Jasmine Dreame Wagner / Five Elizabeths

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Five Elizabeths. A short film by Jasmine Dreame Wagner.

Five Elizabeths is an experimental short film and film / movement / sound performance about family legends and matrilineal mythology, the psychic shadow of the military industrial complex, and the isolation of personal and actual islands. Filmed on the shore of the former Naval base on Fisher's Island, New York, this feminist film and autofictional embodied performance uses image, movement, and musical composition to explore five female archetypes (or, instructions for womanhood) passed down through Wagner's family.

Director's Statement

At the end of the nineteenth century, my grandfather’s grandfather emigrated from Norway to Canada to join the fur trade in Manitoba. According to my family history, he had five wives, each of whom he renamed Elizabeth on their wedding day. Three of the Elizabeths were registered with the Canadian census; two of the Elizabeths are unknowable, remembered only in stories and in pencil sketches labeled by first name on an old drawing of my family tree. The women’s maiden names have been lost to history.

My grandfather, a WWII veteran, named my mother after these five wives: she, too, is an Elizabeth. My mother grew up on Grosse Ile, an island in the Detroit River, knowing little of her matrilineal history. From the erasure of her great-grandmothers' maiden names to the unspoken life of her own mother, an immigrant who preferred silence to storytelling, women in my family often sought to ease or prevent the transmission of trauma through denial, cultural assimilation or repression. Women’s stories were muted. Patrilineal names were inherited. In creating Five Elizabeths, I wanted to make visible and audible these five (wordless, soundless) matrilineal archetypes embodied and handed down through my family:

THE FIVE ELIZABETHS. The first Elizabeth is a woman of leisure. A woman who sleeps doesn't mind her identity fusing with her body’s object. Is she medicated or is she tired? The second Elizabeth is a girl who loses her name – a woman who sacrifices her maiden name to gain her husband’s, who sheds her girlhood identity to assume the identity of a wife. She sacrifices her ambitions. This Elizabeth is a servant to the domestic, and she is also a dead girl. In my family legend, there is no way to know the substance of the five wives’ lives, why they were married in quick succession – did they each pass from an illness, or was it something darker? The disappearing girl archetype suggests the disposable woman, an object in a capitalist system, a slasher film character trope. The third Elizabeth is a warrior Elizabeth. In one version of the story of my family's Five Elizabeths, the brides were renamed in honor of the British Queen. Queen Elizabeth the First was a military strategist and a survivor of her father, Henry the Eighth, a paranoiac narcissist who beheaded two of his wives. She was a respected military leader. Her archetype strategizes, retains a victorious posture; she is representative of expanding empire, of trade itself, which is a slow form of war. The fourth archetype is the Elizabeth who watches the war. She is both a pacifist who won't fight and a soldier who is barred from enlisting on account of her gender. She is a woman who watches her brothers and husbands depart for service. She is also a woman who watches herself as she watches, the other war being a woman's struggle against her image. The fifth Elizabeth is the woman who walks away; she turns from idealized visions of herself, from her prescribed roles. She decides what to remember and what to forget. This Elizabeth embodies the problem of memory and forgetting. How much memorialization is necessary so that history doesn’t repeat itself; how much historical knowledge is necessary to integrate, to reclaim, and forget, so that healing can begin. This Elizabeth holds the tension of family history in her body. She moves forward.

It was important for me to film on an island and to incorporate movement into my work. My mother’s childhood stories center around learning to dance as a child on Grosse Ile, watching ships from the shore of the Detroit River. When her teacher passed away, she grieved, unable to continue her studies. When I was young, I shied from dance, intuitively understanding the unexpressed sentiments that dwelled within her body, preferring instead to escape into my head, writing poems, choosing to remain cerebral rather than embodied. These silences, from my mother’s inability to dance, to my reluctance to explore movement in favor of verbal or academic pursuits, felt oppressive. Inspired by experimental films such as Maya Deren's At Land, Cecelia Condit's Not a Jealous Bone, and Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, along with Andy Goldsworthy's land art and the self-portraiture of Francesca Woodman and Catherine Opie, I released these feelings to the camera, documenting them as I moved on the shoreline. The boulders at the edge of the naval base reminded me that history flows over and through the Earth's geology. Movement is an antidote to grief. It's also a form of memory.

Five Elizabeths film and film score performed by:

Jasmine Dreame Wagner - director (film, movement, music)
Pat Gubler - harp
Amy Rebecca Klein - electric guitar
Meghan Mercier - cello
Matt Sargent - lap steel guitar, Moog, Serge synthesizer
Maeve Schallert - violin
Adriana Tampasis - flute
Sugar Vendil - grand piano, midi-mapped keyboards
Killian Venman - percussion

Film score recorded at Bard College
Engineered and mixed by Matt Sargent

Filmed by Jasmine Dreame Wagner at Fort H. G. Wright and
Isabella Beach on Fisher's Island, NY

Thanks to The Lighthouse Works and The Millay Colony for the Arts

Official Festival Selections and Screenings:

Luna Loba at The Wilbury Theatre Group, Providence, RI
MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology, Cambridge, MA
Black Mountain Experimental Film and Music Festival, TRMF Experimental Competition, Asheville, NC
Monadnock International Film Festival (MONIFF), Keene, NH
Time & Space Limited, Hudson, NY
New Faces New Voices, New York, NY

Live Score Workshop Performance:

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, Fisher's Island, NY
Presented by The Lighthouse Works

Five Elizabeths. Film stills.

Jasmine Dreame Wagner, Five Elizabeths

Jasmine Dreame Wagner, Five Elizabeths

Jasmine Dreame Wagner, Five Elizabeths

Jasmine Dreame Wagner, Five Elizabeths

Jasmine Dreame Wagner, Five Elizabeths

Jasmine Dreame Wagner, Five Elizabeths

Jasmine Dreame Wagner on Instagram