Jeff Reichert is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker and critic based in Brooklyn.
I’m excited to show this new short film I’ve made, Before You Were Here, to my daughter Daevi. I want to watch her watch it. I want to talk to her about it after it’s over. I want to tell her the story of how it came to exist. It was made for her.
Daevi is now just over four months old. It’s 11 on a Wednesday night and she’s smiling at me from her crib, where she’s just recently been sleeping. I’m not sure why she’s awake now. The lamp is off, ambient light from the next room reflects her blue eyes as black beads, her toothless grin an undulating abyss. Horrifying, adorable. Go to sleep.
It’ll be at least six, maybe seven, years before I can expect to show Daevi this film, made last summer over a few weeks in the Peruvian Amazon. And likely a few more beyond that before we can hold a real conversation about it. Talking about film work is a family affair: I can remember Julia and Steve bringing an early cut of Julia’s sole narrative feature, Emma and Elvis, to a holiday gathering on VHS, the working title The Last Resort sharpied on the label, and quizzing everyone about the cut. I was 10 or 11 and I doubt my notes were particularly useful. What did I know? Much later, I would bug Julia about Emma, because I never saw the final version. Now, even if I do someday see it, we won’t get to talk about it.
My partner Asha and I debated bringing Daevi to the premiere of Before You Were Here at MOMI’s First Look festival, but the 7 p.m. start will mess with bedtime. We’re especially wary of sleep regression. She’s generally slept well – we’ve been lucky – though last night, at around 3 a.m., she was up again, babbling to herself in the dark, delighted. In my imagination, I see her at the screening. I’m holding her up in the side aisle of the Redstone Theater, our faces lit by the image in front us. She hears my voice booming in the room. I cringe, she laughs.
Before You Were Here was filmed in the same region where Werner Herzog made Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. The rusted skeleton of the grounded steamship that inspired the latter lay not far from camp. I didn’t know this all before I left, but this history became central to how I thought about what I could make in that time there.
What does it mean to make a film for someone? Before You Were Here is addressed directly to Daevi in voiceover (though we didn’t know she’d be Daevi when I recorded that track early one morning in the jungle), but I think that the essential for-her-ness of the work expresses itself more fully in other ways. In my attempt, via cramming in as many images captured there as possible, to bring some sense of the place back. So she could see it. In the questions about fathers and birth I kept coming back to while filming with Rolando the boat captain and Thaysi, the doctor at the women’s clinic. See, Daevi: while I was there, I was mostly thinking of you, all the way back here.
I hadn’t gone to Peru for the workshop which produced this film to make something for anyone. I carried with me a bright orange B&N-branded paperback of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species with a plan to adapt a piece of that text. It’s an idea I’ve been harboring for a long time that’s been delayed endlessly by other projects. By that molasses torpor that can overcome you in the middle years of making a film, when the end feels incredibly far, and there’s no action you could possibly complete to force it closer. The last months pre-fatherhood seemed a moment to make something new and different and quickly.
Yet in the weeks I was in Peru, I constantly wondered what was happening at home. I tried to find signal to send texts back to New York by standing too close to the cliff’s edge overlooking the boat launch on the bank of the Madre de Dios. So many things could happen to her, to Asha, to me, while we were so far apart. These thoughts affected what images I shot, and how I edited them.
I’m excited to talk to Daevi about what that time before she was here felt like. About this odd interregnum in Peru. To see if she feels these impulses I’ve described here in this film I made. To explain that she was enough to spark a whole film, while Darwin sat on the shelf near my bunk waiting for another day.
I wonder where we’ll watch Before You Were Here together. I doubt it’ll be in our current apartment, the only one Daevi’s known so far, though the television might be the same one.
A few days after I left New York, after I’d toured the remains of the steamship in a small canoe under the watchful eyes of nearby caiman, my mom sent a text reminding me of how she saw Aguirre in a theatre when she was nine months pregnant with me. How uncomfortable the experience was. It’s a great story, one I’ve heard often. I snuck onto the wi-fi and watched portions again, for the first time in years. I didn’t remember how much it was about a father and a daughter. It felt somehow important that Klaus Kinski appear in my film, so I filmed him, off a screen. He’s weirdly lived as a part of my story, and now lives, perhaps even more weirdly, as part of Daevi’s, too. You’re welcome, kiddo.