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Film and Video

An Interview With Filmmaker Danielle Durchslag

By Carin Chea

An artist, educator and, now, filmmaker, Danielle Durchslag makes work that asks difficult questions.

Her upcoming short film, Eleanor of Illinois, stars Broadway stage veteran Judy Kuhn (whom many of us may know as the musical voice of Pocahontas in Disney's Pocahontas) and is set to premiere this January at the 2020 New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center.

Filmmaker Danielle Durchslag

Tell us about your short film Eleanor of Illinois, which exposes the often opaque world of American Jewish wealth. Why this subject?

I come from a larger than life Chicago dynastic Jewish family. My great grandfather, Nathan Cummings, started out as an immigrant peddler and ended his life as a business giant, a lauded philanthropist, and the founder of the Sara Lee Corporation.

Eleanor of Illinois is very much inspired by my experiences growing up in the Jewish 1%. It's a piece of video art, an experimental short film, and a fine art Semitic soap opera. It's my take on the psychological contours of wealthy American Jewish families, like mine.

I grew up obsessively watching The Lion in Winter, the 1960's classic starring Katharine Hepburn, about a Medieval royal family coming together at Christmas. My parents must have had it on VHS. Something about it really resonated with me from a super young age.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized: Here's this royal Christian family meeting over the holidays, and they use this obligatory meeting to talk about who ultimately inherits what and who is most loved by whom.

The dynamics present in the movie are so familiar to me from my own family history. That film, and particularly Katherine Hepburn's portrayal of Queen Eleanor, really spoke to me.

In order to create Eleanor of Illinois, I spent over a year with audio designers crafting the audio monologue of a modern Jewish woman, but spoken in Hepburn's voice. The making of the audio monologue was a rigorous, long, and detailed process.

Initially, I watched the Lion In Winter obsessively. I then came out with a system of dividing Hepburn's spoken phrases into several categories: the ones that are spoken outdoors, the ones that are spoken indoors, the ones that have music behind them, and the ones that have other types of sounds in the background.

Then, it was a matter of finding the Hepburn phrases that could best tell the story of my film, to craft them into the monologue of a disproving, Midwestern Jewish mom at Passover.

Then, there was the technical process, which was very meticulous. We had to create new words that were believable and organic sounding from snippets of Hepburn's audio. We would try for a word, and if we couldn't do it, we'd try for another one.

I'm especially proud that we managed to make Hepburn say, "Seder," a word she certainly doesn't say in the Lion In Winter and probably never said in real life.

I was extremely lucky to work on Eleanor of Illinois with Judy Kuhn, who speaks in tandem with Hepburn's voice in the film.

What kind of message do you want to send across in Eleanor of Illinois?

Eleanor of Illinois is the only live action video piece from my video art series called BOUNTY. Like all of the works in the series, Eleanor explores the psychological complexities of American Jewish wealth.

I'm interested in the rituals and norms of that world. I'm exploring the idea of American Jewish wealth as a form of WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] drag. When Jewish families like mine, who came into their wealth in the 1940s and 50s, achieved success, they took on rituals and aesthetics that were a kind of a facsimile of what wealthy WASP families were doing.

We coveted being thin, having straight hair, and having small noses - all physical attributes you'd link with blue-blooded American clans.

In Eleanor of Illinois, Judy is performing a heightened version of Jewish drag. It's partially a performance of Jewish Waspness. It's also about how family members try to control one another using wealth.

In the film, Judy goes back and forth between pleading with her children through enticing them with gifts, and (when that doesn't work) she uses manipulation to get her kid, played silently by the camera, in line.

Eleanor of Illinois with Judy Kuhn by Danielle Durchslag

When extreme wealth is thrown into the mix of normal family dysfunction, you really get a specific type of emotional opera.

Why does it matter to share the stories and emotional drama of the 1%?

I love that question. It's something I think about a lot, because there are so many stories from other, less empowered, communities that need and must be told, that have been neglected for way too long, and I'm making work about people who already have so much affluence and influence.

But right now, regardless of your politics, you have to acknowledge that these 1% clans, they currently run our country. Understanding the dynamics of these clans is therefore politically important. There are certain aspects of the Trump family, for example, that are surprising to the public, but totally make sense to me.

I know from personal experience that these kinds of families really do function as emotional cults. A lot of the behaviors of the family members are dictated by the promise or the threat of not receiving an inheritance. There is almost a kind of mafia grip in these systems where these people are controlled by the family narrative, the sense of power, and the explicit and implicit promise of financial gain.

Eleanor of Illinois highlights this hyper realized, larger than life universe that the characters are operating in. You can feel it in the tension between the family members on screen and the hyperbolic language that is used throughout the piece.

How was it working with Judy Kuhn?

This was a one-day shoot. Judy and I met, had a lovely coffee, and had one rehearsal. I realized that I was asking Judy to do a Herculean task here -- to not only perform this contemporary character's life, but also manage the technical performance of matching Hepburn's words, take for take. Judy did it with such mastery that I wept on set.

I had imagined this for so long, and seeing her embody it - she really is the reason the film works. I also wept because when you are in front of that level of artistry - it's touching, it's moving.

The day she said yes to my project, 90% of my problems ended. She came with all that gravitas and depth and brilliant craft. She also happens to be a really lovely, sweet, giving human. I learned so much from watching her - her technique and generosity. She's such a legend.

I've sat in the audience and seen Judy onstage and wept at her performances. So, when a performer comes in with so much gravitas and knowledge of their craft, it's incredible.

After the end of the 14-hour day, literally after the very last take, I couldn't stop myself (because I'm such a fan of hers), I asked, "Judy, may I take a photo with you?"

Tell us also about your portrait work, which, by the way, is stunning and incredibly inventive.

Thank you so much.

Before video, I primarily made collage art and interactive sculptures. I'm on the newer side of filmmaking, so the fact that this film will be shown at the Lincoln Center feels amazing and extremely lucky.

Years back, I made intricate collages that looked painterly or photographic, but my only materials were paper, tape, and glue. There was no pigment. I was layering dozens upon dozens of pieces of paper to get the type of opacity and tone I wanted. I used this collage technique to create The Relative Unknowns series.

Growing up, there was this big box in our closet that was filled with images of people who were related to us, clearly people from Eastern Europe, but we didn't know who they were. My mom, at the time, was a notorious thrower away-er.

These photographs had been saved over time but were about to go into the garbage, if she got her way. I saved these photos as a kid. I always loved them and had a sense of sadness about them. They were photographs of people whose journey resulted in my being alive, but no one remembered their names or stories.

My collages in the Relative Unknowns series are based on those photographs.

I also am part of a two-person art collective called Assembly Required with the artist Ryan Frank. We came to our most recent project, A Wandering Sukkah, an interactive fine art sukkah sculpture on the back of a pickup truck that we toured all over NYC, from very different places.

I grew up in an enthusiastically identified Jewish family. Ryan grew up Catholic. Both of us were interested in creating a project that was emphasizing and reimagining ritual. We saw the festival of Sukkot as a divinely-mandated art project. It's a Jewish law saying, "You have to build this thing" and there are building rules as to what makes the sukkah kosher. We wanted to see how much we could play within those rules regarding the visual presentation of a sukkah.

The central question was: What does New York City need that a sukkah could provide? The answer we came to was: Permission to pause. To look at the sky. to take a break from the relentless rhythm of the city.

We ultimately created a single-serving sukkah that invited New Yorkers of all backgrounds, from non-Jews to the ultra-Orthodox, to stop their relentless forward-moving momentum, and, one at a time, to just enjoy the sky and quiet of this semi-private structure.

Are there any upcoming projects you'd like our readers to know about?

I'm currently really immersed in making the BOUNTY series. Alongside Eleanor of Illinois, the series also contains video collages. I'm taking film clips of family wealth from cinematic history and using voice actors and animation, and editing to reconfigure these WASPy stories as Jewish ones.

So, for instance, using footage from the film The Age of Innocence I've made a 4-minute video art version called The Age of Lefkowitz.

[Laughing] That's so awesome!

Thank you! I'm so glad you're laughing. Humor is a really important part of this work.

My version is about a character named Bunny Lefkowitz, who is an elderly Jewish doyenne, and it explores her emotional and physical struggles after the passing of her husband Carl, a closeted gay man. This goes back to the theme of WASP drag.

I'm using the visual language of how we traditionally understand family wealth and I'm playing with it to tell the story of Jews in this country coming into success. I have a lot of these pieces.

Right now, as we speak, I'm working on my own video collage versions of Sunset Blvd and Gigi. The earliest of the movies I'm working with for this series is a silent from 1927, called, believe it or not, Children of Divorce.

Eleanor of Illinois and all the pieces of BOUNTY focus exclusively on how women are treated and how they operate in these wealthy family systems. I'm interested in this in tandem with the combination of Jewish privilege and victimhood.

We in the Jewish community have a lot of well-earned terror due ant-Semitism, especially now as it's on the rise. When that primal fear is combined with wealth and privilege, it produces an acutely specific version of wealth culture.

What I find fascinating is how the women in these rich Jewish families are treated - they're very privileged and lucky, but also confined by the conservative and restrictive rule set of wealthy moirés.

The character of Eleanor of Illinois strongly embodies these complications. Here is a woman who has everything, money and power and glamor, but lives a life dictated by the stringent, patriarchal expectations of her class and family, expectations she insists on hoisting onto her own child.

That combination of extreme privilege and access, alongside intense limitation, really fascinates me.

To view Danielle Durchslag's work please visit www.DanielleDurchslag.com.


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