Anne Charlotte Robertson’s Five Year Diary (1981–1997)

by James Waters

There’s an old aphorism that states: “a problem shared is a problem halved”. What’s been cleaved from this problem – and its subsequent phantom limb – is essential. It is the home of Anne Charlotte Robertson. Her decades long-journaling calcifies with the thirty-seven-hour Five Year Diary, shot in the small-gauge 8mm film format that was her métier. This practice maintained dietary regimes, exercise and mental health check-ups. It became, inevitably, a document of narrative ruptures. Initial reels feel strained and inhibited (Robertson is telling the camera about the many medicines she’s tried and prolonged visits to psych wards). In returning to the camera, she risks reducing her lived experience to an institutionalised format – but Robertson’s cinema, unbound by a diary’s margins, exists in a realm with a horizon line, facilitating the something within the distance.

What was experienced can only be conveyed via a fragment from these sixteen years. The titular Five Years, like the fractured routines the diary depicts, won’t be bound to a standard temporal logic. Instead, they represent the memories that remain. “I got into Hell again today,” Robertson remarks. From the outset, hers is an Orphean project of retrieval. Except, only within Robertson’s work is this Orphic gaze given a monotonous bent. That Robertson can routinely reach the edges of reality is a given. What matters is the return, the confessions of someone who has made it to the other side and professes fatigue, a constant reminder she relays to the camera – until one day, in a reel untitled, she stops.


“It’s more than keeping the audience interest up, it’s like developing your mind,” says a professor from Robertson’s alma mater, MassArt, in Reel 26. The previous 25 reels play in time-lapse as a conversation between Robertson and her advisors provides voiceover. It’s a reprieve from insular, stream-of-conscious journaling – a simultaneous check-up and affirmation that the sixteen-year project is underway. Reels prior flit by, the mental baggage tossed scrupulously aside to maintain a capacity for further introspection. The advisor’s comment doesn’t refer to a literal audience – much like the titular Five Years, it is figurative. What he refers to as a “developing” mind foments Robertson’s already nascent self-sufficiency; reverse-engineering the inner monologue into an outer dialogue. Robertson replies: “Always about keeping the audience interest up … well, my audience … I want to be able to see it three times at least.” Elsewhere in Reel 26 we see her at a Steenbeck, editing away in a time-lapse, lit by both a flickering lamp and an adjacent window, its reflected glow blackening. Many new dawns were sacrificed at this Steenbeck’s altar – something that, again, runs the risk of sapping lived experience of its worth.

But the filming Robertson and living Robertson develop a dialectic. See Reel 47: a butter knife protrudes from the bottom of the frame, wobbling in and out of focus as Robertson wields it in the same hand she uses for her camera, scraping butter across a piece of toast held in her other, free hand. The routine of filmmaking and domesticity become both distinct and complementary as she communicates – above all – a sustenance to the camera. At first glance this daily passage lost is one gained for the diary’s splintered chronology, yet the proficiency with which Robertson wields both artistic and domestic tools troubles that binary. Powell’s camera of a Peeping Tom is inversed; stalking is traded for rabid introspection (there is now only oneself to stalk) and his murder weapon blunted, now a butter knife. The semiotics of cinema bemuse the exiled artist’s M.O., wherein the camera is merely an unspoken necessity. The dual wielding of camera/butter knife permits an unfolding action to exist without pretense, a resourcefulness that briefly wrests the cameras gaze out of the world of cinema and into the world, proper. Crucially, the two are seen – not exclusively – but as distinct.

This image of a butter knife and camera is something new, as the former is seen, the latter felt. This is the image of the exiled artist, an image that’s partially missing, existing in the cinephilic land of nod. Getting there demands one to begin twice; to begin with a structural absence. This absence – this “something missing” – also describes an untapped potential, the space wherein the aforementioned “more” can percolate. Back to Reel 26 and within it one of Robertson’s supervisors (Saul Levine, perhaps?) compares her work to Carolee Schneemann’s Plumb Line, yet can’t help but stress the more-ness of it, space within it that is both something missing – a void – and readily available. A vacant realm with no effect after cause. This vacuum is absent from Schneemann’s work, the paradoxical absence being; something missing is missing.


“All of life is sufficing.”
Robertson’s diary, 1967 (age 18)

The bags under her eyes sink deeper, though her face is otherwise unchanged. There’s talk of a newfound faith and an immense fear of god. She grows afraid to speak, as though – if she were to open her mouth – an unknown spirit would sneak its way in. The diary’s size ignites this fear, bolstered by unstable voiceover that both guides and refutes the proceedings. When we speak of the diary’s size, we mustn’t refer to its duration nor framing. Instead, we must speak of the increased space that can be tread by its ever-dexterous operator, as her two gazes (I & other) synthesise. As Bonnard says, “this vision is mobile”; the tripod is replaced with a hand, we as viewers see this increasing mobility.
At any given point, three layers of audio will drown out the images: direct sound captured while filming, cassette v/o recorded while editing, and v/o recorded later, in the mid-’90s. The latter recordings replicate the screenings in which Robertson performed live commentary over the most recently completed reels. The technique is the most brute-force literalisation of journaling: one can hear Robertson obliterating each thought with the lick of a pen, making room for the next – hopefully, truer – sentence. The paper diary reinvents itself as a soundtrack, a rebellious jukebox’s gargles, playing only for itself.

Suddenly, there comes a phrase that is irrefutable: “I was nearly raped at the hospital”. Heard in Reel 23, the candour baked into this sentence resembles Reel 27’s boardroom meeting. Robertson’s register when uttering the above is stumbled upon in a way that doesn’t suggest intent as much as necessity. Although said to herself, the confession is spoken neither as a reassurance nor as a reminder. Instead, the diary’s auditory feeds have allowed Robertson to speak as a listener. The physical self-sufficiency shown when dual wielding a butter knife and camera is mirrored here within the confessional, through Robertson’s lifelong practice of sufficing. A temporary space has been created by and for herself, and suddenly the sixteen year-long project has reaped a lapse in consciousness.
Reel 83 (Untitled) ends without a conclusion. Robertson now weighs over 237 pounds and insists she must get down to well below this weight. We see her standing next to score cards that go from 237 to 232, interspersed – between each dwindling number – with footage of her mother’s garden. All is silent as the interspliced footage lessens the weight Robertson has carried. Finally, this is a cinema that nourishes and deprives simultaneously, within the perpetually unoccupied space of the exile.


Some parts of Robertson’s archive will remain unavailable until 2023 under the conditions in her will. The significance of this request – and of the year 2023 – are unclear. Per Robertson’s trips to hell, she imparts the belief that one can’t die too many times. It is she, after all, who asked: “Nobody wants to live forever? Why not?”