Letters Not About Love

Austin Chronicle


REVIEWED: 03-30-98

This year's SXSW award winner for Best Documentary is an anomaly in its genre: no talking heads, no expert witnesses, no specific item to be addressed or mystery to be uncovered; in fact, the filmmaker Jacki Ochs never even asks a question of anyone. The piece is structured around the five-year correspondence between two noted poets, American Lyn Hejinian and Ukrainian Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. The only thing Ochs asked of the poets at the beginning was that they reflect upon a decided-upon word ("books," "poverty," "violence," etc.) in each of their letters. She then used lines from their letters (read by actors Lili Taylor and Victor Nord) as a voiceover for footage she shot around America and the former Soviet Union. The result is a rare embrace of the political and the personal - a politics of intimacy. While the first letters come across as somewhat awkward and pretentious (as if each poet was trying to impress or outdo the other with flowery imagery and social insight), the latter ones grow in stature to the extent that they acknowledge, dance with, and revolve around each other. These may be letters not about love, but they do represent a love affair of words, and this is the root of the film's intoxicating appeal. Ochs' underlying images are rarely heavy-handed, but give new insight and meaning to the spoken words. It is a true and literal fusion of cinema and poetry.

--Jerry Johnson

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