Filmmaker’s Statement: Swim Lesson

From the Series: Swim Lesson

Photo by Melissa Lefkowitz.

Twice I have been honored to sit around a table with documentary filmmaker and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. Her words have a rousing effect on her listeners. The last time I saw her she veritably therapized a room of graduate students, all of whom were floundering in a sea of new film projects. “Trust that you are in the footage. Allow yourself to indulge in something even if you don’t know what that is,” she cooed. At that point, Swim Lesson (2018) had existed for over a year, and until then I had considered it a presentation of my student (I am a longtime swim instructor) and friend Willy’s relationship to the water and his own life, an experiment in sensory ethnographic filmmaking that captured subjectivity and process, and a critical response to the stigma adults in the United States feel around not having acquired what is thought to be a “basic” life skill. The film is all those things. And it is also a mirror onto my own emotional state at the time of production, reflecting how I felt the year before I would leave for long-term fieldwork, adrift and immersed in worries about my capabilities, ashamed that they were surfacing since I was, after all, an adult. In short, Swim Lesson reflects my relationship to a friend, water, and myself, to the process of skill acquisition as an adult in the face of age-related expectations, and to conversations within visual anthropology concerning the representation of both the senses and subject.

A final project for my certificate in Culture and Media at New York University, Swim Lesson came out of several years of coursework and discussions with peers and professors concerning the components and ethics of anthropologically informed filmmaking. From the outset, I wanted to a) make a film that espoused Jean Rouch’s collaborative storytelling approach (which he referred to as “shared anthropology” [Henley 2009]), b) present a small homage to Frederick Wiseman’s observational, dialectical, and mimetic style of filmmaking, and c) consider how to incorporate a subject’s voice into a style that highlighted the senses from myriad angles and perspectives. With regard to the latter, films coming out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) served as both an inspiration and a challenge. Strapping a GoPro onto Willy’s ankles, wrists, and head, I thought about Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s fish in Leviathan (2012), and the response a viewer might have upon seeing a budding swimmer’s body thrash about as it tried to fight thick relentless water. I also wanted to insert diegetic voice, a component of the nonfiction film tradition that SEL founder Castaing-Taylor has renounced (see Barbash and Castaing-Taylor 2007). Toward that end, in Rouchian manner, I collaborated with Willy to present a voice that we could both agree adequately conveyed his subjective agency. Over the course of eight months, working together in the pool and the recording booth, Willy and I accomplished a successful round of swim lessons and made a small film together.

Since making Swim Lesson, I have written about other films that play with the filmic eye in order to highlight bodily experience, such as Manuel von Stürler’s Lust for Sight (2017) (Lefkowitz 2019). Ultimately, my greatest wish for the film is that it creates feelings in the viewer, with the hope that they, like me and Willy, also find themselves in the footage.


Barbash, Ilisa, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. 2007. “Introduction: Resounding Images.” In The Cinema of Robert Gardner, edited by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 1–13. Oxford, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Castaing-Taylor, Lucien, and Véréna Paravel, dirs. 2012. Leviathan. 87 minutes. Distributed by Cinema Guild.

Henley, Paul. 2009. The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lefkowitz, Melissa. 2019. Review of Lust for Sight directed by Manuel von Stürler. Visual Anthropology Review 35, no. 1: 112–13.

Von Stürler, Manuel, dir. 2017. Lust for Sight. 85 minutes. Distributed by Bande à Part Films.