Cinetracts Q&A: Su Friedrich

David Filipi, Director, Film/Video

Oct 06, 2020

Filmmaker Su Friedrich stands in a winter jacket on a Brooklyn rooftop with part of the skyline in the background

Su Friedrich’s contribution to Cinetracts ’20 captures a beautiful, sunny Mother’s Day in Brooklyn on May 10, 2020. It is about two months into the COVID crisis. People pass on the sidewalk and bicycle by, and everyone is wearing a mask. Yet, it appears to be a neighborhood determined to go about its daily routine. You can watch when Cinetracts ’20 makes its world premiere online on Thursday, October 8 at 7 PM. This interview was recorded on September 1, 2020. 

Do you remember what your thoughts were when we first approached you about participating? Did you have a reaction to the scope of the project? Did you have any ideas right away?

Well, I was flattered. I didn't know anything about the original Cinétracts. So, I accepted it without really thinking a lot about the original and what I would do in relation to it. I was interested how I might work with other people so, I said “yes," and then I viewed the original Cinétracts.  

At first, I was working on other things and so I thought I would figure it out later. After a few months, I didn't feel like responding to it directly, seeing that it was about riots in the street and protests against the government, even though we have Trump. I didn't want to do something that direct, although I could have at any point in the last year because so much is going on.

After talking to you later, I felt like it could be a reflection on what contemporary life is like and not necessarily related to huge demonstrations against any of the terrible things happening.

One of the really intense experiences I have had recently is that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had to shut down forever. Cathy, my partner, is a carnie. She grew up in the carnival, and we both love circuses and we go almost every year to the Ringling and also to the Big Apple. It was devastating that it was going to shut down, partly because of how PETA had been demonstrating against them, but there were other reasons, too. So, it made me really angry about what it means for the circus workers and what the circus has meant for people and what it means for this major American institution to end forever. Also, being older and having both of my parents die in recent years, it added to my sense of what my life has been filled with that is no longer in my life. The circus might seem trivial compared to a parent, but it was a really big deal to me.  I went to the two last circuses—one in Brooklyn and one out at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island—before they closed and I got really fantastic footage. So, I thought that was what I was going to do with my film. 

But, because of a chance occurrence, I ended up doing the one that I did do.

I do remember early on in our conversations you mentioning that you changed from one idea to another. But I don't remember you mentioning the circus. I hope you do make a film from that. 

Well I used a little bit of footage from it in my last film [2017’s I Cannot Tell You How I Feel]. There's a jokey moment where you see a woman getting shot out of a cannon. I have thought about making a film about the circus but I haven't done it yet. I did start cutting some of the circus footage together for Cinetracts and also for a different film that I'm working on now. It might develop into something. In the end, with the time limit for Cinetracts, it didn't seem like I could convey all of what I wanted to within two minutes.

So, it went away, but it was still on my mind.  And then my neighbor rang the doorbell one day, and that is why I made the film that I made.

Let me back up for a second.  We started hearing from many of the filmmakers right away when the shutdown started, everything from "I don't know if I'm going to be able to make my film" to "I've changed my idea." At first, we were worried that everyone was going to make a COVID film, but that turned out to not be the case. 

But your approach was really human, for lack of a better word. Everyone in your film has a mask on and it's going to be an amazing time capsule of that day and people just living their everyday life. I think you told me this but, just to confirm, it is your block, right?

Yes, that's the block I live on. When you see Peggy [Ahwesh] at the door, that's Peggy talking to Cathy at our house.

Could you talk about that day? Was the film completely spur of the moment? It seems so optimistic, people going about their business on a really beautiful day in Brooklyn. What were you thinking as you were shooting it?

Gigi, my neighbor—the one you see planting flowers—came to my door to get something. When I opened the door, it was gorgeous outside and so it was just instantaneous. I thought, well, let me grab my camera and go outside to see what's happening. So, a couple of months into COVID. It's a little different now, but back then it still felt very strange, very disturbing and New York was starting to come out of this really horrific situation that we had been in. And it was getting warmer and people were out more and, for me, there was a feeling about it that was really specific to Brooklyn. People needed to be outside, people wanted to socialize and have some of the same kinds of neighborhood activities as there had always been, even if everyone was going through this experience with COVID. Plus, it’s nice to film when the light is so beautiful.

So, I didn't think much except that I took my camera out and I thought, "OK, I'll start at one end of the block and go to the end of the other block and see what happens."  And that's what I did. And so, the people who are passing on either end of the block weren't people I knew, but there were a handful of people out on the block doing their usual stuff. Gigi was planting and somebody else was sitting on their stoop and Thaddeus was filling the fridge with food. I went along and recorded and I didn’t remember or think about the fact that it was Mother's Day until at the very end of filming and I was about to go inside and a neighbor got out of his car and went in the apartment and came back out again with even more balloons at which point I knew I had the last shot. 

When we moved to the block 11 years ago, we discovered that we had moved to a neighborhood and to a block where many of the people had been born on the block and still live here 50 years later. There was an incredible sense of people knowing each other. At this point, 11 years later, I can rattle off the names of all of the babies that have been born and all of the people who have died on the block because you start to know so much about everybody.

The fact that it was Mother's Day and the neighbors were doing this thing with the balloons made sense to me because it was connected to the block parties and all of the events that are a common part of the community that we live in. So, I was happy about that.

Mother's Day can be a day to celebrate if your mother is alive but it can also be a day to mourn. My mother died about a year-and-a-half ago. Cathy's mother died when she was six. That morning, we probably said, "Well, it's Mother's Day...Hi, Mom." We noted it, but it wasn't as if my mother was alive; we weren’t planning to have a party with her. When I was out filming and saw them [release the balloons] it was bittersweet. 

Two men hold up bunches of red and white balloons outside an old residential building in Brooklyn

Still from Friedrich's Cinetracts '20 contribution, courtesy of the filmmaker

One thing that has been interesting about this project is checking in with artists to see how they are doing with all that is going on in the world. It's impacted artists in different ways. Can you think back to that time, not necessarily as it relates to the Cinetracts project, but how this summer of civil unrest and the ever-present COVID has impacted your creativity as a filmmaker?

Something had been very different for me in spring that isn't directly related to COVID. Last summer, I started to work on a film, and I was also continuing to work on a book that has to do with a six-month trip through West Africa that I did when I was 20 years old. I had both things going on and then I was on sabbatical this spring. I spent the fall doing a lot of additional work on the women editors website. I thought that I would get back to work on my film and book in the spring because I would have more free time. But, in January, I went to a symposium at Princeton about William Greaves. I was talking with Louise, his widow, about a film that the library should purchase but on the Greaves website it still was offering films on VHS and DVD. She said she had been meaning to update it but of course her hands are full with many other things. So, I offered to update it. Starting in early February, I've devoted a lot of time to making a new website for him which I can do after my experience working on the Edited By website in terms of the tech side of it. I've had some help, but I know how to do a lot of it. I greatly admire him, and Louise is 87 years old, so it's not something she can take on or pay somebody to do. So, I launched into it and then COVID happened. And I've been engrossed in the website ever since. 

And then George Floyd was killed and the streets exploded. I've been extremely aware of how racist this country has been probably since I was five years old. I've always thought about Greaves’s work and how important it is in the way it speaks about racism in America. When the Black Lives Matter protests started happening, I thought, "Oh my God, I've got to get this website out there because of his work." Some of his films are well-known but there are other amazing films that haven't been seen for ages. So, my sense of urgency became more intense but it still takes time. It hasn't been launched yet [at the time of this interview], but working on it has sort of protected me from COVID in the sense that I wake up in the morning, have some coffee, talk to Cathy and then walk into my office to start working on it all day long, you know, "let me find that PDF, let me find that good picture, let me rewrite that blurb..."

A lot of filmmakers I know have been having a really hard time. Somebody I know spent 10 years raising money for their film and rewriting their script and getting everything together and suddenly they can't film. Or there are people who do documentaries who were going to go to Mongolia or Georgia and suddenly they can't do it. This sense of frustration is so acute. Cathy keeps saying, "You're a filmmaker, stop making that website and go film!" And I say, "I will, I will." But part of the way I work is about being in the world, engaging, filming on the street, and unless I wanted to make a film about COVID, all of my footage would be people wearing masks. So, I'm really grateful to be working on this website because I think I would be pretty thwarted in trying to start up on a new film that involved being out in the world. 

The site will launch in a month or two (Friedrich and collaborators have since launched the new site), and I do have the film that I started around a year-and-a-half ago so I might finish that—none of that footage is of people wearing masks—or I can finish the book. 

For the people who didn't start shooting their Cinetracts project until after COVID started, it became another restriction of the project and some ended up making "computer films," for lack of a better description.

You mentioning the projects that are on hold, I also feel for the people whose films perhaps premiered pre-COVID but the release or any tour with the film was just wiped out. Who knows what will happen with some of those films? It's so sad.

It’s horrible. On March 16, there I was canceling gigs, trying to get an Amtrak refund, trying to get a refund on a plane ticket I had already purchased. It just felt terrible, and I knew everybody else was going through the same thing. 

With the Greaves project, Ashley Clark, one of the programmers at [BAM Cinematheque] had been talking with Louise about doing a huge retrospective in early 2021 and now they are trying to figure out whether they can do it. I adore BAM. I live nearby and go there a lot and now I drive by when I’m doing other things and I just wonder when I will be able to sit in there again.

For me, I was working on Julia Reichert's retrospective for a long time. We got most of it in. She got her last appearance in at the Walker Art Center in late February and a few films were shown at MFA Houston but the last two big events at the National Gallery and AFI Silver were cancelled. It was an unsatisfying way for the project to end, but at least most of the tour was able to happen as planned and Julia was able to visit most of the venues—MOMA, the Wexner Center, UCLA. 

Especially with all of the acclaim and great attention for [American Factory] that won the Oscar. It was such a great time for her and maybe some people who hadn't known her films before now do and maybe that film will get people to look for her other films. Yes, frustrating. 

I was thinking, I had a retrospective in Frankfurt last November programmed by these two young women who had no money to work with. That was the last big event for me. All that planning, all of the time it takes to work things out. I'm really glad it happened in November, all the work they did, because if it had been planned for April...

Lastly, the street names that come up in the film (Martin Van Buren Street, Marcus Garvey Boulevard, and Throop Avenue), they represent where you live, of course, including them in the film has a practical reason behind it. I was wondering if the historical aspects impacted your thinking about the film.

I surely knew who Van Buren was and who Marcus Garvey was, but I had to look up Throop when I made the film, so it was interesting to learn more about him. And it’s meaningful to me that one end of my block is named after Marcus Garvey. He’s a pretty controversial figure, so it’s not like living on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. But he is a major figure and had a great impact in his time. It's a historically Black neighborhood. I say his name numerous times a day, if I have to give directions or something, so it's nice to have it named for an African American person and for that history to be present. But, in filming, I didn't go outside and know that it would be a significant part of my film that those names would be there. It does amuse me when I'm on the phone buying something, and when I say Van Buren they don't say, "Oh, the President." I usually have to spell it out and explain that it's two words. I guess he's quite forgotten.

Su Friedrich photo: Cynthia Lugo

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