Every year the New York Film Festival's Projections sidebar challenges, expands and redefines the potential of what cinema can be, not to mention questioning what it actually is, through a robust selection of moving image works that wander or skirt around the edges of narrative film into territories where documentary, experimental fiction, and the so-called avant-garde coalesce into a shifting mass whose borders are constantly changing. This year’s edition was no exception, and while this was evident in its program of features—some of which have already been extensively written about in this publication—it was in its selection of shorts where this too was on view.
To loosely continue the metaphor above of films that drift around peripheries, Distancing, by Miko Revereza, is a postscript to his recent medium length travelogue No Data Plan (2019), wherein he single-handedly documented his three-day journey from Los Angeles to New York aboard an Amtrak train. It is crucial to note that Revereza is an undocumented migrant from the Philippines, a so-called Dreamer, a fact that made his status and trip across the States all the more fraught, while also undermining inherited romantic notions of cross-country travel in the U.S. In an interview with Filmatique, Revereza has said: “After this experience on the train, I honestly have very little hope for the USA. It was a huge turning point for me and at the end of this journey I was resolved that my only way forward was to leave.”
Distancing is a travel document of Reverza’s journey back to the Philippines, reflecting his desire to move forward, as he says, out of his displaced state. Shot in the warm, nestled hues of 16mm and with direct homages to Jonas Mekas and Chantal Akerman (two filmmakers who were no strangers to exile), this gracefully shot 10-minute short begins like a collection of fleeting half-memories inscribed on a fading surface, fragments of images that are cut together to create a melancholic and intimate meditation on the poignancy of leave-taking. Opening with close-ups of his grandfather lying supine with mouth agape, presumably a stroke victim, while we hear the filmmaker discuss with his grandmother the logistics of flying to Manila, Revereza’s choice of framing divides the old man’s body into singular parts, movingly focusing on details: the thin wavelet-like tufts of his hair, the worn folds of his ears and earlobes, his forehead and blue eyes staring with mild astonishment at the camera, until we see him full-faced from different angles, each shot resolving into to a tender farewell portrait. “If I ever return here, maybe he won’t be here,” Revereza muses.
As he attempts to remember in a halting voiceover the experience of first arriving in America, Revereza cuts to a montage of shots of Los Angeles International Airport and its environs at night, beautifully capturing the lonely "non-placeness" of mass transit hubs. Vague memories of a near-forgotten arrival are overwritten with new images of an imminent departure in a kind of visual palimpsest. Crowded departure gate platforms with anonymous passengers staring at flight info monitors are juxtaposed with eerily empty arrival and baggage claim halls, with Revereza especially adept at capturing the banal poetry of mechanical movement through his many shots of revolving conveyor belts without luggage (or just one stray suitcase circling around for no one to pick up), depopulated escalators and elevators, moving walkways and inter-terminal busses speeding through tunnels. Each one of these images becomes a dynamic piece of moving geometry, a rhythmic plane of diagonal, vertical, and horizontal lines that continuously change and shift. These images of things simply moving, of mechanical conveyances that carry one forward without choice or effort—an image that appears too in the form of the train in No Date Plan—become analogues to Revereza’s own position as a permanent passenger being borne forth without will. Yet the final superimposed images of Revereza filming his own legs and feet as they walk on firm ground seem to point to a new sense of arrival for him personally and as a filmmaker.
Another work of 16mm that is on the move is Simon Liu’s Signal 8, a hyper-kinetic work of psycho-geography that roams through the downtown streets and underground passageways of Hong Kong, with Liu deftly manipulating sound and image to suggest warning signs of approaching disorder to the city’s infrastructure. An aura of strangeness hovers over every image, from the opening shots of an empty mobile escalator streaked in squares of sunlight to sequences in alternating speeds of congested pedestrian crossings and empty nighttime streets with facades colored in greenish-blue light while street lamps ominously flash on and off. Every image appears to conceal something, suggesting a hidden city lurking behind the visible one: construction workers digging into underground pipelines, a closed elevator door banded with a strip of blue neon light, surreal urban water fountains cascading down restaurant windows, the rubble of a collapsed building being doused with fire hoses, slow-motion shots of crowded subway station escalators ascending and descending, the deceleration of the shots making passengers look like somnambulating citizens of a subterranean world. These are just a few of the innumerable moments spectrally glimpsed or remembered in the whirlwind flurry of images, each one bearing a message that something is in the air. Glued to each image and sequence is a complex network of dissonant sounds: metallic clangs and blaring drones, static newscaster transmissions and announcements, off-key singing, scraps of music, water flowing and falling, dial tones and shrieking alarms. Every tone is like a signal of an oncoming destabilized future, of possible end times, and disrupts our ability to organize the images into any sort general coherent meaning. The effect, though, is a definite pleasure to the eyes and ears, culminating in the dazzlingly unexpected final moments of the Hong Kong skyline all alight with multicolored fireworks while on the soundtrack we hear a cover of "Be Me My Baby."
Liu’s uncanny reimagining of the urban terrain reminds one of the works of Jem Cohen, especially the earlier films, such as This is a History of New York (1988) and Lost Book Found (1996), particularly in the way they both contract and accelerate time, their acute attention to architectural surfaces, and how they both choose to frame the city as a collection of disarrayed and mysterious fragments that suggest a layer of the city that remains unseen. But whereas Cohen’s perspective, at least in those films, is distinctly archival, Liu’s image and soundscapes point towards a foreboding future, with the city under threat from an invisible force or in the case of Hong Kong today, where mass pro-democracy protests have entered their 17th week and have caused widespread civic and structural unrest, a very real enemy.
Moving into the realm of (non)-fiction, there is Nicolás Pereda and Gabino Rodríguez’s My Skin, Luminous, in which the real and the imagination seamlessly intertwine creating a dreamscape docu-fiction in the tradition of magical realism. Shot at the rural Thomas More School in the Michoacán state in Mexico, the film opens ostensibly as a commissioned documentary by the Ministry of Education in March 2018 about the success of its "Improving Primary Schools" initiative. But it quickly becomes something much weirder when we learn of Matías, an orphaned indigenous pupil who has been quarantined from his peers upon being returned by his American adoptive parents after he loses the pigmentation of his skin. The results of this inexplicable disease have altered not only his skin color by turning him into “a white child,” so the voiceover tells us, but also fundamentally changed his behavior.
While the film proceeds along in the beginning as an ordinary documentary about the school, showing the children at recess or delivering an endearingly hilarious unprepared class presentation on water purification, the camera always manages to pick out the classroom where Matías is quarantined, a cabin designated with a large "M" sign. He becomes a present absence in the film; a source of mystification that the children use as a kind of blank canvas upon which to project their own fantasies about him. What starts out as a fly-on-the-wall documentary branches out into an ingenious fable on childhood, race and ritual; a film that freely moves between the real and the imagined by employing the various incarnations of water (rain, rivers, pools, fountains) as a unifying element to bridge those two deceptively opposite worlds.
Traces of simple stylization achieved through sharp editing are incrementally introduced into the narrative. Seemingly mundane scenes are estranged from reality, becoming projections of the children’s collective fantasies about Matías. For example, during a class exercise in which the children with their eyes closed have to think of a story about the importance of saving water, a girl named Nayeli imagines Matías's adoptive parents in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A sudden cut from the classroom shows us a series of eerie static-shots: an elderly woman wearing grotesquely oversized sunglasses in a swimming pool; a protective tarp being placed over the pool at dusk as thunder clouds fill the sky; a man standing on a front lawn staring as if lost in a trance at a grouping of shrubbery while in another shot the same woman appears hypnotized by palm trees. The artificial positioning of the two bodies, the ominous darkening of light in the sky, the distant peels of thunder, along with the soft patter of rain in an otherwise silent scene suffuse the sequence with a creepy mood of alienation, of disconnectedness, and which makes the subsequent cut to a dramatic downpour back in Mexico all the more jolting, as if some sort of transmission were occurring between the imagination and the real world with the children as vessels between the two and the rain its message.
The increasingly porous interchange between the real and the imaginary reaches its apotheosis with the arrival to the school of experimental fiction writer Mario Bellatin, who reads to the class an excerpt from his novel My Skin, Luminous, at which point the film effortlessly morphs into a wondrous dream world wherein the writer, and Matías wander through the shadowed corridors of a monastery, and bathe in a fountain whose waters contain healing powers. By the end, the film doesn’t so much abandon its documentary impulse as it wholly absorbs it into its fictional fold, thus dissolving the tenuous line that separates artifice from the actual.
Luise Donschen’s short Entire Days Together, her follow-up to her debut docu-fiction Casanova Gene (2018), is about a teenage girl attending a school for autism who is cured of her epilepsy, and spends her summer days together with her classmates and alone before she is due to start trade school. Composed of a series of single shot set-ups with the camera often low to the ground at hip level so that body parts, such as legs and elbows, are meticulously framed off-center resembling beautiful shapes in an abstract still life, Donschen places her protagonist into different, seemingly ordinary moments, either alone or with her school friends, wherein she accrues new particles of experience that minutely reshape her world. Or at least this is what is suggested by the sum total of individual tableaux scenes, all of which are radically excised of extraneous exposition. Every "scene" (if one can call them that) is like a single sentence or the beginning of a story: The girl looks out the window and sees the children playing; she learns to how to swim, floating on the surface of the pool in the shape of a starfish. Sharp cuts between shots are like slight jolts that momentarily disorientate our placement in the narrative, forcing us to suspend our assumed expectations of spatial and temporal continuity. It is an expert practice in narrative obliqueness, of how a story or even the potential of a story can evolve out of the precise withholding of information, how each scene, no matter how apparently insignificant, becomes a considerately sculpted kernel of narrative, an integral component of the film’s grammar. The cuts also rearrange our temporal orientation; the characters wear the same clothes; the sky is perpetually sun bright, but are all these events contained within the same day? Unmoored from time, it’s as if the girl, cured of her epilepsy, was now wandering through a permanent present, and every scene, from her reading about her disorder in a library to her hesitantly standing with her bicycle alongside a busy multilane road, were weighed down with the doubled sensation of discovery and anxiety about this new world she has to go through.
It’s difficult to gauge how she registers or processes her new experiences, her facial expressions lacking a palpable response, except during a scene where she and her classmates are watching a film and everybody erupts into laughter. In that same scene the teacher asks them, “And? What did you see?” and the students take turns describing in single sentences the images they saw on screen, an exercise that could easily be applied to Donschen’s film: I saw a boy peel a crab apple. I saw the legs of a girl standing by a river. The deceptive emotional blankness, the incisive editing, the model-like placement of bodies in space, along with the use of off-screen space (all in the vein of filmmakers like Bresson or Schanelec) work together to create a sense of unease, of things not appearing as they are, which makes the enigmatic final shot of the film, and its only camera movement, all the more haunting, perplexing: the camera panning to the left as it the follows the girl’s feet tentatively stepping into a river; the camera tilting upward showing a train in the distance as it crosses a bridge; the camera reversing its tracks back to its original position; the sound of flowing water and the girl suddenly gone.