Here we go again.
Festival time. Why do we put ourselves through this? All so we can make semi-coherent pronouncements on The Year in Film? So that when the Oscar bloggers come crawling out of their holes each September, hoping to see their gold-plated shadows, we can say that we were somewhere else, appreciating the true art of the medium? Why not? Someone has to hold fast against the all-consuming law of the market. Wavelengths is as good a place as any to make a stand in favor of the contrarianism of beauty and rage.
But how do you define a year in cinema? Each year, film festivals, both major and minor, go through hundreds upon hundreds of selections and submissions, taking into account all sorts of criteria: relative importance of the films in question; the local taste of the audience; due diligence to certain studios, donors, and sales agents who expect to see a big property here, some red carpet action there. In the midst of all this, we get The Year in Cinema, a snapshot of an evolving art form.
When I was younger and more idealistic, I didn’t take all of those extrinsic factors into account, and I would be a bit perplexed as to why the “best films” did not necessarily make it into TIFF year after year. (Never mind the fact that my definition of the “best” is highly personal and certainly fallible.) I think I now have a better sense of just how much effort and negotiation goes into what the public finally sees.
And in light of this, I have an even greater appreciation for what Wavelengths programmer Andréa Picard accomplishes year after year. Her good taste and intuition is always impressive. And she does have some help: this year’s Wavelengths features programming contributions from several sharp sets of eyes, including Jesse Cumming, Giovanna Fulvi, Steve Gravestock and Kiva Reardon. But the fact that Picard manages to assemble such exquisite programs, and create a section that feels handcrafted and focused, rather than the result of various difficult choices and occasional compromises, speaks volumes about Andréa’s steady stewardship. It isn’t easy, but she makes it look like it is.
And after all, time itself is the ultimate compromise, and the most unforgiving criterion. Some years, there aren’t as many good films as we’d like there to be, and other years there are entirely too many. But Wavelengths is solid, regardless of the overall lay of the land. That’s because good programming winnows away at an embarrassment of riches, or explores the often-forgotten margins of the margins, all in order to present quality and to craft coherence—to shape “the year in cinema.” That’s what Andréa does.
But cinema, lest we forget, is merely a subset of life. Mortality defines being human, and sadly it defines this year in avant-garde film as well. We mourn the loss of two filmmakers, Paul Clipson and Robert Todd, whose lives ended far too soon. This piece is dedicated to them.
1986 Summer (Toshio Matsumoto, Japan, 1986)
A recently rediscovered gem, 1986 Summer is easily one of the highlights of this year’s program. Matsumoto, who passed away last year, was one of the absolute greats of Japanese experimental film, and although he is still best known in the West for his 1969 feature film Funeral Parade of Roses, 1986 Summer displays exactly what he could accomplish with the short form.It’s perfectly constructed, tight and meticulous, operating according to an unassailable internal logic.
Using in-camera, frame-by-frame editing, Matsumoto superimposes hyperactive medium shots of foliage with continual zooms in onto a piece of bland institutional architecture seen from various elevation points. The shots of leaves have a matte, graphic quality to them, with the sum backlighting them for definition. The building, with beige bricks and a turret (presumably a stairwell), acts as a foil for the relative chaos of nature.
In small flickers, we can catch a glimpse of a woman standing between the building and the trees. If Matsumoto had lingered on her too long, the ideal balance would have been thrown off, as it sometimes is in his films, with their emphasis on performance values over formal rigor. Here, the artist finds that less really is more, having produced a work that feels like a long-lost cousin to the films of Rose Lowder and Daïchi Saïto.
Ada Kaleh (Helena Wittmann, Germany)
Ada Kaleh was an island on the Danube that was part of present-day Romania. Primarily the home to Romanian Turks, the island was submerged in 1970 as a result of the Iron Gates Hydroelectric project. Given that Helena Wittmann’s new film does not take place underwater, we can understand quite clearly that she intends the title as a metaphor. This is an incredibly subtle piece of cinema, and if you look closely, you can observe seismic change happening at an almost imperceptible rate.
The film opens with shots of a plastered wall, mostly purple with large patches of gold that resemble continents on a map. A voiceover in Chinese tells of young people who went looking for imagined places, repeating a song verse over and over—one that describes the discrepancies between practical and passionate living. “They didn’t trust the dichotomies,” the voiceover states, “but still they could find themselves between the lines.”
At this point, the main segment of Ada Kaleh begins, a series of left and right pans that articulate what appears to be a college dorm room or the shared apartment of a group of young, college-age adults. In the second pan, we see the four of them at a table in the kitchen drinking. This will be the only time we see them all together. As the shot continues to the left, we see someone else, isolated and smoking in an adjacent room. This figure seems to be a harbinger, since this group of friends will spend the rest of the film coming apart in various ways.
Amidst the first-apartment accouterments (randomly hanging clothes, a Dalí poster, candles, empty bottles), we see the various individuals in different states: packing, going through boxes, in bed together. We don’t know if coupling has driven two of the friends away, or if there have been the usual fallings-out. Wittmann doesn’t want us to know. Instead we are witnessing change as a purely material event, dictated by the movement of objects, plants, camera, and light. In the final shot, we see the apartment and its contents reflected in a pane of glass, as one final pan seems to indicate that the entire scenario has divided against itself, everything moving in some new, unforeseen direction.
The Air of the Earth in Your Lungs (Ross Meckfessel, U.S. / Japan)
This is one of the most perplexing films in the lineup for me, and it took me three viewings to really get a bead on it. But in retrospect this makes perfect sense. Meckfessel’s film lights on many different topics and attitudes, but above all it is about the disfigurement of nature and the post-humanist loss of linear identity. Little does one realize that the beginning of The Air of the Earth, when we see someone at a triple-terminal playing a first-person simulation game, we are watching the artificial world at its most conventional and coherent.
We see a trip down a river being mediated by selfie sticks, men in robot suits dancing to Kanye, but things only build to a crescendo once Meckfessel introduces drone cameras and their unique form of vision. Ordinary shots of the natural world are “smeared” to resemble the movement of Google Earth; an image of green space is digitally fractured like a shattered glass, a kind of Italian Futurist pseudo-landscape; and eventually the trees, ground, and sky are whizzing by like a stop/start, all-electronic La Région Centrale 2.0.
Part of The Air of the Earth was shot in Japan, where many of these radical technologies are adopted early. (The expo where we see a fleshy robot hand next to a spokesmodel’s only slightly more human looking appendage is suitably creepy.) But it could have been made in many other places, because Meckfessel’s point is more historical than geographical. In The Railway Journey, Wolfgang Schivelbusch explained that after seeing the landscape rush by out of a train window, people’s relationship to nature was forever changed. Likewise, we will never be able to unperceive drone logic and its absolute fragmentation. We are now machines that see. A tree is the blur you swerve around. The ocean is a glittering basin of light.
Alice (Maria Lassnig, U.S., 1974)
The late Austrian painter Maria Lassnig made a series of four cine-portraits in the 1970s, collectively known as the “Soul Sisters” films, which have only recently re-emerged. (This is due in large part of the painstaking restoration efforts of two former students of Lassnig, Hans Werner Poshauko and Mara Mattuschka.) Alice is one of these films. What begins as a semi-classical nude of a young Icelandic artist and recent transplant to NYC soon becomes quite unconventional, as Lassnig provides poetic narration and, most notably, directs Alice to spritz her body with diluted red ink using an atomizer. The effect is that of a cherubic redhead coating her body in red wine, a ludic act of wry gluttony.
ALTIPLANO (Malena Szlam, Chile / Argentina / Canada)
Szlam’s ALTIPLANO is a complex film, although it’s possible to be distracted from its meticulous construction by its radiant, almost impossible beauty. Shot in 16mm, blown up to 35, ALTIPLANO is composed of multi-temporal landscapes, superimpositions created in-camera to depict a particular place across minutes, hours, ages. Szlam shot the film in traditional lands of Northern Chile and Northwest Argentina, in the Andean Mountains. Combining multiple views of the hillscape under varying light conditions—sometimes umber or orange-red, occasionally goldenrod or midnight blue—Szlam produces a film that resembles electric sand painting, with intersecting strata of horizon, each with its unique luminosity.
At times, the sky flickers, as if light and color were merely suggestions that could be withheld at will. At other moments, she provides equally startling Cubist views of the moon, flowing water, and igneous rock. With the shift of aperture or light condition, a blue river turns blood red. Salt crystals gleam, first illuminating the landscape and then menacing it, threatening to fry its image with searing light. (As Szlam mentions in her program notes, this is an area that has experienced ecological crisis at the hands of big business.) These passages are choreographed to a musique concrete soundtrack composed of, among other things, whale song and the gurglings of an active volcano. ALTIPLANO is one of the year’s most indelible films, and should not be missed.
ante mis ojos (Lina Rodriguez, Colombia / Canada)
After making two acclaimed feature films, Lina Rodriguez still has the painterly sensitivity to create a work like ante mis ojos, a tactile Super-8 landscape study focused on Colombia’s Guatavita Lake. Working from multiple perspectives, Rodriguez shows us the mountains that encircle the lake, then the dense foliage surrounding it, and finally the lake itself. The resulting procession of imagery reads like a series of core samples of a sacred atmosphere, the grainy small-gauge image capturing the shadowy titration of amber light, the pink strains of sundown, and the think slate-greens of vegetation at dusk. The mountain is flat and imposing, Cézanne-like in its ambiguous space. And then as we arrive at the lake, we see Rodriguez’s camera slowly describe an arc around its lip, a basin defined by trees. Through it all we hear the whistle of birds in the background. This is a film about being enveloped by a place apart, one that is vast and multiple.
ARENA (Björn Kämmerer, Austria)
There is an irony at work in the title of Kämmerer’s latest film, his first in crisp, ravishing 70mm. The film is actually shot from the arena, looking out at the surrounding seats, and so as a work of cinema, it redoubles our own position as viewers even as it triangulates the screen. The screen, meanwhile, is largely flattened by the procession of proscenium seating, rather than serving its usual function as the location of a faux-three-dimensional surrogate for the arena space. In a sense, we are watching our own absence—a kind of axiom of film theory playing out in real time.
But this isn’t all Kämmerer is up to. You might initially perceive ARENA as simply a right-to-left tracking shot across the stadium seats. But look more closely, and you’ll observe spatial anomalies. There’s a curvature to the shot, an arc that recalls Kämmerer’s earlier film Navigator (featured in Wavelengths 2015), not to mention a play with apertures that obliquely references his Venetian blind film untitled (Wavelengths 2016). With his camera moving simultaneously along two axes, Kämmerer is ever so slowly unmooring the architecture, and on the giant screen, you may start to feel adrift as well.
Blue (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, France / Thailand)
Some of Apichatpong’s finest, most evocative work has been accomplished in the short form. One only need think of 2006’s The Anthem, in which a badminton game becomes a complex study of the filmmaking process, orthe great Phantoms of Nabua from 2009, which featured the indelible image of young Thai soldiers playing football with a flaming soccer ball. In his latest, Apichatpong combines the dramaturgical with the elemental, once again exploring the intersection of art and dreams.
In Blue, we see Jenjira Pongpas Widner (star of Uncle Boonmee and Cemetery of Splendor) asleep in an outdoor bed. Directly across from her is a theatrical flywheel with a number of automatically changing backdrops: a path through the forest and in to the mountains; a golden road leading to a Thai palace; a sunset over an ocean scene. As these scenes continue to change, we see a small spark building on the bedspread over Pongpas Widner’s torso. In time, there is a substantial flame coming out of her chest.
Apichatpong does not disguise the stagecraft by which he produces this illusion. But it is no less striking for being clearly articulated, and it speaks to both the imaginative power of the dream-work and the degree to which we are subject to its whims. Blue is a cinematic performance of sorts, with its actor and its stage set divided by a large glass. Thus, Apichatpong is reminding us of the deluge that follows when our dreams brings our deepest desires to consciousness. First the illuminating gas, then the waterfall.
Colophon (for the Arboretum Cycle) (Nathaniel Dorsky, U.S.)
Dorsky’s newest film is intended to serve as a coda to his monumental Arboretum Cycle, although it also serves as a coherent work in its own right. Seen either way, there is a remarkable coherence to this film that should certainly not surprise anyone familiar with Dorsky’s limpid, formally exacting cinema. At the same time, for a filmmaker who has tended to restrict himself to series of present moments that hang together according to strictly cinematic logics—rhythm, composition, duration, and the like—there is something uniquely rhetorical at work in Colophon. This three-part film feels in part like an exegesis on behalf of a particular kind of filmmaking, as well as a particular perspective on the world.
The first part of Colophon is decidedly urban, and as a chronicler of the designs and patterns of San Francisco life, this is not new territory for him in and of itself. However there is an unusual emphasis on flatness, especially as reflected in digital signage. We see reflections of actual moving people and vehicles, but almost all of it is channeled through large-scale video monitors displaying ads. This results not only in disparities of scale, with large human images often looming over the actual living figures in the frame. It also coats much of the first part of Colophon in horizontal scan lines, as if the city (and the film) were being colonized by video technology. (In one key shot, we see a woman waiting on a street corner as she is emblazoned with an overlay of such digital images, and it feels like a visual bombardment.)
This is not to say that the digitized urban images do not have a beauty of their own. But that beauty is highly mediated, sifted through layers that interrupt one another, clashing rather than harmonizing. This sets the stage for the second part of Colophon, which represents a return to direct natural imagery. Several things happen in this second part that are noteworthy, and that lead to this question of at least partial argumentation on Dorsky’s part. First, there is the respite of getting away from the televisual and back to what we have come to expect from Dorksy’s recent film work: exquisite cinematic examinations of flora, serving as opportunities for studies in light and space. But these initial expectations are themselves soon upended by Colophon.
In several shots, Dorsky introduces broad, all-over fields of color, hazy and indistinct. Very gradually, out of black, he fades in on an image that reveals a group of flowers or a patch of underbrush. (One such shot has hints of motion, which we come to recognize as bees traversing the meadow once the focus is clearer.) What is happening in these shots serves to echo the scan line shots in the first part of the film, as if to demonstrate that cinema can replicate the fuzzy patches of dots and lines that is digital imagery, and can do it with more control, provided one knows how to use its tools. The dominance of video is less a question of convenience than one of a generalized rendering of the visual world in standardized, repeatable patterns—“seeing between the lines”—that militate against wonder and discovery.
From there, Dorsky provides a kind of master class, displaying the multitude of ways that cinema can alter our perception of things. He employs slow fades-in, rapid differential apertures, time-lapse, light bleed onto the edge of the frame, and again, various patterns of rack focus that bring otherwise still phenomena to life before our eyes. In the final part of Colophon, Dorsky shows us what appear to be expanses of algae on water, and the formal control with which he brings these visions to the screen is simply breathtaking. We see individual bubbles of aerobic respiration, behind which we see the water, and trees above the water reflected in the surface of the pond. In addition to the multitude of deep greens transmitted in these shots, they also communicate unexpected depth along the humblest of surfaces.
This is perhaps where we can take Colophon itself a bit more deeply, as postulating a philosophy of seeing. It’s not just that things are more complex the more you look at them, although Dorsky’s cinema certainly bears out that truism. It’s that we are actively encouraged to see the world around us as flat, unidimensional, reducible to pure data. In fact, most of our dominant optical technologies are organized to encourage such cursory scansion. One could argue, as I think Dorsky’s films implicitly do, that there is a unique richness to the cinematic image that reinvests the visual world with a depth and tenderness that other media cannot quite match. But more than this, Colophon is a three-part poem of protest that pleads for a particular form of sensual engagement, a look of love and investiture, over and above the instrumentalist glance. Dorsky shows us that time is what allows the world around us to return our gaze, to love us back.
Dead Souls (Wang Bing, China / France)
An eight-hour film composed almost entirely of interviews is a daunting proposition even in the best of circumstances. In the context of a film festival, with dozens of competing options, it can seem like an almost impossible demand. However Wang Bing’s latest film is an unusual object, less a documentary than a document pure and simple—a forceful act of remembrance and a reading of unspeakable crimes into the historical record for all time. The subject is Mao’s campaign, starting in the 1950s, to flush out so-called “rightists” from the ranks of the Chinese Communists in order to subject them to a savage purge and re-education. Much of this entailed hard labor and starvation at the concentration camp at Jiabiangou, in the Gobi Desert.
Over a decade in the making, Dead Souls mostly consists of Wang allowing the surviving victims of the anti-rightist campaigns to recount their experiences, which they do in graphic detail. The stories of abuse, deprivation, and even cannibalism are undoubtedly shocking, and the described methods of the Party leadership provide a dark, Kafkaesque humor. (For example, it was Mao’s policy that 10% of every Communist bureau consisted of rightists. So in many cases, charges would be trumped up against innocent men just in order to meet the 10% “quota.”)
But the most astonishing aspect of Dead Souls, and what makes it such compelling viewing across eight solid hours, is the fact that men and women in their seventies and eighties are capable, almost without fail, of recalling the events of fifty-plus years ago with absolute clarity. They list the names of fellow victims, comrades who helped them survive, and of course of the bureaucratic toadies who murdered their friends and family while “just following orders.” Wang’s interviewees can be seen struggling at times to recall specifics, but they consistently rise to the challenge, literally speaking truth to power as if future generations depended on their testimony. There are not many films that compare with the moral clarity and humanistic importance of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, but Dead Souls is one such film.
Erased,___Ascent of the Invisible (Ghassan Halwani, Lebanon)
A challenging film on a difficult topic, Halwani’s Erased is well worth the patience it demands. Often silent, consistently methodical, this is a film about the physical labor necessary to prevent cultural amnesia in the face of institutional forces of forgetting. Halwani is interrogating Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, as a space of hidden mass graves, the discarded bodies of various civilians, Palestinian fighters, and members of the Lebanese Resistance. Many of them were killed by the Israeli Army, but others were murdered by the Syrians or by opposing Lebanese militias.
Official reports have capped the number of “missing” Lebanese at 2046, but that leaves thousands unaccounted for. Erased uses highly tactile motifs to dramatize the peeling back of layers of historical untruth to attempt to account for these lost men and women. One of the most frequent images in the film is Halwani removing thick husks of wheat-paste posters from a wall using an X-ACTO knife, tongs, and a wet paintbrush. In so doing, he uncovers a poster with pictures of the disappeared, their faces slowly reemerging from the palimpsest of torn paper.
This is a structural work, quite often featuring the filmmaker working at a desk, drafting meticulous likenesses of a particular man he saw kidnapped, or sorting through redacted documents. Erased functions like a procedural with all the genre bits removed, and the true procedure foregrounded. As Halwani says in the film, any one of these individuals becomes meaningful or recognizable by their relationship to the others, “the erased,” and so this is a film that takes those stakes very seriously. It is necessary to restore not only this or that person, but the entire matrix of remembrance.
Fainting Spells (Sky Hopinka, Ho-Chunk Nation / U.S.)
One of the things that makes Sky Hopinka’s work stand apart from the rest of film culture is its treatment of landscape. While there is certainly a long tradition of landscape cinema in experimental cinema, most of that work follows from the precepts laid down by art history, painting in particular. In that regard, the view of the land is taken as a material fact, and the artist expresses him or herself through the manner in which they depict that given space.
By contrast, Hopinka’s films treat landscape as both a living entity and a raw material, endlessly malleable and subject to visual manipulation. In Fainting Spells, for example, we see intersecting landscapes, rolling hillsides unfurling vertically, spaces turned upside down, all rendered in deep purples and sharp pinks and greens. There is no question that this particular location retains its specificity, but it does not need to assert its identity, or rather, Hopinka displays its identity as plural and ever-shifting.
Fainting Spells is a complex, multivalent work that relates a spirit narrative, one that is presented in a straightforward, even mundane mode of address. As the words scroll across the screen (a formal hat-tip to James Benning’s American Dreams), we learn of the Xawiska, a Ho-Chunk plant that takes on human properties, part protector and part trickster. As we see a partially burned landscape, we cannot be certain if this is the work of the Xawiska, or a human act that the plant-figure aims to avenge.
Fallen Arches (Simon Liu, U.K. / U.S. / Hong Kong)
One of the most exhilarating films in the program, Simon Liu’s Fallen Arches is organized around an idea so simple that it’s amazing no one ever thought of it before. While it is basically a multi-layered diary film, containing footage Liu shot in the U.K., New York, and Hong Kong, it’s the aesthetic disjuncture that really thrums here. Who knew that by placing images of British seaside towns on top of high-key, neon-filled material from H.K., that the visual extremities of both locales would come so sharply into focus? The flat light of Britain, its unique architecture and atmosphere, has never looked quite as simultaneously drab and bonny as it does here. Likewise, the downcast British landscape makes Hong Kong look eye-poppingly electric. New York tends to get lost in the shuffle a bit, serving as a sort of neutral 18% gray between the two poles of sensual experience. The fact that this formally savvy film is also highly personal—a collection of memory fragments, dedicated to the late Paul Clipson—just speaks to what a substantial accomplishment it really is. Well done.
Fausto (Andrea Bussmann, Canada / Mexico)
Bussmann has previously collaborated with Nico Peréda, but this is her second effort as director (following 2011's Aquel cuyo rostro no irradie luz), and it certainly marks her as a compelling new voice in contemporary cinema. Not so much a retelling of the “Faust” story as a meditation on the Faustian bargain itself and its implications for epistemology, Fausto is a film that bears traces of Borges, Ruíz, Duras, and Apichatpong, but remains wholly original.
The first thing one notices about Bussmann’s film is how much of it is shot under incredibly low light conditions. The filmmaker pushes 16mm film to the brink of intelligibility, but never loses vision altogether. This, we learn in time, is tied to a recurring motif regarding the shadow world, the place where Faust was banished as the price for the knowledge he incurred. Vision and its absence are at the core of many of the stories that comprise Fausto: the story of a blind zookeeper; the tale of Susan(n)a, the woman with two shadows; the black panther and the woman who spoke with her telepathically; and the claim that animals who can see better in the dark (including cats!) can never really be domesticated.
Bussmann links the various threads together with a frame story about two brothers, Fernando and Alberto, who are trying to dominate the island where the film takes place, building a seaside business referred to as the Establishment. But Bussmann’s camera continually uses low angles and extreme long shots to minimize people in the landscape, providing a God’s eye view of the island as if to give the lie to any such human folly. Just like Faust’s thirst for forbidden knowledge, the drive to dominate nature, the film makes clear, is a fool’s errand.
The Flower (La Flor) (Mariano Llinas, Argentina)
Absolutely, positively, 100% not available for preview.
Girl Pack (Lisa Baumgardner, U.S., 1981)
A modest but vital feminist entry from the post-punk eighties, Girl Pack is premised on a pun but plays it absolutely straight. From the rooftops we see a line of six young women traveling as a group (a pack, even), heading into a NYC tenement and sashaying all the way up to the roof, where they split a six-pack of Budweiser. Party on the roof, y’all! There’s a slick, take-no-crap vibe at work here that’s all about the Downtown No Wave scene. Girl Pack falls in line with contemporary efforts by the likes of Beth B, Bette Gordon, and Vivienne Dick. Silent, but suggested musical accompaniments include Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” and Beyoncé’s “Formation.”
The Glass Note (Mary Helena Clark, U.S.)
Clark’s films are always evocative and a bit mystifying, given that her compositional method is typically nonlinear and constellational, oriented around a particular set of concepts rather than a recognizable set of formal concerns. The Glass Note is no exception, and like many of Clark’s other works, The Glass Notes rewards repeat viewings. Luckily, Clark is a consummate maker of images, so even if one comes away feeling like you may not have entirely “gotten it,” there is no doubt that you’ll come away from The Glass Note with several bewitching visions embossed upon your psyche.
But in particular, The Glass Note is about sound and resonance, along with the various relationships between the aural and the haptic. Beginning with a close-up on a vocalist’s throat while laser beams zero in on her larynx, the film tells us about lithophonic stones (rocks that conduct sound), then implicitly comparing them to the shiny, patina-coated parts of statues that are worn down by touch. These two senses, sound and touch, are brought together in the film’s title, as we see someone generate a musical note by playing the rim of a partially-filled wine glass.
While not everything in The Glass Note is reducible to one dominant theme, Clark keeps her various elements suspended in definite relation to one another. Ultimately it is the film itself that provides the broadest context, since Clark is drawing our attention to cinema’s distance from the spectator’s body, and the way that sound is the only element of cinema that even comes close to palpating our bodies as we watch. This is a highly phenomenological film about cinema’s basic disembodiment.
The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack, U.S.)
A feature-length culmination of the forms and ideas that experimental animator Mack has been exploring for the past decade, The Grand Bizarre is also a song in praise of cosmopolitanism. Using travel as its essential framework, The Grand Bizarre examines the world through textiles—a frequent motif in Mack’s work. We see rugs, fabric swatches, scarves, and tapestries come to life through stop-motion and single-frame movement, often flickering by in mirrors and at certain locations in the image. They are colorful banners representing the patterns and timeless order that underpins the apparent chaos of daily life.
But then, Mack is also working with a dual meaning of the word “material.” She shows us the production process, how contemporary weaving takes place and the way goods are shipped all over the global marketplace. What was once a purely artisanal practice is now a network that interconnects all of us, and Mack makes it clear that she too is part of this international system of exchange. Portions of The Grand Bizarre recall Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, but the “animating” spirit of the film just might be the late experimental filmmaker Warren Sonbert, whose global montage films depicted both the beauty as well as the social and economic underpinnings of the various cultures he visited.
Mack’s film is whimsical, features some sick beats (including a riff on the Skype theme), and is so personal that it ends with the artist’s own sneeze. But the fact that it may be the most purely pleasurable film of the year shouldn’t prevent us from appreciating its exigency. The Grand Bizarre is a film about embracing all the colors and patterns of the wide, wide world, and in that regard, it’s exactly the film we need right now.
Hoarders Without Borders 1.0 (Jodie Mack, U.S.)
-“They’re rocks, Hank.” -“Jesus, Marie…they’re minerals!”
As we know, the purpose of an archive is to organize things, to set boundaries between what counts and what doesn’t count within a specific taxonomy. Within the archive, a category of items can be clarified into smaller, closer subcategories, so as to allow us to bring greater knowledge to bear on the object at hand. Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. King Philip came over for good supper. This is the Enlightenment at work.
Of course, sometimes these categories break down, and then human knowledge is presumably in trouble. In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault cited a passage from Borges that showed us what such a taxonomic calamity might look like. “This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’.”
Jodie Mack’s latest short film is an examination of the mineral collection of one Mary Johnson. Most of the minerals contained therein look exactly like the specimens you would expect to see in any such collection in a natural history museum. They are “rocky,” earthen and apparently mined from the earth. But then, what is that can of Corn Nuts doing in there? Or the stick of rock candy? Or the box containing a “certified” chunk of the Berlin Wall?
The longest passage of Hoarders Without Borders 1.0 consists of a time-lapse segment in which hands are seen placing object after object on a lighted pedestal for documentation. Each object in the collection has its own information card, although they go by too quickly to read. This is the data that certifies each object’s rightful place in the archive. What does it say? Does the card legitimate the Corn Nuts? We don’t really know, and by extension, we don’t know if any of the objects contained in the archive – even those that look fully conventional—“belong” among a catalog of minerals. By allowing the data frame to be “violated” by questionable objects, Johnson has corrupted the very notion of archival organization. But she has also made it more interesting, frenzied, innumerable, et cetera. Mack shows that even from close up, the broadest distinctions in human understanding are drawn with a very fine brush indeed.
I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead (Beatrice Gibson, U.S. / Italy / U.K.)
One the most painful pieces in this year’s series is also, ultimately, the most hopeful. That’s because Beatrice Gibson takes on the fundamental question that underpins every other creative gesture undertaken this year. What can art really do, especially given the horrid state of the world (the refugee crisis, the Glenfell Tower disaster, Trump’s election)? Gibson takes the title of her film from a poem by CAConrad, and as it would indicate, one possible answer to this crisis of confidence is futurity. We make art in order to articulate our vision of a world that does not yet exist, for those who will come after we are gone.
I Hope I’m Loud features readings by radical poets Conrad and Eileen Myles, as well as excerpts from work by Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, and music by Pauline Oliveiros. In this regard, the piece is at quite a distance from the cooler, more analytical pieces we’ve come to expect from Gibson. The directness is bracing at times, as when, near the conclusion, the artist offers a heartfelt recitation to her daughter, telling her she is the most important person in her life.
But then, Gibson follows this with a gorgeously goofy homage to the greatest cinematic ending sequence of the last twenty years. More than just unexpected comedy, this pantomime gives us a chance to see Gibson and her kid working and playing together. The radical Marxist-feminist value of maternal labor meets the theory-era predilection for radical appropriation, art and life melding in a manner beyond any need for justification.
Île d’Ouessant (David Dudouit, France, 2012)
Taken from reels IV-VII among those shot by the late French filmmaker David Dudouit, and processed by his friends at the Paris lab L’Abominable, Île d’Ouessant certainly has the feel of a series of tests—single shots in which the artist was observing specific phenomena and working out the visual language appropriate to them. Nevertheless, Dudouit comes across strongly as someone concerned with color and texture, as we see in the two contrasting views of a lighthouse at night, or his passage of electrified white vertical marks on a blue background, which could be images of a downpour but could just as easily be hand-cut incisions into the film emulsion. This is work that points to a talent cut short.
In My Room (Ulrich Köhler, Germany / Italy)
Inspired in part by the novel Schwartz Spiegel by Arno Schmidt, Köhler’s latest film may represent a kind of wish fulfillment gone wrong. Saddled with problems at work and experiencing conflict with his family, Armin (Hans Löw) wakes up one day to find every last human being has disappeared from the face of the earth. A popular premise that has given us variations as distinct as The Omega Man and Night of the Comet, the last-man-on-earth concept is employed by Köhler to examine the likelihood of a man’s transformation from a genial douchebag into a postmodern Robinson Crusoe, and what this says about late capitalist masculinity.
Eventually though, New Adam is found by a New Eve (Elena Radonicich), disrupting Armin’s man-cave solitude but also reigniting his libido. In My Room is ultimately about the need to make space in our lives for others, and the existential crisis that entails when the preexisting social structures for negotiating relationships have vanished. It’s also about what to do when you have entirely too much wild boar in the freezer, or when your lover wants to get frisky and you really just want to finish watching The Bridges of Madison County on your laptop. Highly recommended.
The Invisible Cinema 3 and Mumok kino (Philipp Fleischmann, Austria)
In certain ways, Philipp Fleischmann’s work is not “cinema,” at least not as typically conceived. But then, in other respects his two films are the most cinematic works in the Wavelengths program, given that they explore the precise nature of light and space as inscribed on a celluloid filmstrip.
This is work with an abiding interest in architecture and spatial organization, but not primarily as an aesthetic event. Rather, like conceptual artists such as Daniel Buren and Michael Asher, Fleischmann is concerned with the physical embodiment of institutional power, actual buildings as instantiations of ideologies and social strictures. For instance, his The Invisible Cinema 3 is about an historical space that no longer exists, a movie theatre at Anthology Film Archives designed by Peter Kubelka. Its intent was to focus the viewer’s attention on the screen without distractions, and so it contained partitions between each seat. This was considered intolerable by patrons, a form of fascist control, and so the theatre was demolished.
"The Invisible Cinema 3," where Fleischmann made the titular piece, is the main projection space in Vienna's Filmmuseum, its design based on Kubelka's original plan. Fleischmann’s film (which incidentally features an opening title with the same font as Scott MacDonald’s A Critical Cinema series) consists of both a vertical and a horizontal array of cinema footlights, an architectural compromise for safety that in this film become the screen image. They pierce the darkness like a geometric armada, serving the same enervated function onscreen that they do in the actual architecture of the theatre—“ruining” the purity of the cinema as a place to observe (nay, worship) the image on the screen without distractions.
Fleischmann’s second contribution to the Wavelengths program is a direct inscription of an institutional ceiling, its photographic record applied in staccato to the flickering filmstrip via direct transfer. You will notice a stutter as the same fluorescent light fixture, the same smoke alarm, the same crack in the plaster, flashes by twice in sequence. There is the more apparent sense in which Fleischmann is drawing attention to the spaces that confer meaning on the visual arts, including cinema. (The architecture you’ll see onscreen, apart from being slightly more worn, is not much different than that you’ll see over your head in the Lightbox when you watch the film at TIFF.)
But perhaps more than this, Mumok kino uses its redoubling to comment on the essential sameness of the architecture of creative meaning. That’s to say, the power of the institution is precisely to regiment artistic gestures, to cut them to the measure of the preexisting knowledge base. Perhaps it’s in the stutter, the unexpected friction in the conveyance of images, that new, disruptive knowledges can be produced.
Julio Iglesias’s House (Natalia Marín, Spain)
A brief essay film in the truest sense of the word, Julio Iglesias’s House is about 80% text, 20% images. This in itself is not a problem, although it does speak to a certain lack of facility with the form. (Why a film rather than an installation or an artist’s book? Why is the film silent, when a voiceover could have freed the image track for a separate chain of information?) In relating the story of an early 21st century translation problem between real estate planners in Shanghai and their notion of what “Spanish” architecture should look like, Marín delivers a deadpan stand-up routine regarding the perils of globalization and fast capital, with theoretical assists from Villem Flusser and Ursula K. LeGuin. But it is difficult to connect her floating multifaceted geometric figures to the issue at hand. Are these deconstructivist architectural plans, the netting and the inwardly articulated cube intended to reflect hypothetical dwelling spaces that we four-dimensional humans cannot yet occupy? If so, there is a discrepancy between these highly advanced sketches and the relative simplicity of the swindle being described.
L. COHEN (James Benning, U.S.)
The light came through the window
Straight from the sun above
And so inside my little room
There plunged the rays of love
In streams of light I clearly saw
The dust you seldom see,
Out of which the nameless m
A name for one like me
I'll try to say a little
Love went on and
Until it reached
Then love itse
Love itself w
All busy i
All busy in the
The flecks did fl
And I was tumble
In formless circums
I'll try to say a little m
Love went on and on
Until it reached an open d
Then love itself
Love itself was gone
Love itself was gone
The Labyrinth (Laura Huertas Millán, Colombia / France)
As with jeny303, her film from earlier this year, The Labyrinth finds the highly talented Laura Huertas Millán occupying the twilight zone between ethnography and fiction. An associate of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Huertas Millán is clearly interested in the margins and forgotten byways of her native Colombia, a nation whose history is too often dictated from the outside. This is a filmmaker who is intrigued by characters and stories, some of which have allegorical valence, while others of them are simply compelling unto themselves.
The Labyrinth begins by telling, and apparently showing, the story of Evaristo Porras. A Colombian druglord, he died penniless. But during his heyday, one of his extravagances was having his home in the jungle built as an exact replica of the Carrington mansion from Dynasty. Huertas Millán takes us through open-air slabs of ruined concrete, presumably the remnants of the Porras home. But of course, we have no way of knowing if that is what we are seeing, or even of the story is true.
But midway through the film, we become less concerned with the story and begin fixating on the teller of the tale. Cristóbal Gómez, an itinerant worker, describes meeting Porras after he is reduced to selling candles on the street. He then goes on to tell his own story about a near-death experience. Again, we have no real reason to believe Gómez’s stories, although we do. The Labyrinth is partly about the trust we place in our interlocutor, how we size them up and judge them to be reliable. But it’s also about the visual truth cues that characterize documentary and ethnographic cinema. Some people are simply too interesting not to trust.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, China / France)
A film saturated not only with the pangs of lost romance but with the romance of cinema itself, Bi Gan’s follow-up to the already-impressive debut Kaili Blues is quite a leap forward indeed. If it has a significant flaw, it may be that it is a bit too obviously besotted with the modernist and post-modernist cinema that has come before it, with stylistic debts to the likes of Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsaio-hsien, Hitchcock, and above all Tarkovsky. (Direct quotations of Solaris and especially Stalker abound.)
Nonetheless, Bi is a talent capable of whipping up a heady brew of heartache and haunted interiority, taking the notion of an unreliable narrator into the realm of exhilarating dream logic. Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) is searching for Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), the woman with whom he desperately wanted to run away. Unfortunately, she was “owned” by a violent gangster (Chen Yongzhong) who made sure they never saw each other again. Or at least that is the version of reality Luo provides for us.
Along the way we meet Qiwen’s ex-husband, her former criminal partner, a woman who thinks she may know where she is hiding… But with each encounter, Luo seems to get farther away, the relationship becomes harder to define, and even the identity of Qiwen is cloudier and more mysterious. This is a journey of the mind and heart, one that takes us further into Luo’s subjectivity, eventually leading him to encounter a red-haired woman (Sylvia Chang) who may be someone from his past.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night features a final one-hour single take (presented in 3D) that is as astonishing, as sculptural and as oneiric as anything you are likely to see in a cinema for many years. But this is only part of what Bi accomplishes in the construction of this film, which at various times resembles sources as disparate as Tsui Hark, Jacques Tati, and Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart. This is a masterwork of spatial dislocation and misdirection, a film in which objects and portals seem to appear as if willed by the drives of the unconscious. This is the film that lives inside us, made manifest. As such, it is an absolute must-see.
Man in the Well (Hu Bo, China)
This is the final cinematic testament from Chinese director Hu Bo, who took his own life after completing only this short film and the equally despairing, magisterial four-hour feature An Elephant Sitting Still. Exhibiting the pungency of a short story based on the cruelty and deprivation we hear described in Wang Bing’s Dead Souls, Man in the Well is a black-and-white film parable about the often-hopeless effort to maintain one’s humanity under inhuman conditions.
Hu’s film follows two children (Zhai Yiyi and Gao Tieguang) through a bombed-out landscape. At first we might think it’s a post-apocalyptic scenario, until we recall that under China’s current policies of rapid-capital, there are any number of reasons why a once-thriving town might look like this, and why two kids would find themselves abandoned. While searching for food, the children discover a corpse, bound, chained and gagged. Using primitive tools, they decide to tend to this stranger, but must also do something for themselves. Unremittingly bleak, Man in the Well is a harrowing gaze into the mind of an artist who stared existence in the face and, alas, found it wanting.
Please step out of the frame. (Karissa Hahn, U.S.)
Karissa Hahn’s films tend to focus on small performative gestures that, when played through to their logical consequences, reveal paradoxical truths about the audiovisual media to which we’ve grown so accustomed. Why should an image stop at the edge of the frame? What happens when two different mediums collide? How does the body of the performer occupy the interface between these two distinct media? Of course these are questions that provoked the first generation of video artists, but too often today’s mediamakers are content to accept provisional answer so they can explore other matters.
In Please step out of the frame., Hahn shoots a Super-8 film of a digitizing process. A computer program scans the subject’s head and shoulders and then mattes her in to one of various backgrounds – a moving roller coaster, a Muybridge photo series, or the actual background of Hahn’s own office. We not only witness the continual failure of this imperfect technology (it’s essentially chroma-key, with all the same problems your local weathercaster has had to contend with), but the mise-en-abyme of the camera shooting into the monitor, as recaptured in Super-8 (which is then transferred back to digital, for the version screening at Wavelengths). The result is a contemporary traffic jam of media methods that resembles an unearthed artifact, with Hahn in the middle as a mad scientist pushing each imaging machine to the point of its inevitable fallibility.
Polly One (Kevin Jerome Everson, U.S.)
One of Everson’s most beautiful films, Polly One is a two-part document of the recent solar eclipse, rendered with what must be polarized lenses. The impact is simply stunning, watching a rare crescent sun wavering behind the moon’s shadow while the surrounding sky swirls with blue-lined clouds in a heavy purple atmosphere. Whereas many experimental films treat light in a painterly manner, Polly One is going directly to the source, staring into the light itself and allowing all other colors and patterns to calibrate themselves around that searing, forbidden truth.
Prologue to the Tarot: Glenna (Brittany Gravely and Ken Linehan, U.S.)
The influence of Kenneth Anger hangs over this film like the twin aromas of incense and patchouli, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A portrait of tarot reader Glenna Van Nostrand, Prologue to the Tarot is a swirl of superimposed forms, mostly defined by the light crimson tapestries that form the backdrop for Glenna’s environment and the way they are set off by the sharp turquoise of her dress.
Gravely and Linehan are colorists above all else, because this contrast is what articulates forms within an otherwise undifferentiated atmosphere of kaleidoscopic magickal movement, Glenna surrounded by vials and cacti in her upright form, hoisting a black cat above her person while laying in repose. The images are intended to swirl and interpenetrate, and they do, yielding a heady miasma that no doubt serves to convey both the subject and her immediate atmosphere.
In a concluding compositional gesture, Gravely and Linehan combine Glenna’s face with a cactus flower. Prologue to the Tarot is a film that will have you wondering what that girl you knew in college is doing now.
RAY & LIZ (Richard Billingham, U.K.)
This cinematic debut from acclaimed photographer Billingham is intended as a standalone work of art, although to fully appreciate it, or even tolerate it, it’s probably necessary to understand the work that it is based on. Best known for his photo series and subsequent book “Ray’s a Laugh,” Billingham became known for astonishing intimate auto-ethnographic images of his alcoholic father Ray and his hefty, tattooed mother Liz. Much like Nan Goldin, Billingham avoided charges of exploitation primarily by being a full member of the milieu he chronicled, and the art world (the Saatchis, in particular) embraced this work as a revelatory look at lower-class council life.
RAY & LIZ (all caps, please) is a fictional recreation of this flat-bound universe, in which Billingham casts unprofessional actors who are dead ringers for his mum and dad, along with other family members and blokes in their immediate orbit. Without understanding the context, the film seems like an exercise in Terence Davies nostalgia filtered through the smug, gawking classism of something like British TV’s “Benefits Street” reality show. But even with the added artworld shine, there is something inherently phony about RAY & LIZ, a film that starts with a broad, “Benny Hill”-level comedy riff about tormenting a man on the wagon, and then strains to end on a note of unfit-parent pathos. The entire enterprise feels dipped in amber for the delectation of the ooh-la-la aesthetics set, and as such gives the lie to the notion that an insider cannot exploit his own class.
A Return (James Edmonds, U.K. / Germany)
There are few pleasures as profound as discovering a first-rate talent, and James Edmonds fits the bill. He has been making films for quite some time, although his work clearly hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Fortunately, a number of programmers are rectifying that with his latest film, A Return, a near-perfect marriage of impulses that are often understood as being in competition: the formalist and the personal, the structural and the atmospheric.
The film is about literal returns, as it captures Edmonds’ movement between Germany (where he was working on a film restoration project) and his home in the U.K. One observes certain things about A Return as it unspools; it’s a film that gradually teaches you how to watch it. In the first half, we see various superimpositions around the foyer of an apartment building, and these segments are notable for their rectilinear character. There are motifs: light through a stairwell, potted plants, and views of a city out the window. The superimpositions not only overlay the gridlike structure of the bannister over the organic plant forms. Edmonds also moves the camera in opposing directions, resulting in a push and pull of linear movement. These portions of the film echo the work of Stan Brakhage and Robert Beavers, but have a countervailing tension all their own.
In the second part, we are clearly back in Britain. It is not only the sheep fields or grayer weather that reveals this. Edmonds masterfully captures the palpable air of Blighty, the thick fog and the granular light that registers on the filmstrip as chunky grain. And as we see specific details—a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, or an older man backlit against the windowed wall of a kitchen—Edmonds gradually moves us out into the landscape, and finally out to sea.
Edmonds’ film is packed with small gestures that are so controlled as to virtually explore. The pan down from a stair rail, oriented on the vertical and horizontal axes, to reveal the relative chaos of a potted fern, has the power of a firework, simply because Edmonds’ camera has zeroed in on this unexpected detail. A Return is a subtle collision of these domestic micro-events, articulated with other images that capture the expansiveness of land and sea. This film is a little miracle.
Sira (Rolla Tahir, Canada)
Back in the high-theory 80s, Jean Baudrillard famously declared that “the Gulf War didn’t happen.” There are some folks in the Middle East who’d beg to differ, of course, particularly in Kuwait. Rolla Tahir’s Sira is a three-part diary that documents one family’s reluctant but necessary diaspora following the Iraqi invasion, first to Egypt and Sudan, and then eventually to several other lands, Canada being one of them.
Tahir combines distressed home movie footage with interstitial video interference, providing a materialist analog (so to speak) to the imperiled conditions the subjects themselves face. The overall impression is one of normalcy interrupted, of weddings and daily trips to work giving way to burning oil fields in the distance. Sira ends in the future tense, with a sense of wary optimism befitting our precarious times.
Slip (Celia Perrin Sidarous, Canada)
Sidarous is primarily known as a photographer and still life artist, sometimes working in ceramics. “Slip” is the word for liquid clay that can be poured into molds, and in her film Slip, we do eventually see Sidarous pouring slip (although it looks like Elmer’s glue) from ceramic jars, covering other ceramic objects until they are completely obscured. But more than this sculptural fact, the title seems to refer to a general moldlessness, a protean ability to become anything in any direction.
Slip is a film about still lives. We see the artist (red nail polish) arranging objects on an aquamarine background, setting them up in various configurations—a crystal, desiccated flowers, a sprig of wood. We see shots from a picture book of antiquity, held open by the artist’s daughter Lucie (blue nail polish). And we see landscapes and ocean views intertwined with the above studio work. Granted, it is not always clear what Sidarous wants us to take from these time-based photographic relationships. Nevertheless, the film is a demonstration of a visual artist’s engagement with the moving picture medium, treating it as an expansion of an already complex oeuvre.
The Stone Speakers (Igor Drljača, Canada / Bosnia and Herzegovina)
At first, Drljača’s accomplished documentary may seem a bit conventional for Wavelengths. But then, when you consider the straightforward mode of address that defines many of the films selected for TIFF Docs—and that’s phrasing it with as much diplomacy as I can muster—it’s clear that The Stone Speakers is right where it belongs. An examination of various ways in which cities and towns in Bosnia and Herzegovina have struggled to generate economic and cultural resurgence in the postwar period, The Stone Speakers recalls the work of fellow Wavelengths director Sergei Loznitsa. This is a film about how nostalgia, spirituality, and in some cases the landscape itself, are packaged for consumption.
Starting in the town of Medugorje, Drljača shows us how a massive Catholic youth festival has emerged because of a late-80s “miracle” in which some local schoolkids claimed to be able to see and speak with the Virgin Mary. From there, we travel to Visoko, where “energy” from an Ottoman graveyard has been reconfigured as the Pyramid of the Sun, a place where the rocks of the landscape are said to hold mystical healing powers. Next to Višegrad, on the Drina River, where filmmaker / cultural impresario Emir Kusturica has build Andričgrad, a massive cultural complex dedicated to then-Yugoslav Nobel laureate Ivo Andrič. (Kusturica, with customary humility, depicts himself in a large mural, struggling to create the complex, and has named Andričgrad’s twin cinema the Dolly Bell.)
But then, as we get to the literally sinking town of Tuzla, we see something quite different: a place where the populace is devoted to actual historical memory, not the commodification thereof. And subsequently, within our global age that prizes monetization over humanist values, Tuzla is a virtual ghost town. Drljača’s formal techniques throughout The Stone Speakers emphasize the ways that the land and its history condition the choices that citizens make for their future, particularly his repeated use of extreme long shots. This is a film in which everything refers back to the deeply rooted context of decades and centuries, and the question of whether “moving on” means accepting that context or attempting, against all logic, to make a radical break with linear time.
Those Who Desire (Elena López Riera, Spain / Switzerland)
A colorful but somewhat conventional documentary short, Those Who Desire is nevertheless an intriguing glimpse at an unconventional subculture organized around an activity that I suppose you could consider sport. What at first appears to be a group of all-male pigeon fanciers turns out to be participants in a contest. During mating season, each of the men releases their pigeon into a flock with a single female. The one who successfully courts the female wins.
In order to keep the pigeons straight, the competitors have bizarre names (“Ford Fiesta,” “Lincoln,” and “Smurf” are a few favorites), but the men have also painted the birds’ wings with bright colors. When seen traveling as a flock, the pigeons resemble tiny kites or radio controlled flyers, with only the female bearing the white coloring that nature gave her. López Riera has certainly located a perfect metaphor for human masculinity, as the birds are clearly surrogates for the men who pimp them. These birds represent a desire to control nature, while at the same time reflecting a rapacious sexual machismo that is quite rightly going the way of the great auk.
Trees Down Here (Ben Rivers, U.K.)
For years now, Ben Rivers has been making films about various people and institutions that are reluctant to simply throw the past away. In some cases we might be tempted to call them hoarders; in the case of certain decaying factories, the temptation might be to dismiss them as relics of the past. But what Rivers consistently shows us is that history is a materialist concern. Time accumulates in layers, it drags behind us in the form of the collected detritus that capital and its attendant psychology coaxes us to simply cut loose and abandon, never to look back. If we care too much about things of the past, not only will be be hesitant to charge forward. We might get a clearer sense of who we are and where we’ve been.
In this regard, it was a stroke of genius having Rivers collaborate with British architectural film 6a, the group headed by Tom Emerson and Stephanie Macdonald. Adamantly opposed to the slick “historicism” of the postmodernists, 6a are devoted to a critical practice of working to understand the socioeconomic and phenomenological past embodied in the buildings they plan to refurbish or construct adjacent to. It’s not enough to simply use old materials. The goal is to connect various forms of use across time, to instantiate a history of function.
As Brady Donnelly explains, “Their focus on uncovering the invisible is rooted in a sort of humble awareness that their projects—however grandiose and recognizable—are, in their own right, single points through which time passes within some broader grand narrative. They call it a need to ‘maintain the continuity of life’ and, in that, to recover the lives that preceded theirs and record the lives of those around them, and then use that information to educate those who follow.”
Trees Down Here is a kind of spatial poem that explores 6a’s engagement with the campus of Churchill College, Cambridge. Rivers offers us a quick flip through the plans and elevations, also showing us a set of demolished architectural models. What the models represent isn’t clear, but the manner of their destruction closely resembles the rubble of an actual demolished building, as if to physically connect idea and reality. We see the humble, rustic structures of Churchill, surrounded by trees but otherwise quite isolated. This is a highly intentional space, conceived from the ground up.
Presiding over Rivers’ examination of this unusual institutional space are two owls—a barn own (named Barny) and a white owl who appears near the end of the film—and a corn snake. Two classical emblems of knowledge, the benevolent wisdom of the oracle and the decadent lure of the forbidden, just hanging around in trees or in the grass, neither necessarily asserting themselves. Rivers seems to be in on the joke: sometimes an owl is just an owl, a snake just a snake, neither really living up to their symbolic reputations. And, as if to drive the point home, Trees Down Here concludes with a poem by John Ashbery, a tactile, objective discussion of nature that belies any hoary metaphorics. Like the architects of 6a, Rivers is an artist who engages with the accrued temporal patina of things, the palpable story of their use.
The Trial (Sergei Loznitsa, Netherlands / France / Germany)
Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa has been busy this year, having produced one feature film (Donbass, also showing at TIFF), another documentary (Victory Day), and now The Trial, a work that harks back to the found-footage style with which Loznitsa originally commanded critical attention. The new film is a critical examination of one of the most famous of the Stalinist “show trials,” the 1930 prosecution of the alleged conspirators known as the “Industrial Party,” a group of academics and engineers charged with trying to sabotage the U.S.S.R.’s production base in order to made the nation more amenable to foreign invasion.
Given the fact that the purpose of the trial was to demonstrate the invincibility of Stalin’s government—in particular, the Joint State Political Directorate, the Soviet secret police—the trial was extensively broadcast and documented, providing Loznitsa with a great deal of material to work with. What one finds is that there is no “trial,” exactly. All the men admit guilt immediately, and then spend their copious time in court explaining themselves as traitors. Only at the end does one get a sense of spontaneity, as some men plead for their lives, while others seem entirely too tired to do so.
It is certainly no coincidence that, like Wang Bing’s Dead Souls, The Trial appears now, as an historical object lesson in the dangers of fascist tyranny. And while Loznitsa is to be commended for his dedication to the process and absolute fidelity to the record, the film is a bit back-loaded, since it is only through the final revelations of the trial that much of what we have been listening to comes to be understood. There is something truly sinister about the fact that every last minute detail of this very plausible conspiracy is fabricated. It is almost more comforting to believe they were actually guilty.
After all, if this level of political theatre is actually feasible, we can understand why some people would rather believe in Qanon or the “Deep State” than in much simpler, more logical explanations for observable reality.
Walled Unwalled (Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Germany)
A lot of the films in this year’s section are wearing their aestheticism on their sleeve, which is by no means a bad thing. The world is in an atrocious state at the moment, and one way to lodge a protest against violence and destruction is to try to remind humans what beauty looks like, what kind of a world we ought to be fighting for.
At the same time, there’s a lot to be said for the direct approach, and Lawrence Abu Hamran’s Walled Unwalled is one of the most righteous, politically astute films you are liable to see all year. A near-perfect essay film, Walled Unwalled explores a paradox. More and more nations are erecting barriers to keep people in or (mostly) out, while technologies are rendering the walls of our private spaces and even our bodies increasingly permeable and subject to the whims of power. So as usual, we are subject to all of the restrictions but none of the protections of divided space.
Abu Hamdan provides numerous examples of this problem. In the first, a pot grower actually retains his right to privacy when overzealous cops use military-grade thermal imaging to illegally “search” his home. In another example, the specific frequencies of muffled sound are used to convict Oscar Pistorius of the murder of Riva Steinkamp. But elsewhere, we learn of sound used as a propaganda tool by West during the Cold War, and as a weapon by the GDR in specially designed prisons, one of which is still being used in Syria. This vital piece of intellectual cinema shows that the spirits of Chris Marker and Harun Farocki live on.
What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire? (Roberto Minervini, Italy / U.S. / France)
Part of what makes Roberto Minervini’s new film such a vital document of our contemporary moment is the fact that, despite its broad sweep and multiple perspectives, it almost goes out of its way not to feel definitive. It’s a close-up, worm’s eye view of everyday joys and struggles, a portrait of African-American lives in Louisiana and Mississippi that emphasizes difference and individuality while at the same time demonstrating that there are certain unavoidable commonalities that characterize the black experience.
In this respect, while What You Gonna Do… is a film that absolutely stands on its own, it is also a document that operates within an active matrix of other equally vital recent documentary films, such as Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, the Ross brothers’ Tchoupitoulas, Carl Deal and Tia Lessen’s Trouble the Water, and Minervini’s own previous film, The Other Side. That last film in particular provided an often ugly glimpse at the lives and attitudes of the poor white racists who lurk in the background of What You Gonna Do…, committing murder and spray-painting the N-word on a daycare center. In light of this, the militancy of the New Black Panther Party, depicted in one of the four dominant threads in the film, doesn’t just look like an alternative, but a necessity.
But as Minervini shows, life cannot function on high alert at all times, and there are personal matters to attend to. On the one end of the spectrum we see Ronaldo and Titus, two good kids trying to grow up right in an environment that has very real temptations, and constant dangers, for African-American boys – including those posed by Ronaldo’s own father. In midlife, there is Judy Hill, a musician who works constantly to conquer her many personal demons and is fighting to keep her business afloat. And serving as a kind of chorus of elders, we have Chief Kevin Goodman and his tribe, Mardi Gras Indians working on their costumes and carrying on a proud black New Orleans tradition.
As with Minervini’s previous films, there is something both startling and a bit disconcerting about the degree of access he achieves, as well as the fact that his camera crew is almost never acknowledged. How does he get so close, capturing key emotional moments like Judy’s cousin Michael finally visiting his mother’s gravesite, or Judy herself meeting a fellow addict and describing her years of abuse? One of the things that Minervini accomplishes in What You Gonna Do…, both with these scenes, the New Black Panther meetings, and in some consciousness-raising moments in Judy’s bar, is a careful depiction of free black discourse, the kind of discussion about identity, politics, and culture that a community can have when they are not worried about how outside listeners will misconstrue their words.
This not only makes What You Gonna Do… a rare and valuable snapshot of unfiltered hope and rage, at a moment when American culture, led by our overtly racist President, has made unrepentant prejudice a part of acceptable public discourse again. This is a film that we need. But the statements by adults, who are pleading for nothing less than their lives, only serve to heighten the contrast with Ronaldo and Titus. These boys just want to play football outside, to be listened to by their teachers, and to make their mother proud. As Ronaldo tells Titus, “you’re still young. They won’t shoot you. You still have time to fight.”
Words, Planets (Laida Lertxundi, U.S.)
In the past I have compared Laida Lertxundi’s films to those of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurimäki, largely because of her preference for laid-back atmosphere, rock and roll, and rigorous shot construction. But with Words, Planets, I realized that Lertxundi might be the Howard Hawks of the contemporary avant-garde. At first glance, this looked to be a minor film, not quite as bracing or original as some of her others. But with multiple views, I realized that this is a meta-commentary on the artist’s working method and milieu, a frank admission that every Lertxundi film is in its own way a “home movie.”
At the start, we see images that recall previous films of Lertxundi’s—cacti, color-coordinated outfits and fruit, arid landscapes. But then we see someone scratching and punching holes in a strip of film, followed by the passage through the gate of the very filmstrip we just watched being manipulated. At various points we see both the film we are watching and the film itself being made, usually by multiple performer / makers. Lertxundi emphasizes that her work is a collective process, the residue of fun times with good friends. We see this in the segments of portraiture that often begin seriously and then lapse into goofy smiles. We hear this obliquely acknowledged in the reading of the logic puzzle, all about who can associate with whom and whose relationship with who is in what state.
And we see this, finally, as we watch previous portions of Words, Planets being projected on an apartment wall, casually, like a vacation reel. Even the presence of a newborn baby seems to indicate that Lertxundi’s work, far from being artworld-hip, is simply an agglomeration of things and people she loves. If this film feels “minor,” it’s because it’s an indication that all of Lertxundi’s films are minor, in the Tom Gunning sense of the word. They make no grand claims to universality. Instead, they have always simply invited us to spend some well-structured playtime in Lertxundi’s corner of the world.