This has been a good year for filmmaker Ira Sachs. His new feature, "Keep the Lights On," received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and won the prestigious Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. And while the intensely personal, autobiographical film centers on a tumultuous love affair between two men, Sachs believes audiences will relate to the human experience of relationships shared by all couples.
During a phone interview from his New York City home, Sachs attributed his ability for universal affinity to his cultural heritage. "I feel that I live and breathe my Judaism as an individual, and it is how I connect to people here every day."
Sachs has been living in Manhattan since 1987, but his roots stem from the Deep South city of Memphis, Tenn., where he was raised in what he described as a Reform Jewish household.
"My maternal side was German Jews who came to Memphis in 1850, and, on my father's side, Eastern Europeans who came in 1900; two major Southern immigration times for Jews, so I grew up in a mixed Jewish family," he said.
Sachs also points to the era of social change, in which he grew up, as an influence on his formative years.
"I was in Memphis in the '60s, and that was obviously a very complicated time," he explained. "One of the things about growing up Jewish in the South was there was a lot of assimilation going on among Southern Jews. And one of the things that did was create a greater interest in social action there. For example, there was a great connection between our rabbi and the civil rights movement, so I've always been interested in how people live and how difference is a part of one's experience. And growing up in the South as a Jewish person, and as a gay person, I think there were certain ways in which the two identities would overlap because it was a place in which I was an outsider. But I felt more of an outsider being gay."
Thure Lindhardt in “Keep the Lights On.” Photo by Jean Christophe Husson
But Sachs' sexual orientation did not cause him to be alienated by everyone. "I was born in 1965, so by the time I arrived, the Jewish community was very powerful and very strong," he added. "I was actually never bullied due to my sexuality, but I was due to my religion. I was called ‘kike' and I had pennies thrown at me in junior high school, but I never took that seriously. I never understood the context of being ‘less than' as a Jew. It was actually a very empowering thing to be part of the Jewish community in Memphis. They were very cohesive, communal, and it was a big part of my life. I was president of the Memphis Federation of Temple Youth throughout my teen years and very involved with the synagogue. Then I went off to Yale in 1983, graduated in '87, and in a way, my relationship with organized Judaism ended to a great extent, but my entrance into a kind of cultural Judaism was then precipitated even more when I moved to New York."
It was Sachs' desire to pursue a career as both a filmmaker and an artist that brought him to New York in the late 1980s. The city also offered the opportunity to once again broaden his role as a community activist, much like his father before him, who had worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
"I was interested in all sorts of different art forms, and New York was the center of an independent film world, and there was also a queer cinema movement going on in the late '80s and early '90s," Sachs said. "I got involved with ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — so I was politically active as soon as I arrived. As a good lefty Jew, I came to New York and got involved."
Sachs began making films in the early '90s and admits that at that time he was still struggling with his own identity as a gay man. But now that society's views on alternative lifestyles have progressed, and with gay-themed films like "The Kids Are All Right" and "Weekend" finding cross-over success with audiences, he sees himself and his art in a more accessible context.
"I think the world has changed, and in a way, cinema is catching up," Sachs said. "I live in a city, as do many people around the world, where my gayness is not something that separates me from other people; it's part of my life and a part of who I am specifically. The boundaries, really, have come down and the world I live in is gay and straight, black and white, artist and non-artists; it's very mixed and I really have tried to capture some of that in my films. And I do believe that some of these other films are looking more like our lives these days. It doesn't mean that it's not difficult to tell these stories, because they're still outside the mainstream, and I think that marginality — and I can say that as a Jewish person and as a gay person — while it could be considered my kind of cross to bear, it's actually in other ways my strength as a filmmaker. I'm someone who has access to tell very specific stories that other people are not telling."
In addition to the positive response that "Keep the Lights On" has received at various film festivals, Sachs is optimistic about the possibility of commercial success for his film as well, based on audience reactions.
"The one thing that I've found consistently is that almost anyone who walks into the theater, who sees the film, and I get a chance to talk to afterward, if we speak for more than a few moments, we tend to start talking about their relationship and their divorces, their breakups and there's something about the film that allows people with a variety of stripes and histories to see themselves in the story. So I hope that that audience will get to see the film, and the reception tells me that it will be possible."
"Keep The Lights On" opens Sept. 7 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Hollywood and the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. For more information, visit keepthelightsonfilm.com.