What does it mean to be a filmmaker in the 21st century? The democratization of image-making and the cultural impact of the internet are shaping cinema in ways that increasingly lay bare the medium’s essential fluidity. Zia Anger, an artist working in moving images, has embraced this evolution. Her performance, My First Film, repurposes our new media landscape into a vulnerably personal narrative of inquisition into her own creative process. Describing it as an “expanded cinema performance,” Anger traces the last ten years of lost and abandoned work on her first feature film onto her laptop’s screen. Beginning by sharing past Instagram stories and text messages with the audience, Anger proceeds to scrub through footage from her film Always All Ways, Anne Marie while typing out a parallel commentary. Leading us through the slippery territory of autofiction, Anger asks viewers to reconsider notions of personal identity, communal relationships, and adversities facing emerging filmmakers. My First Film builds on Anger’s unconventional body of work, including her past short films which have premiered at the New York Film Festival (My Last Film, 2015) and the Locarno Film Festival (I Remember Nothing, 2015). Additionally, she has directed music videos and collaborated widely with artists including Angel Olsen, Mitski, Beach House, Zola Jesus, and Jenny Hval.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Zia via video chat at her office and home in Hudson, NY following one of her livestream performances in April. We discussed the origins of My First Film in 2018, her touring performances of it throughout 2019, and how the performance evolved after the global pandemic prompted its current livestream iteration in 2020. She shared her thoughts about finding strength within one’s self through community, understanding image making as a human right, and expanding the inclusivity of moving images in her art and practice.
Zia Anger: I’ve been thinking that this performance, when I’m doing it for people in quarantine, I feel like I’m catching them while they’re mid-flight watching a movie. [Laughs] Like, they’re totally hungover, they haven’t had any sleep, they’re the most anxious they’ve ever been, and that’s why they're responding to it in the way that they have been. [Laughs]
Mike Tully (Rail): Like the rawest possible conditions. I think that has some truth to it. You begin the film sharing old Instagram stories with viewers via iMessage, and then you encourage people to start texting each other videos. You describe it as reappropriating an Instagram-esque digital architecture, something that requires a lot of effort. What do you think is the importance of asking viewers to reclaim these commonplace digital spaces?
Anger: Digital spaces make it so easy for us to share things with each other. Digital spaces also basically own anything that you upload to them. I don’t know what the ancient word for that type of agreement is, but it’s a bad agreement. [Laughs] We basically give away all of our ideas and privacy in exchange for the ease of it. So I think that the entire performance, especially when it was in a theater, was about changing your relationship to the theatrical experience that leads you to be more present and open and ready in your own life. Also to really question all of the middlemen and structures that we have allowed into our lives, out of ease or out of necessity.
Rail: You’ve done a lot of work with Jenny Hval. I’m curious how your past experiences with her, as a creative collaborator and stage director, might have influenced or shaped the way you thought about doing these performances of My First Film.
Anger: When I worked with Jenny for the live stuff I was the stage director and I performed on stage. I did a certain type of homespun theater with her and my cousin, the artist Annie Bielski, and sometimes with other people too. When I was a young person, I really loved theater. Working with Jenny brought me back into the kind of the space of these ideas about theater and what it could be. I think that I really got to understand the process of developing something in front of an audience by working with Jenny and I did it for this performance. Now it’s a little bit more difficult, it’s online, it’s very hard to read the room. I have to rely a little bit more on googling myself after the show and seeing what people are talking about. Which they say never to do, but whoever they are, fuck them. [Laughs]
Rail: What do you think of as the benefits, threads, or creative challenges between a performance like this that’s livestreamed and something like a more traditional film that's edited and has a set runtime?
Anger: I’ve always thought the best films are ones that you can revisit many times and each time you revisit them they mean something really different. It doesn't mean that every time you rewatch it it has to be amazing, but eventually it becomes relevant again. So I think that the performance is kind of that but on a very condensed timeline. Over the course of two years, it has bumped up against the world in many different ways. I think eventually, and by “eventually” I mean “pretty soon,” the performance will come to an absolute end. But I think that I could do it again in 10 or 15 years. I think that it would be really interesting and there would be so many other meanings that I don’t even know that it has yet.
Rail: What do you think about “saving” one take of this performance for posterity or for archival purposes? Is that something you’re interested in?
Anger: We always wanted to do that with the theatrical performances and the best that I did was record a… what are those stupid little cameras called? A GoPro version of it. [Laughs] So the live shows, besides the little GoPro thing, there’s no archive of. That scared me a little bit. I would always save the written documents so you could compare those things. With no record, all of that stuff would be lost. But the livestream versions, we found a way to save the performance. So for the first time, we are building an archive, which I really don’t know if it will be interesting. But, like I said, it’s so interesting because it’s live and because you’re on an airplane watching a movie with a whole bunch of other people. Maybe someday when I watch those archival recordings I’ll better understand.
Rail: There’s an almost Jenny Holzer-like quality when you’re using TextEdit as a tool for creating a running commentary throughout the narrative in your performances rather than speaking it. You’ve written about the importance of literacy of moving images in comparison to that of writing. What do you think about making an artwork that’s both watched and read?
Anger: It started out of practicality. I can’t really speak without choking up and crying and being anxious. I always really wanted to be an actor and I realized pretty early on that my stage fright, which affected mainly my voice, was going to hold me back. I think the piece works in a way because I’m writing but I’m not a trained writer. [Laughs] Even if I wanted to be academic about what I’m trying to say or be didactic, which in the past I admit I’ve tried to do, I couldn’t be because I’m not that good of a writer. I think as I was doing this I realized that I had to keep things really simple because that was the only way that I would be comfortable with writing and showing what I’m thinking. In a way, the writing really led me to a pure and simple way of telling a story that in the past I think I’ve struggled with, wanting to shove all these ideas into something whether it be making a character say something or whether it be in the mise en scèene or whatever all the elements are. I think that making a very simple piece of writing is very exciting for me because in general that's the only kind of writing that I’m able to read and respond to.
Rail: Repurposing your film, Always All Ways, Anne Marie, could be described as a process of creative reuse. You’ve written about your interest in efficiency before. Can you speak to what efficiency means to you in a filmmaking context?
Anger: I think that I carried around so much guilt and sadness for the past eight, ten years since I had started making that film. Because it was not seen by an audience it felt like I had wasted not only my own energy and creative output but that of all of the people who helped me make that film. I could feel people not wanting to do something else with me. Because people really want to make something that is seen. I was struggling from a very communal place, where I felt like I had let my community down and then I was suffering from a very kind of deluded capitalist place where I felt like I had wasted my one chance at being seen as the thing I wanted to be seen as. Let it be noted that I’m so happy that that first film was never seen, because that type of filmmaker is not the person who I wanted to be seen as.
So there’s something for me that’s very gratifying about being able to take this thing and feel like this was finally met by the energy of an audience. In fact, what has been the most amazing experience is that even though the original film did not work in the way that I wanted it to in terms of affecting an audience, for whatever reason it now works in that way. It's about coming together as a community and creating something. The original film is about someone giving birth to themselves. It’s about finding strength in power within yourself through all of the people who are around you. I think that the audience’s reactions have led me to believe that a lot of people have walked away feeling very inspired to revisit themselves and to revisit all the things that have made them who they are, the people around them, revisit all of those relationships, and think about all the potential that they have inside of them. All the potential that their community holds and what can come from that.
Rail: You’ve written a lot about how economic hardships and inaccessibility challenge young filmmakers and female filmmakers to actualize work on their own terms. What role do you think that these hardships or community, or the political roles of performance and filmmaking, can play in a cultural moment like the one we’re in?
Anger: I remember when I was about 18, I started reading celebrity gossip websites and I started to have a really profound sense of what a celebrity was. Celebrity is very tied to film culture. There’s no art that is more tied to celebrity than films. So much so that a lot of times I really don’t think film is art. I think it can be art and I think that art can be very capitalistic and celebrity-obsessed, but I think where a lot of other art forms have been developed without celebrity impact, film has not. Film has only existed in tandem with celebrity. It’s tied to money and it’s a very expensive thing to endeavor in. Now we’re living in a day and age when it doesn't matter if you’re really rich or really poor, you are seeing moving images. So the ability to actually make those moving images for everybody is important. Whether you're in the upper echelons of society, whether you’re a celebrity or whether you’re not. A lot of other art forms are accessible everywhere. Every small town has a writing group. Every small town has a theater group. But the moving images that we all see are not the ones that we can make at home, so the democratization of that is extremely important because we’re all really addicted to moving images. We should be able to be in control of them. I mean, no one’s out there looking at paintings like they’re looking at TikTok [Laughs]. Everybody should at least have access to understanding how these things are made and constructed and what they’re seeing and what they mean. I think that that’s like a basic human right, the same as I feel education and healthcare are.
Rail: You’ve written about the importance of literacy in moving images as a way of navigating daily life in the 21st century. I think that’s a really interesting thought because the notion of literacy implies shared language(s) and shared understanding. How do you think this literacy can be shared, taught, or expanded upon?
Anger: I think that young people are way better at sharing knowledge than older people. Maybe it’s because they all are making how-to YouTube videos or something, but they are just way more generous with what they know. That’s so admirable. I don’t know if I really was generous when I was young. I would say I was the opposite. I was tricked by what everybody else is tricked by, which is believing the notion that information should be proprietary and that you shouldn’t share it willingly. That if you do share it, then someone else will use that to their own benefit. I still feel that way all the time and I have to remind myself that the idea that something is proprietary, especially knowledge, is terrifying and a trick just to keep people from being equal to one another. The people that do take other people’s ideas and capitalize off of them are maybe the people who are causing the most damage in the world. They instill a lot of fear in the progress of equality and knowledge being shared. Those people are the people that probably need to do the most work. When they exist, it scares everybody else.
Rail: Your body of work focuses largely on feminine experiences in an overtly physical and bodily sense. For instance, the process of pregnancy and abortion in My First Film. Can you speak to working with the body as a primary instrument in making artwork or films? Is there an inherent accessibility or autonomy to the body as a creative instrument?
Anger: I was thinking recently about who has taught me about storytelling. I was thinking a lot about my moms—I have two of them—and how in my life they were the first two people who I saw as storytellers. Now these are my literal mothers, one of them gave birth to me, but when I let the idea extend outwards I started to think about all the other mothers who are not literal, some who have never or will never give birth, but have also taught me about storytelling. To me a mother is simply someone who creates with their body... All you need is a body to tell a story. All of the tools that people tell you that you need to make something whether it be a camera or a computer, a phone, even a pen and a piece of paper, you don’t need any of those things to be an amazing storyteller and to tell a story. That’s a really exciting thing to remind yourself of when you’re an artist, especially if you're struggling to make something, is taking away all the tools that you think that you need. Relying solely on your body, your mind, your spirit, all the things that you hold within you. Everybody can be a mother.