THE ONION Oct 23 2002 | Scott Tobias
Derrida is a documentary about French philosopher Jacques Derrida, foudner of deconstructionism. Or is it? Can truth be gleaned from a form so inherently artificial? What can a biography really claim to understand about a person? Derrida is a documentary about French philosopher Jacques Derrida, foudner of deconstructionism. Or is it? Can truth be gleaned from a form so inherently artificial? What can a biography really claim to understand about a person? Aren't the editing decisions involved in constructing a documentary more revealing of its maker than its subject? What can a documentary truly profess to document? In making the film, directors Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) and Amy Ziering Kofman (a former student of Derrida's) have willfully pursued the most elusive subject imaginable, a man who constantly calls the process itself into question. At first glimpse, Dick and Kofman seem to hit a creative impasse: What can be revealed about someone so stubbornly unrevealing? But as the film takes shape, the form and the subject develop a fascinating symbiosis, with Derrida cast as an active participant in the deconstruction of his own documentary. Normally the dirty little secret of verite-style documentaries, the Heisenberg principle -in which it's the observer as much as the observed that reveals Reality- rattles the foundation of Derrida, and all other ideas spin off from there. For more than five years, Dick and Kofman pursued the slippery and good-humored philosopher at his Paris home and at a local university, with several detours along the way, including a trip to South Africa where he visits Mandela's old cell and lectures college students on the topic of forgiveness. The few biographical details are usually spun into a larger philosophical discussion: When talking about his childhood in French Algeria, where he was expelled from school as part of an anti-Semitic purge by the Vichy authorities, Derrida slips into more abstract monologues on prejudice and identity. Dick and Kofman complement their interview segments with select readings from his books, giving a taste of his contrarian takes on love, language, biography and the death of philosophy itself. Much like Errol Morris' A Brief History of Time or Richard Linklater's Waking Life, Derrida finds creative solutions to lead the audience though concepts that are dense enough on the page, and even harder to digest on screen. Though the film still works better as a supplement than an introduction to Derrida's line of thinking, Dick and Kofman complement his ideas with clever visual touches and an ambient Ryuichi Sakamoto score that opens up the channels of thought. With Derrida himself playing the third, uncredited director, the film breaks itself down before putting the pieces back together again.
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