The Infinite Now: A Conversation with Sundance's New Frontier

Directors Deborah Stratman, Fox Maxy, Mary Helena Clark, and Mike Gibisser get together to discuss their boundary-pushing new films.
Jordan Cronk

Last Things (Deborah Stratman, 2023).

In October, the Sundance Film Festival announced that it was canceling its New Frontier program for experimental and artists’ cinema at its 2023 edition. Citing the need to “reflect upon the rich learnings of the last two years,” which were presented online due to COVID-19, and “evaluate the shifting media landscape,” the festival seemed to be cutting ties with its sole section dedicated to noncommercial, nonindustrial forms of filmmaking. While disheartening at a glance, the decision may prove beneficial for the program, which as it turns out isn’t being scrapped, but instead reimagined—a potentially promising development for a section that over time had essentially become a platform for VR projects and emerging technologies rather than a haven for more artisanal filmmaking practices as it was originally conceived. While we await the results, this year’s drastically reduced New Frontier program promised a “return to roots,” a claim made good on with a slim but rich lineup of three features made by a quartet of artists spanning multiple generations of the avant-garde.

Like much contemporary artists’ cinema, the three selections—Deborah Stratman’s Last Things, Fox Maxy’s Gush, and Mike Gibisser and Mary Helena Clark’s A Common Sequence—sit at the intersection of experimental and nonfiction filmmaking. In Last Things, Stratman, a long-established name in both fields, explores the origins of life from the perspective of rocks and other geologic matter in a fashion combining science, poetry, and speculative fiction with audio-visual textures (16mm film, microtonal soundtrack frequencies) of uniquely synaesthetic force. With a similar taste for the sensorial, Maxy’s first feature extends the bracingly intimate investigations of identity seen in the Native American filmmaker’s short films—which center primarily on young people of various Indigenous cultures living throughout the western U.S.—onto a larger canvas that finds them integrating subtle narrative and imagistic threads into their typically hyperkinetic montage of diaristic found and original footage. A Common Sequence, by contrast, is meditative in its depiction of conservation efforts in Pátzcuaro, Mexico, Washington’s Yakima Valley, and the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation of South Dakota. In interweaving passages, Clark and Gibisser, two prolific filmmakers and occasional collaborators who here meet somewhere distinct from either of their prior work, trace connections between evolutionary advances in science and technology, in turn generating unexpected resonances in, for example, machine learning and the regenerative capacity of the achoque salamander, or the commodification of human DNA and the patenting of plants and other natural resources.

Despite the disparate subject matter, similar themes—from labor practices and colonialism to institutional power and evolutionary biology—echo across all three films, opening up, in the words of one of Last Things’s voiceover narrators, a polytemporal worldview that stretches far beyond mere material or even spiritual concerns. In each work, a boundless sense of reality and lived experience imbues complex issues with grace, humanity, and a certain awestruck wonder in the face of an uncertain future. Spanning from pre-cosmos to post-consciousness, from the first rumblings of modernity to our pop-iconographic present and beyond, the films speak to something ineffable but deeply powerful about the fragility of human existence and the prospects for a better—or at least different—tomorrow, with or without us.

In the weeks before and after Sundance, I spoke with all four filmmakers about the state of the festival and their roles in it as part of New Frontier, dealing with audience expectations, the evolving relationship between experimental and documentary cinema, the unexpected resonances between the three films, and what this all might portend for the future of artists working with the moving image.

Last Things (Deborah Stratman, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Deborah, maybe we can start with you. I’m curious, as a veteran of the festival circuit and as a filmmaker who is generally not seeking traditional distribution for their work, at what point do you begin thinking about what festival a film might premiere at? And how conscious are you of what premiering at a certain festival might say about that particular film—to both audiences and programmers who may be interested in it for a subsequent festival? In the case of Last Things, is there something about a Sundance premiere that might benefit the film in a different way than, say, a Rotterdam or Berlin festival premiere?

DEBORAH STRATMAN: As a “veteran” I should probably be more savvy, but it’s ultimately about when a film is finished. When I’m getting close enough with an edit, I’ll look at the festival calendar and see what’s coming up in the next six months.

In my experience, Sundance provides a spectacular shove after which a film can coast for a very long time. It’s got hella name recognition. Same with Berlin. It’s been a few years since I premiered something at Rotterdam, so I can’t speak to where they’re at these days. But a decade ago, when I was premiering films there more regularly, there was a push behind those films too. My lay sense is that compared to Berlin or Rotterdam, Sundance is programming a smaller minority of formally risk-taking films, so the bulk of the press and audiences and visiting programmers aren’t necessarily looking for the edge-dwellers. This could be good or bad. Good in the sense that someone who hasn’t been exposed to alternative cinematic structures might be surprised to find that they really like them and go on to seek out more. Bad in the sense that films like ours on the “frontier” are programmed out of competition, which means they don’t get taken as seriously because competition films are where the cyclone of press energy gets focused. Which is a shame because I think edge-dwelling forms have the jump on shifting cultural expectations and sociopolitical landscapes.

I’d say Sundance is a sort of holy grail for US-based filmmakers, with all the benefits and baggage that holiness implies. It’s excellent to get to play on the hometown field, though.

Gush (Fox Maxy, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: What about for the rest of you? You all typically operate on the experimental cinema circuit, and while Sundance has been programming more artists’ cinema in recent years, it certainly isn’t their forte. Mary Helena and Fox: these are your first features. How do you feel your work has translated to feature-length, and are there certain expectations or considerations that come along with bringing a work to Sundance as opposed to an audience predisposed to this kind of cinema?

FOX MAXY: I’m not going to lie: I’m so excited to have left the short world behind. I love features; I loved working on this new film. I could have made it six hours—you guys are lucky! I think stylistically, a feature allows me to explore the idea of “chapters” in a deeper way, like each pocket of the film is a little world, and with more time I can get more into these little worlds. It feels like endless time to tell stories.

As far as expectations or considerations for the audience, I’m the audience for my work. I had to leave the idea of real audiences out of my brain years ago, in order to keep going and keep making the work exactly how I want. It’s got to feel comfortable to me, and now I’m working on making it feel comfortable to the people who are in it as well. But as long as I can watch it and feel good, laugh, and get an energized feeling from it—that’s when I know. I’m not sure if everyone’s had this experience before, of showing your work on a big screen in a theater with the audio blasting, but it is such a powerful thing. I’m sitting there, shaking. And having Gush premiere at Sundance is crazy! It’s really an opportunity to show people that anyone can make a movie. That’s my big thing. I think everyone should make a movie, at least once, you know? We all have the tools now. I can never predict who’s going to relate to my work, or feel moved by it. People surprise me all the time. So I’m really interested to see the response people have to Gush.

MARY HELENA CLARK: Our film might strike audiences as a departure for me, but I completely agree with Fox that the only way to keep making work and to have it evolve is to shake off those concerns and expectations. Which isn’t always easy, so I appreciate the reminder.

I’ve always been interested in metonymy, parts standing in for a whole, and film structures that develop through transitions. A Common Sequence builds from those interests, drawing connections across far-flung subjects, creating a chain of interaction, using fragmentation and montage, but instead of relying on a more intuitive and personal logic like my past work, the film is thinking through broader systems and histories. I wanted to step outside of my own filmmaking practice through collaboration, primarily with Mike, but also our producer Graciela [Guerrero-Reyes] who influenced the direction of the film, and everyone who shared their work with us as participants in the project.

I hope wider audiences, like those at Sundance, will find the absence of a single, character-driven story as a productive challenge—less cohesive, messier, and because of that, a more clear-eyed approach to the knot of issues at the center of the film. 

A Common Sequence (Mary Helena Clark & Mike Gibisser, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Before we dive too deep into festival dynamics, maybe we should discuss the subject matter and production histories of the films. Mary Helena, since you mentioned that A Common Sequence could be seen by some as a departure for you, I’m wondering if you might discuss the origins of the project, how you and Mike came to work together, and your interest in the labor and science practices depicted in the film. And Mike, for your part, how, if at all, has working with a co-director affected your process, and how did you two conceive of the film’s interlocking structure as it relates to the far-flung subjects that Mary Helena describes?

CLARK: Mike and I met in grad school and have informally collaborated for years, weighing in on each other's cuts, helping on shoots. We wanted to begin a project together and share all of the creative decisions from the jump. We read about the conservation efforts led by the Dominican nuns in Pátzcuaro which led to learning more about the regenerative qualities of the salamander. Filming at the convent in this beautiful makeshift salamander sanctuary/farm opened up so many complexities—faith, science, stewardship, extraction—that we began to structure the film around. Meeting more communities around Pátzcuaro lake, like the biologists and fisherman, again drew us back to science and labor.

We began to think of the film as an interspecies survival story with the fisherman’s migration to the US for work leading us to our next nonhuman subject, the apple. The film is trying to surface overlooked connections and historical echoes. We wanted to show expertise, how Don Maurico views fishing as an art, connecting their bodies to the lake, and how the fieldworker Gina’s apple picking gestures become data for robotics. We wanted to see the labor and care behind automation at the robotics lab. These scenes of observable labor become the backdrop for the invisible or hard-to-image work of synthetic biology and the patenting of human genetic information.

MIKE GIBISSER: The primary ways that co-directing affected the process are probably mundane, logistical. The more interesting dynamic, but harder to describe, was how the film became something in the resonance of our perspectives and research threads that it couldn’t have been without the interaction—both between the two of us independently and then between us as a team and all the communities we started working with. We didn’t know where it was going to end when we began.

The idea of interconnectivity was something we shared an interest in from the beginning, at least in the sense that we wanted to try to investigate the themes at the systemic level as opposed to following a particular story or subject. The structure itself took some time to find. Throughout the process of shooting and editing, we talked about different metaphors or graphical ideas that would help us to figure out how all the pieces might fit together: a maypole with a set of ribbons that are disparate at first but eventually intertwine; a pendulum swinging, which, when looked at from one angle looks like it is moving back and forth, but from another angle can reveal it is creating a spiral. The structure we found was something like a horseshoe, moving more patiently through all the locations, and then cycling back through the spaces in a less linear, more associative way to try to spark some new connections.

Gush (Maxy, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Fox, I’m curious about the shape and scope of your films. At a glance they resemble diary films, personal documents of very specific communities, cultures, and spaces. How closely related is your work to your everyday life, and as it pertains to Gush, was this material all shot over a specific timeframe and perhaps in a specific region, or do you collate your images from a wider range of footage?

MAXY: I’ve been filming every day for like a decade. I have a huge archive. It used to stress me out, to think of all that footage sitting there. But what I love is that over time, people around me accepted that I’m going to put a camera up at random times. And with Gush, every scene is a kind of performance. Everyone’s performing in some way.

Gush is definitely my experience, I’m piecing it together. I’ll keep making films for me, but I’m so happy because I feel like I’m entering the narrative world. I don’t see this film as a documentary because we’re all playing characters. We’re all joking or exaggerating, being extra dramatic. It’s a powerful thing, to point a camera at someone. Back in the day, I would really scare people with my little phone turning sideways; people would get pissed, or roast me for zooming in on a pile of trash. Now, I think my fam is like, “Oh we’re going to be in a movie and it’s so fun to be able to make a scene wherever we’re at.” But obviously I’m really clear about what’s appropriate to film.

So I’ve learned to use a camera in a funny way, or as a way of appreciating something, and it’s making the process a little less intimidating to the people who are performing. The way I started editing Gush came from a dark emotional place—I mean, it always does, but I didn’t want that to vibrate out from the film. I want to laugh and have fun. 

I think as I keep developing my skills, and keep taking more steps into making narratives, I can keep the same approach. The rez [reservation] gossip scenes, the ones with my young cousins, Avellakaa and Virginia Aguilar in the car, that was one of the first times I had a little crew for my own work, on my own terms. It was the best day of filming I’ve ever had for sure. We filmed that scene like two weeks before the festival, with the care of the Sundance Indigenous Program. 

Everything is practice. It really is like figuring out the best ways to work—with family, and a crew. Safety is not just physical. What you see is everyday life in the pace of the film and the chaos of it, like how many thoughts and memories and things come across my brain, heart, and guts in a day. But it’s also a next step outside of a diary, working on creating worlds on screens, traveling around.

Last Things (Stratman, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Deborah, as your film is about literal origins, I was hoping you could talk a little about the initial stirrings of Last Things. The film feels like such a carefully constructed visual, aural, and textual object. What was the starting point for the project: a certain rock, mineral, organism, or text?

STRATMAN: Literal origins, yes. Before the beginning, after the end, and the infinite now.

I guess the first sparks were the  J.-H. Rosny stories Le Xipéhuz (1888) and La Mort de la Terre (1910). Rosny was the nom-de-plume for the Boex brothers who were Belgian but lived in France. I’m as much into the fact that they were pseudonymously co-writing science fiction before it had a name as I am into the stories themselves. In both, we’re introduced to intelligent non-organic life as alien Others who are cast as villains, though not because of malicious intent. The Xipéhuz and the Ferromagnetics are just following their nature, which happens to be antithetical to human life.

I fused the two stories in my film, using passages from both. My Others are a mashup of the geometric Xipéhuz with their internal glowing stars and the crystalline, iron-eating Ferromagnetics. Rosny’s stories were ahead of their time, speculating about industrialized man’s destructive impact on the planet, the existential mournfulness around the ends of species, the place of desire, empirical thought, observation, communication and misinterpretation, hope—so much that I was already thinking about. The first things I filmed were my utterly lo-fi rendition of the Xipéhuz—basically just a bunch of people holding internally mirrored tetrahedrons reflecting the sun and partially occluding the body of the person holding it.

Another major spark was learning about mineral evolution, which completely blew my mind. I’d always just considered evolution to be the purview of organic living things. It was eye-opening to learn that, for instance, 2.4 billion years ago the GOE [Great Oxidation Event], which was caused by a population explosion of respirating cyanobacteria, and which in turn caused the mass extinction of creatures happily living in what had up until then been an anaerobic biosphere, catalyzed at the same time an explosion in the number of mineral “species.”

After that I went on a whirlwind deep dive into geoscience, evolution, extinction, the magnetosphere, polytemporality, protists, diatoms—it was hard to stop. The tango of minerals and life has been right from the start. Like Fox, I have a colossal archive of things I’ve shot over the years with no particular film in mind. When Last Things started finding its shape, I reached back to stuff I’d shot years ago, like at Petra, or the breakdancers, or the spray-paint planets.  Other things I shoot very intentionally, pilgrimaging to get a shot or hunting down material from archives and the web.

I fell in love with the idea that storytelling and rhythm are a sort of genetic memory of our species. The land as tape recorder. Every rock as a text. Stones, especially arranged stones like henges, don’t record history so much as exceed it. They’re vibratory machines. I wanted to make a vibratory machine, but with film. And shooting on film, as Patrick Keiller has said, is a sort of stone carving. Light carves the emulsion-suspended minerals.

Gush (Maxy, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: I’m wondering if each of you can talk about your work as it relates to the increasing crossover of experimental and nonfiction cinema. Deborah, you were ahead of the curve in this regard—most of your films could probably be described as experimental nonfiction—and Fox, while Gush is probably the least beholden of the New Frontier films to any specific cinematic tradition, it is, as we touched on, a legitimate document. As for Mike and Mary Helena, you both come from a more purely avant-garde background; when conceiving of A Common Sequence, did discussions of form and style shape the direction of the project? And I’m curious, after a recent run of younger experimental filmmakers making the transition to features (Sky Hopinka, Ana Vaz, et cetera), if working in a more recognizable documentary mode helped in any way with deciding on (or even getting funding for) the feature-length form?

STRATMAN: Genevieve Yue told me that my films were the first she could find on record described as “experimental documentary.” It’s kind of exciting to think of myself as some sort of format ur-mother, but of course it’s bogus because there were so many before, just under different names. I’m thinking of folks like Chick Strand, Peter Nestler, Forugh Farrokhzad, Barbara Hammer, Harun Farocki, Betzy Bromberg, Dziga Vertov, Georges Franju, Artavazd Peleshyan, Robert Frank—and others and others. In any case, I’m happy to see more traction for the category, whatever you want to call it. More unscripted life unfurling is always cool by me.

MAXY: Everything tends to be white. Everything in this world gets scrunched up and titled by white people. I really think that has everything to do with experimental cinema being seen as a trend. I think people have been experimenting with cameras and stories and editing and sound for forever. But when a certain amount of people can't immediately identify things, it's labeled as "weird" or "not fitting in.” I have a background in traditional documentary work, commercial work, advertising, branding. My education and work experience helps me all the time. I'm not lawless. I believe in training, for any kind of art form. I've studied the classics of film and the history of art, color theory, and design principles. Besides all that, when I make my work, it's informed by countless traditions—the cursed video tape from The Ring.

I think it’s less about my work fitting in, because it does... but it makes a large group of people uncomfortable, and it also validates the experiences of another large group of people. Do you want to think about men's role in the protection of women? Do you want to think about your role, specifically, when it comes to women you interact with? Gush asks you. Straight up. It's the reactions. My work either makes people jealous or it inspires people. I haven't seen an in-between yet.

I had the balls to keep making films even though I kept hearing “no’s." I didn't have the traditional crew or budget behind it, but Gush follows in the footsteps of cinematic traditions. For example, other industries (fashion, music, advertising, et cetera) have been communicating in this fast paced, mixed medium, visually chaotic, and beautiful way for a long time now. An ad for a shoe does the same thing my film does. "Internet brains” have been putting together content for decades. Our attention spans have changed. Our methods of watching things have changed. And everything is going to keep changing. Film is such a closed-off industry, and whenever things are exclusive, there's going to be people who are going to do what they gotta do. That's all "experimental film" is. It's usually people who didn't have the damn budget! Punks.

Also, it's usually people with lots of fire behind their words that are put into this category of experimental. I'm thinking of my big film moms and dads in particular, like Shelley Niro, Pipilotti Rist, Gregg Araki, David Lynch. All of their work is super direct, yet it's labeled as crazy. But there's a significant number of people who are never confused when we watch their work. I know exactly what I'm feeling from it. I guess I'm pissed at the industry. I'm exhausted from the industry's desire to question the places that films "deserve to be,” instead of discussing the questions literally asked within the films. Don't forget, this world is literally not built for a brown girl to speak and be heard. Luckily, this world is crumbling, rapidly, so I think my work speaks to that, too. 

A Common Sequence (Clark & Gibisser, 2023).

CLARK: With A Common Sequence, Mike and I wanted to make a film that neither of us would make on our own, and in that spirit tried to let our research and curiosity guide the work. This project was made through conversation, encounter, process. As we worked through the materials from each shoot, the visual approach became clearer: longer takes for a sense of place and unfolding, a focus on scientific and legal documents, subtle ruptures of naturalism through superimposition, an evolving use of language, subtitles, and field translation. We found a mix of observational documentary, off-camera interview, and scripted essayistic sections worked best in pacing out the film’s complex relationships. We wanted the film to be comfortable with not knowing, having room for questions and less mediated observation, balanced with sections of description and research. I’m drawn to films that contain contradictions and artists that are about dexterity. Not just genre or length, but medium. You see that with Sky Hopinka’s work across poetry and photography. 

Like Fox said, the world is crumbling. And our film straddles many worlds and subjects that are precarious and contingent. I don’t think you can talk about any of the issues—ecological collapse, colonialism, knowledge production, private property, labor, extraction, science, adaptation—in isolation. Starting with the porous body of a salamander, the film is pushing against discrete and fixed forms.

The decision to make a feature-length documentary was based entirely on what the subjects required. We felt they needed more time and context, which translated to a more recognizable documentary mode. I expect that what I make next will feel different from A Common Sequence. The work is always an entry, it’s in time. And even when you’re trying to step outside of yourself, it always shuttles in your history and position, bears the marks of your hands. But if we were starting this film now, knowing what we know now, I’d like to rewatch Joyce Wieland’s Solidarity (1973) and Yto Barrada’s False Start (2015)—the fragmented, subjective document of protest, and the observed, layered economies of the (fake) fossil industry. 

Lucky for me, Mike works at a university that has gear we could borrow and some travel grants. The film couldn’t exist without that support. For funding, formal restlessness isn't very helpful.

GIBISSER: I think for me, filmmaking is form, regardless of the container I’m working in, be it more recognizably experimental, documentary, narrative, et cetera. The fact that we were making something that was more in the documentary mode, more in the world, with larger stakes and responsibilities to the communities that we were working with, didn’t automatically change our filmic perspective or the way we approached the elements of filmmaking itself. We were working with the same tools: image, sound, optics, how to attempt to make meaning out of the transformation of three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional experience that unfolds in time. The questions and constraints were different, but the process felt similar to the work I’ve done in narrative or the work on Delphi Falls (2016) with Mary Helena. Those projects become inevitably more story driven, maybe by dint of having humans in them, but my interest in storytelling is also driven by form: how much story information can be contained in an ellipse or a cut, or a particular composition, or the resonance or dissonance of a particular image combined with a particular sound. I love the way that Deborah was talking about storytelling as rhythm, vibration, or memory (genetic or otherwise).

We hadn’t decided from the jump that we were making a feature, part of the process of making the film was discovering what it was—formally, durationally, and narratively. The conversations we had throughout about form and style helped to reveal the boundaries of what felt like did or didn’t belong in the film: when stylistic choices felt like they were connecting ideas, providing information, or creating an emotional crescendo where one was necessary; and what felt like over-aestheticization without a conceptual rigor behind it.

STRATMAN: I wish I saw more films where the makers like Fox and Mike and Mary Helena have really listened to their material and their own rhyming, rhythmic selves instead of choosing some form off the shelf.

A Common Sequence (Clark & Gibisser, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Jumping a bit from that idea, can each of you talk about editing at feature-length versus shorter forms? How did you find the rhythm you were looking for in your films? Mike and Mary Helena, A Common Sequence is built in sections and moves nimbly between them. Fox, you mentioned that your film could have been six hours; how did you find the appropriate shape, and how much did rhythm and pacing play a role in the ultimate length? And Deborah, you frequently move between shorts and features; were there any specific challenges to constructing Last Things? It seems a certain balance between text, voiceover, sound/music, and the more abstract visual passages would have been a tricky thing to harness, even in the no-man’s-land of a 50-minute work.

GIBISSER: I don’t usually approach editing a short film differently than I would a feature-length film. When editing a project like this, it’s always about attending to multiple layers of temporality and trying to balance those different levels. These aren’t my ideas. I don’t know if I can’t think outside of Andrei Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time (1985), because I’ve assigned it to students so often, but it’s a powerful articulation of how I feel about editing. Each shot has its own temporality, often polyrhythmic, which shifts with the introduction of sound. Specific audio events can feel like resetting the clock on a shot. We’re responding to that internal meter, which is so personal and intuitive—even physical. I’ve never surfed but, in my imagination, negotiating the temporal dynamics of editing is like trying to maintain equilibrium while standing on water; again, balance. The next level is in trying to find stresses and accents across the duration of the entire film with the patterning of those internal rhythms. Another balance was trying to find overlap between Mary Helena and I, as co-editors who have different observational rhythms. And yet another balance is what Mary Helena was discussing before, between the presentation of information and more ruminative or exploratory time.

We were also very consciously interested in the use of the edit not only as a way to juxtapose images or ideas, but also as a potential disruption to a mode of viewing. There is one particular moment in the film where, after being settled into a certain pace and observational perspective, an edit directly responds to a thought from one of the film’s subjects, but in doing so launches the viewer across a border and into a whole other set of ideas and circumstances. Mary Helena talked about visual ruptures in the film and certain edits functioned that way as well, both a disturbance and a connection: a signal to the viewer that you have to look and process differently now.

CLARK: You learn so much by co-editing. I often want one image to do everything, like the same amount of work that a scene in another film might pull off. I get energized by that kind of concision—of the camera trained on one thing as an act of transformation, a particular attention that teases out a multiplicity of possible meanings, of a cut or sound pairing that redefines an image we thought we understood. But I started to recognize a tension between the open reading of my films and my desire to have a precise logic made legible. I wanted to trouble my own instincts. Working with Mike on a research-focused film shifted the experimentation to the structure, the conceptual linkages. The film is organized around this question of private property and the mechanisms used to remove something from nature to become ownable. So finding and crossing borders was important to the edit. The film could be seen as a movement across nonhuman subjects—salamander, apple, artificial intelligence—through neighboring nations and onto sovereign land: a neon apple sign turning on is a border crossing; the flat documents of an apple patent lead us into a treeless plain; a machine learning dataset of apple images serves as a dream sequence. These are a few cuts that contain the exchange we were after. 

Gush (Maxy, 2023).

MAXY: Rhythm and pacing played a role in the length of Gush, yes. I wanted the energy to pour out at times, and then for me, while watching the footage, there were times that felt really slow and numb. In terms of the length, I experimented with the timing over the years. One time I played a 30-minute version of Gush at a bar; it was on a loop on several screens throughout, next to football games and the news. People were into it and they kept saying they wished it was longer. I showed a 45-minute version at MoMA on Halloween, along with other work, and again, people commented that they wished it was longer. So for Sundance, I thought an hour and eleven minutes seemed like a good length to try. I did see a fair amount of people leave the theatre, like halfway through, which I guess could be for many reasons. I joked during the Q&As that I should probably make it shorter now, but I actually think I'll make it longer and release it in my own special way. Editing is emotional for me. Dark and ugly memories prompted me to begin editing Gush, and through the process I was able to accept the bad memories and focus on good ones. I start a project to ask myself tough questions, to think about tough things—in this case, rape, abuse, and violence. I was thinking about those things when I started Gush. That had a lot to do with the shape the film took.

STRATMAN: I liked that moment in your Q&A at the Redstone cinema, Fox, where you talked about the different screening scenarios vis-à-vis what edit length is “right,” and how differently a club or a gallery or a cinema infect the time-feel of the project.

To evoke embodiment in a medium that traditionally strives towards a viewer leaving their body behind is something important, maybe insurgent. It’s related to Jordan’s question for me because when I edit, regardless of length, I’m conscious of the attentive body. Both my own and my future viewers’. When do we hone in, when do we drift, when is our attention re-snagged, when do we fidget and shift, when are we transfixed and immobile, and all the other possible zones along the spectrum of attunement? I aim to seduce. But what draws me in will alway push someone else away. I love playing with expectation and subverting a cadence we come to expect. A film is a pressurized thing full of time. You can deflate and inflate it with your edit, and I mean “edit” in the most expansive sense—including the turning away from everything outside the camera frame, and the moment we choose to turn our camera on, and the dimension-busting combinatory force of what is heard versus what is seen, as well as the fractional second we make a cut.

Last Things’ specific edit challenges were having the voice of science crammed right next to the voice of fiction, and keeping them in the same room without one dominating. Also, how to return to the body after we spend most of the film in super micro and macro non-human spaces. That’s why the break dancing is there at the end. To bring us back to the fleshy now.  But yeah, short, long or “no-mans’s” mid-length, I try to let the film tell me how long it should be, whether that’s 50 seconds or 50 minutes. That’s the privilege of being “independent.”

NOTEBOOK: To close, let’s talk about some of the resonances between the films. Among other things, the works share interests in labor, colonialism (particularly with regards to Native American culture and land rights in two of the films), biology, identity, existence, and extinction. I’m wondering if such thematic proximity (but also literal proximity, in the sense of being part of the same festival showcase), has elucidated or revealed anything to you about your individual films or practices, and what these echoes might suggest for where artists’ cinema or documentary could be headed?

CLARK: Gush is very alive, in motion, the kind of film that has a self-propelling force. Knowing it’s had many iterations adds to that sense of liveness. I’d like to see more films shape-shift, evolve, lose some fixity of form. There’s a line in the film asking “when does a body turn into flesh” and later, another section reflecting on the artist being consumed through their work. I felt a resonance to our film’s interest in the transformation to property, especially Joseph Yracheta’s work around the commodification of Amerindigenous genomic data. Joe describes his work as a stopgap to the rapid extraction of genetic data that, when used to create new pharma products, gives little back to the populations that provided that data. And there are all these other questions that follow around consent, ownership, and the role of the individual subject when dealing with an isolated population's shared genetic inheritance.

And Last Things shows me life where before I might have only seen inertness or monumentality. Our films share an interest in the nonhuman of course, but I love how Deborah's film evolves from the mineral to this kind of chorus of star people and the fullness of the sacred harp singers. It was so exciting to leave rock time, micro and macro time, and experience the human voice as both alien and a big emotional gut-punch. I kept thinking of the singers as these vibrating vessels and just simply felt awe! I want more films to take me to that kind of harmonic place.

GIBISSER: The films are all so different. There is a remix mentality, though, that feels more immediately apparent in the kineticism and style of Fox’s film but is present in how Last Things and A Common Sequence deal with language and voiceover, both intentional jumbles of existing ideas from disparate sources that fuse into something else when brought into proximity.

I think there is also a desire to resist stasis in each of the films, an appeal to a mode of looking or looking again, not letting anything—a style, methodology, idea, or image—become fixed or settled. Gush is so full of life and motion, like Mary Helena talked about before, with some fantastically discordant images: like the skeletons dancing or the partygoers in Halloween makeup that’s all body horror and decay. It reminds me of the quote that opens Deborah's film: “This story takes place during a state of emergency and public calamity, it’s unfinished because it’s still waiting for an answer.”

The films each ask for a renewed attention to complexity bubbling at the surface that can often remain unseen. There’s a great edit about halfway through Last Things: after we’ve spent several minutes in the microscopic realm, where everything is vibrating and reorganizing and mutating, there’s a cut to a sheer and stark cliff face. You feel the cognitive dissonance in that moment when the rock feels so static and permanent but also imbued with a movement and a history that was always there. I want our film to achieve a similar dissonance, with the histories of extinction and colonialism becoming the kind of buzzing under-layers of something so quotidian as a patent document, a nasal swab, or an apple tree.

Last Things (Stratman, 2023).

MAXY: The world most people are used to is decaying. Which doesn’t mean I think it’s the end of everything—but things are not going well. A lot of things done in the dark are coming to light. So I think anyone making art is going to have the times we’re living in effect the work. I know the future of filmmaking is going to be less concerned about where things fit, and more open to the idea of adventure. Who’s going to take us to new places, rip through illusions but also build us something striking, show us some guts, some glitz, that kind of thing. That’s what people want to see more and more. Movies that make us feel less dead.

STRATMAN: That John Locke quote at the beginning of A Common Sequence is such a profound set-up, asking us to consider when things become “ours.” Locke uses the example of acorns and apples gleaned from under trees, and at what point we might claim them: When they’re digested? When we bite in? When we carried them home? When we picked them up? This question of inside/outside weaves languorously and so incisively throughout the film, as do the politics and world views that spin out from where we start perceiving things as other and, most problematically, as ownable. It’s a question that’s compelled and confounded me for a long time. 

Gush flows out of the mind of a trickster. It tumbles you along, in wonder, frustration, hilarity, and heaviness. It’s a Möbius of generosity and sass, confidently inventing, claiming its language and territory as it goes. I think the scene that sliced the deepest for me was walking around the outside of that vacated house, somehow following and being followed by yourself, probing in the windows and then pointedly, drolly, asking whether you had the permission. I was floored by this psychic confrontation—by the rage and trust and reclamation it bound up.

I’m not sure where “artist films” are headed and I’m relieved I don’t know. That is their power and that’s why I love them. At any rate, amen to movies that make us feel less dead.

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SundanceSundance 2023Festival CoverageInterviewsLong ReadsDeborah StratmanFox MaxyMary Helena ClarkMike Gibisser
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