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What if you could watch Socrates, on film, rehearsing his Socratic dialogues? What if there was footage of Descartes, Thoreau, or Shakespeare as themselves at work and in their daily life? Might we now look at these figures differently, with perhaps a deeper understanding of their work and lives?
Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman asked themselves these questions, and decided to team up and document one of the most visionary and influential thinkers of the 20th century, a man who single-handedly altered the way many of us look at history, language, art, and, ultimately, ourselves: the brilliant and iconoclastic French philosopher Jacques Derrida.
For over five years, Dick ("Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist") and Ziering Kofman (Producer, "Taylor's Campaign") played Plato to our own modern day Socrates. The filmmaking team shadowed the renowned philosopher, best known for "deconstruction," and captured intimate footage of the man as he lives and works in his daily life. They filmed Derrida on his first trip to South Africa, where -- after visiting President Mandela's former prison cell -- he delivers a lecture on forgiveness to students at the University of the Western Cape. The filmmakers travel with him from his home in Paris to New York City, where he discusses the role of biographers, and the challenges that are faced when one attempts to bridge the abyssal gulf between a historic figure's work and life. They capture Derrida in private moments, musing reluctantly, about fidelity and marriage, narcissism and celebrity, and the importance of thinking philosophically about love.
Yet DERRIDA is in no way a talking heads movie or conventional biographical portrait. Its bold, visual style, mesmerizing score by Oscar-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and novel editorial approach create a rich, lively cinematic experience, at once provokes, amuses and entertains. In resisting any predictable, formulaic approach, they make Derrida a living, informal demonstration of "deconstruction" -- a system of thought which up to now has otherwise eluded cinematic capture. The result is not only thought provoking, but ground-breaking.
The New York Times
A Pleasure to Watch...blissful! Derrida shows himself to be self-deprecating, quick-witted and self-aware.
- Elvis Mitchell
The Los Angeles Times
New York Magazine
Wall St Journal
The Hollywood Reporter
Amy Ziering Kofman first discovered the writing of Jacques Derrida by chance, in a bookstore, at age sixteen: "His work spoke to me with such immediacy -- I'd never read anything quite like it. It made literature and thinking come alive in a radically new way." she recalls. She entered Yale University shortly thereafter, primarily to study with Derrida (he had, at that time, an annual teaching engagement in the States). "Ten years later, in '94, I approached him after hearing him give a lecture in Los Angeles, and asked him whether anyone had ever made a documentary about him." Derrida was reluctant at first: others before her had tried, without success, and besides, his areas of expertise don't easily lend themselves to cinematic representation. After a flurry of phone calls and faxes, Ziering Kofman finally received an enigmatic correspondence in the mail -- a hand written postcard signed by Jacques Derrida that was completely indecipherable -- his handwriting is notoriously difficult to read. "I just figured I'd better assume he was saying 'yes'," she now laughs.
Over the next several years, Ziering Kofman shot Derrida "in indie film fashion -- i.e., whenever we had money" - in both Paris and the U.S. Then practical difficulties led her to consider seeking a co-director. "I'm an academic, so my hands-on knowledge of actual film production was, at the time, limited." In 1997, she attended a rough-cut screening of Kirby Dick's SICK: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF BOB FLANAGAN, SUPER MASOCHIST. "I was thrilled by Kirby's refusal to impose value judgments on the sexual preferences portrayed in that film. He wasn't stereotyping; he was open to respecting his subjects without hierarchizing their roles in the classic, static dominant/submissive positions. He was, for me, demonstrating in a way, a Derridean precept, one in which in any system of opposites it is difficult to entirely privilege one position over another." Dick was equally enthused by the footage Kofman had shot. "Looking at Amy's material, I was very struck by the unique and peculiar intimacy of what she'd been able to capture, as well as by Derrida's magnetic screen presence. I said to her: 'Well, you've got your star."
This charisma is something Derrida -- whose work is lionized in Europe has long preferred to shield from public view. "He once told us a funny story that we didn't have room for in the film," recalls Amy. "Up until sometime in the late 70's, I think, he not only had always refused to be filmed, but had, also, categorically refused to ever have his photograph taken. Even though by that time his work had become well established in Europe, most people still had no idea what he looked like. He had, and still has, a firm belief that the cult of personality is, to large degree, ridiculous. But then he started doing more political work, appearing at benefits for public causes. At one time the press was there, and they ended up running a picture of him in Le Monde - but they ran a photo of, I think, Michel Foucault, and erroneously identified it as 'Jacques Derrida.' Well, Jacques has this incredible power hair, and from that point on, realizing he couldn't control the inevitable, he rescinded his own strict media interdiction: 'Well, if they're going to print my picture anyways, it might as well be the right one!'"
This uneasiness with the media continues to this day. "This was the first documentary he consented to that actually got made. Given the seriousness of his work, and his own vigilance and pedagogical imperatives about respecting language, respecting words and the currency they carry, he reasonably fears the impossibility that his explorations could be translated into another medium with the same rigor and care. You can't just take an artist's paintings and transpose them into words. You can't just walk up to Einstein after he's talked about Relativity, and say to him: Hey. Could you explain that again, without all those formulas, so it makes sense? But people come to Jacques with just that misguided expectation. Just because his medium is language, it doesn't mean you can just 'get it' without doing considerable amounts of study, reading and preparation."
For Dick, one of the main attractions was exactly this - the project's seeming impossibility. "I've read a great deal of French theory, which exerted a powerful influence over my other work, especially SICK (1997). Like SICK, Derrida is not simply a straightforward presentation of a man and his work, but it is also an examination of the perpetual interplay between the two. With Derrida, however, the filmmaking challenge was much greater because his work isn't visual. But it was that challenge which drew me to the project œ a challenge I knew would compel me to come back at the material again and again, and eventually lead to my developing a form that could somehow interpret Derrida's thought in cinematic terms."
When production resumed, Dick and Ziering Kofman decided that Ziering Kofman should remain the primary interviewer, and together they composed the questions she would ask. Over the next two years, they shot Derrida on two different visits to the University of California at Irvine and also arranged to have overseas production crews cover Derrida's trip to Australia as well as his first trip to South Africa, where he gave a series of lectures on the subject of forgiveness. In early 2000, the production returned to Paris, to again cover Derrida's life there and to ask him to reflect on his theoretical and personal observations about the experience of being a subject of a film.
Dick began editing the film the following year, focusing on one of the central themes of the film that Derrida himself had raised: How does one reconcile a thinker's thought with their life? To entirely dismiss the relationship, as Heidegger does, is problematic -- as Derrida himself repeatedly points out. "The challenge, in editing these materials, was to let Derrida's life and thought resonate and interact without either being used to simply 'explain' the other." Including Derrida's playful shows of resistance, dodging questions, or repeatedly reminding the viewer of the artificiality of this or that circumstance in the interview, were essential in Dick's view: "These personal and playful asides are an important part of his thinking, and are found throughout his writing. Emphasizing these moments goes a long way toward countering the prejudice that Derrida is being difficult just to be difficult."
Dick chose to structure the film around excerpts from his work. "I wanted to convey the voice and rhythm of his writing, which is always different from than the way a writer speaks. This is especially true with Derrida, since in many ways the style of his writing is as radical and bracing as the content. Without getting a sense of that voice, one cannot really understand the ambition of his writing." Since one of the most prominent themes of the film, and of Derrida's writing, is that a philosopher's personal life is inevitably implicated in his or her own writing, Dick selected excerpts where Derrida reflects on that theme by writing about his position as writer or speaker, for example in the excerpt where he examines his own blindness to himself when he is improvising, or when he analyzes his position as subject at the very moment he is speaking with his dying mother.
Ziering Kofman agrees. "My strong suit was that I'd already studied with Derrida, already taught Derrida to students. I wasn't intimidated by the material, and had it in mind to make the film work on several levels. My hope was that the difficulty of his thought is not a put-off, but a central part of its appeal. The film is never didactic -- it tries to get you to do part of the work, which is what deconstruction is all about. If you come away from the film not "knowing" exactly what deconstruction is -- you've nevertheless been doing the work of deconstruction, simply by wrestling with the issues the film raises."
Adds Ziering Kofman: "Another attraction is the simple pleasure of having a historic cinematic record of such a person. Wouldn't it be interesting to be able to watch footage today of Plato, or Nietzsche during their lifetime? A hundred years from now, it will be just as remarkable and important to have a cinematic record of Derrida."
Kirby Dick -
Dick's other films include the innovative CHAIN CAMERA, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and received rave reviews during its theatrical release. His first feature film, PRIVATE PRACTICES: THE STORY OF A SEX SURROGATE, won Best Documentary at the USA Film Festival. Dick most recently completed THE END, a moving and profound chronicle of five terminally ill patients and their families in a Los Angeles hospice program. He is currently in production on a new film for HBOÍs prestigious "America Undercover" series.
Amy Ziering Kofman -
Matt Clarke -
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