POV: Why were you first drawn to Darger’s work, and what questions did it raise for you?
Jessica Yu: I first saw Henry Darger’s paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about 12 years ago, and I remember being so struck by them because they were so strange, but so beautiful. The artwork was seemingly perverse in a lot of ways, but it was presented with such innocence and a sensibility I had never seen before. Once I knew more about Darger’s story I was drawn to the fact that he was creating this work for an audience of one, himself. Something about that seemed very poignant and also very audacious, in that he was trying to create a world to live in out of his own imagination. Artists do to a certain extent, but he took it to the degree of substituting the world of his imagination for the world that he was given. I wanted to find out what that world was, where it came from and was it enough? Could he create a fulfilling life for himself out of his imagination?
POV: So you made a film that tried to answer those questions.
Yu: The film tells three parallel stories. The first one is the story of Henry Darger and his life from his own point of view. He wrote an autobiography, thank God, and that’s what we used to tell his story. Then there is the story of how he was perceived by the outside world. He was largely invisible while he was alive, so you have a fragmented view of how he was seen by his neighbors and the very few people who actually came into contact with him. And then the third story is the fiction, the story of this fantastic world where little girls are trying to fight against an army of evil men who are trying to enslave children. It’s a very biblical “Alice in Wonderland-meets-the-Old Testament” kind of story. By telling these three stories together, none of which are complete but are told in parallel, I’m hoping to present a bigger picture of who this man was, how he lived his life and what this world turned out to be for him.
Part of the whole idea of Henry Darger is that we missed our chance to know the real person. So while we can appreciate all the strange beauty of the world he created, we won’t get the final answers to what it really meant and what he was really like. When he was alive he really didn’t have any friends. There was one friend for a little while, and a few people who knew him, but he was somebody who was very isolated. It wasn’t that he was living in secrecy so much as he was creating this work with his door open, and, as a consequence of mutual indifference, no one really knew about the work. No one really cared what he was doing and he didn’t care much what the world thought.
Darger was an artist who created only for himself. And in one way, you could look at his work and ask, what’s the significance of that? But the fact is, he made a statement through his life that resonates so greatly, and so many people have been inspired by his work and his life. I think people respond to the idea of the singular voice of a person who was so clear about his creative drive that he wasn’t influenced by outside pressures. There’s a certain purity that is very rare.
POV: What kind of film did you initially set out to make?
Yu: I wasn’t trying to create a comprehensive, analytical or biographical documentary. I wanted to try to create something that would be more of an imaginative experience and hopefully more of an emotional experience. I think it would be very tough to make a biographical film about somebody like Darger because we don’t have access to the traditional materials like newsreels, family photos or home movies. His existence was so different. In a sense, the film has to be a requiem of sorts; it can’t be a clear chronological capsule of his life.
POV: Given the lack of biographical information, what convinced you that you could make this film?
Yu: When I was starting the research process, it struck me that there was so much work. Besides the 15,000 pages of his novel, there are another 15,000-odd pages of other material. There were also hundreds of paintings, battle maps and lyrics to songs. Darger was trying to make his world as tangible as he could, and it seemed natural to bring those elements together in the film.
At the same time, it is obviously taking a liberty to animate somebody else’s work, so I used the animation as a way to draw us into Darger’s world. The animation and sound design get more complex as we find out more about his life and where the themes in his fiction came from.
POV: How long did it take you to make the film?
Yu: All together the film took five years to make. For the first two years I was involved in research and creating a script for the film. Fundraising took at least three years. Once we had the funding from ITVS (Independent Television Service), we spent the last two years doing the animation and post-production. It was a very intense process, probably more intense than anything I’ve worked on before.
POV: How did you decide to use a young girl as a narrator?
Yu: As I was working on the film, I kept thinking the voice of the film should be that of a young girl. Since the heroes of Darger’s world are the Vivian Girls, these seven angelic sisters who are very brave and all-knowing and all-wise, I thought it would be amazing if the voice of the film could be someone who sounds like she is from that world. I tend not to like the authoritative adult narrator because, especially with a subject like this where there is a lot of mystery, we tend to rely on the voice of the narrator to step in and tell us what the film is about. I wanted a voice that was wise and knowing, but not dictatorial. I knew it wouldn’t work unless we found a little girl who could read with a certain amount of wisdom and solemnity. Luckily we found Dakota Fanning, who was seven years old at the time, and she was just amazing. I think she really understood this old man and the work he created.
POV: Why did you choose to tell this story as a documentary and not as a fictional narrative?
Yu: There were a couple of reasons. If we did it as a narrative film we would have had to take too many liberties and stray from the heart of what really existed. With a documentary we could explore the text that was there and all the other source material. We could find those few people who knew him. There was just so much of this tantalizing evidence that could be used in a documentary. And yet it still tells a narrative story. Documentaries are still storytelling.
POV: Did you ever feel that the search for evidence of Darger’s life was endless?
Yu: Definitely. There were times when it did feel like an archaeological dig in that he was a packrat. As a documentary filmmaker you always love it when people have drawers filled with stuff, and he had drawers that were filled with images from cartoons that he used in his paintings, old letters and receipts for typewriter repair and all these little pieces that didn’t end up making it in the film but informed our sense of who he was.
POV: What do you want the audience to take away from this film?
Yu: One thing that’s really interesting about Darger is that his world seems so strange on the surface, but if you really look at it, if you take the time to see what’s going on in it, the things he was concerned with are universal. The themes of his fiction are longing for family and community, wanting a meaningful life and wanting peace. The film is trying to help us appreciate the complexity and richness in the way he expressed that to himself. That’s what art can do — it can take a very fractured experience and draw out what’s universal in it.