To Live was adapted from the novel Bid Me To Live (written 1933-50, published 1960) by the poet Hilda Doolittle, usually known as H.D., and shot in houses occupied by military families on Governors Island, NYC, from the 1770s to the 1960s. The film is narrated by Julia Ashton, who lives on the fringes of a war, removed from its immediate impact; but inevitably the war infects every aspect of her life. The husband who leaves to fight in the war is not the husband who comes back; but neither is she the same woman he left. She has miscarried, and been told she is “susceptible to shock” and should not have another child “until the war is over.” Her mind spirals around two traumas – the loss of the child and the loss of her marriage, which disintegrates as husband and wife become ever more estranged. To Live presents its narrative to the viewer as almost completely internalized. The only sound heard is the voice of a single narrator, recounting her past from an undefined present, in a circular text that spirals ever closer and closer to the source of her trauma. The images also use patterns of repetition with difference to show us four different women, who may all be aspects of the narrator, or different women having similar experiences, enacting abstracted versions of the narrative’s scenes in spaces that superficially resemble those described in the text, but which (reflecting the emotional state of the narrator) are abandoned and decaying. Julia is also an unreliable narrator in the literary sense; she is both speaking and fleeing her memory, writing and re-writing it, presenting us with multiple versions of the same events, sometimes within a single breath.
Essentially, To Live is about the state of siege, the suspension and postponement engendered by waiting for a war to be over – how dancing on what H.D. calls the “last-straw edge of everything” makes us strangers, not only to each other, but also to ourselves – and the inroads this state makes on our ability to love and live. To Live poses two questions with eerie resonance in our present-day environment of endless and ambiguously defined wars. How much are we willing to give up while we wait for a war to be over? And what happens if the war never ends?
To Live is performed by Evelyna Dann, Erin Ellen Kelly, Mariam Ghani, and Ophra Wolf, and narrated by Ghani. The video is part of the series Performed Places, and like other projects in that series was produced in collaboration with choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly in response to specific sites, in this case during a joint LMCC Swing Space residency on Governors Island. To Live is also part of Notes on Collapse, a series of projects about war, trauma, collapse, and recovery. Finally, To Live is part one of a projected trilogy based on H.D.’s writing about her experiences during the two World Wars, her analysis with Freud in between the wars, and her engagement with spiritualism after the second war.