Slamdance 2023 Interview: Lydia Cornett on Combining Body and Soul in “Fleshwork”

Butchery has never been known as an elegant profession, but the skill and grace involved shouldn’t be overlooked. The work of preparing specific cuts of meat by hand involves both an intense focus and a certain disassociation when it involves dismembering the body of another species, a dichotomy that unsurprisingly piqued the interest of Lydia Cornett, a filmmaker who has consistently shown a curiosity about the way people engage with the world, sometimes having to compartmentalize their experience in order to thrive, whether it was the Haitian-born musician Yves Deshommes of her 2020 short “Yves & Variation” who works as a doorman in New York to make ends meet, or the quartet of women that find their calling in “Bug Farm,” putting down roots in Central Florida after rifling through other careers.

It is an unspoken part of the beauty of Cornett’s latest short “Fleshwork” that the director has reconciled her own professional pursuits, not only behind the camera for the film but scoring it as well, drawing on her original plans to be a violinist before diving into observational documentary. The nimble plucking of strings in parallel with long strides of the bow magnificently reflects the complicated relationship that the employees at Heffelfinger’s Meat Market in Ohio might not fully be capable of articulating themselves, couching any pride they have in the precision of their work or the service they provide in the knowledge of its public perception. (As one says, it’s more comfortable to call himself a “meat processor.”) With the film shot in stark black-and-white with bursts of red occasionally overwhelming the square frame, Cornett cleverly finds a way to acknowledge the grisly business yet leave judgment about its ethics to an audience and allow for an appreciation of the labor involved.

With “Fleshwork” set for a premiere this weekend at Slamdance, following by online availability through the festival from January 23rd through 29th, Cornett graciously took the time to talk about her addition to a canon that stretches back to the earliest days of cinema in making a film about the work of meat processing, embracing the style that a Bolex camera would bring and the excitement of pulling her musical and filmmaking skills together for a duet.

How did this come about?

I had been living in Columbus, Ohio since 2020 and a friend introduced me to Heffelfinger’s Meat Market, which is a farmer-operated and family-owned butcher shop located in Jeromesville, Ohio, about halfway between Columbus and Cleveland. Rick Heffelfinger, the owner of the facility, has an interest in young people learning about careers in meat processing, so he welcomed me into the space with my Bolex camera. One of the initial motivations for the project was a technical goal of wanting to work with and understand the legacy of 16 millimeter film in experimental cinema. I remember talking with two of the meat processors, Luke and Matt, about how the footage would be in black and white, which they were really excited by. But as I continued visiting the space, I was really struck by the dynamic movement and coordination I witnessed, as well as the way that these different types of bodies existed in relationship to one another.

At one point in the film, you ask one of the butchers, “Does it feel like artwork?” when the butcher says that he feels like an artist. Was that actually a parallel you were thinking of beforehand or recognized on the spot?

I think growing up with two working musician parents instilled this conceptual fusion of work as art and art as work. In my filmmaking, I’ve been interested in this interchangeability of expression and exertion, whether with a concierge who practices violin during his shifts (“Yves & Variation”) or insect farmers who see themselves as caretakers to crickets (“Bug Farm”). I was aware of the popularity of meat processing in cinema throughout the 20th century: films like Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” Frederick Wiseman’s “Meat” and even Georges Franju’s “Blood of the Beasts come to mind.” But I was less interested in making a commentary on industrialization than focusing on the real craftsmanship I witnessed, from the knifework required to make these really specific cuts of meat to the precise knowledge of the anatomy of cow and pig bodies. It was also a reason for choosing to shoot in black-and-white. The lack of color makes the shots of the carcasses appear bloodless, which I think makes the subject matter easier to consider as an art form rather than [eliciting] any kind of knee-jerk reactions that a viewer might have to seeing red meat.

It’s striking how you still don’t relieve the viewer of what they’re seeing however in how you use the color red throughout in setting up the black-and-white footage, or how you’ll bring in split screens to see the process. Did you know what the film might look like while you were shooting?

I definitely wasn’t positive how the film might take shape until getting the footage developed, which was weeks and weeks after shooting. The edit also went through many iterations, and it finally came together with the eye of the film’s consulting editor, Sean Weiner. I did always know that I wanted the film to move between individual gestures and a choreography of bodies. That’s where something like the triptych was really useful– it immerses the viewer in the multiple processes that occur simultaneously in the space. [With] the red flare, I wanted to strike a balance between creating images with an aesthetic quality, but also not erasing that fact that we are looking at meat for consumption – a product that once was a living, breathing animal, much like ourselves.

Before this, your films have had the unmediated feel of verite. Was this interesting to play with when you knew it’d have more imposed style on it?

This was a film where I wanted to push my subjective experience of the material a bit more than in past work. One way I really wanted to lean into that was through the creation of the score that I composed. I was interested in the French composition movement of musique concrète, which utilizes recorded sounds as raw material. When I listened to the field audio that I recorded in the butcher shop, I found these individual melodic and percussive lines that I could pair with sounds that I created from my violin, an instrument that I’ve spent a lot of time with. The filmmaker and video artist Cauleen Smith often talks about the importance of sound in her video work – she says that it’s the sound that really makes you feel what images are doing, not the images themselves. That really aligned with my experience in editing the film and responding to it with a naturalistic score. To me, the music not only changes the distance between myself and the meat processors, but it also brings my perspective to this space that might otherwise feel very male and inaccessible, making me more of a curious converser rather than a voyeur.

It really came out beautifully. What’s it like to bring to Slamdance?

Thank you! It means a lot for the film to premiere at Slamdance, a festival that really honors and champions the DIY spirit. It gets harder and harder to try new things as you get older and sometimes you want to stick to what has worked well in the past. But it was exciting to push myself to make something new in form and process. I’m starting to compose for other filmmakers’ films, which is its own fascinating collaborative experience, and that’s all come out of making “Fleshwork.” So it feels like a pretty exciting creative moment where I’m able to integrate my musical background more fully with my filmmaking.

“Fleshwork” will screen at the Slamdance Film Festival at the Treasure Mountain Inn on January 21st at 3 pm and January 25th at 11:15 am. It will be available virtually from January 23rd through 29th.

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