By Jesse Cumming
For all its tactility and materiality, filmmaker Sandra Davis’ use of 16mm film is rarely left a question of form. Throughout a body of work produced from the late 1970s through the present – an oeuvre at once intimate and elusive – Davis has repeatedly returned to physicality and touch as key themes activated by her choice of medium. The body as it relates to sex, motherhood, and medicine are among her most resonant points of inquiry, spanning early major works like Maternal Filigree (1980) though Ignorance Before Malice (2002-2006), Davis’ cri de coeur directed against the exploitative and byzantine American medical system.
Having studied filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, Davis arrived at her chosen métier with an interest in painting as well as the baroque in art – two modes that have influenced several formal and thematic aspects of the artist’s approach to filmmaking. Less explicit, but also foundational, is an overarching commitment to feminism and feminist approaches to personal filmmaking, something especially evident in Maternal Filigree.
Described by Davis as “an exploration of life in the female body,” the film sutures glimpses of the filmmaker’s body with footage of her children and a variety of objects, from glass crystals to eggs and human figurines. Kaleidoscopic in its form – at times literally! – Maternal Filigree figures the human form as an assemblage of isolated faces, legs, arms, torsos, and hair, with the body’s occasionally rugged textures presented as a counterpoint to lithe fabrics and dancing light. In the most dazzling of the film’s many beautiful moments, Davis films an enrobed body underwater as textiles swirl around the figure. While silent save for a slow and consistent analog hum, the film’s kinetic, hypnotic cuts produce musical rhythms.
For all Maternal Filigree’s exquisite attention to various surfaces, a key extension of Davis’ concern with the body relates to concepts of self and subjectivity, in particular women’s subjectivity. In Matter of Clarity (1986), among other sources Davis incorporates texts by Helen Keller revealing certain assumptions regarding the nature of perception. The film returns again and again to ideas of physical connection, as Davis shows images of hands and bodies in various forms of contact, with fingers entwined or hands laid upon forearms. In the voice-over, the dynamic of touch between men and women (sexual or otherwise) is discussed. Elsewhere this inquiry into modes of human contact is further enriched through the artist’s continued concern with science and nature, at its most grand (sublime shots of clouds over a bay at dusk) and intimate (tightly framed footage of flower pistils and stamens, accompanied by fragments of voices detailing the mating rituals of plants). By shifting scale in this way, Davis shows the “matter of clarity” referenced in the film’s title to be elusive but ever-worth pursuing.
In the medium-length A Preponderance of Evidence (1989), Davis again gives voice to the experiences of women. In this case the film is structured around three different voices: a Russian Jew who lived through the revolution and World War II; another woman who recites her experience of an illegal, anesthetic-free abortion; and the filmmaker herself. Somewhat atypically, alongside her original fragmentary footage of nature and more abstract imagery – including a particularly gorgeous sequence of a church interior reduced to streaks of amber light – Davis incorporates and manipulates sourced footage. Chief among the found materials woven into the film are 1950s educational films: Father Knows Best-era clips rife with patriarchal lessons and images of woman’s subjugation that echo throughout the first-person testimonials.
Shot in 1991 and 1992 and finished in the late 1990s, the films Au Sud (To the South) (1991), À la Campagne, À Khan-Tan-Su (Into the Country, to Khan-Tan-Su) (1992), and Une Fois Habitée (Once Inhabited) (1992) constitute Davis’ French Trilogy. Somewhere between home movies and miniature, moving postcards, these three exquisite short works have been described by the filmmaker herself as “odes.” Unlike the longer, denser and more conceptual “big monsters,” Davis’ short pieces exist as a parallel but no less accomplished series. Elegant and inviting, the works are deceptively deft and considered in their use of editing that frequently plays with and against motion, shapes, and colours.
The isolated words “place, sea” open Au Sud, which plays like a staccato version of her Canyon Cinema peer Bruce Baillie’s All My Life (1966), with chanteuse Sarah Vaughan’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” layered over Davis’ thrilling, rapid glimpses of flowers, sand, water, facades, and other sights around the unnamed Riviera town. The sea itself, and the dance of light on its surface, occupies the latter third of the film, as the song ends and the opening voice returns to recite appropriately fragmented words: “though, place, sun, well.”
The marriage of elegant jazz with fragmented voice-over and fleeting, sun-dappled images echoes throughout the other two pieces in the trilogy. With One Fois Habitée, the filmmaker condenses her scope, splitting the film between images captured around a calm, sunny home and the sturdy bricks of a classical church. With À la Campagne, À Khan-Tan-Su, the shortest of the trilogy, Davis reduces her scope still further to introduce and examine the difference in textures and shape between flowers and stone steps. The style of these “odes” can be seen in some of Davis’ more recent work, including For a Young Filmmaker (2014) and Saisonnier (2016), each finely observed studies of environments, both in terms of the natural world and one’s chosen surroundings.
In the midst of these small works, marked by beauty and sunlight, one finds Ignorance Before Malice (2006), Davis’ darkest and harshest film. In 1993 the filmmaker was the victim of a serious automobile accident, which left her with severe injuries and chronic pain. Produced out of an immense frustration at the inefficacies, exploitation, and callous profit motive Davis encountered in the medical and insurance industry during her years of treatment, the film stands as a major work, a film borne out of challenges at once emotional, physical, and technical.
As a filmmaker whose work frequently returns to questions of surfaces, Ignorance Before Malice is notable for its concern with what lies beneath. Here we find Davis’ ongoing navigation of the healthcare industry’s byzantine bureaucracies supported by several visual parallels. Throughout the film, we repeatedly see MRI footage of skulls and other body parts, presented with bright, pulsing colours, while elsewhere Davis extends the concept of infrastructure in images of computer-processed architectural renderings. Davis also incorporates Renaissance engravings and portraits that connect her present debacle with historical considerations of the “healing arts.”
Sonically and textually dense, the film incorporates on-screen text of personal frustrations which detail selected incidents of condescension and a routine lack of medical transparency or compassion. In the voice-over, the film alternates between news reports regarding the failings of the medical system and personal anecdotes.
“For two years no one touched me apart from the necessary contact of physical treatment,” reads one of the film’s intertitles, a stark statement that feels particularly painful when considered in dialogue with the sensuousness and tactility of Davis’ other films. The isolation and physical limitation the filmmaker experienced during the period of course influenced the production of the film itself. Unlike the fluid handheld camerawork of other pieces, Ignorance Before Malice was produced (almost) exclusively with the use of animation stand.
The claustrophobic effect often feels miles away from the openness of Davis’ broader body of work, though as a filmmaker she is ever capable of finding and fostering points of connection, something clear from her profoundly moving Crepuscule Pond and Chair (2002). Produced as an elegy to Davis’ brother after his sudden passing, the seven-minute film would likely be considered an “ode” in the filmmaker’s nomenclature, albeit one that operates with a depth present in her ambitious and grand works.
Associating footage of the automated chair her brother used with a subtly shimmering lake, alongside added piano, voice messages, and intertitles, the film serves to link a number of themes Davis has returned to throughout her career: family, health, life, death, connections (both made and missed), and the mysterious beauty of the natural world. Appropriately, the only onscreen text in the film is a frequently repeated personal sentiment, one of tenderness and love directed towards another, often from a distance: HOPE ALL IS WELL.
Jesse Cumming is a film programmer and writer based in Toronto.