Tel Aviv, Israel, 2016. It is hotter than it is supposed to according to the weather bulletin. A taxi ride to Jaffa, the old port part of the city, directions written on a small piece of paper in Arabic. Beautiful, sun drenched rough outskirts separating “The City” from its origin seen from jetlagged underslept eyes. Two stories up, a knock on the door and there stood one of the most interesting persons I’ve ever met. She greets me in a much softer and friendly way than the sequence-ordered review of her filmography would announce ( the “I am a witch!” self-proclaimed epithet). 

A sunlit living room that leads to a sparse kitchen, a big white sofa against a white wall, and a view to the Mediterranean. All the rest of the space, as I would find out, was for ideas and projected images; past and present to be dug out unaware of what’s been said; the future project, “Minotaur Rex”,  reconnecting the conversation to nowadays materialism and cinema-politics, matters unknowing of the conversation that was being held. Suspension of time, emptiness of space. Nina’s health temporarily affected by a severe bout of pneumonia. Coughing broke her two ribs and yet, no canceling or postponing. All was set to that moment and so it went in three separate interviews on the “through the looking glass” matter.

One could hardly define Nina Menkes’ ouvre through comparisons and analogies. Its universe and formal approach are so richly hermetic and oppressive in an aesthetic form of crude exquisiteness. She is able to embody the viewer’s experience without us formulating a clear and definite idea of what happened on the screen for the last one and a half hours. The images that come back through memory reflect both frailty and harshness, beauty and ugliness, closure and emptiness. Her themes are often brutal, yet there’s also a place for healing of the same all-encompassing surrounding into one healed self. One can reach heaven through a descent to hell.

Paulo B. Menezes: I read that you once stated, “I don’t feel at home anywhere”.

Nina Menkes: It’s true that I used to feel this way. My parents arrived in Palestine from Europe, as young children, due the Nazi persecution. My mother’s parents escaped Berlin when Hitler came to power; my father’s Viennese family were all deported and gassed to death. So both my parents spoke German as their mother tongue, then learnt Hebrew; English was their third language. They met and got married in Jerusalem, then immigrated to the US to attend New York University (NYU). So I grew up in the US but never really identified with any nationality or country. I think we are all in exile from the real home, which is probably a spiritual place. That said, I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over 30 years. And finally, over the past maybe 6 years, I’ve discovered that this city (Los Angeles) has become and is indeed my home and I feel both happy and rooted here.

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power

P: In your films, you aren’t necessarily focused on action or narrative in the classical sense, your work is much more of an experience.

N: One thing I find dull about most traditional narratives is the depiction of time. The standard cinematic construct is that you, say, start in the morning and then this and that happens, and there might be a flashback or a flash-forward, but there’s an essential fixed concept of how time “moves forward”. Tarkovsky has talked about this, he calls that “horizontal time”, whereas “vertical time” is a more transcendental or ever-present concept. In my work, I try to express the place where horizontal time intersects with vertical time which is, to me, a more accurate expression of where this mystical force-time-really exists. In Queen of Diamonds, there’s a long sequence where the main character, a blackjack dealer, played by my sister, actress and longtime creative collaborator Tinka Menkes, is inside the casino, working. We’re with her for a full 17 minutes (which is half a real work shift at the tables in Las Vegas). I don’t show this as a progression with the beginning, middle and end of a shift. It’s more like a circle, like a vortex of time. In this case, quite a hellish vortex. 

Queen of Diamonds

Numbers and fate are very interesting to me so even though the casino represents totally alienated labor, as there is no product generated and the dealers are working for minimum wage and tips, it’s almost like Tinka is also this Goddess of Fate spinning the wheel, spinning the number; the dealer as a sort of death queen. In English when we say, ‘your number is up’, that means you’re facing death. In many cultures, counting is considered negative. Counting years, counting money, this figure of the woman dealer is connected with brutality, death, and counting.

It’s all actually part of what might be a mistaken approach to time.

P: How does the production funding issue interact with your films?

N: Since 2015 when the US federal government started investigating Hollywood studios for violations of Title VII (part of the  1964 US civil rights act forbiding discrimination on the basis of sex in employment) we have come to realize the depth and extent of the illegal discrimination against women that was operating (and is still operating) in the field of cinema. Although I had significant critical recognition very early on- for example, I received a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for my first feature, made at the UCLA film school, Magdalena Viraga (1986), I could never catch a break in terms of getting a real budget. In retrospect there may have been something positive in this. I was forced into working with a bare minimum of support on multiple levels.

For example, I didn’t want many people with me on set. With the exception of my most recent film, the documentary feature, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022), in which I am actually also featured as a performer, I have always produced, directed, operated camera and edited my own movies. Obviously my work was going against the grain in many ways and I feared I could lose my focus and concentration and my belief in what I was doing if there was a vibe of doubt coming at me. So adding collaborators was a long, slow, process. In The Great Sadness of Zohara (1983) there was a total of two of us-my sister Tinka and me, doing everything, In Magdalena Viraga (1986) there were four people on set. In Queen of Diamonds (1991) I added a few more and so on. In this way, working with excruciatingly low budgets, I maintained my sense of self, my sense of cinema, I didn’t want to be distracted from what I was doing, which was also very, very private. So I took a long time to progress to a point where I could handle having significant help on set, without losing the flow, the energetic connection to my intuition and to my own ideas about what was really happening in front of the camera. So maybe, if big funding had come towards me early on, it might have ruined my work and my slowly evolving process, actually.

P: What do you think about the hypersexualization of our society and the way women are generally represented in film? 

N: As Laura Mulvey pointed out long ago, and sadly, it’s still relevant, women are systematically objectified in cinema. My new doc Brainwashed builds on the insights of Mulvey and other key feminist theorists, examining the way that shot design is gendered and showing how this visual language of cinema connects to both severe employment discrimination against women-especially in the film industry-as well as to the epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse that was recently exposed through the #metoo movement. 

In terms of my own work, obviously, I never shot women in that traditional way, but there’s another element that is worth mentioning here. Many people see the way out of objectification to be via the portrayal of powerful female characters. But the position taken in Brainwashed is that what’s at stake here is becoming a subject. And subjects can be strong, sure, but they can also feel sad, in pain, angry, there’s a huge range of possible experiences. For example, Tinka’s character in Magdalena Viraga is a lonely and angry prostitute who hates her work. I remember one woman film critic being upset that she was portrayed in this way, as if feminism should consist only of strong women having a great time. 

In my work, over the years, I’ve explored a female figure, that is a sort of inner female figure inside me, as she moves through a slow and complex descent into darkness… culminating in the fragmented, possibly suicidal figure that appears in The Bloody Child (1996) where everything implodes and disintegrates. There’s a slang term used in law enforcement- “circling the drain” meaning someone who is approaching death. That could be a way to describe this movie.

The Bloody Child

P: Regarding The Bloody Child, there are two female characters- a very young woman who gets murdered, and on the other side, there’s Tinka playing the role of a US Marine Captain. Yet, it’s not comfortable to her.

N: The two women that you see in this masculine patriarchal militaristic world are the murdered woman, who is a very small, little girl type figure, and then you have Tinka who is a Marine Captain, she has adopted a masculine position, and both of them, within the world of the film, are equally trapped. The wife who is trying to be cute and trying to pretend she is a little girl ends up dead and the Captain who is trying to be in with the guys and trying to solve the problem of being a woman by becoming masculine-identified, is destroyed by that identification as well.
This is done on many levels, it’s done in the narrative, it’s done in the acting and it’s done structurally, the way the film is put together. It’s an expression of suicidal energy as a form of resistance, also a resistance to narrative and to a way of using cinema to promote certain traditional values.

Phantom Love

P: In Phantom Love (2008), there’s a very cold, psychotic world.

N: Phantom Love contains sex scenes that are reminiscent of Magdalena Viraga and casino scenes that evoke of Queen of Diamonds, so this film refers back to my other movies, it’s the same character that I had been making films about for so long. She’s trapped in being sexually objectified, she is trapped in alienated labor. But what’s underneath that frozen alienated figure? This is what I was asking myself as I was writing this movie, I discovered that what’s under that alienation is the second character who appears in this movie, the other sister, who is deeply damaged and completely disoriented. So, on the one hand you have the ice-cold, repressed and brutal exterior, and then the wounded and confused interior. This movie brings those two energies up to consciousness. 

Looking back now at The Bloody Child, I can see that the two female characters in that movie were a different manifestation of that exact same split.

P: How do films come to you? How does the story form?

N: My films come to me as images, and I don’t necessarily know why at the beginning. My experience is that I am a channel of something, that I’m like a servant of these images as opposed to being in control of them. I don’t start with a structure or a story, but with images that appear to me as if they are calling me. At a certain point, this image gathering process feels complete and then I try to discover the story lurking within them. So, I think my films are made in a way that can be considered backwards from the traditional method of creating narrative.

P: I think there is something that is really very specific to your filmmaking: you seem to look deeply through things, but it’s not like a celebration. Is this about catharsis or purification?

N: Maybe it’s more of a spiritual search. How do we get connected to a spiritual source? All my fictional films have been centrally concerned with characters who are desiring this connection yet not finding it. In all my work, to a certain extent, I’m asking “How do I close the gap between Self and Self?”. That was always my central question and that’s why (as I realized only very much later) I often have these split-off double characters who are trying to connect with each other. The interior divided self is, perhaps, what causes us so much pain, the anguish of separation and exile from home.

P: Do you think that this is related to the idea of the desert as a place of spiritual awakening but that is also barren? This duality?

N: Yes, I think that a certain obsession I’ve had with the desert, whether it’s the desert in The Great Sadness of Zohara or in the The Bloody Child or an emotional desert like Magdalena Viraga, does connect to that essential concept. That in order to break through the deeply divided self, there has to be a period of barrenness, there has to be a period of silence, profound solitude and a confrontation with total… a gap beyond words. So yes, the desert is both barren and brutal and yet strangely fertile, and that is definitely where my films are located, I would agree.

Magdalena Viraga

P: Your films are fragmented, they’re elliptic, some consider them “experimental”.

N: In terms of the form of my films and the way that they are probably relatively fragmented compared to the so called “traditional narrative”… In ordinary life, whatever that means, we have to pay the bills, we have to go shopping, to deal with our health insurance, we have to pay the rent and blablabla, so there’s this kind of continuum of narrative events that are existing within an ordinary reality or, as we talked about before, horizontal time, but that perception is just not that intriguing to me, it’s not that exciting to me. I feel there are many narrative works that are simply another story, but it’s taking place within the same kind of structure of what we might call horizontal time or horizontal space and I’ve always had more fascination and interest with another kind of a more interior or more vertical space. I have attempted in my films to represent my own perception of time and space, but not necessarily at all trying to be experimental. In fact, I’ve never thought I was an experimental filmmaker because, to me, I wasn’t experimenting, I was representing the reality that I see and feel. There’s isn’t anything experimental about it, just my own experience of time and space.

P: We’re speaking of real time directing through the viewfinder as a way of registering the other dimension of time and space, as if revealing a truth through the actual moment, through the interaction of actors with settings…

N: One of the ways that I try to not get trapped into, for lack of a better term, ordinary time and space dimension is by doing my own camera work and by not creating storyboards because I have a bit of a horror which I learnt from… I don’t know if I learnt through Gertrude Stein, but I think Gertrude Stein has articulated it very well in her essay What are master-pieces and why are they so few of them. Repetition holds a key, if when you’re creating your work, you’ve already done a total rehearsal and it’s all planned out and then you’re reproducing it, there’s something perhaps missing, because it’s a reproduction of something that already had that live moment of creation. This whole process is too cumbersome and it loses something of that now moment. If I show up, do the camera and I don’t have it planned ahead of time, then something is possibly allowed to process in a very immediate, unexpected way in front of the camera and that’s, for me, that’s where the interesting excitement happens and where I’m able to enter into another dimension.

P: Do you think that you could make a parallel and apply that to The Bloody Child also in sense of how revealing it is… That film was shot it in a very particular way.

N: In terms of my own theory, it’s dangerous to repeat because the thing dies in the reproduction and that has to do with mainstream culture; which is just an endless reproduction of the same images, of the same ideology, with a different colour dress. And opposed to something new which comes from nowhere and appears from another dimension. It has a different quality, and that quality is what I hope to access through my filmmaking. I took my own theory of being afraid of planning to the extreme maximum with The Bloody Child, in which I did not have a script at all, I just had a rough concept. I had 2 or 3 of the main characters, some locations and a black horse and that was about it. I went on location with the crew and a 35mm camera without a script at all. There was a lot of risk involved but there’s something exciting and fresh about that film which is very unique and my most extreme experiment with myself in terms of how I can make a film without a script by just being open to that space that I’m exploring, like descending into a zone and capturing it. If you have a script ahead of time, then you’ve already preconceptionalized everything, and if you preconceptionalized everything, you can’t descent into the unknown because it’s already all known. 

P: You want to get rid of the production aspects and maintain all the creative part of it, camera, art direction, film, sound editing, etc, as we know. Why is it so important to control all these aspects?

N: There are a few jobs on the film that I cannot imagine giving up and that would be camera and directing, which to me are together, and then editing picture and sound, which I just love doing because it’s a great joy to find how things go together and what happens when it starts to come together and what happens when you put a different sound, with a different image and it’s something that I really feel like these things, which includes camera and editing as well, it’s not my conscious mind that’s doing it, it’s my autonomous hand, so that’s why I’m not too fond of handing those jobs over because, since it’s an intuitive process, it’s my journey through the looking glass and I prefer to have the total experience, which include all those aspects. 

That said, my most recent film, the documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, was created in much more traditional way. I worked with cinematographers and a wonderful editor–Cecily Rhett-it was a highly  collaborative process. The film is very connected to my fictional films in certain ways- but the process in which  it was made is significantly different. This is a social issue documentary–it affects consciousness in a different manner- through an excess of film clips (over 200 from 1896 through the present-plus interviews with 23 powerful women who reflect on the issues. It makes sense that this film comes after 30 years of the inner journeying!! But I also have more fictional features cooking and I hope to be able to shoot them soon.

P: After The Great Sadness of Zohara, you made Magdalena Viraga. How did that film happen? How was that production, any script?

N: After The Great Sadness of Zohara, which was made on the basis of a concept, I had the idea for this slightly longer, more complex production-wise film, and I knew that I had to have a script, maybe not a traditional super detailed script, but I had to organise, you have to go to location, you need a sound person and so on and I was a little nervous about writing a script because I didn’t want to lose the spontaneity, but when I started working on the script, it came to me through images, the same as I’ve already explained. So, I was happy about the script and the script had enough space for things to happen. This film was made at the UCLA film school, which means that we got all the camera equipment for free and it meant that we shot on weekends because people are busy during the week. It was made over 15 weekends and I played the role of producer, director, camera, etc., because I would plan a few scenes for Saturday and Sunday and I would spend the whole week preparing these things. The sex scenes, which were kind of a main thing, I had found and arranged the location and then on Saturday we did five of the scenes and on Sunday we did four of the scenes so there’s nine total sex scenes which we did on one weekend. And I was the producer because I had the time to be the producer, during the week I could set up the weekend shoot and on that set there was a grand total of… basically three people: there was me, director and camera, and there was the sound man, who was Duane Del Amico, and also  Allison Powell who was an overall helper. That was the entire crew for that film. If you look at the credits it says: Crew: Allison Powell, so she did everything else and I went to the store and got the lunch for people the day before and it was all very tiny, tiny, tiny. 

P: Violence is present in all your films, society’s violence, the world as a violent place and you’re also pretty violent yourself towards the spectator.

N: It’s true that my films, all my films, have been concerned with violence on one level or another, whether it’s the violence of objectification, like in Magdalena Viraga, or the violent alienation in Queen of Diamonds. Perhaps it’s just this quality which is the opposite of an open compassionate heart to yourself and to the world. It’s what’s always just out of reach of my characters who are dealing with various degrees of brutality. Generally, they’re surrounded by a brutal context in one way or another, and then there’s a sense that the characters are, in many ways, brutal towards themselves, they never cut themselves any slack. And that issue of brutality to self usually comes from the surroundings. You’re surrounded by brutality, you become brutal. Tinka’s character in Queen of Diamonds, is surrounded by brutality, then she also becomes brutal to herself. The films generally look at an all-encompassing of brutality and what kind of effect it might have on us who live in it.

P: About Phantom Love. A woman with unrealised love, family, work and personal life. Is this woman self-inflicting her oppression?

N: People ask this question also in Magdalena Viraga: why doesn’t she just up and walk away? I think that the characters, the condition that I’m portraying, it’s more like a psychic-existential condition. My films are not sort of “realistic” they are more expressing an inner condition, an inner state. And that state of being surrounded by brutality and turning that brutality inwards, is a pretty classic condition of oppression. It takes quite an advanced person to be surrounded by brutality and turn around and shine love out to themselves and to others. If we are surrounded by brutality, we respond with a freezing up or a tightening up of ourselves, a tightening up of compassion to others and to ourselves.

But in Phantom Love she actually has a breakthrough, it starts with her in that condition of tightness, but she has a breakthrough when you see her levitate and smash into pieces…

P: Phantom Love’s character is also a croupier. The “Casino while an example of extreme alienation work without product, people losing money for entertainment”… This appears in two films of yours, in Queen of Diamonds and in Phantom Love.

N: I’m not sure why exactly I found it so fascinating but, if I analyse it, I can come up with some reasons. I think there’s something… Numbers and fate are very interesting so, even though it’s totally alienated labor and there’s no product and the actual dealers are just working for minimum wage and tip in most of these situations, then there’s that side of it, but, on the other side, it’s almost like this goddess of fate spinning the wheel, spinning the number, your number’s gonna come up… The dealer is a sort of death queen. It also connected to numbers and time. People say your number is up, that means you’re gonna die. In many cultures, counting is considered negative… like from the devil. Counting, counting years, counting money, it’s all actually part of the “wrong” approach to time. I think that this figure of the casino and the woman dealer is connected with brutality, death, hell and counting, in a way.

P: Up to Phantom Love you were doing films that were about the individual drama and then in Dissolution you are already making a political parallel through an individual.

N: Yes, that’s true. Since my films and me are actually one single organic process – a process, for me, of self-discovery and self-knowledge, and some sort of self-examination – maybe there comes a point, which maybe I’m approaching, where I have a certain amount of… maybe I’ll say intimacy, with some painful wounded parts inside myself, and the minute that that happens I think that you become more compassionate to yourself and to others. For me, the whole background of my family, the Holocaust, the murder and the extreme brutality that is probably in my DNA from the whole Holocaust experience and all the fallout from that, I had to go through a certain amount of processing before manifesting in a way where I find myself committed to a kind of a Buddhist vision of compassion. So I guess and I hope that my films do reflect that inner development, that maybe they are now broader in a way.

P: How do you see your spiritual path in connection with the artistic one?

N: I think they’re combined in my willingness to face the darkness within myself and that there are layers and more layers and it’s a very arduous process. So my films have been a way to, you might say, help me. But at the same time the films themselves are very interested in cinema. I think it would be unfair to my films to say they are therapy films or something like that because really they’re not. They’re essentially concerned with psychic and emotional spaces that we inhabit via the construction of narrative in the cinematic sense without bowing to the conventional definitions of how time and space is usually constructed. That together with these personal descents into hell that have really formed the structure for my life. I’m on some other path. It’s not necessarily always easy, but it’s definitely interesting.

Menkes Bio

Considered a cinematic feminist pioneer and one of America’s foremost independent filmmakers, Menkes has shown widely in major international film festivals including Sundance, the Berlinale, Cannes (ACID), Rotterdam, Locarno, Toronto, La Cinematheque Francaise, British Film Institute, Whitney Museum of American Art, and MOMA in NYC. 

 Menkes’s honors include a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, an AFI Independent Filmmaker Award, a Creative Capital Award and a Berlinale FIPRESCI Prize for the feature documentary Massaker. In 2011, her feature film The Bloody Child (1996) was named one of the most important films of the past 50 years by the Viennale International Film Festival, Austria. 

 Two of Menkes’s early feature films, Queen of Diamonds and The Bloody Child have been selected for restoration by the Academy Film Archive and Scorsese’s Film Foundation.The re-release of Queen of Diamonds in 2019, by Arbelos Film distribution, was a hit, being widely described as “a modern masterpiece”.

Menkes’s most recent film Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power premiered at Sundance 2022 and has shown widely in international film festivals including the Berlinale and CPH:DOX. The film will be released theatrically in Fall 2022 by Kino-Lorber.

 Menkes holds an MFA in Film Production from UCLA (1989), is a two-time Fulbright Fellow to the Middle East and is a member of the film faculty at California Institute of the Arts.

About The Author

Paulo B. Menezes was born in Portugal in 1976, he enrolled in Film Studies at the Portuguese national film school, Escola Superior de Teatro & Cinema, where he would obtain a bachelor degree in editing and narrative. His incursions into experimental cinema and video art work began in 2004, with his work being selected for international exhibitions at art galleries and film festivals in countries like Great-Britain, Spain, Germany, Portugal, The Netherlands, Mexico, Peru, France, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, China and Italy. Among them, the 2016 video art piece ‘She got the idea’ which was selected for the Spanish international video art festival Proyector ‘best of’ special program. In 2015 he produced and directed ‘O último guerreiro romântico’, a piece commissioned for theater, and was the subject of the ’10 years video art retrospective’ at Lisbon’s Adamastor Studios art gallery. In 2016 he directed and curated the Lisbon videoart and experimental cinema international exhibition ‘Oblíqua’ curating the first Portuguese anthology ever and featuring experimental work from 7 countries as well as producing several programs representing Portugal in other international exhibitions. In 2018 he premiered ‘Drifters of a shadowy dream’, produced with the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, a film that would later win the Maracay International Film & Video Festival (Venezuela) the prize for the Best Experimental Fiction Feature.

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