The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020 Interviews The Girl and the Spider *En plein air: Denis Côté on Hygiène
By Phil Coldiron
We still have not found a satisfactory way to show new short films. The approach taken for the shorts competition at the International Film Festival Rotterdam—to treat ticketed programs as minimally thematic clusters of individual screenings, separated by a brief question and answer session with the filmmaker if present (and most were)—argues, commendably, for the self-sufficiency of its selections. But I must admit that despite its freshness I found the experience of Rotterdam’s format still less than ideal: it came with a heightened sense of the rapid consumption built into the model of the film festival, the churn of viewing and reflecting ramped up to three or four times the usual rate. The tradeoff is a markedly increased capacity to make sense of each work in itself: to get a proper sense of its shape, a few minutes to think. The usual film festival approach requires reverse engineering discrete works out of a 60-to-90-minute flow. I remain undecided whether Rotterdam’s approach seems preferable to more heavily curated programs.
Though its individual screenings were not provided smoothing conceptual justifications, the full competition program nonetheless betrayed a consistent tendency toward discursiveness and legibility among entries of markedly different scales and styles. In this, its selection was fully in line with the recent trend away from the anti-linguistic montage tradition and its focus on rich and irreducible present experience, which has been all but entirely absent from most major venues for premiering artists film and video for long enough now that its return might provide, if nothing else, a welcome rhythmic boost. What follows is an attempt to carry out an activity, summarization, which I think these works both tolerate and, to a certain degree, demand.
Aggregate States of Matter, like most of Rosa Barba’s work, attempts to find a form adequate to a system that, for whatever reason, evades picturing. Here, it’s the global climate and its worsening crisis, seen in 35mm via a local symptom: glacial melt in the Peruvian Andes. The scale of Barba’s interests matches her visual taste for the ruined sublime, for expanses of withered Romance. But this ruin is just an idea; the vistas remain spectacular. She registers her ambivalence through the insertion of texts to obscure some of the film’s more bombastic aerial views. At times, she fills the frame with dozens of oscillating lines; at others, she folds words into many-sided structures and sets them in motion. In both cases, Barba challenges our ability to read these condensations of scientific and local testimony, indicating the epistemological mechanics of engaging at such scale: the climate crisis appears as not just instances of visual evidence—crumbling glaciers, dry shores—but as so many incommensurable discourses, the problem of their reconciliation dramatized as one of legibility. Barba troubles her old fashioned realism, her desire to show the things of the world as they are, with a concern for what’s provisional.
With Apiyemiyekî?, Ana Vaz has mellowed her montage style—with the exception of a brief, swirling modernist overture—as her sense for historical reverberation continues to deepen. The film is an essay on the project undertaken by the radical anthropologist and educator Egydio Schwade in conjunction with the Waimiri-Atroari in the years immediately after Brazil’s dictatorship had carried out a series of atrocities against these indigenous people of the Amazon. In the course of a language-learning program led by Schwade, the Waimiri-Atroari had reason to produce thousands of drawings, presented by Vaz here in various formats, many of which deal directly with this violence suffered in the name of progress: the construction of the BR-174 highway. We see the drawings—done largely it seems in marker, thickly drawn and generally without perspective—both on the page and laid over Vaz’s soft monochrome images: a cartoon raft goes down a photographic river. An interest in these as art objects, necessarily inflected by the current vogue for such naïve work (drawing was collectively determined to be the most expedient way of triangulating the world and two languages), carries with it the context of the recent re-emergence of the same fascism, with the same murderous plans for industrial expansion into the Amazon and the same disdain for those with a right to the land. A closing title card detailing the drawings’ critical role in a recent human-rights inquiry situates the film more explicitly within the ongoing conversation regarding the aesthetics of evidence that has grown in recent years around the work of the artists and researchers associated with Forensic Architecture.
As formally modest a major prizewinner as can be imagined at an international film festival, Ismaïl Bahri’s Tiger Award winning Apparition, a single three-minute shot, wastes no energy. After 20 seconds of the sound of indeterminate activity against a white screen, two hands enter the composition, introducing a rectangle in between the camera and what we realize is some bright lamp, capable of blowing out the frame. Initially, this rectangle itself is blown out, white within a darker gray. The fingers begin to move over the side nearer the lamp, blocking the light from behind and revealing, slowly, the contents of a photograph: an urban scene, dozens upon dozens of people filling a street. In its iteration as a looped gallery installation, it would perhaps be easier to notice the Tunisian flags smattering this crowd. The hands turn the photo over, repeat the same procedure, this time revealing a handwritten note. Though its Arabic is unsubtitled, one can make out a 1956 in its upper left corner which, in conjunction with the flags, might lead one to assume this is an image of revolution and that the attempt to grasp it carries implications of much more than a clever visual trick.
With Aquí y allá, Melisa Liebenthal also attempts to picture a global system—her family’s circulation around the world across a century of social and political repression—through the more modest means of the desktop film. Google Maps are deftly navigated as Liebenthal narrates, locations identified and digitally approached to the point of abstraction: the film’s key image is a frame filled with monochrome pixels, illegible data. This online longing dissolves across a question—“here?” she asks, pointing to a building within a printed aerial view—to a strangely deadpan sequence late in its 20 minutes of voyeuristic views into apartments from the street: lights turn on, people eat dinner, a party is given.
Following a calm opening in which subtitles seem to translate the music of folk song which gives way to a bombastic dedication, “inspired by the beauty and suffering of the Mekong,” Thao-Nguyen Phan’s Becoming Alluvium continues to float between styles, tones, and references. A mythic story involving the death and reincarnation of a pair of young brothers is told, again voicelessly via subtitles, atop largely vacant rural scenes. Marguerite Duras is quoted, now in spoken French. Eventually, a fully animated sequence recounts the sad tale of a princess who lived by the river. This approach of placing divergent strands around a central object, or point of perspective, is as near to hegemonic as any mode in artists moving image work at the moment.
A work of remarkable cynicism, Erik van Lieshout’s Beer, an account of the Dutch artist’s attempts to come to terms with the burden of a moderate success, was the most illuminating of the competition’s low lights. Though its late-slacker confessional style is insufferable—the sheer decadence of a mid-career crisis vlog in 2020, however post-ironic, is beyond what might have been imagined—the funhouse of failed enlightenment mapped by van Lieshout with admirable insincerity amounts to a miserably accurate synopsis of bourgeois art’s recent efforts in the direction of social and political action.
Bright Summer Diary, by Lei Lei, though it appears a thin film by design, was as satisfying a theatrical experience as the competition offered. Lei, it seems, runs both still and moving-source material through some analytic animation process, which flattens it and creates noticeable but vague senses of temporal off-ness, whether in the emergence of time in serially reiterated still images or the dragging time of the rephotographed material from Romance on Lushan Mountain, a Chinese film most notable for its 40 years in theatrical release, from 1980 through the present (a period covering a little more than the life of the artist, who grew up near the film’s setting). The soundtrack, minor family narratives and crackling warm pathos loops—more Basinski than Lopatin—fills out the flat space of Lei’s images with a heavier awareness of time passing, if not nostalgia. Taken together, it’s an ambient cinema, a surprisingly deep mood.
The second Tiger Award winner, Maïder Fortuné and Annie MacDonell’s Communicating Vessels was, to my mind, the competition’s major revelation. A narrative-adjacent whatsit involving art school, motherhood, experimental psychotropic therapy, and the strange experience of tradition and influence, the film’s unique shape allows it to ingest a number of canonical works of video and performance art while avoiding the pleading quality of so much heavily referential work being produced across the arts at the moment. Its framework is a helix, in which a teacher’s recounting of her time with a particularly bright and troubled student, identified only as E, leads to an intensely conveyed crisis that collapses the film into a burst of language. As we see E—there are in fact two young women and it is not made explicit which, if either, should be understood as E, so I will refer to them as such collectively—carry out a number of canonical gestures and actions drawn from sources including Lygia Clark, Joan Jonas, and Dennis Oppenheim, her unnamed professor speaks glowingly of her student’s wit and eccentricity. E’s graduation project, we are told, is to involve only her mother recounting an LSD-based treatment for mental illness, the artist placing herself at the remove of only facilitating this recording. The young artist’s own unexpected pregnancy seems to leave her terribly unsettled, culminating in the aforementioned crisis, another in a series of breakdowns at the university, screaming at her landlord on the phone. The professor intervenes and the images give way to text, white on a black background, one word at a time: “So fuck your apartment, fuck your mother, we’re the mother now.” The image returns: the same webcam composition of the professor which opened the film, though now flipped horizontally, the professor’s face laid over itself as she, now the mother, recounts her therapeutic trip into the void.
In Rajee Samarasinghe’s The Eyes of Summer, a child roams the streets of a Sri Lankan village, her face betraying, through loose shot-reverse shot sequences, that she sees more than usual. Though such mystery might have been allowed to come from the eyes, we are made to know it by an opening title card informing us that “a narrative was improvised around an investigation into my mother’s interactions with spirits in the community during her childhood.” The widescreen frame that captures this improvisation mainly turns close-ups into medium shots, while its monochrome palette leaves one haunted by all the shades that have remained off-screen.
The final installment of Ben Rivers’ ongoing collaboration with the author Mark von Schlegell, Look Then Below, in contrast, abounds in colours, as it descends into Somerset caves imagined sometime after the failure of a sufficient response to climate change. Its drifting images—some are fully computer generated, others are digitally enhanced analogue footage—present a world in which the atmosphere diffracts differently, throwing off a range of jewel tones. Both von Schlegell’s narrative in verse, which leads to a low-key encounter between the human and the post-human, and the soundtrack, by Rivers and Christina Vantzou, tend towards the droning, drawing this too in the direction of ambient cinema (like much of Rivers’ work, it has shown in both gallery and theatrical settings).
Bani Abidi’s The Lost Procession, through its attenuated direction—footage of the lives of the Hazara in Pakistan is collected remotely at Abidi’s request—deals, like a number of works in the competition, with the matter of understanding what can be known from a given image. Within the knowledge of the repression and persecution which has driven many of these Shia minorities to Germany, where the artist herself resides (the film opens with low-grade footage of a group of Hazara celebrating on a German street), a young man’s parkour routines, a recurrent image within the Pakistan footage, take on a particular charge.
Generally, the relationship of comedy and sex in the movies is causal. Michael Portnoy’s intervention in his boneheaded, blaring Progressive Touch is to attempt to make them identical. The film comprises three scenes of apparently unsimulated screwing—straight, gay, and lesbian—carried out as a kind of pop modern dance by performers playing in a register of Looney Tunes idiocy, shot and edited with a thudding mechanical clunkiness, as if Portnoy had been binging on nothing but late-period Noé. It would be more interesting if anyone involved seemed turned on at all.
The inclusion in programs largely devoted to artists film and video of work in the art house narrative tradition is, at this point, unsurprising (it has crept in as slowly as the lyrical film has gone missing). This year’s competition selection featured four such titles: Leonardo Mouramateus’ Rain Hums a Lullaby to Pain, William Andreas Wivel’s Sayōnara, Dorian Jespers’ Sun Dog, and Isabel Pagliai’s Tender. The first three of these films—an urbane comedy of transhistorical race relations, a cramped portrait of exile and isolation, and a garish nocturne north of the Arctic circle—each seem to me too far under the sway of inadequately digested influences: the various European non-naturalists, Akerman, and Sokurov, respectively. All three display a film-school sense of technical facility and so they hit their formal marks consistently. Tender, though, moves freely through a variety of approaches to complicating its naturalism. At 43 minutes, it was the competition’s longest entry, allowing for a feature-length languidness in hanging around a group of unsupervised minors living a life in rural France tinged with the same nervous energy as Gummo (1997) or, closer to home, the early Dumont. Pagliai’s main formal strategy is to closely mic her subjects and shoot them from a distance, a kind of soft parental surveillance which produces a troubling sense of intimacy. When, finally, this fabricated proximity sheers away and the role of our own belief in reconciling what we see and hear is laid bare, we’re left to wonder whether these children think they’re building their own Neverland.
Onyeka Igwe’s the names have changed, including my own and truths have been altered approaches a wide range of archives, using the broad and malleable frame of family history to compose one of the presumably massive number of stories that might be made available through this constellation of historical materials. Although it is wrong to say that Igwe’s film tells one story: its narrative strands are not forced to cohere, a fact not unrelated to her decision to include a chorus commenting through the ritual movement of dance, rather than words. Which isn’t to imply that language is absent. In the film’s most remarkable sequence, Igwe unearths a print from the depths of a Nigerian film archive, shows us the dirt it has left on her hands, and then describes its images—scenes from Lagos a century ago—rather than show them.
Plucked from the French Pavillion at last year’s Venice Biennale, They Parlaient Idéale continues Laure Prouvost’s recent interest in modes of travel. Here, the journey is a bohemian pilgrimage to, yes, the French Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale. A shifting cast of variously eccentric travelers speaks in surreal babble as Prouvost speeds through her typically jagged montage. Its iconography can tend to the fusty—beyond the camp of its general revelry, there’s an eyeball in a mouth at one point—but Prouvost, like the ReStacks, has a particular, very modern, talent for conjuring the illusion of physicality in her digital images. That the telos of such self-styled outsider chic is the top of the blue chip art market provides a base of social realism.
Mahdi Fleifel’s Three Logical Exits is a portrait of a subject—a young Palestinian man, Reda, living in the camps of Lebanon—whose relationship to death is such that he would take to the streets to celebrate a friend’s murder as martyrdom. When we are then shown this murder, from the distanced view of some surveillance camera, both the grammar of the image and the context of the film demand that we take seriously what we are seeing as fact, as an image of actual death: a man on a scooter swerves, topples over in the middle of a crowded street. What registers is so unspectacular that Fleifel must rewind the video to be sure he’s seen it: we are faced at once with the horror of this situation and of our willingness to believe it.
Diane Severin Nguyen’s Tyrant Star is a sort of pop pendent to the more classically mythic Becoming Alluvium, playing out a romance in sing-song voiceover and stylized subtitles against empty urban scenes in Ho Chi Minh City, before giving way to a bedroom karaoke performance of Paul Simon’s “The Sounds of Silence.” The performance of loneliness is, I suppose, about as old as art, and Nguyen modulates it here with millennial precision, which is another way of saying that I find these emotions somewhat hard to believe, though all the more moving for it.
Given the heavy presence of language in 20 of the competition’s21 titles (only Progressive Touch has none), it’s fitting to conclude with Wong Ping’s Fables 2, whose title is quite literal. Composed of two distinct, though briefly intersecting, illustrated stories—one involves a cow who successfully rebrands his revolutionary youth into capitalist success; the other, a trio of conjoined rabbits whose inability to collectively commit to a career has disastrous ramifications—told through animated tableaux, its presentation as a video rather than a book comes down finally to present habits of consumption. Still, the writing manages in both cases to work at once as elementary education, complete with stated moral, and as thorny social satire.