Su Friedrich has no interest in polished images and perfectly crafted stories. She films whatever stirs her passion. And she films it in which ever way she sees fit, freely combining experimental film with traditional narratives and documentary styles. Her works are very personal and deal with minorities and their history/histories. However small and intimate the stories, they transcend the personal and comment on the bigger picture of contemporary American politics– sometimes in a subtle, other times in a loud and bold voice: In The Ties that Bind, Friedrich and her mother, a woman of German descent who grew up in the Third Reich, explore their common history together. Hide and Seek tells the stories of lesbian women and their childhoods. In From the Ground Up, a cup of coffee stirred Friedrich’s interest, so she tracked down its roots all the way to Guatemala, exposing the gruesome complexity of today’s industries.
With her newest installment, Gut Renovation, which recently screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, it is her anger about the gentrification and the abolishment of the artist residencies in her Brooklyn neighborhood, Williamsburg, that caused her to pick up her camera again and document the vast and aggressive change of her environment.
Keyframe: We are sitting here at the Berlinale where your new film is being screened. Tell me, how did it all start?
Su Friedrich: Well, I was a photographer when I was in college. And then I, sort of by accident, took a Super 8 filmmaking workshop and, because this was back in like the 1970s and I had no money, I just moved to New York. So, and then I think I started out more as an experimental filmmaker. I was hanging around more with artists than with filmmakers and I was starting to see experimental films and they were completely foreign to me. I mean, I had gone through college and studied art, but never saw that sort of work. And it really connected, because of studying painting and sculpture—and there is such a relationship between that and more experimental work. So that seemed very much the right place for me, but I’ve always had an interest in fiction and documentary, so I guess, over the years it really depended on the subject of the film. You know, some people only do documentary, only fiction, only experimental and I’ve never been like that.
Keyframe: Do you think about the style before you do the film? Or do you just go with your gut?
Friedrich: I think it’s a combination. Or—and sometimes it really changes, like I made this film Sink or Swim and it’s ended up being kind of what would you call like my ‘landmark film’ or sort of the marker. It’s like, if anybody knows my work, that’s the film they know. So I would say, in the end, the form that I chose for it was very successful, but it wasn’t at all what I thought of doing at the beginning. I thought of doing a fiction film and I had started to write a script and you know just imagined the whole thing as a narrative and then one day, I thought, ‘No, this is completely wrong,’ and developed the form that I did end up using. So it’s like in the case of Gut Renovation, I didn’t ever think about it as fiction, but I think there’s the obvious approach, like ‘I have to go out and record buildings, I have to go and talk to people I know in the neighborhood,’ but then the way it ended up being constructed I didn’t know until I started editing.
Keyframe: Do you ever think of the audience that is going to watch your film?
Keyframe: You always think of it. Because some filmmakers just make films for themselves and then, you know, if it translates, fine, but if not…
Friedrich: I always have thought really intensely about the audience. And it’s funny, I think for some people, they might wonder about that, because of course I’m not doing anything conventional, so it doesn’t look like I had a focus group the way the Hollywood film does. But I think because I started out making experimental films at a time when the people who are currently working were doing structural films. You know, they would have a system, they’d say, ‘Well, I decided to only shoot at two o’clock and every shot had to be thirty-seven seconds and. . . ’ – you know? And I think, okay, that’s maybe an interesting idea for you, but the experience watching it is completely opaque to me, I just don’t know where I’m going, why you’re shooting that. And so that made me—I wouldn’t say cautious, but it made me think, you really have to think about the experience of the person seeing this film. You cannot just do this for yourself.
Keyframe: There is an interesting thing you do in Gut Renovation, where you have commentary, your own voiceover of what you’re saying in the second that you’re just holding the camera and pointing it at the things that are happening. There’s another layer of written commentary that you superimpose on your pictures, which is really funny and even contradicts yourself. Why did you do that?
Friedrich: I just liked it, because in a way it gives you this sense of two separate timeframes: my emotions in that very moment and then later on a reflection, because we do sometimes regret or think again about what we’ve done or said and so I think it’s funny to really make that absolutely present in a film. You know, I have thought a lot about what it means to present language in a film, aside from a narrative dialogue language or a documentary narration of that conventional kind. So this is this other kind of language. I feel like in this film I finally had the chance to play with these different voices. You know, a sort of interior voice, the public, exterior voice, the sort of dry commentary, the funny thought.
Keyframe: In terms of film theory you’re actually breaking a rule here. You are exposing yourself as an ‘unreliable narrator’…
Because I am! They took away my home and changed my neighborhood, I was furious. Filmmakers are just human, we are just individuals. I am making some very big statements about what these developers think they’re doing, what the city thinks it’s doing, what the people moving into—and it’s a little bit dangerous to make sweeping statements about the whole economic movement or social situations. And so I felt I had to be a little bit humble. I don’t know everything. But I appreciate it that you noticed it, because to me that is important as it transports both stories: the one of what happened to Williamsburg and then my personal story.
Keyframe: Do you think your film can move anything, can change anything, even on the smallest basis? Obviously people are not going to say, ‘Oh, we’re really sorry, we’re going to move out of Williamsburg again, so you can come back…’
Friedrich: (Laughs.) Wouldn’t that be amazing? I don’t really think you can make something and think that it will change anything, but let’s say, when I was working on it, it was more the feeling that I didn’t want people to forget. I wanted to say, ‘Look, there will be all kinds of things said and done and written after this about it and I just want to make sure that I made a record of what I know happened.’ But what I’m finding, it’s really sort of surprising, is everywhere I go, people are saying, ‘It’s exactly like here.’ You know, Toronto, Berlin, you name it! And so I think, ‘Oh, well, it’s certainly teaching me something about what’s going on in other places that I have never been aware of.’ I mean, I certainly was aware of problems with real estate in economy before, but this very particular kind of problem is being talked about so much, because I was showing the film, and maybe somebody would see it and think ‘Ah, I wonder, if our city is making a plan behind closed doors for five years from now, let’s go find out what’s going on.’ I don’t know.
Keyframe: Some people say it’s the artists and that wherever artists move in a big group and start renovating places they’re the first gentrification wave.
Friedrich: Well, this is a huge debate. I, of course, think artists are workers like anybody, I mean artists like anybody else should have a place to live and work in the city they live in. No matter where you are as an artist, you are a good member of that community just like anybody else. No matter if you worked at Burger King, if you worked at the bank. And so, if there isn’t a special place that’s built for artists to work, then what do they do? Somebody at the first screening made a really interesting point about the image of an artist changing over the decades. And I do think this is true: you have this image of the artist as somebody like Damien Hirst, who is rich and successful. There are the few hundred artists who are like that. And meanwhile there are hundreds of thousands of artists who aren’t. And I think, you know, the people I knew who were living in Williamsburg were not spending tons of money and demanding really expensive restaurants. We were eating at the Polish diner. The term gentrification comes from the word ‘gentry’, so it means, that the gentry have moved in. And I think, the artists are not the gentry.
Keyframe: So if someone gave you a big budget but would demand to have a say in your art—would you do it and maybe become the Damien Hirst of avant-garde cinema or would you stay poor? Gentry or victim of gentrification?
Friedrich: (Laughs.) No, I wouldn’t do that. But we do depend on money to a different degree. But there is something worse. I think people start creating their own conditions, like people look out at the landscape and think ‘Hmm, if I made this, then somebody would give me money.’ So by intending to get the money it seems like there are conditions, but they’re ready to change themselves to fit the conditions. I would rather not work than get to this place. But now video is essentially free, I think that it’s free, so unless you think of going to Tahiti and can’t afford that, then there are so many opportunities for independent work.
Su Friedrich’s films are also available via Outcast Films.
Beatrice Behn is a German film critic, curator and festival director of the International Comedy Film Festival.