Reviewed by Mark Denaci, SUNY Geneseo
Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick, Derrida (documentary, 2002)
Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick, the makers of Derrida, seem to have willfully set themselves up for failure. How, after all, could anyone not end up disappointed by a film whose title’s singularity suggests that it will get to the “essence” of one of contemporary philosophy’s most resolutely anti-essentialist thinkers? To their credit, however, the filmmakers turn the documentary into a paradoxically entertaining meditation on the very (im)possibility of making a film with a title like Derrida. Ostensibly, the documentary offers itself up as a sort of “day-in-the-life” portrait of the controversial French philosopher: we get to see the proverbial “father of deconstruction” buttering his morning muffin, getting a haircut, looking for his keys, talking to earnest American graduate students, visiting his own archive at UC Irvine, visiting Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell, etc., all of this interspersed with a number of brief interview segments. Those who might be expecting a PBS-style documentary outlining Derrida’s career and putting it into a historical context, including analyses of the many controversies surrounding the philosopher or discussions of such key Derridean terms as “supplementarity” or “différance,” will almost certainly be frustrated. Viewers who know little about Derrida or deconstruction may leave the film knowing almost as little as they did beforehand, and for many, Derrida will come across as a hagiographic, almost fawning fan letter to its famous subject.
Nonetheless, the most interesting aspect of the documentary, to this reviewer at least, is its persistent subversion—and yes, even deconstruction—of the very kind of biographical “portrait” that it purports to be. Derrida, you see, rarely answers a question throughout the film; most of his “answers” to the many interview questions posed throughout the course of the documentary are actually explanations as to why he cannot possibly answer those questions. This refusal to answer is most striking during a long sequence with his wife, where a question about how they first met elicits an awkward and uncomfortable exchange involving nervous laughter, knowing looks, abortive utterances, a few sketchy facts, and the final conclusion: “You’ve hit an area where you’re not going to get much information from us…it is very difficult to talk about these things in front of a camera.” Derrida even manages to undercut the “day-in-the-life” genre’s illusion of intimacy during scenes of him wandering through his Paris home by pointing out that “everything is false”: he was never dressed in the same way, never behaving in quite the same manner in the absence of the cameras. The primary insight into “Derrida” that the philosopher seems to allow the viewer is that, according to him, no such insight is ever really possible. In case the audience might miss that point, the film presents footage of Derrida speaking at a symposium on the subject of biographies, explicitly addressing the inadequacy of biography for revealing anything of importance about philosophers.
Of course, the filmmakers—whose nearly unimpeded access to Derrida over the course of the filming is repeatedly acknowledged—probably bear at least as much responsibility for the subversion of the illusion of direct access to their subject. As Derrida himself points out, in editing the hours of raw footage down to little more than one hour, the directors are producing their own signatures, even their own autobiographies. Significantly, quotations from Derrida’s body of work are read throughout the film—not by Derrida, but by Hofman in voice-over—at one point even preempting Derrida’s own verbal account of deconstruction. While many viewers might find such an interruption inexcusable, those familiar with the philosopher’s subversion of the privileging of speech over writing (in such works as Of Grammatology and Dissemination) may enjoy the wickedly appropriate irony. Fittingly, the filmmakers consistently call attention to the artificiality of the documentary situation, letting the audience see all the lights, microphones, and other production equipment as they follow Derrida on his various travels.
In spite of his self-conscious evasions and refusals, Derrida does provide some less paradoxical insights into his character along the way, particularly regarding his experiences with anti-Semitism as a young boy growing up in Algeria. He also reveals that if he were able to see a similar documentary on such towering philosophical figures as Kant or Heidegger, he would be most interested in hearing them discuss their sex and love lives (since, he argues, they go to such pains to occlude sexuality from their own writings). On a more philosophical level, we also get to hear Derrida speak at some length on the troubling distinction between what he calls “the who” and “the what,” as well as the impossibility of true forgiveness (as opposed to reconciliation, a particularly appropriate topic for his lecture filmed at the University of Cape Town).
Seemingly offering little more than an arbitrary collection of anecdotes and vignettes from the life of one of contemporary philosophy’s most influential figures, Derrida runs the risk of trivializing its subject’s considerable accomplishments. By thematizing its own potential failures, however, the documentary ultimately provides a thought-provoking look at the very aspects of Derrida’s philosophy that most resist being co-opted by the documentary “portrait” form. That, in itself, is no small accomplishment.