Spotlight: Sandra Lahire
“The loss that echoes… is the loss of collective practice; of thirty years of dissent and debate. For we didn’t, of course, just giggle in those meetings; we lobbied and discussed and produced collectively.”
Sarah Turner, Sandra Lahire: In Memoriam, Close Up (Spring 2002)
Filmmaking is a collaborative art. We can argue, if we really want to, about authorship and auteurs, but the truth is that films get made when people work together. Those working collaborations can be terrifying dictatorships or harmonious love-ins, but it’s worth questioning who is given the space to pursue the former approach. White men have always been given more lassitude to be tortured, and torturous, geniuses. If you’re a woman (or queer, or a person of colour) trying to get films made, particularly films that talk about and to other women, you’ve generally stood more of a chance if you can find allies.
Sandra Lahire knew this. From early in her career, she found those allies, a close group of women who collaborated on each other’s films, served as each other’s audiences and built their own distribution networks. They also offered each other emotional support, vital when engaging in the draining labour of being a female worker in an exhaustingly male-dominated industry. What we love about Sarah Turner’s quote, taken from a 2002 tribute to Sandra Lahire, is that it places the laughter and lobbying side-by-side. Friendship, camaraderie, and solidarity are different sides of the same coin, extensions of the same idea.
Sandra Lahire was at the forefront of a resurgence in experimental feminist cinema that emerged in the 1980s. Although singular and charismatic, Sandra’s distinctive style emerged from collective practice. From early on, Sandra was absorbed into collectivised making - to discover her films is to plug into a remarkable network. She studied at St Martins under Tina Keane and alongside Sarah Turner and Isaac Julian (later co-founder of Sankofa). She soon encountered the London Filmmaker’s Coop (LFMC), a throbbing counter-cultural hub for UK experimental film. She also met Lis Rhodes, who would become a friend, and who had in 1979 co-formed the feminist distribution network Circles (alongside Tina Keane, Felicity Sparrow and Annabel Nicholson). At the LFMC, Sandra was constantly surrounded by women who shared resources, ideas and opinions, and were determined to get their films made and seen.
For these women love, friendship and work became woven inextricably together. Sandra composed a score for Rhodes, she cast Turner as a central figure in her Living on Air trilogy, and she wrote about the films of her partner Sarah Pucill. The vision of these artists was one of collectivisation, a pointed, political gesture in the midst of Thatcher’s atomised Britain. Dissatisfied by existing networks, they formed their own, elevating and amplifying each other.
The films that came out of this collectivised moment, were inevitably shaped by the politics of their creation. Sandra Lahire’s work encapsulates the feminist idea that the personal is political. From the start Sandra was inserting herself physically into her films, using self-exploration as an entry point into a broader discussion.
Take Sandra’s first film Arrows (1984), in which she painstakingly documents her own anorexia. Her style is already formed: flickering collages of images, layers of sound, first person narration. Arrows begins as something personal - jagged strings squeal over images of caged birds and of Sandra clothed, then naked, spinning out of control, her ribs starkly visible. A diaristic testimony begins - “my skin draws in the pain each day, my heart will wince and scream” - and we are transported viscerally into Sandra’s experience. Yet even from inside this testimony, she is constantly gesturing outwards. We see and hear snatches of an external world - a newspaper headline about the Yorkshire Ripper, images of Eve and the snake, a phone-call to a plastic surgeon. Sandra takes us inside her head, but she also places her illness within a context, a history of patriarchal subjugation, of female oppression, of controlled appetites and desires. It’s provocative and difficult to watch in places, but a blistering statement of intent.
As Arrows demonstrates, Sandra grasped her distinctive style early on. Her films are dreamlike, dizzying, sometimes meditative, sometimes harrowing. They are built on collages of sound and image, often flickering, tinted, manipulated. The soundtracks are precise, blending music, sound and testimony, variously from actors, interviews and Sandra herself. They are atmospheric, brutally honest watches, but they are not without playfulness. Sandra frequently injects flashes of joy. For a glimpse of Sandra at her lightest, check out the expressionist micro short Eerie (1992), a saucy wink of a film that in barely a minute delivers a ravishing jolt of satisfaction.
Nonetheless, we always return to the personal as political. Even the apparently slight Eerie, delivers something deeper by centring lesbian desire and the female gaze. Politics rises closer to the surface in Sandra’s Nuclear Trilogy, her most obviously polemical work. Inspired initially by Chernobyl, these three deconstructed documentaries chart the chain of exploitation behind the nuclear industry and the conspiracy of silence surrounding it. Plutonium Blonde (1986) is the most enigmatic of the three, an essay centred on images of female scientists that connects those female bodies with contamination and catastrophe. Uranium Hex (1987) plays like a horror film, taking us on a cacophonous journey down a radioactive mineshaft. Serpent River (1987) is the most expansive of the trilogy, a portrait of a community built on the radiation industry, in semi-denial about its costs.
These three films combine video and 16mm in Sandra’s signature collage. The colours are frequently oversaturated, as if exposing the irradiated underbelly of our daily lives. The tone is paranoid but interspersed with testimony and commentary from scientists, batting away sexist accusations of “hysteria”. The nuclear protest movement was often spearheaded by women, and Sandra places women and children consciously at the heart of these films. Like a kind of arthouse Karen Silkwood, Sandra is posing as a whistle-blower – it’s an exposé, a condemnation, a furious call to action. Lest we forget the stakes, children’s voices and images recur. They sing, they drink the water, they play in radioactive snow under a sign that reads “Uranium Capital Nursery”. We shudder, we want to look away, but Sandra always draws us back in.
Her final major work was Living on Air, a trilogy devoted to Sylvia Plath – Lady Lazarus (1991), Night Dances (1995) and Johnny Panic (1999). Here more than ever, she blends personal experience with political reality. Sandra was somewhat obsessed with Plath and spent the last couple of years of her life working on a PhD devoted to the writer. In these films Plath is the dominant character, and it is her voice, life and work that are the central focus. At the same time though, the process of reconstruction and reanimation reveals almost as much about the fimmaker as it does about her subject.
Lady Lazarus opens with a séance, as a woman (played by Sarah Turner) appears to summon Plath’s presence on an Ouija board. Throughout the film this shadowy heroine serves alternately as a medium, an acolyte and a stalker. Plath’s voice, edited together from archive recordings, reads her poetry and talks about her life, as Turner conjures her image and traces her steps. Photographs of Plath and extracts of her manuscripts appear as ghostly relics, as do more nebulous associated images – a beach, a Cadillac, a Barbie under a bell jar. The result is both creepy and moving. There’s catharsis in harnessing of images of the occult, given the loaded witchcraft associations. But there’s also something ambiguous in the use of Plath’s image, an artist who in death has often been fetishised as a photogenic symbol of female suffering. In this act of resurrection, is Sandra reclaiming her heroine, or exploiting her once again?
Sandra herself was more than aware of how her own image and labour might be used to serve the interests of an exclusionary business. She certainly felt the irony, as she struggled to make a film about a female writer, within an industry that had never wholeheartedly embraced female authorship. While making the film, Sandra wrote a letter to Lis Rhodes in which she describes the frustrations of working with the British Film Institute on the project: “the point is there are no royalties for Lady Lazarus for us girls who made it. Horrid and ironic, isn’t it? May the curse of Plath descend on 29 Rathbone St. if they do not handle her with respect”.
Anorexia eventually caught up with Sandra, and she died aged fifty in 2001, soon after completing her Plath trilogy. The films she left behind are a remarkable body of work that demonstrate how working collectively does not have to dampen a singular voice, but can rather amplify it. Thanks to her network of friends and colleagues, Sandra was able to produce a series of films that talk unflinchingly about the experiences of women, as artists, workers and members of society.
And for those who knew Lahire, she also clearly left a legacy that stretched beyond the artistic. In her beautiful tribute, Sarah Turner captures something vivid about Sandra, that made us wish we could have met her: “Call it crisis if you will, but Sandra lived that intensity in ‘moments; that spanned her work, her friendships, her loves. And in that, I’m sure of this, it wasn’t a death force, it was life affirming.”
"Sandra Lahire", Sarah Turner, Lis Rhodes and Sarah Pucill, Vertigo. Close Up Film Centre