Live(stream) and In Person: Watching Zia Anger’s My First Film in the Age of Quarantine

By Jessica McGoff

Zia Anger’s My First Film is a lot of things: a cinema-performance art hybrid, a confrontation with traditional modes of film production and distribution, a radical reclamation of the narrative regarding what it means to be a female artist, and, now, a livestream rather than a live performance. I originally purchased tickets to attend My First Film at the Glasgow Short Film Festival in March; due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival was postponed just five days before Anger’s performance. In the midst of the developing crisis, Anger took to Twitter to announce the livestream premiere of her project. The audience was assembled on a first-come, first-served basis, with the first 50 people to email her receiving an invite to the premiere. As one of those 50, I prepared to watch My First Film not in a cinema space abuzz with festival atmosphere, but alone, in my bed, at midnight (Anger and I are in different time zones).

In its original format, My First Film is ostensibly a live desktop documentary, typically performed in a cinema space, with Anger seated among the audience with a laptop. Projecting her desktop onto the screen, she proceeds to interact with an mp4 file of her first feature film, which, she tells us, she deems “abandoned,” as it never achieved any form of real exhibition due to multiple rejections by festivals and distributors. Presented now in a manner totally opposed to how it would have been seen had it found a place within traditional channels of distribution, Anger’s initial work is no longer packaged and complete, given away by its creator to be consumed elsewhere: it has become a work that is conditional on Anger’s presence, an exhibition space in flux, one that invites disruptive commentary (Anger types in an open TextEdit window beside the image) and temporal severance (Anger pauses and fast-forwards the film at will). 

With Anger’s computer screen made into the primary method of both the work’s production and its dissemination, the desktop—a container for images—is turned into the image itself, a place of private flow and process transformed into a public work. Where in her original feature Anger employed a self-confessedly unsubtle birthing metaphor of creation as labour (with the pregnant central character eventually giving birth to herself), My First Film gives us a sense of what this labour feels like, its material and psychic consequences. The desktop format invites a rethinking of how the body interacts with technology. The screen becomes almost an extension of Anger’s body: as she types, it feels as if we are witnessing direct transmission between her brain and her fingers. (And typing itself, of course, evokes a long history of female creative labour that has been largely comprised of finger work: sewing, crafting, editing film.)

There is an innate vulnerability in presenting one’s personal desktop to an audience, or at least the appearance of vulnerability: the desktop documentary format can still be performed, edited, and controlled to a considerable degree. However, Anger assuages one’s potential doubts about the performance’s authenticity through her confessional tone, recounting (in her TextEdit window) how her own youthful and naive striving for the “authentic” in her first feature was more important to her at the time than ensuring the safety of her actors. She recounts, for example, how she provided her cast with copious amounts of alcohol in an effort to coax credible performances of intoxication from them; leaving the set inebriated, one of her actors crashed his car and wound up in hospital. 

Anger’s description of the hazardous working conditions and shaky financing of the shoot reveals a vital vein of precariousness that runs throughout My First Film, one which carries over into the high-wire act of the performance itself and, most powerfully, Anger’s reflections on the unstable status of the female director—a position of nominal authority that, she reveals, could not prevent her from being sexually exploited during her own shoot, which led to her having an abortion during filming. Anger’s account of her trauma is not only a public airing of a narrative that, for many women, has been unjustly buried: it also becomes analogous with her interrogation of her own first feature and its perceived “failure.” (Anger tells us that she encountered the same phrase when seeking solidarity for both her abortion and her festival rejections: “It happens to a lot of people, we just don’t talk about it.”) By correlating the abandonment of her film with her choice to end her pregnancy, Anger engages in a twofold process of reclamation. Presenting a vivid account of the corporeal and experiential consequences of producing art as a woman, My First Film derives its central force from its eloquent and emphatic rejection of that prevailing ideology that splits “life” and “work” into separate, sequestered spheres. As Anger details, work begets personal trauma, and personal trauma spills back into work. 

It’s therefore inevitable to question how a work that is so premised upon presence, corporeality, and vulnerability is reconfigured in the shift to streaming. Adapting the opening of her live performance, wherein she Airdropped short clips of her expired Instagram Stories to the audiences’ phones, Anger opens the livestream by asking viewers equipped with iPhones to text her; in reply to their messages (most of them a variation of “Hi Zia!”), she attaches these short Instagram clips. What truly distinguishes this from the live format, however, is that the viewers’ messages and phone numbers now appear on Anger’s desktop, and are broadcast to the audience. Real-time audience commentary was not, or perhaps could not be, facilitated in the live performance; now there is an element of exchange, with viewers given the ability to influence Anger’s (and, by extension, each other’s) screen, while Anger adapts the performance to incorporate this viewer feedback as well as to reconsider the work in light of our present, rapidly shifting global situation. (In some instances, this adds a further layer of dry humour to the performance: in my livestream, Anger played through a scene from wherein a character in a grocery store loads up her cart with toilet paper, remarking, “Wow, I was ahead of my time!”)

In live performance, the screen is Anger’s private-made-public, a space of transparency and invitation. The screen of the livestream viewer functions differently: it is a screen for one to hide behind, a boundary between themselves and the artwork. The livestream not only returns the desktop back to its original container, but also transmits and multiplies it across the desktop spaces of its audience. There is no longer the concentrated centre that comes from putting the desktop space into the world: when I viewed it, My First Film was no longer one desktop space, but 50 disparate desktop spaces, each of them independent and invisible to each other.

Does this dispersion weaken the work’s power? The livestream format compels us to contemplate Anger’s physical absence, and what becomes present to fill that absence. The answer lies in the interplay generated between these 50 screens: the incorporation of viewer text messages furthers the work’s dynamic nature. Despite the extenuating circumstances of quarantine, this participatory element feels cohesive and purposeful, as if acting as a salve to the emotional fragility of Anger’s work. It’s an active listening and response, as if the audience is telling Anger, “We’re here (for you).” In its reperformed, reinterpreted, and redistributed virtual form, My First Film ultimately offers potential for a new kind of collective intimacy at a time of enforced distancing. 

In this, the livestream adds further shadings to the already variable temporality of “first” in the work’s title. While My First Film refers primarily to Anger’s abandoned debut, Anger is essentially creating a first in every performance, for performance is by definition experiential, never to be (exactly) duplicated; in response to the lack of a premiere for her feature, Anger now engages in a constant state of premiering. In livestream, this “firstness” is uniquely felt, for it is a first that is constructed (in part) by a group of participants at any given time. This first is especially powerful because it deploys digital technology in a way that is antithetical to its typical function in film-watching: the ability to repeat, to reproduce, to replay. When Susan Sontag lamented the waning of cinephilia in her famous 1996 article “The Decay of Cinema,” her anxiety stemmed, to some degree, from a perceived technological determinism: by directly threatening the traditional exhibition spaces of cinemagoing, the proliferating options for home viewing undercut what Sontag believed to be the core tenet of cinephilia, “that films are unique, unrepeatable, magic experiences” (emphasis mine). Conversely, in the livestream version of My First Film, the technology that provoked Sontag’s unease facilitates a new notion of particularity, giving back that sense of the unrepeatable.

In its original format, My First Film relies on a gathering of bodies to bear witness to Anger’s body, both extended-as-machine and also physically ever-present among them. Just as the performance prompts us to consider the bodily affects of creation, the livestream forces our attention to the corporeal affects of spectatorship. If we begin to think of the screen less as a barrier and more as a site of porous intersection, we can start to question how our bodies can absorb art while at an absolute physical separation from it. During the livestream, Anger seemed to express an awareness of this barrier, and appealed for her audience to think flexibly. Anger would close her original performance by handing out pages from her feature’s script and asking the audience to tear them to pieces in a moment of catharsis; to close the livestream, she opened her Photobooth app, revealing herself via her webcam, and asked us to “reach out” toward our screens as she reached toward hers. In lieu of not being able to hand us pages of her feature’s script, she asked the audience to gather together some of their own work (scripts, notebooks, pre-pandemic calendars and planners) and participate in the ritual of ripping it up. And so, even as a performance taking place on the digital space of my laptop, My First Film nevertheless left me with a physical residue.

However, I can’t help but contemplate the sustainability of this mode. I received a file from Anger of one of her expired Instagram Stories at the start of the livestream; I now carry her body on my phone the way we all carry the bodies of the friends we currently cannot see, or the lovers we cannot touch. At what point will this become less a source of solace than one of frustration? What is the human tolerance for lack of physical touch? What will happen to our longing for it? Cinema has always been engaged in a dynamic of materiality (objects captured) and immateriality (by light). Perhaps the desire that drives cinephilia is the desire to bring together these states of being: to touch the untouchable, make real the unreal. As technology has changed both how we consume cinema and what we consider it to be, the dynamic of (im)materiality has transmuted, but that desire to touch is still present. Now, with quarantine absolutely necessitating that we experience art at an enforced physical distance, the question is less how to fulfill this longing than how to manage it. How do we cope with a cinematic landscape that is entirely digital?

If Anger’s livestream performance represents a potentially viable mode of alternative distribution in an age of quarantine, it is also important to consider the landscape of which it is a part. Over the last few weeks, there has been an exponential increase in material to watch: offerings (often framed in humanitarian terms) of viewing lists and digital artefacts, ever-growing spreadsheets and Google Drives full of experimental short films. Not only is the prospect of actually consuming all this media overwhelming—I often wonder how much I can truly engage with a work that I have lined up to watch in sequence with 50 other shorts, versus a curated programme, a gathering—I find that my body misses the experience of discovery and encounter. Even if we must pause to acknowledge the issues of access that are bound up with this desire, one can still decry the way that cinema exhibition effectively prohibits certain bodies from engagement with cinema without casting the digital livestream era as some kind of saviour. Not only does streaming mirror, in many ways, the same old economic and social structures of traditional exhibition, it also often takes away much more than it gives. We should continue to be wary of the commodifying effect of the digital era, and how hyper-possibilities can end up rendering everything worthless.

Formulated as a response to the distribution models that frustrated Anger, the original version of My First Film functioned as a renegade act of distribution, one that allowed Anger to release her first feature on her own terms. Throughout the performance we see an impulse to control, to regain power lost; that element of control is what is most at risk in the livestream format. There is no longer a shared physical space to act as a bond between audience and artist; any sense of mistrust we may have as a viewer (and the authenticity of Anger’s outpouring is there for the questioning) can now be shared between both parties. Can Anger trust the viewer, hidden behind their own screen, to watch her screen as she intended? This is the crux of the matter, and how we resolve it will be the guiding principle of collectively engaging with art under quarantine. We have to invest in each other, artist and viewer, and make a choice. We have to take control, choose to feel the physical disconnect, and participate in the offering of collective intimacy. We are not in control of our circumstances, and we do not have access to each other’s bodies nor to each other’s space. However, we, as Anger did, can choose to design different pathways to authenticity, to intimacy and connection. My First Film is a worthy blueprint. McGoff Jessica