'My First Film' is a Cathartic Moviegoing Experience in the Age of Quarantine

Zia Anger's performed desktop documentary tells the story of her first feature film and invites us to reflect during these times.

My First Film

I miss going to the movies. I’m sure you do, too. It is a relatively minor inconvenience for most of us, all things considered, but more than two years ago I wrote an essay reflecting on the ways in which the movies are increasingly our final refuge from the stresses and minutiae of daily life.

To have the movies taken from us after such an exceptional year of cinema seems especially cruel. I spent the last six months in the UK, and my moviegoing there began with Portrait of a Lady on Fire in the fall and ended with Parasite in the spring. If the movies never come back, at least my friends and I can say to one another, “We’ll always have Parasite.

One of the moviegoing experiences I was most looking forward to pre-COVID-19 was Zia Anger’s My First Film. In fact, as I boarded my flight back home to the US, I received an email from the Institute of Contemporary Arts, where Anger and the film were set to make their London debut, saying that the event had been canceled — it was the only time receiving a full refund has made me sad.

Why begin this essay with personal anecdotes? Because this is not a review. You don’t need me to tell you how brilliant, moving and innovative My First Film is. Just take everyone else’s word for it. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody describes the film as “an extraordinary movie event” and placed it on his list of the best movies of 2019. Of course, Brody, like many others, witnessed the live, in-person performance the film was originally intended to be.

Last month, I also saw the film performance live, but I, like the sixty or so others in attendance, sat in front of my own laptop while Anger sat in front of hers and performed via YouTube live stream. And as we waited for the show to begin, she asked us to turn off any extra lights and close any open shades. “I’m serious. Please do it,” she pressed. At last, for a an hour or two, we were all back at the movies.

To say My First Film is “about” one thing would be to misrepresent the scope and impact of the performance, but the central story is about the production of Anger’s first feature film, shot between 2010 and 2012, and then not accepted into any film festivals. This would technically make the venture a failed one, which Anger, who is self-deprecating throughout, acknowledges in the performance.

But that feature is resurrected and repurposed in My First Film as, yes, a self-reflection on failure, but also as a critique of the barriers to entry faced by many independent filmmakers. Chiefly the need to ask again and again for money on platforms like GoFundMe and the institutional sexism that continues to permeate the film festival circuit. Based on the limited footage we see of the original feature in My First Film, it is shocking that not one single festival accepted the piece. To quote Brody again: “the excerpts that she showed are furiously imaginative, original, and moving, and suggest that the entire film is better than many that got festival screenings, theatrical releases, and critical acclaim.”

The performance takes place in real-time on Anger’s desktop. At an in-person performance, Anger would be seated among the audience, laptop in hand, with her desktop projected onto the screen. This means the film is ever-changing by design, making My First Film uniquely situated to provide pleasure and solace to its audience in this moment. Anger narrates the film by typing into a TextEdit window beside clips from the film.

During the performance I saw, Anger occasionally broke the narrative flow of the piece to reflect or comment upon the coronavirus and its implications. At one point, while discussing her father, who starred in the original feature, Anger stopped typing the narration, clicked on iMessage, and texted her father that she loved and missed him. Independent filmmaking often demands that filmmakers ask their family and friends for everything under the sun, namely time and money. “And despite doing all the things they tell you to do … Despite begging and borrowing and stealing, and alienating my friends and family,” she said, “this film was never seen by an audience. And if you look online right now it is considered ‘abandoned.’” In times like these we think of the ones we love and all they’ve done for us. We hope they know how grateful we are. With a simple text, Anger captures that feeling, or at least my own.

My First Film was named one the best video essays of 2019 in Sight & Sound’s annual poll and could be classified as a desktop documentary, alongside such inspiring works as Kevin B. Lee’s Transformers: The Premake (2014) and Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s Watching The Pain of Others (2019). There’s an uncanny quality to desktop documentaries, in part embodied by the fact that if someone were to walk by my computer as a desktop documentary played, they may think the desktop had taken on a life of its own, navigating the screen as I passively sat and watched.

That is one of the form’s most effective critical elements. The desktop documentary on some level can feel like an infiltration of one’s own desktop, one that feels especially invasive due to the ways in which desktops have increasingly become an extension of the domestic space, our digital home. This has been exacerbated in life under quarantine, where many of us are forced to do even more via our desktop. While watching other desktop documentaries in the past, I often felt the urge to take back control of my desktop from the documentarian. But while watching My First Film, I felt a sense of relief and a willingness to let someone else be in control for a while. I needed a break.

In a time when the limits of technology are being tested, and our reliance on it increasingly (and rightly) questioned, My First Film is cathartic in the way it has used those tools to bring people together and release us from the strains of our current moment. At the beginning of the performance, Anger asks members of the audience to text her and say hello. Our numbers appear in an open iMessage window on her screen and she begins to send us video files of her past Instagram stories. It’s a primer to both who she is and the interconnectedness of the show itself.

She then asks the audience to share the videos with each other. I began texting videos of Zia to other people and received several in return. I got no creepy or angry messages, just: “Thank you so much!”; “Wow! This is awesome!”; and a spectrum of smiley face emojis. I think that what I miss most from life pre-quarantine is the small interactions: chatting with the owner of my favorite cafe, waving to an acquaintance from across the street, a nod of approval from the used bookstore owner as he examines my selections at the counter. Those text messages, it seems, are the closest I’ll get for a while.

When art historians of any stripe write about this period, they will have to discuss My First Film and the gift that Anger gave to us all in a time when so much seems to be lost. I was wondering how she felt after so many performances (the one I attended was the last before she went on hiatus), so I emailed her and asked if she would provide a quote for this essay. “I am happy to not be performing. To rest and recalibrate,” she shared. “It is something I am still getting used to. I honestly didn’t like it that much. It’s not in my nature. I love the feeling of people surrounded by other people. But I think it’s worth it.”

Indeed.

I said earlier that this essay is not a review, or at least not only a review. Instead, it is my attempt to describe my time with a work of art that you will never see. If you attend a screening or live stream of My First Film in a month, or a year or two from now, your experience will not be the same as mine or anyone else’s. Sure, most of the film will remain the same, but the small details, the one-off moments that emerge to meet whatever the contemporary moment demands, will come, and they will go. That’s what makes Anger’s film and performance so compelling, and an escape from the monotony of life under quarantine.

Will DiGravio began writing for Film School Rejects in 2018. He also hosts The Video Essay Podcast and owns a TV.