Written by Edit Jakab
When did you decide to make about coming to this world and departing from it?
When my family members were ill, I was really just filming them because I wanted to hold onto them for my own memories. I was a visual artist who worked with video and sculpture and multichannel video, but I was not a narrative or documentary filmmaker. So I wasn’t thinking like a filmmaker; I was really just thinking as a daughter, sister, mother. So I was filming my family all the time. The only time I was thinking artistically was when I was filming the black background with the bodies in my hands. Those pieces were what I thought was art-making at the time. And my family was very generous to let me film them in my studio with their naked bodies, so you can imagine there was a lot of trust. But when I looked at those passages, just the hands and the black background and the bodies, I realized that I didn’t want to make artwork out of that. It was too stark, and it didn’t represent what was happening in my family. So I put all the tapes in a box, all the art tapes and all the filming that I did all those years as well as all the nature footage. Because when my family was sick I was also filming the nature in my yard for my own visual meditation. But at that time, I didn’t see any relationship between the three parts, and I wasn’t thinking theatrically. I was more like a gatherer of personal moments, so it was like a journal, essentially.
The box set in my studio for six years. Six years later, after my brother died, I went to do an arts residency at YADDO in 2012, where David met Laurie Anderson. And, ironically, we were all there at the same time, but I never met them because I was so focused on this box. I worked 24 hours a day for ten days. I had my little mini DV tape in, and, while it was injecting into the computer, I would sleep. I basically did this around the clock for ten days so I don’t remember a single person that was there. And now I am showing my film here.
Everything is interconnected.
During those ten days, I injected over 50 hours of tape and realized that this needs to be a film. I had never made a film before, but there was clearly a strong story there, and I saw for the first time the interconnectivity of cinéma vérité, the nature footage and the very stylized studio shots. I had other projects and young kids, so I would work on it for a couple of months, then six months would go by, and then work on it again. So, in all, it took about five years to edit. I had a huge amount of footage and I started from the ground level. I am an experienced media artist but I am not an experienced filmmaker. But the last year and a half, I worked pretty much full time. I did a crowd funding, Kickstarter, which allowed me to get money to finish the film and pay a composer and a producer. I brought in a fine cut editor at the very end. But for the most of it, I just worked by myself.
Then you decided to tie these tragedies to the birth of your first child.
They were completely intertwined. I was pregnant with my first child when my mom and sister were diagnosed with cancer. And they had female cancers, which was weird. My mother had breast cancer and my sister ovarian cancer. The other weird thing is that they had essentially tumors in their female areas and they lived nine months after their diagnoses and I was pregnant for nine months. I was three-months pregnant when I found out they were sick. There is another connection that there are two things that are foreign in your body that come from your cells but they are not of you: cancer and pregnancy. So for these three women, there was something very elemental about it and very sad.
It was kind of a visceral irony, which is just so powerful. And the numeral connection, too.
Yes. And the baby Audrey.
What a gorgeous baby!
Thank you. It is kind of hard to explain but her energy in the mix of our family was so essential as she represented hope and comfort. My father would carry her everywhere. He was losing so much, his wife and his two children; he was a stoic doctor, not very emotive. He is the silent patriarch. And after my mom and sister passed away, my brother was very close to Audrey.
The other important thing about them as characters is that Audrey, as a newborn, represents a blank page. Her eyes still can’t focus and it is a blank stare into the camera, which was very close to her face. And as the film progresses she finds her personhood. When she is grasping the snake, you really get her personality sort of trying to hold onto life so tightly. And what’s happening with my family, particularly with my brother because he was ill longer, is letting go of their personhood and becoming that kind of blank page or shell in a way that Audrey was when she was born. Because, ultimately, that’s what happens to everybody.
Yet your brother while letting go of his personhood still tried to hold onto it when he jumped off the cliff. He would give it a last huge effort. It was a giant moment.
Yes, but toward the end, he would just let go of any need in this world.
It was amazing and unusual that they would let you film them at the final stage of their lives.
Yes, they were used to me with a camera since I was very little. But this camera that I used filming them was a Sony PC 1, a unique little camera that just fit in my hand; it was like an extension of my body. That camera had a lot to do with how I was able to do this film; I never looked through the eye piece. I would just set it on tables while we were talking. It was perfect. I probably filmed so much at that time because I was so comfortable with that camera. And when my brother died, I put it in a cabinet and have never used it since.
Talking about your father, I noticed his proximity with your firstborn. But, also, there was his wish not to wake him up should his son die in the middle of the night. And you said that you had accepted but didn’t comprehend it. Perhaps he just couldn’t face more tragedies?
I basically rewrote my journal entries for the film. They show that at the beginning I was clearly not connecting with the persons who were having cancer. But by the end of the film, I am more accepting of their decisions; like when my mother had postponed treatment. The entries become more and more in tune of how to let people live and die on their own accord and just have unconditional love. That is my journey throughout the film, in a very subtle way: learning to let go of my own expectations and judgments. So my last entry about my father is the same thing: That’s not the choice that I would make but I let him do what he wanted. I wasn’t there when my sister died and I wasn’t there when my mom died. She [my mom] died suddenly in her sleep, so I was looking for bodily traces like the hair in the brush and the footprints on the floor. So I didn’t have that same experience that my father had had with them. But the key issue for me is that I realized that my dad, by saying, “Don’t wake me up when Craig dies,” was basically giving me the gift of being with my brother alone. It still makes me emotional. I didn’t get that for a long time; it dawned on me later that he wanted me to be with Craig alone.
He probably did want that. Did making this film help you? Was it therapeutic?
Yeah, I really enjoyed editing it all those years. Even though the footage was very hard, it meant that I got to spend time with them. It was kind of like hanging out with my family again, who had already departed. The most difficult moment probably was when I locked the picture, but I still get a lot of joy and sadness out of it when watching it. Probably because I took so much time editing it that now there is not a single part of the film that I would change. But it also took me five years to arrive there.
Do you think the baby grasped something of what was happening around her?
By the end, yes, because Audrey was four and a half when Craig died. They had developed a close relationship. Maybe it shaped what Audrey has become, a very mature person. I was always very honest with her about life and death.
I really liked how you used nature to speak for the story, as metaphor. It was quite Akermanian.
I am still a novice in film and haven’t seen many of her films, so I don’t see her as a reference. The next job for myself is to take film history classes. Film is not my first language, so I am still on a learning curve.
Aren’t we all. Thank you so much.
Amy Jenkins' Instructions on Parting won the Feature Documentary prize at the 45th Annual Athens International Film and Video Festival.