Toronto: Wavelengths Shorts – Look Around

This Wavelengths's shorts program includes films by Ryan Ferko, Gastón Solnicki, Luke Fowler, Miryam Charles, Erica Sheu, & Marwa Arsanios.
Michael Sicinski

A group of international films that seem partially united by the theme of global awareness, this program is more of a mixed bag than most. Sadly, I was unable to preview the first film in the show, 2minutes40seconds, by Han Ok-hee. It’s from 1975, and it is a rare screening of work by the Kaidu Club, a feminist experimental film collective from South Korea. Considering just how little Korean avant-garde film gets screened at all, much less from the seventies, I’d say Han’s film is a categorical must-see.

Hrvoji, Look at Your From the Tower (Ryan Ferko, Slovenia / Croatia / Serbia / Canada)

Ryan Ferko has presented a number of films in festivals past, although those previous entries have been co-directed by Faraz and Parastoo Anoushahpour. They are both listed in the credits of Hrvoji as collaborators, but Ferko is credited as the sole filmmaker, and this in itself is intriguing. Although the trio's films have been quite impressive, I have always detected a sense of formal modesty in their work, a tendency to downplay their presence in the face of the cultural subject matter before them. With the new film, rhythm, editing, and sound design are front and center, offering the viewer a more refracted perception of the environment on display, and I think this makes for Ferko's strongest effort yet.

Hrvoji consists of sequences shot during Ferko's travels throughout the nations of the former Yugoslavia, a topic explored in his previous film Strange Vision of Seeing Things. In the new film, Ferko organizes the material through shape first and foremost, beginning with a tall rock monolith that becomes a literal touchstone for other vertical forms throughout the film. At other times, we see wide shots of movement through fields—guys playing football, birds in the sky—and these varying compositional structures alternate with broken interiors, criss-crossed with shafts of light that mirror the solid forms seen elsewhere.

Ferko is in a sense playing with the coupling and disunion of the former republics, cutting them together through montage (and through his travels) but arranging them in a way that emphasizes discontinuity. Sound design works to underscore this, with tracking shots matched with the noise of table tennis, or roving landscapes combined with a man talking about his love for the music of Leslie West and Mountain. In terms of shot composition and organization, Ferko displays an influence from certain key modernist masters, such as Cy Twombly, Robert Beavers, and Ernie Gehr. But there's a bold, original voice that comes through in Hrvoji, perhaps more clearly than in any of his previous films. This is a work that feels so exacting that even the hand-held trembling of the image seems to bolster the overall formal agenda of the work. An impressive achievement.

Circumplector (Gastón Solnicki, Argentina)

In Latin, circumplector means that which is all-encompassing. True to form, Argentinian experimentalist Solnicki (Kékszakállú) enfolds nearly everything in less than three minutes: sculpture, architecture, devotional music, a painterly still life, a bit of portraiture, and the inklings of a narrative. In the film’s evocative first image, we see a statue being removed from Notre Dame, just two days, as it happens, before the cathedral was engulfed in flames. 

So in a certain respect, Solnicki is also expressing his faith in cinema as an embrace, a tool for memorializing human endeavor in the face of uncertainty. The camera cannot see everything, but as Bazin assured us, it loses no part of what it sees.

Cézanne (Luke Fowler, U.K. / France)

Live from Aix-en-Provence comes an unusual new film from Luke Fowler. Although his work tends to be discursive in its exploration of cultural history, here he lets the images do the talking, using his camera like a paintbrush to explore a complex dichotomy. The abundant flora, the quality of light, and of course the triumphant Mt. Saint-Victoire, all remain as Cézanne found them over 125 years ago. But around those elements has sprouted a commercialized Cézanne industry—tours, posters, cafés, and enough postcards to fill Bibémus Quarry. Fowler explores this conundrum cinematically, using gesture and superimposition to generate a play between flatness and depth. What could be more fitting?

Second Generation (Miryam Charles, Canada)

A film that hints at a narrative but is presented as an assemblage of fragments, Second Generation suggests a love affair, a pending marriage, a history of migration and resettlement, and a sense that the shifting and unmooring of cultural identities may be playing a role in creating strife between the apparent couple, "M." and "J." Slightly reminiscent of certain films by Su Friedrich, Second Generation creates text/image relationships that are open and vertical, like dense modern poetry, rather than explanatory across time.

At the same time, I am not entirely sure that Charles places as much emphasis on the visual aspect of Second Generation as she does on its writerly elements. This seems to be part of an uncharacteristic trend in this year's programs, with a number of films (The Bite, SaF05, Billy, Sun Rave, This Action Lies) foregrounding language and narrativity over more formal considerations. This could be purely coincidental, or it might point to shifting priorities of our times. 

Transcript (Erica Sheu, U.S. / Taiwan)

I had the good fortune to first come across Erica Sheu's Transcript back in March when I was previewing films for the SF Crossroads Festival, where it stood out from the pack quite powerfully. But it's a quiet power, to be sure. There may not be a more delicate, unassuming film in the Wavelengths series this year, but Transcript is striking nonetheless. It is essentially a still life, although part of what makes the film unique is its tendency to vibrate under the energy of an unseen wind. Sheu gives us close-ups of baby's breath, its branches and buds gently bobbing within the frame of reference against a blue background. The images are a careful study of light and shadow.

But then, at the end of the film, we see that the blue paper that was serving as a backdrop is actually photosensitive. Sheu's manipulation of the lights has actually been creating a physical transcript of the film she has been making, a series of Rayographs documenting the production process like blueprints. So in a way, Sheu's film is not merely painterly by description. It is actually producing effects halfway between painting and photography, a quite literal drawing with light. What a delightful film.

Who’s Afraid of Ideology? Part 2 (Marwa Arsanios, Lebanon)

Who's Afraid of Ideology? Part 2

Beginning with a woman thumbing through a notebook of pressed plants, detailing the ailments that can be cured with each one, Who’s Afraid of Ideology? Part 2 soon becomes wider in scope, exploring the broader connections between people and the land. In this case, Arsanios is offering the viewer a portrait of Jinwar, a new village coming into being in the Kurdish territory of Syria. What makes this village unique is that is that it will be an all-woman community, based primarily in agriculture but also having women pulling double- and even triple-duty in order to fulfill all the necessary occupations to keep the village thriving. Interstitially, Arsanios pulls away to tell us about the complications that befall Kurds with respect to land rights, and the uncomfortable but necessary cooperation with the Assad regime’s clerks to ascertain who owns what property in the confusion of the post-war period.

As topical and interesting as Ideology’s subject may be, there is very little formal innovation in it, or at least in Part 2. What is strange is that, in Part 1, Arsanios spends 18 minutes exploring the philosophical and theoretical connections between human beings and nature—the humanist notion the earth is a space we merely occupy, versus more radical-materialist ecological concepts of stewardship and connectedness. In addition, she manipulates the sound/image relationship, denaturalizing cinematic realism. This prologue certainly complicates the straightforward quality of Part 2. Why the festival couldn’t find the time to program the whole thing is rather mysterious. Maybe someone is afraid of ideology after all.

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TIFFTIFF 2019Festival CoverageRyan FerkoGastón SolnickiLuke FowlerMiryam CharlesErica SheuMarwa Arsanios
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