively Politicising areas of our lives that are assumed to be unchangeable.

Sex between women opens more channels of communication and strengthens the network through which every issue is being fought. One may ask, are our identities really so bound up with sexual choice? The human essence is the assembly of social relations, and sexuality is social relations.

If our work were ambiguous, it would pull us back to a false, not Lesbian, continuum. When our work is forthright we illumine for each other territories that we can no longer allow to be obscured.

Lesbians should strive to minimise the chances that radical content will be perceived in terms of style alone, “Lesbianism”.

Operating on the premise that the culture of resistance uses all the media at its disposal, Lesbian culture – if not censored, stifled, or invisible – is “tolerated” or imitated in a colonising way for commercial or high art purposes. As a former anorexic, I am sensitive to all forms of subtle manipulation of women.

Our fight grows out of our women’s circle of discourse. This must spread wide to make interference in the millennia of talking men. We are not abstractions in male psychoanalytical debate. Laughing, working, touching, we are putting our own psychic health first. I am hoping that our voices may derange those who support the leadership of this police state.

What a relief to feel solid against that alienating stare of ownership to which women may be subjected at any time of day or night.

Far from being a riddle to ourselves (as we seem to be held out to men) we are restrained by double bindings in a male language that is as cramping as Grace Poole’s attic. Catatonia would be the end result, the gesture of a lunatic having to separate herself from her language and eventually killing herself off: “Words dry and riderless/The indefatigable hoof-taps.”[4]

What was the price of subjection to the Law of the Father? A violent denial of my mother’s body and bonds of feeling by which we clarified each other’s images. A mother is a woman, not the easy target for our repressed anger; and, childless, I am a woman.

Is “mother” or “language” primary? Or “phallus as signifier”? The female body is complete, not a negative to the phallus. Ultimately the Lacanian debate is redundant to the Lesbian, both because it is class-based and because the influence of the mother is as primary as a hieroglyph. Now we are thinking of two women imaging together, lips speaking together, maybe in conflict but so making a discourse in and of and for itself, not embedded in one certain psychoanalytic schema of construction of femininity, e.g. mother/daughter roles.

Because it forced itself upon me I told the absence-of-signifier theory of women to get knotted. It was.

Even now there is little material support for Lesbian couples apart from within the Lesbian community. Any public display of a relationship problem is seen as having to do with its being Lesbian. No one ever thinks that the ownership politics of heterosexual culture may have eaten holes in the Lesbian relationship.

Or maybe the trouble is one-to-one relationships. Or that women ever have relationships together whilst at art school. Women students consolidating each other’s meaning are an asset that had better be liquidated, in the interests of the management and a culture that would rather fragment the body, and make lucrative fetishes out of those fragments.

One aspect of our practice has tried to operate on the very terrain of stereotype itself, trying to undermine and change the readings of certain stereotypes, by showing up the contradictions between them and the doublethink that is necessary to believe in them. Those who control stereotypes are never exposing themselves. This is also true for straight “experimental” practice.

For women filming women, what we need now is to restore the integrity of the whole body, which is what Chantal Akerman and Helke Sander have chosen to do.[5] “Narcissism” was adopted by Freud in his libido theory to describe a condition in which the ego turns its energy back on itself. And without the shared experience of being female, some spectators are unable to see the revelations of Lesbian work as anything but narcissistic, in a sense of being trapped in herself, or indulging her ego. How can women committed to producing socially engaged work confront this narrow view of narcissism encouraged by the art world and promoted by the video apparatus? Turning the camera to the world, yes, and if it is oppressive, turning the monitor to the wall, or manipulating the Barbie doll imagery sold to us. In the case of the woman dealing with autobiographical material and self-perception, turning the camera on herself is necessary, not because she is reinforcing the male fetishising of parts of her body. She opposes externally imposed images of her sexuality by building up a dialogue with aspects of herself, with doubles or twins or alter-egos, as Sylvia Plath does by her writing of The Bell Jar. The mirror is a common-sense method of crystallising a twin through inward dialogue. Far from mimicking the isolated self-obsession of the male narcissist, a woman working with herself and devoting her love to herself in another woman, instead of gaining access to power via men, is working with the self-reflection essential for self-determination and political change. Men who feel “left out” of this woman’s work blame the Lesbian element, this completely autonomous self through which women address social issues such as work and nukes and pit closures.

Returning yet again to the Lesbian Body, I remember 'Focii' by Jeanette Iljon centring on a relationship of self to self and self to other.[6] And some work by Chantal Akerman in which she uses a fixed camera that disrupts the Hitchcockian pleasure in looking associated with traditional or “experimental” techniques such as close-ups, quick cuts, zooming, panning, tracking (see ads, promos and male “experimental” film discourse). For every reason hinted at so far, I find Steven Dwoskin’s, and much of Godard’s work, offensive when it plays around with pictures of women ostensibly alone, yet who are penetrated by the male camera with as much inherent violence as the Psycho shower scene.

Women filming women and our own sexuality

Through this very negation I feel this work pressing on me to make a positive imprint. Such work could relate the emotional freedom of women to the freedom of society itself. This is a great pleasure to any woman viewer, and it makes a change and revolution in the material world irresistible.

I thought that it was a lethargy that dulled me, a repressive force; but I’ve begun to understand it as an energy that strikes icy-bright. I’m paralysed, caught for a while in its bright focus. My response seems so ingrained, its line marked out over so many political scenarios. Paralysed, I become flustered. It must be obvious to all who look. Tattooed at mouth and eyes. I’m not sure what happens next. No matter. Too long I’ve gone back over those old tracks. Where? The thing is to get off, pushing into that light. This feeling, all such feelings, are not transgressions.

No more time for that limited “romance” which feeds off being forbidden. My positive Lesbian feelings have come out simultaneously with my work. You learn about yourself as you make the work with the materials around you in installations and film and performance, and that learning process becomes part of the meaning of the work.

The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticised sensation. For this reason we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic.[7]

We are making images for our sexuality, and there are more responses like touch and hands holding.

Not as public spectacles like hanging, violence, murder,

Not making a public spectacle of ourself,
But the visibility and touch of our works to each other,

So that we crystallize each other’s thoughts.

She needs warm compresses for her eyes if nowhere else, due to the dearth of Lesbian films and the need to do a salvage job on Supergirl. Shut-away Lesbians, without the particulars of wider social encounters, become abstractions in any current debate on sexuality in media work.

Our media work is not just about positive images of Lesbians, but an impact suggesting a positive guide to action. Being that obtuse and cussed we are already not such a welcome choice for design-orientated education, and perhaps being thrown out on the streets from our brief intervention at the Royal College of Art is the beginning of becoming visible and fighters. We are already listening to each other and weaving a picture-poem patchwork of protest.

Within Environmental Media which moves out from the walls, I am taking space for a Lesbian voice. Where to for all the undergraduate women I chatted to for this issue? Lesbians are not an exclusive club or ghetto but all women’s desire for each other’s full expression of our bodies and language. We oppose the predefined category of woman in male theory and its derivatives, in which woman is a lack, of power, of penis, and who bears a very heavy negative relation to the jolly pageant of male art and design history. Through my very negation in a system of feudal chivalry, that does not use our discourse of body and loving/being in love, I use strong – sometimes angry – images to tell the stories of our lives. It is essential that we be a mirror to each other. Hearing, feeling. Many images of feeling boxed in, and bound. Together exploring each other’s solitary confines, and together weaving a very large space.

Rooms within rooms, with doors opening in different directions. Men have always wanted to identify a hierarchy and an “ism”, and women at the peace camps and in 'Women Challenge Film and TV Education' have none. Drawing breath from each other, we say the same thing in different ways. At any one point along the timescale, there is always a woman who is guiding herself past her male assessors as if by a thread.

I was alone and I wanted to express my Lesbian feelings in the Darwin Building so intensely that I even resented the ingrained and casual male-female habits of chivalry... and the “blondes” and “redheads” lights. It was a chasm inside of me. Now that chasm is space out of which I spin my images. The darkness of this well inside contains all colours. I never want to hear you say that blackness is the colour of despair and negativity.

The position of Black Lesbians, when working with/for white people is fundamentally different from that of white Lesbians. I am a white woman, I think that any feminist work at the Royal College of Art is bound to be limited when there are not many Black women and women of colour.

I remember very clearly when I was nine and she was twelve, and we kissed and caressed each other and played tricks on the boys and grownups.

Lesbians aren’t oppressed by the Law...?

Anti-Lesbian practice ranges from a verbal omission to actual physical violence. In media education Lesbian images represent the ultimate threat to the patriarchal order: independence from their whole art-historical debate based on ownership of the female body and exploitation of her work.

At work particularly, teachers are permanently forced to conceal our Lesbian identity. This means living in constant strain, whilst still being subject to anti-Lesbian attitudes and behaviour from colleagues, employers, male technicians (which is most technicians), and critics parasitical to the art establishment.

Here is one Staff Group’s proposals for inclusion in a school statement on sexism, adapted to higher and art education:

Lesbian students must see their sexuality positively reflected in the society of the school, and all students must be actively encouraged to see that their sexuality can be a matter of positive choice. This can best be achieved by Lesbian and gay teachers being visible within the school. This means that teachers who are Lesbian or gay should not be pressurised into hiding this fact from students or into allowing students to make a wrong assumption about their sexuality. Their decision to come out must be actively supported by all members of staff right to the rector.

In no way should being Lesbian be made to feel like a sinister activity (“sinister” in the McCarthy sense, not in the sense of subversive and transforming). The homophobia that faces young Lesbians in colleges does not exist in a vacuum. It is all part of a learned response and attitude that everyone in our society assimilates through subtle means in the dominant media.

Lesbian teachers, whether they are out or closeted, are helpful as role models, implicit support etc.[8]

The Gay Teachers Group put forward the following motion at the 1984 NUT National Conference:

This conference rejects all discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and instructs the Executive to support vigorously all teachers discriminated against on these grounds... Conference also instructs the Executive to promote constructive and positive attitudes to homosexuality in school curricula. Furthermore... to press the TUC to include sexual orientation in its model Equal Opportunities Clause.

So far, none of the teaching unions has a policy on the rights of Lesbian teachers and students. Some teachers and some LEA’s – notably the ILEA (if it remains intact) – are tackling this issue. Get a clear statement of support from a local branch.[9]

Nothing contributes to anti-Lesbian attitudes and Lesbian self-loathing and neglect of her sexuality so much as a feeling of insecurity with regard to the world of work, the law, and union activity. Yes, a Lesbian working to encourage women’s strength in an art college has, even now, been nicknamed “he” (strange that this appears unusual, as the generic term “he” usually embraces “she”). Often we feel like staying at home, or are frightened when returning late from our shows and meetings, because we are not accompanied by the chivalry of a man.

At the same time, men seem afraid of the strong woman and her autonomous sexuality.

Lesbian mothers must tailor work around bringing up children, who are not an abstraction during “working hours”. Men have been conducting a debate in colleges into which we may step when we are not at home. This is the social condition which work made by women must oppose, or this work will tend to be seen either as “evidence” of some essential (essentially inferior) femininity, or else as some special kind of “achievement” like that of circus animals.

Being Lesbian is not a soft option. Surprisingly, we also have housework to do, bills to pay, children to get to school, ill people to care for. Anti-Lesbianism occurs every time our childrearing is scrutinised in an unsupportive way and every time it is assumed that what we ought to want is to raise “normal” children... the argument for denying Lesbians custody of our children. Mothers do not have to be mothers only. Our access to jobs ought not to be limited by access to childcare and by male-engendered expectations of what a “good” mother is.

My hope is that every woman teacher and student choosing to remain with a man will require of him that he treat her as a person who has the very needs Lesbians have been asserting. This is the only way we can gain our full heretical strength.

Pulling out the magical cliché of male thought – “it’s not men who oppress women, it’s the capitalist system” – is a long-standing cop-out and denial of men’s responsibility. Of course it is the system of capitalism which oppresses us. But this “system” is a collection of people’s actions and attitudes.

There is a subversive perception of the order of things developing. Men always want to identify and recuperate a hierarchy and “ism”, but we are all spokeswomen. Conversely, we are free to see men as people who can change rather than as fixed tormentors, providers, lovers and, worst of all, judges of our validity. To fear a knowledge of our own Lesbian love is to fear a knowledge of our work in performance art and media.

Sexuality between women opens more channels of communication and strengthens the network through which we will bring about material changes. Our Lesbian continuum:

Paradigms,
folding mirrors,
multiple and serial loves,

coming and going through out rooms

within rooms

... an ongoing collation, not a preset line of argument. The only line is a Lesbian Line.

This is the version of the text included in the volume Visibly Female (1987) edited by Hilary Robinson. An unedited version had previously appeared in Undercut, Summer 1985.

1. Sandra Lahire was student in the Environmental Media department of the Royal College of Art. She makes reference to this at other points in the article This was the only department in the college with a strong feminist presence and a tradition of students engaging with oppositional politics in their work. It was closed down by the new, Thatcherite Rector, Jocelyn Stevens. The last students left in 1986. [note added by the editor, Hilary Robinson]

2 Adrienne Rich, “Women and Honour: Some Notes on Lying”, 1977.

3 Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, 1980.

4 Sylvia Plath, “Words”, 1963.

5 See Jump Cut no. 22 for Helke Sander.

6 Distributed by Circles.

7 Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”, 1979.

8 Woman, 17.

9 NUT: National Union of Teachers; TUC: Trade Union Congress; LEA: Local Education Authority; ILEA: Inner London Education Authority.


 

1991

LADY
LAZARUS

UK, 1991. 25 minutes, B&W / Colour, Optical / Stereo, 4:3. Original format: 16mm

The first film in Lahire's "Sylvia Plath Trilogy", ‘Lady Lazarus’, opens with a gnomic, provocative statement in white print against a black background:

 

a film spoken by

SYLVIA PLATH

27 OCT. 1932 — 11 FEB. 1963

 

This title card states the work is “spoken” by Plath, while the credits at the end cite the poems Sylvia Plath “spoke,” as if the poet has been in contact with Lahire, collaborating in the making of the film. Plath indeed speaks the film, whose soundtrack is dominated by clips of her reading her poems from two separate recording sessions: the first in 1958, at the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard, and the second in 1962, for the BBC, which also included the aforementioned interview with Peter Orr. Plath’s poems, prose, and conversational statements are chopped up and reconstituted in a poetic montage in which Lahire has absorbed Plath’s world of stark, riveting imagery, filmically transforming it into something visually her own that speaks to themes which preoccupied both women: pilgrimage, identification, intimacy, dialogue, channelling, longing, loss, violence, power, and the body. ‘Lady Lazarus’ is a study of how to manifest something dark and conflicted that lives deep within us: a ‘psychic landscape’ created via a fusion of art forms and their two authors, doubled and intertwined.

–Emily LaBarge

 

Letter to The Guardian

by Sandra Lahire
28 June 1991

YOUR Profile (June 24) showed us how biographies and critiques continue to dismember Sylvia Plath and often lose her voicebox, even though her own poetry readings and interviews can be heard in our National Sound Archive. No, she did not leave a will — but she did write her own view of her posthumous existence. Miraculously she survives the blame-throwing for her suicide and rises out of the ashes to inspire other youthful minds by her intelligence in addressing our most terrifying experiences, like madness and being tortured.

Sylvia did forecast the roles of the retailers of her image:

 

"The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves into see
Them unwrap me hand and foot.”

Against the disposable news headline she asserts:


"The blood jet is poetry.
There’s no stopping it.”

 

She worked at the craft of her voice and radio-poetry as Dylan Thomas did. A medium like film, in which she can speak for herself and make poetry a communal cinematic act is one way out of the treadmill of personal invective.

Funded by the British Film Institute, I have directed a short film called Lady Lazarus. Permission was given by Olwyn Hughes to use recordings made by Sylvia around her 30th and last birthday. All locations are Plath's.

In the words of "Lady Lazarus,” she is a smiling woman who is only thirty. She will always be around with her ironic “dying is an art" tones. If she could see her media-circus striptease, and our gullibility, she would be in stitches.

Sandra Lahire.

British Film Institute,

29 Rathbone Street,

London W1P.

Note: Lahire's letter is a response to Catherine Bennett's article, "The Grapes of Plath." The Guardian. June 24, 1991

This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees are not. We receive no funding so please consider donating. This will help us keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

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Avec traduction française de Bruno De Labriolle et Robin Sevestre


Tradução em Português de Marcela Lanius & Emanuela Siqueira

Prosa y entrevistas traducidas por Gudrun Palomino; poemas traducidos por Xoán Abeleira Álvarez en: [Poesía completa: 1956-1963 (Bartleby Editors, 2008)]

번역: 박주영

(박주영은 뉴욕 주립대에서 미국 여성시 연구로 영문학 박사를 받았으며,

현재 순천향대학교 영미학과 교수로 재직하고 있다)

Öykü Sofuoğlu tarafından Türkçeleştirilmiştir. Lady Lazarus, Aday, Nick ve Şamdan, Ariel, Gece Dansları şiirleri için "Ariel ve Seçme Şiirler" (çev. Yusuf Eradam, Kırmızı Kedi Yayınevi, 2012), Sırça Fanus alıntıları için ise "Sırça Fanus" (çev. Handan Saraç, Can Yayınları, 2010) kitaplarına başvurulmuştur. 


日本語字幕 西山敦子・浜崎史菜

 
 

"We say the same thing in different ways"
On Sandra Lahire and Sylvia Plath
by Emily LaBarge

“We walk on air, Watson,” writes Sylvia Plath – the poet of Ariel and other striking, singular collections of poetry, prose, letters, and journals – in ‘The Detective’. This poem about romantic loss is loaded with regret and suspicion of infidelity. The atmosphere courses with it and buoys the speaker in her search for answers that never arrive: she walks on air. Air recurs in other poems, to varied effects: “We should meet in another life, we should meet in air, / Me and you,”[1] “Something else / Hauls me through air,”[2] “The air is a mill of hooks,”[3] and “There’s always a bloody baby in the air.”[4] Plath’s work is filled with references to air as image, feeling, form, theme. In her imaginary, air is mobile and muscular, full of contradictions: it is thin or pale or quiet or fluent or clear or blind or thick. Sometimes it is murderous. Air is sweet or bloody, blue or orange, sometimes green, often black – so changeable, substanceless, full of portent and nourishment, always a vehicle.

 

“As a poet, one lives a bit on air,” we hear Plath say in ‘Lady Lazarus’, the first film in Sandra Lahire’s Living on Air trilogy, a series of works made in dialogue with the life, writings, and recorded voice of the American poet who died in London in 1963, aged 30, when Lahire was barely a teenager. This audio clip of Plath – one of many that scores the film – comes from a 1962 conversation with Peter Orr of the British council, in which she describes life as a poet, and its sometimes chimerical, insubstantial qualities. When Plath says “air,” it feels as if her deep voice curves around the listener. Her accent is uncanny, not quite British or American, with rounded vowels and bevelled sibilants. “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air,” she writes in the poem that gives Lahire’s film its title. How to define the space between poetry and air, text and image, film and homage, Plath and Lahire?

 

The writer and scholar Jacqueline Rose, who supervised Lahire’s PhD about the role of visual art and Surrealism in Plath’s poetry, described her student as possessing deep insight into the “psychic landscape of Plath’s writing,” noting that Lahire’s “ability in both her films and her writing, to enter and seize that landscape, and then bring it into an acutely sharpened focus, was astounding.”[5] Unfinished at the time of her death in 2001, aged 50, Lahire’s PhD was also to involve an exploration of the work of a selection of women artist filmmakers, including herself. We can’t know what she might have written about her connection to Plath, or why the poet served as muse and material for so many of her works, nor if the trilogy would have been her final engagement with Plath’s work. It seems certain her “collaborations with a dead artist,” as Lahire put it, would have continued in some way, be it direct or oblique. As it stands, the trilogy’s films – ‘Lady Lazarus’ (1991), ‘Night Dances’ (1995), and ‘Johnny Panic’ (1999) – present a fascinating, intuitive correspondence with Plath’s work, an exchange that ripples through them in multiple, though never didactic, ways. Lahire’s supple montages of image, text, and sound offer reflexive studies of both Plath and film as medium. “Drawing breath from each other,” Lahire says in her 1985 essay, ‘Lesbians in Media Education,’ “we say the same thing in different ways.”[6]

 

The first film in the trilogy, ‘Lady Lazarus’, opens with a gnomic, provocative statement in white print against a black background:

 

a film spoken by

SYLVIA PLATH

27 OCT. 1932 — 11 FEB. 1963

 

This title card states the work is “spoken” by Plath, while the credits at the end cite the poems Sylvia Plath “spoke,” as if the poet has been in contact with Lahire, collaborating in the making of the film. Plath indeed speaks the film, whose soundtrack is dominated by clips of her reading her poems from two separate recording sessions: the first in 1958, at the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard, and the second in 1962, for the BBC, which also included the aforementioned interview with Peter Orr. Plath’s poems, prose, and conversational statements are chopped up and reconstituted in a poetic montage in which Lahire has absorbed Plath’s world of stark, riveting imagery, filmically transforming it into something visually her own that speaks to themes which preoccupied both women: pilgrimage, identification, intimacy, dialogue, channelling, longing, loss, violence, power, and the body. ‘Lady Lazarus’ is a study of how to manifest something dark and conflicted that lives deep within us: a ‘psychic landscape’ created via a fusion of art forms and their two authors, doubled and intertwined.

 

Lahire constructs brief, fragmented sequences in vivid 16mm: a Ouija board as seen through a fish-eye lens, a crystal ball, reeds rippling in lapis blue waters, a cut hand smearing fake, postbox red blood across a white plate, a graveyard, flickering candles and flames, a blooming lily, a close-up starfish, a hospital, an axe chopping wood, female mannequins, a horse galloping. These images, consistently evoked by Plath, are made anew, filmed and reassembled by Lahire, who was intimately familiar with the poet’s recurrent visuals. She viewed the Plath’s insistent repetition of particular themes and imagery as a kind of “shape-shifting in the sense of taking on a form” that migrates from one version of itself to another – travelling “in a personal landscape of death, while at the same time writing in a language that is completely of life.”[7]

 

Lahire makes the poet’s life appear, too, in flashes: her childhood home in Winthrop, Massachusetts; Point Shirley, the New England coast where she spent her summers; the gravestone of her father Otto Plath, who died when she was eight; Smith College, where she did her undergraduate degree; New York, where she had a nervous breakdown; the house on Fitzroy Road, just north of Primrose Hill, where she died in the freezing winter of 1963; her grave in Yorkshire, SYLVIA PLATH HUGHES – the “Hughes” visibly chiselled off and replaced numerous times.[8] Whenever Plath’s poems are read, they are resurrected through the film’s very own Lady Lazarus – a surrogate for perhaps both filmmaker and poet, seeker and sought – played by a dark-haired woman (Lahire’s friend and collaborator, the filmmaker Sarah Turner) who tours the US and the UK, where Lahire travelled widely to make the film. What does this inscrutable Lady Lazarus want, what does she see or feel when she visits these memorials to her author? Kinship, maybe, or an explanation for how deeply the psychic landscape of another person can embed itself within you and spill forth, keep on spilling.

 

As our guide, Turner walks us backward and forward through Plath’s landscapes, both biographical and writerly. “The young woman in this film is magnetised into Plath’s dialogue and photos,” wrote Lahire in a 1994 artist’s statement. “She becomes a film medium, as in a séance, and travels Sylvia’s homes and jobs in Massachusetts, NY, and London.”[9] This filmic medium sits at a desk, leafing through facsimiles of Plath’s manuscripts, and holds up photographs of the poet at different ages before dropping them to the floor or tearing them to pieces. She slides a glass across a Oujia board, walks through graveyards, drives a retro pink Cadillac, flips through women’s magazines of the fifties, the kind Plath read and even modelled for in her teenage years. She lingers in the lit window of a house bathed in blue light of the variety Plath described as belonging to the early mornings at Fitzroy Road, when she rose to write at three or four in the morning, during “that still blue, almost eternal hour before the baby’s cry, before the glassy music of the milkman, settling his bottles.”[10] The woman goes into a basement, takes pills, lies down, and perhaps dies, as Plath nearly did in August of 1953, an event recounted in The Bell Jar, and hinted at in ‘Lady Lazarus,’ whose speaker dies and is resurrected every 10 years: “What a trash / To annihilate each decade.” This is the only poem in the film that is read in full, over eerie scenes of the dark-haired woman swathed in gauze, maggots crawling on her face and legs, coins placed over her closed eyes. Plath’s sly, wry voice narrates:

 

Dying

Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

 

The 25-minute film plays with structure, technique, and form, exploring pairings of image and text, audio and narrative sequence, and splicing splintered images in quick succession. At times, the juxtapositions are literal and direct. As Plath reads ‘Cut’, for instance: “What a thrill - / My thumb instead of an onion. / The top quite gone / Except for a sort of hinge,” we see a woman’s hand smear a streak of crimson red blood across a stark white plate. At other times, the concordance is associative or aslant, drawing on wider themes within Plath’s work: a chapel (Union Chapel in Highbury) filled with flickering candles as a voice echoes “Love, love”; a photo of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg accompanied by the sound of the subway in New York (a sequence that appears again in the final film of Lahire’s trilogy, ‘Johnny Panic’). Lahire’s elastic filmmaking fills ‘Lady Lazarus’ with repetitions, superimpositions, changes of speed and pace, and layering of sound to reconstitute and mirror the rhythms and rhymes of Plath’s poetry – at once quiet and explosive, joyful and violent. “I guess I liked nursery rhymes and I guess I thought I could do the same thing,” an audio clip of Plath speaking to Orr in 1962 plays over mauve-bathed images of a bell jar and then a whirling fairground ride – a hint at Lahire’s methodology, which employs not just the narrative and visuals of Plath’s work, but also its writerly cadences and line breaks as a means of editing and structuring the film.

 

In Lahire’s work, film is a site of absorption and porosity, a place in which the slippage between self and other is vital and vivifying – a “magical medium” that “is also a site for a lover’s discourse with the absent/dead.”[11] If ‘Lady Lazarus’ is a direct paean to Plath, ‘Night Dances’ is instead oblique, suffuse, enigmatic, with the poet’s work used as a starting point for a retroactive eulogy to Lahire’s mother, Inge Madsen, who died suddenly while helping her daughter make the film. Some of Plath’s imagery glances in and out – water, poppies, flickering lights, fireworks, that immersive blue atmosphere – as do fragments of two poems, ‘The Night Dances’ and ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, both of which were written about her infant son, Nicholas Hughes. “You are the one / Solid the spaces lean on,” Plath’s voice drifts over Lahire’s images of lapping waves; and later, “Why am I given // These lamps, these planets / Falling like blessings, like flakes // Six-sided, white / On my eyes, my lips, my hair // Touching and melting. / Nowhere.” Both the film and the poem foreground the embodied, platonic sensuousness that exists between mother and child, how absolutely it suffuses the atmosphere.

 

The majority of the film, however, is suspended in the ether of diffuse loss and memory, languidly focusing on a woman dressed in black (Sarah Turner again) who lies on the prow of a sailboat that bobs up and down in the water. In between this recurring scene, women dance together, slowly, spot lit, and walk through tunnels, the catacombs in Highgate cemetery, abandoned buildings and walkways; we see a Jewish cemetery; hands playing a piano; the word “compassion” spray-painted in white on a brick wall. Perhaps the woman on the boat dreams these images, or dreams them for us, dreams us with her on this lilting, nighttime dance. “Love, love,” a heartbroken voice says (an acoustically distorted clip of Plath reading ‘Fever 103’) at various junctures, somewhere between incantation and mourning. As in ‘Lady Lazarus’, images are fragmented, sutured, and superimposed, creating a hypnotic and ghostly effect. It is as though we are privy to someone’s inner eye sifting through overlapping recollections, desires, and dreams: the film, once more, is a channel to something otherwise inaccessible, maybe lost.

 

Where Plath’s ‘The Night Dances’ refers to her son and the movements he makes in his crib at night as she watches on, enthralled – “Such pure leaps and spirals – / Surely they travel // The world forever” – Lahire’s film inverts and complicates the relationship between mother and child. Who is dancing and who is watching? Who is found and who is lost? Who sleeps and who wakes? Who dreams, or do we all, in concert? In some scenes, Lahire plays the piano – we see her slender fingers tinkling Schubert, Yiddish folk songs, and a theme she composed herself. In another sequence, a different set of hands – those of her mother – dance along a stone piano discovered in a graveyard, part of a tomb. Mother and daughter, parent and child are collapsed and mirrored. In her poems, Plath, too, used her medium to address the painful loss of a parent. In several poems, she summons her dead father, who died suddenly when she was a child, from complications with a late diagnosis of diabetes. In ‘The Colossus,’ he’s a giant bony sculpture that her speaker tends to with “glue pots and pails of lysol,” trying to keep him tidy and mended. In ‘Full Fathom Five,’ she writes of his watery grave and his bed littered with shells, the poem’s title invoking The Tempest from which her Ariel will later spring: “Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes: / Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” In ‘Daddy,’ the speaker’s death is a dark coming home to the afterlife: “At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you. / I thought even the bones would do.” Poetry is a means to memorialise; to mourn, or sometimes berate (“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”); to imagine his existence in a different, fantastical and ongoing world.

 

But there is no getting back, back, back to the lost loved one. There is only trying to find a way to hold on, to remain momentarily suspended between life and death, an unresolvable state. “Recently my very closest friend, my mother, died suddenly,” Lahire wrote in the same 1994 artist statement for funding from the British Film Institute. “This has deepened my need for a lifeline of lovers’ conversations between women.” If ‘Lady Lazarus’ brings Plath back to life, an animated psychic current in the here and now, ‘Night Dances’ allows some essence of Lahire’s mother to live again in film. To exhume is perhaps to love, beyond reason and forever – as one loves a mother, or a lover, or a continuity of people who buoy, assert, and affirm existence: a lifeline of lovers’ conversations between women.

                                                             

In the work of both Plath and Lahire, the imperative to look upon the painful, to delve into personal anguish alongside instances of global and historical cruelty – and to link the two, to find the one in the other – is paramount. In ‘Johnny Panic,’ the final film in the trilogy, the last film Lahire made, this assertion reaches its most fevered pitch. At 45 minutes, the film is the longest in Lahire’s oeuvre, and the most tightly controlled in its staging. At the centre of the work is a narrative hybrid of Plath’s The Bell Jar, published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas just before her death, and her short story ‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,’ written in 1958 but only published posthumously, a decade later. (Plath spent years sending the story out to various publishers to no avail, and the name Johnny Panic – along with the phrase “Panic Bird” – became a kind of stand-in for failure and fear in her life: “I feel a terrible blocking and chilling go through me like anesthesia,” she wrote in her journal on 4 November 1959, “I wonder, will I ever be rid of Johnny Panic?”)

 

Like The Bell Jar, the short story considers mental illness and personal anguish as in part a symptom of the society in which we live, with its myriad cruelties and strictures – a condition exacerbated by medical and psychological institutions that punish rather than heal, often in particularly gendered ways. Plath’s story, like her novel, is loosely fictionalised, based on a part-time job Plath had while living in Boston, where she, alongside the poet Anne Sexton, was a student of Robert Lowell. Plath’s job was as a receptionist in the psychiatric unit of Massachusetts General Hospital, where she observed the incoming patients with her writer’s eye, taking down notes of her own from their files to be used later for material – a common practice of hers. In her story, this post turns dangerous and macabre: her character illicitly delves deep into the filing rooms and patient histories of the institution, where she is discovered by a sadistic doctor who punishes her transgressions by administering electro-shock therapy.


Lahire’s film is set in a closed stage surrounded by white medical screens on which vignettes of films and images are projected, some of which reference other passages of the film, as well as Lahire’s previous works. The bone-white space serves as an office, where the protagonist (played by Nicola Winterson) reads and types up files; an operating theatre, where a woman’s body is sliced open and her organs exposed; and an ECT treatment room, where the narrator of the film writhes and arcs in bed as electricity passes through her body and she sees the face of Johnny Panic: “I am shaken like a leaf in the teeth of glory,” we hear in a voiceover. “The air crackles with the blue-tongued, lighting-haloed angels. His love is the twenty-story leap, the rope at the throat, the knife at the heart.” Interspersed with this narrative, which is Lahire’s most straight and literal use of Plath’s work, are retro scenes of Americana (some repeated or familiar from ‘Lady Lazarus’), each with ominous undertones – fairground rides with their canned organ music; naked mannequins; a freak show; the traffic and vertiginous skyscrapers of New York City; Grand Central Station; photos of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and images of a protest decrying their deaths. When recordings of Plath do figure, they are readings from poems  replete with stark and harrowing imagery that invokes, often literally, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, war, and destruction: “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets. / Scorched to the root / My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.”

 

Both Plath and Lahire were committed to anti-nuclear, pacifist movements, and intensely critical of patriarchal institutions that condemned women to live in pain, fear, illness, and poverty. Plath’s journals and letters are filled with anti-war sentiments and fury at the kinds of mass annihilation that feature vividly in her poems. (One of her first outings with baby Frieda, her first child, was the 1960 Ban the Bomb march where it culminated in Trafalgar Square.) Versions of these concerns and beliefs are at the core of Lahire’s trilogy about radiation, which has a particular focus on how the nuclear industry marks and, effectively, murders female labourers. ‘Johnny Panic’ is a film that focuses on state violence as it affects women’s minds and bodies, and in which, at times, we witness the artist herself as one of the suffering. In between readings from Plath’s diary about her horror surrounding the execution of the Rosenbergs, we are offered glimpses of Lahire’s own body in grainy black and white, emaciated from the anorexia that would claim her life two years later.

 

It is difficult to behold her visible ribcage and protruding hipbones, her skeletal arms. The image of Lahire’s emaciated body features in many of her more personal films, but here it is unexpected and jarring (as well as retrospectively ominous, given her imminent death), a reminder of the filmmaker’s real, distressed body behind her carefully produced, otherwise seamlessly fictional narrative. What are we to make of this painful self-exposure, particularly alongside scenes in which the film’s story might be read as gothic or camp – deliberately over the top, grotesque, uncomfortable, darkly humourous? “There has to be an element of fun with something raw and close to the bone or you don’t come across to other people,” Lahire said. I don’t suggest that illness is funny, nor that Lahire felt her suffering was, only that a body – a person – is never just one thing, but, conversely, is an opening into multiplicity.
 

 

In her book about Plath’s biographers, The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm takes aim at those critics who refuse to allow for the co-existence of the personal and the collective, the autobiographical and the creative, the individual and the human condition in the poet’s work:

 

What was exacted from Plath was so far beyond what was expected of the gushing girl with the Samsonite luggage that we must all agree on the singularity of the achievement. How the child, “plump and golden in America,” became the woman, thin and white in Europe, who wrote poems like “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” and “Edge,” remains an enigma of literary history—one that is at the heart of the nervous urgency that drives the Plath biographical enterprise, and of the hold that the Plath legend continues to exert on our imaginations.

 

Malcolm’s lines summon, for me, parallel aspects of Lahire’s project, which  also insists on fusing the personal and the political – in her work, and in her examination of Plath’s – well aware of the degree to which certain female experiences will always inspire doggedly biographical readings. I am riveted by the use of the word “exacted” – which I first misread as “extracted.” Living on Air, and Lahire’s wider oeuvre, like Plath’s, is about what is exacted and extracted from women in life and in art – and what they exact and extract from themselves. The films are about the pain of living, which cannot be solved, but must be beheld. At stake is a politics and an ethics concerning the witnessing of suffering, both small and large, one that is not sick or narcissistic, not about death, but about life and how to insist that we, alongside our beloveds, live on.

 

Emily LaBarge is a writer based in London. She has written for Granta, the London Review of Books, Bookforum, Tate Etc., Frieze, and The Paris Review, amongst other publications. She is a regular contributor to Artforum and London correspondent for the Montreal-based quarterly, esse arts + opinions. She is currently writing a book about trauma and narrative.

 

[1] Sylvia Plath, “Lesbos,” in The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) p.228.

[2] Ibid, “Ariel,” p.239.

[3] Ibid, “Gigolo,” p.267.

[4] Ibid, “Stopped Dead,” p.230.

[5] Jacqueline Rose, “Sandra Lahire,” The Guardian, 13 August 2001 < https://www.theguardian.com/news/2001/aug/13/guardianobituaries.filmnews> [accessed 10 March 2022]

[6] Sandra Lahire, “Lesbians in Media Education,” in Living on Air: the films and words of Sandra Lahire, ed. Maria Palacios Cruz and Charlotte Procter (San Sebastián, Spain: Courtisane, 2021), p.16.

[7] Sandra Lahire in Gill Addison, “Living on Air. A Trilogy of Films by Sandra Lahire,” in Living on Air, p.70.

[8] Following Plath’s death, and public arguments about the complicity of her husband, Ted Hughes (who inherited her literary estate), his surname was anonymously chiselled from her gravestone. Hughes replaced it. 

[9] Lahire, “Artist’s Statement since ‘Lady Lazarus’,” in Living on Air, p.81.

[10] Sylvia Plath, quoted by A. Alvarez in The Art of Sylvia Plath, ed. by Charles Newman, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), p.59.

[11] Lahire, Living on Air, p.81.

 

1995

NIGHT
DANCES

UK, 1995, 17mins, Colour, 16mm.

"Night Dances is for my mother, who died whilst helping me to make this piano musical. The Dance of Death is bound to life - L'chaim - as we whirl together by Hebrew gravestones. A dreaming woman is ferried through our decaying city. This is the age of the Personal Computer - the Private Catacomb for the switched-on elite. Its dark doorways are for the wandering homeless... true survivors." –Sandra Lahire

This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees are not. We receive no funding so please consider donating. This will help us keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

night dances postcard.jpg
Night_Dances_postcard_1995_back.jpg

WITH ENGLISH CAPTIONS
AVEC SOUS-TITRES FRANÇAIS DE ELIZABETH DEXTER ET MATHILDA RECKFORD
CON SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL DE PALOMA HERNÁNDEZ
COM LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUÊS DE MATHEUS PESTANA
최모니카의 한국어 자막으로
TÜRKÇE ALT YAZI ÇEVİRİSİ: ÖYKÜ SOFUOGLU 
字幕翻訳:西山敦子

 

SANDRA LAHIRE: IN MEMORIAM 

19 NOVEMBER 1950 - 27 JULY
by Sarah Turner

You kept laughing

So did you

But it wasn’t funny

Then why were you laughing?

I was laughing ‘cos you were laughing

But it wasn’t funny

No, but you kept making me laugh

Oh

So why were you laughing?

Because she looked like a Bridget

Riley painting with egg on it

You can see it now, can’t you?

A striped vertical monotone, subverted by a kind of yokey blob. Sandra Lahire and I had just come out of a meeting at the BFI. Before your imaginations run with this, let me be clear; I’m describing a jumper not a person. I can't remember now if it was a policy or a production meeting as it’s Sandra's irreverent humour that reverberates. A clear and haunting echo. And, as I write this I'm haunted not only by the loss of Sandra but by the loss of her laughter echoing through those spaces: I mean BFI Production in Rathbone Street, the London Film-makers’ Co-op in Gloucester Avenue, Cinenova distribution (formerly Circles) and the Lux Centre, the monolith that formed through the merger of the LFMC and LEA. The haunting isn’t just for the fabric of those buildings, important though they were, as the loss that echoes in our current traumatised but atomised silence is the loss of collective practice; of thirty years of dissent and debate. For we didn't, of course, just giggle in those meetings; we lobbied and discussed and produced collectively.

Sandra was the only person who could have persuaded me to put maggots in my eyeballs. I performed in Lady Lazarus for her – then later that evening we’d stay up all night recording a soundtrack for one of my films. We'd go up to the LFMC to work on her optical printing and there we’d find Alia and Tanya Syed negotiating the Print Processor, then Lis Rhodes or Tina Keane would drop by to discuss all of our editing strategies.

Sandra's output was prodigious; her films are as exacting as her use of metaphor, and if her approach to form was irreverent her content was deadly serious. From her brilliant first film Arrows, a meditation on anorexia and cultural constructions of body image, through to her Plutonium films and the Sylvia Plath trilogy, Sandra’s vision as a filmmaker was as precise as a scalpel cutting down to bone. When Sandra died this summer from complications that arose from her long struggle with anorexia, I was forced to think again about anorexia and all the attendant cultural assumptions that it has. Many of these are so explicit in their negativity I won't digress into listing them here because I still find myself thinking of something else. That “something else” is the work of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre. For Lefebvre we are only truly “present” in what he calls extreme “moments”; individual or social crisis, the first flight of love or impending death. Call it crisis if you will, but Sandra lived that intensity in “moments” that spanned her work, her friendships, her loves. And in that, I’m sure of this: it wasn’t a death force, it was life affirming.

Sarah Turner is an artist, filmmaker, writer, curator and academic. She collaborated with Sandra on the Sylvia Plath trilogy and the one-minute film 'Eerie' (1992).

Sandra Lahire:
Swelling, Shrinking, Spoiled

by Clio Nicastro

If you are going to spit in the eye of the world, make sure your back is to the wind [1]

 

Non sto più nella pelle is how Italians say, “I’m so excited, I can hardly wait!”, though the literal translation is something more like, “I can’t stay in my skin,” or “I can no longer stay in my skin”. Exceptionally bulky, feelings of excitement and anticipation push against the barrier of the skin and demand to be released. It is an interest in this affective dimension where the body exceeds itself that the British filmmaker Sandra Lahire shares with both her beloved interlocutor, the poet Sylvia Plath, and the women with whom Lahire corresponded about their common experiences of anorexia whose voices are heard on the soundtrack of her first film, ‘Arrows’ (1984). The struggle to define bodily and emotional boundaries absorbed Lahire, and anorexia was one of the subjects Lahire explored most frequently. Her inventive, experimental methods constantly breach limits of form and content through the use of juxtapositions and superimpositions, reflecting an anxiety common to different forms of eating disorders for the porosity of the body, as if the skin can neither contain its interior nor prevent the outside world from entering. If anorexia is marked by agoraphobic anxieties, bulimia is linked to claustrophobia.[2] These two seemingly opposite reactions arise from the same difficulty: the problem of the body and its intense demands, along with the conviction that there are only two ways to deal with them, either by creating a “no-entry system of defenses”[3] or letting everything in (and then expelling it). For Lahire, the boundaries between inside and outside, organic and inorganic, digestible and poisonous are precarious – as is the border between pleasure and rupture. At the beginning of ‘Little Death’, a short essay in which Lahire discusses ‘Cast’ (1999), a film by her partner Sarah Pucill, and her own ‘Johnny Panic’ (2000), she reminds the reader that the etymology of the term ‘orgasm’, deriving from the Greek ‘oragao’, means ‘to swell’.[4] Here Lahire describes pleasure as enabling the dilation usually held in by the “fragile frontiers of a being”[5] and later in the text relates this movement to Sylvia Plath’s description of poems as “vortexes of the vast”: “you’ve got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space that you’ve just got to burn away all the peripherals […] as a poet one lives a bit on air.”[6]

 

Lahire’s anorexic body inhabits these fragile frontiers of being; positioned somewhere in the uncanny space between life and death, it becomes a medium that funnels a vulnerable and (over)exhibited female body, one that is exposed to radiation in the mines of North Ontario (‘Serpent River’, 1989), in the nuclear power stations of Dungeness (‘Terminals’, 1986), as well as behind the monitors of a plutonium reactor at Winfrith (‘Plutonium Blonde’, 1987). If in the anti-nuclear trilogy Lahire uses her anorexic body – her chest inscribed with the names of radioactive compounds and her back x-rayed and fluorescent – as an analogy for women’s vulnerability in the face of radiation, ‘Arrows’ is instead wholly centered on the anorexic body tormented by both itself and society. Lahire gives voice to other women affected by eating disorders and at the same time traces the history of the so-called Illouz method of liposuction, which had recently been developed to aspirate fat, at a time when the procedure was beginning to enter the beauty industry proper. The title of this short film seems to be another tribute to Plath: the protagonist of The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, refuses to marry a man who could eventually disappoint her as the last thing she wants is to become the space on the ground from which “an arrow shoots off”.[7] Instead Esther yearns to transform into “the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rockets”, racing off in all directions.[8] In ‘Arrows’, stop animation of colourful arrows and snakes are interspersed with flying birds, some of them in cages, and shots of Lahire’s naked, severely skinny body. She films herself in the mirror, scrutinising her reflection, flapping her arms as if to mimic the filmed birds, her long fingers resembling their talons. Text appears on the screen: “The snake inside Eve” – an ambivalent sentence that suggests both the historical stigma of the female body as a source of sin along with its right to host unruly desire.

 

This snake crawls not only under the skin of the women who speak about their experiences with eating disorders, but also beneath the skin of the film itself. There are several compelling essays that engage with the materiality of Lahire’s images, from the careful analysis of German artist Kerstine Schoeder[9] who investigates Lahire’s peculiar use of colors, to Maud Jaquin’s discussion of the haptic visuality of Lahire’s work.[10] Not only is the body the crucial visual element in Lahire’s films but it is also, as Jaquin observes, a body that wants to appeal to the viewer’s sense of touch.[11] This is true, for instance, of the flags shaken by the wind that almost seem to breach the boundary between film and viewer in ‘Terminals’, or when the camera approaches the mummified corpses of Egyptian pharaohs in ‘Arrows’. According to Jaquin, the chiasm of sight and touch establishes a “sensuous or tactile exchange between the bodies of film, film-maker and viewer, thus underlying the fact that they physically impinge on and transform one another”.[12] At first glance this idea appears paradoxical in relation to the anorexic body, which repels the touch of others through its extremely frailty. Yet it is precisely this apparent contradiction that makes Lahire’s films so unique in the way they depict eating disorders, as Lahire’s anorexia becomes the very medium that conveys and displays the vulnerability of female bodies, not metaphor but synecdoche. (Tragically for Lahire this was not only a performative decision or a narrative device; anorexia marked her entire life, causing her early death at 50).

 

Throughout Lahire’s work the anorexic body is intentionally overexposed through repetition and metaphor. In doing so, Lahire challenges a criticism often applied to narrative depictions of eating disorders, which are seen as inviting emulation. (Visual culture in particular is viewed as triggering these issues). But Lahire intends to ‘contaminate’ her spectators, to bring them close to her protagonists and their suffering. Refusing to be fit and healthy, she embodies the environment destroyed by pollution and nuclear waste, a body contaminated. As she states in her writing, part of the fight against the objectification of the male gaze involves searching for alternative ways to film herself, other women, animals, landscapes, and encounters with both love and death.[13] For Lahire, attention to detail is not a premise for nostalgic contemplation, a mere celebration of the fragment that aestheticises and escapes reality, but an investigative method where proximity turns material into “white-hot milky ways and cosmic collisions.”[14] Her frame is filled with sea waves and water, sand and stones, tools and fluids. Like the toxic waste Lahire examines, these images and words are meant to overflow and spill through the screen, inflicting themselves upon the viewer just as poisonous substances infiltrate and damage tissues and organs. Lahire’s bony legs, arms, pelvis, shoulders, and voice are vehicles of this contamination, intended to be unbearable.

 

In ‘Arrows’ the contamination acts on an emotional level and although this emptiness under the skin differs from the claustrophobic fullness in which feelings cannot be contained, it reveals a similar struggle to define borders. In all of Lahire’s films, bodies are media traversing other stories and subjects – quite explicitly in the scenes in ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Terminals’ which show the body of a clairvoyant receiving messages from the afterlife – that do not conceal the risk, the need, and the desire to incorporate or assimilate others. Nor does she hide the obsession with one’s own body that becomes a form of self-reflection, a fundamental instant of what Lahire deems “self-determination”.[15] Though disordered eating behaviours have long been conceived as a product of social and cultural influence, feminist theorists and activists have also pushed back against the idea of women as passive victims of the ideals of beauty promoted by fashion and media. Instead, some read eating disorders as forms of active resistance, a way to refuse a culturally defined role by attempting to regain control over a body faced by an oppressive social reality that has manifold confusing and often conflicting expectations.[16] Lahire’s over-scrutinising of her own body is a way to bring such contradictions to light. In ‘Arrows’, the camera covers Lahire’s face like a gas mask, a filter through which to safely take in not only things and people but also her own image. The camera and mirror become tools of self-reflection; through them, Lahire writes in her essay, ‘Lesbians in Media Education’, a woman enters into a “dialogue with aspects of herself, with doubles or twins or alter-egos,” a process which enables “the self-reflection essential for self-determination and political change.”[17]

 

Instead of doing away with spectacle, Lahire subverts its strategies. The body is not an object of desire to be offered up to the other’s gaze but a painful and prismatic medium that carries the whole history of its exploitation. Through fragmentation, superimposition, colour alteration, and extreme close-up, Lahire’s films concurrently attract, repel, and fragment objects. Her dysmorphia is not limited to the perception of her own body but shapes everything she sees. Towards the end of ‘Arrows’, a reading of Plath’s ‘The Thin People’ accompanies Lahire’s transformation into a bird. In the closing scene, this bird playfully takes a bath in a clear stream of water. Finally exceeding her body, Lahire lives, like her poet interlocutor, “a bit on air”.

 

[1] Gloria Anzaldua, “Speaking in Tongues. A Letter To 3rd World Women Writers” in Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. This bridge called my back. Writing by Radical Women of Color, State University of New York Press, 1981, p. 170.

[2] Cfr. Charles, Marilyn. "Meaning, metaphor, and metabolization: the case of eating disorders." The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, p. 448.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sandra Lahire, Little Death, in Luxonline, 1999.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar.(1963). Faber & Faber, 1972, p.101.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kerstin Schroedinger, ‘Film matters: Historical and material considerations of colour, movement and sound in film’, University of Westminster, 2016

[10] Jaquin Maud, ‘Overexposed, like an X-ray’: The politics of corporeal vulnerability in Sandra Lahire experimental cinema, in Lucy Reynolds, ed. Women Artists, Feminism and the Moving Image: Contexts and Practices. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019, p.237

[11] Ibid, p. 237

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sandra Lahire, 'Lesbians in Media Education' (1987), in Living on Air. The Films and Words of Sandra Lahire, online publication. https://issuu.com/courtisanefestival/docs/cahier_sandra_lahire

[14] Sandra Lahire, ‘Little Death’, in Luxonline, 1999.

[15] Sandra Lahire, 'Lesbians in Media Education', 1987.

[16]  See Susie Orbach, Fat is a feminist issue. Random House, 2016; Susan Bordo, Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture, and the body. University of California Press, 2004.

[17] Sandra Lahire, 'Lesbians in Media Education'.

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1984

ARROWS

UK, 1984. 15 minutes, Colour, Opt. Original format: 16mm

A combination of live action and rostrum work to communicate the experience of anorexia and to analyse the cultural causes of the condition. 'I am so aware of my body', we are told on the soundtrack, whilst images of caged wild birds are intercut with images of the rib cage of the film's subject, the film-maker herself. The pressures placed upon women to be thin are articulated by an account of a new technique for surgical removal of fat. Once again, a woman who does not conform to male expectations in terms of her body-shape is classified as sick, in need of surgery. The constantly recurring motif of cages, bars and railway lines reiterates the feeling of entrapment throughout the film. Yet by taking the camera into her own hands and revealing this process to the spectator through the use of a mirror, the film-maker shows herself in control of this representation of a woman's body. The film ends with a poem by Sylvia Plath, 'The Thin People', which speaks of people who starve themselves and people who are actually deprived, locating the condition of anorexia firmly in western patriarchal culture. –Lucy Reynolds

This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees are not. We receive no funding so please consider donating. This will help us keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

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