< --- >: A Quick Pan Across TIFF's Wavelengths

Keeping radical cinema alive at the Toronto International Film Festival's oasis for adventurous filmmaking.
Michael Sicinski

Shrooms (Jorge Jácome, 2023).

This year’s edition of TIFF Wavelengths opened with an unannounced extra. It was a 1967 film called Standard Time, an eight-minute series of circular pans around an apartment. The camera speeds up and slows down; it pans right, then left, then right again. Later, the film describes a truncated arc, showing one small section of the flat. Then, the camera pans up and down. Living beings can be glimpsed along the way, most notably a cat perched in a window, artist Joyce Wieland, and a surprise visitor at the end. But they are given the same relative attention as the objects in the space: a TV, a stereo, a cooktop, a blender, and a hutch full of china. Which is to say that all things in the field of the camera’s vision are abstracted, turned into pure painterly velocity.

Of course, Standard Time is by Michael Snow, a titan of modern art and filmmaking who passed away this January. Although Snow was a globally renowned artist, he was also Toronto’s own, and the mark he left on Canadian art and cinema is especially pronounced. TIFF’s experimental film section took its inspiration from Snow’s landmark 1967 film Wavelength, and in keeping with that legacy, Wavelengths has been an oasis for formally challenging, often resolutely uncommercial cinema since 2001, although its roots lie one year earlier, when TIFF programmer Susan Oxtoby showcased the films of Robert Beavers. After Oxtoby’s departure in 2006, the section was entrusted to Andréa Picard, who remains Wavelengths’s chief programmer to this day. Picard’s first Wavelengths was co-curated with Chris Gehman, and since 2016, she has programmed the section with Jesse Cumming. 

But that’s just the history of Wavelengths proper. Starting in 2002, TIFF introduced the Visions section, which showcased experimental films from the narrative / art film universe. That first year Visions included work by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Carlos Reygadas, and Philippe Grandrieux. Visions continued as a separate section until 2012, when these adventurous global art films were enfolded into Wavelengths. That year, the newly expanded edition featured films by artists as diverse as Ernie Gehr, Matías Piñeiro, Luther Price, and once again, Apichatpong and Reygadas. This blended section has been the standard ever since. Oh, and there was also Future Projections, which presented moving-image installations between 2007 and 2014. That section, also spearheaded by Picard, featured work by Lav Diaz, Glenn Ligon, Clive Holden, Stan Douglas, and (you guessed it) Apichatpong Weerasethakul. 

Pictures of Ghosts (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2023).

You get the idea. There have been a lot of changes and realignments over the last twenty years of TIFF. But 2023 finds Wavelengths holding strong, if smaller than many of these earlier editions, with three shorts programs, ten feature films, and one featurette paired with one of the year’s very best short films. This strong presence is only fitting, since 2023’s edition is the first since the death of Michael Snow this past January. For many of us, Wavelengths has become a Brand You Can Trust. And although the title of another Snow film, < --- >, aka “Back and Forth,” could be said to encapsulate the many movements and exigencies that have affected TIFF over the years, the good taste and perspicacity of Picard and Cumming keep returning us to the same conclusion. Cinema is a fine art, and radical voices keep it alive. 

One constant in Wavelengths’s programming is cinema as personal expression, and few films exemplify this as directly as Pictures of Ghosts, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s documentary essay about his hometown of Recife, Brazil. Mendonça first focuses on the apartment where he grew up, which became a key location in his films; then he turns to the cinemas of his youth, almost all of which have closed down, repurposed as office buildings, churches, or pharmacies. The work is discursive and retrospective, reminiscent of Terence Davies’s ode to Liverpool, Of Time and the City (2008). However, Pictures of Ghosts is more explicitly autobiographical, detailing just how the transformation of Recife imprinted itself on Mendonça’s filmmaking. Virtually any cinephile of Mendonça’s generation will identify with his tour of defunct movie palaces and hole-in-the-wall arthouses, projectors scrapped, screens turned into cheap signage. We all have our own Recife, a cherished location looted by capital. (For the record, mine is Berkeley.)

Let's Talk (Simon Liu, 2023).

Simon Liu offers us a very different portrait of a hometown transformed in his film Let’s Talk. Less a city symphony than a haunted threnody, Let’s Talk approaches Hong Kong in ways somewhat similar to Liu’s previous film, the magnificent Devil’s Peak (2021), although the new film is less panoramic and more focused on a particular problem. On the 25th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, Chinese authorities have posted signs celebrating “stability, prosperity, opportunity.” Liu trains his camera on garish wall murals depicting shiny happy Hongkongers living their lives in harmony. Against this official representation, Liu provides a dissonant musique concrète soundtrack and tremulous, throbbing images of the actual population as well as dimly lit alleyways and food stands, the “secret” Hong Kong that locals know how to navigate. Let’s Talk alternates between unadulterated PRC propaganda and the real Hong Kong, with its fields of fugitive light and gesture. Liu’s connection to these places is palpable, and it’s often as though the celluloid can barely contain their energy. Let’s Talk is poetic and political in equal measure, offering an object lesson on how the creative mind can outwit tyranny.

This year’s lineup features the newest efforts by two filmmakers who have engaged in very specific investigations into the nature of cinematic representation. French-Peruvian filmmaker Rose Lowder is best known for her decades-long project of animating the natural world through frame-by-frame manipulation, and the Houston-born, Toronto-based Blake Williams has explored 3D imaging technology with the single-mindedness matched only by Ken Jacobs. Their work in Wavelengths finds them reporting from the trenches of their own unique métiers, with inspiring results. Lowder’s latest suite, Bouquets 31-40, finds her working once more within her idiom—handheld, in-camera editing; liberal use of pulse and flicker—but the series has evolved quite a bit. The juddering flowers from earlier Bouquets are still there, but now they serve less as the primary focus and more like a backbeat, against which she examines somewhat different visual subjects.

We see, for instance, many more medium and long shots of Lowder's yard and garden. There are relatively extended shots that do not use frame-by-frame advancement, and therefore allow the eye to momentarily rest. We see a black cat enjoying a sunny day (#31), a swarm of pollinators tending to a bed of daffodils (#32), and even a steady gaze at a basking pile or turtles (#34). But at other points, Lowder photographs objects whose natural motion mimics her cinematic staccato, such as an oscillating sprinkler (#33), and in several cases, butterflies lighting on flowers (#34, 36). And the final Bouquet has no flowers at all, no sunlight or natural forms. Instead, #40 is a close-up of a leather worker fashioning a belt. Much like him, Lowder has spent years shaping organic material into something recognizably hand-tooled, resulting in a cinema that retains the integrity of its raw materials.

Laberint Sequences (Blake Williams, 2023).

Williams’s Laberint Sequences was mostly shot at Barcelona's Parque del Laberint d'Horta, a neoclassical garden space that contains a large hedge maze. After beginning with an archival stereoscopic image of the garden, Williams provides several isolated views of the space, including plants and trees, a canal with fountains, and a work of classicist statuary. We also see several shots of a reflecting pool at the center of the labyrinth, with a few tourists milling about. This series of shots, like the entire film, is presented in 3D, so in a way the filmmaker offers the viewer the lay of the land while getting us accustomed to the multi-planar depth of the film, specifically how it accentuates certain attributes of the garden while flattening others. 

Situating his camera at various angles of the hedges, and then panning back and forth, Williams uses the moving frame to reconfigure the visual space, the labyrinth forming solid masses that swivel across the image. Of course, we expect that we might get "lost" inside the hedge maze, but this camera movement doesn't correspond to how any human would navigate the space. Instead, the space is shifting around us (and the occasionally still-visible humans inside). Establishing shots with a stationary camera keep giving way to these kinetic passages, made that much more dramatic because of the use of 3D. Laberint Sequences puts viewers through their paces, taking a rather simple idea—a study of a manicured landscape—and introducing denser and denser layers of abstraction. And yes, watch for a brief homage to Snow’s < --- >

Slow Shift (Shambhavi Kaul, 2023).

Landscape cinema has long been a tradition in experimental cinema, but recently filmmakers have taken this genre in a new direction, fixating on geological rather than anthropological time. If, as some suspect, we are coming to the end of organic life on this planet, it stands to reason that curious artists might conjecture as to what we will leave behind. The awkward interface between human, animal, and geological time is the subject of Shambhavi Kaul’s new film Slow Shift. Kaul shot the film in Hampi, India at a UNESCO World Heritage site, among the ruins of a 14th century city. The film carefully juxtaposes the remains of human endeavor (bricks, pillars, shelters) with the massive boulders that punctuate the landscape. Centuries ago, people fashioned these rocks into cultural forms which are now in disarray; the towering, rounded stones display far more stability in their untouched state. These stately boulders resemble Magritte paintings in the real world, and the entire array is occupied by dozens of frisky langurs, scrabbling up the rocks and waving their tails like they just don’t care. With its playful rockslides engineered by the artist that look like payouts from slot machines, Slow Shift might be described as Darwinian slapstick. Kaul has long been a major filmmaker, and it’s good to see her return. 

Since most commercial features are shot digitally, many experimental filmmakers make works that exploit the unique features of analog film. Medium specificity has long been a concern within avant-garde film history, but in recent years there has been a groundswell of interest in using film to create otherwise impossible optical and sonic experiences. In other words, now that film is obsolete as a tool for commercial cinema, it becomes possible to fully explore its hypnotic, world-bending capabilities. One such film is Joshua Gen Solondz’s We Don’t Talk Like We Used To, which I’ve written about at length elsewhere. A series of domestic rituals transformed through flickering, stuttering, and a Brutalist approach to montage, We Don’t Talk produces psychological effects that only cinema can produce. In contrast, NYC RGB, by Austria’s Viktoria Schmid, is a modest work, an urban miniature that takes one specific aspect of celluloid and infuses it with striking vibrancy. Schmid shot an observational film-poem during a few days in New York. We see skylines, rooftops, people moving on the sidewalks. Then Schmid reprinted her color stock three times, with color filters isolating and removing red, green, and blue. By then printing the strips together, Schmid allows the misregistrations of the images to create intersecting color fields. NYC RBG is a bit like stained glass in motion.

NYC RGB (Viktoria Schmidt, 2023).

The optical effects of Schmid’s film reveal the underlying structure of things. But cinema also has the capacity to bombard the senses, altering our state of consciousness. With his film Shrooms, Portuguese director Jorge Jácome has produced a short open-form documentary about drugs. Or has he? The film is a profile of Dan Padrino, a forager who locates, collects, and sells magic mushrooms around Lisbon. As Padrino describes the various types of psychedelic fungi and their properties, Jácome uses lens flares, exposed film stock, and other celluloid distortions to, if not mimic, provide a tangible metaphor for sensations that are unavoidably interior for those experiencing them. We see Padrino attaching small packets of shrooms to the legs of carrier pigeons, which he then sends off to deliver their payload to his customers. As we watch their lines of flight, the pigeons offer a glimpse of the expansive trips the mushrooms deliver. But wait. How does the pigeon know which balcony is the one for the apartment of a particular customer? I mean, these birds are smart, but they aren’t UPS. I suspect Jácome is engaging in shenanigans, and Shrooms is even trippier as a result.

One of the most delicate films in this year’s program may also be the most exquisite. It follows It passes on by Erica Sheu is a kind of abstract family breviary, offering fleeting images of small, fragmented objects. The film features a discontinuous text (spoken and printed) that draws from Sheu’s family history in Taiwan. Examples: “Father joked about it. ‘We don’t need to hide from the bomb anymore.’”” I recall feeling guilty. My very first memory.” Sheu weds these words to shots of incense holders refracted in broken glass, thin white shafts of light bisecting a grainy black frame, shards of crockery buried in sand, or close-ups of handheld plant matter dappled in shadow. In its sheer variety of visual forms and textures, It follows It passes on at times resembles certain works by Stan Brakhage, especially The Riddle of Lumen (1972), but Sheu’s attention to the smallest cadences of light can perhaps best be described as calligraphic. 

Light, Noise, Smoke, and Light, Noise, Smoke (Tomonari Nishikawa, 2023).

Sheu’s film explores the luminosity of otherwise ordinary things, and the same can be said of Tomonari Nishikawa’s new film Light, Noise, Smoke, and Light, Noise, Smoke. Nishikawa has long been an exemplary cinematic formalist, locating the underlying order of things in our shared visual world. Many of his best films have employed a theme-and-variation structure to bring out the unexpected beauty of large-scale architectural or industrial forms: cityscapes, bridges, and most recently a Ferris wheel. With LNS&LNS, Nishikawa turns away from sculptural volume to observe a purely light-based phenomenon. We see fireworks explode against a night sky, their outward bursts slightly truncated by Nishikawa’s precise editing. The soundtrack is composed to the guttural skip of visual information grazing the projector’s sound head, this medium-specific fillip providing a sly rejoinder to the seemingly ordinary images. In most respects, this is a film about drawing. The sudden mandalas on a black screen represent the most essential cinematic mark-making, and Nishikawa’s halting rhythms recall the work of the late Luther Price. Light and sound, at their most elemental: Nishikawa’s film exemplifies Wavelengths in more ways than one.

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TIFFTIFF 2023Festival CoverageMichael SnowSimon LiuKleber Mendonça FilhoRose LowderBlake WilliamsShambhavi KaulViktoria SchmidJorge JácomeErica SheuTomonari NishikawaNewsletter
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