Although she has not returned to western Massachusetts since her college days, Amherst has had a profound influence on her life. “I could not have made movies without Amherst. I could not have been the thinker I am, the student and teacher I was or the person I am today without Amherst,” she said, while taking a break from the Viennale-a renowned art exhibition-screening of her film “Derrida,” which has been received with much critical adulation.
A self-described “hard-core academic,” Kofman said that she had no idea that she would become a filmmaker while at Amherst 20 years ago. About halfway through her Amherst career, she decided to continue her academic career and attend graduate school.
After graduating, Kofman enrolled at Yale University, where she obtained her Ph.D., primarily to study with Derrida, who was in the U.S. on teaching assignments at the time. Since chancing upon Derrida’s work at the age of 16, she had been enthralled by his ideas. Listening to Derrida speak in addition to reading his work convinced Kofman of the absolute necessity of having a movie made about his life and ideas.
An unlikely idea
An unlikely idea
When she first approached Derrida with her ideas in 1994, 10 years after studying with him, Derrida was hesitant; filmmakers had made previous attempts to portray his life and failed. But Kofman was confident that she could present his story in an artistic and meaningful way. Upon receiving his consent, she began following him and accumulating raw footage. However, her lack of real experience in the cinema soon led her to realize that she should consider teaming up with a co-director. In 1997, she met Kirby Dick at a screening of his documentary, “Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Super Masochist.” She was immediately impressed and approached him about joining her on the “Derrida” project, to which he agreed.
The film takes a unique approach to illustrating Derrida’s life and theories. It is not a traditional narrative biography, nor does it explain his theory of deconstruction in a conventional manner. Instead, it combines moments of Derrida’s personal life shot in Paris, the United States, Australia and South Africa, interviews with Kofman and voiceovers of excerpts from his writings. The filmmakers liken the film to watching Socrates rehearse his dialogues or Shakespeare struggle through drafts of his plays.
“Derrida” premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it played to sold-out crowds and won praise from filmmakers and critics alike. It was hailed as “blissful � a pleasure to watch” by The New York Times, “the most intellectually challenging documentary at Sundance” by The Los Angeles Times and “clever, playful, and provocative” by Variety. Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Institute, which sponsors the festival to celebrate independent filmmakers, attended one of the screenings after hearing rave reviews.
The film is particularly skillful in its dealings with the more complex ideas for which Derrida is renowned. At first, transposing his ideas to the silver screen seemed as impossible to Kofman as translating a Monet painting into words. The film takes particular care to present the man, his work and the interaction between the two.
As Kofman explained, “the film is never didactic-it tries to get you to do part of the work, which is what deconstruction is all about. If you come away from the film not ‘knowing’ exactly what deconstruction is-you’ve nevertheless been doing the work of deconstruction, simply by wrestling with the issues the film raises.”
Kofman is very proud of the way the film turned out. Her hope is that it will gain some importance years from now and seems confident that it will. “Wouldn’t it be interesting to be able to watch footage today of Plato or Nietzsche during their lifetime? A hundred years from now, it will be just as remarkable and important to have a cinematic record of Derrida,” she said.