The way that Sara Driver tells the story of the resurfacing of her 1981 debut film, You Are Not I, has a touch of the mystical about it—which isn’t strange coming from Driver, who confesses to a “love of fairy tales, the way things from them echo your own life.”
A 48-minute adaptation of a Paul Bowles short story, You Are Not I concerns an institutionalized woman (Suzanne Fletcher) who, escaping after witnessing a surreal auto accident, wanders to her sister’s suburban home where, in a psychogenic fugue, the women seem to swap identities. The lab elements for You Are Not I were destroyed in a flood in a New Jersey storage unit, and the film—once a cult item on the festival circuit—was thought lost until a copy that Driver had sent to Bowles, living in Tangier, was discovered among Bowles’s effects by librarian Francis Poole in 2008 in mint condition. “To be in that climate for 30 years and for there to have been no damage at all is really phenomenal,” Driver says. “The archivist thinks it’s because it had bug powder all over it”—the insecticide a touch out of a story by William S. Burroughs, Driver’s neighbor who’d given her Bowles’s address in the ’80s.
I met Driver at a café on the Bowery, geographically near but economically and psychologically far from the depopulated downtown where Burroughs, Driver, and her collaborators on You Are Not I lived—the photographer Nan Goldin and the author Luc Sante play small roles; the soundtrack is by Phil Kline, a noteworthy avant-garde musician; the cinematography is by Jim Jarmusch, Driver’s longtime partner and collaborator.
A native of New Jersey, Driver, now 56, studied classics before attending NYU film school with Jarmusch, with whom she made the scene. “We all knew each other; there wasn’t that big a population in the arts,” Driver says. “We all basically met at clubs around music and at the movies.” Still very much the classics student preoccupied with myths, Driver is today working with French producers on “an omnibus film of metamorphosis tales from all over the world,” which will have her directing alongside Emir Kusturica, Michel Gondry, Alfonso Cuarón, and Persepolis‘s Marjane Satrapi. In the meantime, one still-intact East Village institution, Anthology Film Archives, will be playing You Are Not I along with a program of Driver’s other films and a mirroring program, curated by the filmmaker, of formative influences. In evidence is Driver’s particular fondness for drive-in and pulp material—we spent a good quarter-hour discussing favorite grave-robbing movies—and her selections include Walter Hill’s Spider Baby and Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People.
Driver praises Cat People producer Val Lewton as a proto-independent, “using his limitations as strengths.” She should know: Graveyard shifts editing You Are Not I from 2 to 8 in the morning at the Film Center Building in Hell’s Kitchen provided Driver with the mood of nocturnal unease and material for her next film, 1986’s Sleepwalk, in which Fletcher stars as a downtown copy-shop employee (as was Driver, working with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon) whose life is invaded by sinister signs when she accepts a freelance translation job on some Chinese fables. “New York was such an emotional place at that time; you were very sensitive to stuff on the streets,” Driver says. “You had to be. It was a survival thing. I kept a journal of weird things that happened to me on the street, which I incorporated into Sleepwalk.”
The film’s conclusion, which has Fletcher searching a nearly abandoned city for her missing son, seems absurd today to Driver, though she remembers “at that time, you could’ve run through the streets of Tribeca looking for a child, yelling their name.” Driver recalls 1980s Manhattan as a city of great creative ferment and desolation. “We found all our furniture on Tuesday nights out on the streets. I remember seeing Louise Nevelson, the sculptor, on Mott Street. She was looking for pieces of wood in the garbage. She had these mink eyelashes on, and it was raining. One was drooping . . .”
That Old New York’s passing is memorialized in Driver’s 1994 short video The Bowery. “The homeless guys, every winter, they would cash their Social Security checks—like in Midnight Cowboy—and they’d go to Florida, and they’d come back in March or April, and that was the last summer I saw them coming back.” The last of the skid-row bars has closed, notes The Bowery‘s sort-of narrator, Sante. Driver says: “Now they’re all open again, for NYU students.”