You Were an Amazement on the Day You Were Born is a visually rich film that follows a woman through a life characterized by damage and loss, but in which she finds humor, love, and joy. With a score that follows the span of Lenore’s life, from her birth in the early 70s to her death in the 2040s, the film takes us from moments of harrowing loss to those of poignancy and dark humor. Her life is told through voice over, narrated by performers who range in age from nine to sixty-nine, and is beautifully illustrated with images of animals (including humans), insects and landscapes.
We have been including images of animals in our work for the last 25 years. It’s such a preoccupation that it’s often the thread that curators and critics weave into their programming. Sometimes we make them speak with human voices, and people ask us why. The answer we used to give was that viewers were more willing to see animals as worthy of love, so could tolerate their confessions and abjection better than they could from people. Now we are a bit more ambivalent about using animals explicitly as screens upon which we can project human foibles. It’s part of a broader concern with understanding the mechanics and utility of empathy. We question now who it serves and what it implies to confer agency upon an unknown other, to profess to empathize with it or them.
Regardless of this ambivalence, we continue to make and devour images of animals unabated, but work to make it clear that the animal is being held up as a pocket-mirror to the human subject.
The film is told in second person: an epistle from an unseen, benevolent narrator unpacking for Lenore the events of her life. Near the end of the film, the narrator says:
For decades, you’ve returned to the question: what does it mean to be a self? This, you think, is what it’s like to be an unpopular kid; to be punk; to be bulimic; to barely control your mind; to disappoint your mother; to be a girl; to prostitute oneself; to have madness.
Then, you start noticing not only the slings and arrows flung against you, but those flung in your favor: This is what it’s like to be Canadian, you think. To be loved. To stride over uneven ground instead of stumbling. This is what it’s like to come from a nation that has not known war on its soil in your lifetime, nor your parents’, nor your grandparents’. In fact, the only war waged on the land you call your own was waged—and won—by you, by your forbearers.
And yet still, the battle rages inside you against suicidal fantasies, and loneliness, and imagined slights.
How, if it’s this hard to be a person like you, does anyone else make it at all?