There Can Be a Better World: The 2020 Images Festival

Małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore

By Cayley James

The 33rd annual Images Festival was meant to take place at its traditional home of the University of Toronto’s Innis College in the third week of April. In early March those plans changed, as did the reality of every live event around the world. A great deal has been written about the current state and future of film festivals, with the general consensus being that there won’t be any large-scale in-person festivals for the rest of 2020, at least. In Toronto, where film festivals have become something of a cottage industry (with over 150 operating on an annual basis), it’s particularly hard not to feel the cruel irony of the present moment. Festivals remain one of the last holdouts for appreciating films in a public setting in the face of the steady march of streaming and VOD; now, they are faced with the stark choice of either postponing their events entirely, or, as with Images, pivoting to an online model that strikes at their very raison d’être. 

There are benefits to the latter tactic, of course, with accessibility right at the top of the list. This year’s Images programming was not only free, but was also made available to audiences around the world, yielding an online attendance of approximately 7,000 viewers. But those interested in the physical experience of projection and the materiality of filmwere out of luck. Perhaps the most telling sign of what was lost in the festival’s survival strategy was the omission from the online program of Miko Revereza’s Biometrics (2019), which was replaced bya title card that appeared on screen for the entirety of the film’s roughly eight-minute running time: “There are no digital stills from this film. It is a camera-less film created by repeatedly stamping fingerprints onto the clear [16mm] leader, a gesture resembling the process of recording biometrics data into a system of surveillance of immigrants.” This felt absence made it all the more ironically (and sadly) fitting that Biometrics ended up winning the festival’s annual “More with Less”award, which it shared with Nazli Dinçel’s Instructions on How to Make a Film (2018). That said, the context of this alternate-reality film festival, in which I was watching films on my bed or in my living room, yielded some pleasant surprises as well: it’s unlikely that I would have been affected as much by Ben Rivers’ Now, at Last! (2019)—a 40-minute portrait of a Costa Rican sloth named Cherry falling asleep while suspended from a palm tree, accompanied by intermittent bursts of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” on the soundtrack—if I had seen it in a crowded auditorium. 

While all the work in the festival was obviously programmed prior to the lockdown, the selection felt prescient in its pronounced focus on looking outward. Whether impressionistic sojourns through the natural world or meditations on new media spaces, this year’s offerings evinced a palpable yearning for something bigger, something beautiful, something better; they were gestures towards a wider, more compassionate world. By and large, the strongest titles in the line-up were from BIPOC artists, and were not necessarily new works either: some dated back as far as the ’40s. While welcome, this conversation between past and present and the emphasis on work created by marginalized voices felt somewhat bittersweet, considering Images’ very public falling-out with their former programmer Sarah-Tai Black last year, which was occasioned when, following an incident in which racist comments were made during a post-screening panel discussion, Black charged that the organization had not made an effort to change the culture in which this took place. Whether or not the festival has taken Black’s criticisms to heart is yet to be seen, but there has been something of a reckoning in the programming itself, which can be read as an attempt to course-correct last year’s mistakes. 

Sky Hopinka’s Maɬnitowards the ocean, towards the shore opened the festival, and, given that much of Hopinka’s work deals with language and community, it seemed like the perfect antidote to our current state of suspended reality. Premiered earlier this year at Sundance, Maɬni follows Hopinka’s friends Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier in and around their ancestral land in the Columbia River Basin, a staggeringly beautiful area that stretches through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana to the west and British Columbia to the north. Through Hopinka’s narration and his dialogue with Sahme and Mercier, who reply to his questions in both English and their native tongue of Chinuk Wawa (a language that Hopinka learned in his twenties), the film unpacks the Chinuk death myth, which is explained as a debate between Lilu (wolf) and T’alap’as (coyote) on whether there should be an afterlife; the fact that both Sahme and Mercier are expecting children adds even more to the film’s themes of birth, survival, and reincarnation. Establishing a simple and intimate language through his handheld camera and a soundscape built on the hypnotic rhythm of paddles splashing in the Pacific’s water, the crush of flora underfoot, pow-wow drums and voices, Hopinka subtly inverts the tropes of the ethnographic documentary to depict indigenous life from an indigenous perspective. 

Similar reappropriative strategies could be seen in the three shorts featured in a spotlight on the indigenous filmmaking collective cousin—Hopinka’s Space without Path or Boundary: Anti-Objects (2017), Alexandra Lazarowich’s LAKE (2019), and Adam Piron’s Gùtk’ódàu (Yellow) (2019)—which see indigenous filmmakers reclaiming the kinds of everyday culture and activities (respectively, language, ice fishing, and teepee-building) that had been fetishized by early documentary pioneers. In a more fantastical vein, the machinima web series TimeTraveller™ (2008-2013)and short film The Peacemaker Returns (2018) by multidisciplinary Mohawk artist Skawennati employ the VR platform Second Life toenvision alternate histories and a future with indigenous sovereignty. TimeTraveller™ follows two characters, Hunter and Karahkwenhawi, as they zip from the year 2121 to the AIM occupation of Alcatraz in 1970, the pre-contact Aztec empire, and other fateful historical moments in indigenous history; set in 3025, Peacemaker centres on Iotetshèn:’en, a young Mohawk woman who travels through space with four other diplomats to create a “confederacy in the sky” with four nearby planets. Reminiscent of Kent Monkman’s irreverent, postcolonial takes on Canadian history, Skawennati’s work acts as both a history lesson as well as a delightful exercise in indigenous futurism, speculating on and challenging what indigenous identity can look like.

A recurring theme of slippery transformation runs throughout the entire festival, even in the more straightforward aesthetic experiments in the shorts programs. The swooping and swirling lines of National Film Board animator Evelyn Lambert—subject of a nine-film spotlight that includes her famous collaborations with Norman McLaren on Lines Vertical (1960), Lines Horizontal (1962), Begone Dull Care (1949), and Rhythmetic (1956), as well as solo works such as The Hoarder (1969) and Fine Feathers (1968)—find contemporary echoes in the animated experiments of many emerging artists in this year’s festival, most notably the charming Adorable (2019)by Taiwanese artist Cheng-Hsu Chung, in which day-glo illustrations morph and dance to reflect a journey towards gender fluidity and self-acceptance.Two of the most resonant pieces in this vein, however, were works by the young black filmmakers Madeline Hunt-Ehrlich and Ayo Akingbade, which explore the gossamer-thin line between past and present as they investigate the legacy of people power and direct action. As much as their respective films engage with the public record (albeit aspects of it that have often been ignored or maligned), these artists also weave personal narratives and secrets throughout their histories of activism both small and large. 

Hunt-Ehrlich’s Spit on the Broom (2019) excavates the history of the United Order of Tents, a sorority of African-American women that was founded in the time of the Underground Railroad and has persisted to this day, with much of its activities and history still shrouded in secrecy. While a voiceover outlines significant moments from the Order’s history, much of the film is built around silence and gestures, capturing the solidarity between the group’s current members (both young and old) via striking frontal tableaux and juxtaposing these with elliptical historical re-enactments that evoke the intimacy of early portrait photography. No News Todayis the name that Akingbade has given to her recently completed trilogy of films on social housing in London’s inner-city communities, which were screened in a program of the same name. The program begins with Tower XYZ (2016), a poetic reverie on the borough of Hackney that screened at Images back in 2018, and which serves as a prelude to the larger and more ambitious projects that would follow. Street 66 (2018) recalls the history of a tenants-rights group in the Brixton housing estate of Angell Town, which, under the leadership of the late Dora Boatemah, fought for community control over their homes through the late ’80s and ’90s. 

In her most recent film, Dear Babylon (2019), dedicated to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017, Akingbade returns to the Hackney towers of her first film and takes a hybrid approach to exploring the history and future of council estates in London. The film opens with archival footage of the 1990 poll tax demonstrations and the 2011 Hackney Riots, as a voiceover announces that polls are set to close on the (fictional) AC30 housing bill, which would see renters stripped of their rights and required to pay an exorbitant flat fee of £18,000 to their landlords, under threat of eviction; appalled, three young art students set out to interview their housing-estate neighbours about their reactions to the bill. Though the premise is fabricated, the interviews that Akingbade’s onscreen avatars conduct with the council residents are genuine, the fictional conceit acting as a catalyst for conversations about such issues as the problematic relocation of displaced persons from London to the outer boroughs and the misconceptions about life in the estates. Going even deeper into the socio-political history of her subject, Akingbade has her protagonists interview architects and historians who unpack the progressive political culture that spurred the construction of social housing following World War II, with a specific focus on the work of Berthold Lubetkin, who designed the Dorset Estate in Hackney in which the film is set. Deeply grounded in the specifics of their subjects’ situations yet universally appealing in their dispatches about life under late capitalism, all three parts of Akingbade’s trilogy announce the arrival of a formidable new voice in moving-image and documentary art. 

At one point in Harun Farocki’s Parallel II (2014), the narrator asks a question that haunted me all the way through this strange, bodiless festival: “Does the world exist if I’m not watching?” The film was featured in a program dedicated to the German polymath, which paired three of Farocki’s films with three video essays about Farocki by critic and filmmaker Kevin B. Lee. The first of Lee’s pieces, The Counter-Image (2018), is a hyperlink video essay in which Lee clicks through files on his MacBook as he attempts to apply some kind of taxonomic rationale to Farocki’s sprawling filmography, the physical limitations of the computer screen echoing Farocki’s fascination with the necessarily partial nature of the images we create (be they photographs, maps, newspapers, video games, etc.) and his determination, as Lee puts it, to “go beyond the borders of what images present us, beyond what most images want us to see.” This philosophy is best exemplified in Catch Phrases – Catch Images (1986), in which Farocki and Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser dissect the front page of a German tabloid newspaper, noting the way photographs interrupt the texts, and creating a situation that, as Flusser notes, is “intentionally chaotic.” While it feels almost nostalgic to return to such a critique of two-dimensional media, Farocki’s insights remain just as acute and applicable in our age of constant screen time. In Parallel II, Farocki follows video-game avatars who, despite the game’s carefully created illusion of expansiveness, continually run up against their in-game boundaries. Finally, one player uses a change of settings to break through these confines, and proceeds to tumble headlong through space—an image that, whether read as liberating or annihilating, feels uncomfortably resonant in our current age.