NICHT löschbares Feuer

04 / 11 / 01 - 14 / 12 / 01
Exhibition / Screening / Discussion

NICHT löschbares Feuer
curated by Constanze Ruhm

On Jill Godmilow
Jill Godmilow: Why I repeated Farocki.
Correspondence between Jill Godmilow and Harun Farocki
on NICHT löschbares Feuer (Inextinguishable Fire)

Jill Godmilow: On Farocki's Strategies: The Technique and Structure of Inextinguishable Fire
Other films by Jill Godmilow

Tom Gunning on What Farocki taught
Synopses of Harun Farocki's works available in the video section
A Conversation between Anna and Robert


On Jill Godmilow

As a producer/director, Jill Godmilow has earned a substantial reputation during more than two decades of film and video making. Considered one of the primary theoreticians/practitioners in the American non-fiction genre, she has been interviewed in American Film, Afterimage, In These Times, The Independent, History and Theory, Text Performance Quarterly and featured in international festivals since 1973. Her 1971 Tales (made with Cassandra Gerstein and an all-female crew) is a "performed documentary" about how we tell stories about sexual experiences, which Jonas Mekas called the most interesting film in the Whitney Museum's "New American Filmmakers Series" that year. Her Antonia:A Portrait of the Woman, (co-directed with folksinger Judy Collins in 1973) was the first independently produced American documentary to enjoy extensive theatrical exhibition in the United States and broadcast in eleven foreign countries. Among other honors, it received an Academy Award nomination and the Independent New York Film Critics Award, "Best Documentary". Most of Godmilow's productions are in the realm of non-fiction, including Nevelson in Process, a portrait of the sculptress, Louise Nevelson, and The Odyssey Tapes, about Richard Dyer-Bennett's 24-hour performance of Homer's "Odyssey". With the Ethnic Art Center, she produced and directed The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago , the story of a family of Serbian-American musicians in South Chicago, and for the producers Chiquita and Andre Gregory, she directed The Vigil, a study of the para-theatrical work of the acclaimed Polish company "Teatr Laboratorium", and At Nienadowka with Grotowski, on the work of Polish theater director, Jerzy Grotowski.

In 1984, her non-fiction feature, Far From Poland, about the contradictions of the Polish Solidarity movement, was heralded for breaking new ground in the documentary genre. Its radical deconstructive approach and juxtaposition of fact and fiction led directly to the genesis of her dramatic feature film, Waiting For The Woman, a feminist/modernist "fiction" about the lives of the famous literary couple, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, (played by Academy Award winner, Linda Hunt, and British stage actress, Linda Bassett). Waiting for the Moon was produced for PBS's "American Playhouse" series and released theatrically by Skouras Pictures. It was honored at numerous national and international film festivals (First Prize at the Sundance Film Festival) and enjoyed broadcast and theatrical distribution in France, Germany, England, Australia, Sweden and Japan.

In 1995, she directed the feature-length Roy Cohn / Jack Smith - a film which re-interprets Ron Vawter's famous theatre piece on the closeted and uncloseted lives-in-performance of two radically opposed and infamous queer men, both of whom died of AIDS in the late 1980's. The film was featured at the Toronto, Berlin, Melbourne, Sydney, Montreal, Jerusalem, and Galway film festivals. In 1998 at the Rotterdam Film Festival she premiered What Farocki Taught. In the U.S., the film has screened at the Big Muddy, Ann Arbor, Athens, Carolina and Vancouver Film Festivals, and in Europe, at Rotterdam, Oberhausen, Locarno and at CONSTANT in Brussels.

Why I repeated Farocki. Jill Godmilow, Oct. 2001

What Farocki Taught
is a replica -- not an remake, not an homage, not an updating -- but a shot-for-shot replica of Harun Farocki's 1969 film Inextinguishable Fire. It was intended as a repetition of the original. Gertrude Stein once said, "Let me repeat what history teaches: History teaches." Fire seemed worth repeating, simply because what Farocki taught in 1969 hasn't yet been taken in. Witness Somalia, the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kossovo, and the current preparations for the "war against terrorism". In the United States, Inextinguishable Fire had never been exhibited. If "history teaches", it seemed to me that the rather bold, even blunt gesture of copying a modest and brilliant film about the production of napalm might bring a kind of intelligent attention to some history, and, as importantly, to some film history. So, the initial impulse to replicate Farocki's film was to practice filmmaking as a form of distribution.
I also greatly admire Farocki's other films and thought that -- since very few people had heard of him in the U.S. -- people would find themselves wondering "who is this Farocki and what does he teach", and then maybe they would see my film and then seek out other Farocki films, which is what has happened.

Now that What Farocki Taught is in distribution, and "teaching" again, I can name and explain at least 25 additional reasons why I remade Farocki's film, now. Here are a few.

1. I wanted to learn how to make a film like "Fire"... to understand exactly how it worked. One way to do that is to copy, the way painters over time have sat in the Louvre or the British Museum or the Prado and copied Rembrandts, Goya's, Da Vinci's, etc. in order to learn from them.

2. I wanted to confound the notion of filmic propriety: who's film is What Farocki Taught? Farocki's or mine?

3. I wanted to see if a perfect, shot-for-shot replica of an old film was, in fact, the same film as the original, (of course, it isn't) and ask, how can " What Farocki Taught " be a documentary if it's a perfect copy of an existing film?

Finally, by repeating Farocki's Fire..., I hoped to make a provocation to the whole system of documentary representation. Because of the TV market, and because most documentary filmmakers have been content to repeat themselves endlessly, for more than forty years, without any examination of the ideology of the form, American documentary has been completely dependent on what it calls "cinema verite" -- what I call pornographic cinema. It believes only and completely in "the real", and seeks to get its message across by providing cinematic proofs of the actual existence of this and that, represented by real people and real things. When it wants to talk about war, for instance, it tries to show it in the most fiery and melodramatic way possible.... to get us all excited, to make us weep, or rage, or feel guilty.... guilty, but excited. American documentaries produce an almost sexual fascination with state terror and also operate as a license to grieve "for the others". But the "real" in documentary is only a "horror show" -- a fun house of scary pleasures and false political consciousness, constructed for liberal voyeurism.

In "Fire", Farocki seeks to make a useful analysis of how war is produced -- materially.

He refuses the "real" and substitutes cheap models to under-represent the effects of weapons of war. With these models, he demonstrates the relationships of war: the relationship between science and death; between dead rats and dead Vietnamese people; between description and analysis. His film is uncontaminated by scary pleasures, and uncontaminated by identification, false morality, and the production of us-versus-them. It 's also fair to say that it's uncontaminated by desire, which is to say, by filmmaking itself. It speaks rationally, elegantly and without anger about our labor and the results of our labor. This is a problem we should all be considering if we want to end war.

Speaking of novelists in South Africa being "drawn to the torture room" in search of "novelistic fantasy", the South African writer, J. M. Coetzee, says, "Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer, the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is: how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one's own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one's own terms."
For these reason, I repeated Farocki.

Correspondence between Jill Godmilow and Harun Farocki
on NICHT löschbares Feuer (Inextinguishable Fire)

8. April 96
Dear Harun, Where are you? I never got a response from my last letter, asking about you coming to show films and speak at a RETHINKING MARXISM conference in New York. In case it never got to you, I've attached it here.

Now to my real business. As I mentioned, I'm going ahead this June to shoot the re-make of INEXTINGUISHABLE FIRE - current running title: WHAT FAROCKI TAUGHT. I'm still figuring a few things out - tempted to take the thing in many different directions, but quashing most of them. I'm now pretty much clear that I'll make a very very straight replica (perhaps obscenely straight - even using American actors speaking rough replicas of your German text and subtitling it in English)... hoping this absurd gesture of re-making a 27 year old film about a war that's supposedly long gone, even surpassed, about a weapon that's now banned, in a formal/materialist film style that the American left has never used, will raise again really the same direct questions you ask about the morality of technology, and secondly, the technology of non-fiction cinema.

All these years since I saw the film, I have purposely avoided knowing too much about it - I wanted to work from my responses to it alone, but now that I'm about to actually do it - there are things I'd like to ask for and questions I'd like to ask.


1. I remember you saying you weren't sure where the negative was. Now I ask if it still exists and whether you could find it and ship it here to me.

2. Failing that, a print, from which I could make a negative of the sections I'd like to use... with or without subtitles.

3. This is a long shot, but somehow, by God's grace, could you lay your hands on the video news footage that you run on the TV to stand in for the evening news?

4. Another long shot request: the crop dusting footage... if you can find it, send it, if not, can you tell me where you got it - from American industrial films, or where? I've got to duplicate it somehow and have no time (and no money) for digging around expensive film archives.

5. Even longer shot - can you find the Dow Chemical corporate shot that you use twice - the forklift with the two DOW barrels, heading away from camera towards the horizon - and send it to me. Of course I'll pay for all the expenses, if you can find any of these things.

1. How much of the film was dubbed - some of it sounds like location sound, some dubbed in later in post-production... a conscious choice to dub or just financial?
2. Is the photo in Mrs. Fink's office window really of Midland Michigan, or just some city scape? Where did you get it?

3. The film doesn't seem to be mixed - I mean, it seems there is only one track running at a time. True? Conscious materialist/political decision to avoid lush, smoothed out time and space produced by seamless soundtrack? or not?

4. How much did it cost - roughly. Who paid for it? How long did it take to make?

5. How scripted was it.

6. Who did you intend to address. Did you think of it as agit prop - addressed to the left student community, or workers, or whom? For me, there's a kind of double address - to the German left but also, sort of officially to Americans.

7. Where was it shown? On TV? At Cineclubs? Festivals. Who used it. Was it ever shown in the U.S. during the War? or ever, before the Goethe House retrospective?

8. Were there other films like this - were you part of a film movement that addressed the Vietnam War?

9. Who were the actors? Just friends?

10. Did you have a real dolly or a wheelchair?

11. Every now and then, you use a frozen frame from a shot that has already been in the film in live action. Was this a shortage of footage or a conscious idea? Here I really can't tell.

> 12. The canisters that drop out of the tubes and fall into a sink to punctuate certain beats - where were those? where might I find them?

13. How did you kill the flies, the grasshoppers and the plants. Did you shoot some kind of stop action on the plants.

14. Was that a dead laboratory rat you burned? With gasoline or what?

I've had a chance to do a bit of research - just to get back into this thing - poking around in the library shelves on Vietnam and ecocide and such things. The first book I picked up was a record of the proceedings of the International War Crimes Tribunal: Against the Crime of Silence, and there was the testimony of Thai Bin Dan that you open the film with. A remarkable moment, thinking of you reading this book and deciding to make your film. The other curious item I found was a book called, THE WEAPONSMAKERS: PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL CRISIS DURING THE VIETNAM WAR... a socio/psychology study, obviously commissioned by some trade organization of weaponsmakers, to try to pinpoint and I guess anticipate the reactions of engineers, etc. working at plants like DOW and the causes and levels of their resistance to producing weapons for the military. I've enclosed here just the summary of the study, for your reading pleasure. Just when you think your cynicism is over the top and will drown you, you find out you're not nearly cynical enough.

So anyway., I know this is probably a big bother - that you're off somewhere shooting something - but please try to help if you can, as quickly as possible. At least, communicate. And send some info about the last film you made, which I haven't seen yet - and where one can get a hold of it here in the states. You know every year I show at least three Farocki films: Videogramme, How to Live and Inscriptions of War. Just keep on going because they're so fine - such a spark for me and everyone I can get to watch such things.
Now, goodnight. That is all. Take care of yourself.

Jill Godmilow : On Farocki's Strategies:
The Technique and Structure of Inextinguishable Fire

In Inextinguishable Fire, Farocki refuses both the pornography of "the real" (that which traditionally excites us in documentary) and the pedigree (that which traditionally validates the text as true) of "the real". There is almost no “reality footage" in Inextinguishable Fire, nor are there interviews with the executives or workers at the Dow plant in Midland, Michigan. There are only weak demonstrations and reconstructions and models of relationships between people, material objects and events.

1. GENERAL STRATEGY: UNDER-REPRESENTATION - Less powerful, cool images stand in for hot "real" ones. The audience becomes the originator of the imagined actualities.
- The only sequence of "actual" newsreel shots in the film is completely formal... a sober series of shots, somewhat in battle order, of the daily representation of the war on the U.S. evening news: soldiers, generals, jeeps, planes, explosions, burnt trees, terrorized children, families fleeing, napalmed human limbs... industrialized war, repeated again. The sequence makes no time and produces no space - you can't experience the war here - thus there is no excitement. The sequence refuses to function as montage, which would generalize the war. Here you can only remember how it was watched. This is how we recognize that war, by this "horror-show".

2. WEAK MODELS OF THINGS, INSTEAD OF THE THINGS THEMSELVES: Reductive, perhaps childlike, certainly crude models substitute for what we would otherwise recognize as “the real, and enjoy seeing and believing. - models of executive offices with stenciled corporate logos and a photograph for a window - models (primitive demonstrations) of laboratory experiments - models (dubbed) of conversations, on this day - then later on that day - not a naked Vietnamese child running down a road on fire, but a dead rat ignites in flame - not the 1969 Dow Annual Report, but test results chalked on a blackboard - not a fleet of B-52's defoliating, but a stock shot of a crop-dusting plane - - a valve is opened, a spraying plane flies low across a field, a household plant droops ˜ or some flies drop off a grid

3. NO HEROES, NO VILLAINS - not even real characters, but “stand-ins for real people, referencing familiar types: a blond woman stands in for a chemical engineer; a balding guy with sideburns stands in for a plastics specialist; a handsome guy with soulful eyes stands in for the Project Director ˜ all normal, attractive people, like us. Even the CEO is pleasant enough and has his own reasons to proceed.

4. RHYTHM - Industrial and relentless, with abrupt movement from one scene to the next. No dramatic or pregnant beats, which results in intellectual, not emotional excitement.

5. POLITICS - Though the film is forthright and committed to it's political argument for the rational use of labor it is not militant, aggressive or angry. The film offers some information and then asks a series of questions that only individual members of the audience can answer: When you solve the riddle at the end of the film when you know whether your own labor produces automatic rifles or vacuum cleaners; when you know who is buying and firing your rifles and whose families are using your vacuum cleaners then you know something useful.

6. ADDRESS - Not to a fantasy community of compassionate, freedom-loving, citizen-observers, ready to take action as soon as injustice is revealed rather a direct address to middle class individuals as if they are part of the problem and the solution.

7. TONE - Not pitched up emotionally, but flat and sober, which is where the horror-show lies - in the logical, almost industrial arrangements of objects and speech.

Not a narrative, nor an argument with evidence and proofs - rather a tight, formal demonstration of certain functional arrangements and relationships of labor. Farocki shows series of things, repeats processes, so he can explicate pattern and structure. The film is symmetrical: at the beginning there is an introduction, at the end there is an epilog in the form of a riddle. The middle of the film is in 2 parts: the "research process", and the "results". The "research process" itself is made of 2 parallel series: First series - meeting between CEO Doan and Project Director in the board room - meetings between the Project Director and three individual scientists - a batch of Napalm is tested in the laboratory - a worker watches a huge tumbler mixing together Napalm ingredients - the CEO and the Project Director watch the war on the evening news. The Project Director expresses agony. Second series - a meeting between CEO Doan and his secretary in the board room - the three scientists chalk up the results of their research - the lab test is repeated, this time with success: flies drop like flies - a worker watches the huge tumbler mixing Napalm ingredients - two women scientists exchange private thoughts in a locker room - all the scientists and the CEO watch the war on the evening news. They express dismay, disgust and exhaustion. - an extra scene: a female scientist in the Dow parking lot finds a leaflet on the windshield of her Mercedes: she rationalizes her research as partially good-for-humanity and partially bad-for-humanity - what is she to do?
The "results" half is also made of 2 parallel series of almost identical
Shots - a forklift with two canisters of Napalm rolls onto an airfield - a businessman mounts a corporate plane - the plane taxis and takes off - a small plane flies against some mountains - a pilot looks down at a target - a lever is pulled - a plane flies low and sprays - the fields rush past in close-up In the first series, some crickets die in a laboratory. In the second, a plant withers.
Jill Godmilow's films include, among others: Far from Poland (1984) 110 minutes,16 mm
with Andrzej Tymowski, Susan Delson, and Mark Magill

A filmmaker - a woman steeped in the documentary traditions of the Left - sets out to dismantle the sinister symmetry of the Cold War single-handedly and show the world the road to salvation through the miracle of the Polish Solidarity movement. When denied visas to shoot in Poland proper, she constructs a film in New York City called FAR FROM POLAND. Over the barest bones of documentary footage, she drapes dramatic re-enactments of Solidarity texts, formal vignettes and swatches of soap opera, to engage the audience in her personal, complex, contrary and contradictory understanding of the Polish struggle.

Waiting for the Moon
(1987) 88 minutes

WAITING FOR THE MOON is a "biographie imaginaire" of the famous literary couple, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas - a fictional feature that proposes a troubled year in the lives of these two lovers - that year when Gertrude thinks she's dying of an incurable disease. Being Gertrude Stein, she isn't interested in such facts, only in ideas. Alice, on the other hand, is interested in their relationship. The film is perfectly true to Stein's literary spirit but plays, in gentle comedy, with the facts. It takes places simultaneously in their famous Paris home at 27, rue de Fleurus and in their country house in the small village of Bilignin.

Roy Cohn/Jack Smith
(1995) 88 minutes

From one of the seminal theatrical events of the 90's - Ron Vawter's stunning performance piece ROY COHN/JACK SMITH - Jill Godmilow has crafted a dramatically deft, comic and terrifying film diptych of queer-on-queer. Roy Cohn, the homophobic right-wing lawyer and sleazy back-room politico, thunders against the Sodom and Gomorrah of homosexuality at a banquet for the American Society for the Protection of the Family - while across town and light years away, the notorious underground filmmaker of "Flaming Creatures" fame, Jack Smith, in flamboyant harem drag, constructs his own private resistance theatre from fragments of Arabian Nights kitsch, avant-garde film feuds and passionate B movie camp. Vawter performs both men exquisitely in this film about the closet, where silence is powerful, but from which, both of these infamous homosexuals from the repressive and punishing 50's, leak out privileged knowledge of Queerness in brilliant performances of their own - Cohn using politics as a form of drag and Smith turning drag into an extraordinary form of politics, pathos and jouissance. Cohn and Smith had nothing in common except their homosexuality and their death from AIDS in the late 1980's. Vawter, who accepts and produces both men in his own voice and body, also died of AIDS, six months after the film was shot.

Other films by Jill Godmilow :

Tales(1969) 70 minutes, with Cassandra Gerstein
Antonia: Portrait of a Woman (1974) 58 minutes, with Judy Collins
Nevelson in Process
(1977) 28 minutes, with Susan Fanshel
The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago (1977)
60 minutes, with Ethel Raim and Martin Koenig
The Odyssey Tapes(1978) 30 minutes
The Loft Tapes (1999) 110 minutes

Recent Articles

1999 - "What's Wrong With the Liberal Documentary?"
Jill Godmilow, Peace Review - March, 1999
1997 - "How Real Is the Reality in Documentary Films? Jill Godmilow in
conversation with Ann-Louise Shapiro", History and Theory ,Vol 36, No. 4, Wesleyan University Press
1997 - "[Un]documenting History: An Interview with Filmmaker Jill Godmilow",
Lynn C. Miller, Text Performance Quarterly, July 7, 1997, vol 7, number 3