Zia Anger’s riotous, inventive show is unsparing about the milieu of independent filmmaking—its economy, its judgments, and its prejudices.
There’s an extraordinary movie event taking place this weekend at Metrograph: “My First Film,” a blend of film and performance by the filmmaker Zia Anger. I attended it Friday night; the second and third presentations of “My First Film” will take place Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. In the show, Anger confronts one of the principal frustrations of independent filmmaking: the creation of a film that fails to get any release at all. Anger made such a film, “Gray,” between 2010 and 2012, and in “My First Film,” she does something about it—and, in the process, creates an altogether new and daring work of art.
Seated among the audience in Metrograph’s main theatre and perched at the keyboard of her laptop computer, Anger projects the desktop of her computer onto the theatre’s big screen; she doesn’t speak during the performance, which, rather, takes place through her typing, in real time, in a text window, as she clicks on video files that she sets in motion, freezes, accelerates, and skips around in throughout the course of the seventy-five-minute event. Her voice—her thoughts, emotions, and ideas emerging with a blend of planning and improvisation (and in occasional interaction with the audience)—are a constant in the presentation, in which she both frames and criticizes her own work and herself.
Anger—whose remarkable short movie “My Last Film,” from 2015, is a riotous personal-cinemapocalypse—is unsparing about beginnings and endings, about the milieu of independent filmmaking, its economy, its judgments, and its prejudices, and the personal and artistic compromises into which it coaxes its supplicants. She presents, with embarrassed derision, her crowdfunding video for “Gray.” She also details the process of pitching a project to a well-funded Web site that was seeking videos about women and reveals its male executives’ outrageous reaction to her idea (and her own exquisite comeback). Yet she is similarly unsparing about her own moral compromises and human failings in the course of making “Gray,” about their grave consequences and their effect on her and on her approach to her work from then on.
“Gray,” as Anger describes it, is a personal film based on a true story, in which a young woman named Anne Marie, who returns to her rural home town to care for her ailing father, has a succession of boyfriends and “secret lovers,” gets pregnant, and heads off in search of her mother, who abandoned her at birth. Anger filmed it in her actual home town (which she doesn’t name), with people who live there, including her best friend in the lead role and her real-life father playing the character’s father, and with her real-life friend Ashley Connor (who is one of the most original cinematographers working today) doing the daring and phantasmagorical camerawork. It’s a female-centric story—both onscreen and behind the scenes—and Anger details the painful personal stories of her work on the film (including pregnancy and abortion) that both figure in the film and that, as she now sees it, she didn’t have the candor or the artistry to include. She takes its departures from the truth as aesthetic as well as ethical shortcomings, and, in her relentlessly self-revealing and self-critical storytelling in the course of “My First Film,” she attempts to set both the record and the art straight.
In the process, she makes vastly imaginative and politically trenchant connections between the place of women in the independent-filmmaking world and in the world at large, and the connection between her personal choices in both realms. Here’s the kicker: Anger submitted “Gray” to a large number of film festivals, all of which turned it down and, as she perceives it, sent her back to square one—having made her first film, she hasn’t made a first film at all and has to redo the entire process, with its hustles, its humiliations, and its risks, in order to make a first film for the second time. Throughout “My First Film,” Anger is sharply self-deprecating about the artistic merits of her unreleased film. I, like the rest of her audience, only saw about half of “Gray,” because she shows only about thirty-five or forty minutes of it, fragmented and with the divided attention of her onscreen commentary; but the excerpts that she showed are furiously imaginative, original, and moving, and suggest that the entire film is better than many that got festival screenings, theatrical releases, and critical acclaim. It wouldn’t be the first or last film that, being rejected, calls into question not the filmmaker’s art but the judgment and worthiness of the gatekeepers. The entirety of Anger’s performance of “My First Film” is a deeply moving and distinctive creation in itself; it’s also the closest thing to a release of “Gray” that we’re likely to get.