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Derrida (NR)
Jane Doe Films / Zeitgeist Films
Official Site
Directors: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering Kofman
Producer: Amy Ziering Kofman
Cast: Jacques Derrida, Marguerite Derrida, René Major, Chantal Major

Rating: out of 5

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”—Karl Marx

The focus of this documentary, Jacques Derrida, is a noted and controversial living French philosopher and the founder of deconstructionism. You could easily spend your life attacking, defending, or just trying to understand him. Ziering Kofman has mused on what it would be like if we had such an archive of Socrates or Nietzsche. I wonder how the history of Russia or China might have been different if there had been a better public understanding of Marx. She is right. Derrida might have an importance that we can’t even begin to comprehend.

First, don’t ask me to define deconstructionism. I can’t and, after watching this film, I still can’t. The film does not fail to explain the essence of this philosophy because it doesn’t even try. If you lack that knowledge, the film attempts to pique your interest in Derrida and deconstructionism by showing you how it is applied, in the man’s own words and actions, and in the very way the film is shot and edited. In a way, it provides the joke but leaves you to determine the punchline. This can provide some unique insight, but it can also irritate the hell out of you.

Second, this film will require some intellectual gymnastics, and I fell on my mental ass plenty of times while trying to follow some recited quotation from one of Derrida’s books while integrating it into the visual aspects of the film. My brain kept reminding me about my day job. Now, I can actually recognize all of the names from the Monty Python Philosophers’ Drinking Song, and I still have a healthy curiosity about the nature of reality, but I feel like that wasn’t enough. I’m not a genius, but I am a proud Sub-genius™. This film might inspire some of us to renew a program of mental conditioning and pursue enlightenment through deconstructionism. For many more, it will convince them that this philosophy is nothing more than masturbatory bullshit, and I will presume that is not the intention of the filmmakers.

Ziering Kofman has chosen to compromise nothing, making a film as pure as her passion for her subject. Kirby Dick and editor Matt Clarke helped craft this vision into a visually elegant, pleasant, and structurally poetic film, remarkably less painful than it might be. If only it were not so enigmatic to the uninitiated. If you are a Derrida groupie, I feel you will be ecstatic about this film. You will give it 5 stars and gladly drive hundreds of miles to see it. All of those reviews cited on their website are right on the money. Otherwise, deconstructionism, in some sense, is about truth and the limits of communication, and this film is said to structurally honor its insight. This might explain the scene where you barely understand the conversation between a student and Derrida because the sound man is visibly fiddling with the microphone. Also, having a working knowledge of deconstructionism should enhance the scene where the camera lurks and peers in the window, behind which other cameramen silently shoot an interview with Derrida, all while the filmmaker and narrator read another quote from a book. It is overtly artistic, but remains an effective and memorable shot. The music, pleasant and used deftly to provide innovative atmosphere and motion, only occasionally rises to challenge the narrative track in an almost intentional way. The film has impressive camera work and it flows beautifully. The editing process must have been brutal. Clearly hours and hours of footage were examined for their entertaining conveyance of the message, whatever that may be.

If you are less tolerant of philosophical games, you might return to my opening quotation. Derrida invests considerable attention to the relationship of such thoughts to the world we think we know. Derrida, the man, reveals himself to live his philosophy in an intriguing way. His visit to South Africa, seeing the prison cell that held Nelson Mandela, is a stirring and thought-provoking moment which invites the viewer to open-ended speculation on how this philosophy might affect terrifyingly non-theoretical situations. Even for the uninitiated, this almost redeems the film. It is never really pedantic, only a little presumptuous. As we say, “No Secret Handshakes.” I’m sorry, but this film should have included a password.

A final hint: In five minutes of awkward conversation about the film with three others after the screening, comparing notes on our frustrations, I had more enjoyment than in the entire film. A passionate and extremely enlightening denunciation (deconstruction?) of the movie ensued. In the fine tradition of the above-mentioned song, plan to see this film in a small group and depart to a favorite local establishment. Raise the wrist more than a few times with your beverage of choice, and enjoy the company and discussion. That should make it a five-star experience for everyone.

—Steven Harding


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