Flaherting, part 3 and final

 

A few final films I savored seeing at the Flaherty:

Sylvain George’s Tu resteras hyène etc (L’Impossible – Part V) (2009, 17 minutes) was a much-needed caffeine jolt of life-affirming negativity. The montage, which frequently established a total discontinuity between image and sound, sought to orient the film’s viewers away from representation entirely and focus them on the actual events and physical environments which triggered the film. In this sense, George is clearly working in a Situationist-inspired vein. Some at the seminar felt George’s work was too classically modernist (and in that sense, a failed attempt at politicized and politicizing art), and I can see where that critique is coming from. I don’t entirely agree, however, and I still found the work’s political aesthetics relevant. I appreciated his invitation to spectators to approach the film in an alternative interpretative mode, one bypassing representational identification.

Isaki Lacuesta’s Los Pasos Dobles (2011, 90 minutes) was extraordinary. I was gob-smacked upon leaving the screening! It was kind of a queer, Malian, pomo, impossible-to-decipher faux biopic about little-known artist François Augiéras that prominently features well-known artist Miquel Barceló in the role of Augiéras as a sort of omniscient storyboarder. The film is a paean to creative plasticity in the visual arts, in dance, in dialogue, in persona, in sexuality and in mythic narrative. It’s informed heavily by both Sergio Leone and Souleymane Cissé. It was absurd in a way that is extremely difficult to describe–the kind of sublime absurd that somehow involves legacy, or royalty, and never knees down into straightforward farce. Just great! I want to see it again.

It was a huge pleasure to meet and talk with Laila Pakalniņa. It was an equal pleasure to watch her masterfully-crafted, compassionate films. They were without a doubt the most generous films in the festival. Theodore (2006, 29 minutes) left its titular subject a mystery while revealing volumes about the elderly man’s habitus, his community, and its shared rituals.

Three Men and a Fish Pond (2008, 52 minutes) left the audience both giddy and thoughtful after its quick-witted suite of thematic and graphic matches paralleling the lives of humans and wildlife. Watching it, we felt like true participants in the montage, like a communal table of card players.

Sami van Ingen’s brilliant Fokus (2004, 40 minutes), was a film that I instantly wanted to teach as an exquisite example of how unseen networks of power can be glimpsed, upheld or contested with images. The film is painstakingly thought out and its duration is perfect. It begins with a totally deconstructed sequence from vacation footage and methodically assists the spectator in putting it back together to make sense out of each shot’s fleeting seconds. Then it takes the images apart again with the help of an optical printer, so that the micro-transactions of power and powerlessness are revealed in faces, gestures and glances.

Bravo, and thank you to all involved in this fantastic week of cinema.

Flaherting, part 2

Like many of the films at the Flaherty this year, the narratives of Odds of Recovery and 48 squared perfectly with the chosen thematic of “open wounds”-one literally, the other metaphorically. But perhaps the most challenging form of wound or laceration that surfaced in the films and debates was conceptual. I’ll say that conceptual wound was representation and its formal ethics.

Fearless and preternaturally good-humored programmer Josetxo Cerdán aimed right at it, organizing a line-up of films and filmmakers that suggested (at least in broad terms) an already well-developed gap in experimental documentary. This gap could be depicted as generational and even gendered, with queer women filmmakers Lourdes Portillo and Su Friedrich on one end and “young turk” men filmmakers under 40 like Ben Rivers and Ben Russell on the other, but that wouldn’t be accurate.

After all, there were plenty of Flaherty participants critiquing, praising and/or questioning these filmmakers who didn’t necessarily “match” them in gender orientation, age, nationality or anything else. (Sometimes Ben Rivers’ and Ben Russell’s films were assumed to be totally of a kind, which seemed very wrong. They are collaborators and friends, but their processes, styles and finished products struck me as quite distinct.)

However those on either side of this division might be described, the division itself was this: if a film attempts to refuse to represent its subject in one manner or another, is it being unethical to its subject–i.e., taking agency away from him, her or them? And if (some would say when) a film fails at refusing to represent, is this failure a merit or a demerit?

I found myself vigorously supporting these attempts at the refusal of representation, even when the refusal was complicated by the class, race, gender or cultural difference of those being “non-represented.” I thought and still think the films doing this were some of the freshest and most vital in the seminar. For me, they continue the project of working with filmic means against the conventional conditions of cinema, a project that I am obviously deeply invested in researching and teaching.

A couple of discoveries that did this, and that I got excited about:

Ben Russell Trypps #7 (Badlands), 10 min, 16mm, color, sound, 2010

There were a couple of other films from the Trypps series shown, and I missed them, dammit (my inability to take time off and commit 100% to the Flaherty when it is held just two floors away from my office). This one was excellent, a dizzying, vicarious acid drop made up of beauty, landscape, the tolling of bells, a mirror, and a prominent crack in it all.

Four stills from Sack Barrow,Ben Rivers, 21 minutes, 16mm, color, sound, 2011

Was this film my favorite of the entire festival? Yes, although one shouldn’t play favorites. It has certainly stayed with me the longest. While driving, or brushing my teeth, I can’t stop thinking back on these glimpses of the fantastical and abject. There were so many lovely and strange sequences of grotto-like mineral deposit and steam baths and industrial paint color (in the inter-leaders, too, or whatever you call them). It was like a fairyland of the Western, post-industrial economy. The middle-aged, almost-redundant workers moved slowly through it all, at home amongst the beautiful grossness like deep sea creatures. You must realize/smoke gets in your eyes…

Excerpts from many of Rivers’ works are viewable on his gallery’s Vimeo page–I look forward to going through them all soon.

Ah, Liberty, Ben Rivers, 2008, 20 minutes, 16mm, sound, black and white

Gorgeously framed messiness and play in the countryside, shot in Cinemascope. There is a case to be made that an unproblematized romanticism of the working class is present here and in Sack Barrow, but I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’m not interested in making that case. I think it’s a preliminary reaction that is actually discounted with enough careful looking and reflection.

Many thought Buñuel’s Las Hurdes (1933) was documentary when it was actually something that displaced documentary because they weren’t doing the work of taking the strangeness to the next level as spectators. I think Rivers’ films operate similarly, and I argued so in the discussion after an ingeniously-programmed double feature of his The Creation As We Saw It (work in progress, 16 minutes, HQ file) and Robert and Frances Flaherty’s Moana (1926, 96 minutes, 16mm) newly scored with traditional Samoan music in the late 1970s by Monica Flaherty. A GREAT session!

Moana, Robert and Frances Flaherty, 1926, 96 minutes, 16mm, sound by Monica Flaherty, 1981

I’m still reflecting on my stances on these and other “refusal of representation” films, wondering if, on a very basic and selfish level, I am shooting myself in the foot as a woman and a feminist. Since we at the Flaherty were all human (some preternaturally good-humored and others not), personae inevitably influenced this debate about filmic representation and the liberties that can or can’t be taken with it. I missed some screenings and tone-setting debates early on, and was therefore unsure what all had influenced some filmmakers’ and participants’ attitudes and behaviors.

In any case, it seemed clear we all have a lot more cinematic, subjectival and theoretical wound-exploring to do. What does it mean to support projects that may risk returning to an objectification of women, people of color, or non-Western cultures en route to doing damage to representation? I don’t have a response for myself yet. I’m thankful for the films and people who are prompting that thinking.

Flaherting, part 1

I had the good fortune to attend much if not all of the Flaherty Seminar here at Colgate last week! I’m still working through what I found to be a quite intense experience in emails and conversations. Here is yet another version of my thoughts on the films seen and debates had.

The theme of the seminar this year was “Open Wounds.” It’s one of those wonderful, vaguely specific phrases for which film programmers (myself included) are perpetually searching in an effort to give film viewers an architecture to use without locking them in and throwing away the key.

Literal and metaphorical open wounds were certainly addressed in the content of many of the films programmed. Susana de Sousa Dias’ 48 (2009, 93 minutes) was exemplary in this respect.

The film is a series of mug shots (fifteen?) of political prisoners taken during the Salazar regime. These indexes are the basis for a memory testimonial given by each person photographed on the film’s soundtrack. We never see the (now elderly) former political prisoner; we only hear his or her voice, which is both inside of and reflexively removed from the still black and white photograph.

Dias’ documentary worked its film-temporal magic on me: I was really irritated with its inexorable slowness for the first fifteen minutes, but then my thoughts and my breathing seemed to meet the sound and images in front of me. I became totally engrossed in the incomplete stories told, and wakefully fascinated with these portraits of endurance and recalcitrance. The former prisoners spoke of their physical suffering and their mental trauma from neither the standpoint of victims or victors, but from the standpoint of resistants. Whether they were caught while actively sabotaging the regime or unluckily found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, they all had the political inscribed on their bodies and minds, perhaps in a way similar to the inscription of mileage and speed on a marathon runner.

Dias’ expanding project of films (all dedicated to this history and originating in these police photographs) seemed in many respects to be a mediated, one-woman Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Portugal and its dictatorial history.

 

If the narrative of Dias’ films addressed the open wounds of national history, Su Friedrich’s wonderful Odds of Recovery (2002, 65 minutes) meditated on the pleasures and terrors of our bodies, the way they evolve sometimes in- and sometimes out-of-synch with the evolution of our interpersonal relationships and our spirit.

As always, Friedrich’s masterful editing allowed the film to be unsentimental, witty, joyful, frustrating and moving at the same time. I appreciated the way each shot explicitly avoided conventional beauty. The biggest delight for me was the way in which Friedrich’s meandering, handheld tracking shots of vines and plants in her garden enlivened the embroidery she made of her surgeries (as work in progress as well as finished artwork). And vice versa. With these passages, the film became a kind of carte du tendre in moving images, moving back and forth between natural and interior worlds.