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True/False Conversations: 'Flying Lessons' embraces the beauty in complexity and imperfection

Philly Abe searches for a seat at a tenant meeting in "Flying Lessons."
Courtesy of Elizabeth Nichols
Philly Abe searches for a seat at a tenant meeting in "Flying Lessons."

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Festival.  Find the rest of them here.

Ten years ago, Elizabeth Nichols began filming tenant meetings in her New York apartment. That’s where she met Philly Abe, an aging artist who witnessed the explosion of New York’s vibrant underground film scene — and who was also her upstairs neighbor. It didn’t take long for Philly Abe to become the focus of Nichols’ film, and the film took another turn when Philly Abe received a cancer diagnosis. The result is "Flying Lessons," a retrospective on Philly Abe’s complex life as she approaches her death in 2018.

KBIA’s Noah Grabianski sat down with Nichols to discuss the film and her relationship with Philly. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation.

Noah Grabianski: In what year did you begin the filming process?

Elizabeth Nichols: I think it was around 2016. I had been filming a lot with the group of tenants. I was filming meetings and protests and organizing activities, and Philly was definitely a part of those, but it really took me a little while to build up the courage to ask Philly to be the main subject of this film.

And then when I finally approached her about it, she told me, “You're making the most boring effing film anyone has ever made,” because she just saw me filming meeting after meeting after meeting. And I said, “Well, you know, I'm really interested in making a film about you.” And she said, “Well, I think that's a damn good idea.” And so it got started right from that moment.

Noah Grabianski: With such a long development period, what other changes did the film go through?

Elizabeth Nichols: Oh, many. On the tenant side, there was changes to what was happening in New York City, and then with the group itself and with our landlord that were propelling the story forward. And then Philly herself, after she got her diagnosis of a terminal illness, then the story really changed, and it became something entirely different.

And after Philly passed away, I became responsible for her archive, and that's when the story took another turn. And it was just a process of archaeology, just kind of looking through the history of this woman and starting to piece together like, wow, there's so much more to this life, and there's so many connections in her work to the way that she lived when I knew her.

Noah Grabianski: You see throughout the film that Philly goes back and forth between being very charismatic and outgoing, and sometimes she's very subdued and closed off, even in front of the camera. So how did her behavior change when she was on or off camera? Did you notice any differences?

Elizabeth Nichols: I think that Philly would say that she was not a linear person. But I do think that early on in the filming, there was more of a performative quality to her presence in front of the camera. Eventually, I think things evolved in the relationship as we began to trust each other, and I stopped trying so hard to make her be one way or another and she stopped trying so hard to perform one way or another, and I think that's when things started to become really honest and we got some more vulnerable moments together.

Noah Grabianski: And knowing that this was going to be released and edited after her death, how did that change the editing process for you guys?

Elizabeth Nichols: It was challenging to think of what it would look like to finish this film without her. But you know, I recently had a dream where I was sitting down to watch the premiere of the film, it was the first time that film was going to screen publicly. And I was sitting down in the theater, and I was nervous, and you know, all of the feelings and then suddenly, Philly walks into the room.

And she sits down next to me, and I'm like, “Oh my gosh, Philly, what you're about to see, this might be really uncomfortable for you, because this is really going to show you what's gonna happen to you.” And she just turned to me and said, “This better be effing good.” I was like, that's so perfect. She definitely showed up in that moment. And so I think that in some ways, she was a part of the process. Even now, she's still a part of the process.

Noah Grabianski: What’s your personal favorite moment that’s in the film?

Elizabeth Nichols: I think my favorite moment is, we're shooting in her kitchen after - there's a there's a scene in which she's signing a check, a rent check for her landlord and she's being really funny and goofy and making this big performance, and then the energy just really shifts all of a sudden, and she gets really emotional and is expressing what it feels like to be changing in ways that really scared her.

This is this is ultimately what I was really wanting to explore was, what happens when everything around you is changing so rapidly? What happens to your own sense of self and what happens to your own sense of identity?

Noah Grabianski: What takeaways do you hope that the viewers can get from, how Philly approaches her artwork, her life and her mortality or even just the world around her?

Elizabeth Nichols: I think Philly, she was just not a perfect person. She was just so complex and beautiful in her vulnerability and rawness and was just trying to explore I think, in many ways, what it feels like to not be seen and recognized.

And I think that I want people to walk away with a little more attention to the other people that live next door to us, or down the street, or that person that we run into every day at the market that we never say hi to. I think that's just what I'd like people to take away, it's just that attention to our neighbor.

Noah Grabianski is a student producer from Palatine, Illinois studying journalism and film at the University of Missouri.
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