Benita Raphan, Maker of Lyrical Short Films, Is Dead at 58

Her dreamlike “genius” films about figures like Emily Dickinson and Buckminster Fuller hovered between documentary and experimental cinema.,

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Benita Raphan made short experimental films about eccentric and unusual minds — like John Nash, the mathematician; Buckminster Fuller, the utopian architect; and Edwin Land, who invented Polaroid film. Her “genius” films, as they were known, are dreamlike, lyrical and suggestive. Not quite biography, they hover between documentary and experimental filmmaking. Ms. Raphan described herself as a cinematic diarist and an experimental biographer.

“Up From Astonishment” (2020), her most recent film, is about Emily Dickinson. In it, ink blooms on a page; butterflies pinwheel; there are empty bird nests, an abacus and various inscrutable shapes. Susan Howe, a poet, and Marta Werner, a Dickinson scholar, are the film’s narrators, but not really. Ms. Raphan had sampled clips from her interviews with them and used their words strategically and evocatively.

In one sound fragment, Ms. Howe says: “I can’t be called just a poet. I always have to be called an experimental poet, or difficult poet, or innovative poet. To me all good poetry is experimental in some way.”

Ms. Raphan was a poet in her own right. She died at 58 on Jan. 10 in New York City. Her mother, Roslyn Raphan, confirmed her death, which had not been widely reported at the time, but did not specify a cause.

Ms. Raphan’s films are in the permanent collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and have been shown at the Sundance and Tribeca festivals, as well as on the Sundance Channel, HBO, PBS and Channel Four in Britain. She was a Guggenheim fellow in 2019.

“Benita had a wonderful way of flipping the way we think about a biographical film,” said Dean Otto, curator of film at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky. When he was a curator at the Walker Art Center, Mr. Otto acquired four of Ms. Raphan’s films, and she donated an additional two.

“She conducted oral history interviews with people who knew the person or were moved by the work and then took that soundtrack and, using her background in graphic design, created these abstract images,” Mr. Otto said. “What she wanted to do was take you into the mind of these geniuses, imagine their thought processes and present that visually.”

Ms. Raphan told an interviewer in 2011, “I am interested in revisiting a life or a career from the very start, from the beginning; the basic concept as initial thought, as an impulse, as an ineffable compulsion, an intuition; to reframe and reinvent an action as simple as one pair of hands touching pencil to paper.”

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Moments from “Absence Stronger Than Presence,” Ms. Raphan’s 1996 film about Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid film.Credit…via Raphan family
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Credit…via Raphan family

Ms. Raphan was born on Nov. 5, 1962, in Manhattan. Her mother, Roslyn (Padlowe) Raphan, was an educator; her father, Bernard Raphan, was a lawyer.

She grew up on the Upper West Side and graduated from City-as-School, an alternative public high school at which students design their own curriculums based on experiential learning, mostly through internships. (Jean-Michel Basquiat was an alumnus, as is Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys.) Ms. Raphan interned with Albert Watson, the fashion photographer.

Her mother described Ms. Raphan as an “irregular verb.”

“She saw things through a different lens,” she said. “Benita could take something ordinary and find beauty in it. She was the real deal. No artifice about her. The heart was right out there.”

Ms. Raphan earned an undergraduate degree in media arts from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan — where she also taught for the last 15 years — and an M.F.A. from the Royal College of Art in London. She spent 10 years in Paris, working as a graphic designer for fashion companies like Marithe & Francois Girbaud, before returning to New York in the mid-1990s.

In addition to her mother, she is survived by her sister, Melissa Raphan.

“While the rest of us were stealing from our instructors and other design luminaries,” said Gail Anderson, a creative director and former classmate of Ms. Raphan’s, “Benita was on her own journey, working with delicate typography and haunting images, creating collages and photo-illustrations that were uniquely Benita.”

Ms. Raphan was, in her own estimation, more of a collage artist than a filmmaker. “Her films are really collages of ideas,” said Kane Platt, a film editor who worked on many of her projects. “Working with her you had a lot of freedom, and if you had ideas that were weird and wacky, she was like, ‘Go, go, go!'”

She was also, Mr. Platt said, the consummate hustler. “I’ve never met anyone like her,” he said. “It was all on a shoestring. She would trade, she would barter, whatever was necessary.”

He and others donated their work on her films, though she always offered to pay. (For “Absence Stronger Than Presence,” her film about Edwin Land, she persuaded the actor Harvey Keitel to provide the voice-over, and sent a chauffeur-driven limousine to pick him up for the recording session.) She found ways to be generous in return.

ImageMs. Raphan in 2019, the year she was named a Guggenheim fellow.
Ms. Raphan in 2019, the year she was named a Guggenheim fellow. Credit…Declan Van Welie

“She was able to bring together some very talented people,” said Marshall Grupp, one of her mentors, a sound designer and co-owner of Sound Lounge, an audio postproduction company. “Even though she had no money, she did whatever she needed to do to make it happen. I think people are attracted to that. I adored her.

“She thanked me for everything,” he continued; “I don’t think people do that in this industry. Her thank-you notes came wrapped in beautiful envelopes, in a bag with colored paper. The idea of her showing appreciation in small and significant ways meant a lot. She had a lot of humanity, and that came through in her work.”

At her death, Ms. Raphan was working on a film about animal behavior. Since adopting a behaviorally challenged dog from a shelter years ago, she had been fascinated by the workings of the canine mind.

“Benita was a gleaner,” the filmmaker Alan Berliner said. “She was very much an urban anthropologist. She had a knack for finding things — or letting things find her. She walked her dog several times a day and knew her neighborhood very well; she knew who threw things out and where. Her films are filled with many of the strange and surprising objects she often found — the carved head of a dog; an old typewriter; a teapot; an old notebook. They lent her films a kind of unpredictability and surreal quality.”

Mr. Berliner added: “Her films were not so much about their subject as they were about the issues they evoked. They’re filled with hints of things, synaptic touches that trigger thoughts. Sometimes I thought of her as a scientist in an artist’s body. She was always interested in the mystery of things.”

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