The header image is taken from ‘Song for the Sky’ (2019), dir. Eli Hayes, Alex Davies, Dov Doviak
Life has been coming at us fast lately. With the tip of a hat, March turned to May, and by the time you’re reading this we will be on June’s doorstep. Too much has happened to try and sort out or cope with all at once, but this week we are taking a break from UDVFF to remember a life we lost one week ago; Eli Hayes.
To many of us, Eli Hayes was a voice we came to know indirectly through his effervescent letterboxd presence. He logged and reviewed films at a rate that would seem impossible even if you did nothing but sit in your room watching movies all day, every day without sleep. And he often wrote in his entries of depression and insomnia. But on top of the viewings, he made his own films, and at a rate which began as intimidating and escalated in recent years to downright super human — as if he had reached some sort of flow state, constantly knowing exactly what to do with raw footage, and almost as if he had an automated software to edit everything together according to his ‘methods.’ As undeniable as the editing patterns are in so much of his work (often using diagonally mirrored images in a quartered frame, under a series of layers built to abstract the ordinary, for one), it is equally undeniable that he was constantly developing his visual voice. Eli’s films are experimental not only in the sense of their stylistic choices, but in the breadth of styles he attempted — he shot simple landscapes, constructed psychedellic fever-dreams, worked with found footage, borrowed from popular music without a second thought, as if constantly following the clear guidance of a higher calling.
I never came to know Eli personally, but always thought of our meeting as inevitable — he seemed to globe trot semi-regularly, and made friends wherever he would go (as well as virtual friends everywhere else in the world). Our few brief virtual interactions amounted to him being very supportive of my work. He was only one year younger than I, and in many ways I felt we were on a journey together, the next generation of upcoming amateurs. Seeing him continue to pour himself into his work pushed me to continue at many points when I felt like giving up completely. I spent so much time worrying about whether or not anything I made was of value, worried that it was only a weaker re-iteration of work I admired. Eli held a steadfast bravery when it came to revealing his work. I held a constant fear of being revealed as a phony, that making my work visible made me vulnerable to attack. He threw his work into the world effortlessly, and I feel that even those who didn’t appreciate his work respected his ethic.
Last year he even established an online film festival: The Hazel Eye Film Festival, which included a couple of my own films (Yes, Hazel Eye is a clever anagram of not the letters but the sounds which make up ‘Hayes, Eli’). His letterboxd profile is the window through which so many of us learned a little bit about him (and about what the world of film had to offer). I can’t even remember how I first came across his profile, but I do remember that he was a major factor in bringing my eyes to Benning. One of my favorite of his diary entries was for American Dreams (Lost and Found) (1984).
When I had the chance to meet Benning just one year after learning about his work, I had Eli on my mind. I brought my camera to the interview and arrived early, in case I might see something interesting on the bike ride over. On the way home I found out why I had packed my camera, as I watched the sun appear at the end of a drab day set on a sky worthy of Benning. I didn’t know what to do with that shot, and it sat on my hard drive until now; it was for Eli.
Just as I did not expect the news of his passing, I hardly expected it to hit me like it did. My tears fall (as do those of many others), and the world rolls on.
His biography as per IMDb:
“Eli Grier Hayes was born on November 5th, 1993 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He fell in love with cinema at a relatively early age upon viewing the works of directors such as James Benning and Chantal Akerman. Eli began screenwriting as he entered high school, and directed his first short films, “The Life That Follows” and “Nobody,” during his senior year. While enrolled at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York — where he received his bachelor’s degree in abnormal psychology, with a minor in creative writing — he founded Hazel Eye Productions. Eli has since directed, produced & edited more than twenty-five feature films, and approximately fifty short films. His work has been screened at over seventy festivals across six continents, including The Beijing International Short Film Festival, Hell’s Half Mile Film & Music Festival, The Pune Short Film Festival, The Cannes International Film Festival’s Court Métrage, The Princeton Film Festival, Phoenix Film Festival Melbourne, and The Milwaukee Short Film Festival, as well as venues such as Anthology Film Archives and The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In 2017, he graduated from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee with a master’s degree in film & creative media, and went on to become the Project Manager at The Nashville Film Institute. Eli recently relocated back to his home city of Milwaukee, where he was working on several different projects, both short form and feature length, before passing away on May 23rd, 2020 at the age of 26 of an accidental overdose.”
He made lists incessantly, and his letterboxd bio diligently lists 90 of his favorite film directors, separated by ‘feature’ and ‘short’ film categories and reflecting his extensive and distinguished palate; from Bokanowski to Straub-Huillet, Jodie Mack to Vittorio De Seta. It was through Eli that I learned of so many remote and forgotten corners of film history. He dug through obscure vaults and treasure chests with restless vigor, and shared the bounties without reciprocal expectation. He never criticized newcomers for their naivety, as cinephiles are wont to do. Instead, he pointed curious young minds in the direction of challenging film art without the slightest air of elitism. He made the nearly inaccessible open for all to enjoy. He was by no means a critic, but he took every opportunity to celebrate the works which affected him and he loved.
During the years that I followed his filmmaking from a distance, I felt I was watching the development of a major artist in his early stages, certain that one day in the future he would produce a masterwork, a contribution to the moving image form. I was certain he had a lifelong and fulfilling career ahead of him. Since his passing I’ve slowly started to catch up with the legacy he left behind, and as I start to look at his most recent work more closely, I’m beginning to think he already made his contribution. I just hadn’t realized it yet.
When the moment strikes, I implore you to sit down with a few of his works.
(you have the damn time)
“Eli Hayes was a true pioneer of 21st-century cinema and one of the friendliest, most compassionate people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He leaves behind him a towering body of work that will continue to touch and inspire filmmakers for generations. It is difficult to pick out a single project from his wide and varied oeuvre, but if pushed to choose a film that means the most to me, it would have to be his 2019, 3-and-a-half-hour feature Histoire(s) du Temps. As the title would suggest, the film is deeply influenced by the theory and practice of Jean-Luc Godard, in particular his notion that cinema could function as a tool of historical thought. As Godard argued, the 20th century produced a substantial archive of audio-visual material, and to understand the workings of history one needed simply to review these archival fragments and recombine them into new patterns. Thus, Godard envisioned a new form of intellectual montage that could articulate historical patterns through the juxtaposition of footage produced within different eras – and, in so doing, reflect on the evolution of cinema itself.
Histoire(s) Du Temps treats Godard’s late period work as a jumping-off point (Eli considered In the Darkness of Time and Origins of the 21st Century, in particular, to be amongst the greatest films ever made), but is truly the work of a singular auteurist voice. Eli elegantly explores the potentialities of audio-visual historiography, weaving together a vast wealth of archival material into a rapturous tapestry of sight and sound. Part essay, part poem, Histoire(s) du Temps utilizes the most modern of digital editing tools to reconstitute a century’s worth of images into a sensuous vision of modern history that is achingly, breathtakingly beautiful. Eli divides the film into 10 sections, each one focusing on a different era and geographical location.
The majority of the footage was shot on amateur equipment and depicts a snippet of private life, establishing a counter-history of cinema expressed through the lens of ordinary citizens, not studios or iconic filmmakers. Although the film is hyper-compressed, Eli doesn’t portray time as a relentless forward march, he invites us to luxuriate in the minutiae of each period, infusing mundane events with an incredible sense of weight. We experience time as a perpetual present, a succession of seemingly insignificant moments that we can only appreciate the value of once we look back on them in retrospect. By that point, of course, they have slipped away and are impossible to recapture. Histoire(s) Du Temps is one of the greatest studies of the relationship between temporality and the cinematic image ever produced.”
— James Slaymaker
James collaborated with Eli (and Ben Nash) on a short essay film, The Unchanging Sea (2018).