Remember You As You Were: 2016 TIFF Wavelengths Shorts Programs highlights
by Irene Bindi
According to @ArtHouseTrump, Wavelengths—the typically excellent experimental programs at the Toronto International Film Festival, were a mess this year. “TIFF couldn’t even get the latest Dorsky films! Pathetic! Make Wavelengths Great Again!” the US presidential hopeful and ruthless film snob tweeted. Although it was an admittedly uneven year for Wavelengths (and not due to the Dorsky gap), @ArtHouseTrump was not entirely on the money: the best films of the four Wavelengths 2016 shorts programs were exceptional. Listed below is a small selection favourites from each.
Opening and closing films by the astounding Ana Mendieta bookended the first program, Wavelengths 1: The Fire Within. The Cuban-American artist who tragically died in 1985 was at the forefront of body-land art in the 1980s, exploring natural themes related to earth, death, body and growth in ways that were both intense and subtly realized. Only recently revisited as a filmmaker, Mendieta’s films were previously considered exercises related to her other works in photography, installation and performance, but they exist powerfully as distinct entities.
The first film, Silueta Sangrienta (1975), utilizes a static camera and a simple set of transitions to document a body-shaped recess in the ground that becomes a churning and transformative blood cavity. Anima, Silueta de Cohetes (Firework Piece) (1976), closes the program (by far the best of the four), using a similar figure: a simple body effigy rendered with a wire frame stuck in the sand and outlined with fireworks. When lit, the body outline changes as the fireworks burn and die. In an amazing progression, the body becomes a face, then a skull, and then a single light until it extinguishes entirely.
The beautifully executed Children of Lir (2016) by Katherin McInnis is loosely inspired by the Irish folk legend of the same title, and the poisoning of water in American cities including Flint Michigan. A flicker film made entirely from Time archival photographs, it strongly evokes Gustav Deutch’s Film Ist (1998) in both its precision and ability to pair and reframe found elements to powerful effect. An entirely absorbing barrage, it moves through several thoughtful transitions despite its pacing, including into a bird motif (in the Children of Lir legend four children are transformed into swans), and from black and white into colour.
The highlight of Wavelengths 2: Incantati is Cilaos (2016) Camilo Restrepo’s collaboration with Reunionese singer Christine Salem. It unfolds around the maloya, a ritual chant from Reunion Island. Loosely based on the story of a young woman in search of her dead father, this film is shadowed by a colonial presence that permeates everything, much like Ana Vaz’s Há Terra! in Program 1 and Sky Hopinka’s I’ll Remember You As You Were, Not As What You’ll Become, in Program 3.
In Reunion Island’s ritual evocations of the dead, the strength of connection to ancestors hinges on the quality of the music being performed. Maloya musicians such as Salem also serve as conduits for the dead.((http://camilo-restrepo-films.net/wp-content/uploads/cilaos-press-kit/PressKit_EN_CILAOS_A5_web.pdf)) Restrepo wanted to explore the “scrambling of time” that is part of the atemporal connection between the living and the dead, and his desire to work through the narrative outside of time is manifested in a series of segments where float in an indeterminate black space. Sometimes they are indoors, sometimes outside; the space could be metaphorical or concrete but their surroundings are consistently indistinct, leaving the music to lace together the segments as the true landscape. A close camera focuses instead on the movements of heads, hands and faces. “Why aren’t you saying anything,” a voice asks in the abrupt conclusion, forcing our exit from a magic space. With a mannered pacing and spatial elements that oddly recall Owen Land’s On the Marriage Broker Joke (1977), Cilaos is an equally investigative, but more frankly emotional project. The tapped-out conversation between Salem and another actor wordlessly moves the work forward as much as the content of the malova songs throughout.
Kevin Jerome Everson’s deeply affecting Ears, Nose and Throat carefully moves through a small set of seemingly unrelated steps to a horrifying revelation. We open on a tranquil nighttime scene looking out onto a residential street while slow beeps on the audio track transition between left and right channels, widening the space and punctuating its tranquility. In an examination room a woman discusses her diagnosis of a weak vocal cord.
As we watch her silent examination progress, her voice on the soundtrack tells a second story. Shadeena Brooks recounts witnessing two men from her neighborhood arguing in the street outside of her home, an exchange that eventually results in the murder of one man, DeCarrio Antwan Couley. Without any visual representation of the event, the tranquil view from the film’s opening manifests in our memory as the view from Brooks’s porch, likely the same vantage point from which she witnessed Couley’s murder, in a moment that entirely transforms the film’s focus and our own perception.
The third installment, Wavelengths 3: Post-Performance began with two strong films. An untitled work by Austrian filmmaker Björn Kämmerer and What’s New by German artist Nina Könnemann share an obliquely humorous thread. Kämmerer’s formal exercise plays with a set of venetian blinds and colour transitions. The opening and closing of the blinds oscillates between funny and purely formal, but its humorousness never steps into the more literal play of McLaren or Breer, and this film manages to walk a fine line between ridiculousness and rigor, being an equally adept investigation of line, light and colour.
Könnemann’s film, also somewhat playful, documents the changes of event posters on a public billboard. Over an extended period Könnemann dutifully documents the billboard and its surroundings, seeking out each event advertised, shooting some portion of it, then returning to the nexus of the billboard for the next advertisement. It’s an intriguing film in which a selection of what could be considered the “instructions” of a public space are taken literally, determining not only the artist’s movements but the ultimate flow and structure of the work.
The third film of the program and its highlight, is French-Tunisian filmmaker Ismaïl Bahri’s Foyer. Bahri affixes a white piece of paper loosely over the lens of a camera set up in a public space somewhere in Tunisia. White text visibly appears on ever the ever-changing background of the “white” paper, emphasizing that the paper never actually appears truly white to the camera. As the wind blows it, we see light and colour changes, and hear various people ask Bahri what he is doing and why his lens is covered. He tells them he’s a video artist. “It’s a piece of paper that works with the wind,” he explains. Through various conversations with passers-by we slowly make a series of discoveries. Towards the end of the film we suddenly see a flash of blue water in what looks to be a harbor as the wind fully lifts the paper above the lens for the first time. In a split second, we see a walkway beyond the water in the distance, a few people on it, and a sunny day. The moment is a beautifully simple demonstration of the literal and metaphorical limitations of our view.
Echoing the collaborative and ode-like nature of Cilaos in program one, Sky Hopkinka’s I’ll Remember You As You Were, Not As What You’ll Become uses the work of late aboriginal poet Diane Burns, exploring not only spirituality and language, but cultural incongruities. Burns’s poem “Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question” anchors the film in this political context; amid footage of a pow wow paired with the sounds of an English choir, a shimmering search light set against dark trees, psychedelic colours, and Burns’s recitation of “Indian” jokes, a request is made: “I want you to please make a picture in your mind”. Ultimately elegiac, I’ll Remember You As You Were, Not As What You’ll Become unfolds with a fluid optimism and generosity.
Likely my favourite film of the four programs, Manuela De Laborde’s AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN, appeared in Wavelengths 4: Indefinite. It’s a careful exploration of forms and the space of cinema using sculpture maquettes purpose-built by De Laborde. Blue and red crescents and abstract, almost-distinguishable rock forms are layered in multiple exposures and set floating in black space, then explored through subtle changes in zoom and exposure. The sound that sometimes materializes to accompany these mysterious objects is a subtle ambient hiss, and like the objects themselves comes on quietly. They are interjections as indeterminate as the physical materials we are trying to decipher.
Inconspicuously refined, the film’s editing is also distinctive. It was interesting to hear De Laborde describe showing an earlier version of the film to colleagues and having them assume that it was unedited. In fact it feels very carefully—though unselfconsciously—edited. Lacking all of the indoctrination regarding the “cut” (an indoctrination that is just as widespread in experimental as narrative film), De Laborde has developed an intuitive edit that follows the logic of the objects, light and her curiosity about cinema structure. The result is hugely refreshing and enveloping.
AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN investigates the film surface and the object surface in an almost diagnostic manner. As a result it draws in the filmic space, the audience and screen space into a closer relationship, one that is more material and analytical. Approximately ten minutes into the film a series of brief pings sound out, perhaps marking out visual changes, but their demarcation seem somewhat arbitrary. However, the investigative tone of the work asks us to pay attention to the sound, which on reflection may have more to do with pointing to the possibility of synchronous sound than it does with indicating some particular change within the frame or action. That’s a distinctive shift for the audience, and just the type of work that experimental film rarely strives for, and often flounders at even why trying. De Laborde’s film deserves many more viewings and much more discussion.
Other films of note include Tomonari Nishikawa’s Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon, Há Terra!, by Ana Vaz, 025 Sunset Red, by Laida Lertxundi, and Burning Mountains that Spew Flame by Helena Giron and Samuel M. Delgad.
Irene Bindi is an artist and film programmer living in Winnipeg, MB. She received her masters degree in Film & Video from York University and was a programmer for the WNDX Festival of Moving Image from 2011-2015. In her visual art practice she works in collage, film, and sound.