Shadow Sides: The Spiritual Journeys of Nina Menkes

Shadow Sides: The Spiritual Journeys of Nina Menkes

For years now, when watching narrative movies—especially those in which tone or mood is paramount—my running internal monologue often surfaces variations on the same question: Could you accomplish something similar in literature? It’s not novelization per se that interests me—whether you could make a specific movie into a book. The questions that rattle around in my mind have more to do with narration or how the story is told. Consider the way that Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, by presenting a litany of household chores performed in their entirety, makes the viewer’s experience of time crucial to the film’s efficacy as commentary on women’s labor. Or the way that in Claire Denis’s Beau travail the camera’s oscillation between parched salt flats and bronzed, muscular bodies suffuses the plot with an ominousness—a climate of repressed desire and its complement, violence—that is not manifest in the dialogue alone. An image can telegraph considerable information all at once, an economy of means that gives film an edge when it comes to description; words and sentences, by contrast, must be arranged one after the next. The novel, though, can better penetrate the inner consciousness of its characters, to relay precisely what a character thinks about herself and the world—there are of course ways to achieve this effect in film, but a camera can never access sustained interiority the way that writing can.

When I play this game with the work of American filmmaker Nina Menkes, the question I ponder most often is whether a character in a novel could be the protagonist and at the same time appear “minor.” In each of Menkes’s five narrative features and two shorter pictures to date, she uses wide, static shots, elliptical editing, and layered soundtracks to conjure the personalized worlds of her protagonists—including all of their biases, illusions, and distorted perceptions, which shape the reality we see on-screen. Her protagonists, in all but one case a woman, are also stand-ins for Menkes herself. It’s not that her movies are autobiographical; rather, they are explorations of alter egos—what Menkes, who spent seventeen years in Jungian analysis, has spoken of as her shadow sides. In a novel, seeing the world through the protagonist’s consciousness tends to make the reader feel “close” to them. But Menkes’s main characters retain a sense of being far-off, unknowable, almost as if they are background figures in the films about them. If this conflict is disorienting, it’s also transfixing; in many ways, it’s the engine that powers her films.

Menkes was raised in Berkeley, California, in the 1960s, born to European Jews who as children had fled Nazi persecution and immigrated to Palestine; after marrying, the couple relocated to the United States, where Menkes and her younger sister, Tinka, were born. Growing up, the two girls spent their days outdoors playing games and bouncing around the streets (there was no television at home). In the summers, they regularly traveled with their parents to Israel to visit relatives. Although not observant, the family maintained a secular relationship with Judaism, a connection that would prove influential on Nina’s work. Other childhood encounters with spiritual ideas would also endure: at around age ten, Nina hosted a “witch school,” leading a group of neighborhood children through a book of spells she herself assembled. (A 2012 retrospective of her films had the title Cinema as Sorcery.) Barring the occasional visit to the Pacific Film Archive in her teenage years, she seldom watched movies, instead nurturing an attraction to the arts through dance, choreography, and still photography. It wasn’t until she was in her midtwenties, after a brief stint as a camera operator for a local news station, that she recognized film as an apt substrate on which to explore her aptitudes—for making images, for combining movement with sound. 

In 1980, Menkes arrived at UCLA’s film school. She was intent on creating narrative-driven work, but her own narrow exposure to cinema meant that she had not brought with her an internalized catalog of references to align with or push against. Rather than feeling deterred by her relative unfamiliarity with the medium, Menkes found freedom in it, from the start crafting a sui generis approach distilled from intuition and interiority, and in which she would take on nearly every role: writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor. She landed on the ideal cinematic surrogate for herself—her sister, Tinka—while making her first film, A Soft Warrior (1981), a short based on the siblings’ relationship and Tinka’s illness with lupus. For this, Menkes has chance to thank: when the actor she had cast in the Tinka role failed to arrive, the elder Menkes turned to her sister, asking if she would be willing to play herself. Tinka, reluctant to act out her own sickness, agreed to be in the film on the condition that instead she play Nina. Nina then found another actor to play Tinka. Watching the footage after it came back from the lab, the sisters were astounded by the intensity of their dynamic, captured in Tinka’s on-screen performance. Their collaboration, which would continue through Menkes’s subsequent four films, became a way of working through their real-life relationship as sisters on “some very deep archetypal level,” Menkes has said, the trauma in their family history.

Top of page: Queen of Diamonds; above: The Great Sadness of Zohara

Menkes released her featurette, The Great Sadness of Zohara, two years later, in 1983, while still a student. The film follows an agitated, despondent Zohara (Tinka)—the picture’s only character—as she leaves Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, home to the city’s Haredi Jews, for Morocco’s sunburned lowlands. Framed in wide, static shots, Zohara wanders through narrow, labyrinthine streets and open-air markets, motors through arid terrain, curls up to rest against painted doorways, all the while speaking to no one—rendering plausible the interpretation that everything is taking place in her head. Eventually she returns home to resume her previous life, still detached, isolated, and unrooted, the voyage having offered no means to transformation. Menkes enhances the film’s moody, searching atmosphere through careful attention to color and sound: as Zohara begins her solitary voyage, the film’s hues shift from muted grays and browns to blushing pinks and aquatic blues—both in the painted plaster of her new surroundings and in the textiles of her changed wardrobe. The nonsynchronous soundtrack features whispering, wailing, chanting, and stuttering voices (some of them selections from compositions by Luciano Berio); bells peal and wind chimes gently ring.

Though the film’s setting immediately calls to mind conflict and oppression, Zohara’s precise geographic locations, what city or country she’s in, are not the picture’s primary concern; what matters more is that she is traveling through the desert. It’s an environment Menkes returns to repeatedly in her films, both for its biblical resonances (the spiritually lost Israelites forced to wander for forty years; the temptation of Jesus Christ in the desert) and its New Age ones, as a site of infertility, desolation, imperilment, and death, but also of clarity and discovery, an enchanted void whose nothingness compels the mind inward and facilitates purification.

Menkes’s first feature, Magdalena Viraga (1986), which concerns sexual exploitation and women’s marginalization by the church, takes place in east Los Angeles. But the desert reappears in her second feature, the exquisite Queen of Diamonds (1991), a consideration of economic exploitation and America’s great religion: capitalism. Here Tinka’s character—called Firdaus, after the 1975 novel Woman at Point Zero, by Nawal El Saadawi, in which a woman is sentenced to death for murdering her oppressor—wanders through a different desert, Las Vegas, that modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. This time the geographic specifics are important. Firdaus is a croupier at a second-tier casino; she lives in a run-down motel apartment and, in a city inhospitable to pedestrians, often walks on foot. The camera follows her to the lively blackjack tables where she works; to the motel room of a dying elderly man she cares for; to a nearby lake where she lies out in the sun. Meanwhile we receive a slow wash of impressions cast back to us with Firdaus’s characteristic dispassion, everything in her path—a man crucified, three elephants swaying in a parking lot, the fronds of a palm tree ablaze—austere and radiating futility, the city girdled by an aura of violence.

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