Minor Archives: A Conversation with Elisabeth Subrin

By Lisa DarmsNovember 30, 2023

Minor Archives: A Conversation with Elisabeth Subrin
ELISABETH SUBRIN IS a New York–based director, artist, and writer whose work explores female subjectivity through conceptually driven shorts, installations, and a feature narrative film. Over her three-decade career, she has deployed a strategy she terms “speculative biography” in films on subjects ranging from photographer Francesca Woodman (1958–1981) to radical feminist Shulamith Firestone (1945–2012). Her influential 1998 film Shulie, a shot-by-shot reenactment of an unreleased 1967 documentary portrait of the firebrand Firestone when she was still a student, was included in Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade international critics’ poll of “The Greatest Films of All Time” in 2012 and 2022.

In 2018, Elisabeth and I created a residency of sorts for ourselves. I was just starting a book about my relationship to David Wojnarowicz (an artist I had never met but whose archive I cared for as senior archivist at the Fales Downtown Collection at NYU from 2009 to 2016) and the complicated responsibilities that archivists and biographers have towards their subjects. Subrin was just beginning research on a potential biopic of the French actress Maria Schneider. Now, five years later, I’ve finished my (unpublished) book, HAGiographies, and Subrin’s film Maria Schneider, 1983 has just won a 2023 Cesar for best short documentary film. Her installation based on it, The Listening Takes, was on view earlier this year at the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University.

The film and installation feature three actresses reenacting a short 1983 televised interview with Schneider. Despite the journalist’s insidious prompts, Schneider refuses to discuss her lead role opposite Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), a film in which she was subjected to a nonconsensual sex scene. Over the course of Subrin’s film and installation, subtle changes in their dialogue create an increasingly complex critique. The portrait of Schneider that emerges serves to model Subrin’s conviction that a person is never singular but is produced through multiple, shifting interpretations and perceptions.

Subrin will present Maria Schneider, 1983 and Shulie on December 2 and 3 at Metrograph in New York City, and on December 4 at Mezzanine at 2220 Arts + Archives in Los Angeles. We met recently to discuss the film, as well as our recent work, shared preoccupations, and the complex emotional relationship we have to our respective biographical subjects.


LISA DARMS: Can you talk about your term speculative biography and how you developed it?

ELISABETH SUBRIN: As early as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated with absences and erasures in the record of women’s lives, and the ways history embeds itself in our bodies. Early into making films and video art, I started setting misunderstood female subjects against the backdrop of the “official record”—for example, how the genesis and legacy of Shulamith Firestone’s writing and activism could be illustrated by her experiences in art school, and how it aligned with where we were now in terms of the promises of that era. Then, with the Francesca Woodman film, which I think is the one that’s most obsessed with the problems of biography, I focus on how the photographer was written into history in such a selective and manipulative way.

The only way to fill in the spaces where subjects have been repressed, erased, forbidden, misread, or controlled is to assert them, to imagine them, to bring them into consciousness. This insistence drives everything I do. I remember once, on a panel, somebody said that my work seems reparative and asked if it comes from a place of love, and at the time what came out of my mouth was: “I think it comes out of a feeling of anger.”

Anger can also be related to love, right? Being angry on behalf of the subjects?

Absolutely. That’s the reparative part. I do love all my subjects. And I don’t really care if they would love me back, because what matters is that they matter, that they mean something.

You know, another thing that I remember thinking about before I started working on these films was: What do we deem to be evidence? And this is so connected to your archival practice with David Wojnarowicz. In every historical institution, whether it’s a museum, or an archive, or the Library of Congress, there are ideological givens of what constitutes legitimate evidence that needs to be preserved. And in all of these works of speculative biography I’ve made, so much of what I’m doing is claiming nontraditional sources and forms as evidence. There’s a scene in my film Swallow (1995) where I’m dressed like a journalist and I’m holding a microphone crouching down in this film set that I’ve created of a teenager’s bedroom, and it’s like “Reporting live from the anorexic teenager’s bedroom.” Why is that not evidence?

You’re kind of describing the Riot Grrrl Collection I started when I was at NYU that documents the youth feminist movement from the 1990s. That collection is made up of individual archives created by teenage activists who were grabbing control of the means of production, teaching themselves to play music and making zines, often in domestic spaces.

Right. You were archiving the lives of young women in a very specific time period and context.

To go back to what you were saying about what is or isn’t preserved. People often characterize “The Archive” as this authoritarian space that is obsessively organized, and where there’s a scarcity of material. And that’s all very true. But at the same time, what I noticed when I started working with archives 15 years ago is that it’s also total fucking chaos in there. Archives are filled with minor forms, and with detritus that we don’t normally think of as functioning as evidence, and people have been using those materials creatively for a long time. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a serious problem. But the problem is the matter of who has or hasn’t been collected.

Yeah, maybe there’s like Abraham Lincoln’s pipe and his toilet paper or whatever. But it’s still about choosing which subject you’re going to save in all that chaos, you know?

Right. The fact that subjects enter those spaces accidentally isn’t a justification for how we’ve collected. My ideas on this are very influenced by the fact that most of my professional experience has been with the archives of people and movements that were, at one time, considered peripheral or unimportant. I’m curious about how minor genres and materials sneak into official histories, which is why the interview you use as the starting point for Maria Schneider, 1983 is interesting to me. That interview was recorded and saved in an archive, right? It seems like the banality and minor status of the interview are also what make it so powerful.

Yes, absolutely. Working with the audiences’ confusion about the significance of the “minor” subject is a conceptual strategy as well. It forces viewers to engage in this question of value in real time. Why is she laboriously reenacting something that on the surface seems insignificant? What is underneath the surface? In this case, Maria’s interview was preserved as part of an episode of a revered cinephiliac TV program, Cinéma cinemas, that was primarily devoted to more famous auteurs and actors. Had her interview not been in this larger episode, I doubt it would have been saved. In fact, in the box set they later released, they even shortened her interview, focusing only on the Last Tango in Paris question.

The way that things accidentally end up being preserved can be as consequential as the outcomes of intentional collecting.

Yes. I’ll give an example of one of the things that influenced my film The Fancy (2000). I was road-tripping through the Southwest, and at Chaco Culture National Park I read this book about archaeological digs in that area. Different generations of archaeologists and their students would find these incredible ancient Native American ruins and interpret them from their own (primarily white male) perspective, knowledge base, etc. But then, over time, robbers would come in and steal things. And the remains of things preserved in layers of sand and dirt would shift, so that every new generation of archaeologists would make different deductions from the same ruins. Don’t you think the same thing happens in archives? That what something means is just going to keep changing?

Totally. This is a bit of a sideline, but that’s why the archives profession has made it part of our practice to also document our own decisions. I know that’s happening in other fields too, like conservation and archaeology. But the decisions of the archivist herself and others involved in the process of something being collected become part of the archival record.

I think it would be interesting to hear a little bit more about why you chose this interview with Maria Schneider. How did you come to the decision to present it as, or make it into, an artwork?

When I initially watched Maria’s interview, it was the first time since I made Shulie where I had this particular sensation about a piece of archival footage: There’s nothing there, but there’s something there, and I can’t stop watching it. I thought, Okay, it’s interesting in the sense that she was very early to critique the film industry, but initially I didn’t feel as strongly as I had when researching for Shulie, where I was just like, Oh my God, my sense of a kind of time travel between the 1960s and the ’90s is so fucking profound. But I couldn’t stop watching the interview with Maria. I showed it to [my partner] Patty and she was like, “They’re torturing her.” But it was the most quiet torment. And when I started analyzing the five shots that comprise the interview, and what each one encapsulated, and the many ways Maria worked to evade the questions, it started to have a parallel play with what had happened to her in her actual life. And by the end, the way they were pushing her to discuss the filming of Last Tango in Paris felt like a kind of retraumatization.

That’s where it started: an instinct. I once had this tourist book of Rome, where there were pictures of the ruins with transparencies layered on top of the page that show you where the ruins were in different historical time periods. That’s what I felt like I was seeing in the interview with Maria. Not just her resonance and how her story might have changed if she had lived, if she was alive right now, but also how women have been saying this and experiencing this same thing for decades.

There was a resonance and cross-historical articulation through our consciousness and our experience, and emphasizing that, recreating it multiple times, would create those layers horizontally. And the installation version became a way to layer them, on top of each other and collectively, even more.

Your film is also a collaboration with the actors. What was that process like?

The interview is essentially a seven-minute close-up full of silences. With Manal Issa, who plays the first Maria, the challenge was the intense performance demands of verisimilitude. Whereas in rehearsals with the actresses Aïssa Maïga and Isabel Sandoval, I asked, “What are the fewest words you would need to change in Maria’s dialogue to make it true to your own experience in the film industry?” And what was staggering to me was how few words they wanted to change. They both deeply related to all of this, and they made very few changes, which we wrote into their scripts. But with Isabel, who plays the third Maria, I realized at some point in the process that I wanted to go further in the last reenactment, and I had to call her and say, “Look, I’ve written this new dialogue. Are you willing to play this thing you didn’t sign up for?” And she was.

The performances are so powerful that I think it’s easy to forget when you’re watching that there is also an interviewer. You hear the interviewer speaking; you don’t see her.

You see her hand.

Yeah, but it almost became invisible to me because I was so focused on the faces of these incredible women. I wonder if there’s any kind of parallelism you see between the interviewer and yourself as the person “on the other side” of the camera.

I feel like I’m always on the side of the actors. The original off-screen interviewer, who’s also the co-director, engages in unconscious sadism in a way, which I don’t think was her intention at all. The actress Amélie Prévot plays the interviewer with an astute understanding of the line between curiosity and cruelty. What I’ve thought about a lot recently is that the film is also about the white, patriarchal gaze, emanating from both the camera and the journalist. Throughout the film, we see a white woman’s hand off camera. When she espouses the brilliance of Bertolucci and asks Maria to separate “the artist from the art,” she is privileging white male power over a woman’s trauma. While we never see Amélie, all three actors said that they absolutely could not have done it without her to react to. Amélie’s simulation and timing, and the humility to take on a role where you’re never seen, was so generous and beautifully calibrated.

There are two registers. There’s Amélie, the actor, and then there’s the original interviewer. I think there’s something significant here about the mode of journalism itself, that it isn’t just about the moment of The Great Male Director and the sanctity of that in French culture in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s also about the methodology of journalism, which is to—artfully—force an exposure.

Absolutely. And when I’ve looked at the real life interviewer’s body of work, she was also someone who was a biographer of women’s lives. Compared to men’s interviews of Maria, this interview is compassionate. There are interviews with Maria where male interviewers literally said to her face, when she was in her fifties, “So, that film ruined your life.”

But at the same time, there’s the pressure of the interviewer to get something new and novel out of the interviewee.

Yeah. She clearly knows that this could be a problem, the way she frames the questions.

I wanted to go back to when you were describing first seeing the interview as archival footage. It reminded me of when I started listening to David Wojnarowicz’s tape journals. I had already been his archivist for several years when we started to preserve them, and occasionally I would steal a few minutes in my office to listen to his audiocassettes. At points where he’s describing how uncomfortable it felt to be talking into a tape recorder, I almost felt as if I was being addressed. He talks about wanting to share himself and his work, but also not wanting to reveal himself—which is a theme throughout everything he did, but it feels particularly intimate in these tape journals, whose status is unknown (in terms of what they were intended for). That made me very uncomfortable, and later, when I and my co-editor made the decision to publish the tapes as a book, I was conflicted about it. Was this something he would have wanted? Is this a trespass? Is this a transgression?

That’s an important topic. What to make public.

In your recent interview with the Boston Art Review, you tell the interviewer, “I think you’re talking about compassion, and I did think a lot about: What would Maria be saying right now? And I don’t think she would like anything that was made [that really] exposed her.” It’s something I’m very preoccupied with: how we as people working with archival or biographical material negotiate this kind of exposure. In Maria Schneider, 1983, there is a deviation from the script that might get at a deeper truth, but it’s also potentially an exposure.

My decision to present a reenactment of a film depicting Firestone in art school was even more complicated, because Firestone was alive when I made it, and she didn’t the original film. Now, my choice to rewrite the end of the interview with Maria is based on my speculation of how she would feel in 2023, using extensive archival research, and what her friends and family said they think she would say now.

There’s a line in a recent interview where you say that the installation is smarter than you are. That’s how I feel about my book HAGiographies—that it’s much smarter than I am, or at least than I feel I am able to be when I’m speaking (like right now). And I think that’s precisely why we choose to work in the specific genres we do.

I love the idea of us saying that our work is smarter than us, because women rarely publicly assert the power of their own work. And I love it because the reason why anybody makes a work of art in any form is to get to places they can’t otherwise get to. I think that’s the gorgeous thing about a creative practice, that it comes from, well …

… a deeper part of us.

LARB Contributor

Lisa Darms is a writer, archivist, and executive director of Hauser & Wirth Institute, a nonprofit devoted to artists’ archives. Her book HAGiographies considers the responsibilities of the fan-archivist-biographer to her subjects.


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