Directed by Amy Ziering Kofman, Kirby Dick. (2002, NR, 85 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 12, 2003
It figures that the organization of a documentary about Jacques Derrida, the father of the philosophical movement called deconstructionism, would be something other than biographically prosaic. This might be a good thing for those post-grads already familiar with Derrida’s work and ideas, but for those unfamiliar with the notoriously camera-averse philosopher and his thoughts, Derrida will most probably prove to be an unenlightening bore. One of the issues the movie attempts to deal with is the deconstructionist idea of the separation between a philosopher’s life and work – in other words, the subject’s ideas and contributions are all that matters; the specifics of the personal biography are irrelevant to understanding the work. It’s a theoretical goal that proves a little shaky in practice, even in Derrida’s mind. A victim of anti-Semitism in his youth, Derrida seems to suspect that his early experiences may have contributed to his overall theoretical sense of the Self and the Other. But ideas such as these are likely to have little value to anyone not already invested in the deconstructionist analysis of experience. The filmmakers seem to belong to the "already invested" camp, particularly the film’s primary interviewer, Kofman. The other co-director, Dick, appears to have gone in another direction since his earlier film, Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, an intimate and nonjudgmental documentary about a dying masochist. This cerebral documentary about Derrida follows the subject throughout the course of his daily life: We watch him butter his toast, go to the barber, dine with friends and family. This material really only seems to feed the cult of personality and reveals nothing much more than this philosopher’s human normalcy. He also sits for two-on-one conversations with the filmmakers, whose questions are usually parried by the subject and answered, generally, with more questions. Kofman and Dick also travel with Derrida to South Africa, where we hear fragments from his talks about the concept and practice of forgiveness. Along the way, we absorb bits and pieces of Derrida’s ideas, but the total is insufficient for the newcomer to come away with any focused understanding of Derrida and only seems to fuel the dangerous cult of hero worship.