TIFF 2017. Wavelengths Preview: The Short Stack

The Wavelengths section of the Toronto International Film Festival once again features the best of the fest—the opposite of escapism.
Michael Sicinski

It’s been an interesting run-up to the Toronto International Film Festival, and in terms of the survival of the species, the good ol’ U.S.A. has been something of a race to the bottom. What would do us in first: violent neo-Nazis whose activities are almost explicitly condoned by the Klansman In Chief? Or a 1,000-year weather event on the Gulf Coast whose magnitude surely owes something to global climate change, and whose aftermath of collapsing dams and exploding chemical factories has everything to do with systematic neglect?

Given the state of things down here, who wouldn’t want to repair to Canada for some challenging cinema? As always, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is the place to be in September, and Wavelengths once again features the best of the fest. This is because the films selected for Wavelengths are the opposite of escapism. Whether they tackle the problems of our day head-on, or examine the conditions within the cinema itself, or ask us to consider our relationship to cultures different from our own, the films in Wavelengths almost always explore the aesthetic side of the crises and conundrums that we’re faced with on a daily basis.

And, as usual, this is due to the perspicacity of lead programmer Andréa Picard. Materialist in orientation and global in her scope, Picard can look at even a middling year in cinematic production, adjust her angle, and locate the excellence that other curators miss. She of course handles the Wavelengths features as well, along with other members of TIFF’s programming team. (I have written about the features in various places, if you’re interested.) But the short film programs are all Andréa, and it is in these carefully arranged bundles of cinema that her laser-sharp thinking really shines.

The programs are so carefully arranged that I wantonly unarrange them below, preferring to go in alphabetical order. But that’s just so I can avoid giving preference to any particular film. Oh, and one note: I have cheated a little and included one film that is not in Wavelengths. It’s in Short Cuts, but in my estimation it is of a piece enough with the experimental works in the WL section that I couldn’t resist. It is marked with an asterisk.

Let’s rock.

(100ft) (Minjung Kim, South Korea / U.S.)

A lovely throwback to the old school artists’ films of the 1960s and 70s, when people like Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, Lynda Benglis, Vito Acconci, and Bruce Nauman would use cinema and/or video to create or document certain types of performance actions, (100ft) is delightfully simple. It reminds us of something distant and primal, a time long ago when our abstract systems of measurement were not exactly abstract. Instead, they were derived from the human body as a reference point, the measure judged as valid because of an indexical connection to the user. But then, as Kim shows us, there is no universal body who truly exemplifies this ideal. So the question of who got to “set the standard” always has been a question of power. Kim demonstrates this basic truth as a bit of spatial comedy, the woman gradually falling out of phase. Left alone on the beach, she becomes a spectacle, while the man has become a mere memory.

Aliens (Luis López Carrasco, Spain)

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Franco, a new freedom and excitement overtook the Spanish nation, and nowhere could this be scene more clearly than in Madrid. A creative explosion known as La Movida Madrileña (“the Madrid Movement”) displayed a new attitude in music, film, and literature. Among the key bands of this period was Zombies (not to be confused with the U.K. group of the same name), a hard charging post-punk outfit comparable in sound to Sparks or the B-52s. One of the members of Zombies, and a number of other bands of the era, was Tesa Arranz, a singer, painter, and poet.

Aliens, the latest from Carrasco (El futuro), is a frantic, circuit-fried profile of Arranz, still going strong in her fifties. She rants about her relationship to extraterrestrials, provides an extensive lineage of the Movida, based primarily on who was banging who and what drugs they were taking, and offers the viewer a time-based display of her hundreds of paintings. The artwork is all alien-themed, each painting keeping the same basic shape (the classic “gray” alien head) but finding infinite variety within that form.

Carrasco creates a document that bears all the scuzzwad, anti-authority traces appropriate to his subject. He uses cheap-ass video with poor tracking, as if aiming to produce Godard’s notorious “film found on a garbage heap.” He lets his subject ramble and rant with little or no directorial intervention. (Aliens is an even more frantic riff on Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room.) But above all, the filmmaker never brings in outside reference points like historians or art experts. As far as Aliens is concerned, Tesa’s revolution is everybody’s.

The Argument (with annotations) (Daniel Cockburn, Canada)*

Cockburn is the Borgesian theory-head behind 2010’s delightful You Are Here, and his latest work shares traces of that particular brand of wit while venturing into somewhat more straightforward philosophical waters. Back in the 1970s and the heyday of journals like Screen and Cine-tracts, we would have called The Argument a “theory film,” although to do so today would be most unkind, since such nomenclature would practically relegate Cockburn’s film to the “circular file,” as it were. Nevertheless, the film is so fitfully alive that we could probably count on it to crawl back out under its own power.

The first part of The Argument consists of an in-progress lecture on metaphor in cinema, using found footage to make certain points about the suspension of disbelief. “Why does a mirror reverse left and right,” the lecturer asks, “but not up and down?” In addition to exploring the question of belief, and the way that images and language conspire to confuse figurative language with its literal substrate, The Argument also subtly examines social mobility, the frailty of the body and mind, and the written note as an aide memoire against the fallibility of aging memory. That’s to say, the “annotations” soon take center stage, Cockburn discovering the emotional excess in the margins of the text.

below-above (André Lehmann, Switzerland)

A landscape film composed of dialectical opposites, the beautiful below-above by Swiss film artist André Lehmann toggles back and forth at every moment between multiple, moving views of mountains and streams, earth and sky, proximity and distance. Averaging about six cuts per second, below-above is constantly tracing two distinct spaces, asking the eye to keep them separate rather than mentally blend them. (This is not a “third eye” film.) In so doing, we compare, for example, the negative space between rocks with the open space of empty sky; or the curvature of dark rock against light rock that curves in the opposite direction. Rushing water plays against the uneven texture of grass. The water line is horizontal, alternating with a vertical line of rocks.

Throughout Lehmann’s exquisitely anxious visual study, he offers us a continual soundtrack of marimbas. (I confess, on first viewing I thought it was a gamelan.) This gentle musical accompaniment does not soften the pulses and cycles of the images, as is so often the case with musical scores for avant-garde film. Instead, the soundtrack gives the impression of difficult musicianship for the sake of broad, accessible pleasures. This could be because, as Lehmann’s film progresses, it does become more complex. But it has the peculiar effect of both welcoming and abjuring a structuralist engagement. Again, this is in large part due to the soundtrack, which implicitly invites us to let below-above wash over us as if we were lying beside that mountain stream. But we can’t stay. By the film’s conclusion, we are being thrown back and forth between the sea and the sky, Lehmann’s title delivering its promise as infinite space. Below-above is a devious contraption.

Brown and Clear (Kevin Jerome Everson, U.S.)

The title of Everson’s latest film refers to bourbon and vodka, two spirits on display in this piece not for their potency but for their softness. As we watch an Ohio bartender combining parts of half-full bottles for bar storage, Everson presents this action as a painterly still life. The bar is arranged with five bottles in a row, the furthest one in focus. In the foreground, all we see is the hazy form of smoked glass, the curved surface area interrupted by a label. Soon, the shot reverses, and then we see an arrangement of three clear bottlenecks with golden caps. Brown and Clear captures the light and texture not only of the liquor bottles themselves, although Everson does a beautiful job of this. His use of shallow focus recalls Leighton Pierce’s best work. But more than this, Everson captures the unique ambiance of a neighborhood pub—dark, cozy, burnished wood and gold fixtures. Brown and Clear manages to zero in on one small part of the labor process involved in the running of a bar, and through his close attention that task becomes a metonym for the space itself and the community it serves.

Configuration in Black and White (Helga Fanderl, Germany)

If celluloid is on the endangered species list, then there are few parts of the cinematic ecosystem quite as marginalized as Super 8 filmmaking. This is tragic, because in the hands of a master like Helga Fanderl, the medium has unparalleled aesthetic potential. Super 8 is precise, focused, and yet undeniably intimate, with a tactile quality that other media simply cannot match. For decades, Fanderl has been making small observational compositions in Super 8, presenting them in carefully selected groupings as if they were movements in a piece of visual chamber music.

Her newest suite of films entails a careful variation between ground and sky, as well as aqua, flora, and fauna. The first, Nacht am Kanal, is a study of streetlights on a canal, particularly how their arrangement and reflection serves as a compositional framework for the movement of other illumination points (e.g., car headlights) as well as the dark motion of figures in the night. Next, Schneefall surveys a rooftop garden from above as it and the surrounding area are covered with a fresh dusting of snow. In addition to Fanderl’s high angle taking precedence here—an implicit identification with the snow, not the plant life—Schneefall is characterized by particularly crisp photography and in-camera editing that gradually builds in rhythm.

The third film, Weiße Blumen für P., is dedicated to the late Peter Hutton. In it, Fanderl shoots white flowers in close-up, again applying in-camera editing to create a gentle but propulsive montage of blossoms that anchor the center-screen while the larger field shifts around them. By the end, the camera has pulled back somewhat, giving a broader view of the flowerbed, and this seems to correspond somewhat to Hutton’s own way of zeroing in on a detail in the landscape, subsequently contextualizing it with a wider shot. The fourth and final film in the suite, Wildgänse, is the most complex of the group. A study of geese in flight, this is the film in which Fanderl places the largest number of elements into play. In addition to her staccato editing, which often produces images of geese flying to and fro, in larger then smaller numbers, it is here that we can really observe the effects of Fanderl’s use of 18 frame-per-second projection speed. The birds’ wings flap at a rate just slow enough to produce a hint of abstraction. Meanwhile, their motion is somewhat at odds with Fanderl’s handheld pans, resulting in a differential movement within the frame—sometimes a lag-time, sometimes an acceleration. Wildgänse demonstrates just how performative and jazzlike Fanderl’s cinema really is, and how her mastery lay in her ability to use her Super 8 camera as an instrument of intuition, with which to “play” the reality before her.

Dislocation Blues (Sky Hopinka, Ho-Chunk Nation / U.S.)

Arguably Hopinka’s most straightforward film to date, Dislocation Blues is much more than meets the eye. A short, dense document of the actions of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, North Dakota, it is also an inquiry into the way that participation in mass resistance changes a person, and how that affective shift carries through into life after the protests are over. Dislocation Blues is organized around interviews with two Standing Rock protesters. Cleo Keahna is a young person who identifies as “two-spirit,” and describes how finding their place in the movement coincided with making peace with their gender identity. Terry Running Wild is an older protester who talks about the camaraderie in the camp, and how even though on the outside he had reasons to distrust white folks, in the camp “everyone’s an Indian.”

Both interviewees describe their experiences retrospectively, noting the disconnect between what they felt during the Standing Rock protest and how they feel now. Keahna is particularly articulate in explaining how the actual experience had ups and downs, but the bad parts fade in recollection. As per the title, what does it mean for a Native person to exist not only in a space of collective action, but one defined by Native values, only to have that space cease to be? Hopinka shows the activity around Standing Rock but he also abstracts it somewhat, employing his color-saturation method in particular. In this way, he makes it clear that Dislocation Blues is not a documentary “about” Standing Rock, but rather the subjective space it generated, and the way that space is conjured in memory. Put another way, Dislocation Blues seems to ask how one negotiates the mundane after fighting for something sacred.

Division Movement to Vungtau (Benjamin Crotty and Bertrand Dezoteux, France)

Well, folks, you got me. Crotty (Fort Buchanan) and Dezoteux have taken old footage of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam and used digital compositing to add in some giant characters made of ambulatory, giggling fruit. There’s an apple (looks like a Gala), an unusually floppy banana (metaphor for the impotence of militarism?) and a pineapple that, in the final scene, seems to have a section missing. (Did the boys get hungry?) What can I tell you? It’s noteworthy, I think, that Crotty and Dezoteux use no combat footage. It all consists of troop movements and moments of downtime (a makeshift Christmas celebration, swimming in a creek). And the giant pieces of fruit, with faces, arms, and legs, are participating as if they were soldiers themselves. I’m honestly stumped on this one. To my eyes, Division Movement to Vungtau doesn’t seem to have anything specific to say regarding American or French intervention in Indochina, and I feel a bit like a fool for even looking for such content. It’s the combination of Platoon and Bananas in Pajamas we never knew we wanted, and I feel like I’m being trolled.

Fire (Lucy Parker, U.K.)

A short piece about energy in different forms, Fire seems to loop cinema in as yet another form of potential fuel. After focusing on the sun, and various scouting-manual methods for starting a fire (magnifying glass, flint on wood shavings), Parker finally gets a flame going. At that moment, Fire breaks the fourth wall, as it were, cutting back to a projection of itself in orangey negative. After trying to put this active energy “back” into potential form by holding a dry cell battery to it, we see the performer strike a match. Is this the march of progress, or just a form of giving up? We’re left with this question as the film itself, possible source of light and heat, concludes.

Florence (Firenze) (Erkki Kurenniemi, Finland)

This 1970 film by Finnish experimental composer Kurenniemi is one of several films he made to go along with certain of his compositions. Other musicians have done the same, with mixed results, but Florence is an impressive piece of avant-garde cinema history from an artist in full command of the medium. Part of what makes Florence so appealing is its flat-out weirdness. Against an undulating electronic score that resembles both the work of Martin Bartlett and Michael Snow’s soundtrack for Wavelength, Kurenniemi combines two very distinct classes of images. His use of small, circular frames within frames, moved precisely around the perimeter of the screen, indicates some influence by early experimentalists like Oskar Fischinger. But then, Florence is filled with dappled sunlight, superimposed portraiture, and tie-dyed colors that scratch and swirl on the screen. Kurenniemi handles this side of the film with absolute precision despite its hippy-dippy ambiance, and in so doing reminded me of the films of Will Hindle. So as you can see, there are a lot of incompatible ingredients in this stew, but Florence somehow works. Everything gels, nothing feels derivative or dishonest, and Kurenniemi takes his rightful place in avant-garde film history.

Flores (Jorge Jácome, Portugal)

It’s unconventional for a narrative work to be primarily defined by color. But Flores, the latest from Jorge Jácome, is tinted a light purple throughout most of its running time, presumably to give the impression that everything we are seeing is bathed in light that is reflected off the hydrangeas that dominate every frame. You see, in Jácome’s three-part tale, the nine islands of the Azores are uninhabitable because all have been taken over by the aggressive, rhizomatic hydrangea. As it is told, the flower was introduced into the ecosystem and, much like the cane toad or the Northern pike, began destroying everything in its path.

This is fiction, of course, but it allows Jácome to create a fantastical context in which to explore both the muted love affair of two soldiers (André Andrade, Pedro Rosa) who’ve remained after the evacuation to administer the islands, and the relationship between humans and our environment. In most cases, our actions result in detrimental impact on nature. Flores posits the opposite, looking at a scenario where one species of flora is reclaiming territory from human encroachment. We can see this in the lavender tone of the visuals (shades of Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart), wherein even the atmosphere has been taken over by the hydrangeas. Considering our own, very real ecological errors, Jácome uses speculative fiction to ask us how we intend to survive the Purple Reign.

Fluid Frontiers (Ephraim Asili, U.S. / Canada)

In our increasingly political landscape, we need political landscape films, and to a certain extent that is what Ephraim Asili has provided with his new film Fluid Frontiers. A film that moves in several directions at once, Fluid Frontiers is both a consideration of a key point of movement between the U.S. and Canada in the Underground Railroad—the crossover point between Detroit and Windsor, ON—and a tribute to Detroit’s Broadside Press, a publishing house of the late 60s and 70s that specialized in radical black poetry. Asili shows us now-empty spaces as we hear a reading of the poem “Harriet Tubman” by Margaret Walker. (The poem can be heard here.) In between, he depicts various African-Americans situated before storefronts (often boarded up), reading to the camera. They are reciting works by the Broadside poets, reading them directly from the original chapbooks: Etheridge Knight’s Poems From Prison; Don L. Lee’s Think Black; Sonia Sanchez’s We a baddDDD people, and others.

This juxtaposition has various effects. First, most directly, it creates a material lineage between radical histories. Tubman’s actions are connected to that of the Black Power poets, who are in turn linked to those activists who are working to save Detroit from government-engineered demise. But also, by focusing on the Detroit / Windsor area specifically, Asili insists on a place-based activism, making it clear that only certain kinds of interventions could occur in certain places. While this is true for obvious reasons with the Underground Railroad, Fluid Frontiers implicitly argues that the same is true for the Broadside authors and their work and, in a sense, the film itself.

And while one does not want to generalize or be naively alarmist, Fluid Frontiers is a timely film. We have regressed very quickly, after all, from a nation set to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, to a country led by a man who has expressed specific admiration for Jackson, defended neo-Nazis, and whose administration has condemned Black Lives Matter. Asili points to the border, perhaps suggesting that, despite Canada’s problems, African-Americans might consider heading toward the egress.

From Source to Poem (Rosa Barba, Germany)

Derrida wrote about Archive Fever

And it appears that Barba may be a believer

A celluloid aria from an expert songstress,

This is a look at the Library of Congress

Nitrate prints and U-Matic tapes

We see in the catacombs while we traipse

Through massive stacks and robotic scenes

Sleek Betamaxes and record machines

And every so often a blinding light

From the desolate surface gives dazzling delight

A solar farm, covered with panels, replete

With equipment to generate fuel from the heat

Together these spaces, the archive and farm,

Seem to point to a future protected from harm


Then again Barba is fond of the flare on the lens

Does the preservationist’s means determine her ends?

But when the sun fries us like meat,

Will we care that we catalogued tweets?

Heart of a Mountain (Faraz Anoushahpour, Parastoo Anoushahpour, and Ryan Ferko, Taiwan / Canada)

Conjuring the spirit of both Warren Sonbert and Mark LaPore while resembling the work of neither, this latest film by the team of Anoushahpour / Ferko / Anoushahpour engages with the problem of experiencing a foreign culture. What can we see, and what remains just a blur to us? And how do we avoid perpetuating the dominating, acquisitive gaze? For its part, Heart of a Mountain gives us Taiwan in fragments and fog: the sweat pooling down a policeman’s neck, or the desultory gestures of young people at the beach. Rather than watching other people, we are watching ourselves in the process of grasping for some form of mitigated understanding. And, in a refrain throughout Heart of a Mountain, an unseen subject traces words and phrases on his arm. The writing is but a pressure; it erases itself before it even exists.

La Libertad (Laura Huertas Milián, Colombia / France / U.S.)

At a moment when certain key members of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab are going off the deep end, Colombian filmmaker Milián is showing once more why audiences were fascinated by the SEL’s output in the first place. Focusing ever so gently on a group of Mexican women who work at their looms weaving bracelets, belts, and other items out of thread, La Libertad tends to examine these practices first from up close, in isolation from any other context. Then, after we have become acquainted with the rhythm and dexterity of the weaving process, Milián pulls back and begins speaking with the women about what they do and why.

One weaver explains that she does what she does because she enjoys it, and this is paralleled later on with another woman’s explanation as to why she has never married. Both of them emphasize the freedom to do as they like, apart from concerns with making money, pleasing a husband, or answering to anyone with respect to their art. In fact, Milián introduces a (male) artist and his drawings, to clarify the fact that these women and their traditional handicrafts are not so far removed from the personal exigencies that drive any creative individual to produce.

As if squaring the circle, Milián implicates her own filmmaking practice within this circuit of women’s creativity. When filming the weaving process, she takes care to describe crisp, minimalist lines and forms in her framing, organizing the thread in the image as if she, too, were “weaving” a piece of visual information. In this way, Milián’s formalism mimics the rigor of her subjects, combining the materialist precision of Liu Jiayin with the tactile, non-intrusive gaze of Bruce Baillie.

Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt (Pacho Velez and Yoni Brook, U.S.)

Have you ever felt like everyone knew the secret except you? A film about people struggling to cross an official barrier, Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt just might resonate as a metaphor. What could it mean? Listen to station announcements for further updates.

Onward Lossless Follows (Michael Robinson, U.S.)

Throughout much of his work, Michael Robinson has explored the emotional sweep of popular song, something that touches us all even though it is dismissed by some as representing bad taste or, even worse, the tug of nostalgia. His films have given the lie to such simple formulations, making plain the degree to which complex affective states can be distilled into a single pop culture artifact. But this is only one aspect of Robinson’s work. He has consistently taken these known elements from our collective dreams and wedded them to the mysterious or the inexplicable, as though some key phrase or image were offering insight to the workings of the unconscious. Alas, these ideas are moving targets in Robinson’s work; wait too long, and the password has changed.

Onward Lossless Follows is one of Robinson’s most densely layered works to date, and in it he takes the measure of desire in far more direct ways. Throughout the film, we hear the voice of an avuncular preacher explaining that we must put no faith in the stars. And yet, what we see before us is a constellation of meanings that cannot be spoken directly—the lust for shirtless men out a second story window, a wish to be spirited away by a seductress, even the longing to lose oneself entirely.

In Onward, we are invited to suspend our judgment and, by extension, give ourselves over to the dangers of attenuated desires. As the voice counsels us to give up on the stars and bind ourselves back down on earth, Robinson implies that the greatest risks to innocence are right in our own backyard. We need not look to the heavens to find all the thrills our mothers warned us about.

Palmerston Blvd. (Dan Browne, Canada)

Simple in concept but flawless in execution, Palmerston Blvd. is the story of a single year in the life of a family apartment, presented as a 14-minute temporal condensation. Although Browne is committed to an experimental vision, the power of this film derives from his classical approach. Much of Palmerston is framed in a wide angle that absorbs the main picture window and dining area, offered up like a proscenium. It’s here that we can discern the changes that define Browne’s family life—the eventual absence of some, the signs of new presences, and of course the shifting of the seasons. Smaller details are also brought to the fore, mostly to display their specific play with the sunlight or their refractive character. Like a living Alice Neel canvas, the film gives us flowers in mason jars and changing leaves out the window on the corner. Palmerston Blvd. is a dynamic film, in large part because it maintains a tension between the pictorial and the narrative. It’s the story of a space, and like all spaces, it comes to an end.

Phantasiesätze (Fantasy Sentences) (Dane Komljen, Germany / Denmark)

In his follow-up to All the Cities of the North, Dane Komljen adopts the short form. But Phantasiesätze (which takes its title from a text by Walter Benjamin) is quite possibly even richer than North in terms of the coordination of its moving parts. After a brief introductory text, Komljen begins to show us some weathered home-movie images, presumably from the mid-1960s based on their color. At first these movies seem normal—we see ordinary families out having picnics or enjoying the wilderness. But the closer we look and listen, we can no longer be certain that these are straightforward documents. The people seem just a bit too happy, too quick to make googly-eyes at the camera while they cavort naked at the lake or carry children on their back. Even assuming these amateur films are genuine, it’s difficult to ignore these families’ desperate need to look as if they are having fun.

The focus of the film shifts from happy-go-lucky people to the rustling trees, the tone becoming somewhat sinister. Then, as though we have imperceptibly ventured a bit too far off our assigned route, the forest gives way to disused office buildings, old overgrown apartments, and other official-looking buildings that nature has been allowed to reclaim. If the first part of Phantasiesätze had the feel of Jan Němec’s anti-Communist classic The Report on the Party and the Guests, this second segment more closely resembles Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s recent masterwork Homo Sapiens. By the conclusion, however, Komljen has moved us somewhere beyond conventional reason, where the faculty of speech, so often an explanatory tool where images are concerned, is instead a kind of pipeline to the historical unconscious of this deeply haunted place. Komljen has identified a clearing in the woods where utopian dreams went to die.

Pixillation (Anne Charlotte Robertson, U.S.)

The late Anne Charlotte Robertson is best known for her Five Year Diary project, an extensive series of deeply personal films she made in which she chronicles her lifelong struggle with mental illness. But the 1976 film Pixillation is a much earlier effort by Robertson, and while it shares with the diary films her concern with intimate self-portraiture, it is a very different kind of cinematic effort. Using Méliès-like trick editing to volley herself to and fro in space, Robertson places her confident image against a gray sky that seems on the verge of pouring rain. Later, Robertson films around a freestanding brick wall, again moving effortlessly in space through the magic of editing. The message seems clear: Robertson is a woman who can withstand any challenge or impediment. While Pixillation certainly has added poignancy for those familiar with Robertson’s later work, it is an empowering film on its own, particularly by the end when the filmmaker accidentally lets slip with a wry smile. Here is a woman in control of her own image.

Rose Gold (Sara Cwynar, U.S.)

This is a theory of objects, occasioned by Apple’s possible invention (or at least popularization) of a new color with the roll-out of the iPhone. Cwynar’s strategy is to throw out observation after observation, concept after concept, usually one on top of the next. How did certain colors come to typify the 1970s? How does our desire shift from things to people and back again? How does technology take on human characteristics? Cwynar layers her film with quotations from the likes of Baudrillard, Heidegger, Lauren Berlant, and other heavy hitters, while mostly organizing the visual field according to the colors of things. The problem is, Rose Gold is as much a jumble of ideas and impulses as the very society it aims to critique. This is no doubt a conscious strategy, undertaken on the assumption that linear argument is inadequate to the task of understanding our neoliberal global structure. Nevertheless, this is a film that announces its intellectual intentions but adds to the cacophony instead of parsing meaning.

Scaffold (Kazik Radwanski, Canada)

Radwanski and the Medium Density Fibreboard production crew have more than proven themselves in the realm of full-length filmmaking, having made two of the finest Canadian features of recent years: Tower and How Heavy This Hammer. What’s interesting is that, while those references to building in the previous titles were purely metaphorical, apparently construction is something that has been in the back of Radwanski’s mind for quite some time. Scaffold is not without its own visual poetry, by any means. But it is very much about scaffolding and the workers who climb it.

Specifically, this is a short film about Eastern European construction workers on a day job in suburban Canada, removing the sliding glass patio door on the second floor of an apartment and carefully replacing it. We don’t learn their particular identities, at least not from their faces. Rather, Radwanski shows us who they are through their labor. We see their hands and arms lifting pieces of scaffolding and putting them into place. We observe the chipping away of plaster, the negotiation of a tricky lock and key, and eventually the sipping of coffee during breaktime.

While there’s undoubtedly a certain Bressonianism to it all—I didn’t want to drop the name, but there’s simply no way around it in this case—there’s also a formal strategy that alludes to the avant-garde. Certain filmmakers demand that we come to an understanding of their films simply by watching them. That is, they teach us how to make sense of their structure once we give them our attention. The title, “Scaffold,” is a bit of a pun. Our understanding of the film builds from moment to moment. The film is equal to the completion of its given task. However, it is also people-oriented. It contains notions of “home” and “away.” It waves hello to passing kids. Think of it as working class structuralism.

some cities (Francesco Gagliardi, Canada)

A small, stationary electrical parade, or perhaps an abstract game of Dan Flavin Whack-a-Mole, some cities is as simple as it is enigmatic. It’s theatrical in the most basic sense, with a pair of hands at a console with six light sockets connected to six toggle switches. (The light bulbs are doubled because the apparatus is situated before a mirror.) Like an expert magician or card dealer, the performer flips the switches in patterns, then pauses now and again to move the bulbs to different positions. In the first part, the bulbs are red and blue; in the second, they are different sizes but all are slightly different shades of red. This is a lovely cinematic miniature focused on a kind of private gamesmanship, and the suggestion that there may be rules to which we just aren’t privy.

Strangely Ordinary This Devotion (Dani Restack and Sheilah Wilson Restack, U.S. / Canada)

I’ve written about this extraordinary film elsewhere, but there is always something fresh to take away from it with each new viewing. While there is a fragmented narrative of sorts—the tale of the water babies, conceived without moisture in the heart of Ohio—what we actually see onscreen is hardly fanciful with respect to motherhood. Rather, the artists’ interactions with daughter Rose are, as per the title, often strikingly ordinary. But this can be deceptive. After all, we are observing Rose and her mothers through the filter of an artwork, even though it is one based largely on fragments taken from daily life.

This raises certain questions about the interpenetration of family life and the artmaking process. After all, children are frequently willing to play-act or engage in their own fantasy worlds. Part of what Strangely Ordinary This Devotion highlights is the possibility of forging a domestic space that, to some extent, takes its lead from Rose’s flights of fancy. This is not to say that she isn’t directed in the films she makes with her moms. However, what we see is a set of fragments of Rose performing to the extent that she is willing, those components being nodes within the overall editing scheme. This “fit” seems to indicate that, within this household, play is serious business. Or vice versa.

Ticino (Friedl vom Gröller, Austria / Italy)

Vom Gröller’s brief cinematic portraits are often crystalline, with a limpid clarity that can make it difficult to fully observe the care and compositional know-how with which they are made. In fact, I have written elsewhere that they share certain qualities with series photography or suites of lithographs, in that they deepen in meaning the more of them one gets the chance to view. (See also: Kevin Everson and Helga Fanderl.)

But this claim can be misconstrued. It could cause one to overlook the toughness and full presence of personality that vom Gröller’s films so often exhibit. This is largely due to her forceful, contrasty cinematography, but it is also a characteristic of the way she captures her “sitters.” They frequently face the camera with a firm gaze, like an ocular handshake. But few have been as self-possessed as Ivon and Sango, the two children in Ticino. As they drift down the titular river, they not only stare the viewer down, but wield a snake-like sculpture as if it were a talisman, controlling the flow of the water if not the turning of the earth.

Usually vom Gröller titles her films after the names of her subjects. The fact that she chooses instead to call this new work Ticino implies that she shares with these kids their conviction that they hold sway over the river’s steady drift—that they are somehow connected to the Ticino. This most seemingly straightforward of filmmakers is devoting three minutes of screen time to the wonder of child’s play.

Turtles Are Always Home (Rawane Nassif, Canada /Lebanon / Qatar)

Sometimes all a film has to do is to provide a clear, coherent study of an unusual, intellectually suggestive piece of architecture. Cinema is a very good tool for describing spaces, and a talented maker can articulate both the human-scaled and the gargantuan through angle, framing, and especially camera movement. Recent Wavelengths titles that have fallen into this category include Sophie Michael’s Water Show Extravaganza and Yuri Ancarani’s San Siro. We can add Rawane Nassif’s lovely Turtles Are Always Home to this list. Nassif has trained her camera on the Qanat-Quartier, or Pearl-Qatar, a pastel-colored live-work complex in Doha that is a Middle Eastern spin on the Venetian canal system.

With hues that could have popped right out of a David Hockney painting, the Qanat-Quartier is postmodernism with no sense of whimsy, only the desire to provide the necessary outward signifiers of “the good life.” Nassif photographs the various shops and restaurants through the windows, with their promises of overstuffed, Renaissance still life abundance. Even as the scenes reflect and refract one another, we can see that something is not quite right. These seeming robust consumer spaces echo with the emptiness of fallow new real estate. As for the turtles of the title, Nassif seems to be reminding us that there is a thin line between the comforts of home and the desire to hide in a shell from the larger world. 

Wasteland No. 1 – Ardent, Verdant (Jodie Mack, U.S.)

Predominantly a study in green and red, Mack’s new film is also a study in contrasts. Wasteland No. 1 opens with a close-up of a green circuit board, the sort you might find in a calculator or an old Apple II. A roving light serves to bring its bumps and nodules into a shallow 3D. Suddenly we are given a rapid-fire blitz of such boards, all with their own shades of green and gray, their circuitry wired in slightly different places. But this animation emphasizes their fundamental similarity.

I remember looking at these things as a kid, and at the time they seemed to resemble rural landscapes seen from afar. But as Mack displays them, they hold no such mystery. And, as if to drive this point home, she introduces a second set of images—beds of red flowers set against a saturated blue sky. These searing red blooms bear the traces of photo-manipulation, calling to mind certain Warhol canvases. But when they begin alternating in rapid motion, Wasteland No. 1 bears traces of Rose Lowder’s landscape work, channeled through a highly mitigated sense of the real. As the very short film concludes, we come to realize that Mack has sneakily pulled us into a dialectic. After all, not only are the natural forms digitally transformed. The digital components have their origin in natural resources, materials mined from the earth. We’re not supposed to think about that. But Mack insists, we are all components within the same vast wasteland.

The Watchmen (Fern Silva, U.S.)

Silva’s intrepid filmmaking has taken him throughout the world, engaging with a vast array of people and spaces. The one unifying characteristic of Silva’s films is deep curiosity. This manifests as an engagement with whoever is before his lens that affords them great respect, without trying to elide or ignore their difference from him. In his newest film, Silva brings that enlightened gaze back home, investigating the place of prisons in the U.S. landscape. Starting out with a man in a field who seems to emanate strange waves of light outward, like a floodlight in reverse, The Watchmen interrogates Jeremy Bentham’s notorious concept of the Panopticon, the circular prison with the all-seeing guard tower in the center.

This model, popularized as a philosophical trope by Michel Foucault, is not just about a type of incarceration. It is a technology of vision, a means of control by demanding that the individual internalize society’s gaze. In The Watchmen, Silva shows us the frank normalization of prisons within the American vernacular landscape. They have a certain shape, and we become used to them, as if they were any other kind of structure. We see the rusted-out remains of a true Panopticon in Cuba, as well as other prisons dotting the highways of Illinois as if they were just so many hot dog stands.

The Watchmen visually compares prisons to factories. We see refineries with their off-gassing and controlled flames. We go inside and witness chemical processing with fire in large crucibles. And then, as we cut back to the prisons, we are asked to consider those carceral spaces as foundries for a particular kind of human being. Far from the humanist model (so quaint as to seem absurd now) of “paying one’s debt to society,” the contemporary prison is in many cases a literal factory. But more than this, it is a machine for its own perpetuation, the human lives inside serving as fuel. The watchman we witness on the sidelines perhaps aims to disrupt this deadly process by generating a different kind of light.

Yeti (Wojciech Bakowski, Poland)

This vague but intriguing effort from Bakowski (previously in the festival in 2015 with Analysis of Emotions and Vexations) is partly a performance of the body in architecture—the repetitive action of climbing steps, knocking one’s head against the wall, et cetera—and partly a definition of the self with floating consumer avatars. Cellphones, Levi’s, Red Wing shoes, and other store-bought objects float around like clip-art. The whole thing is book-ended with an instrumental score that sounds vaguely like late Wire or the German rock band Blumfeld. Bakowski employs a distinctively retro-style, his technology bearing a distinct resemblance to the lo-fi classics of early video art. This approach is definitely shrewd, since it is at odds with the capitalist goodies Bakowski dangles in front of himself. This naturally raises questions about how success is measured, and in light of this, it’s no surprise to find the artist banging his head and going nowhere.

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