Alumni Watch: Abigail Child '68

The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is often heard. Yet very few people can harness a thousand words’ worth of potential from a single image. Abigail Child ’68 is one exception.

Child is a director of short films, a genre that suggests a trimming down of the plot, character development, and thematic material of full-length movies. Yet her 20-minute and 40-minute shorts resonate as strongly as anything longer, mainly because of her unique filmmaking style.

Combining elements of montage, documentary, and the avant-garde, she creates subtexts where none previously existed, stories where they may not have been found, and symbols out of everyday occurrences, seeking to give her audiences “pleasure and cognition… wonder, skepticism, beauty” and more.

“In her films,” writes Tom Gunning in his foreword to Child’s book This Is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics Of Film, “images, sound and words are all treated as plastic matter, open to re-arrangement, liberated from predetermined meaning, and embarked on adventures in ambiguity and discovery.”

Such liberation and adventures are certainly the case with Ms. Child’s most recent film, “The Future Is Behind You” (2004), a short that turns unidentified family photos from pre-WWII Germany into a story of Child’s own creation. The film will be shown on Nov. 10 as part of Balagan Shorts, a series of short films sponsored by the 17th Annual Boston Jewish Festival.

“Out of fragments, films of bodies in a domestic space, there was resonant public history,” Child says of the process of devising the film. “I wanted to trace this complex: at once biographical and fictive, detective and psychological.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the new film is that it features music by noise-jazz pioneer John Zorn. “He is a friend and colleague, and I am a fan,” she said when asked about including his work in the film.

Child studied at Radcliffe College in the ’60s, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in history and literature. Originally intending to become a documentary filmmaker, she began to shoot short films in the early ’70s.

Her other films over the years include “B-Side” (1996), a montage about homelessness and extreme poverty in downtown New York in the ’90s, and “Is This What You Were Born For?” (1981-89), a witty yet deeply affecting series of experimental shorts. Her works have won her countless honors over the years, including Guggenheim Foundation and Fulbright Fellowships. Many of her films are in the permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, one of the world’s premier modern art museums.

This year, she was appointed to a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute. She hopes to finish a planned trilogy on suburbia and the American dream, to continue writing, and to “create a multiple image installation” at Agassiz Theatre in Radcliffe Yard.

“The Future Is Behind You” will be presented at the Coolidge Corner Theatre Movie House II, at 9:30 p.m. on November 10.