April 26, 2004
Su Friedrich's evocative and experimental films challenge audiences to think in a different way about topics ranging from sexual identity to American health care.
Just as she expands the borders of cinema with her films, the Princeton faculty member inspires students to push themselves in new directions with her teaching.
"From the first class I took with her, she has constantly challenged me to take my artwork to the highest possible level," said Kelly Sortino, a member of the class of 2003 who is now an admission officer at Princeton. With Friedrich's guidance as her adviser, Sortino completed a thesis that was artistically inventive as well as technically accomplished.
Friedrich, a professor of the Council of the Humanities and visual arts, came to Princeton in 1998 and is the first tenured filmmaker on the faculty. She has developed a reputation for getting students to explore ideas in ways they didn't think were possible.
"To me it's really rewarding when students respond to provocation and open up their minds," Friedrich said. "In every class there are students who really surprise me -- and surprise themselves -- by making work they never thought of making before."
Friedrich, who has made 13 films and won many awards for her work, typically does all the writing, producing, directing, shooting and editing on her films. Her work has been shown at hundreds of film festivals during the last 25 years. She won the Best Narrative Film award at the Athens International Film Festival, the Grand Prix award at the Melbourne Film Festival and a Special Jury award at the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, among others. Her 1996 film "Hide and Seek" was shown at the Sundance Film Festival.
Eve Aschheim, director of the Program in Visual Arts, said Friedrich is "a fresh and vital presence in the program. She is piercingly direct, honest and very much in touch with creative genius. With students, she is inspiring, dynamic and also very demanding. She realizes that art may stem from a flash of inspiration, but requires countless hours of hard work to realize transformation."
In "Introduction to Video and Film," Friedrich typically works with 12 students -- many of whom know nothing about film before they show up -- on the basics of camera work, sound, lighting and editing.
"The class helps you really start to understand technique," said sophomore Ethan Clarke, who is currently enrolled. "Now when I watch music videos or television programs, I can't help but think about the editing process, the acting process, the production."
But what he values even more than the instruction in the skills of filmmaking is the way Friedrich fosters inventiveness on the part of her students. "She allows you to be as creative as you want to be and can be," Clarke said. "She gives you a topic, but you can move outside that topic as much as you want."
Learning filmmaking from an active filmmaker is invaluable, her students say. "I can't imagine being taught to make videos by someone who didn't make videos," said Rachel Lyon, a junior. "She seems very involved in the avant-garde filmmaking world, and that's a plus."
Friedrich rarely discusses her own work in the classroom (although students often find out about her work on their own), so her students feel free to pursue their individual interests and styles of filmmaking, said Noelia Saenz, a member of the class of 2001 who is currently enrolled in the master's degree program in critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. Saenz noted that Friedrich's class was "incredibly time-consuming, but Su made it a comfortable and amicable place for everyone to show and discuss their work."
'A middle-age meditation on mortality'
Friedrich teaches her introductory class and "Advanced Film and Video Practice" during the spring semester and spends the rest of the year making films.
Her 2002 film, "The Odds of Re-covery," tells the story of Friedrich's 23-year odyssey through the American health care system as she coped with a number of illnesses. During the three years in which she made the film, Friedrich took her video camera to her doctor's appointments, positioning it in the exam rooms before the doctors came in and then surreptitiously recording the visits. (She went back to each doctor later and got permission to use the footage.)
"Because I simply placed the camera on a shelf, I couldn't control the shots, so there was an 'off-framing' in a lot of them that I think served to express the way we are often seen as disembodied parts when we're in the hospital," Friedrich said.
The result is a revealing work that explores the frustration and tedium of being sick, as well as the physical and mental toll of dealing with doctors and hospitals, in an unsparing documentary style. "What could have been a health care screed becomes a middle-age meditation on mortality," the Village Voice wrote.
In her 1996 film "Hide and Seek," Friedrich weaves interviews with adult women about the experience of growing up as a lesbian and a coming-of-age story set in the 1960s about a girl named Lou, a 12-year-old tomboy struggling with her first encounters with sexuality.
At first Friedrich could only film the interviews, because she had no money to hire the actors and crew to make the narrative sequences. After spending a year trying to find funding, Friedrich was awarded a $228,000 grant from the Independent Television Service, which supports program- ming that serves underrepresented audiences. Friedrich spent 10 days filming the narrative story line in Brooklyn, and the result is an engaging tale of a young girl's discoveries entwined with the candid and often funny observations of women who were once girls like Lou.
Funding is a constant struggle for independent filmmakers, and Friedrich laments the "terrible climate" for raising money for the arts. She is sure to warn her students what an uphill battle it can be.
Some of Friedrich's other films also deal with homosexuality, but "lesbian filmmaker" is a label she neither embraces nor shuns. "If someone wants to say I'm a lesbian filmmaker that's OK, but if they then think that means my work is like other films made by other women who are lesbians, then forget about it, because it's not," Friedrich said. "And no one should be thinking that there's such a thing as 'lesbian film.' I'm a filmmaker who has a lot of different personal attributes that go into the work I make in varying degrees."
Having a unique voice and being willing to explore different genres and different subject matters is what makes Friedrich's work so affecting and so unpredictable.