In A Dream: Jeremiah Zagar interview
Jeremiah Zagar is a filmmaker with an infectious passion and commitment to his craft. His documentary, In a Dream, was shot over a seven-year period and is culled from 300 hours of footage. The film is based around the relationship between Zagar’s father, Isaiah, and his mother, Julia. Isaiah’s work will be instantly familiar to anyone who has spent time in Philadelphia. His beautiful mosaics are sprawled across numerous buildings in the city, making him one of the greatest American folk artists of his generation. In a Dream brings Isaiah’s work to life in bright, vivid color. But it also affords him room to ruminate on his personal life, sparking a number of revelations that provide genuine insight into his character. I spoke to Jeremiah about the film in Brooklyn.
It’s important for documentary filmmakers to make the camera ‘disappear’ so the subject is at ease. Was that difficult to achieve with In a Dream?
It’s not that difficult. You have to find people who are dealing with things that are more important than the camera being around. If you find anyone who is dealing with something more important in their life than the camera being there, they forget it is there. It happens intuitively. It happened for me after about four months of filming. The camera becomes unimportant. Once you’re filming for seven years, it has to disappear. I wouldn’t say it disappears, it integrates. It becomes natural. It becomes part of the situation. It has its own purpose within the family unit.
You started filming in 1999?
I started in ’99. It took seven years. I was [initially] shooting as an experiment to see if I could make the kind of documentary films I wanted to make. I wanted to discover the inner life of somebody, but I didn’t know if I could do that yet. I spent a lot of time with my father, trying to discover his inner life, and I couldn’t. Eventually we went to West Virginia. We have a small shack there, and when he was away from my mother and from his work, and from the security of Philadelphia, he began to open up in a different way than he had before. He was isolated and we were shooting every day, all day. During that time he became very intimate and very open with me and with the camera. And he revealed things about himself that I don’t think even he realized he was revealing. I think that’s the moment you want to achieve as a filmmaker. You want to see something beyond what is possible in normal interaction.
Getting him away from his comfort zone was integral to the success of the movie.
Yeah. It was like creating a campfire experience. You know when you’re sitting by the campfire, and you have a bottle of whiskey and it’s really late at night and the fire is going? Suddenly you’re willing to talk about things you wouldn’t normally talk about in other situations. That’s the moment you’re trying to create with a camera and a very awkward, isolated situation. That’s when you suddenly have a movie. That’s when documentaries become a visceral experience. They become intimate. They become worthy of being in a dark room on a big screen at that moment.
How many of the revelations were you unaware of before you started shooting?
I was unaware of any of them in the way that they were presented to me. They were all revelations. That’s what makes them interesting. They’re happening on screen at that time, at that moment only. That’s what makes them revelations. When I captured those moments with my parents, I thought: that’s what I aspire to achieve. And all of a sudden we had it. I had an idea that something was wrong, but I didn’t know what exactly. I had an idea that my father was molested as a child. I just never understood it very well. So you probe and you push and you hope that something comes from your probing and pushing. Sometimes nothing comes and sometimes revelations come. What remains in the movie is a revelation.
Was there anything you left out that came close to making the final cut?
Absolutely. It will be on the DVD. There are lots of scenes that we took out that are incredible, that I love. There are scenes of my parents in the Peace Corps in Peru. There’s a scene where my father tells this story of becoming an artist at three years old. That’s actually on Hulu, you can watch it there. There are scenes about my mother’s store, a scene where my father tells a little girl about a vagina on the wall of the studio. There are a lot of scenes that we took out for very specific reasons, that just can’t make the narrative, and you wish they could.
Was it surprising to you, given the autobiographical nature of his work, that there were elements of Isaiah’s life that hadn’t surfaced in his art?
The molestation incident, for example.
It became rendered in his art. It’s funny, we would talk about it, but it was never…I mean, for example, fish are a huge part of his artwork.
Yeah, fish are a recurring theme in the film. Fish is being cooked, there’s the fishing trip that your father talks about. And the dialogue about Isaiah’s molestation is juxtaposed with an image of a fish being sliced up.
Yeah, and I think it’s from fishing when he was a kid. That was particularly impactful because he was raped, or molested, by a man while fishing. I think it is a part of the work. Things that you imagine are not in his art are actually there. They’re just hidden. They’re harder to see. The story of him going fishing is where it [the fish theme] comes from. There’s an intense vulnerability to it. Raw fish is insanely sensual and visceral and alive without being grotesque. Raw chicken is gross. Raw beef can be disgusting; it doesn’t feel beautiful. But raw fish has a beauty to it that is wild. There’s something powerful, and yet it is dead, and there is something grotesque about it. I think it’s a part of his life, a part of his work. It’s certainly a part of our family. We eat a lot of fish.
Do you enjoy shooting on film?
Film is precious. There’s a place for digital video. It’s amazing too. But there’s something stunning about film. It’s unlike anything else in the world. To shoot anything on film is somehow beautiful. I love it. We shot a lot of 35mm and 16mm for In a Dream. What’s beautiful to me about digital video is you can capture things happening in real time more easily. So you can capture moments that you could never capture on film, or are very difficult to capture on film. Spontaneity is much more difficult in film.
Digital can be disappointing when you see it projected onto a big screen. You can often see pixelation, and it’s hard to tell whether that was an aesthetic choice or a flaw in the medium.
Absolutely. Even on a little screen. That’s a lot of what we explore in In a Dream. What’s really interesting to me is the way in which we view our memory and our dreams. We view them in formats translated by the media. I can’t imagine how people dreamed before media infiltrated our memory and our lives. When we think of the early 1900s, it’s in black and white. We dream it in grainy black and white. We see people walking at 16 frames per second. We dream in beautiful 35mm. We dream the 1980s in VHS. And we dream today in digital video. We have this stupid idea that reality is somehow ugly and muddy and moving at 30 frames per second. Soon, reality will be High Definition. That will be what we translate in our memory and our minds and in our dreams as reality.
I think that’s insane, and what we’re trying to say with In a Dream is: we dream all these different formats. We even dream in slides. That’s why, in the movie, we always give you a visceral, technical explanation of the image. So you’re seeing the slides projected. You’re seeing and hearing the movie click off. You’re hearing the Super 8. You’re hearing the slides. You’re feeling the 16mm. The 35mm, the super-slow motion, the macro lenses, the incredibly wide lenses: this is viewing the world differently. This is viewing the world as a movie. This is viewing the world as dreamscape. And those moments are what make the movie palatable, because you’re watching such heavy and difficult things. And suddenly you can lose yourself in color and beauty and a different vision of life.
For screening information see www.inadreammovie.com