A man is not dead because you put him underground.
– Graham Greene, English novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenplay writer, and critic, from The Third Man (original screenplay)
The above quote opens Theresa Moerman Ib‘s documentary, “The Third Dad,” about her journey to find the grave of her alcoholic father, from whom she had been estranged for 10 years and who had died seven years earlier. The Glasgow-based multimedia artist wove archival family photos and home movies with new materials, overlain with a haunting soundtrack, to tell the story of how her memories of her father and the questions swirling around his death keep him very much alive in her heart, mind, and art. The short film has won several awards and was chosen as an official selection by more than 15 film festivals around the world, including LUNAFEST.
Confronting death and grief head-on
In October before a full house, shortly after the LUNAFEST premier in San Francisco, Theresa participated in a post-screening discussion at the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival. The festival, she said, “is keen to encourage openness and conversation on difficult topics.” After the screening, several people approached her to share their stories of having to cope with an alcoholic parent. “It made them feel less alone,” said Theresa, who was moved by the experience. “I think films have the power to do that.”
She hopes that film festivals take on more films that deal with death and grief. “No one will go through life without losing someone they love, either due to illness, accident or age,” she pointed out. “And we’re all mortal – so talking about our fears and scars make them seem less ominous. We don’t feel so isolated in our struggles.”
In her own journey, Theresa found comfort as photographer and filmmaker, whose roles she believes are “to collect, record, and preserve.” Film and photography, she says, “allow you to see the world through a filter – the lens.” Both have helped her understand the world around her, especially during difficult times. “When you see things through the camera and record them, you can go back over them again and again. It helps you accept what’s in front of you, forces you to face things, but in a gentle way, and, in your own time, you somehow feel one step removed from it,” she explained. “I don’t think I could have gone through the process of finding my father’s grave without a camera in hand. It was a constant companion that I knew could help me in the moment and later on, as well.”
Early on in “The Third Dad,” we see the narrator, Theresa, shuffling through a stack of old photographs that she removes from an envelope. The act of taking photographs is empowering because it captures time, people, and places. The photographs themselves, like fossils or hieroglyphs, are the tangible evidence that those people and places once existed. Theresa recognized a “loneliness” in the photographs that her father took, especially the ones that were taken before she was born. “He was seeking out people he loved and places full of solitude and melancholy. I think it was therapeutic for him,” she said. “He could preserve each moment for posterity, which I believe gave him comfort; he constantly negotiated between himself and the world, as I do in my work.”
Memory and preservation
Death and memory are constant themes in Theresa’s works across all media – film, photography, poems, sculpture, and installation. In her film poem “Letter to the Sea” (2013), she reads a poem she wrote as the ashes of a deceased person are scattered across a windy seascape. As filmmaker, she captures and preserves “the transitory nature of human existence against the constantly changing backdrop of nature.” While there’s an air of melancholy particularly in her films, a celebration of beauty and empowerment through creation is also pervasive.
Letter to the Sea
There is a sea for every stage of grief:
All are full of salt.
It is said that signs of drowning look like waving;
no way to tell dead calm from done for.
At night no one can find you;
black water reflects back rock.
The moon is a lighthouse,
darkened and mostly invisible.
Only the shipping forecasts make waves
to predict the speed at which you fall:
Quickly. Slowly. Not at all.
In her experimental piece “Flicker” (2012), she digitally rerecorded a Polavision super-8 film, in which the corrosion of the film, a result of Polaroid’s instant developing chemicals, creates “a flickering effect reminiscent of moths in flight.” Theresa writes, “The soundtrack is whispered synonyms for the word flicker and plays on early reactions to the moving image as alchemy and the vulnerability of attempts to preserve the past.”
Her short film, “Mono No Aware” (2013), is a digital rerecording of a slideshow of family photographs taken in Denmark and Japan during the early 1970s. The loop of photographs begins to accelerate, and despite the score of soothing Japanese bamboo flute music, the speeded-up clicking of the “slideshow” induces mild anxiety as the viewer tries to remember the details of the repeated images and put those images in some kind of order, in an effort to restore order in chaos but also to, once again, preserve those memories.
“I think a lot of contemporary art is afraid of pathos,” Theresa said. “I like to embrace it.” While she admits to having a sentimental streak that inevitably finds its way into her work, she hopes it emboldens people to embrace and see the beauty of their sentimental side, instead of being stoic. “Sometimes it’s good to be vulnerable,” she pointed out. “I think it makes you stronger.”
Theresa is also interested in speaking to a “collective unconscious.” “We all have memories from our families, however dysfunctional they may have been!” she said. “It’s a place we can all meet and relate to one another. A lot of bad memories may come up, but there can be something rewarding even in them. I guess it sounds hopelessly romantic, but, ultimately, I hope my work encourages viewers to look for beauty and a sense of lightness in the darkness, the sadness or the pain.”
Working with different media, finding second life
Theresa started writing poetry when she was studying for her degree in English Literature. After taking up photography, she attended art school, where she began to work with different media. During her exchange year at the University of New Mexico, she learned basic printmaking, furthering her artistic range. Art installation, she discovered, enabled her to create immersive experiences by combining multiple expressions in one space and likened it to being an interior designer. “You get to furnish a space with your work and create exactly the feeling you want,” she enthused. In addition, working with physical materials can be “quite grounding.” When she embraced film, it allowed her to capture all the disparate media under one medium. That said, she noted, “At the end of the day, it’s about finding the right medium to tell the story you want.”
In a piece she wrote in Central Station (February 2013) about the thought process for her art installations, Theresa explained, “In my work, I collect moments and materials that have the potential to be transformed into something else.” Her fascination of butterflies, dating back to childhood, was the foundation for “What It All Boils Down To” (silk textile made from moth cocoons and human hair). The art piece was part of Suspended Animations, a solo exhibition from her residency at Studio 41 in Glasgow in which she created new life out of discarded manmade or found natural materials. As a child, she put dead butterflies that she found in matchboxes. “There’s something about their fragility that I’ve always found fascinating. One touch and you can damage their wings, but, at the same time, they are such amazing creatures,” she said. “They transform from caterpillars! The idea of the cocoon as a place of death, hibernation and rebirth is deeply fascinating to me. So I like the idea of taking something and turning it into something else. Nothing is wasted.”
Her uncle passed away the year she had installed Suspended Animations. “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly” (from Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach) was one of his favorite quotes, according to Theresa. One Christmas he gave her a green enamel butterfly brooch and a lighter green enamel pendant. Throughout the entire ceremony at his funeral an emerald moth was fixed on the church window. “To me, it was like his soul had come to say: ‘Don’t forget me, I’m still around,'” she related.
“Every time I see a butterfly or a moth, I think of him. It’s about life after death, at least in a symbolic sense,” Theresa explained. “As long as we remember people we’ve lost, they’re never truly gone. As long as we can find new purpose for something, it can have a second life.” Although she was referring to her art installation, one can see that her philosophy has come full circle to her latest creation, “The Third Dad.”
Note: You can see Theresa’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information, click here.