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“Going Through Every Emotion Is Important”: Zia Anger Morphs Desktop Documentary Performance ‘My First Film’ Into Fiction

By Alex Lei

Two young people lay on the floor.

My First Film. Courtesy of CPH:DOX

In 2018, to an audience of a dozen or so people at the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn, Zia Anger gave a presentation of some of her abandoned work, including her first feature film Always All Ways, Anne Marie. To the clips she presented on her laptop, Anger added her own commentary via TextEdit, examining the complicated ethics and unexpected repercussions of DIY filmmaking. The one-off performance would go on to become a touring work of expanded cinema called My First Film, which took Anger on the road across North America and eventually online when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, therapeutically unearthing one of her most artistically challenging points in her life and processing its effect on her as a person night after night. 

Becoming a performance artist was never Anger’s plan; her goal was always to be a filmmaker. Revisiting Always All Ways, Anne Marie so frequently gave her a new spark to make a film about making the film. If every film is a documentary of its own making, as Jacques Rivette said, then My First Film (the performance) was the deconstruction of the document. My First Film (2024), the fiction feature, puts the pieces back together. The film rests in a nesting doll of perspective wherein Odessa Young plays Vita, a stand-in for Anger who reflects on making Always All Ways, Anne Marie, a movie where she casts an actress to play a thinly veiled version of herself. Just as on set in the original doomed production, reality keeps bleeding into fiction, and Anger interjects not just through the character that is playing her, but by appearing as herself in glimpses of the making of My First Film (the feature) that interrupt the narrative from time to time. My First Film blends the essayistic examinations of the performance with sometimes liberating, sometimes limiting tools of narrative cinema, and often finds that the fullest truth lies somewhere in between recreation and reality. 

I sat down with Anger after a showing of My First Film at the Spectacle on June 16, coincidentally six years to the day after that first performance. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: Six years ago, you did the first performance at Spectacle. Today, you showed My First Film there for the first time in the U.S. How does it feel?

ZIA ANGER: It’s really nice. Full circle. I’ve gotten to do so many versions of it that I’ve already gotten to feel a lot of different milestones with it. So this is just really nice after I’ve passed through many gauntlets. I’m like, “Oh, I’m here. I’ve arrived.”

D: Over the course of performing, when did you first think about translating it into a film?

ZA: Pretty early on, maybe within the first year. I really want to be a filmmaker. I wasn’t really trying to be a performance artist. So my mind was always, “What’s the next film I’m going to make?” I think the earliest thing I can remember was in late 2019, Riel [Roch-Decter, the film’s producer] and I started to talk about it. Once I felt like I had a really good story, I was kind of like, “Oh, this could be a film.” Having a good story is everything.

D: What was it like revisiting the production of Always All Ways, Anne Marie?

ZA: For me, at least, going through every emotion is important. There’s denial—whatever the stages of grief are, you go through all those. But then you also go through the heavy stuff. I can’t list all those emotions. But you understand, right? You’re like, “I can’t believe I did that.” “Oh my God, I can believe I did that!” “Wow, I was amazing.” Wow, I was awful.” “Oh my god, I’m so happy to be making this.” “Oh, my God, I cannot believe I’m making this, it’s horrible.” You kind of get to see it from every angle, which is really great.

D: Was it different than how it felt to revisit it for the performance?

ZA: It was definitely in many ways more practical because you actually have to do it. You have a huge crew around you and you have to answer a lot of questions like, “What is this character feeling right now?” Or, “What are they wearing?” So it was different than the performance. I had to be very specific and practical. Whatever emotions I was having, I oftentimes had to separate from the answers. People just needed real concrete information from me to do their best work, as opposed to emotional downloads from me. 

D: Did you feel like you had grown as a filmmaker between the shoots?

ZA: Oh yeah, I’m much better. But a huge part of being “better”—it’s all relative —is being older, being wiser. Because I had that first shoot, I learned a lot of what not to do. Oftentimes when I walk away from any type of film shoot, I try to reflect on it. I didn’t way back when I made the first film, but now it’s become a part of my process to reflect on what I did. And not look at it with regret but use it as a moment to inform the next thing that I’m going to do. If I didn’t like the way that I was, or some technique I was using wasn’t that effective, then I hopefully adjust the next time. That’s kind of how growth works for me. 

D: Ashley Connor shot both Always All Ways, Anne Marie and My First Film. Did anybody else work on both projects?

ZA: Billy [Feldman] was originally the assistant cinematographer and kind of the producer on the first one. On My First Film, he was the co-writer and one of the executive producers. My dad was in both of the films. Abram Kurtz, who plays Cash, was in both. A few other people make appearances in both of the films. My moms—well, my moms aren’t really in the first one. I’m sure there are people I’m missing. 

D: Did it feel like you were getting a chance to redo Always All Ways, Anne Marie?

ZA: Definitely not redo. It was finishing what I started. Every time I’ve gotten to do this since the first film—like the performance and this—feels like I’m working my way toward a type of filmmaking and a type of film that I initially set out to do but wasn’t able to do that first time.

D: And you feel like you’ve finished what you started?

ZA: I think probably this project, like the My First Film projects, the Always All Ways, Anne Marie project feels finished. What I discovered feels like it’s in its infancy—a way of making things, a way of working with people, a way of storytelling—feels like it’s still in the very beginning.

D: Will you keep exploring that direction?

ZA: I think it’s impossible not to continue taking what I learned and expanding upon that. But ideally, I would do a story that’s not about myself, so one-for-one, for the next thing.

D: What was it like casting an actress to play yourself? Did you learn anything about yourself from that time through that?

ZA: Oh yeah. Odessa [Young] is such a wonderful actor and is really technically great at what she does. But also, I think we really became friends and I’m really grateful for the healing that she helped me do. Even if it was inadvertent. To get to see a younger version of yourself and to get to talk to them and literally hug them is pretty special. She was really open and receptive to all the processing I was doing at the same time.

D: There are parts of the film where the artifice of the recreation strips away and you interjected yourself, not just as a character—the festival rejection emails will have your name on it, or something will reference you specifically. What was the decision to go in that direction?

ZA: A lot of it began as you’re editing and you’re like, “How do I tell this story?” And then we’re like, “Well, this is the email, we’ll put a finished version of the email right here, and we can change the name.” But then the further it gets along, you realize that that’s probably the most honest version, that original version, even if it has my name on it. Considering the end of the film, you also realize at a certain point, that this flipping of the artifice needs to happen. You do have to help your audience because it’s a really complicated film, and to get to that ending, you have to give them things to hold on to. So the idea of me appearing in it was really something that we found in the edit. 

Joe Bini [one of the film’s editors] was like, “Well maybe the most honest thing to do right here is to show me, Zia, in an old video, or show me, Zia, behind the scenes.” There’s a story that you start out with, and then there’s the story that you end with, meaning there’s a story that you start out with on the paper and then there’s the story you end with in the edit. A lot of the story we started out with shifted as we edited it into the film that we knew that it needed to be.

D: Those videos of you at the beginning almost seem like a little secret between you and the people who did see your performance, as those were some of the videos that you AirDropped the audience.

ZA: I didn’t think we were ever going to use those; that wasn’t written into the script. But at a certain point, when we were editing the beginning, it wasn’t really working—the tone of it felt too serious. Then we thought, what if we do what we did with the performance? Which is to start with something that isn’t so serious, and show this example of who this filmmaker is. The quickest way to do it was just to use the videos of me. Sometimes the simplest thing to do is not remake anything. That’s so interesting that the performance almost kept coming back into the film. If we would have problems with the edit, I would go back and be like, “Well, this is what I used to do the performance here.” And then we would look at that, I would show Joe or Matt Hannam, the other editor. We would look at how it worked, because the performance, in many ways, “worked.” I had gotten to test it with so many people that it felt like I knew that there was stuff in there that works. When you’re editing a film, you don’t have a lot of people to bounce that off of, so oftentimes we went with what the performance did, when in doubt.

D: I think it adds a lot to the film, it makes it richer—looking at yourself growing from the filmmaker you were when you made Always All Ways, Anne Marie, to the performance artist, to again being the filmmaker.

ZA: Yeah, I mean—life is a performance, you know?

Alex Lei is a writer and filmmaker based in Baltimore. His writing on film has appeared in DocumentaryFilmmaker, and Paste magazine, amongst others.