Terms such as “avant-garde” and “experimental” as descriptors for the sort of work screened each year in the New York Film Festival’s Projections program have fallen in and out of fashion since the earliest days of cinema. Let’s just set that discussion aside for now and head straight into an overview of the critical response to the work selected by curators Dennis Lim, Aily Nash, and program assistants Shelby Shaw and Dan Sullivan. This past weekend, the NYFF presented six features, six programs of new short film and video works, and a tribute to filmmaker Jonathan Schwartz, who passed away last October. Canyon Cinema, which distributes his 16 mm films, notes that Schwartz left behind “a remarkable and intimate body of work that registers the sorrow, love, despair, and exultation of lived existence.”
Thomas Heise’s 218-minute essay film Heimat Is a Space in Time might seem at first glance to be the most daunting work in the program, and yet it’s an immediately accessible and consistently engaging history of his family. It’s a trek from Vienna to Berlin incorporating archival footage and photographs, letters read by the director in voiceover, and contemporary shots of empty urban and rural spaces. Two world wars, the rise and fall of a fascist regime, the creation of two republics with opposing ideologies, and the uneasy melding of those two Germanys are seen and heard with varying degrees of urgency through the eyes and ears of Heise’s immediate and distant relatives. In this summer’s issue of Cinema Scope, Michael Sicinski wrote that Heise “delineates intensely personal relationships: between parents and children, siblings, spouses, and dear friends. The question the film presents is not just how individuals were subject to the vicissitudes of history, but also how those broader structures, insidious as they were, worked to shape the very conditions under which personal bonds could form.”
Like Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come, which screens once more on Saturday as part of the NYFF’s Main Slate, Eloy Enciso Cachafeiro’s Endless Night has been shot by cinematographer Mauro Herce and opens with the return of a mysterious protagonist to his home in the Galician countryside. In the case of Endless Night, the direction of nonprofessional actors and their conversations drawn from texts rooted in Franco-era Spain has several reviewers noting a formal resemblance to the work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Dispatching from Locarno to the Notebook, where Gustavo Beck interviews the director, Daniel Kasman notes that the “costumes and mise-en-scène could be from now or any time in the twentieth century, as Enciso pointedly hangs his film in a nebulous region whose somber shadows stretch across the decades, suggesting that the legacy of Franco’s era, of its violence and repression, and of its rationalization and valorization, is hardly over and done with or indeed separate from contemporary neoliberal Spain. No: One lives within the other, the repercussions of the past echo and sound in the present.”
Eric Baudelaire spent four years collaborating with twenty students attending a Parisian middle school to make Un film dramatique. The camera-wielding students document their lives, debate the hot topics of the day, and reenact scenes from classic films. In the new issue of the Brooklyn Rail, James Lattimer notes that the kids “keep asking what sort of film they’re actually making and it’s a question with no simple answer: a chronicle of modern France from the margins, a playful exercise in meta-filmmaking, or a choral diary would all be equally apt descriptions. But as the years pass, the shaky camerawork grows more assured, and pupil after pupil disappears from the project, the true drama becomes time itself, which neither life nor cinema can escape.”
Minh Quý Trương’s The Tree House is set in 2045 on Mars, where the narrator watches and ruminates on footage he shot back on Earth when he was meeting and talking with people he’d met in the jungles of Vietnam who had been uprooted by the war. “Collaging together fragments of U.S. military archive material, improvisatory camerawork, and BBC newsreels, The Tree House tends toward the historiographical rather than the historical, asking who can claim authorship over certain images,” writes Laura Davis at the top of her interview with Quý for Film Comment. “As the film takes us from an abandoned cave to a traditional Vietnamese longhouse, the slippage and fragility of post-colonial memory is represented in the interplay of ethnography and fiction.”
Mariah Garnett didn’t meet her father, David, until she was twenty-seven, and Trouble is, in a sense, an investigative portrait. David was an artist and a Protestant with a Catholic girlfriend when he appeared in a BBC documentary on interfaith relationships in 1971. The broadcast in Belfast at the height of the Troubles led to David’s leaving Northern Ireland, and he never returned. “Trouble is a heartbreaking account of the minute and massive consequences of human identifications—Catholic and Protestant, self and other, father and daughter,” writes Ashton Cooper for Artforum. “Garnett allows her father to speak over the documentary but alludes to the impossibility of historical accuracy by re-creating select clips, casting herself as him. If anything, Garnett makes the historical record queerer, more vulnerably tangled.”
In Who Is Afraid of Ideology?, Marwa Arsanios examines three experimental projects being conducted by women in war-torn regions: the mountains of Kurdistan, a village in northern Syria, and a refugee sanctuary in Lebanon near the Syrian border. “Many nongovernmental women’s organizations have emerged in the Arab world in the past twenty years,” wrote Arsanios in an essay for e-flux Journal last September, “and even more since 2011 to deal with the refugees crisis, a lack of nutritional resources, domestic violence, and women’s health issues. Though some do not present themselves as explicitly feminist, many deal with women’s issues or create spaces that specifically support women.” Reviewing an early version of the film for the Walker Art Center in 2017, Mason Leaver-Yap noted that it “depicts not only the lived paradoxes of its documented subjects, but also the contradictions in the effort to capture such complexities on camera.”
Shorts Program 1: News from Home
Phil Coldiron, who was all over the Wavelengths program in Toronto and wrote about it for Filmmaker, notes that Charlotte Prodger, who won the Turner Prize last year, is “among the foremost practitioners of a post-lyrical style derived from the poetics which emerged in unique but related forms on both American coasts in the 1970s, work which radically expanded the intricate dance of public and private first elaborated by the New York poets a generation before.” Her new forty-minute work SaF05 takes its title from the code name for a lioness in Botswana, where she’s drawn the attention of researchers because she’s grown a mane and begun to exhibit male-like behavior. “As the visual image scans and maps the lion's territory by car and by drone, Prodger can be heard on the soundtrack telling stories about emotional and sexual encounters with various women,” writes Michael Sicinski in the Notebook. “SaF05 is a work of sensitivity and wisdom, a timely butch roar.”
Peggy Ahwesh has turned her four-channel video installation Kansas Atlas into a split-screen film about the geographical center of the United States. “For the ancient Greeks,” wrote Ann McCoy this summer in the Brooklyn Rail, “the Omphalos, or center of the universe, was an earth navel or place of origin . . . A poetic text written and recorded by Marianne Shaneen expands on this notion of a mythic cosmology with references to Aboriginal songlines . . . Ahwesh takes this cosmogony into the realm of Americana with shots of a concrete Garden of Eden, made in 1907 by Civil War veteran Samuel Perry Dinsmoor, in nearby Lucas.”
Dani and Sheila ReStack’s diaristic Come Coyote tackles “the reproductive challenges of same-sex couples with sensual poetry and humor, plus a pinch of despair,” writes Ela Bittencourt for Hyperallergic, while Distancing is a chronicle of filmmaker and undocumented immigrant Miko Revereza’s journey back home to the Philippines from the States. In the Notebook, David Perrin finds that Revereza is “especially adept at capturing the banal poetry of mechanical movement through his many shots of revolving conveyor belts without luggage, 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 . . . become analogues to Revereza’s own position as a permanent passenger being borne forth without will.”
Shorts Program 2: Making Contact
In Pedro Neves Marques’s The Bite, researchers in São Paolo are frantically searching for a way to combat a plague borne by mosquitoes while out on the bank of a nearby river, lovers languish under their mosquito net. Phil Coldiron finds that the “allegorical structure” is “finely wrought while, fittingly, refusing to settle down into a single reading.” Marques is “indeed a talented filmmaker with a languid, atmospheric style that is still under construction,” writes Michael Sicinski. “With its Apichatpong-like approach to spatial relations and an ambiance reminiscent of João Pedro Rodrigues, The Bite clearly shows that its maker is onto something. But what we’re seeing are just early symptoms of a syndrome that is still in the process of metastasizing.”
Gabino Rodríguez and Nicolás Pereda’s My Skin, Luminous, which focuses on a student in rural Mexico whose skin has lost its pigmentation, is “a genuine shapeshifter,” writes Lawrence Garcia for Reverse Shot, “starting out with rote documentation of an educational initiative in a Michoacán primary school before moving into discombobulating scenes of ethereal light, striking blackness, and eerie repose.” David Perrin finds that 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.”
Shorts Program 3: Signs of Life
Back in March, we gathered notes on Beatrice Gibson’s Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters, which features filmmakers Ana Vaz and Basma Alsharif and is based on a play by Gertrude Stein. Patrick Staff’s The Prince of Homburg blends fragments from Heinrich von Kleist’s play with interviews with figures at the forefront of the transgender rights movement. “Imagistic nocturnal fragments, hand-painted animation, like a loose abstract painting, mix with the indexical images of subway platforms, highways, and party scenes,” writes Ela Bittencourt. “Captured on both an iPhone and in 16 mm, together they create a vertiginous journey through time, space, and psyche.” Bittencourt also writes about Diane Severin Nguyen’s “rapturous short,” Tyrant Star, in which “lovers speak of romance crushed by material hardships,” and “bright plastic bags float amidst the greenery like ripe exotic fruits, and sensuality pervades each frame, as fans and other electric devices hum and whirr, as if infected with the heat of the lovers’ discourse.”
Phil Coldiron has recently written at considerable length about the work of Zachary Epcar for Cinema Scope, and in one of his pieces for Filmmaker, he adds that, with Billy, Epcar “effects an intriguing rebalance of the suburban elements he’s torqued into strange forms over the last five years.” Michael Sicinski suggests that the film “could perhaps be considered a suburban trance film, in that it adheres to a certain dream logic in exploring the unconscious longing and dread lurking beneath an otherwise unexceptional middle-class white heterosexual scenario.” For Ela Bittencourt, Billy is “a home horror movie in which the true protagonist—a ghost, relentless stalker, and performer par excellence—is the camera.”
Shorts Program 4: Beginnings and Endings
Luke Fowler actually has two films in Projections. Mum’s Cards, a portrait of his mother, screened with Who Is Afraid of Ideology?, and in the new issue of frieze, he writes that he has “an ingrained image of her at the kitchen table late at night, reading, writing, and smoking roll-ups. It was a pretty bog-standard Marxist upbringing; on the weekends, we were dragged to either art galleries or to protests.” He’s grateful to both of his parents for introducing him to “plays by Samuel Beckett, Joe Orton and Harold Pinter; films by Lindsay Anderson, Derek Jarman, David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Andy Warhol, and of course, the constant stream of creative documentaries on BBC2 and Channel 4 programs, such as Arena and The South Bank Show.”
Fowler’s newest film, which screened in this fourth shorts program, is Houses (for Margaret), a tribute to Scottish filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait. “Her films focus on looking,” he writes, “looking and gathering the distinctness of things in her immediate vicinity: children, the walls of her studio, wild poppies growing by a roadside, the streets she lived on in Edinburgh, her mother unwrapping a sweet. She then edited these moments together into films that she offered back to the very people she had shot.”
Luise Donschen’s Entire Days Together focuses on a teenager just cured of her epilepsy as she hangs out with friends on long and lazy summer days. “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,” writes David Perrin.
In Hrvoji, Look at You from the Tower, Ryan Ferko travels through the countries that were once part of communist Yugoslavia, and Phil Coldiron finds that the “sequences are situated within a pleasing flow of images, though their rhythm is overly familiar.” Michael Sicinski argues that Ferko “displays an influence from certain key modernist masters, such as Cy Twombly, Robert Beavers, and Ernie Gehr. But there's a bold, original voice that comes through in Hrvoji, perhaps more clearly than in any of his previous films. This is a work that feels so exacting that even the hand-held trembling of the image seems to bolster the overall formal agenda of the work. An impressive achievement.”
In Double Ghosts, George Clark talks with filmmaker Valeria Sarmiento about The Comedy of Shadows, a project that her husband, Raúl Ruiz, who died in 2013, started in 1995 but never completed. Clark travels from Ruiz’s birthplace in Chile to a mountain cemetery in Taiwan where Ruiz had intended to realize his screenplay, which had been inspired by the Taoist parables of Chuang Tzu and Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.
Shorts Program 5: On the Move
In the 1980s and ’90s, black students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville would hang out at a bus stop. Kevin Jerome Everson and Claudrena N. Harold have collaborated with members of the current student body on Black Bus Stop, a film that begins with quiet chitchat and crescendos into a tightly choreographed song-and-dance number. “Few films this year, short or long, display the sheer exuberance” of “this nine-minute tour de force,” writes Tony Pipolo for Artforum. The film “resonates with such personal and cultural conviction that even the framing and cutting within its spatial confines are charged with verve and an implacable force.”
There are twelve shots in Tomonari Nishikawa’s Amusement Ride, and each of them are thirty seconds long because that’s what a single windup of a Bolex camera will get you. Nishikawa aims his camera at the inner workings of the giant Ferris wheel in Yokohama. Phil Coldiron observes that “the cluttered foregrounds of these compositions are a riot of lines and planes drawn in steel, recalling nothing so much as Frank Stella’s sculptures of the last three decades at their most austere, dismantled into near-graphic flatness by the telephoto lens.”
Joshua Gen Solondz “consistently makes some of the most unusual films around,” writes Michael Sicinski, and (tourism studies) is “a frame-by-frame alternation of contrasting images.” The film “ultimately asks us to reflect on the epistemology for a unifying film form, one that assigns all images an equal value, making of them a kind of crypto-currency . . . From the news media to the Internet, an all-encompassing, unified form tends to flatten existential differences, turning everything around us into a consumable sight. How can we live this way, Solondz seems to ask, forever up in the air, perpetually at sea?”
This program is rounded out by Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Pelourinho: They Don’t Really Care About Us, which juxtaposes letters W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1927 to the American embassy in Brazil and a Michael Jackson video by Spike Lee; Ben Russell’s Color-blind, which blends the work of Paul Gauguin with contemporary art in French Polynesia; and Simon Liu’s Signal 8, which David Perrin calls “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.”
Shorts Program 6: Solve for X
PHX [X is for Xylonite] is a collage film by Frances Scott that explores the history of plastic and incorporates excerpts from an essay by Roland Barthes and hand-processed black and white 16 mm film footage of a demolition on the site of a factory where the first semi-synthetic plastic was invented. Jenny Brady, too, works with archival material in Receiver, a survey of the history of the struggle for the rights of deaf people. This program also features a new restoration of Pat O’Neill’s Saugus Series (1974), an eighteen-minute short divided into seven sections, each one the result of a different experimental technique.
For BOMB Magazine, artist and filmmaker Mary Helena Clark talks with James N. Kienitz Wilkins, whose films, she writes, are “slippery and provocative, maddening and fun.” Over the course of about half an hour, Wilkins presents a foam coffee cup in This Action Lies, changing nothing but the lighting as he delivers a monologue in voiceover. “It’s a monologue about an imaginary equilateral triangle–shaped room with no entrances or exits,” he tells Clark. “An impossible room.” And “it appears to be a three-point lighting setup. That’s what’s seen on film: key, fill, rim. Even if it’s not true. Or it’s true and false at the same time.” Phil Coldiron proposes that the way any given viewer will respond to Wilkins’s work “hinges, I suspect, on whether or not one finds him to be working in bad faith, an accusation he takes considerable pleasure in toying with.”
For more on this year’s Projections, listen in as Ed Halter and Nellie Killian, who prove to be expert guides to contemporary moving image art, talk with Nicolas Rapold on the latest episode of the Film Comment Podcast.
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