Barbara Sternberg in the 90s: an interview

by Mike Hoolboom


MH: The last title in Through and Through (63 minutes 1992) reads: Anne Frank died in March 1945. I was born in March 1945. Why? 

BS: There's a number of photographs of women shown in the film: Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Frank, then others not as famous, friends who died young of breast cancer. As I read their work I identified so strongly it's as if I was them, or they were me. The proximity of Frank's death and my birth made this connection personal. I am connected to this line of women. Virginia Woolf talks about thinking back through our mothers in A Room of One's Own, a book which asks why there are so few great women writers. You can't be who you are without the efforts of those who have gone before. She wrote on the backs of women, many of them anonymous, who might have written a poem and stuck it in the attic, and after a time, all those poems made Virginia Woolf possible. It's the same for me. Without these women, I wouldn't have made this film.


If Virginia Woolf was a filmmaker she would make my films! (laughs) In her writing the light shining on a cupboard was as much an event as someone walking through a door. In The Waves she writes about drops of time. She used the ellipsis (...) a great deal, leaving phrases open. Memory doesn't belong only to the past, as an "arrow of sensation" it's also the present. She writes of events or objects surrounded by blurs, or covered by a veil, which seem filmic. 

MH: The film also includes a series of texts about breast cancer, listing the names and dates of women who have died young.


BS: There's trepidation and fear you live with every day. At least in my life. In Transitions this was expressed as a fear of living, of wanting to go back and pull the covers over one's head and be unaware. Fear of living or of dying, it's the same in the end. Lately I'm obsessed with death, well, not obsessed, but it certainly figures in my conversations A LOT. When I was a kid I was afraid of dying and not just for myself. I was afraid of anyone's dying! And if something went badly I'd want to go back and have that time again. I would get so upset because that moment was ruined and I couldn't get it back.


MH: Through and Through looks different than the work that came before it.


BS: The film was shot one frame at a time. I'd been editing pictures closer and closer together in previous films, joining moments shot at different times. I wanted to push that further, to connect discrete moments to achieve a simultaneity. So while there is fear, it's set within the big picture, the eternal. There's an equally strong sentiment that the world is amazing, that beauty and terror are part of the same thing. Beyond the meaning of any particular shot I wanted to transmit this energy.


I had been collecting a lot of feminist writing and writing on the Holocaust. Although I wasn't there, it affects me greatly, hurts me. I thought if I could make a film about it, I'd be done with it! I read interviews with children of Holocaust survivors and Nazis, as well as interviews with women interned in mental institutions. These interviews were excerpted and collaged into scripts for the sync sound sections in the film. Originally, I'd planned to have a lot of voice-over from all this material I'd loved and collected, but then I decided to separate sound and image. In place of voice-over I wanted to re-locate language into the mouths of speakers.


Jean Marc Larivière played a child of a Holocaust survivor. Maighet Pugen played a girl placed in a mental institution because her mother couldn't control her. She also played the grandchild of a Nazi executed after the war. They had certain themes in common. Secrecy. The burden of history. And control. Jean Marc talked about his parents, their fear of losing control. They would get upset if they saw their kids expressing anger. In another segment he says that he doesn't have a life of his own. That thousands of people live through him. The incarcerated woman also raises issues of control. As women we have a very limited range of acceptable behaviour. I read about a woman married to a minister, a man of the cloth, and for a while she wasn't keeping the house clean. When she stopped doing the dishes he had her put away.  I felt it was appropriate to present these problems of power in language. Because language distinguishes, between cup and table for instance, and insofar as it distinguishes it divides the world. With division comes conflict. So while the images in Through and Through worked to bring things closer together and eliminate boundaries, language shows places of conflict and difference.


The film is structured around a series of journeys which go further afield. There's a trip to Montreal on a train, another to Algonquin Park. Going to the Arctic is the ultimate trip, a quest for origins or authenticity perhaps. The furthest you could go. The footage in the Arctic which bookends the film. I often do that, because it suggests a spiral, a cycle. When we arrived at the Arctic the first thing I saw was everyone else with their cameras, so I started filming them filming It. The Land. The Amazing. The Source. What we all came so far to be wowed by. Initially, the land is shown only peripherally. In the end people get out of the boat and onto the land. They were filmed to minimize the distinction between figure and ground. It's black and white, often a bit blurry, highlighting shapes and outlines. The figures often look like an extension of the rock. The boundaries between people and things are dissolved. The film is about these boundaries, or lack of them.

MH: Beating (64 minutes 1995) takes up many of the same themes and problems.


BS: All the unused voice-over material for Through and Through haunted me. In a way, it spawned the two films which followed. The brief, sync-sound sections in Through and Through speak of oppression, identity (I/we), and the pressures of history on the present. Beating takes these issues up again, seeing history through the personal, expressing the anger, fear and pain suppressed in the denial of oppressive situations. Beating looks at the parts of ourselves (myself) hidden in shadows. The existence of evil and horror. Questions without answers. 


Beating is packed with voice-overs which provide the context for the images. Like Laurie Anderson says: This is a record of the times. It's the thinking, the issues, the terms, the where-we're-at in terms of social history. The film uses black and white hi-con footage, both negative and positive, bleached, scratched, and sometimes bi-packed together. So positive and negative are there visually as well as symbolically: good and evil are two sides of the same coin. As much as I want it, I can't only have good. There's bleached footage of a young girl primping, innocent yet sensual, with the words cunt and bitch scratched on her; a newspaper photo of Syrian Jews left hanging with placards around their necks, and a series of supers move over them showing time, history, our lives—whose story becomes history, is real?


The film was edited in sections which were internally cohesive in terms of content and treatment. From section to section repetitions occur, connections are made, equivalencies between different images achieve the feeling or recognition that everything is related, everything exists in each moment, it is all there all the time.


In my previous films I moved towards the light. But in this film I thought okay Barbara fess up. Can I reveal my anger? Am I brave enough? So I decided to show it. I made a large, primitive-looking, voodoo-type Hitler doll with a photo transfer of his face. I wanted to film myself shitting on him, like when one says "Shit on this" meaning I'm through with it. Diminish him. The camera ran out of film before I could poo but I did get to poke out his eyes and cut off his little penis. This was all done in my kitchen, in a domestic setting, because I live these big historical events in my apartment, which is where I like to work. I film the shadows on the wall of the neighbouring apartment, or shoot my mother or son or whoever's around. Issues of power and seeing are played out in daily life.


MH: Your mother's in this film. She lies in bed eating toast and reading the newspaper. She's shown in close-up, where you focus on the wrinkles of her face.


BS: It's the view you would get only if you were her daughter snuggling up close on her, which is what I would do when I was little. An intimate bodily experience. These and the next images of Jim MacSwain (a friend) who is sitting chewing his nails, fingering his toes, and eating grapes mean: somebody actually lives all this. History is not abstract, but embodied. These shots are rests, still points in the film.


MH: Most of the voice-over text is quotation, but some of it is yours.


BS: The one passage I wrote is repeated in the film by both male and female voices. This makes ambiguous whether it marks a response to the pain of a woman or a Jew, or for that matter anyone else. Viewers can fill in their own painful situation. It says: "I want revenge, I want you to know how it feels..." and then, "I want you to say you're sorry so I know you're sane, we're the same..." It's something I wrote a long time ago to my husband. My then husband. My no longer husband. While making the film I felt I also wanted to say that to Germans, or to Germany—if you can say something to a nation.


MH: Tell me about the title.


BS: 'Beating' suggests the thing and its opposite. The sun beats down and warms us but it can also burn. The wings of a bird beat and so does one's heart. At the same time a beating is a fist fight, or you beat yourself up with these issues. The myriad of positive/negative associations from the word beating make it a good entry into the film. There are many beating images in the film. Like the birds.


MH: Why so many birds in the film?


BS: Maybe they're us, maybe they're me. The birds are pecking, being frightened and fluttering up in the air, then settling down again and eking it out. Surviving.


MH: The voice-over ends with a joke whose humour gestures towards reconciliation. Can you tell it?


BS: A man is walking down the street when a car pulls up beside him. Who should get out but Hitler. He stops the man saying, "You're Jewish, what are you doing here?" There's dog shit on the curb so Hitler puts a gun to his head and tells him to eat it. The car jumps and Hitler drops the gun. The Jewish guy picks it up and says, "Okay, now you eat it." He runs home to his wife and says, "Honey, you'll never guess who I had lunch with today!"


The film does move, it doesn't just stay in anger. Anger is the release. The last image of the film is a text which mirrors the beginning text-on-screen "SOB/S.O.B." It says: I forgive myself. I forgive you. Maybe only in forgiving will I be able to let go, be freed from the bonds of the past. I don't know if I'm there yet!


MH: Most of your work in the nineties is characterized by a very gestural camera style reminiscent of abstract expressionism.


BS: I want the film to accumulate in you as experience, and later you can reflect on its particular images. Each experimental film creates its own diction which the viewer has to pick up on, figure out what language they're in. Learning this language is the key to understanding experimental film, it's what viewing entails.


My shooting doesn't hold onto its subject, or study it. Instead the experience flickers past in light and dark and energy. I've been searching for ways to move the image, not to deny its specific meaning, but to add to it, and make equivalencies. There might be shots of flames and leaves fluttering and water splashing, but because of the camera movement you experience them in an equivalent way. We apprehend the world bodily. This kind of camera work is less about composition, than about an embodied seeing, a felt perception. The images register between abstraction and representation. The camera glimpses. Time passes, is elusive and can't be held. The camera sort of swipes at the subject, takes stabs at, approximates. There's an energy in the movement. It's like a speech rhythm or rhythm of a written line, going back to the diction analogy.


MH: Tell me about midst (70 minutes silent 1997)


BS: midst is about seeing and light as energy. It was a reaction to the previous two films. I wanted to focus more on the formal or material properties of film.


MH: Why is that valuable?


BS: It may be important, even desirable, after the period of political work that's been championed. Work dealing with presence and seeing has been ignored. Abstraction has been considered self-indulgent or old-fashioned. But our understanding is deeper than language. For me it's not either/or. The politics in my films have been grounded in here and now particulars.


MH: The film is silent.


BS: That came partly out of my appreciation as a viewer of Brakhage's silent films, this beam of light connecting you directly and powerfully to the screen. Language activates a different part of the mind, distancing viewer and image. So I decided in midst the challenge is yes, Virginia Woolf made wonderful books, but they don't have to be in my film! I can trust the images alone.


MH: How did you structure the film?


BS: One basis is an art history of colour and perception revisited through film and video. It begins with a painter speaking. Though we don't hear the words, we see his hands moving, and his work. Then he paints directly on film, showing three primary colours on clear leader. The following section acts out Goethe's colour theory. He says that the red robes of a Cardinal will appear differently in sunlight and shadow, it washes out or darkens. Seen against different backgrounds, even the same swatch of material changes. Is the colour objective or subjective? How do we know red? Memory tinges events, images fade. Our perception of the world shifts with our frame of reference, when seen through different filters, different lights. The world accumulates meaning through this multiplicity.


The mid-section of the film is the most abstract. I was thinking of Cezanne, father of Abstraction, whose landscapes were composed of patches of related colours. I shot farm fields in super-8, then, at the Experimental Television Centre in New York, added new colours to the footage, artificial colours that don't exist except in video circuitry. The frame is fragmented with multiple images forming an abstracted landscape which vibrates and pulses with light.


Then the film moves to the beach with repeating shots in changing (video) colours. Repetition is a feature in all my films because it's how we experience life. Each summer suggests summers past, all summers. The minute you dive into the water it's like every time that's ever happened. There are kids playing in the water, a close-up of hands rubbing, a woman swimming. Many find the woman swimming entrancing, calming... It's here the film comes out of its abstracted self into a more emotional or narrative mode.


Finally the video passages end and turn into film. We see flowers, bright vibrant colours in a flicking camera motion, so you just have to be present with it. There's nothing to think about, you're just with this liveliness.


The film ends in black and white, as it began. White is all light, black is the absence of light. The imagery is superimposed waves on a beach and then a man's chest breathing. Sources of life. How can we say where we stop and the world begins? Breath connects us physically—the space in us to the space outside—doesn't it?


As usual I had trouble with the title! At one point Rae Davis suggested "Belonging" which fit but perhaps told people how they were supposed to see the film. The word "midst" came from Agnes Martin, a minimalist painter whose writings I related to strongly. One of her essays was called "In the midst of reality responding with joy." Hence midst. In the middle temporally and spatially. In it, not looking on from a distance. Contiguity. Connectedness. Silence.


MH: Tell me about C'est La Vie (10 minutes 1996).


BS: Increasingly, my films are made out of footage I already have. I have a bank of images at home, which for now at least are enough. I almost don't need to shoot anymore, whenever I think of something I already have an image of it. The man running down the road, or the man walking against the wind is our struggle, our daily lives, our doing of something while we're here. It doesn't matter if you're a truck driver or an artist or a welder. So I don't have to shoot something else. C'est La Vie begins with a series of still photos taken on the beach. There's an old couple, a dog, and someone's footsteps, ripples on the sand which evidences the action of wind and water, the passage of time and repetition. There's a woman rotating, a dancer, and then meteorological footage of the world rotating. There's also darker images of bats in a cave and animal bones lying out in the sun. And there's a swan, its huge wings slowly and powerfully moving up and down. During take-off there's a mad kicking and flapping before it moves serenely through it all. One day I watched birds pecking and it dawned on me that they're not thinking. They're just eating, that's it. There's no mystery to solve, it's all right there in front of us.


All of the footage was stuff I already had which I bleached afterwards. I took the workprint and put it in a tub of Javex which removes parts of the image. With colour film the top red dye layer is bleached away first, leaving the image green, if you leave it in longer the second dye layer bleaches away and you get yellow. Black and white footage becomes fragmented and harder to see. This obscuring and tearing apart is how the world is, it's not just laid out for us, you have to look through it to see where you are. The movement over the surface of the film is as much its subject as anything shown. It also unifies the diverse footage.

MH: Tell me about Awake (3 minutes super-8 1997).

BS: The soundtrack uses a passage from Gertrude Stein's Making of Americans on aging and disillusionment, which Stein doesn't see as negative. Being old means understanding that no one will ever understand or agree with you completely. When you're younger it's different. You try and fail, but age brings knowledge. Her text is read as voice-over and mixed with sounds taken from a girl's track and field meet. You hear the crowd urging on the racers, the screams to win, to participate in the race that life's become. Stein's text, by contrast, is reflective and internal, awake to what reality is, instead of being a sleepwalker.


It's all edited in-camera and shot in my bedroom. It shows a light bulb, curtains, and the television is on. My company. The camera allowed me to rewind and make superimpositions, so the pans in my room are seen at the same time as tree branches and a series of titles: "win win win" and "time space." The superimposition in sound and picture show layers of reality, different times which converge on the mind.


My new film is called Like A Dream That Vanishes (40 minutes 1999). The title is from a Jewish prayer which likens our lives to grass that withers, dust, fleeting shadows, a whole string of ephemeral things, and the last one is "as a dream that vanishes." The kind of shooting I do expresses the ephemeral nature of events, we get a little bit and then it's gone. I wanted to make a film entirely out of leader. Bits of colour with maybe a frame of an image, just these little splashes of colour at the end of a roll. But of course it didn't end up that way. I think I keep making films because I've yet to make the one I see inside.


I wanted to create a visual space that would blur distinctions and boundaries. To move between form and formlessness, creation and dissolution. To conjure this place of disappearance I wanted to use the beginning and ends of camera rolls where the image emerges from or dissolves back into pure light. I think of the emulsion of film as analogous to the 'stuff' or sea of life.


While I was working on this film, I met Rae Davis's husband, John, a retired philosophy professor. To make overt the philosophical interests that have been below the surface in a lot of my work, I decided to interview him. He begins with Hume and the question of miracles. Is human testimony sufficient to prove the miracle of Christ rising from the dead, for instance? Then the use of language in our attempts at making meaning, understanding it all. Then he comes to Goertzel's Incompleteness Theory which accepts that truths can be provable but contradictory, an almost irrational position.


The film alternates between quick snippets of fast camera and blur and leader and sync sound passages of John sitting in a chair. Out of this leader emerges something like a narrative, a chronology. You see a young child, then a four year old running and falling, which might be read as "the fall into the world." Then people on a ferry (the ark—if you stretch), adolescents on a porch hanging out, jabbing, poking, drinking. Then individuals doing daily things, a woman combing her hair, contemplative, aware of herself. There's a sax player, a girl alone on a bridge, a guy playing tennis. All of these images are the lived drama of the world. While shooting, I was thinking of Shakespeare's seven stages of man.


All the world's a stage

And all the men and women, merely players

that have their exits and their entrances

and one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant

Mewling, and puking in the nurse's arms...

Last scene of all,

that ends this strange eventful history

Is second childishness, and mere oblivion

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


By the end of the film, John's speaking and the gestural footage draw together. He suggests that philosophy has returned to its roots in wonder and adds, "The world isn't a very tidy place. We think it is, but it isn't. It's a very messy place." And then he laughs.


Barbara Sternberg's films are available from:

Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre

37 Hanna Avenue Ste. 220

Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6K 1W8

telephone: 416-588-0725, email:



Canyon Cinema

2325 Third Street, Suite #338, San Francisco, CA, USA 94107

telephone: 415-626-2255, email:




12 rue des Vignoles Paris, France 75020

telephone: 331 46590153  email: