October 23 2002 | Darren D'Addario
When filmmakers Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick talk about French philosopher Jacques Derrida, they don't refer to him as many others do; elusive, inscrutable or enigmatic. The one word they both use to describe the father of deconstruction is charismatic. Having been Derrida's student at Yale during the 80's, Ziering Kofman knew that the philosopher had the type of rare presence that would make him an excellent subject for a chronicle, eventhough his abstruse, nontraditional theories are baffling to most and controversial to some. The academic's charisma and searching intellect are fully on display in Derrida, Ziering Kofman and Dicks' documentary, which is less a standard biopic than it is an art film blends interviews with the philosopher, passages from his writing and a spooky score by The Last Emperor composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.
The project started in 1994 when Ziering Kofman approached her former professor after a speech he gave in Los Angeles. " I really appreciated his work, and I thought that there should be some kind of record of him, with him getting on in years," she says during a phone conversation from L.A. : I went up to him and told him that I'd like to do this film. He said he didn't really wasnt to but if I wrote [a proposal], he would consider it."
Though Derrida, now 72, has an aversion to cameras and public attention, he relented when he was granted the right to approve the movie before it was released - in other words, he had the final cut.
Ziering Kofman was an academic with no filmmaking experience, but she began recording interviews in 1997 with cagey intellectual, who often questioned her questions, parrying with her as they discussed the nature of love, the history of philosophy and the difficulty of creating an accurate biography. Soon thereafter, Ziering Kofman met Dick at a screening of his unusual chronicle Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, which captured the titular performer's graphic stage shows. Ziering Kofman and Dick talked after the screening, and they decided to work together on the Derrida film.
"The material that Amy had shot was quite interesting. Most people treat Derrida with great deference, which is not a great [for a documentary]," Dick says. "She was willing to push to get what she wanted."
One thing the filmmaking duo wanted was to find a balanced way to present Derrida's work. As Kirby says: "It was important to us to keep its integrity, to not dumb it down, but also to not be so obtuse that people wouldn't give it a chance."
Regardless of what anybody else thinks, Derrida himself has grown fond of the film. "We showed him a rough cut, and he approved it with minor cuts, thought he didn't have much of a reaction," says Ziering Kofman. "But when we showed him the final cut, he said 'I love it, it's a beautiful film and appreciate it.' That was very gratifying."
Dick is currently completing two documentaries for HBO-Cinemax -one about terminally ill people in a hospice, and the other about the mounting of a new Las Vegas show. Though Ziering Kofman has no immediate plans for a new film project, she hopes to continue working in the form. "Definitely," she says. "If I find another genius to stalk."
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