Review: ‘My First Film’ (2018) by Zia Anger

by Savina Petkova

“You’re in”, reads the email. I slide out of my chair to make myself a coffee – it’s going to be a long night. After four days of snooping around and refreshing Zia Anger’s twitter page at random times, I’m ‘in’, even though all the available slots for her interactive My First Film, have consistently filled up in less than six minutes. It’s the fourth week of lockdown in the Soviet-style building where I grew up, in Sofia, Bulgaria. Anger is based in the U.S., somewhere on the East Coast, and her soothing promise of 8PM EST translates to 3AM my time, in this forlorn end of the European world. Although I’ve been “in” lockdown for almost a month, I haven’t felt a part of anything lately, despite sitting in the middle of a bubbling (virtual) social chronotope. My sense of place is now clouded by the sameness of the interior. Naturally, being told you’re “in”, sparks a near-forgotten idea of joy.

The first word I saw attached to Zia Anger’s new project was “cathartic” – proliferating reviews and tweets, punctuated and un-, capitalized and lowercase. In Ancient Greece, theater culture originated from religious rituals as part of the consecrations in the name of Dionysus, god of wine, pleasure, and orgiastic festivities. People would gather to celebrate this togetherness in the most physical ways – feasts, drunkenness, touching – all of that now mourned by half of the world under quarantine. However, there was another important element that brought everyone together: telling stories. Familiar ones. Theatre plays were written in accordance with local and pan-Greek mythology, and even when playwrights would riff off the known myths and propose new twists, the story remained the same. The universality of it, its wide recognition was a crucial element for the communal experience of theater. Original storytelling devices were appreciated as they are today (stage effects, cranes and other mechanisms were pretty impressive even then), but the narrative, crucially, need not change, to ensure the cathartic experience of a play well-done.

“Catharsis”, or “katharsis”, etymologically means, “purification”, and Aristotle’s “Poetics” (c. 335 BC) defines this as a “cleansing from pity and fear” in the process of identifying with the protagonist of a Greek tragedy. This psychological response, catharsis, was impactful as it was shared by everyone present – the audience and the people on stage. Producing an uninhibited flow of emotions is a crucial moment in spectatorship and audience formation. My First Film invites you on a similar transformatory experience, deeply rooted in a cultural ritual of cleansing, while the notions of present and future times seem heavily dependent on the way one deals with the past.

Anger first wielded the power of live video during her collaborations with singer/songwriter Jenny Hval and Annie Bielski (Anger’s cousin). Also involved with indie artists such as Mitski,  Angel Olsen, Beach House, Maggie Rogers, Lola Kirke, and Zola Jesus, Anger’s contribution has been one of a powerhouse of creativity, experimenting alongside and championing female leads. Her objective has always had something to do with embodiment and the experience of corporeality. The physical side of it, as Anger shows, can be bracketed and even transcended. In a live performance, when she was physically unwell, she resorted to typing notes on her phone, incorporating Internet videos – even Snapchat filters – to engage with the audience when her body did not allow her to do so. My First Film was first enacted (‘shown’, or ‘premiered’ are part of the vocabulary with which we must dispense for now) at Indie Memphis 2018 and in 2019 Sheffield Doc Fest as part of the Official Competition. More than 20 live events (in the physical presence of an audience) happened until the world was put on lockdown in light of Covid-19. Then Anger flipped the page and rendered her interactive cinema performance in a completely virtual iteration.

Upon signing in to a private YouTube stream, an introduction was most appropriate. Anger takes the lead in a gesture that breeds a sense of community, and it’s clear we all trust her as she takes the leap of faith toward us. We don’t see her as she doesn’t see us but the desktop has brought together all our phone numbers (consent given when we send out messages to Zia herself) and a bunch of her expired instagram stories. Unfiltered, raw, giving – that’s what Anger is like as a filmmaker. She takes her time to chat with some of us, and there’s so much beauty in the few typos that appear on screen, and a slight satisfaction when they are deleted and corrected, one letter at a time. In a separate window, a notepad becomes “our” white board, the gravitational center that all of us associate with, while the rest of Anger’s desktop feels out-of-bounds. However, that feeling doesn’t last long. Her free-flowing written word guides us into every corner of the screen, unafraid to open and close tabs, have ads play, open YouTube, play music for us, or let us read her emails. By the time she shares a story of rejection and sexism, the split-screen becomes a cozy room that your fingers know intimately – the unevenness of a wall or the dust on your shelf.

Always All Ways, Anne Marie is the name of Anger’s sole feature, one she worked on extensively through grad school, made with her best friend (Deana LeBlanc) in the role of Anne Marie and her own father playing the protagonist’s dad. Summarised as a journey to find her mother, Always All Ways, Anne Marie is a dear and daring project that got rejected by 50 film festivals. Until recently, it was marked “abandoned” on its IMDB page (but no longer). In revisiting clips which make up nearly half the runtime of the film, Anger confronts her past self, her substantialized “first film” self, in both third and first person, leaving an impression of a taxidermied character, almost solidified in 2012. “I am still considered a first-time filmmaker”, she writes, and I deeply feel the claustrophobic cling of being glued to a version of yourself you don’t identify with anymore.

While she glides chronologically through her first film, the calmness of her pace resonated with the honesty of her accompanying words. Brutal and rough, her confessions bring up the most awkward and painful “backstage” stories. In My First Film, there is no off-screen space, and all of the space and the talking is given voluntarily. Rather than a restrictive (however nice a flow it could induce) Q&A or post-screening conversation, the monologue Anger presents us with an organic kind of storytelling that befits its purely virtual existence. As an experience, one feels as if she is talking directly to you, as your hard drive warms up your stomach, or as you cross your legs and hunch over closer to the screen. Some of us are probably watching on their TVs, expanding the view for a more “cinematic” feel. I, however, hug my laptop knowing that Zia is in front of a similar device, and suddenly, distance and proximity feel interchangeable. She is just on the other side of this screen, isn’t she?

I am not a filmmaker and I never aspired to be one. But the intellectual and experiential richness of My First Film works on many levels and speaks to everyone, personally. Creating something, a projection of yourself out into the world, already entails a sacrifice, a partition. To dispense of something that is, and is not yourself at the same time is easily equated with childbirth. And I have heard a lot of these metaphors from my filmmaker friends – making a film is like giving birth, or once: a dear one compared to a tumor. Detrimental but related to life; either life-saving or life-making. Such comparisons, though, do not point only to the pain of separation. My First Film explores the theme of separation in a touching yet ruthless way, having its participants come together with the filmmaker to experience not one, but many emotions – including fear of the future, and pity for your past self. This plethora of feelings is triggered by a superimposition of a film that never saw the projection light of conventional release, over typing one letter after another to convey pain and absolution. Rather than a deconstruction of what cinema is, Zia Anger offers a mode of creation. By the end, you get to share words, pictures, exchange emotions – even screams – and none of it feels any less physical. The story is universal, the reactions are personal but sharing them is what makes a community. My First Film is a mighty fine lesson in feeling-telling and society-making.

Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance film critic based in London. Her bylines include MUBI Notebook, photogenie, Electric Ghost Magazine, Girls On Tops and Screen Queens. She’s also a PhD candidate with a project on animal metamorphoses in contemporary European cinema at King’s College London.

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