In 1997, Amy Ziering Kofman, a former student of Jacques Derrida, had been filming the iconic and somewhat controversial French philosopher for a few years. She was introduced to Kirby Dick, who was in the finishing stages of his powerful documentary, Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, which took the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Kofman and Dick soon realized that his interest in philosophy and his particular style of filmmaking would complement her familiarity with Derrida's work. For the next five years, in addition to interviewing countless supporting players, they filmed Derrida at his home in France, traveling abroad and lecturing. When they released their film Derrida in 2002, the unique documentary was met with widespread critical acclaim. I met with Dick the week following Derrida's death to discuss his experience of working with him. Unfortunately, Amy Ziering Kofman was unable to join us.
Did you know Derrida was terminally ill? Were you part of his dying process as far as talking to him, or knowing what was happening?
Not really. We learned that he was ill about a year and a half ago, and saw him several times after that. The film was already finished and had been released theatrically. But death, and his death, was something we thought about quite frequently during filming. Derrida himself has written a great deal about death, and it's very much at play in the film. And we were aware that this film would seem to have a different tone once he was dead. We knew that the film would have one quality when seen by an audience while he was alive, and a much different quality when viewed by an audience after he was dead. It's not that the film was made for two different audiences, but it was made with the awareness that the perspective on the film would shift.
I know you can't speak completely for Amy but - his death is still very fresh - do you already have a different feeling about the film as far as what your imprint has been, seeing that maybe a hundred years, two hundred years or so down the line, people will see this? He brought this up in the film - how you and Amy as filmmakers were shaping how people will see him beyond his written words.
There was awareness of that, and of that responsibility. But at the same time, the film is an impression of Derrida, an impression of our interactions with him, both while we were filming, and from reading his work as well. We wanted to keep an immediacy to that impression, something more specific to our interaction with him rather than an objective and factual presentation of who he was - as he says in the film, the film is actually our autobiography. So the film wasn't made with the idea of situating him to audiences hundreds of years into the future - I think that would be quite an ambitious and perhaps overly grandiose undertaking. But to get back to the issue of death and filmmaking, especially documentary filmmaking... Although I think this is different for Amy, when I'm making a film about a subject, my relationship with that subject is such that, in some ways, the subject is, in a way, dead, and yet, after they die, it seems as if they are still alive. I think in part that's because when I am making the film, especially during the editing stages, I am relating much less to the actual person than to the representation of the person, who, like someone who is dead, cannot respond to me. On the other hand, after the subject dies, in another way it seems the person is still alive, because through making the film my relationship with them has become so personal and intimate, and that experience is still present.
So it seems paradoxical.
There is a paradox.
If you were documenting someone's life from beginning to end, for example, a child growing every day - they evolve every day. So that moment's already gone.
Exactly. But that moment is still with you, too.
When you look at that child, you look at the child not only as they are, but also as they were, so even though that moment is gone, it's still there for you because you've experienced it.
What I'm thinking about is how you structured the movie. There was the voice-over; there were the interviews, and then the day-to-day, more banal things, such as Derrida eating his breakfast. Well, that breakfast is gone, and then the dishes went in the dishwasher, and he goes off for his haircut, or whatever. So once those momentary things are captured by the camera and cut and sound and music go on, is there already a grief process to that moment being put away?
That's an interesting observation, and I think one of the reasons the domestic imagery of him has such poignancy. At one point during the editing of the film, we showed Derrida some of that footage, not really as edited scenes, but more as if they were home movies. It seemed to have an impact on him, to bring up his own mortality. For Derrida, death was continually on his mind. He told us once, in an interview, which I believe we've included in the extras on the DVD, that when we were filming him, he would frequently imagine other people watching that footage after he was dead. And Amy and I thought about the footage in a similar way. For example, there is a shot of Derrida eating his lunch. It's just a simple record of a mundane activity and yet, because Derrida is such a historically important figure, we knew it gained significance because it's the only record of Derrida eating, and it will be the only opportunity people in the future will have to see how he prepared his food, spiced it, laid it out, etc. So already, there's a quality of his death contained in that moment. This is a man who's going to have a historical significance and reach, and so, even when he was alive, in some way, you couldn't help but look at the footage as if he was dead.
So it was more of a consciousness of how you approached it as you were perhaps making the choices of what would go in and what the viewer would see?
We were always conscious of these issues surrounding death and his eventual death. But I don't want to get too morbid about it.
The other thing this leads into is: there's a legacy that you're part of. This documentation, which not a lot of people were a part of - do you feel privileged, being a part of how people will perceive or remember him?
I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to make this film about him. I feel privileged to have read his work and to have worked with him. And I feel privileged, obviously, to make a film that will contribute, in whatever way it does, to his legacy. Of course, his legacy is certainly much more than this film. If he's remembered two or three hundred years from now, it's going to be because of that, not because of the film. But yes, Amy and I both feel very happy that the film has been able to present his thinking to audiences around the world. We've gotten very good responses both from audiences who've been very familiar with his work as well as from audiences who may have only heard his name.
That brings me to what Elvis Mitchell wrote when he reviewed Derrida for the New York Times in 2002: "The directors know that Mr. Derrida must be introduced to neophytes who will not have a firm grasp of deconstruction until they see how it's woven into the fabric of the film." Would you agree or disagree?
The film was made for a range of audiences who might be very familiar with his work and also audiences who may not even, in some cases, been aware of who he was.
They've heard the name. Sounds familiar.
Yes, exactly. It's not a primer on his work. It doesn't explain Derrida, but it is made in such a way that people who have not read his work will gain an understanding of his thinking and an understanding of his person.