VDB Asks... Sarah Friedland

Elise Schierbeek
VDB Asks... Sarah Friedland

Sarah Friedland is a filmmaker and choreographer working at the intersection of moving images and moving bodies. Through hybrid, experimental, and movement-based filmmaking, multi-channel video installation, and site-specific live dance performance, she stages and scripts bodies and cameras in concert with one another to elucidate, distill, and revise the embodied patterns of social life and the body politic. Facilitating a research process integrating found movements, gestures, and postures from embodied memories, cinema and archival footage, and contemporary movement languages, she choreographs through practices of interviewing, pre- and re-enactment, adaptation, and improvisational play, shaping dances with diverse communities of performers and movers—from professional dancers to cohorts of seniors and teenagers.

1. Can you tell us something about your background?     

I’m a twin sister that comes from former-hippie-turned-bourgeois, left-wing, Californian, Jewish educators. My family has an unfortunate lack of boundaries but an abounding love of art, politics, and intellectualism. I grew up surrounded by my parents’ passion for these things around which I’ve now centered my life. I grew up in an academic bubble of the University of California Santa Barbara’s Sociology and Religious Studies departments, where my Dad taught. Both of my parents are the children or grandchildren of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who came to New York and Chicago around the turn of the twentieth century, in addition to one immigrant Scot. My Mom’s side were secretaries and auto-workers, and manufacturers of men’s suits. My Dad’s side sold carp, sweet potatoes, chestnuts, electrical metering, and modernist furniture, and edited poetry and the Daily Worker. Both my parents come from mixed class identities and divergent interpretations of Jewish identity. I do my best to hold them all together.

2. What inspired you to become an artist? To use video?     

I was a very shy and perhaps even antisocial child so I spent many years watching social encounters without saying much. I think the kernel of my artistic practice began somewhere in those solitary years. Though I have since learned to love conversations and the people who have them. My mother taught me to love films from an early age. Some of my earliest memories are of watching musicals with her. That’s deep in me. But discovering dancing is what made me a moving image artist. It was in the dance studio as a teenager and college student that I learned how to synthesize concepts into the movement of bodies and where I first felt the pull to translate them into images. It is through the generosity and collaboration of my young, dancing friends that I learned how to direct.

3. Did you have formal art training/schooling?

My first training in filmmaking was in high school as a volunteer B-camera operator for a woman named Kate Carter, whose organization Life Chronicles filmed terminally ill people’s life stories before they passed. She would have me center my close-up framing around people’s hands, to capture the gestures that make loved ones our own. I would watch their hands move as they spoke about their entire lives for several hours. I think I’ve never unlearned those hours of micro-gestural training.

I didn’t go to art or film school. I studied at Brown University in the department of Modern Culture and Media, which started as the Semiotics department and had developed by the time I got there into hosting a broad range of critical theories and studies of media and culture, as you might surmise from the name. Simultaneously, I was studying choreography and modern dance with a beloved teacher named Julie Strandberg. I was lucky to find mentors in both departments who supported my interest in dance film and spent much of college doing independent studies to focus on this intersection of moving images and moving bodies from theoretical, historical, and practice-based perspectives. I started making experimental dance films then. I un-enrolled for one semester to work with Erin Brannigan, a dance film scholar based in Sydney who had a major impact on my thinking.

After a primarily theoretical and conceptual focus for four years, I was eager to learn the nuts and bolts of production. I moved to New York and started working many different entry-level jobs on film/TV sets and production offices. I was a script reader, a set PA, an office PA, a director’s assistant, a producer’s assistant, a research assistant, a script coordinator, et cetera. I did these jobs back-to-back for about four years and it became another kind of formal training, an industrial one, if you will. I learned the traditional production systems and hierarchies that make popular media. After being immersed in these systems, I wanted to seek out other modes of media-making in my own practice.

4. How do you balance life and art?  Are you able to make a living through creating art?

Part of my income comes from my art — from grants, fellowships, licensing, screening, and exhibition fees — but the majority of it comes from a rotation of other day jobs and side hustles. These days I’ve primarily been teaching workshops on choreographic practices in hybrid filmmaking at various universities, in addition to working as a creative aging teaching artist, introducing filmmaking to older adults. In recent times, I’ve also been a museum tour guide, elder caregiver, grant writer, and video editor.

Creative and artistic work is so undervalued in our market and society. I long (and fight!) for the day when art and film work is compensated fairly. My balance exists, for now, as accepting it cannot be balanced under our current economic systems and persistently imagining it could be otherwise.

5. What influences or motivates you in the world?     

Both my politics and aesthetics are motivated by studying found movement and social choreographies. For me, movement is like the soft underbelly of our systems, where I feel things are malleable. It’s where I feel my own political imagination animated to ask: how might we otherwise move together? How else might we relate to one another? I feel paralyzed by the daunting task of remaking the systems that manage our lives, but am excited by the political work of the choreographer as someone who can revise the embodied patterns of these systems to stage or rehearse other possibilities of social relation.

6. What artists or movements are you following right now?

These days I feel closely attuned to the work and thinking of my filmmaking friends. I cherish being in a filmmaking community with peers who swap work and watch rough cuts and share resources and connections. It’s what has gotten me through the pandemic thus far. They make me a braver and smarter filmmaker and convince me again and again how important friendship is in art-making. They don’t comprise a “movement” per se, but some of the peer video and film artists who I’ve been in conversation and friendship with over these years include Lorena Alvarado, Beatrix Chu, Martine Granby, Brighid Greene, Rebeca Huntt, Alexa Lim Haas, and Tray Tsui. There are many other old and new-ish artist friends that I cherish, but the above folks have been so constant in their mutual support and encouragement. What a gift.       

I’ve also been very fortunate throughout 2021 and 2022 to have been mentored by and in conversation with Wen Hui and Eiko Otake, two movement-based interdisciplinary artists making moving image work, through the support of the Pina Bausch Fellowship. Together, we’ve been thinking through video editing as a choreographic task, among many other threads. I am grateful to learn from them and their ways of art-making.

7. What was the last exhibition you saw?     

I saw Forensic Architecture’s exhibition Three Doors at Frankfurter Kunstverein a few weeks ago. I’m really inspired by how they animate their concepts of “counter-forensics” and “investigative aesthetics” in their works.

8. What has been the best screening experience of your work?     

This wasn’t necessarily the best, but certainly the most singular… We premiered Drills at the New York Film Festival in 2020, which was their virtual, pandemic edition. They presented one physical screening of the film at the Queens drive-in, in the NY Hall of Science parking lot, preceding a screening of Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda. My cast, crew, and friends piled into carpools and borrowed vehicles and as the credits rolled, I heard rhythmic honking coming from all corners of the vast lot. In the film, our lead actor, Hayward Leach, harmonizes with himself, singing S-O-S as choral beeps. My cast and crew were honking S-O-S in morse code to let me, and us, know they were there, together. It was really moving to feel that sense of community through such a ubiquitous NYC sound, the car horn.

9. What are you working on right now?

I’m currently working on my first feature film, Familiar Touch, which is a coming of (old) age film following an octogenarian woman's transition to life in assisted living as she contends with her conflicting desires and self-narratives amidst her shifting age identity and memory. I’m really excited to translate the gestural style and hybrid methods I’ve been working with into a narrative, long-form idiom.     

I’m also working on the first 16mm film I’ve made since being a student. It’s a surreal, home movie-musical I’m making with my parents about my Dad’s childhood nativity play, Jews, foot fetishes, and cancer, among many other things. It includes my Mom buttering my Dad’s feet — a bizarre family practice I’ll wait for the film to explain — and my Dad embodying a septuagenarian “red diaper baby.”

10. How do you start a piece? How do you know when a piece is finished?

I usually start with a practice I have been calling “embodied interviewing.” Over the course of making the Movement Exercises trilogy I’ve been experimenting with transforming the documentary interview into a means of dance-making. Rather than asking a series of questions that are verbally answered on-camera, I ask my collaborators off-camera about how their bodies move and feel in various social choreographies they participate in. I ask them to not only describe them to me, but to show me: to dance or physicalize them. I then mirror back the movement to them, and we pass it back and forth, accumulating and shaping these found movements that are then re-performed for camera with varying degrees of fidelity to their original iteration. Trust Exercises is the first film where I tried to stage a version of the embodied interview process on camera through a workshop with professional dancers and through a scene that imagines bodywork itself as a type of interview between sensing limbs.

As for ending? It’s a bewildering intuition that I couldn’t possibly describe. But it does manifest, in part, as not wanting to open Adobe Premiere or touch the edit timeline. When my fingers curl away from the keys in front of the monitor, I know it’s time to stop. When editing, I also keep a running list or diagram of possible permutations, almost like different movement scores for images. Eventually, I’ve made my way through them, and I stop writing new ones. Then I know it’s time.

11. What are you currently reading? Watching?

I’ve recently developed the bad habit of reading several books at once and therefore not giving any one my full attention... Right now, I’m reading Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life by Henri Lefebvre and Fidelity, Grace Paley’s final book of poetry, among others. I’ve been making my way through all of Grace Paley’s writings throughout the pandemic. She makes me feel closer to the lefty New York Jews that I come from, who died too soon for me to know as an adult.

I’m in the middle of attending the New York Film Festival and seeing so many wonderful films. Some of the ones that have lingered most with me are The Long Farewell by Kira Muratova, Unrest by Cyril Schäublin, Remembrance: A Portrait Study by Edward Owens, Dry Ground Burning by Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós, and Human Flowers of Flesh by Helena Wittmann.