Documentary. USA, 2002. Not rated. 84 minutes.

Featuring: Jacques Derrida
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Cinematographer: Kirsten Johnson
Producer: Amy Ziering Kofman
Directors: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering Kofman


Grade: B+ Review by Jeff Vorndam

One wonders what it would be like to see a day in the life of Plato, Hegel or Nietzsche. Did these titans of thought put their pants (or robes, in Plato's case) on one leg at a time, like everyone else? There's a tendency to look at philosophers as if they were nothing more than Rodin's sculpture of the thinker, their chins resting interminably on their knuckles, and the foreheads permanently fixed into a furrowed state of contemplation. But surely these guys ate, shat, screwed and occasionally sang "Ring of Fire" in the shower. (Okay, that last one's just me.) With Derrida, we are presented the daily life of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, possibly the most famous and influential thinker alive. But how accurately can a documentary portray a life?

This question weighs heavily on the minds of not just the filmmakers, Amy Ziering Kofman (a former student of Derrida's) and Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist), but the subject himself. Derrida is known as the progenitor of deconstruction, and the film is a deconstructionist piece itself. In other words, it ponders the nature and assumptions of biographies and the documentary format as it proceeds. If that sounds like brain-hurting material, never fear. While Derrida's writing can be difficult to follow, he's lucid in person, and the way the film acts as an example of his ideas helps to understand them.

Derrida deconstructs Derrida by looking beyond his words and placing them in the context of his life and times. This approach is useful because it recognizes that ideas are not created in a vacuum. Acknowledging one's subjectivity, biases, cultural background, and blind spots opens the window to dialogue. It's only after these qualifications that any truth can be asserted. This is borne out in Derrida's answers to the questions put to him. He hems and haws, provides stipulations and conditions, and never responds glibly. What seems at first like evasiveness, reveals itself as careful, painstaking thought.

If you don't feel like you know Derrida the person after having seen the film, then it's achieved its goal of stimulating thought by demonstrating the truth in the paradox, "The more you know, the less you know." Interviews with Derrida are inter-cut with slice-of-life shots of him getting his hair trimmed, eating yogurt, and explaining what a sham the whole documentary is (for example, his admission that he changes his behavior, consciously or not, due to the presence of the camera). Derrida would make a good twin-bill with Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up. Both films ask what truth can be discerned from non-firsthand experience, and both films specifically question cinema's capability for recording truth.

Derrida played at the 45th San Francisco International Film Festival on April 27 and April 28, 2002.

Review © May 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Image 2002 JANE DOE FILMS. All Rights Reserved.

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