Apr 21, 2009 City
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and raised in Athens, Georgia, 29-year-old writer and filmmaker, Astra Taylor is a good case study for a life well-lived. Unschooled until she was a preteen and raised by two independent thinkers to become one herself, Taylor currently occupies herself with wrangling high intellectual pursuits and philosophical theories into wonderful pieces of cinema. Her non-traditional upbringing, or as she calls it, her “super weirdo hippy background,” stood her in good stead, providing a strong sense of confidence and an affirmation in her own abilities and artistic vision.
When she was just 23, Taylor made her first nonfiction feature about Slavoj Zizek, called Zizek!, a post-Marxist sociologist, philosopher and cultural critic, and all around wild man. This film was the second feature-length project of the Documentary Campaign, a nonprofit organization that worked to combine progressive politics with artistic filmmaking. The film premiered in ’05 at Toronto and is distributed in North America by Zeitgeist Films.
Wanting to make another film about philosophers, Taylor luckily met with producer Ron Mann, who as it turned out, had been wanting to make an anthology film about philosophers, too. (As mom always said, “There’s a lid for every pot.”) Examined Life, as I reported earlier after seeing the film at the Woodstock festival, is an exceedingly well-conceived, visually stunning piece, linking together some of the most brilliant creative thinkers in modern society, taking what is usually reserved for the hallowed halls of academe and putting it out on the streets for public consumption. It’s a very rich feast of ideas, theories and social and ethical quandaries told in ten-minute vignettes as we accompany each of these philosophers on a walk through very concrete places–parks, lakes, bridges, city streets, airports and yes, even a garbage dump. Most of the subjects that appear in Examined Life (Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler) are people Taylor has worked with or studied under and to whom she feels a strong connection. Ultimately, it was a graduate seminar led by Avital Ronell and the late Jacques Derrida that inspired her to try and take philosophy out of the university and into quotidian life.
On a lovely fall morning, Taylor and I met, appropriately, in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village for our chat. She was accompanied by her sister, Sunaura, who also appears in the film in the Judith Butler segment, and is a staggeringly talented artist in her own right. (Click here to see some of Sunny’s work.) As life went by, we sat on a park bench and talked about her unique upbringing, her discovery of expressing herself through making movies, and what and who inspires her as an artist and a human being:
Still in Motion (SIM): The subject matter you’re choosing to use in the medium of cinema is really interesting, quite a departure from the kinds of stories to which we’ve become accustomed. What was the genesis of that idea, to talk to modern-day philosophers about the world in which we’re living, of trying to cinematically tell philosophical stories?
Astra Taylor (AT): I’ve made two films that are explicitly about philosophy. I don’t see myself doing films in the future that are as explicit, but are more, perhaps, implicitly philosophical. I always see myself grappling with ideas, whether it’s in my work as a writer of nonfiction or as a filmmaker. It wasn’t so much a passion for cinema that drove me to pursue filmmaking. Instead, it’s more of a curiosity about ideology and culture and ideas that has always been with me. As a child, I had this one intense creative pursuit and it was one of the happiest phases of my life. I had a magazine called Kids for Animal Rights and the Environment (KARE). I published it every other month for three years. I put so much love and work into this thing so, in a way, I’m just trying to recreate that experience as an adult.
SIM: How old were you when you started it?
AT: I was eleven. I didn’t go to school so I got to work on it everyday and I was such a stickler for the whole presentation. It was the beginning of desktop publishing programs. My whole purpose for doing this magazine was to reveal the fact that children were innate vegetarians, were innately kind beings and that we were systematically misled by propaganda from adults. Old MacDonald’s happy farm and the cows that gave us milk—it was just lies that the adults were perpetrating against us. I really thought that I was leading this kid revolution and that the magazine would cause a generation of people to overthrow the meat-eating adults. By the time I was twelve, I discovered that there might be some flaws in my theory. And then, out of loneliness, I finally went to public school; I’d been unschooled up until that point. When I got to public school, I became friends with kids who weren’t from my immediate super weirdo hippy background.
SIM: Were you home-schooled with just your siblings?
AT: There were, maybe, three other families we hung out with. This was in Athens, Georgia so most of the homeschoolers were conservative Christians, which we were resolutely not. When I enrolled in school, I had this amazing friendship with this girl who ate meat. How could I be friends with someone who eats meat? I had this little crisis of moral relativism and a good deal of confusion about what’s right and what’s wrong. I can’t overstate the profound nature of that crisis for me as a kid, and my dedication to this animal rights trip. I didn’t know the word “ideology,” but I think that’s what it was. How is there this ideology that makes it okay to kill and hunt and farm animals? Animal liberation was something I believed in so strongly, and I was surrounded by people who didn’t share my belief system at all. I was raised in such an intense bubble of affirmation.
SIM: Did you want to go running back to that bubble, or was it too late?
AT: No, I didn’t want to be sheltered. It was just that I became fascinated by belief systems and how my beliefs do—or do not—correspond to those of most people. I think that’s really my motivating question. I have these strong values and strong principles, but don’t see them reflected everywhere in the world. Maybe my beliefs aren’t correct. For example, when it comes to animal rights, many smart, intelligent people don’t agree with me at all.
SIM: Did that undermine your confidence in these strict ideologies? Some might become yet even more fundamentalist in their beliefs in reaction to that.
AT: It certainly made me less strident, I think. Anyway, all this was the reason why I eventually got into theory and philosophy when I was a teenager, exploring ideology, exploring the history of ideas. Why do people think what they think?
SIM: Who were the first philosophers you discovered on your own that resonated with you in a profound way?
AT: It was [Gilles] Deleuze and [Félix] Guattari’s, A Thousand Plateaus. I think I was seventeen when I found this book. It’s really a surrealist, Dada-esque work of philosophy. It’s this creative, inventive hodgepodge that I thought was just the most mysterious, delightful thing I’d ever seen and in it were all these references to Marx and Beckett and James Joyce and Kafka and Lacan and Freud. And I would pursue all of those references doggedly. This book was really responsible for opening up a whole intellectual world. Years afterward, I came upon this interview with Deleuze who said that his ideal reader was an ignorant sixteen year old for whom this is all new. I was that reader. It just so happened that the first American to ever write a book on Deleuze and Guattari worked at the University of Georgia at Athens and he was teaching a seminar; so I got to take a semester-long course with all these Ph.D. students just studying A Thousand Plateaus. I was in heaven. At that point, I was on the path to graduate school and I went to the New School in New York to do theory. I soon wearied of it, you know?
SIM: Wearied of academia?
AT: Yeah, deeply. I’d gone to Brown University for a year right out of high school. I thought it was horrible. The place wasn’t for the smartest kids in the world; it was for the kids who most wanted to get A’s. I was disappointed. I thought I was going to find this intellectual community or something and I just didn’t fit in. Long story short, I got an MA in Liberal Studies from the New School, but my final semester was spent dabbling in documentary.
SIM: You’re not a very passive person or student, either. You’re demanding a lot when you seek and search. You go to the mountain. A lot of students feel like just because they’re physically there, sitting in a chair in a classroom, that that’s somehow enough to call it learning.
AT: They do—they hand off their agency when they walk through the door in a way that I was never taught to do. I was never indoctrinated into that. Just last week when I was guest lecturing that really struck me, the passivity of otherwise intelligent people in the classroom. How do you learn when you’re passive?
SIM: What kinds of backgrounds do your parents have?
AT: My dad’s a professor of medicinal chemistry. I don’t think he got his Bachelor of Science, though, until he was 31. He spent years as an undergraduate, partially dodging the draft but also pursuing a degree in classical music and playing in rock bands. He’s one of those wunderkinds that started college at fourteen but didn’t finish until he was 31. My mom was raised in this extremely counter-cultural environment in the 60s. She didn’t go past seventh grade. She did some community college studying theater and video and stuff like that. They have very unusual backgrounds. For me, especially when I was studying high theory in New York City, I was interested in the material but it felt so disconnected, so rarefied. At the same time, there is still something valuable, intrinsic and wonderful about the subject matter. I just didn’t relate to the institution, the academy. It wasn’t where I wanted to be. During that time, I was also working at Verso Books, an independent publishing house, where I was publicizing these nonfiction books. It was there that I started to see some examples of people who were public intellectuals, independent writers who didn’t have teaching gigs or writers who didn’t really have formal training in the field in which they were working. These people became role models.
SIM: I think that’s actually a very particular talent, to translate one’s thoughts and mental wanderings into something that you can share with other people. We hope our teachers have that ability, but a lot really don’t. Watching your films, I sense a generosity there to really want to share in that way.
AT: I hope so. My whole aspiration in both films was to build this inquisitive, affirmative momentum that carries on after the movie is seen. The whole purpose is to take these intellectual pursuits off the pedestal. I’m not trying to “impress” the audience at all. In fact, I’m kind of trying to do the opposite. People go into these films with such fear, certain expectations about how turgid and stuffy the subject matter’s going to be. I’m trying to take it down a few notches but I also want to be inspiring at the same time, welcoming and inviting people into the process of critical thinking. That’s really what I’m trying to do.
SIM: When you were working on the conception of the film and its structure and the way it would play out on screen, what was the most important thing to you in terms of communicating with your audience?
AT: I’m always thinking about audience. This is not a work of self-expression coming from a place of personal conflict or desire. I love those types of works of art. I wish I could do that but that’s not my personality. Certainly, I’m trying to communicate and inspire people to question things. The audience is always there for me. I’m constantly trying to balance the different audiences I imagine seeing the film. For example, I want it to be accessible to the 16 year old who hasn’t been exposed to this stuff before. But I also need to invite Ph.D.s, with a lot of expertise, into the film, as well. Striking a balance for these different viewers is really first and foremost.
SIM: With Examined Life, in particular, do you feel like you succeeded in doing that?
AT: I had a really great moment just the other day. I showed the film in Columbia, Missouri and this punk rock nine year old little kid watched the whole movie by himself without his mom and dad [laughs]. I thought, “Wow, maybe I did it.” I’ve had lots of teenagers reflect on it and they pick up on exactly the sequences I thought would resonate with them—Peter Singer and Michael Hardt. Revolution and consumerism! I really thought of those two sections as being for younger viewers.
SIM: That’s interesting because we don’t really think about that when we leave that stage of our lives behind. How we’re taught to relate to the world and then, in turn, how we teach our kids to do that, is all about what we imbibe, what we buy, what we wear. That’s a form of victimization that no one really talks about in the public sphere too often.
AT: When you do meet socially aware young people, they’ve been raised in this neo-liberal society, a culture with a lot of libertarian sympathies, so you often hear them say, “fuck the government,” “fuck the Man,” and move towards this, sort of, anarchist perspective. I think the revolution bit speaks to that. I thought of my own sixteen year old sister when I was editing that section, who just joined Food Not Bombs and was discovering those kinds of politics for herself for the first time. It also made me reflect back on myself, too. And consumerism is definitely a central issue for youth. They’re constantly being marketed to and are trying to find or express their identities through what they purchase. Those two sections were the ones I assumed would resonate with young people the most. (Peter Singer, pictured.)
SIM: What de-radicalizes us, do you think?
AT: This is probably the bias of my background, but I think it’s at least partly formal education or what has been called “compulsory” education. Again, people don’t necessarily feel active in the learning process; instead, they’re like receptacles being filled with information, facts and figures. There’s such an emphasis on learning by rote, on memorization, on testing, as opposed to experience-based learning or learning for its own sake. I’m always struck by the irony that I’m making films that are about Ph.D.s, people who are at the pinnacle of the academic system. They’ve mastered the university universe, many of them teaching at Ivy League schools. My intention is to really bring them out into the everyday world, which I think is important since we live in such an anti-intellectual culture.
SIM: Yes, we do. This kind of fare that you’re offering is a tricky proposition. You do have to be a bit clandestine about it, don’t you? You also offer something visually quite rich. The film is beautiful to look at and the aural and visual aspects play off one another in a really satisfying way. You’ve taken advantage of how powerful cinema can be in reflecting and parsing these notions of who we are as human beings and all those funky questions we have all the time, passive folk excepted.
AT: I think that’s why I’ve been so happy to discover this line of work. There was a period where I thought I was going to be a painter. Then I realized that I couldn’t put any messages in my paintings that I found compelling enough; it wasn’t literal enough for me. But months and months and hours and hours of my life I’ve spent painting and dabbling in music, too. When I discovered documentary filmmaking, I was amazed. I got to frame things and think about color and think about sound. One of the greatest lessons from filmmaking, for me, is learning about sound design. I now experience the world in a new way—as a soundscape.
SIM: Sound is where emotion lies—it’s through the ear, not through the eye.
AT: I had this huge epiphany one afternoon when I worked on the first video project in which I was involved. The sound was terrible. I realized that the picture can be bad and that’s okay; but if the sound is bad, your movie’s ruined. I’ve read that with sight we gaze upon the world, but with sound, we’re in the world. Blindness or deafness must disconnect a person in very different ways. So yeah, working in film, you get to be a visual artist, a sound artist, an intellectual provocateur—it’s a great field. I’m surprised everyone else isn’t trying his or her hand at this, too.
SIM: Actually, everyone I know is trying! If you do spend time in Brooklyn, you will find that everyone, and their mom, is pursuing filmmaking. Not too many passive folks you run into, that’s for sure. I think it’s quite wonderful.
AT: I do, too. It delights so many of our senses. Cinema is a really special medium. But you’re right. Most doc makers are not passive; neither are philosophers.
SIM: These philosophers that you chose for this film, all to a person are people one would want to hang out with.
AT: I’m glad you think so. I feel that way, too.
SIM: There’s such vibrancy, such an emphatic way of communicating in the way they all speak to us; it’s extremely dynamic and exciting. Some even almost dramatize their thoughts. How much directing did you have to do to get those kinds of “performances”?
AT: I’m glad you use the word “dramatize.” I had a nice moment with Martha Nussbaum where we were talking about her background as an actress when she was an undergraduate and how drama and philosophy aren’t at odds. We’re trying to dramatize the human condition and I, too, find that really exciting. Performing for a good cause, making ideas engaging—to me, that’s a high calling. I don’t assume that seriousness equals this brittle, bland form of communication. Especially when you’re making a movie, you want to capture and convey emotion, movement, energy, beauty, excitement. I think my subjects really understood this and so the directing part was great fun. I’m often asked what my criteria for casting philosophers were and there was a whole constellation of concerns I was trying to navigate. But, first and foremost, they had to be enthusiastic about the process and be willing to perform. They also all had to be of a certain status as far as their careers were concerned; they all had to be people who focused on ethics and social responsibility, which are the main themes of the film, in a way, the heart of the film. They had to be a mix of genders and races. I did not want to make a philosophy film that consisted only of all old, white men. I’m not here to reaffirm that as the image of the great intellectual. I’m tired of that image.
SIM: We all are; even the old, white guys are tired of it, I think.
AT: There was affirmative action happening in the best possible way in my casting. That was the case with my crew, as well, which was very diverse. My producer is a black woman [Lea Marin], my cameraman is a Vietnamese immigrant [John M. Tran], my sound guy is half-Japanese and half-Indian [Sanjay Mehta] and our camera assistant was a white guy.
So, yeah, what was on someone’s CV was a factor. But, there was also the personal, intuitive thing of asking myself if I connected with their work. With almost every subject, there was some point in my life where they influenced or provoked me. I wagered that they would, in turn, have an influence on the audience. Their work had to be intellectually rigorous, but it also had to be impactful. The intellectual world isn’t disconnected from the emotional world, the embodied world. I’m trying to embody ideas, to show that they emerge from human beings who are in the world, who move through space, who feel sad, hopeful, angry. Again, the most important piece of criteria is what they answered when I asked them if they wanted to do this and if they thought it would be fun. If they weren’t into the performative aspect of it, into going on an adventure, then it wasn’t going to work.
SIM: It was, indeed, a fun journey because of that energy coming off the screen. I think I was surprised at all the moments of humor; so yes, it was a good time. I sensed the audience members at Woodstock were really enjoying themselves. It was like being at a really cool dinner party where one could sit and eavesdrop on all these scintillating conversations with brilliant people. It was a very life-affirming treatment.
AT: I’m happy about that because I really don’t think that’s the assumption when people hear that it’s a film about philosophy. They either think all the philosophers are dead and that I’m doing a historical piece, or they ask me how I’m going to keep the audience awake. They expect a stilted, boring, stagnant, suffocating film. Otherwise vibrant, engaged, curious, smart people respond like this is just the most deadly concept for a movie they’ve ever encountered.
SIM: How do you overcome that and convince people to come see the film?
AT: There is a whole subculture of people that live and breathe this sort of stuff. There’s a captive audience; that’s a start. But obviously, I’d like to reach beyond them, so I’m thinking about marketing and it’s tricky. I’m trying to present these materials and the film itself as something that is the opposite of pretentious, to make it inviting, accessible, playful, entertaining. That was my intention all along. After all, I find this entertaining; it’s how I entertain myself. I don’t think it’s such a huge leap that others might enjoy it. However, there’s such intimidation and such a culture of fear around intellectual matters. We’re so obsessed with credentials and that goes back to the whole academic trip. I get asked that all the time: where did you go to school? Which I hear as, who gave you permission to talk about this? That is not how I was brought up to think. Nobody gave me permission to be a filmmaker. I decided one day to become a filmmaker with total hubris. I’ve watched enough movies in my life to try and make one.
SIM: For the first time, I’m living in a place where calling yourself an artist or a creative is not a snotty or pretentious thing to call yourself. It can actually be a viable way you can construct a life and do important work and be satisfied in that work in a very profound way. And that’s not to say it isn’t an exceedingly uncomfortable existence to lead, with your ass out in the wind all the time, no IRA in sight, or health insurance, for that matter.
AT: Last week, I went to three different film classes as a guest lecturer. To suddenly be on the other side of the podium, if you will, really struck me and got me thinking about that sanctioning from society and the credentialing process and all that. It really bothers me. I’m on the other side and I’ve been sanctioned. I’ve been given permission. I’ve been credentialed. That happened to me when the film got to a film festival. When my first film premiered at Toronto, I was recognized as a “filmmaker.” This is something that Judith Butler and other theorists have written about, the speech act, the declaration. When the authority says to you that “you are x,” you officially become “x.” Or another way we too often judge someone’s legitimacy is whether or not they make money doing their art. I feel this reluctance, this ambivalence, a bit of reticence about that because I think you make films for yourself and if nobody accepts your films into a festival, you’re still a filmmaker, you’re still an art maker. It’s about the act of doing it.
I’m certainly not against mentorship. I’ve been very blessed with always having mentors. I’m very curious about other people, very good at approaching people who are doing things I’m fascinated by. It’s why I’m comfortable working with the philosophers. I’ve always had amazing mentors and I’ve always pursued people for feedback, whom I feel could give me good advice. So I don’t think we need to be totally self-made and autonomous and independent. It’s just that we don’t need to get so hung up about going through the “proper” training and the “proper” credentialing to legitimize ourselves.
SIM: Let’s talk about your active and passive presence in the film.
AT: That’s something I feel very ambivalent about.
SIM: Well, I wanted to talk to you about that because your presence in the film could be described as ambivalent. It was clear to me that you were trying to work out where, physically, you placed yourself in these scenarios. It changed from segment to segment. Sometimes we don’t see you at all or we see a sliver of you, a hand, your back. Sometimes we hear you as part of some dialogue with your subject and sometimes we don’t hear you at all. That was interesting to watch, you grappling with those decisions. It was a physical representation of how we move through the world, how comfortable or uncomfortable we are in insinuating ourselves into any given situation. Sometimes we know that we should hang on the periphery, that that’s somehow important, although we don’t know why, but we know that whatever is going to happen is probably going to be best served by us being “outside” the action. There was a really interesting dynamic in the segments with Cornel West driving around in the car. I know that happened out of necessity for the most part, but his eye line looking directly into the rear view mirror was really interesting to me [West sits in the back seat directly behind the driver’s seat]. He engages you through that sliver of reflective glass and so the camera had to insinuate itself in a particular way in relation to him, but also in relation to you, the “hidden driver.”
AT: This might seen a bit of a banal answer, but basically, the whole issue of my presence in these segments goes back to Zizek!, my first film. I envisioned that as a film in which I was not present at all, partly because of the whole self-reflective filmmaking trip, showing the crew, etc. It’s all been done before and it’s a dicey proposition. And the film wasn’t about me. But we were in production with Slavoj and I kept trying to arrange scenarios where we’d encounter people, where he would have to interact with someone to show what it is he does when he meets someone, to act the way he acts all the time wherever he happens to be. These encounters were not manifesting in the way I’d hoped. There’s one scene where a fan approaches him for an autograph but that was about it. In the editing room, we cut something together in which I wasn’t present and it felt really claustrophobic. So my editor and I made the decision to include me a bit. We did so much filming, so there were some things I was just in because we would be conversing about something and we happened to like that moment and wanted to keep it in the film.
But yes, I was ambivalent and self-conscious. And then, that self-consciousness was affirmed when the New York Times reviewed it. In that review, the critic [AO Scott] basically calls me “a groupie,” and that became the meme that went through every review. You’ve got a 24 year old woman making a film about an older man, and the assumption is that she wants to sleep with that man, which is an insane assumption.
SIM: The whole Svengali thing where you’re under someone’s “spell.”
AT: Yeah. There are lots of young men who make reverential portraits of other human beings and are never accused of the same thing. The Amazon.com review says it’s a reversal of the love story, Harold and Maude. What? I love Harold and Maude as much as the next person, but come on. However, I became really self-conscious after the film came out, even though I wasn’t at all self-conscious when I was making it. When I began to propose my new movie, [Examined Life] I said that these are all going to be straight-up monologues, no presence of the director. That would have been just fine; however, in my conversations with Avital Ronell (pictured with Taylor) leading up to the shoot, she basically told me that she wasn’t doing it unless I was on camera and we have a filmed conversation. I asked her why. She said, well, we’re going to talk about the fact that we’re filming because that’s what we’ll be doing and it just doesn’t make sense to me, it doesn’t fit my philosophy, to deny that you’re present there with me. I said, well, Avital, I’ll tell you what: I feel very vulnerable and insecure doing this because of what happened with the last project. She said, too bad; I thought it was just fine that you were in your last film; don’t listen to all that.
Also, after Judith Butler invited my sister, Sunaura, to be in her section, Sunny told me that she wasn’t going to be in my film unless, at some point, I was in the film, as well. So I was kind of cornered! In each scenario, I had a different position, sometimes due to geography or sometimes because of how I conceived of the specific sequence. In the Peter Singer segment, he’s speaking directly at the camera. I’m not there. It didn’t feel as though I should be there. With Cornel West, I had instructed the cameraman not to film me. Now, I didn’t know what Cornel West would be like once that camera was on, but he was so intensely making eye contact into that rear view mirror just as you pointed out. He was looking into my eyes with such urgency that the cameraman couldn’t help going back and forth between us, as you would do in a conversation. He told me that he just had no choice but to shoot me, that it was too bad that I told him not to [laughs]. Ultimately, I’m happy with it, mostly because I’m driving my 1990 Volvo and it shows how we were working. We didn’t have the money to rent a town car for the evening. That’s why he’s sweating; I don’t have AC.
SIM: There is a real robust physicality in all the segments in various ways. I think of the constant sound of the squeak the oars make as Hardt rows around the lake in Central Park. And in the garbage dump with Zizek, you almost want to plug your nose; there’s a visceral quality to that, too.
AT: Thoughts are visceral. The motivations for thinking are often visceral ones, for example, when our body responds to what’s happening in the world and we’re overcome by grief or empathy or joy. Deep feelings inspire us to think seriously about things. This common perception of philosophy as something that just happens in the brain, as something that’s cold or calculated and emotionless, doesn’t make sense to me.
SIM: Again, that speaks really well to your point of wanting to be as far away from the ivory tower way of approaching these great thinkers.
AT: I do love the ivory tower approach in terms of seriousness, diligence, research, care and discipline. I love all that. I just don’t think those traits are exclusive to the ivory tower. Now I see my presence in the film as still somewhat anonymous when I watch it and hopefully kind of low key. Not “Astra’s having this great conversation and she’s so smart talking to these philosophers!” Instead, I am the inquisitive presence, interjecting here and there, raising a few down to earth questions. I really tried not to be overbearing but sometimes there’s a tangent and it doesn’t make sense unless some sort of set-up or line of inquiry is established. The only person to ask the question was me. Thus, I’m in the film!
SIM: I think you struck a good balance—as a viewer, I want to see and hear you sometimes; you’re our conduit into these worlds, our scout leader, if you will. We want to know who’s driving the car; we want to see who West is speaking to.
AT: We watched the first ten minutes in one of the classes in which I spoke last night and then when I came on screen, I had that uncomfortable feeling again, wanting to defend myself and say that I’m not that narcissistic; I’m not in the whole film! But, then again, even if I’m not in it every minute, the whole film is me in that it’s a rather subjective film in terms of who I cast and in the way in which I approach them. It’s a very gentle movie because I’m a gentle person. I had certain ground rules. I didn’t want to create any atmosphere of infighting or having them attack one another or directly debating one another. There’s a lot of implicit debate happening and different perspectives, but it’s pretty subtle or understated. Philosophy is known for its argumentation and smack-downs, believe me. It can be a brutal field. But that stuff’s not in Examined Life (pictured, Taylor with Zizek).
SIM: What inspires you cinematically?
AT: The very first film I ever saw that resonated with me in the sense of me possibly doing something was Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I. It occurred to me that I didn’t know the term “essay film.” I had never come across anything like that in school or in life. I walked out of the theater and thought, wow, you can write with a movie. I always assumed I was going to be a writer, that that was my path. Writing with a movie was such a cool idea; it’s like a book but with moving images. So she’s been a huge influence even though I was really disappointed by her latest movie (Les Plages d’Agnès). I thought it was vain. She was constantly reminding us about how great she is, which is something we already know. We’re at her movie. But it doesn’t matter. She made The Gleaners and I, and I love Vagabond and Cleo From 5 to 7—I really love her movies.
Another filmmaker who’s actually had a big impact was Ross McElwee, the king of the personal documentary. In Time Indefinite, he merges the personal and the philosophical so well and with such wonderful humor. I have to say Examined Life would not exist without Bright Leaves. There’s a scene where this rabid film theorist pushes him [McElwee] around in a wheelchair and screams at him that interviews should not be conducted while sitting down; you have to get out and move, cinema must move! That caused a light bulb to go off in my mind. I also love Manufacturing Consent, the Noam Chomsky film, because that was something that showed me that these intellectual subjects could be really fun and animated without being pedantic.
But, I’m not really an avid movie watcher. I’m more of a reader. I covet my ignorance as far as filmmaking is concerned. I think sometimes you can study too much; you can study too hard and be overwhelmed by influences and other people’s techniques. There’s something about approaching a project with nothing but my own inventiveness that’s really key for me. But sometimes I feel a little ignorant at these film festivals. Everyone’s talking about things I’m not really clued in about. I feel dumb.
SIM: I would wager to guess a lot of filmmakers experience that at festivals. I’ve heard similar sentiments from a lot of first-timers. It’s a bit of stage fright, maybe, and you’re getting a lot of attention (one hopes) in a very concentrated way—it can be overwhelming.
AT: We all have imposter syndrome.
SIM: What other films do you see yourself making?
AT: I was just talking about this with Sunny yesterday. She’s at a similar point in her painting. I’m not sure what the content of my next film is but I can imagine its form. I always approach things like this. Before making films, I had this feeling of the kind of path I should be on—this kind of intellectual path but without a university. I had this feeling that I wanted to create a specific sort of space for myself in which I could live a creative life of the mind, and I’ve kind of succeeded at that. Right now, I have this vague sense that I want to make a film that’s about ideas but with lots of emotion, without a conventional storyline. I can sort of taste the direction I want to go in, but I really don’t know exactly what it is. I’m also at a point where I’m being approached to do director-for-hire type projects that could be quite big by my current standards. I want to be able to feel confident enough to say no to that. Even if my next film is very small, it should be the one I want to make. These are not easy decisions.
SIM: Those kinds of pressures can be confusing. You feel like you might want to grasp those opportunities now since they’re being offered. Maybe that won’t come around again, who knows?
AT: It’s total insecurity. You have to be realistic. I’m a very pragmatic person. I want to make movies and have a budget and a crew and all of that. But I don’t want to make movies so badly that I would ever make anything I’m not totally connected to. My desire isn’t to be a filmmaker, per se. It’s a medium to explore a sensibility. If it’s not the best medium, then I’ll do something else.
Going back to influences and the notion of whom I really want to be when I grow up: the person I really admire, as far as the form and content and productivity of his work, is John Berger. I’d like to be a John Berger in the sense of his literary pursuits, his beautiful nonfiction books that are basically documentaries on the page. I just watched Parting Shots from Animals [a film from 1980 based on Berger’s essays]. What a multifarious, unique and earnest body of work he’s produced. I’m so envious of it. He does it with such sincerity. He can use this direct address to the camera and you just go with him. I watched about five of his films the other day and I was having the nicest conversation with him in my mind. I just loved it. If I can give people something remotely analogous to that, I would be so happy.
SIM: He fully engages you. I love that phenomenon when you are convinced that the person you’re listening to and watching is speaking directly to you; it’s so personal. You know that if you sat in a room together, there’d be a connection. Those that are going to appreciate the kind of work you do are going to take it in in a very personal way.
AT: Right. I mean if you’re not willing to go with John on this trip he’s offering to you, you’ll just ignore it. I’m sure there are people for whom his work is just completely irrelevant and odd and some would exclaim, “That’s not a movie! Nothing happens!” But if you’re there and you’re submitting yourself to it, it’s really delightful. He expects a certain level of seriousness and commitment and engagement from his viewer and I really like that. You should expect the best from your audience.
SIM: Again, we’re talking about the importance of a non-passive audience; you need an actively engaged viewer for your film to be successful. I personally like when I have to work a bit and ponder things while they’re happening. It can be kind of exhausting but you’re so much the richer for the experience so you can’t complain too much. Those of us who create things rely upon that willingness to participate in our vision. We’re not making car commercials here.
AT: You want to start a conversation. That’s why it’s amazing to have people come up and share a flash of insight or how they might disagree with something someone said in my film. Moving beyond working with philosophers, for me, the question might be will I assume a more active role in terms of presenting the theories that fascinate me instead of having these proxies presenting them? When my parents watched my film they thought it was amazing. They saw that I had gathered all of these philosophers together talking about all the things that have mattered to me since I was five years old! Still, John Berger is certainly the person with the career I’m most intrigued by. Again, I’m surprised that there aren’t a million people trying to do what he’s done. How can there just be one?
SIM: Maybe most of us don’t think it’s possible to do what he does, otherwise there might be more.
AT: Or we assume that there’s no audience when there actually is. Berger’s making these videos which he calls “television programmes,” that commissioning editors and producers and, even people on the street, would probably tell you are a terrible idea. Typically, people in this line of work are obsessed with story and character development and all these things that are great, but we’ve shown that human beings can do them a million times over. Why not try something different?
SIM: When you and Ron pitched this at Hot Docs, how did it go over?
AT: Oh my god, it was a disaster. I meant to tell people this story last night. I was trying to tell the class stories of my embarrassments and failures just to kind of keep it real a bit. Not that I’ve been so successful really. It’s just that I think it’s good to encourage people to be tenacious.
SIM: Did you originally pitch Ron?
AT: I had this proposal that I just hid in my desk assuming nobody was going to go for this. It was just an ensemble piece with philosophers; I hadn’t devised the walking concept yet. I met Ron for coffee and he said that he’d been wanting to do an anthology film about philosophers for a long time. And I said, oh really? Me, too. And I emailed him my paragraph and he said that we were on the same wavelength; let’s go!
So we took off together and TVO (TVOntario) came on board, which was awesome. Then we signed up for the Hot Docs pitching forum. I was the only person out of about 30 people who had not even begun production. So I had no footage to show which put me at a distinct disadvantage. It just bombed, went over like a lead weight. I was told by one person that people in the Netherlands weren’t into “this sort of thing.” One guy literally attacked me for my attraction to these “ponderous academics!!!” He wanted to know how I could even think about doing this. What could possibly attract me to philosophy, was what he wanted to know. And he said all this in the most antagonistic way in front of 500 people. It was a really negative experience. For the remaining three days of the festival, all kinds of people (all 500, seemingly) were coming up and patting me on the back, telling me, “Oh, so sorry, philosophy girl. That was brutal.”
In the end, I was lucky because I didn’t really need any other pre-sales because TVO, a public broadcaster in Canada, a channel that really takes risks and trusts its viewers, had signed on. It would have been a real disaster if I had desperately needed the support of the commissioning editors that were seated around the table.
SIM: Well, there’s more to life than the fabulous pitch. There’s no guarantee a commissioned piece is going to be any good either; it’s just that you have a ton of people standing by to pummel it into some sort of watchable piece, if need be.
AT: I felt participating in the pitching forum was a useful experience. But will all this make it easier for me to do a similar project in the future? I don’t know. We don’t know where the economy is going. We don’t know where documentary is going. The filmmakers seemed to like my pitch, though. To them, I was pitching this unmarketable, uncompromising film that didn’t fit into the conventional television box. But the commissioning editors, obviously, have a strong idea of what their audience wants to see. And I just picture John Berger. His ideas would also bomb in that context. Yet, I think they’re brilliant. He’s found an enormous audience. So I’m not sure anyone really knows what audiences do, or do not, want to see, after all.
SIM: Well, regardless, it’s a beautiful gift to be able to give yourself the opportunity to realize something that’s imbued with so much meaning for you. Even if you never make a film again, you made a very distinctive piece that only Astra Taylor could have made—two, actually. To me, that’s what’s so amazing about nonfiction filmmaking. You don’t really ever have to have much else but that seed, that idea, of the story you want to tell. And life brings it to you in very organic and serendipitous ways and it gets made. To a person, every filmmaker that’s completed a film speaks to that phenomenon and their awareness that that was what was occurring. That does not exist in any other kind of cinema, not in that way.
AT: I would agree. I was thinking about serendipity in the midst of trying to give more concrete advice to these filmmakers in the classes I visited. Being open and making connections is everything. That’s what it’s like when you’re shooting your documentary; you’re actively looking for those magical moments. You’re directing and you’ve got your vision and you know what you want. But at the same time, you’re waiting for something to happen because it would make it even better. So much of it is that innate gut feeling and tapping into that. It’s not something you can mastermind and control. I’ve never made a fiction film, but I would imagine once you’ve gone through your creative process writing your script, then you’re actualizing it. It’s about control. Documentary film is not like that, as far as I can tell.
SIM: Or the control comes much later in the process.
AT: Those can be horrible moments when you think you might have gone down the wrong path and you’ve wasted precious time. Or you’re shooting and you know you’re never going to use it but you just keep going in the hopes that it’ll get better. I quite like that. The lack of control can be terrifying and anxiety provoking, but that’s what’s so much fun about it. Who wants to know what the day’s going to look like? It does cause me a lot of stress, though. I’m a worrier. But if I didn’t take things so seriously, I don’t think I’d do anything. Part of that anxiety is because you know you want to do a good job. You want something ineffable to go right. So much of it, too, is luck, getting to do this professionally, finding the resources and support, meeting people who will help you. That stuff is a little murkier.
Making something that’s so singular and personal and not being so overly concerned about how much money you raise or how well it does, I think it’s very important to keep that in mind. I do see people with their careers going, and getting more and more frustrated at how difficult it is to find support or reach an audience. That’s something that I’m thinking about as the future looms. If you’re making work that is unusual and quirky then you kind of have to be prepared to have a very small audience. It’s about managing expectations. I often think about who my heroes were when I was younger and how few books they sold, how few albums they sold, how they truly fared in real life. It’s so much better to resist the common expectation that every film you make has to be bigger and better and gain a wider audience. When you make this kind of work, it’s just as hard every time. But, of course, it’s totally worth it.