New York Film Festival 2020: An Eventful Year

Short film highlights from the newly launched Currents section of the New York Film Festival.
Michael Sicinski

There’s an essay by scholar Carol Squiers from 1985 called “The Corporate Year in Pictures.” In it, she engages in a semiotic analysis of the layouts of various annual reports to shareholders published by a number of corporations during the early 1980s. The article is essentially a study of how companies utilize text and image to construct their desired narratives—of the fiscal year, of their corporate image, and their overall brand identity. It’s a look at a more private component of the public relations machine, since the annual reports are understood to be internal documents, even though publicly-held companies must make their annual reports available to anyone who requests them, by order of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The most notable image in Squiers’ article appears on the cover of the 1982 report for Johnson & Johnson. On an all-white layout, there is a small picture of a bottle of Tylenol in the upper right hand corner. In small letters to the left of the image are the words “An Eventful Year.” This is noteworthy because of its almost comical understatement. 1982 was the year of the “Tylenol scare,” when seven people in the Chicago area died from taking the medication, which it was later discovered had been laced with cyanide while sitting on pharmacy shelves. (All the tamper-proof packaging to which we are so accustomed today is a direct result of this tragedy.)

No matter how sincerely we may want to contextualize everything we do in 2020, to acknowledge its relative smallness, to bring its underlying traumas to light, we may need to recognize that there is very little to say that can measure up to the task. Despite our best intentions, our perfunctory throat-clearing can lapse into dark comedy. Just as we have found ways to ritualize our email greetings, to wish our business acquaintances well “under the circumstances,” I think we are finding ourselves deadlocked, unwilling to admit that we are struggling with the basic question of whether we should be conducting all of this business at all. Does any of this really matter? I don’t have an answer for that yet—and I suspect I am not alone there—but it does seem that normalizing that conundrum, setting it up only to knock it down, is mostly a strategy of avoidance.

For instance, I find it extremely difficult to evaluate this year’s lineup in the Currents section of the New York Film Festival. (I have viewed all the short films at this point, and I am working my way through the features. This first dispatch will focus on the short films.) The programmers obviously found themselves in an extraordinary position, since for a time it was probably unclear whether the New York Film Festival would happen at all, and if so, what form it would take. I suspect that the changes to the festival structure—the new, expanded Currents strand replacing the more traditional Projections avant-garde showcase—were planned before “2020” happened, and that, given their druthers, those programmers would not have chosen This Damned Year to make such a major change. But as we can see, History chooses us, not the other way around.

In light of this, the programming team, and everyone behind the scenes at NYFF, including (especially) their tech and IT crew, are to be heartily congratulated just for making this year’s festival a reality. And I don’t think it can be evaluated by the usual metrics that one would bring to bear on such a festival. Are these the best films that were available? Who the hell knows. Could the lineup have been a bit tighter? Yes, probably. But given that many of 2020’s other major festivals did not occur in the usual fashion (most notably Toronto’s experimental Wavelengths showcase, which was truncated to two features, Fauna and The Inheritance, and one short, Point and Line to Plane, all of which are also in Currents), Currents had to do some unusually heavy lifting this year.

I suspect that for a lot of us, the trauma of this year has resulted in a numbness, a kind of half-awake state that allows us to continue functioning, albeit is a somewhat muted mode. As a critic, it has been a strange experience to imbibe a large amount of art in a short period of time, since that process—mentally demanding under even the best of circumstances—requires an emotional openness, as well as close attention and acuity, a sensitivity to form and ability to explicate what I’ve observed. I can only imagine trying to curate from that position. The judgments, though related, are distinct. In any case, what I have found is that, while many of the films have been a tonic for me, they have also been demanding in a highly unusual way. I’ve been repeatedly pierced. I had sort of become accustomed to feeling nothing; it was a zone of guarded comprehensibility.

So as to the question of whether any of this—film, art, criticism, exhibition—is “worth it,” I guess I propose that its role might be that it can jolt us painfully to attention, without harm. It can seduce us, without actually taking. It celebrates, and mourns, but refuses the false comforts of habit and cliché. It refutes the logic of the event, instead offering the slow unfolding of emotive thought.

Apiyemiyekî? (Ana Vaz, Brazil, 2020)

Ana Vaz's latest film begins with black and white footage that tracks around the empty square outside of an imposing government building. It could be a civic office, or a museum. But we see numerous large sculptures in the quad, shot from odd angles. We are then driven up a highway and into the Amazonian jungle. This is the BR-174, a major road that was built through the land of the Waimiri-Atroari people during Brazil's military dictatorship. Thousands of Waimiri-Atroari people were slaughtered by the military during this campaign, as they were perceived as "uncivilized" and an impediment to progress.

The opening segments of Apiyemiyekî? display Vaz's skill and making her nation seem utterly alien, like an abandoned ruin. This is a prelude for the primary portion of the film, which consists of an examination of the archives of Egydio Schwade, an Indigenous rights activist who has helped the Waimiri-Atroari people construct an archive of the drawings and writings they produced during the genocide. Schwade, a literacy instructor who helped the people learn Portuguese and transcribe their own spoken language, has worked to show how above all, the drawings made by various members of the Waimiri-Atroari tribe represent concrete testimony of the displacement, violence, and murder they experienced at the hands of the Brazilian government.

In some respects, Apiyemiyekî? is the most straightforward documentary style work I have yet seen from Vaz, whose films tend toward the elliptical. This may well have to do with both the desire to present the testimony in a direct form, to use cinema as a tool for expanding the reach of Schwade's archival work. It could also be a decision based on political kairos, since the rise of Jair Bolsonaro means that Brazil's indigenous people now face their biggest threat since the end of the dictatorship in 1985. 

However, as one watches Apiyemiyekî?, one is struck by Vaz's use of superimposition, layering the drawings—some simple lines, others vividly colored—over photographed reality, often with an additional, palimpsestic scrim of multiple written languages. This approach takes the past and demands that we confront it, as if the spirits of the dead are restless and asserting their presence because we still have not answered their full-throated demand: Why?

Apparition (Ismaïl Bahri, Tunisia / France, 2019)

So many of this year's Currents shorts are openly political in some way, and not all of them match their historical and cultural concerns with the requisite care for the medium in which they're working. Apparition is a simple, lovely exception. Using the most fundamental elements of his working tools -- digital imaging, an object, and light -- Bahri presents a brief consideration of material history and its role in producing memory. Holding up a photograph taken on Tunisia's 1956 day of independence, we see the victory over colonialism appear and recede, its meanings for the present unstable. A stark companion piece to Mouaad el Salem's more passionately digressive This Day Won't Last.

An Arrow Pointing To a Hole (Steve Reinke, U.S. / Canada, 2020)

This is a sufficiently complex work that demands more analysis than I can provide at the moment, unfortunately. I have grown more and more impressed with Reinke as an artist over the past few years, partly because I don't think there's anybody who is doing exactly what he does. His work has a certain diaristic element to it, along with a kind of monologuist / stand-up philosopher tinge. But he is still primarily concerned with the relationship between sounds and images, and in particular how those semiotic forms work to make and unmake various notions of the queer body. Like Mike Hoolboom, and Dani and Sheilah ReStack, Reinke is an artist who is redefining modernism in a post-straight era, one premised on the muddying of the optic / haptic divide.

An Arrow begins with Reinke talking about Nathaniel Dorksy's Arboretum Cycle, and how in his own work, he wanted to show flora as a set of tactile forms that one could penetrate, that could engulf the body. Reinke is offering a kind of immanent critique of Dorsky as an optical artist, someone whose art postulates a remove from the world it depicts, and suggests that this might pose certain problems for an art of queerness. (Dorsky's status as a "queer artist" is always an interesting question, to what extent his life as a gay man is incidental to the work he makes.) 

From there, Reinke goes on to tell a story about the evacuation of his own unconscious, and its replacement by the microbes in his digestive system—a trade of theoretical psyche for invisible but verifiable gut bacteria. Riffing on this notion, Reinke articulates a multi-pronged conception of human abjection as our most fruitful future, a cognitive map that includes Pig Pen from Peanuts and an episteme of flatulence. As is often the case with Reinke's work, there is a delivery that comes across as wide-eyed and awestruck, as though he were discovering threads through various discourses while you watch. He is very good at concealing his cunning. And while much of his material may be bunk, it's hard not to think he may be onto something.

Autoficcíon (Laida Lertxundi, U.S. / Spain / New Zealand, 2020)

Although they average between ten and fifteen minutes long, the films of Laida Lertxundi fall into the category that I have discussed elsewhere as "small films." There is quite a lot to unpack in any given film of Lertxundi's. They are rich texts, and her deceptively inviting, sun-drenched visual style makes them particularly enjoyable to revisit. Lertxundi's work always seems to capture the tone of southern California in the late 1970s, at least as it was so often depicted in the independent cinema of the era. And yet there is nothing "retro" or nostalgic about these films.

Instead, they seem to represent parts of an aesthetic puzzle, but ones that do not lock together to form a complete picture. This is what I mean by "small films." They certainly possess formal integrity taken on their own. But each Lertxundi films bounces off the others in provocative ways, more like a suite of paintings than a series of films, exactly. They all seem to issue forth from a highly original, deeply defined creative zone: "Laidaland."

Other Lertxundi films have incorporated autobiographical elements, often in oblique ways. Her film A Lax Riddle Unit, for example, takes its title from an anagram of the filmmaker's own name. Vivir papra Vivir / Live to Live actually begins with the artist's EEG, her brainwaves in essence "drawing" the opening scene. And one of her most formally meticulous works, 025 Sunset Red, adapts material borrowed from Lertxundi's father, a Spanish Marxist academic. So in a sense, discovering that the newest Lertxundi film is entitled Autoficción is in no way surprising. 

And yet, there is an irony in this title, since Autoficción is one of Lertxundi's most deliberately open works, one that disperses its subject position across many different women and situations. For one thing, Lertxundi combines brief monologues by various young women with documentary images from a street parade in Compton, California, one which involves civil rights activists, union workers, and police. Through careful editing and framing, Autoficción establishes a dialogue between the relatively private statements made by the young women and the more public assertions of identity and power. 

The cumulative result is that, when one woman talks about her complicated identity as a young mother, or another woman talks about learning to be more comfortable by herself, these subjective grapplings are framed both within, and as coextensive with, larger social and political struggles. Through montage, Lertxundi brings these women's individual situations together, and more fully contextualizes them—cinema as intersectional consciousness raising, if you like.

So when we see images such as three women against an apartment wall, under a projection of freeway traffic, or (above), a body fragmented by a traveling matte, we can see that Autoficción is both asking us to consider how women are imaged by cinema, but also how careful, intelligent filmmaking can put women's images back together again, editing the personal back into the political.

We tend to think of "fiction" as prose that is comprised of made-up stories. But at its most basic, "fiction" means something that is made. So "autofiction" is not simply telling a story about oneself. It is the active process of self-fashioning, of taking responsibility for one's own subjectivity. As Lertxundi shows time and again, film is one way to literally reconnect ourselves to ourselves, to splice together radical new selves.

Correspondence (Carla Simón / Dominga Sotomayor, Spain / Chile, 2020)

I am not sure if this 20-minute film is officially part of the "Correspondence" series that, over the years, has produced collaborative films between (e.g.) Lisandro Alonso and Albert Serra; Fernando Eimbcke and So Yong Kim; Jamie Rosales and Wang Bing; Naomi Kawase and Isaki Lacuesta; and Jonas Mekas and José Luis Guerín. Based on the boxed set that emerged from that project, it seemed rather "closed." But this film, if not an official contribution to that project, is certainly in the same spirit.

Spanish director Carla Simón produces a "letter" to Chilean filmmaker Dominga Sotomayor, detailing the packing up of her late grandmother's house, musing on the place of the women in her family, wisdom and care passed down between the women in her family, maternal expectations, and her ambivalence about delaying or abjuring motherhood in order to make films. Sotomayor, meanwhile, "writes" back with a film that reworks and partly reshoots older footage from just before the "No" referendum, showing her own grandparents' struggle against Pinochet and ruefully comparing their joy with the violence in Chile today, as a new form of fascism has emerged. The film is a remarkable example of how feminism can serve as a bridge concept to display the material links between two political conflicts, despite their circumstantial differences.

Extractions (Thirza Cuthand, Canada, 2019)

Cuthand's recent films have adopted a direct mode of address that is pitched somewhere between diary and essay. This conversational tone suits her work quite well, since it serves to elaborate the personal stakes of her politics while also providing her the room to articulate confusion, doubt, and at times her own sense of culpability. In Extractions, Cuthand draws parallels between corporate resource extraction (mining, oil drilling, the lumber industry) and Canada's history of removing First Peoples' children from their homes and placing them with white families. As Cuthand explains, the excuses for expropriating these children, another form of "extraction," have always been about poverty or poor opportunity, conditions that the Canadian state itself perpetuated. So in a way, the government has facilitated this "pipeline" of Native babies to White Canada, just as surely as it facilitates physical pipelines across Native soil.

Extractions personalizes this issue by framing it within Cuthand's own experience of fertility treatments and IVF. As a queer Native woman, she is conflicted, because she wants to have a baby but she is aware that she and her potential child are vulnerable to federal and provincial forces that she them both as less-than. So in a way, despite its conversational tone, this video is a bit like a testimony or even a legal document, the sort that someone makes before going to a potentially violent protest or a war zone. Cuthand is clarifying her anxieties beforehand, so that we will all know that she was invested in protecting her child from before the beginning.

Figure Minus Fact (Mary Helena Clark, U.S., 2020)

For quite some time now, I've been struggling to come up with some sort of parallel or analogy for the highly evocative, poetic formalism of Mary Helena Clark's films. Clark tends to organize her work in a very capacious fashion, joining together sounds and images that do not have an immediate affinity. Her "soft montage" has a way of hovering in the unconscious for a while, where certain connections and possible hints of themes begin to well up over time. And I think that with Figure Minus Fact, Clark's latest such work, I may have hit upon something.

Clark's cinema is a bit like the poetry of Lyn Hejinian. Both artists are resolute in their focus on hard, concrete images and are only as willing to dart off into the theoretical as is allowable while tethered to the observable universe. At the same time, the work seems to resist what we might call phenomenology in other contexts, because (unlike, say, Brakhage, or Charles Olson) we are not continually redirected to the membrane of the perceiver, the noesis / noema conflicts. Things are joined to other things, and this tends to build emotive contiguities across time.

I fear I am getting too abstruse here, so let me return to the film in question.  In the first shot of Figure Minus Fact, Clark shows us what looks like a bulbous Expressionist painting in pink and black, a biomorphic Guston. This image, or one like it, comes back near the end of the film. It may in fact be a biological object, like a cross-section of muscle tissue or possibly pooling lipids. We don't know. In the second shot, which is one of the most unassumingly dazzling I've seen in a very long time, Clark moves the camera gently upward inside a bell tower, along the inverted shape of the bell itself, as a shaft of blue light bisects the screen. We eventually see the weighted pulley mechanism that tolls the bell, although we hear nothing. Later on, we will see inside the swaying bells from below, their clappers immobilized. A hand thrusts a handwritten message toward the camera: don't talk unless you can improve the silence.

Much of Figure Minus Fact is comprised of portraits and still lives that recall classical painting, but are gradually altered in terms of color. One of Clark's frequent decisions is to saturate a scene or a body or set of bodies in a dense cobalt blue, a tone that alludes to oil painting while also transmitting to the eye a penetrative electric vibration characteristic of digital video. This positions the piece on the precipice of art and technology, aesthetics and science.

And this seems to be the zone Clark means for us to consider, as a creative as well as a social problem. The end of the piece features images of swimmers and schoolchildren, in the ocean or with their hands in tanks, engaging in hands-on interface with (presumably unwilling) sharks, rays, and other aquatic life. Research has devolved into tactile entertainment, the thrill of touching the forbidden. And this is perhaps where Clark's postulated problem, "figure minus fact," can end up.

Or, to put it another way: The film is mysterious and achingly beautiful at times, employing that "prick" of the affect that Roland Barthes described so well in his Camera Lucida. There is nothing at all wrong with the experience of wonder in the face of the world, and in truth, an affective desire that exceeds mere positivism is probably necessary if we are to actually save the natural world from destruction. We must love nature, not merely need it. But the flip-side of that emotional investment, of course, is the privileging of desire over fact altogether, the selfish imposition of ego ("fake news!") when nature tells us what we don't want to hear. Clark's film plunges us, it seems, into the defining philosophical chiasmus of our age. Yet another example of her peerless artistry.

-force- (Simon Liu and Jennie MaryTai Liu, Hong Kong / U.S., 2020)

If you happen to be familiar with the sensuous, layered 16mm films of Simon Liu, -force- will be particularly interesting to you, because it so clearly demonstrates the work of a known artist working in an unusual new vein. Simon's cityscapes and atmospheric images, often darkly lit and fragmented, tend to provide a kaleidoscopic view of contemporary Hong Kong, a bevy of activity and a zone of increased uncertainty. This aspect of Liu's work has, of course, only gotten more pronounced since the Mainland government's crackdown, and his recent Happy Valley is perhaps his darkest film to date.

But -force-, which Simon made with his sister Jennie, combines this approach with computer animation and high-key color-coding, to produce a disembodied techno-consciousness that appears to be mediating what we see and hear. A mechanized woman's voice gives us orders, telling us to "please stop all prohibited movement," and that we "are moving out of line." There are repeated statements that "29 stations require cleaning," and although it's unclear what that means, it certainly implies a human purge more than it does sanitation. The overriding sense one gets from -force- is that Hong Kong, as typically visualized by Simon Liu's cinema, has been taken over by an occupying entity, overlaid and made unrecognizable. Metaphors don't get much more apposite.

Glimpses From a Visit to Orkney in Summer 1995 (Ute Aurand, Germany, 2020)

The inclusion of a new film by Aurand in this year's lineup is a pleasant surprise, since her work represents a kind of high formalism that is mostly in short supply this year. Unlike previous Aurand films, this one has a bit of outside funding behind it, since it is partially a portrait of Scottish artist Margaret Tait, whose centennial is being observed this year. This might have put Glimpses on the programmers' radar, and for that we can be glad. This film is also distinct from other Aurand efforts I've seen in that it includes a title card, suggesting a closure that is somewhat at odds with the open-ended nature of her expansive filmography.

This is a lovely film nevertheless, and exhibits warm notes of the Gregory Markopoulos style. Markopoulos, the mentor of Aurand's good friend Robert Beavers, often combines short bursts of imagery with passages of pure color, and we see this in Glimpses, a new approach for Aurand. Short shots of the Scottish landscape, Tait's home, or the artist herself, punctuate an overall suite of mutating autumnal color fields, whose provenance is uncertain. Are these generated by focusing on some object in nature, by exposing the film directly to available light, or created through lab work? It is hard to tell, but the gradual adjustment of these tones lends them a distinctly organic feeling, as though Aurand were simply documenting a natural occurrence that drifts alongside human activity.

Hard, Cracked the Wind (Mark Jenkin, U.K., 2019)

Jenkin's feature debut Bait was extremely promising, a strong indication that this strange auteur from Cornwall would soon be a significant new voice in contemporary British cinema. He has made a number of short films, although Hard, Cracked the Wind is the first one I've seen. Bait led several folks to make Guy Maddin comparisons, with its use of outdated film technology and its roiling Oedipal melodrama. We can now add another element to the comparison, since Hard, Cracked the Wind, like so many of Maddin's short films, feels ever so much like a fully-formed narrative feature, condensed through gesture, montage, and genre implication.

The film begins at an open mic night for Cornish poetry, which serves as a clever passkey for understanding Jenkin's aesthetic. Like the Cornish language itself, Jenkin's cinema is an earnest attempt to reclaim a lost tradition, to identify the creative potentials that remain there but have been passed by in our culture's fetish for the new. What at first seems to be a story of a one-night stand, or a portrait of writer's block, quickly evolves into a ghost story, as Jenkin quickly traces the movement of a cursed object—language itself.

Humongous (Aya Kawazoe, Japan, 2020)

A total surprise. Humongous looks at first like it might be a short narrative entry, but is actually much more. A lithe tone poem about a young woman's somewhat dispersed subject development, Aya Kawazoe's film might have benefited from being programmed a bit closer to Laida Lertxundi's Autoficción, a work that Humongous resembles in certain respects. Aya tends to compartmentalize otherwise mundane events through a highly fragmented mode of composition and montage, so that we are seeing children's games from extremely low angles, observing bodies from on high, and watching people and things move through an Ozu-like maze of spatial barriers. The end result is a film that exhibits a significant degree of rigor, but is nonetheless open and casual, like a visualized sequence of observational daydreams. Aya clearly values texture over concrete meaning, and this lends Humongous an admirable subtlety and richness. The title, it seems, is oddly ironic. This is a paean to small, half-remembered things.

In The Air Tonight (Andrew Norman Wilson, U.S., 2020)

Andrew Norman Wilson is an artist who has spent a considerable amount of time examining the relationship between capitalism and identity. His film Kodak involved the putative diary of a former employee of the company whose mental dissolution at being downsized mirrored the company's bankruptcy, and the end of the production of celluloid. In Workers Leaving the Googleplex, Wilson interrogated Google's stratified employment structure, and in so doing exposed their maniacal obsession with secrecy and information control

In this respect, In The Air Tonight explores similar concerns but on a pop-comic level, using the figure of Phil Collins as an avatar for 80s excess, as well as a study in the collapse of "rockist" authenticity. Collins, after all, started out as the drummer of progressive rock titans Genesis, became a pop star solo act, and even drove the reconfigured, post-Peter Gabriel Genesis in the direction of top-40 pop-rock. Collins' first solo hit, "In The Air Tonight," is a pivotal moment in this evolution, partly because it retains traces of the moody, evocative elements of late-70s Genesis, but has a legend surrounding it -- a story of a drowning Collins allegedly witnessed -- that lends it the tincture of legitimacy.

As it happens, Wilson himself is following Collins' own lurch toward slick popular production, offering up his most accessible, broadly satirical effort to date. Sadly, it doesn't yield much in the way of insight. We're left with the sense that, yes, Phil Collins became a yacht-rock schlockmeister, but this doesn't tell us anything particularly meaningful about the music business, or the machinations of capital. If anything, it points to the relationship between Internet culture and the older forms of urban-legend transmission. But then, the point of entry for a project like that could be virtually anything. It's an interesting attempt, but I'm afraid Wilson needs to go back to the stu-stu-studio.

Labor of Love (Sylvia Schedelbauer, Germany, 2020)

Schedelbauer perfected her unique Vorticist style—multiple images toggling back and forth while expanding and receding, creating a disorienting tranche of visual material—using black and white found footage. With her last film, Wishing Well, she began to experiment with color, with (in my minority opinion) mixed results. But perhaps she was just gearing up for the tour de force that is her newest film. Labor of Love is an organic outgrowth of Schedelbauer's previous work, but takes her career into entirely new terrain.

Inspired by the film Love's Refrain by the late Paul Clipson, Labor of Love uses some of the conventional trappings of New Age culture—soft astral synthesizer music, a woman's voice speaking about the spiritual limits of bodily perception—and turns them against themselves, blasting at them with a visual scheme that bypasses rational thought and caresses the mind's eye. Clearly in dialogue with the "mandala" films of John and James Whitney and (especially) Jordan Belson, Labor of Love connects those meditative gestures to the pummeling psychotronic flicker-mandalas of Paul Sharits. That's to say, Schedelbauer has produced a film fully aware of its history, and yet somehow non-discursive and transcendent, an organized field of color that oozes between hypnosis and aggression. 

Representational images float to the surface now and again, only to be sucked back into the eye-vacuum. A landscape, a butterfly, a woman in ecstasy. But these are like drifting flecks that rush past our heads as we go under, gasping for breath, beneath wave after wave of haptic light. Why Schedelbauer chooses to end Labor of Love with concentric diamond shapes—a sudden bit of Frank Stella to rescue us from the Frankenthaler undertow?—I cannot say. It's my only reservation regarding this body-blow of a film.

Letter From Your Far-off Country (Suneil Sanzgiri, U.S. / India, 2020)

Like Melisa Liebenthal's Aquí y allá, another Currents selection, Suneil Sanzgiri's Letter From Your Far-off Country has a few toes in the "desktop cinema" mode, drawing a fair amount of material from Google Earth, Maps, and (in Sanzgiri's case) images of SMS communications shot right from the filmmaker's phone. And, like Liebenthal, Sanzgiri is exploring his own family history, connecting it to broader social and political events in the country of his birth. Letter takes its title from a poem by Kashmiri-American writer Agha Shahid Ali, and it is about the personal, even bodily toll taken by the experience of diaspora. (Ali's poem includes a line about itinerant workers keeping their addresses in their pockets, so at least their bodies could make it back home.) 

As with Sanzgiri's previous work At Home But Not At Home, the heart of Letter consists of an interview with the filmmaker's father, which serves as a grounding refrain. Various intellectual strains weave in and out, many having to do with the suppression of India's Communist Party, the official rewriting of the history of social unrest in the nation as well as the role of leftism in "parallel cinema," and the legacy of anti-caste reformer B. R. Ambedkar—himself the subject of academic study by a distant relative of the filmmaker, Prof. Prabhakar Sanzgiri. Although Letter never mentions Narendra Modi by name (it doesn't have to), its brief but complex genealogy of dissent is positioned against the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act. Although one would certainly appreciate seeing Sanzgiri articulate these various ideas at more length, Letter provides a visceral portrait of the race of thoughts one experiences when in the throes of rising tyranny.

Point and Line to Plane (Sofia Bohdanowicz, Canada, 2020)

One of the most textually dense and emotionally complex films in this year's short film selection, Point and Line to Plane may not be suitable for a "short take." In fact, it's a film that I may return to later since, after two viewings, I am still puzzling out exactly how I feel about it. But there are several things that can be said about it right off the bat.

It is the latest effort in Bohdanowicz's current project, which involves a close collaboration with actor Deragh Campbell. In these films, Bohdanowicz appears to be triangulating biographical explorations through the semi-fictional character Campbell portrays onscreen, generating a bizarre frisson for the spectator. We are being lured with the semiotic cues of intimacy, but strategically held at a distance. This seems to allow Bohdanowicz to work with her own life material as text, to render it semi-objective, which permits her to avoid the confessional, affective pitfalls that trip up artists mining similar seams.

In this regard, Point and Line to Plane takes this tension to a new extreme. This results in a fascinating film that is half digressive essay, half statement of personal mourning, and the halting, formalist tone Bohdanowicz and Campbell adopt throughout the film seem designed to confound the viewer's customary avenues of feeling. We are not asked to sympathize with the film's subject, even while we care about her loss. Nor are we confounded by her intellectual routing of loss through the history of art. (We can imagine some films that might try to cast this type of theoretical engagement as some sort of pathological avoidance.) 

What Bohdanowicz's film actually does is keep us suspended, and by doing so, convey the feeling of suspended time that characterizes mourning, almost transmitting it by convection. We learn about the two friends the subject has lost through the interests and concerns they shared with the subject, which the film opens up to the broader universe -- the different ways of thinking about Kandinsky's nonobjective canvases, the rediscovery of Hilma af Klint, and even the very process of having made the film we are watching. Point and Line to Plane, as the title obliquely suggests, is about a movement, the gesture of connecting entities in space. But there is no guarantee that this connection will form a reassuring, coherent picture.

A Revolt Without Images (Pilar Monsell, Spain, 2020)

Like many contemporary political documents, Monsell's A Revolt Without Images is a work of reclamation, an attempt to fill a significant gap in the dominant historical record. In this case, the artist offers the viewer a tactile, shadowy cinematic description of a ruin: a municipal granary in Córdoba that dates from before 1652. That is the date when, due to a grain shortage, a group of proto-capitalists decided to take advantage and engineer "a corner in wheat" (cf. D.W. Griffith's 1909 masterwork), controlling the population through starvation. However, the women of Córdoba led a revolt, the men followed, and the robber-barons backed down. The wheat was distributed among the citizens.

The second half of A Revolt Without Images, interestingly, is filled with images. Monsell shows us women of various ages, moving through a museum space, gazing at portraits dating from around the same time as the revolt. These are paintings of women, and although it is highly unlikely that any of those sitters were involved in the rebellion, Monsell's point stands. In the absence of any remaining traces of those who have struggled from below, it is up to us to conjure them in our imagination, with the tools at our disposal.

Stump the Guesser! (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson, Canada, 2020)

Although Maddin and the Johnson brothers' latest production does not maintain the breakneck pace of Maddin's 2000 mini-masterpiece The Heart of the World—what on earth does?—Stump the Guesser! is a bit of a spiritual cousin to that twenty year old film. Not only does it pack its 19 minutes with the amount of content one usually finds in a feature film. It also employs Maddin's usual tongue-in-cheek version of Soviet montage style for a story that actually takes place in the Soviet Union, or some similar Eastern Bloc nation, or perhaps an imaginary, hypothetical Fantasyland that shares the stentorian bureaucracy and strapping peasantry of the cinematic U.S.S.R. Who's to say?

This much is clear. The film's putative hero (Adam Brooks) works as a carnival guesser, and although his accuracy is clearly astonishing, he is also one of a number of men to hold this position, so much so that there is a Guesser's Bureau that issues (and revokes) Guessers' Licenses. Although his capabilities may be supernatural, he is apparently aided backstage by a supply of "guessing milk," which he chugs between challenges. But this gainfully employed, official State wizard is thrown off his game when a beautiful young woman (Stephanie Berrington) asks him to guess the color of her eyes. He not only misses the answer; he falls instantly in love, only to be dismissively informed that—sorry, sucker!—she is his long-lost sister.

This being a Maddin production, the threat of incest is less a taboo than a narrative complication, and as luck would have it, the downcast guesser bumps into a scientist (Brent Neale) who just happens to be working to disprove the theory of heredity. What luck! If he can help the scientist in his quest, he will be free to marry his sister. And maybe he'll even get his guesser's mojo back.

As some critics have noted, Stump the Guesser! is the first M/J/J production to be fully digital, from shooting through editing and post-production. This results in a cleaner, less "dated" look that some purists have found a bit off-putting. But I think this is something Maddin and the Johnsons take into account. While unexpected digressions and random ejaculations are nothing new in Cine-Maddin, there is an oneiric tone in Stump the Guesser! that is more absolute. The very concepts that drive it on, and the bizarre occurrences that move us in and out of various scenes, are treated as completely logical within the world of the film, but like a half-remembered dream, one is hard-pressed to account for why any one event took shape in the manner that it did. The smoothness and present-tense texture of digital video goes quite nicely with this hazy impression of the past, which is less an homage than an unconscious jumble of urges. 

Think of it this way. You could argue that by this point, Guy Maddin can make films like this in his sleep. The comic nightmare of Stump the Guesser! suggests that that's precisely what he's done.

This Day Won't Last (Mouaad el Salem, Tunisia / Belgium, 2020)

The title of el Salem's autobiographical video echoes the Western promise "it gets better," although it perhaps conveys a set of changes less personal than social, even revolutionary. This is appropriate, since el Salem is Tunisian, and in Tunisia, homosexuality remains illegal under Article 230—an edict left over from the days of French colonialism. While el Salem states that some of his queer friends have left the country over the years, he refuses to abandon his beloved homeland. And why should he? This Day Won't Last doesn't just insist on the dignity of queer Arab lives. It reminds those who've forgotten that lesbians and gays were part of the revolution that liberated Tunisia in the first place.

This is a very special film, one that recalls the personal collage works of Sadie Benning. Part documentary, part diary, it combines a tone of sotto voce secrecy and brash defiance. El Salem makes the video with the knowledge that his family cannot know about his gay identity. And while there is palpable fear on display, there isn't an iota of shame. This Day Won't Last begins from the first-person position but articulates its maker's place within a community, a movement, and a nation. Telling the story of a mighty fig tree that was transplanted when it became inconvenient, el Salem makes his stand. Despite the fact that his country does not yet officially embrace him, he fully embraces his country.

Trust Study #1 (Shobun Baile, U.S., 2020)

One of only two silent films in the entire Currents lineup (the Ute Aurand film being the other), Baile's Trust Study #1 is nevertheless quite discursive, providing the back-and-forth dialogue between the filmmaker and an anonymous interview subject, in the form of onscreen text in both English and Urdu. The film represents a complex play on the notion of "trust," and specifically examines the slippage in meanings between finance and personal confidence. The interview subject worked as a hawaladar, an agent who sent money between various parties through Pakistan and the surrounding nations using long-established but highly unofficial means. 

Hawala is a banking system that exists parallel to the dominant channels of global finance, and after 9/11, the U.S. government began cracking down on hawala, on the assumption that any such transfers must represent the movement of terrorist monies. Trust Study #1 gradually explains its own visual status as a film, since we discover that the unexplained images that accompany the text are in fact fragments of a hawala banking code. But perhaps more fascinating is the push and pull between Baile and his subject. The former hawaladar is always circumspect, trying to figure out how much to say and what to keep to himself. So the viewer is implicated in a network of highly mitigated trust.

While Cursed By Specters (Burak Çevik, Turkey, 2020)

Simple and elegant, Çevik's newest film is a formalist tribute to Straub-Huillet's 1984 film Class Relations, their adaption of Kafka's Amerika. Employing a strategy that recalls both James Benning and Morgan Fisher (especially his 2003 masterpiece ( )), Çevik (re)produces the various shots within the Straub-Huillet film that have no direct human presence. So we see landscapes and cityscapes emptied of all but moving vehicles—the suggestion of figures unseen. We see doors as they open, and then as they shut. We witness the occasional shadow. And of course, we see depopulated compositions with offscreen voices, the crystalline clarity of the cinematography offset by the vulgarity of human business. This method allows the stark physicality of Straub-Huillet's cinema to assert itself. The mostly-still scenes are like gelatin-silver prints, Teutonic in their plainspoken constructivism. You learn something about the film, its makers, and, well, Cinema.

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