features + interviews

“The Camera is My Beloved”: Michelle Memran Creates Documentary Art with María Irene Fornés

[article originally published in HowlRound, June 12, 2018.]

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The Rest I Make Up is a poetic rumination by filmmaker Michelle Memran about playwright María Irene Fornés, now in her late 80s and living with late-stage Alzheimer’s. The film is a visual and literary love letter to its subject. I talked with Michelle in late February 2018, about a week after the film’s world premiere screening at MOMA.

Martha: You are a journalist who edged your way into documentary filmmaking with The Rest I Make Up. I’d like to talk about how you put it together. You originally met María Irene Fornés as a journalist conducting an interview?

Michelle: This was in 1999. She didn’t love journalists and she really didn’t care about what we were talking about in the interview. She didn’t answer any of the questions that I had about critics, the subject of the piece I was writing. “Oh critics, let’s talk about something else, let’s talk about me.” She once told me when the early reviews came out about her plays, she didn’t care. In the early days she would just like to see her name in the paper. “My name’s in the paper, I’m a part of this community now,” you know?

Martha: You include in the film the story of your relationship with Irene in an exchange when she asks you, genuinely and playfully, “When did we meet?” And at one point you say, “You weren’t writing, and you didn’t know why. I wanted to write a play and I didn’t know how.”

Michelle: She met with me at a time where she wasn’t actively writing and teaching and had a lot of time. The film includes film of a trip we took to Brighton Beach. That’s the first footage I shot. I had a camera as a gift from my Dad from some years before that I’d maybe turned on once and I just brought it along. The beginning of the film project was that moment when I asked, “Does the camera make you uncomfortable?” and she replied, “The camera is my beloved.”

Before that Brighton Beach day trip, I had been spending a lot of time with Irene. I would go visit her in the West Village on my lunch breaks from my work as a fact checker at Vanity Fair. At that point I kind of knew that her memory was not great, but she hadn’t been to a doctor and was not formally diagnosed.

Martha: The camera seemed to provide another way to engage and create, and rooted you both in the present, moment to moment.

Michelle: What interested her was the moment. When the camera came on, there’s nothing more spontaneous, just whatever was on her mind, putting it out there. It was effortless for her. I called her agent Morgan Jenness and told her how Irene really responded to the camera. “What if we do some kind of film project? What if we just bring the camera around with us?” I had no experience in film. I loved taking pictures, and I was a visual artist, I did some drawing. But I had never done a film project.

Martha: But you had this camera given to you by your father and you jumped in.

Michelle: It was a Hi8 camera. He was always getting me electronic stuff. He knew that I had a visual sense. Eventually, I got a better camera, a mini DV camera from an old roommate of mine who wasn’t using it. I think those tapes from Brighton Beach were the only once that were shot on Hi8.

I would go visit Irene, and bring food and the camera, and sometimes some beer. That was basically how it all began. We didn’t know what we were doing.

There are scenes in the film where I don’t know how to get the light right, I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know how to do that, but it was perfect. The story of how Irene began to write plays is she didn’t know what she was doing, which allowed her to experiment, and gave her this freedom. It was the perfect master class in filmmaking because we were making it up as we went along. I don’t think if I’d come with a big crew she would have ever let me in the door.

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Fornes in the 1970s. Photo by Marcella Matarese Scuderi.

Martha: This film is not a linear story of a life, but something else. Talk about the fluid sense of time you establish.

Michelle: Irene doesn’t really know what time it is, so it didn’t matter to me, and the filming went on over a long period of time. I was visiting Irene a lot, and she was lamenting the loss of teaching gigs: she wasn’t getting called to teach and she didn’t know why. She didn’t know what was happening to her. “I’m not writing, it’s not bothering me, but I don’t know why I’m not writing,” she would say. “I don’t think it’s the memory. I just don’t feel like writing.” We’d go out on the street and she would notice 10,000 things, and be so in the moment, so creative every second. It just exudes from her pores.

[continued]

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