DER Documentary

Four Films by Robert Ascher

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by Robert Ascher
color, 21 min, 1986-1995, digitally remastered 2014

Digitally Remastered DVD Edition

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This collection contains four animated films by writer, educator and anthropologist, Robert Ascher. These films were created using a technique called "direct animation" — drawing with pen and ink directly on 35mm film. Films in this compilation have been included in the permanent collection of Museum of Modern Art, the New Zealand National Art Gallery, the Jewish Museum, NYC, and the Israel Film Archive.

Cycle (color, 5 min, 1986)
Cycle is an animated film based on a non-sacred myth of the Wulamba, a native people of northeastern Australia. The sound track of Cycle is in Wulamba. The narrator assumes familiarity with the myths of his people. He does not tell a myth; rather he indirectly recalls central figures in Wulamba mythology by utilizing poetic devices, particularly the repetition of key words: lotus, evening star, moon, and the name of a clay-pan where past and future events are played out in the present. The images complement but do not illustrate the narration. On the clay-pan, people collect lotus, the roots of which become an evening star. It is here, too, on the pan, that a being, rejecting mortality, changes himself to moon. The horn of light visible at the close of moon's period drops into the sea where it becomes a nautilus shell. The process is a never ending cycle relating people, the spiritual world, and the natural environment.

Bar Yohai (color, 6 min, 1987)
Shimon Bar Yohai was a second century visionary who, according to popular belief, wrote the Zohar, the main Kabbalah text of the Jewish mystical tradition. The film's images — tree, mirror, candelabra and the ten dots with which each is constructed — are Kaballah figures for how the world got started and keeps going. Once every year there is a celebration honoring Bar Yohai at his tomb in Meron, Israel.

The last scene is composed from photographs taken on the roof of the tomb during the celebration. The soundtrack, a song praising Bar Yohai, was also recorded during the celebration in a town (Safed) a few miles from the tomb. Support for the film's production came from a fellowship Award in Film, New York Foundation for the Arts; funds for participation in the celebration were from a Humanities Faculty Grant, Cornell University.

Blue, A Tlingit Odyssey (color, 6 min, 1991)
In just about every known culture, there is a myth in which a hero ventures forth, discovers something of great value, and then returns home with his gift. The details may vary from culture to culture, but everywhere the broad outline is maintained. Blue is a visual rendering of the Tlingit hero myth.

The Tlingit are Native Americans who live in southeast Alaska. In their version of the myth, the heroes are four brothers who go in search of blue. The film starts with a necessary preface. The world is dark. Raven, the trickster, releases the sun from its box, the world is illuminated, and the odyssey begins.

In part one, The Search, the brothers set out on a sea journey encountering marvelous creatures along the way. Action in the second part — The Find — takes place mostly within a cave where the brothers find blue. The brothers find and take something so valuable that they are pursued and a storm develops. One of the brothers dies in the storm; the others, with their gift of blue, complete the trip home.

The Golem (color, 4 min, 1995)
Take some soil, knead it with water, and, together with a companion, chant certain combinations of the Hebrew alphabet. This formula, written down in the 3rd or 4th century, is essential for the creation of a golem — an artificial person. For ten centuries golems thus created lived in the imaginations of their creators. After that they became corporeal presences that anyone could see. Still later golems could pose real dangers and had to be destroyed by their creators. The notion of the golem is persistent and still evolving.

Today golems may be found in science, technology and art. They are often associated with robots, computers, and new organisms created through biotechnology. In several 20th century paintings, short stories, plays and novels, golems are central figures. There is a golem opera, a golem poem, a golem ballet and a golem orchestral suite. And in more than a half dozen live action movies, a golem is the main character.

The Golem, an animated film, was created by drawing directly on clear film stock one frame at a time. There are over 6,000 individual drawings. The film's soundtrack is derived from the earliest manual for golem making; the brevity of the film allows concentration on the essentials of the story. Although every film is, in some sense, an interpretation, The Golem leaves ample room for viewers to find their own meaning.

“Initially, I was more than a little suspicious of [Cycle] as an idea, but I regard this attitude as mistaken now. It is odd for Ascher, who has not done firsthand research with Australian Aboriginals, to build his project around a Wulamba myth presented in its original language, a myth that he himself could only understand in translation and one interpreted by other ethnographers, However, with Ascher's suggestions for use, I found the project to be engagingly humble and promising by virtue of its combination of concreteness, simplicity, and intellectual play. I recommend using it for introductory college classes, especially if they are small enough to allow for discussion.” — Fred Myers, American Anthropologist
“Robert Ascher's Blue: A Tlingit Odyssey shares some affinity with Rouch's Tambours. It is only six minutes long; it appears somewhat crude in comparison with the films of the Disappearing World series. And yet, the form and method of making this film speak to an alternative, more ethical way of representing others.” — Paul Stoller, American Anthropologist

Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
International San Francisco Film Festival, 1987 (Cycle)
Fellowship Award in Film, New York Foundation for the Arts, 1987-1988 (Cycle)
Robert Flaherty Seminar Grantee, 1987 (Cycle)
Independent Focus, 1988 (Cycle)
Chicago International Film Festival, 1988 (Bar Yohai)
Experimental Film Coalition, 1988 (Bar Yohai)
New York Exposition of Short Films, 1989 (Bar Yohai)
Canadian International Annual Film Festival, 1991 (Blue: A Tlingit Odyssey)
Baltimore Independent Film and Video Makers Competition, 1993 (Blue: A Tlingit Odyssey)
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TV Broadcasts
Kentucky Educational Film Network, 1989 (Cycle)

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Supported By Massachusetts Cultural Council National Endowment for the Humanities National Endowment for the Arts