Performance Review: My First Film
By Zia Anger. Approximately 75 min.
Brattle Theatre, Monday, Feb 24, 7 pm. Presented by the DocYard. $12.
To revisit your earliest works as a filmmaker (or as a creative in any field) can be painful—especially if the given work was left unfinished, or, even worse, “abandoned.” That was the word eventually attached to the unreleased debut feature by filmmaker Zia Anger, Always All Ways, Anne Marie, by the monolithic iMDB. In the years since, Anger has nonetheless become a director to be reckoned with, as exemplified by her music videos for artists including Mitski and Angel Olsen, and by her short movies I Remember Nothing (2015) and My Last Film (2015). But there remained unfinished business in the project she began in her early 20s, the one that she now presents within My First Film—which the artist has described as “an interactive live cinema performance,” and where the “abandoned film” is referred to more simply just as Gray.
But don’t confuse it: My First Film, which I saw at Amherst Cinema last year, does not by any means reconstruct or finish the earlier work. The performance sees Anger talking to her audience in real time, not literally but instead by typing words in a text window that’s left open in the frame on screen, which is projected directly from her own computer monitor. With this work, it is crucial for Anger to build a rapport with her audience, and these “texts,” especially during the performance’s early moments, discernibly assuage the room (a connection that’s strengthened further when Anger requests audience members have their smartphones out, and to allow AirDrop to receive video snippets of her Instagram stories—you might even need to get out of your seat to be at the receiving end). The best way to describe Anger’s writing throughout the performance is as a stream-of-consciousness reflection: Personal details are revealed as she presents her earliest major endeavor and how it fell apart, in parallel with her life story before and after the project. It is not so much a narrative of directorial vision disrupted due to outside forces or personal woes, but instead something more complicated and psychological. Anger makes herself, or at least her desktop, into an open book. It is a bold, vulnerable, and brave work—for those willing to keep their minds as open as their AirDrop settings.
In truth, Anger did submit the film now known as Gray to numerous festivals, but was rejected left and right. It was a tough pill to swallow, and left Anger feeling as if she never made the film at all. Given that and various other factors, the older film takes up a surreal presence within her performance: The image is not always fully presented or expanded in full on screen; the audio is often obscured by Anger incorporating music she plays off of YouTube videos; and she often stops the film, fast-forwards, and skips over moments to get at what she considers to be its essence. Anger’s texts displayed on screen are not the only dominant voice of My First Film, but instead filter how the audience processes Gray within it, positioning the unreleased feature less as its own work and more as a confessional commentary illuminating her own story as an artist.
The filmmaker’s candidness and subjectivity offer more than just a once-faded memory turned vivid: My First Film is also about being a female artist, and more specifically, about being one who is dealing with the prospects of failure and viability in their art. Anger puts a human face and artistic pulse to common dilemmas and pressures among female filmmakers who first get told, Make what you know, but at the same time are advised not to be too off-putting, and to not upset the male-controlled structures of the larger industry—two factors that so often function to bury them, at some point or another. Anger uses My First Film to challenge the very structures that she initially bent toward: While nobody would confuse My First Film for a manifesto, the ideas and subjects that boil underneath its surface could easily be refashioned as a central point, and, frankly, are worth expanding upon further.
The images of Gray presented in My First Film, though warm and beautiful (it was shot by the virtuoso cinematographer Ashley Connor, a longtime friend of Anger’s), are many steps behind her more recent work. They are familiar and, indeed, crafted in the common visual parlance of independent feature debuts made around the era of “mumblecore”; blending authenticity and visual metaphor toward that oft-used descriptor twee. The product of crowdfunding, even Gray’s logline represents a laundry list of 21st-century indie filmmaking tropes: Girl returns home to reconnect with her ailing father in an unnamed upstate New York town (Anger hails from Hudson, New York); but after a one-night stand with a stranger gets pregnant; then goes on a search for her distant mother.
But it would still do a disservice to dismiss this work as just being made for the “indiewood” scene: There are personal and autobiographical elements of note within Gray, even if it wouldn’t quite hold water as its own standalone work. Anger’s real-life father plays the ill patriarch, and Anger herself did get an abortion while filming, following an unplanned pregnancy. Throughout My First Film, the pain experienced by Anger concurrent with the production of Gray is revealed directly, including an uncomfortable fact about how the film’s party scene spiraled into something dangerous for a cast member; a scenario placed Anger in a difficult, teachable moment of responsibility on set, and clearly lingers deeply in her conscience to this day. Her recollections of such moments are dramatic, vivid, and confessional, but without feeling manipulative or crassly seeking approval. It puts her in a place to be judged, and the director pulls no punches with her tough self-assessments regarding who she was both as an artist and as a person at that time in her life.
Even with this all said, one can’t really describe what’ll happen during a performance of My First Film. Expect the unexpected—there is a deeply improvisatory energy to Anger’s approach. As the images of a greener, less-confident filmmaker take up the majority of the desktop screen, a powerful voice speaks behind them, and My First Film becomes a work of ultimate artistic reconciliation, connecting the past and present self. Anger’s performance is sharp, unsparing, brutally honest, and self-deprecating, but with such a clarity that it cannot be considered navel-gazing in any sense. The viewer sees her process, quickness, and imagination at work in real time, and invigoratingly so: My First Film ultimately reaches a sense of catharsis, a truly one-of-a-kind experience to witness.