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Collective Records: New York Film Festival's Currents

The shorts program of the New York Film Festival's experimental sidebar provoked questions of how to orient ourselves in our unstable world.
Emma Piper-Burket
Estuary
Experimental film for me has always been one of the best ways of gauging our collective subconscious, perhaps that’s why—before outlining any of the short films in the Currents sidebar of this year’s New York Film Festival—I find myself wanting to provide some sort of orientation for the moment that we now find ourselves in. Of course, it’s an impulse accompanied by an equal measure of resistance. How, in a few short lines, is it possible to meaningfully locate or make sense of what we have collectively (and individually) gone through over the past year and a half? Instead, perhaps we could simply pause to acknowledge the losses we have experienced in this period; not only the material or personal losses, but also the immaterial ones: the stripping away of any sense of sureness, of the illusion of forward momentum, or clear understanding of what it means to be alive in the 21st century.
This is what was in the back of my mind while watching the eight Currents programs. As I watched, I searched for clues—anything that might give release or understanding to this persistent feeling of being on the precipice of something not yet visible, perhaps even still forming.
To its credit (and perhaps detriment too in some ways, but no need to dwell there), this year’s Currents program is extremely diverse in form, geography, and voice. The 35 films in the shorts program range from more traditional-feeling narrative and documentary pieces and a scant serving of avant-garde, to the most richly represented category: a varied array of essay films. It occurred to me that such a globally oriented sampling of consciousness made during this unique period could be structured into a cosmology of sorts, one that might help explain our collective psyche at this peculiar moment in time.
This cosmology provides no origin story, it will not be a source of truth for centuries to come (not even decades, or years: it is just for right now) and perhaps most importantly, it is not linear. Rather, it circles around and doubles over on itself with 20 browser tabs open at a time.
Homage to the Work of Philip Henry Gosse
“How to separate signals from noise?” Pablo Martín Weber asks in his essay film Homage to the Work of Philip Henry Gosse. It is a question that deeply resonates. Over the course of 22 minutes Weber draws connections between the exponentially growing stream of digital images (500,000 images
from the Mars Curiosity Rover, 100 hours of contraband ISIS footage, et cetera) and the life work of Philip Henry Gosse: naturalist, contemporary of Darwin, obsessive collector of fossils. Gosse sought to answer the question of how old the earth was. Being a deeply religious man but also observant of what the fossils told him about the earth’s timescale, he came up with a theory that God created the earth in accordance with Biblical records but did so both forwards and backwards. Weber recounts this history, comparing Gosses’ idea of a God who “creates retroactively” to the work of a computer programmer today, digitally altering images, adding elements that weren’t originally there.
This notion of the untrustworthiness of visual documents and artifacts, and how that affects our perceptions of (and orientation in) time and space, recurs again and again throughout the program in countless ways.
Strange Object
Miranda Pennell’s Strange Object examines the imperial project and its legacy by taking viewers through a journal of aerial images of Jidali Fort in Somaliland that is housed in the National Archives in London. The fort was destroyed by the British in 1920; it was the first site in Africa to be bombarded in an air raid. As Pennell’s camera studies the images, zoomed in to near-abstraction, we get lost in their geometry. In a gentle trance-like state brought on by the slow succession of photo-fragments, Pennell questions the mechanisms that create the narrative after the fact, implicating the subjectivity of historical record, “What if there is no past? What if the white gloves are there, not to protect the past, but to make visitors believe that the past exists?” This historical questioning takes a more contemporary turn in Tiffany Sia’s Do Not Circulate. She describes the “Rashomon-like effect” of cell phone footage of police brutality during the 2019 Hong Kong protests, playing and replaying the events from a multitude of angles but getting no closer to the truth.
The reworking of documented truths also comes out in the self-reflexive narrative structure of Guillermo Moncayo’s (No Subject). The first portion of the film tells the story of a zookeeper who is injured and nursed back to health by his estranged daughter. Blurred credits roll on this simple tale, and the filmmaker wakes up from a dream on an airplane. In voiceover, he reads a letter to his sister detailing the film he wanted to make, how he had a persistent idea to adapt the story of their childhood, and troubled relationship with their father, into the script we just saw (but eliminating himself). He says that he realized that his impulse to tell this story was only a mechanism through which he could attempt to process their childhood together. Here it is not the image that is called into question, but the entire narrative device. Making a thing, showing it, and then retracting it and retelling it from a deeper layer, inching ever closer to the core of the matter.
Six Seventy-Two Variations, Variation 1
These small nods to the precarity of our subjective experiences go beyond theme or narrative structure, traversing into film form as well. Tomonari Nishikawa’s Six Seventy-Two Variations, Variation 1 plays with the structural rewriting of history by literally marking and re-marking film leader as it goes through a loop over the course of a 25-minute live performance, with each layer adding more to both the visual and audio tracks. The image and sound that is added each pass around the loop does not vary, but the work creates a sense of anticipation- what will it look/sound like with more? How will what was there before change? Daïchi Saïto’s unspeakably sublime earthearthearth asks a similar question, transporting us simultaneously to the beginning of time, the end of time, and those quiet moments in between of pure existence. With its layers upon layers of horizon moving outside the realm of known perception, yet still feeling deeply familiar, earthearthearth somehow manages to root us deeply to where we are by rendering it barely recognizable. It is worth noting that the piece was commissioned by Oona Mosna as part of the Underground Mines series (Malena Szlam’s 2018 Altiplano was the first commission of the series, and another stunning example of perception-shifting landscape). Tonalli, the latest incantation by Mexican film collective Los Ingrávidos, uses superimpositions and a rhythmic repetition to create a visual and auditory ritual that also takes the viewers outside of linear time. Many moons dance on top of each other in a single frame, interacting with the plants and flowers that bloom on the earth below. Are we witnessing the representation of a single moment from multiple angles, or of many distinct moments happening all at once?
Richard Tuohy and Dianna Barrie’s In and Out a Window takes the distortion of time and space into the domestic sphere, focusing on a single window in what could be their home. For most of the film, the camera is placed inside, looking out to the garden on the other side. Inside the room is dark, invisible save for a few brief moments; outside the garden, outlined by the thick window frame, shifts size and orientation in rhythmic motion, giving a sense of both the passage of time and offering a nod to the myriad of emotions that unfold within the contained space inside the house. It is both claustrophobic and liberating as the camera shifts to the other side of the glass towards the end, revealing more clearly the room inside.
What is it that you said?
Without providing overt reference, In and Out a Window is one of the few films of the program that feels clearly like a pandemic film. The sort of interiority that can only exist after spending extended periods of time in one space. Shun Ikezoe’s What is it that you said? references the pandemic more directly, showing an extended sequence of empty streets, the few visible pedestrians masked, with an audio conversation from a nurse explaining that there are still visitation restrictions at the nursing home where the protagonist's mother lies in a coma. The film, with its soft grain and color palette, returns to simple fixations and sensations—the chirping of birds in the tree, or the death of a neighborhood cat, which becomes a central event that is referenced again and again. As with In and Out a Window, albeit at a more gently meditative pace, in Ikezoe’s film the passage of time is marked through a window, tracking the changing of the seasons on a single tree: first snow, then greenery, then a burst of flowers illuminated by the light. Kevin Jerome Everson’s May June July offers specificity of the pandemic moment in a subtler way: a masked roller-skater dances on a city street, his movements intercut with flowers in various stages of bloom and decay. The flowers are filmed at night, with the help of a roving flashlight, giving an almost voyeuristic feeling, invading the nighttime serenity of the plants. The contrast of the roller-skater’s public-facing show with the private life of the plants is a reminder of the parallel lives we all lead- the quiet moments in the dark, and what we present to the light of day.
Christopher Harris’ Dreams Under Confinement also references the fissures of time in a compelling way. Harris takes viewers on a frenetic journey through Google Earth imagery of the area around Cook County Jail in Chicago. At 2 ½ minutes, it is the program’s shortest film, yet its duration does nothing to lessen its impact. Accompanied by an audio track taken from the Chicago police scanner, the harried navigation through Chicago’s streets is interrupted by brief moments of reprieve: an unexpected flash of rainbow-light outside the barbed wire fence of the jail, the clouds twirling around overhead. These diversions are beautiful and unexpected, offering a moment to contemplate how experiences of intensity and sublimity layer on top of one another, existing in the same location, but not always accessible. Harris ends the film with a quote from Frantz Fanon, “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breath,” followed by the date the audio was recorded, May 30, 2020: the day in Chicago when six protesters were shot and one killed during protests of the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. The Frantz Fanon quote ties one particular moment of violence to a much larger history of violence, again blurring the lines of past and present, and calling into question what the future may hold.
Home When You Return
Carl Elsaesser’s Home When You Return brings the intersection of past, present, and unknown future, back into the domestic sphere, with lovingly crafted documentation of his grandmother’s house after she passed away. Observing the indentations left from furniture on the thickly carpeted floors brings to mind the cleanly stale scent of soap left over from estate sales. It is a gently visceral experience. Moving through the space, hearing the story of her passing through a letter from the filmmakers’ mother, intertwined with audio and footage from an amateur melodrama from the 1950s, we get a sense not just of the loss of an individual but an entire way of experiencing the world. In a particularly affecting moment, a realtor walks through the house apologetically describing all the ways it should have been remodeled before being put on the market. In this moment, we feel the aching ephemerality of a life well lived, the fleeting temporality of shifting values before our eyes.
Filmmakers aren’t just calling the past into question, but the present and by default, the future as well. The film that to me perhaps most damningly exemplifies the values of our moment is The Canyon. Zachary Epcar’s stylish testament to the disposable big-box luxury of our era offers scathing commentary on consumer fixations. After a series of shots around an elite apartment complex and its purported inhabitants, the camera settles on a drain hole in what is likely a reservoir, water gushes into oblivion as an unemotive female narrator speaks towards the end of the film, “When we came to the canyon there was nothing, and when we leave there will be less than nothing. We will leave it gutted beyond recognition. A cavity, a hole, we are going to depreciate the fuck out of it.” It is one of the few films in the program that makes a link between society’s behavior and the environmental havoc it causes. Through pared down frames and deliberate singular movement of its characters, The Canyon strips away the noise that distracts us from the hollowness of so much of our societal aspirations and self-destructive tendencies.
All of Your Stars Are but Dust on My Shoes
Where Epcar’s film creates stylized frames through staged scenarios and props, Ross Meckfessel in Estuary carefully frames selected elements of common objects such as light posts, a baggage conveyor belt, et cetera. By placing them in strange isolation, he imbues them with a futuristic quality that they might not possess when viewed in their entirety. The film traverses through a series of images of computer-generated renderings, alongside artifacts of our everyday world, giving off distinct Blade Runner vibes. Shot in grainy 16mm yet focusing on the digital world, Meckfessel calls attention to how fleeting our notions of technological advancement really are, how human it all still is. Fingers caress the keyboard of a Macbook Pro as it renders a human likeness on screen, the grease on the keypad illuminated by the glow of the screen. The future is already here and it’s decaying right alongside the present.
The feeling of cultural decay also permeates Haig Aivazian’s brilliant All of Your Stars Are but Dust on My Shoes. Comprised entirely of found footage, the film takes us from whale decapitation to a cheeky police squad car light show, to a standoff at a mosque, to protests in Lebanon over electricity, to the use of light for police control, to eye transplants. Aivazian channels the noise of countless YouTube black holes to serve a dizzying essay on the role electricity has played throughout time to control populations, using the means to reveal the mechanism.
What appears again and again in so many of these films is a reckoning with our collective record-keeping, a slow and sometimes violent acknowledgement that we cannot go on thinking as we have thought. These films reveal the precipice, but don’t yet indicate what’s below. If we don’t want to jump, and can manage not to fall, we can stay here for a while, sifting through the noise to find the signals that will lead to a gentler way down.
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