Prismatic Ground 2024

Michel Khleifi’s Fertile Memory (1981)

Now in its fourth year, Prismatic Ground, the festival of experimental documentary and avant-garde film copresented by Screen Slate, was launched at the tail end of the pandemic, when theaters had been shut down for a full year. “I noticed that a lot of the larger film institutions were treating the online experience as merely a stopgap until the return to physical screenings,” founder and programmer Inney Prakash told Jordan Cronk. “Few organizations were making an effort to rethink the experience. I saw an opportunity to fill a void.”

There’s still a virtual component to Prismatic Ground, wave ∞, and you can watch selections from the first three editions on the Criterion Channel. Most of this year’s roughly ninety films, though—up from around sixty last year—will screen at four venues in New York. In 2023, Screen Slate emphasized “the festival’s commitment to politically and aesthetically abrasive new forms,” and that commitment holds, beginning with the selection of this year’s opening night film.

Michel Khleifi’s Fertile Memory (1981), copresented by Bidoun and screening on Wednesday at the Museum of the Moving Image, is a meditative portrait of two Palestinian women, Farah Hatoum, Khleifi’s aunt and a widow living with her children and grandchildren, and Sahar Khalifeh, a younger novelist from the West Bank. When Sabzian and Courtisane presented Cinematek’s restoration in 2021, Stoffel Debuysere noted in his introduction that Farah and Sahar were living in Nazareth within the parameters of “a double occupation,” one imposed by Israel and the other enforced by the patriarchy.

Sabzian has an outstanding collection of texts on Fertile Memory, and in one, Khleifi, speaking to Catherine Arnaud and Mouloud Mimoun in 1981, says that “my choices were the result of a personal reflection on left-wing or militant cinema’s failure to produce new dimensions. A film that I like a lot,” Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Here and Elsewhere (1976), “poses the problem of this cinema’s hypocrisy, but nothing more; I wanted to tackle the problem in a concrete way by giving the floor to these two women directly.” Writing in 1986, Edward Said observed that Khleifi “has given the women’s lives an aesthetic clarity which, for me, a male Palestinian, sheds new light on our experience of dispossession.”

Prismatic Ground 2024 will run through the weekend, and screenings at Anthology Film Archives will include a retrospective tribute to Antoinetta Angelidi, who will be on hand on Saturday and Sunday as all but one of the selected films are presented for the first time in North America. “Angelidi’s life’s work has been the pursuit of a women’s avant-garde, the construction of a visual language that can convey, as one critic put it, ‘the adventure of women’s bodies,’” writes Courtney Stephens in her notes on this year’s recipient of the festival’s sole prize, the Ground Glass Award.

When Amit Dutta’s ten-minute Blueprint of a Pleasure Machine screened at Rotterdam last year, programmer Olaf Möller called it a “brazenly metaphysical Indian movie mystery animated with elements taken from the lobby cards and posters Amit Dutta found in a museum's film paraphernalia collection. The images of stars strut and stumble through the photographs of sets, with a dense voiceover ruminating about past beauties and present shadows. What a masterpiece!” Along with a Film Comment panel on writing about experimental film, Blueprint is one of the highlights of the two programs screening at DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema.

The fourth venue is Light Industry, hosting Thursday’s evening with the film and performance collective arc as well as a reading and a new work from Sky Hopinka. Just a Soul Responding is “a travelogue of sorts,” notes Hopinka, “as two friends whose lives intersect and diverge, look at the road and the vessels we use as means to traverse landscapes both contemporary and historical, and of the spirit and of the body.”

Other highlights in this year’s edition include Raúl Ruiz’s Socialist Realism (1973), recently restored by Valeria Sarmiento and the Chilean production company Poetastros; Gurvinder Singh’s Trolly Times, which documents protests triggered by the farm laws passed in India in 2020; two short films by Luke Fowler; and Abiding Nowhere, the tenth film in Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker series inspired by Lee Kang-sheng’s portrayal in Tsai’s 2011 theater piece Only You of the seventh-century Tang Dynasty monk Chen Xuanzang, who spent seventeen years walking from China to India. Abiding Nowhere also stars Anong Houngheuangsy, and Tsai describes the film as “two lonely souls on separate journeys, sometimes crossing paths but never once meeting.”

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