SINK OR SWIM

U.S.A.

1990

 

Director / Producer / Writer / Cinematography / Editor / Sound: Su Friedrich

Voice-over: Jessica Lynn

Music: 'Gretchen At The Spinning Wheel' by Franz Schubert, performed by Kathleen Ferrier

 

47 minutes

 

16 mm

Black & White

English

GA Certificate

 

Proudly personal and triumphantly artisanal, as accessible as it is uncompromising.

- J. Hoberman, Premiere

 

a personal chronicle about language, memory, and Dad that strikes hard, and deep

- Manohla Dargis, Village Voice, 2/10/90

 

 

Heartbreaking and profound, this autobiographical film explores a teenage girl's memory of the relationship between her and her father.  Structured as 26 stories, the young woman paints a startling picture of a rigid, career-obsessed father whom she loves and admires but also fears and eventually feels betrayed by.  A complex and emotionally charged film.

 

- Raymond Murray, Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video, New York, 1996

 

 

In Sink or Swim, which can easily be seen as a companion piece to The Ties that Bind, Friedrich returns to her family history to explore her relationship with her father, anthropologist / linguist Paul Friedrich, who left the family when Friedrich was a child.  In Sink or Swim, Friedrich confronts the brutality built into the conventional nuclear family by virtue osf societal gender assumptions, directly and personally, though with subtlety and thoughtfulness.  Her goal is not simply to respond to the long-term effects of painful childhood experiences but to aid viewers - men and women - in thinking about their own experiences as children and their own approaches to parenting.

 

As is true in all Friedrich's longer films, her desire to enhance viewers' willingness to interact in humane ways is reflected by her cinematic approach, which is, on one hand, to bring together filmmaking traditions that are normally (at least in North America) considered distinct and, on the other, to edit her visuals and her soundtrack so that these separate sources of information intersect in a wide range of obvious and subtle ways.  Sink or Swim is a personal narrative recorded in a gestural style, but its organization suggests 'structural film', particularly Hollis Frampton's alphabetically arranged Zorns Lemma: the individual stories that make up Sink or Swim are presented in reverse alphabetical order, according to the first letters of their one-word titles: 'Zygote', 'Y Chromosome', 'X Chromosome',...  Friedrich tells her story clearly and powerfully enough to move a broad spectrum of filmgoers, but the interplay between sound and image can feed the eye and mind for many viewings.

 

- Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers, Berkeley, 1992

 

 

When Friedrich asked her father to teach her to swim, he took her to a pool, explained the theory and mechanics of swimming, and then threw her into deep water.  It is to the film's immense credit that this tale, told on the soundtrack by the film's child narrator, isn't presented as the horror story it might have been in the hands of a more simple-minded filmmaker.  After some flailing, Friedrich learned to keep her head above water and has been a swimmer ever since.  This story makes clear, as does the film, Friedrich's divided attitude toward her father - as someone who loved her and introduced her to the world but also as someone who often acted inappropriately, disruptively, even abusively.  Indeed, much of the richness of this autobiographical film, whose honest engagement with essential human dilemmas proves immensely moving, stems from its refusal to make simple choices or settle into unambiguous positions.

 

- Fred Camper, Chicago Reader, 8/2/91

 

 

I can think of no more corrosively moving refutation of 'the law of the father' than Su Friedrich's extraordinarily precise Sink or Swim.  Summoning her nerve, Friedrich rather fearlessly refines her previous researches into unexplored areas of memory, dream and desire.  Sink or Swim shows how, with a few sudden, powerful strokes, the supposedly submerged familial past can overtake and threaten to drown our supposedly buoyant present.  Friedrich's film provides a stunningly sensual exploration of the discontinuous inter-relationships bewteen voice and image.  This exploration effectively dispels the patriarchal force latent - or perhaps not so latent - within the representations of memory.

 

- Ernest Larsen

 

 

Ms. Friedrich's story is toughminded and touching.  A little girl's voice begins with a fairy-tale, third-person narrative about a little girl, obviously the narrator and admittedly Ms Friedrich.  She seems to have an ordinary 1950's upbringing.  Slowly she reveals that her adored father was sometimes abusive.  He teaches his daughter to swim by explaining the theory of swimming and tossing her into the deep end of a pool.  As the girl's narrative unfolds, Ms Friedrich's black-and-white images - part home movies, part new film that blends in seamlessly - do not illustrate the story.  They comment on and enhance it, creating emotional resonances.  The 10-year-old girl confesses to her diary that her parents are divorcing, while film of girls in school uniforms watched by nuns on the playground suggests the atmosphere that made her feel singled out and ashamed.  As a woman, the narrator types a letter to her father.  We see the typing in progress but do not hear the voice, which clearly would no longer be a girl's.  Recalling a Schubert lied that always made her abandoned mother cry, she writes, "it captures perfectly the conflict between memory and the present."  Resolving those conflicts and offering the viewer a rich, suggestive view of biography is precisely what [this] film attempts.

 

- Caryn James, The New York Times, 30/9/90

 

 

The conclusion of Sink or Swim was... a way for me to acknowledge my absurd ambivalence.  A lot of the stories in the film are about doing things to get my father's approval, and then at the end in the last story I decide I'm not going to swim across the lake to please him.  I've made a sort of grand gesture of turning back to shore, swimming back to my friends who will hopefully treat me differently than my father has treated me.  But then in the epilogue I turn right around and sing the ABC song, which asks him what he thinks of me! I believe that, to a certain extent, we can transcend our childhood, but in some way we always remain the child looking for love and approval...

 

A surprising number of men have come up to me afterward and talked about the film from the vantage point of being fathers.  That wasn't foremost in my mind when I was making it, but their reponses have been interesting: the film brings up a lot of fear in them, a lot of concern about how they're treating their own children.  Many of them express a profound hope that they won't do major damage to their kids.

 

- Su Friedrich, in MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers, Berkeley, 1992

 

 

Friedrich's preferred synopsis of the film:

 

Sink or Swim is a 48 minute film which tells the story of a girl's difficult relationship to her father.  Through a simple but rigorous structure of twenty-six short stories, which correspond to the letters of the alphabet, a dual pattern slowly evolves: that of a father who was more concerned with achievement and discipline than with creating a secure home life, and of a daughter who has been unable to forget her childhood experiences.  The stories are read in voiceover, in a restrained but determined manner, by a thirteen year old girl.  The black and white images are primarily of contemporary life, although some found footage is used as well.  The sensuality and the forcefulness of the text are united through a fluid and elegant editing style to create a complex and emotionally charged film.