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Sandra Lahire

By Marina Grzinic


Sandra Lahire is to be seen today as one of the most important feminist experimental filmmakers that marked the 1980s and 1990s British and international film history.

She died in 2001, aged 50, after a long and persistent struggle with anorexia. One of the things she left behind is a profound filmic commentary on anorexia. The body, always that body that is coming near the image of a spectre, that is connected solely with 'air and bones' while minimizing the flesh to zero, is also the primal element she uses to establish her relationship with her surroundings, particularly with a landscape destroyed by pollution or nuclear waste.

Her work is dedicated to a deconstruction of the ideological matrix of cultural paradigms, film production models and the very notion of making an experimental film. In some way she deeply rearticulated the relationship between experimental film and the societal, while insisting on conceptual movements within film in connection with image, light and structure. Light and sound are in the centre of her works; with them she recreated emotional situations and connections between personal obsession(s) and social structures. The light and sound create energy loops into which the public is invited and from which it cannot be indifferent to her narrations and radical political motivations. Light and darkness are seen as presence and absence of the body and are the signs of her intensive suffering and her state of constant despair and melancholy. In her films, Lahire emphasized two crucial conditions, the one of producing experimental films and the other a psychic mechanism that connected her to her body, always on the verge of becoming a living skeleton. Both, condition and mechanism, are unveiling artificial societal grounds and semi-natural politics that also constantly reshaped her life and political credo. Lahire's films and her critical-educational work marked deeply not only a generation of feminists, but also the lesbian movement in Britain and internationally.


In the period from 1984 to 2000 Lahire completed 10 experimental 16mm films that put into focus her innovative filmic approach in dealing with absolutely political topics.

The result is a new form of mixed-genre filmmaking, with a unique synthesis of sound and image, which marks an inventive stage in experimental film in Britain. Lahire's film work eliminates the borders between disciplines and genre. We are travelling from anorexia toward ecological-nuclear devastation; from an inspection of death and disintegration to a re-articulation of power structures within society. Light and sound are the poles of film narration that confront darkness and sound density, which explore in the most vivid way an unthinkable ecological, political or psychological disaster situation.

The result is a powerful investigation of inequalities regarding women's position, lesbian stance and social injustice against women and Jews. Lahire constantly explored the Jewish component of her identity. Lahire's work is to be historically seen as part of the post-1970s independent cinema movement, but it is also attached to painters such as Frida Kahlo and Leonor Fini and to the work of the poet Sylvia Plath to which Lahire dedicated her 1990s film trilogy. In 1999 Sandra Lahire enrolled at Queen Mary College, University of London, to work on a PhD thesis with Jacqueline Rose on the relationship between the visual and verbal component of Sylvia Plath's poetry. This was intended to conclude with a study of her own films alongside a reflection on films made by another gifted filmmaker, Sarah Pucill, who was also her partner for several years. Lahire managed to finish half of this project before she passed away.


Two important trilogies marked Lahire's work. In the 1980's it was the films about radiation: Plutonium Blond, Uranium Hex and Serpent River and in the 1990's the trilogy dedicated to Sylvia Plath.

In Plutonium Blond (1987,15 min) Lahire tries to define Thelma, a woman working with the plutonium monitors at the core of a reactor. For Lahire this meant questioning processes, the one at the core of the plutonium terminal, and the one that constructs female identity. Thelma, the main film heroine is an interface, more than a paradox, between the monitors that she controls and the ecology that is, as a product of devastation, out of control. We have technology to also transform it into an instrument of research, while being almost pressed by an (im)possible physicality.

It was in her film titled Terminal with which she started to work on this trilogy, putting under question any possible balance between nature and the plutonium waste. Sandra Lahire, Terminal (1986, 18 min.) is about radiation as a shadow, while the terminality of the intoxication is as the terminality of a real body.

In Uranium Hex (1987, 11 min.) the story is about uranium mining in Canada and women's work. It was made in collaboration with a group of film-makers (Jean Matthee and Anna Thew, etc.), working closely together to produce this film funded by Channel 4 at the London Film-makers' Cooperative. In this film obsession, passion, politics are intertwined so tightly together to make an explosion, or rather a destruction of our nerves. The radiation of the body is transferred to the radiation of the picture. The radon 222 that disintegrates the skin seems here to over-expose the film image. The relation between nature and culture is always a research into relations of power between man and woman. There is no difference between the politics of the medium and the politics of the topic; both are reunited in a clash of layers within deadly light. Radioactivity is deployed as a radioactivity of the film image in itself.

Serpent River (1989, 30 min.) is a 'serpent� that shows the tail in the unspoiled Canada nature and the head in the heart of a Uranium Mine. The company that is in charge of the uranium death is the Rio Tinto Zinc Company. In Serpent River, Diane is the first woman uranium miner. Women are put under question in the way they are dealing with waste, along with being miners. The film is all about radioactive waste and toxic fields used for the master, Mr. Uranium.


In the 1990's Sandra Lahire completed Living on Air, a trilogy of films inspired by the writing and voice of Sylvia Plath.

A project that was elaborated by Lahire in the time arc of 9 years, resulted in Lady Lazarus (1991) - the first part of her trilogy Living on Air, followed by the film Eerie in 1992. In Night Dances (1995), the second part of her Plath trilogy, Lahire explored the Jewish element of her identity. Johnny Panic, in 1999, was not only the final part of this trilogy, but her last film statement as well, a brilliant and witty work that only a film wizard, Lahire herself, truly dedicated to a research of the experimental levels of film language, could have produced. But this second trilogy was referenced already, so to speak, in 1984 when Lahire completed her first film work.

Sandra Lahire's Arrows (1984, 15 min.) haunted with her bones the spirit of Sylvia Plath's esoterically magical poetry. This first Lahire mediation of anorexia through Plath's work launched her immediately as the new experimental film heroine. Sylvia Plath's Lady Lazarus (1991, 25 min.) is taken as a source to rethink film and female identity. An interview that was given by Sylvia Plath just before her death is incorporated into the narrative structure of the film. Two moments of fascination are to be captured here, the attraction for death and the mediation of Plath's intensive sensibility.

In Night Dances (1995, 15 min) Lahire focused on the embodied redefinition of Sylvia Plath's work, scrolling from fictionality to aesthetic deconstruction. A mixture of painful and funny elements is put together, while avoiding stereotypes, and therefore constantly inverting the codes of film representation. Here we witness what is possible to define as Lahire's intense construction of a proper film system that is shifting from questions of identity to those of actuality. Body close-ups are not in synch with Plath's flashbacks, but instead two or three different stories are running parallel to each other at the same time.


In Johnny Panic (2000, 45 min) we are dragged to the beginning of all the nuclear stories, at the trial where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted as being spies on behalf of the Soviet Union.

They were executed on June 19, 1953, at Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York. Lahire's film is an exceptionally sharp criticism of the political reality of the western world, especially of American capitalist politics, that murderously produce justice in 'synch' with a state's death penalties prosecutions (Rosenberg's trial).

In Sandra Lahire's work we can identify two trilogies, and three fields of research: the one concerning the ecological catastrophe and the uranium, leading us directly to the atomic bomb. The second field is the body, the anorexic body, and the third is the performative aspect of gender, with the radical positioning of being lesbian, and at the same time a radical political persona. All these three lines come to a culmination in Johnny Panic, the synthesis of all her obsessions and torments.

Johnny Panic is a premonitory sign of the world that came to be in 2003, three years after the film was finished and two years after we lost Sandra Lahire, a world nurtured and processed by panic. Instead of Robert Longo's Johnny Mnemonic film from the 1980's, based on the old dream to placing our lives and democratic politics into proper hands through memory and space organization, Sandra Lahire envisioned a world that will soon live in a permanent state of constant panic.

Johnny Panic is a brilliant film, a product of a feminist, lesbian search and anorexic positioning. She taught us what it means to connect lesbian guerrilla fighting with an international experimental film tradition (and this is not just British or American). It was Sandra Lahire's capacity to link deep experimental practice in film with the most precise rethinking of the processes of the capitalist film industry. Her work is a reflection of frontiers of political pollution and economical exploitation. In Johnny Panic the most impressive point is Lahire's opening of the hidden protocols of capitalism. The result is no indifference toward any social inequality and no political abstraction of any, even not even of the smallest injustice. Sandra Lahire shows the obscene catastrophic dimensions of the world we are living in (deep racial inequalities and dissipating of worlds and nations).

Lahire was a sharp eyewitness, having experimental film practice as her only prosthesis. She made visible the perverse character of the capitalism system, of its contemporary forms of exploitation, and our social and psychic submissions to it.

She has emerged today to be one of the most radical filmmakers in the international arena.

Dr. Marina Grzinic is Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria, and Researcher at the Institute of Philosophy (ZRC-SAZU), Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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