This Saturday, Metrograph and MEMORY are presenting the New York City premiere of My First Film, a hybrid film / performance / artist talk by Zia Anger. This piece defies convention, challenging what a film can be and how an artist can relate to their audience, and it complicates conventional discussions around representation and gender diversity. As Miriam Bale, artistic director of the Indie Memphis Film Festival, told me: “I have attended dozens, or maybe hundreds, of talks about the lack of women feature film directors — an issue I care deeply about. But after a while, they all sound the same. Zia Anger has figured out a new way to discuss these issues, in an incredibly moving, personal, and creative way.”
You might have seen Anger’s work without knowing it. Alongside her short films with Lola Kirke, she is a frequent collaborator of Mitski, directing the videos for “Your Best American Girl,” “Geyser,” and “Washing Machine Heart.” She also made Always All Ways, Anne Marie, begun while she was in grad school and finished in 2012. The movie is a coming-of-age story shot in Anger’s hometown, and the cast includes her close friends and family. However, the film was rejected by festivals and eventually left for dead (it’s now marked “abandoned” on IMDb). To date, Always All Ways, Anne Marie remains Anger’s sole feature.
Giving away too much of the substance of My First Film feels unforgivable (especially in our current cultural no-spoilers moment), since so much of its pleasures lie in its surprises. In broad strokes, Anger tells the story of making Always All Ways, Anne Marie and what happened afterward. From her laptop hooked up to the theater screen, she plays various video clips while “narrating” by typing into TextEdit. There’s no script set in stone, so Anger is free to play off the audience as the program unfolds. Along the way, she weaves in her family, her personal history, and audience interaction to craft a bold, shifting narrative of misogyny in the film industry, and what it’s like to be a woman director in this climate.
To avoid the unease may people have with interactive theater (“Just don’t make eye contact and no one will pick on you!”), Anger sits with her back to the audience, encouraging participation, but at each attendee’s discretion. For example, she’ll ask for someone to let her send files to their phone via AirDrop. Anger, who says she’s a rare director who will openly admit to loving The Rocky Horror Picture Show, sees traditional modes of viewing as stifling to creativity and engagement. She told me via email that audience participation has always been “more interesting to me, a better fit for me, than sitting down and being quiet for two hours.” One could probably enjoy My First Film by just observing, but why? Anger conjures a space where she and the audience move together beyond the limitations of contemporary movie-making — and viewing.
A performance this personal and tailored to the audience is necessarily fluid, changing from one venue to the next. Anger says that an essential element of My First Film is its confessional nature, and her calibration of “What ideas can I explore because of the audience I am sitting among?” When I saw it at Indie Memphis, I had no idea what to expect, knowing only that Anger was a filmmaker I admired (and whose Twitter presence I treasure), and that people whose taste I trust told me not to miss it. Anger ushered us into physical, then increasingly emotional, closeness. It was unlike any experience I’ve ever had. All her rage and sadness and creativity were on full explosive display — a range of emotions rarely expressed so candidly by women, either onscreen or in public. It felt like an emotional high-wire act, the outcome uncertain. Women are so often coerced into putting on a happy face, even through devastating failures. Anger’s public, frank dissection of what happened and why is a shock to the bland “women in film discussion panel” paradigm.
With My First Film, Anger offers a Utopian alternative to traditional moviegoing. It’s a place where an undistributed filmmaker can express herself without mediation, where an audience rides an intimate emotional roller coaster along with her, and where the hypocrisy of the “progressive” film industry is laid bare. If we’re lucky, this is the start of an exciting, provocative new direction for the artist.