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The Conflict Between Past and Present: A Retrospective of the Films of Su Friedrich

Williamsburg film and video artist Su Friedrich will be the subject of a mid-May retrospective at Anthology Film Archives. A 2000 recipient of the Peter S. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award, Friedrich has screened at international film festivals around the world, including Berlin, Rotterdam, and Sundance, and she is a recipient of numerous grants and fellowships from the NEA, the Jerome Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts. Her work is also included in the permanent collections at MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and countless universities and libraries around the world.

Part fictional narrative, part documentary and personal essay, Friedrich’s work treats with remarkable poignancy the drama of confronting the demons of one’s past and reconciling them with the present. And while the films and videos are often undeniably “lesbian,” (which is to say, concerned with issues of lesbian identity), traditional gender politics take a back seat to the broader (and ultimately far more interesting) issues of love, family, and redemption.

Martina Torr-Meijer and Cathy Quinlan on the beach in
Martina Torr-Meijer and Cathy Quinlan on the beach in "Sink or Swim"

Sink or Swim (1990, 48 minutes) assumes the form of a kind of heartbreaking love letter from the filmmaker to her father, a professor of anthropology who abandoned the filmmaker’s mother and her two daughters when Friedrich was 10 years old. The film is broken into categories or chapters with names like “Virginity,” “Temptation,” “Quicksand,” “Pedagogy,” and “Oblivion,” and laced with an ongoing narrative told by a young girl (presumably based on Friedrich’s own memories) detailing events from her childhood focusing on the difficult relationship with her father.

We learn, for example, that Friedrich’s father has always blamed himself for the drowning death of his younger sister when he was just a boy. Then, at the birth of his first daughter, he writes a poem expressing the hopes and fears of a father for his newborn child, and suggests that perhaps this new life can somehow redeem the loss of his sister. Later, he nearly drowns his daughters by dunking their heads in the bathtub as a punishment for some forgotten misbehavior. Assuming the role of investigative reporter (or psychoanalyst), Friedrich pieces together the fragments of childhood memories and reassembles them in a powerful document of loss, renewal, and ultimately, if not forgiveness, then a reluctant understanding of a flawed and very complicated man.

Given the highly personal nature of Friedrich’s films, (perhaps “film essays” would be more accurate), a number of characters and storylines carry over from one film to the next. For example, in The Ties that Bind (1984, 55 minutes) Friedrich explores the life of her German-born mother, of whom we only catch a glimpse in Sink or Swim. A physically striking woman, virulent anti-Nazi and single mother all rolled into one—it is difficult to reconcile this image with the mother of Sink or Swim, where she comes off as a decidedly less powerful figure.

Formally, Friedrich imbues The Ties that Bind with a journalesque quality, the travelogue of a visit with her mother or a holiday in Germany. Like many of Friedrich’s film, there’s an undeniable messiness about Ties. A barrage of family photos, old newsreel footage, and hand-written questions and comments which unravel over the often jittery, home-movie-quality images, and to which the elder Friedrich directly responds—it’s like opening up the junk drawer in someone else’s kitchen. In one particularly powerful sequence, Friedrich’s mother recalls with remarkable clarity the relentless Allied bombing of Stuttgart during WWII, which Friedrich juxtaposes with archival footage of the city in flames. This sequence is immediately followed by footage from a 1983 anti-nuclear war rally, where a group of yahoos stand by a sign which we can’t actually read, but which (through the unraveling hand-scrawled text) Friedrich informs us reads: “Bomb them all until they glow. Then shoot them in the dark.” A sobering reminder that the past is often nearer the present than we might think.

Lou (Chels Holland) and Denise (Apryl Wynter) look at playboy magazines in
Lou (Chels Holland) and Denise (Apryl Wynter) look at playboy magazines in "Hide and Seek"

Hide and Seek (1996), Friedrich’s most recent and perhaps most accessible film, offers a moving portrayal of a young tomboy’s sexual awakening in the late 1960s. Beautifully photographed in black and white by cinematographer Jim Denault (Boys Don’t Cry, The Book of Life), the film maneuvers effortlessly back and forth between documentary and narrative formats, using what are often hilarious, “true life” lesbian testimonials as anecdotal cues for the film’s fictional component. Whereas much of Friedrich’s earlier work might be formally characterized by its studied messiness, Hide and Seek is decidedly more stylized, reminiscent of the 8mm sex education films shot in the ‘50s. (Friedrich actually makes an appearance in the narrative section as a sex education teacher.)

And finally, for you horny heteros out there, I’d suggest checking out Damned if You Don’t (1987, 42 minutes) for its steamy sex scene between a very hot neophyte lesbian and a nun!

Su Friedrich’s films screen at the Anthology Film Archives from May 11 – 13.


Joe Maggio

JOE MAGGIO was nominated for a 2001 Independent Spirit Award for his film Virgil Bliss.


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