He asked me where I came up with the idea to film our fights. It was a quote I heard in film school, a quote by Abbas Kiarostami, where he said that we never really understand anything unless it’s inside a frame. If this were true of cinema, it could be true for us. To record our anguish and watch it on a screen.
When I shared the idea with Jacob, he, of course, mocked me. He told me that I always look to cinema for answers. This was true, and nothing I felt guilty about.
Most people spend their whole lives unsure of what they want to do. I was lucky; from the age of five it has been so clear to me, clearer than any other thought I’ve ever had. I remember watching home videos that my mother had developed at Costco; my large, Persian family gathered around the television. The stories those images told affected me so deeply, from seeing them when they first arrived in the U.S. wearing the most atrocious eighties outfits, to seeing my mom and my aunts and my uncles start university, get their first apartments, get married, have children, divorce, remarry. I remember, as a child, as we watched these clips everyone was so emotional, so moved. I understood, then, the power of images. I understood we must observe our memories from a distance.
Nan Goldin: I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.
It’s almost comical, the fact that I met Jacob during freshman orientation at NYU. I had no intention of dating seriously, of committing to anything other than cinema. But we fell in love in a way that, beforehand, I tended to mock. Four years later, a month from graduating, we found ourselves in a period of doubt.
It wasn’t a feeling of staleness or complacency that was the issue. It was the unfortunate circumstance of place and time. More specifically, our youth and the stage of our growth, being at the beginning of something.
It was the balancing of our feelings for each other with realistic thinking. Jacob had no issue letting his emotions lead him, but I wasn’t like that. I thought, what more do we have to offer each other? Maybe this was a romance for this period of our lives.
I had just finished a short film that I wrote and directed, titled “Inverness.” It was a simple story, one about a woman who was leaving the small town in Tomales Bay where she grew up. In my head, the story was to be filled with striking images of tall pine trees draped with Pacific Ocean mist. The actor’s narration, her pain for leaving this place, along with her strong, assured face, would come together into something extremely intimate and sad.
Yet it didn’t become what I dreamed it would be. It was derivative, cliché, forgettable. It felt like something a film student would make, like my classmates would make, and I wanted to be better.
As always after making a film, I entered a deep period of anger and depression, and Jacob helped me through it. He was patient with my erratic moods, my sobbings. Be gentle to yourself, he said to me over and over. Be gentle to yourself.
Our problems grew during our final semester. I think it was because there was something unspoken in the air, a conversation that wasn’t being had. I could tell Jacob felt insecure about our relationship; he knew I didn’t feel the certainty about us continuing together that he did. I didn’t. This led him to become too emotional too easily and me to resent him for trying to make me feel guilty.
It was after a truly awful evening that I brought up the idea of us filming our quarrels. Maybe, with the camera present, we’d be able to say the things we had been holding back.
From then on, whenever we conflicted, I would take out my DSLR and tripod. It was a Canon Rebel EOS T5i; a very simple, unimpressive digital camera that I used to make shorts with in high school.
The first time we tried this experiment, I could tell Jacob was uncomfortable. I positioned the camera to capture us in a medium shot, as we were sitting quite near each other on the couch. Inside the frame you could see our two red wine-stained glasses along with the bottle, and the scattered magazines on our coffee table.
After I pressed record, I sat back down and attempted to continue the conversation where it left off, before we involved a witness.
The type of relationship I want, or at least I thought I wanted before I met Jacob, would be one with someone else with a deep passion for something. Someone who, like me, could not put another person above their ambitions. For us to be independent, yet fuel each other. Give each other energy to create.
But I do love Jacob. I really do. Maybe that is enough. Jacob tries to convince me that what we have is rare, something to hold on to.
Godard: Cinema is truth twenty-four times a second. Bresson: The true is inimitable, the false untransformable. Haneke: Film is twenty-four lies per second at the service of truth. Tarkovsky: Film is the sculpting of time. Denis: I long to make films. I’m dying to be inside the next film.
Our first recording was awkward and unnatural, more at Jacob’s fault than mine. I was initially more enthusiastic and honest, ready to have our most brutal interactions recorded. Jacob was shy, even changing his tone and personality once the camera was rolling. I said: You’re acting differently now. You want to look good on record, but you were just being an asshole.
It reminded me of how his family acted when I was around. They were so WASP and plain, completely hiding every feeling or impulse they had. My family was loud, erratic, and confrontational. I thought that if Jacob continued to hold himself back during these sessions, this activity would be pointless. But as time went on, he became more involved.
As graduation crept closer and closer, we were deciding what our next steps would be. I thought it was funny how when we spoke to each other of our plans, we never addressed how they would affect our relationship. It was too big of an issue to discuss, so we just avoided it. Often I wondered if I was assuming we would break up while Jacob was assuming we would stay together.
Jacob was planning on interning at his uncle’s marketing agency in L.A., which I found so bizarre. He was a political science and economics major. Why wouldn’t he do something involved with that? You could intern for a campaign, be a research assistant, something in that world. It’s a good opportunity, he told me. Unlike me, the idea of working a normal nine-to-five job didn’t make him want to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. He liked the idea of making a steady income, of being flexible enough to travel and go out whenever he pleased. Plus, he told me, you can come with me to L.A. It might be good for you to make connections over there.
I hated L.A. with a passion. I was a New York girl and always would be. I told him this, and I think my inflexibility hurt his feelings.
As for me, I was trying to come up with a creative project for the summer where I could really find my voice. None of the shorts I made in college felt personal or real to me, and I was too embarrassed to submit any of them to festivals. I wanted to be proud of something, to make something where I didn’t cringe at the sight of: A film by Leila Ayat.
Something odd happened in our next recording, something that would continue in the many that followed.
We were having our L.A. fight again. Rather than brushing it off and changing the subject, I blew up a bit. But, before I went into my rant, I asked if we could get the camera out again. I wanted us to have this discussion documented.
As I pressed record and we were situated on our couch, I proceeded:
What type of person are you to try to make me move to a city I hate? And what really bothers me is that when I say no, you pout and try to make me feel bad. It’s manipulative, and I never want to feel manipulated.
I’m not trying to manipulate you. It just makes me sad that you have no room for small sacrifices…
Then me, interrupting:
Small fucking sacrifices? Moving across the country to live a life I despise with people I despise? A place where I have no friends, no creative community? I think you just want me to be in a place where I have no anchor besides you.
Can I finish? Can I finish?
I hated when he did that.
It’s your inability to meet me in the middle, to think, “I love this person, I want to work to continue this. So maybe I can move to another city that has a lot of film opportunities so we can stay together.”
Enlighten me, how are we meeting each other in the middle? What are you sacrificing with this move?
This went on. Later, at a point when Jacob was feeling completely misunderstood, he addressed the camera, referring to it as our “therapist.”
I wish she could know what it felt like to give herself to someone. She can only do that for her art.
Jacob opened up an entirely new door for us. After that, we often spoke to the camera directly, to our therapist, when it felt like speaking to each other was getting us nowhere. I loved how cinematic it felt, how odd it was to speak through the lens. I was reminded of a moment in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, where the narrator says: Frankly, have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people, as they teach in film school, not to look at the camera?
This new addition to the practice gave us energy. We began to record constantly. And not just our fights, even conversations about ourselves, each other, moments of banality.
One day Jacob asked me what I planned to do with this footage. I honestly had never thought about it. I couldn’t decide if it was the footage that was important or the act of filming, the practice of what we were doing. Secretly, I thought, if we break up, at least there will be some sort of record, some evidence that we were together. I had an absolutely terrible memory when it came to my romantic partners. If you asked me to describe any of the people I had dated before Jacob, I would struggle to say anything profound.
In May, I dragged Jacob to Lincoln Center to see their retrospective of Kiarostami’s work. That day they were playing Close-Up, one of my favorites. It was a film about a man so obsessed with cinema that he pretends to be a famous filmmaker, but he is caught and charged with fraud. The main character, Sabzian, was not able to live the life he felt he was meant for, the life of an artist. I always cry during Close-Up, because I think there is nothing more terrifying than failure. To reach the point where you feel you must give up.
After the film I was in a terrible mood. We sat and did a recording.
I feel like I've lived my whole life tormented by these movies in my head, movies I need to make. And I think if I die without having made them, my life will have been a waste. You know I don’t believe in life having a purpose, but I can’t think of another word to describe it. It’s a disease, maybe.
One night, after a few weeks of doing these sessions, we decided to watch all of the footage we had accumulated. Jacob was nervous to see them, but I tried to make it a fun experience. I brought home some champagne, and we ordered cheap Chinese food. I even went to Levain Bakery to get Jacob his favorite dessert. We set everything up, sat by our small TV, and watched from the beginning.
Even with all the junk food and alcohol, the experience was quite disturbing for him. It’s hard to describe the sensation of seeing yourself on screen at your most vulnerable. When you’re in a fight, it’s easy to think you’re articulate and even-tempered. But, when you see the reality, you realize you were being quite foolish.
Jacob often told me I could be a bit cruel, but I just thought he was being dramatic. Watching these clips back, however, I was surprised by my harsh use of language, my frankness, my coldness.
In our fourth recording, I said directly into the lense:
Sometimes I think he is the rough draft of a human being.
In our fifth, Jacob said:
There have been a few times where I thought I was gonna lose you, where you were fed up with me. But I fought for it hard. The difference between you and me is that you’d be completely fine without me, but I’d be a total wreck.
And my reaction to that was not one of comfort or reassurance. I said to him that if he continues to be so attached to people, his life was going to be very painful.
When we were about halfway through the roughly four hours of footage, Jacob said he was tired and went to bed. I stayed up, attached to the screen. Looking back at the clips, I felt there was such a power to their violent honesty. The footage was so beautiful and real. It had a depth that no written material could ever come close to.
Maybe this is my voice, the type of work I want to make in my life. Films that are so intimate that watching them feels like an intrusion.
Graduation was weeks away. There was still no concise decision over what we were going to do. But it no longer consumed my thoughts as it had before. I was too distracted with the footage, our sessions, our therapist. Since the night we sat and watched the clips, Jacob and I had opposite reactions. While they disturbed him and made him want to stop the practice altogether, they made me want to film even more, to document everything. There were moments when something happened between us, an altercation, a fight, a discussion, where I thought it was a shame the camera wasn’t rolling. That moment would be lost forever.
I often had bouts of terrible anxiety, nights in which all of my fears and insecurities arose in my thoughts until I was immobile. It was incredible how cruel I could be in my head.
I was reminded of something Jacob told me in one of our sessions, how he worries that my passion causes me so much misery. Shouldn’t doing what I love give me joy? What was the point of living a life full of anguish?
Then, my mind repeated: Be gentle to yourself. Be gentle to yourself. I could only hear it in Jacob’s voice.
One night, after he’d gone to bed, I finished our bottle and began to edit some clips together. A collection of the most brutal moments, presented in a non-linear collage.
I managed to make a feature-length cut. I thought about what sort of scenes were needed, and different ways it could conclude. Next time we record, I thought, I’ll make love to him, with the camera rolling. A love scene would do the film well.