Even if you don't recognize the name Zia Anger, you're probably familiar with her work. Over the last few years, Anger has pushed and played with the limits of conceptual visual storytelling as the creative force behind some of the most notable music videos in indie music over the last decade, including Mitski's "Geyser" and "Your Best American Girl," Angel Olsen's "Hi-Five," Maggie Rogers's "Fallingwater," and a slew of projects for Jenny Hval.
More recently, Anger has made herself and her work the subject of an introspective part-film, part-performance piece called My First Film.
Anger's performance at Block Museum at Northwestern is a return to her home of Chicago and the next stop of a yearlong tour in which she traces the last decade of what she considers to be her "lost and abandoned work."
My First Film is not Anger's first film; her actual debut feature, a microbudget piece based on her young adult life called Always All Ways, Anne Marie, never saw the light of day.
"Did you know when nobody sees your first feature, you're still considered a first-time filmmaker?" reads the film's synopsis.
The fact that film has to be legitimized by capitalism, and its traditional methods of distribution and consumption, is the underlying frustration Anger expresses in her work.
"If you want to make moving images you have to have, or find, money," Anger says. "And if you can't do that, you have to promise people who will loan you money that you will give it back to them and then some."
With My First Film, Anger disregards the standard procedures of independent filmmaking that are too often tools for industry gatekeeping, and instead delivers an interactive, self-reflective performance.
She does this by texting and googling snippets of her life in real time, scrubbing through her unseen work, or sending AirDrops of her Instagram stories to audience members—and she intentionally keeps most of the performance details under wraps. The goal is to disrupt the barrier between the filmmaker and the work, as well as between the audience and the capitalist-driven Hollywood system (and the film-watching conventions it's spawned).
"[My videos have] helped me better understand a sort of layered narrative," Anger says. "One that considers consumers or the audience, capitalism, and story all together. I took all of what I had learned into consideration with My First Film."
In her work directing music videos and short films, Anger frequently collaborated with musical artists and production teams—but she found those sorts of relationships professionally and creatively constraining.
"Collaborating artists often cannot find pure balance between themselves because the outside world takes so much from us, and has so much input," Anger says. "With My First Film, it feels as though I am collaborating with myself."
In many ways, My First Film is a collaboration with Anger and her past self. Who she was as an artist when she made Always All Ways, Ann Marie—though she says she would not have identified as one back then—and who she is now.
"It's as if my former self, and all her 'stuff,' has been standing on one side of the scale, all alone, waiting for present me and all my 'stuff,' to arrive," Anger says.
Anger searches for this sense of harmony in all of her work, which is why she's stepped away from music videos and short films to focus on projects that she finds personally fulfilling, such as performance, feature films, and conceptual and commercial work.
"I've spent many years trying to make [shorts and music videos]," Anger adds. "I did this because they were important to me, and other people, in a financially unquantifiable way. But at a certain point I just realized they were a means to an end, oftentimes that didn't even include me. So I stepped back and decided to focus on stuff that would include me in the end."
In My First Film, Anger critiques the flawed system that’s shaped her career. More importantly, she gives herself the space and agency to find out what it is she wants to say with her art when she doesn’t seek approval from the outside world. v