Why is the Jewish filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt from San Francisco so obsessed with loss and death in his films? His many films are like collage essays, usually comprising archive material. As a filmmaker, has he been ahead of his time? And as programming director of a Jewish festival, how does he cope with Jewish history?

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

DOX met the renowned filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt to speak about traits in his films – like loss, death, Jewish identity and being a filmmaker. Rosenblatt is the programming director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival [See previous article].

– My films are not really narrative, says Jay Rosenblatt in our interview, when we met him last year in Nyon, where Visions du Reel had a retrospective on his films.  “I am using archival shots in my films. I am looking for an arc, a narrative arc, I cut sometimes at the peak of the arc and sometimes where the rhythm stays interesting.”

TRULS LIE: What are your thoughts on using text and commentary in films? Like the text that’s being read, the voices – like your film with the sign “sleep” when you see a dog sleeping?

Jay Rosenblatt
Jay Rosenblatt

JAY ROSENBLATT: In that film called Afraid So some of the images are very literal. Sometimes it is very satisfying for the viewer to see something that corresponds otherwise. I also like to work with metaphor like in Phantom Limb where there are some sections that are completely metaphorical – like the sheep shaving scene in slow motion It is very intense to watch cause the sheep is so vulnerable and we are hearing all these very intense voice-overs. I didn’t know at first that I  would have the comments on the soundtrack, I didn’t know the music I would have, but I knew there must be a slow, extremely slow motion of sheep shaving.

Afraid So
 – The shave represented loss because the wool is being taken off – but not death. It is loss but renewal because the wool grows back. A perfect metaphor for grief. The film ends with birth. It is a film about death that ends with birth.
– Even my films with my daughter – I call them comedies – there is a sense of loss because she is getting older. It’s like they move away from you, she was changing so much. I was falling in love with that age.
First about grief, then about suicide, and emptiness of life. You again and again make films about people dying; why are you so concerned about death? 
– Well, I mean it is obvious, isn’t it? I had this early very dramatic death of my brother in my life, and it marked me forever. But it is something we all deal with – some people by being in complete denial and some people deal with it very directly. A loved one dies, when you are young or older, your parents, your friends. And ultimately our own death – it is the human condition. What else can you deal with? You can deal with love, you can deal with sex, you can deal with a life of forming things, but to me you can’t fully deal with life unless you deal with death. In Phantom Limb one man says when he fully, fully faced death, he had a pure respect for life and really appreciate every moment that he is alive. A lot of us including myself just have not dealt well with death or grieved well enough.

We are disturbed about these existential topics seen in Rosenblatt’s films, and keep on asking:

– In the suicide film, The Darkness of Day, you have some distinctive examples, for example the Sanders couple who kill themselves when they were old, not to bother their children with their life. They just left a message and some burial advice. What do you think about that?

– In that film I wanted to show different types of suicide, like historical moments where all of a sudden a town has a lot of suicides; I have Hemingway with his genetic component of a family often committing suicide; then Primo Levy, making it through the Holocaust, going through all this trauma and then later, maybe because of deep depression, committing suicide. The Sanders couple made a very rational decision, they felt like if they lived a full life – sixty years of marriage. They didn’t like what they saw ahead, they didn’t want to be taken care of by their children and wanted to leave this world together. I thought it was very beautiful. I didn’t want to have any moralistic judgment about suicide, I think the normal judgment around suicide is very damaging, not only to the person that is suicidal but to the survivors also – people are so ashamed. They feel responsible, they make up stories, they don’t tell the truth, they say their loves ones died from some other reason.
– Your films with Holocaust images … Do I see a melancholic thread?
– The film Four Questions for a Rabbi is about Stacy Ross who committed suicide. She was the woman who started a film. Some of her friends were wondering if I would be interested in looking at her proposal to let me end the film. The only thing they had was one interview she did with her mother, one interview she did with a rabbi and they filmed her funeral, that is all they had. They said she was making a film about Jewish identity, and gave me the proposal. She was also very involved in Palestinian issues and felt very deeply about the Palestinian people which a lot of Jews do actually. I wanted to honor her spirit, what she was concerned about –  I didn’t like the rabbi’s answers, but her questions.
four_questions_for_a_rabbi
Four Questions for a Rabbi

– There are a lot of Jewish people that have a lot of trouble with what is going on in Israel, and I felt like I needed to bring that into this film. With my archives I found footage and I put them together – and yes, it deals with suicide and grief.

– Let me ask you since you are Jewish: In this film the rabbi talks about the soul, the Jewish soul. Do you think that you yourself are placed in a kind of destiny, a kind of fixed tradition, a kind of problematic you cannot get  out of, a fate … do you see this?
– The Jewish people have a very painful history. I think the irony of what is going on in Israel now is that the Jews have been oppressed for so long and in some ways today the jews are the oppressors. For me that is very painful to see. Jews are not different from other people.
– Are you by making all these films trying to convey the soul of the loss of the Jewish people – or do you think you are therapeutically rather trying to get out of a destiny you were born into?
– I am not sure, I am not sure, I don’t know. I can’t say I know the soul of the Jewish people. When you are born Jewish and you have the history of the Holocaust behind you it is a heavy burden on so many levels – whether you are a Holocaust survivor, or a child of a survivor, you are affected by it. I mean it is not just the Jews. There are still different kinds of holocausts happening – but that one was so massive and so beyond comprehension.
– Now I am programming this Jewish film festival in San Francisco: I can’t tell you how many films about the Holocaust that I have had to watch. I see it all the time. How do you get past something that was so dramatic to humanity? I mean it is unbelievable.
– But you aren’t striving to get out? 
– I think we all need somehow to rise above this. I hope we all transform eventually from this kind of hell that we have created on this planet. I really do have hope that we will be able to transcend.
There are some elements in your films where you have all these births, babies coming out. Trying to talk about hope?
– I… you know, I feel hopeless a lot and I am always trying to find hope wherever I can – it is a struggle. I do try to end some of my films with a little bit of hope, otherwise you get paralyzed. We need hope.
– When we have talked with others about your films, a man said, affected, that you are fetishizing melancholy. What is your defence to such an accusation?
– I have no trouble with melancholy, but I do have a little trouble with fetish. I think that is a defensive reaction on his part. I am not making a fetish out of it. I don’t get pleasure out of that. It might be an obsession and it might be a concern, but fetish feels too derogatory.
– You have the friendly films like Drop, Periled, DCD, Afraid So. They are all friendly … 
– I try to do some comedy. Did you laugh? I think they are funny and they are lovelyVbecause there is love in there. When I started making those films it was amazing, because I have been dealing with very dark issues. When I was dealing with The Light, this new baby, it was liberating and really helped my filmmaking. Frankenstein I made at the same time when my daughter started to walk, she looked like Frankenstein. Just going “AAAH” you know.

In our intense conversation with this renowned filmmaker, we adress if the personal and collective memory plays a role, often seen as a topic in his films that are based on archival material:

I can see you are working more with a kind of conceptual layer of editing in for example The Smell of the Burning Ants. You are representing your own memory of childhood with the little boy, the mobsters, the bullies, and you are afraid of your father, maturity and all these kinds of things? Can I ask you if you made this film on your background as a kind of therapy?

– Well, there is some personal therapy, but for me the therapy is more for the audience – I hope! That’s the motivation, because I can go to a therapist if I just need to take care of myself. This is a way of somehow turning experiences that maybe were dramatic, difficult or painful into something creative. With The Smell of Burning Ants, I purposely put it into third person so it talks about the boy as “He”. I don’t say “I”. I didn’t want to use my voice. It is more up to the audience to say “oh that happened to me”. I would say 90 percent of the film is autobiographical and about ten percent are things that I was told from other people.
– But you don’t have much material from your own personal background. 
– Not much, I am very grateful my father shot as much as he did – eleven rolls of 8mm in the 50-60s. But you are very limited using home movies unless your parents were artists or filmmakers.
– You are using a lot of archival material in for example The Darkness of The Day – as a kind of a collective memory?
It is part of our collective memory. We have all seen something like it. I feel like it is a shared memory bank that we have. I am taking images that people are somehow familiar with and re-contextualising it, using it for my own means. Like The Smell of Burning Ants, there are some scenes that I could have filmed today with kids, I could have recreated it, but I don’t think it would have been as powerful. There would be a certain artificiality.
– I love the editing process, the challenge of taking all these different elements and trying to make it as one cohesive whole. Like in my film Short of Breath – it’s a ten-minute film, but it’s comprised of images from twenty-two completely different films. The creative challenge is to have the viewer watch it and feel like it is all one whole piece. I am not doing compilation films where you are very aware it’s all from different sources.

There is a tradition of filmmaking close to Rosenblatt; that of Chris Marker and essay filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Harun Farocki:

– Do you see yourself as being in the tradition of essay filmmakers, like Chris Marker?
– Yes, Chris Marker had a very big influence on me actually. Before I saw Sunless (Sans Soleil, 1983) I made films in a very conventional way, wrote a script, found actors and crew. After I saw Sunless I realised I didn’t have to do things in that order. I think Marker just collects, and in the editing he writes the film. Then I just collected images from all different places and tried to make an essay basically out of it – ever since then I have done a very similar thing. The process is organic, it kind of grows.
For me it is the closest thing I can say because my films are not pure documentaries. Documentaries certainly have narrative elements within, some doing experimentation of form, and maybe some take risks with the content – but essay films seem to describe it the best. I call them “collage essays”. For me structure is very important in film to guide the audience. I have used chapter headings several times. Point-of-view in the essay film, important, since my films are collages. It is not a monologue essay but a dialogue where people are responding internally – so I leave several pauses in the film. Just like when you are with a client or patient, whoever is coming to see you, you don’t do all the talking obviously, you want them to talk.
– Through the years I also gained more faith in filmmaking. Now I just know that I am not going to finish a film until I am satisfied. It is not like when TV is paying for it; it doesn’t have to be 52 minutes. One of the trade-offs of not supporting yourself with your own films, is that I make the film I want to make. If I make a 21 minute film it’s 21 minutes. I don’t care what the TV slot is. If they don’t want to show it, they don’t show it.
– Do you have a trust fund or something? 
Not at all, I have a day job. I used to work in a film school, a psychiatric unit as a therapist, and I have teached about film. I worked first at three different schools with five different classes every semester, I worked like crazy! No, I don’t have a trust fund, unfortunately! The good thing about being a teacher is that you have summer vacations and weekends to work on your projects.
– Now I am a festival programmer, I am a director at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, on an eight-month contract. That’s how I pay the rent.
Jay Rosenblatt is an internationally recognized artist who has been working as an independent filmmaker since 1980 and has completed over twenty-five films.  His work explores our emotional and psychological cores. They are personal in their content yet universal in their appeal. His films have received over 100 awards and have screened throughout the world. A selection of his films had theatrical runs at the Film Forum in New York and at theaters around the country. His most recent films screened for a week at MoMA.

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