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Best known for works combining film and sculpture, Amy Jenkins collapses forms and challenges tropes as she examines family and gender dynamics, desire, and loss. In her first feature-length documentary, Jenkins anchors the work as both the director and participant. Filmed over six years in New Hampshire and Utah, Instructions on Parting (2018) grapples with fundamental events in Jenkins’s life—the birth of her first child and the concurrent terminal illnesses of her sister, mother, and brother. Formally elegant and conceptually rigorous, Instructions on Parting is a work that bears witness. The film’s main elements—intimate, vérité-style family movies; footage of close-up observations in nature (baby birds leaving the nest, a moth getting caught by a spider); and preconceived, staged scenes—appear humble and distinct. Jenkins forges the three into an extraordinary call and response, offering a memento mori and life affirmation in equal measure. The hardships documented in the film surpass what one might imagine possible to bear, and yet, Jenkins offers a path forward. It’s a testimony of the senses, at once devastating and dignified. I talked to Amy about attuning to the details of the world, about the ways our minds store memories, and the interconnected instructions that are ever-present in life, if only we can slow down long enough to look and listen.
David Shapiro Part of me dreaded watching your film because my own mother died of cancer in a hospice. Although she faced death gracefully, I was scared that Instructions on Parting would rekindle my grief. But when I watched your film, I quickly became a willing student. Powerful instructions were imparted: to be quiet, to be present, to accept, to love. The film is sad and tragic, but through formal observations of nature you prepare the viewer for the events that unfold. Can you talk about watching nature as you were going through these tremendous challenges in your life?
Amy Jenkins Initially, looking at the nature in my yard was a coping mechanism. I wasn’t aware that I was making a film; I was just recording life in front of me as I’ve always done. When illness entered our lives, I kept doing the same. The nature footage comes from a practice of visual meditation. To closely observe nature was calming; I didn’t even think of it as making art. Quite honestly, much of this footage I never thought anybody would see. Many painters sketch all day, including on the subway. My camera was my sketchbook.
DS I recognize artistic hording: of images, ideas, and sounds. While collecting them, you’re living life, and yet somewhere in your mind you know they’re interconnected and that you will unpack them down the road.
AJBefore the material became a film, I had three threads, which I believed were disparate. In one, I filmed life and death processes just right outside my doorway—insects, birds, and trees. In the second, I did the same with my family members who were slowly passing away from cancer. I filmed our day-to-day life and communication, our bonds and caretaking. The third thread was more like, Okay, now I’m making art—my family participated in letting me film their bodies, my hands on their surgical scars, expressing my love for them through touch. I didn’t think these three strains belonged together and could be a film. As time passed and I started investigating this period in my life, I realized that everything is related because it’s all related to me. I’m the conduit—it’s seen through my eyes and experienced through my emotions.
When my family was alive, I was really just holding on to them in any way I could, and I experienced their struggle firsthand while filming them. It’s a sort of hording—that feels like an inappropriate word to use, but it’s true. I was clinging to every moment with them, collecting memories.
DSYou saved their voicemails.
AJIt was very much an intuitive process, even with the telephone answering machine messages that I kept. To put it in perspective, this was the late ’90s and early 2000s, when we used telephone answering machines with small tape cassettes. One day I thought, Why am I flipping the tapes and recording over the saved messages? These people are dear to me and I don’t know what’s going to happen to them. So I bought a bunch of tapes and when one was full I would put in a new one. I wasn’t thinking, This is going to be great narration for a film. I was just holding on to every aspect of my family. I was two years into making the film before I remembered that I had those tapes.
DSWe’re both visual artists and filmmakers involved with installation, photography, sculpture, video, audio… How do these worlds bleed into one another for you, and where do the borders collapse?
AJThe decision to make a feature film was driven by the particular content of this project. I’d made some shorter pieces that could be seen on monitors in the gallery and fine-art world, but I’d never made feature films to be shown in the theater.
My work had always derived from my personal life, but it resulted in metaphorical translations. Although my family and I appeared in my art, it wasn’t documentary. We were more acting out a situation that was present in our lives. When my first child was two and developing personhood, I made a three-channel video installation called Tug (2005). It was a literal tug of war between me and my husband as parents while our child shuttled between us. It reflected our struggle raising a child and what our relationship endured. I filmed our bodies against a black background, which is a strategy I’ve used in a number of my artworks, including Parting. Ironically, a lot of the material for Instructions on Parting was being filmed contemporaneously with that Tug piece and other artworks about motherhood that I was developing for a gallery setting. But the footage that ended up in Parting was strictly personal journaling for me at the time.
Becoming a filmmaker wasn’t a choice; the material for this particular story demanded it. When going through all the tapes I had stored away and seeing the black-background footage with my family’s bodies and my hands, I realized that I didn’t want to put this on a monitor to make a triptych about death for a gallery. I needed to step away from the material and think about its deeper implications and create a broader experience where the audience sits in a theater to observe. It was scary because I’d never made a film. I knew I had to become a beginner again.
DS Instructions on Parting is brave. Your grieving process becomes the film, and vice versa. Although the film’s form seems organic and simple, I know this was a hard and long journey.
AJI think it’s important to be clear that when I was filming myself and my family in our daily lives, I had no idea I was making art. This film was born from my relationship with a very specific camera, a Sony PC1. It’s a tiny handheld camera that literally felt like an extension of my body. I never even needed to look through the eyepiece. One of the early scenes in the film is myself in a mirror, saying “It’s the year 2000, I’m almost thirty-four. Everything is changing… a little scary, but it’s good…” That was early on, before my marriage and pregnancy and the illnesses. I took that camera everywhere and used it like a journal. And when the difficulties began, I just kept filming, for six years, until I stopped, right after my brother passed away. After Craig’s death, I put all the unlabeled tapes in a box and the Sony PC1 in a cupboard and never used that camera again.
Another six years passed, I had another child, made other artworks, but I would see that box sitting on the shelf in my studio. I kept eyeing it and eventually acknowledged that, in order to move forward with my artwork, I really had to deal with that box.
DSHow did you decide to open up the box?
AJ The process of making the film turned out to be therapeutic and very healing. I knew I had somewhere between fifty and a hundred hours of tape. While doing other work, in the back of my mind I wondered, What happened during that time period? I knew that I captured all of this stuff on film, but I didn’t know what was really there and what was in my imagination. So finally I made the commitment and went on a two-week residency to Yaddo where I spent twenty-four hours a day going through the contents of this box. This was MiniDV tape which needed to be ingested into the computer in real time. I was sleeping odd hours, waking, watching, sleeping, waking, watching.
DSA cyclical process of grieving and coping.
AJAnd taking lots of notes. Although I had no expectations I was surprised to find that what I thought was on the tapes wasn’t and what was on them was totally new to me. For example, I’d completely forgotten about my visual meditation on nature during that time. Everything was integrated because I always used the same camera. So the material would jump from my family in Utah to my yard in New Hampshire. That’s when I realized these threads belonged together. But it took five more years of work to actually make the film.
DSI totally relate to that commitment and a process that registers everything from frustration to boredom to love to transcendence and transference. Watching the tapes again must have been terribly difficult.
AJInitially I re-experienced a lot of grief. In the first viewing, I was able to really grasp the enormity of what had happened in my family. But then watching the footage over and over was actually a total joy because it reconnected me to the people who had passed away. It was a way of allowing them to continue existing in my life. By doing the film I was able to examine my family on a much deeper level. I learned an enormous amount about the way we behave, how we experience one another, and how we express love.
DSYour family was remarkably strong and graceful, and incredibly Zen-like in their acceptance of death. Mine would have freaked out.
AJI truly appreciate the way my family dealt with this situation. We were very communicative with one another, without drama. The footage also revealed how we often communicated without words. Seeing that, I initially felt that we maybe didn’t talk enough about things. But on reflection, I realized we communicated deeply in gestural ways. It’s not necessarily ideal because sometimes I wondered, Was one of us breaking down sobbing, without letting anyone else know? And we probably did have those moments. But we fortified one another.
There were essentially three strains of spirituality going through my family, and we talked about this a lot. My sister was a devout Christian, my brother was a Buddhist, and my mother was essentially agnostic. And my dad floated somewhere in between all of those. My dad’s and my own spirituality don’t have any particular affiliation.
DSYour father didn’t have many actual words in the film, yet you and he were sort of the guideposts.
AJ Well, we were the caretakers. Everybody performed caretaking roles at different moments, but my dad and I were aware that we would ultimately be the survivors.
DSAnd the tellers. You were memorializing the worlds that people carry around inside by collecting images and sounds.
AJThere’s a moment in the film when my father offers to do a slideshow for Linda, my sister. She’s weeks away from death and he had decided to go through all of his slide carousels. He’s a person who typically lives very much in the present, so it was unusual for him to do this. But it was therapeutic for him and our whole family, so it became part of the film. All of us sitting around, joking and laughing at our goofy clothes—it was a such a strong moment.
DSYour family, in a marvelous way, accepts you as an artist having a camera almost built into your hand at this point.
AJThat is true. My family had experienced this for years: here’s Amy and her camera. Sometimes they would roll their eyes, but they never said, “You need to put that away.” My grandfather had given me my first camera, a Polaroid, when I was around four and my favorite thing was documenting our family life and putting together these elaborate scrapbooks.
DSI was prepared to cry my eyes out, but I didn’t. The film has a sense of humor. I heard people laughing out loud during a screening. Can you talk about the tonal shifts in the film?
AJWell, when you live through illness, especially more than one person’s illness, there’s a domestication of death at some point and you move into a state where you want to continue enjoying yourself. My family always had a crazy sense of humor and it’s a way to cope with difficult moments. Many people feel they receive a curse when they get the diagnosis of terminal illness. But in fact, a diagnosis is a concept. If you don’t directly buy into the concept and continue living your life, why aren’t you allowed to have humor? There’s also Audrey, the newborn in the film, who brings a lot of comic relief.
DSYes, as only a child could. Your previous work grapples with motherhood and individuation, among other things. In Instructions on Parting, the drama was personal and profound. You had just become a mother and yet, you had to let go of your own mother. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
AJI don’t separate my personal life from what unfolds in my artwork. The minute I became a mother, that inherently became part of my work. Not that it is the topic of every piece, but my artist/mother identity guides the work and that underlying truth, for me, is unavoidable.
One installation I made in 2004 about that relationship of nurturing in both birth and death is The Audrey Samsara, a nineteen-minute, life-size video that appears like a very minimal Renaissance painting of a child nursing and then falling asleep, and then waking up and nursing again. I was thinking of the representation of the Madonna and child and the Pietà in art history. Likewise, Instructions on Parting shows this newborn gazing out at the world—Audrey’s about a day old and it’s a close-up on her face and her unfocusing eyes—and I think the viewer immediately relates to this wide-eyed infant who has no idea what they’re about to get into in life. I’ve heard people gasp at that shot. And then slowly, as my ill family members let go of their earthly self-definitions and are narrowing their environs, Audrey is beginning to discover herself and her surroundings, and we get to see that through her eyes—as she learns to walk, finds words, and enjoys nature.
DSThe footage of your newborn and your observations of nature are dramatic and beautiful—
AJ—and incredibly common.
DSYou monitor birds’ nests and follow the dragonflies. How did you end up spying on your backyard, so to speak?
AJI was very attuned to the miniscule things happening in my yard, the common cyclical changes. The robins had made nests above my doorstep in previous years, precariously perching on the spotlights. When in early spring I noticed a few birds hovering around, I quickly put a surveillance camera above the lights and wired it into our kitchen. I hooked the camera up to this MiniDV recorder that had a small monitor and we had real life unfolding on the kitchen table 24/7.
DSIt’s a documentary.
AJYes. (laughter) I didn’t actually record 24/7. When I walked by the monitor and something was happening, I would hit record for a few minutes. But throughout the whole summer, we watched these birds lay eggs, and they actually had three sets of babies who became fledglings and left, and then the robins would lay more eggs and so on. It became a visual reference in our lives as we moved through our kitchen, having meals and commenting on what the birds were doing. Observing, living, and artmaking can become so intertwined that they are difficult to distinguish.
DSCan you talk about time-lapse sequences in the film? The footage of the tall tree being cut creates a very strong image that serves as a metaphor for death.
AJThe time-lapses came from another rigorous examination of my environment, and they were also a sort of durational performance art. After gazing out of my studio window for years, I decided to bolt my camera to the windowsill, and I made a commitment to record ten or fifteen seconds every day at noon. I ended up doing it for a year and a half. In the film, the camera keeps returning to this one location, but it’s suddenly spring or winter. This gives a sense of the progress of time and the relentless cycles of nature.
The time-lapse of the tree cut down was different. It happened while my family members were ill, although at the time I didn’t make the emotional connection. The tree had lost a major leader and the remaining leader was leaning toward our house. We were told to take the tree down. I loved the tree and didn’t want to see it go. I wanted to remember it, so I set up my camera and recorded the cutting in real time, which in the film is then sped up.
DSTime-lapses can be cheesy as hell, but yours have emotional and formal honesty to them. In the film, the metaphoric transference from nature to people is remarkable. What were the general rules you set for yourself when you started editing the material?
AJIn order to pare this vast amount of emotional information down to a ninety-minute film, I had to establish some ground rules. And those limitations really are what gave the film its specificity, but also the space to bloom. There’s a very strict methodology. First, I established a time period that the footage had to be from—starting from the time I met my husband and left New York until my brother passed away. I also decided that I didn’t want any voice-over or monologuing after the fact. I wanted the remembering to happen within the footage itself and only from that which I had created at the time. I also didn’t want to mix technology, so I stuck with the standard definition 4:3 ratio footage that I’d shot at the time and embraced that vintage look. (laughter) I was worried that it would look crappy compared to the 16:9 high-def stuff that’s out there now. But I felt I needed to be honest to the time period. The telephone answering machine messages found their way in later. When I discovered I could use them, it was an epiphany, because the film could be narrated by my family’s own voices.
DSI want to point out something else in this context. You managed to make a film about cancer without us ever checking into the hospital.
AJ The film needed to be about the family and not about each individual’s experience outside the home. So another structural rule was that only immediate family members would be shown. The interior footage is mostly from Utah with my family, and the exterior is almost exclusively in my yard in New Hampshire. I specifically chose to not deeply characterize each person, what jobs or interests they had, because I wanted to make the story more universal, to give the viewer room to bring their own experiences to this film.
DSIt’s very generous of you to withhold that. Did you set these rules when you first viewed the material or during the editing process?
AJA little bit of both. Some rules were my way of harnessing the material in editing, to create a boundary for the story. I could’ve used many other kinds of footage, but my choice to stick to these somewhat formal constraints actually gave me more room to move. My own role within the film also needed a path to follow because I’m so intimately and emotionally involved as a participant—as daughter, sister, and mother—and as a viewer.
DSYou used handwritten journal entries written in real time to help viewers navigate the film. The short texts are factual, informative, and yet emotive. They’re cluing us into your journey as the person behind the camera and the person in the narrative. How did you arrive at this form?
AJPart of my obsessive documenting of life is keeping journals. While I watched the tapes, I also went back to look through my journals, to see where the visuals intersected with my writing. The handwritten sentences in the film are my actual journal entries from back then, but I decided to film the act of writing them. That was the only instance where I filmed after the fact. I wanted that feeling of discovering thoughts that you can’t get by shooting a journal that’s already been written. This was one way that the viewer could get into my head.
DSAnd become you in that moment.
AJThe journal texts also show revelations I had as well as the instructions in parting I was receiving. There are moments when the people who are ill or passing away teach us how to handle their death. A big part in caretaking is learning how to let people have their life and death the way they want it.
DSBeing with them on their terms.
AJAbsolutely. There’s a subtle shift of the voice in the writing that I discovered when I reread my journals. I was gradually learning how to accept and allow my family to live and die on their own terms. There are the Kübler-Ross moments of grieving—shock, anger, and eventually acceptance. I was amazed when I read through my journals how closely my experience followed that pattern.
DS Instructions on Parting is not didactic. We watch you absorb the instructions given to you by your family, by art and nature. Then we glean those instructions through your work.
AJWell, I made the film in order to figure out those instructions myself. I had all these memories of my family stored in a box and bringing them into the light with this film taught me how to part.
DSAs I edit the material for my own new film, which also orbits around an archive—a box of Hi8 tapes with footage filmed with a friend two decades ago—I wonder, Am I remembering this or is this remembering me?
AJThe act of filming can also be a way to unload your brain. You create an archive outside of your head so you can let go of those memories on an immediate level and take back your own body. And yet, that’s a completely false assumption.
AJYour emotions don’t necessarily translate to the tapes directly, to what’s being seen. In editing the film, I was trying to translate the actual emotions I was feeling that aren’t on the tapes.
DSIt’s much more complex and abstract than, Here’s me crying. Or, look, I’m laughing.
AJPart of it is spaciousness, leaving room for interpretation, not being too specific. The seasons and life cycles in the film allow for a simultaneously macro and micro view. Even formally, there are very minute and close-up moments, and on the other side, there are these vast, exterior landscapes.
DSFor this film, deciding what to keep and what to let go must have been particularly challenging. How did working with a team of people help you in the final editing process?
AJI love working in film because of the collaborative aspect. This is completely new to me. I’ve been a solo artist in the studio for two decades. The film took me five years, working on and off, to edit. Initially, to cull the bulk of the material I worked with an editor, Bara Jichova Tyson, who helped by giving a more objective viewpoint. Then I realized I needed to delve deeper to find the nuances, and to do this I really had to work alone. I progressed slowly because feature-film editing was a skill I had to learn, but over the next few years I made leaps and bounds with the structure of the story. There were moments that were hard to let go of, but ultimately I had to ask myself, Does this scene really serve the story?
Once I had a rough cut we began having test screenings for feedback, and I found a producer, Mary Kerr. Collaborating with the composer, cellist Noah Hoffeld and the sound designer, Jim Dawson, was a true joy. Fine-cut editor Laure Sullivan came in at the very end to help with the finessing. The making of this film was both a solo and a collaborative effort, the best of both worlds.
DSHow do you see your work moving forward?
AJI love finding new methods of working. I still feel very much like a beginner when it comes to filmmaking. I kind of cut my teeth on Instructions on Parting. I had to teach myself a lot of skills just to complete this one feature film. And now I’m interested in making another documentary.
DSI wonder what the next technology will be for you? Is it a camera?
AJI’m just discovering current technology, as I put all of my purchases and explorations on hold while I was working on this film. I needed to keep everything in a technological bubble of the early 2000s.
DSI’m in Hi8 land myself right now, so I can relate.
AJI intentionally did not update my computer. I did not buy an HD camera. And I stayed with the editing software Final Cut Pro 7. Now I need to start over because I have a film idea which is timely and will begin soon.
DSDo you want to talk about your idea?
AJMy fifteen-year-old and I are planning to collaborate on a film about gender identity and contemporary teenage life. I want us to share creative control, so we’re in the very early stages of figuring out what kind of process might allow that.
DSDo you feel like you’ve abandoned objects and installations in favor of film?
AJMy identity is as a visual artist who is using film right now. But I have no intention of abandoning three-dimensional artmaking or installation or other methods. I’m captivated by making film for people to sit down and watch in the theater.
DSThe film world versus the art world—can you compare and contrast the charms and the landmines in each?
AJIf I can bring the best aspects of fine art to the best aspects of documentary and also have the wider audience, that’s the perfect mix. But it’s difficult when applying for grants because an “art film” may not—
DS—have the mass appeal.
AJIt’s not taken as seriously, yes. And it maybe doesn’t have a social agenda in the same way.
DSOr it’s not entertaining.
AJOr it doesn’t fit neat categories. But I’m interested in pushing that boundary because I think, as a visual artist, I can lend something to the documentary medium that may be different.
Now that I’m on the other side, having seen the film a number of times in the theater, there’s nothing I would change. It’s exactly the way I want it to be. But I never would have been able to know that until now.
DSThat’s a wonderful thing, Amy. Once you put something out in the world it’s no longer yours in a way.
AJWith the film I created a vehicle that allows others to experience their own grief. I felt I needed to give something relatable and universal to the viewer. It’s a vehicle for my own grief, too, but it’s not a negative experience. It’s a celebration of knowing that I was able to love and be loved by these people. Every time I see the film I re-experience that love anew. And I allow myself to be moved by it.
Amy Jenkins’s new documentary project, “Adam’s Apple,” recently received a grant from the LEF Foundation “Moving Image Fund.”
David Shapiro is the director, writer, and producer of the feature-length films Missing People (2015), Keep the River on Your Right, and Finishing Heaven. His new film, Untitled Pizza Movie, is scheduled for release this fall. His visual art has been exhibited in shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Norton Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and others.
We have to skillfully protect and defend people Trump has terrified, which means having a little bit of spine and calling bullshit when we see it.