September 17, 2019

A Life to the Mind

What you notice in almost every shot is the hair: abundant, snow-white, carefully coiffed.

It’s an apt metaphor for Jacques Derrida’s mind, which is prolific with ideas, yet well-ordered and consistent in its probity and depth. In a new documentary, filmmakers Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick make arresting cinema from the mind, memories and habits of a man whose life has been devoted to thought.

Derrida, a Jew born in Algeria in 1930, is identified with deconstructionism, a system of thought that challenges established assumptions about the knowledge of what is true and real. But the 85-minute film is far from a static parade of talking heads. Exposition of Derrida’s ideas comes mostly through voice-over readings from his books that accompany shots of the philosopher walking from one place to another or scenes of a gritty, industrial Paris rushing past a moving car.

In her interviews with Derrida, Ziering Kofman makes him a partner in breaking through the common conception of a philosopher’s life, as Derrida describes it: "He was born, he thought, and he died." We meet Derrida’s wife of 45 years, Marguerite, a psychoanalyst, and find out how they met; we see the Pampers kept handy for visits from their baby granddaughter; we watch Derrida fix himself a snack; we meet his brother and hear both sad and amusing anecdotes of other relatives.

Derrida was 10 in 1940, when Algeria, as part of Vichy France, came under German occupation. Algeria’s Jews were neither deported to the camps nor massacred at home, but they were subject to the Nuremberg Laws. Derrida and his siblings were expelled from school with all the other Jewish children, and suddenly his former classmates were calling him a dirty Jew.

Derrida’s wartime experiences resonated with Ziering Kofman, a graduate of Beverly Hills High School and student of Derrida’s at Yale who grew up the child of a Holocaust survivor. Ziering Kofman’s German-born father, Sigfried "Sigi" Ziering, who died two years ago, survived the Riga ghetto and several concentration camps as a teenager. In the United States, he earned multiple degrees in science and went into business. A 1973 investment in a biotech firm eventually made him the head of a multinational corporation.

One of the founders and a major financial supporter of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Ziering was also a

leading contributor to Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. He provided some of the funding for Ziering Kofman’s film, which is dedicated to his memory.

Ziering Kofman hopes the film will help people understand deconstructionism, which, in its refusal to embrace absolutes, is often attacked as condoning moral relativism. Derrida’s work "is fiercely ethical — it’s all about creating an ethical structure," she said.

"I wondered what Shakespeare and Plato were like, what their lives were like," she said. "I thought, there really should be some record of Derrida."