From Anas Nin to Audre Lorde and Sylvia Plath, female authors have kept diaries for decades, divulging their innermost desires, turmoils, and daily experiences. These chronicles of female subjectivity expose the beauty and ugliness of womanhood, which we are often compelled to conceal. From illness and mortality to sexual encounters and time spent with friends, diaries serve as both a personal time capsule and a form of catharsis.
As Anne Charlotte Robertson confronted severe mental health issues, including eating disorders and manic depression with schizoaffective tendencies, diaries became her primary means of survival. However, instead of a stylus and paper, Robertson used a Super 8 camera to record her adult life. While attending the University of Massachusetts Boston, Robertson began producing short films such as Pixillation, an abstract self-portrait that alternates between segments of her face, time-lapsed images of the sky, and a monumental brick structure.
1979 saw the release of her shocking short film Suicide, an intense response to her suicidal impulses. “As I watched the film, the voices in my consciousness stopped, and they haven’t returned since,” Roberston explained. “I made a film about suicide illustrating some of the ways I thought I’d kill myself, edited it in roughly an hour and a half, and screened it. Robertson’s camera became her savior and a means of processing her complex interior world.
She soon began filming herself as she experienced breakdowns, love affairs, intimate moments, and heartbreaks, among other occurrences, to document her daily life. The term radical best describes much of Robertson’s work. Although she wasn’t the first filmmaker to use her camera as a diary, she adopted a novel approach by highlighting typically unseen aspects of female life while openly expressing her mental health struggles. Robertson’s most notable accomplishment is the 2,160-minute film Five Year Diary, released in 1997. Filming began in 1981 and consisted of 83 Super 8 segments, to which she added voiceovers describing many of the on-screen events. Occasionally, these vocal additions conflict with the audio accompanying the videos, resulting in a chaotic blending of emotions that reflects Robertson’s mental state.
Robertson displays the complexities of (female-experienced) mental illness through her forthright documentation of herself in various states. For many viewers of Robertson’s work, her vulnerability and remarkable perseverance provide solace. She was self-aware, using the camera as a tool for change in her own life; she subsequently stated that by documenting her emotions and obsessions, she assisted in curing her depression.
Robertson displayed and encouraged audience members to peruse her written chronicles at screenings of her films (Five Year Diary has only been shown in its entirety a handful of times). She wanted people to be immersed in her universe, so she exhibited her reels in a more intimate setting than a traditional cinema or gallery.
In addition to her Five Year Diary, Robertson recorded other snippets of her life, such as Depression Focus Please, which she once described as “sufficient to vignette the nuances of my sadness.” The short film is one of the most affecting depictions of depression, with Robertson’s passionate voiceover asking, “How could I want to kill myself when everything is so darn beautiful?” She photographs vehicles and streets while musing, “Everything seems a bit filthy to me… I feel twisted up.” Depression Focus Please is an immensely candid snapshot that will never leave the viewer’s mind. It is a jumble of contradictions, fuzzy images of unexpected beauty, and vulnerable declarations of the harsh realities of suffering from severe mental illness.
Robertson’s videos paved the way for the vlogging phenomenon that dominated the internet in the 2010s. However, that would be an affront to Robertson’s talent. Robertson edited her reels with great artistry while she filmed herself doing mundane tasks, such as propping up the camera to capture herself and another person eating or conversing (as many vloggers do). The thick 8mm texture imbues each frame with a sense of melancholy, with each image precisely woven into the next. Robertson’s practice is devoid of self-indulgence despite the fact that she is the primary subject of her work. Instead, Robertson reveals herself with humor and melancholy, with the camera serving as her companion and guide.