Since the 1980s, Abigail Child has been a significant figure in experimental documentary. Her latest work, “Acts and Intermissions: Emma Goldman in America,” is a stylized visual and aural meditation on the social activist and anarchist whom the FBI once termed “the most dangerous woman alive.” Child’s 60-minute film uses a variety of techniques — historical and contemporary footage, onscreen text, voice-over narration, reenactments — to weave a past and present that offers a layered exploration of social resistance and women’s complex relationship to political struggle.
“I knew after my research that [Goldman] had a public and private life that was in opposition. It’s a distinction that often happens for women,” says Child, who lives in New York City and for 16 years taught at Tufts University, where she chaired the film and animation department. Child will attend a post-screening discussion of her film on Monday at 7 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre as part of its DocYard series.
Child spent three years doing research on Goldman, who is perhaps best known to film audiences through Maureen Stapleton’s Oscar-winning portrayal in the 1981 film “Reds.” Goldman left school in her native Russia at 13 to work in a factory, then immigrated to the United States at 16 in 1885 and quickly became radicalized when she witnessed the oppressive conditions for workers and the hostility toward organized labor. The self-taught Goldman, who spoke Russian, German, and Yiddish and who later became a nurse and a midwife, was jailed several times for “inciting to riot” and for her distribution of information on contraception. She became a celebrity, touring the country during the early part of the 20th century and drawing huge crowds at her speeches to workers’ groups and labor rallies.
Although “Acts and Intermissions” covers these historical details, Child offers a more immersive, non-linear experience than a traditional documentary. Through her use of sound editing, visual montage, reenactments featuring Miriam Rocek (“She has tremendous presence. To me, that’s Emma,” says Child), and Goldman’s own words culled from her letters and speeches, Child connects Goldman to the present. The heart of her project was always “how can I make it relate to now?” says Child, who studied anthropology at Harvard University and photography and film at Yale University.
“The line holding the piece together is [Goldman’s] inner life. She chose ideology over love in the end, which is what a lot of women end up choosing,” says Child.
She purposely gave her film “an anarchistic structure that’s not hierarchal.”
Child shot scenes of workers in a contemporary yarn factory, which she cuts with historical footage of labor strife. Modern demonstrations from Black Lives Matter and workers demanding a $15 minimum wage are juxtaposed with archival footage from the 1886 Chicago Haymarket riot and other labor rebellions of Goldman’s time. “The issues are still the same today. That shocked me,” says Child. “I wanted a history of protests right up to the present.”
“Acts and Interruptions,” which had its world premiere in February at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight, is the second film in Child’s planned Trilogy of Women and Ideology. “Each part asks how ideologies fail women and what do we give up in our struggle to be more than merely female?” she says. The first film in the trilogy, “UNBOUND: Scenes From the Life of Mary Shelley” (2012), examined 19th-century Romanticism through “imaginary home movies” that Child shot in Rome. The third part of the trilogy, she says, will explore science in the 21st century focusing on virtual women and androids.
“My art is discovering the process to make ideas live,” Child says. “For me, the making is the pleasure.”Loren King can be reached at email@example.com.