It began, as so many things do these days, with a tweet: in October 2020, Inney Prakash, programmer of the Maysles Cinema’s “After Civilization” series, put out a call for experimental documentary films. The resulting festival, Prismatic Ground, debuted in early April with a diverse line-up of new and repertory non-fiction films that ran the gamut of genres, styles, and techniques. Imagine: a programmer directly engaging with his community of filmmakers with an open-hearted all-points-bulletin was the antithesis of conventional festival gatekeeping. The refreshing prospect was a beacon to filmmakers struggling to create and exhibit work during a traumatic and hostile time.
Prakash’s call for submissions caught my attention on that fateful October night: for once, my endless Twitter scrolling put me in the right place at the right time. For the last four years, I’d been dutifully at work on a narrative feature concerning Julian of Norwich, an obscure 14th-century woman mystic. With development and production on indefinite hold, I resolved to keep in “fighting shape” by making whatever I could—however I could—about Julian’s ecstatic religious experience. I had originally set out to make a companion piece, a sort of altar to this long-overlooked religious icon. What began as a few standalone tableaux eventually turned into The Sixteen Showings of Julian of Norwich, a bricolage of stop-motion animation, back-projection, and collage.
I was very fortunate to have a job for most of last year, but working well beyond the customary 40 hours a week in these new circumstances was disastrous for my mental health and creative practice. For the first few months of this solitary arrangement, I was lucky if I ended each day with just enough energy to bathe and feed myself. Readers, no doubt, will recognize this feeling immediately—a pervasive fogginess, a dearth of initiative, contained on all sides by fear, dread, and exhaustion. The immediate reaction for many of us possessing an artistic temperament is to heal through the work, to create from a place of self-preservation as a therapeutic exercise (because, to be perfectly honest, very few working artists can afford traditional talk therapy).
After a nights-and-weekends work schedule, I finished a short film in my little office consisting of whatever I had on hand. It’s a wild departure from my usual narrative practice of snappy dialogue and meticulously-designed sets, edging my practice into a heretofore unexplored aesthetic and style.
Sixteen Showings was my first attempt to make a film without in-person collaborations: Tessa Strain’s narration, Matt Macfarlane’s original score, and Eliana Zebrow’s rich sound mix were directed entirely over email. The film was tangential to my would-be narrative feature, but very much apiece with my overarching vision. Finishing this solo effort was a balm—somehow I had made something new despite… well, you know, everything. But what now? Surveying the fruits of this months-long process, I struggled to conceive of a suitable afterlife beyond the customary Vimeo upload. Where could I screen this? What context could there possibly be for a theological exploration of isolation, plague, and revolt? Calling it a “shut-in watercolor movie,” or “moving altar,” while elegiac, didn’t quite fit the bill.
Enter Inney Prakash’s well-timed tweet and timely festival. Emboldened by his transparency and programmatic voice, I steeled myself for yet another humbly-toned inquiry. When Sixteen Showings was selected, I was shocked, ecstatic and, in a way, relieved: if there was an audience for this film, surely I would find it at Prismatic Ground. Having never enjoyed a virtual premiere, I went into the experience as a total neophyte. But for every gripe there was praise in equal measure: the pleasure of connecting with an otherwise distant viewership, public recognition for work made under great duress. Prismatic Ground helped me recontextualize what felt like a moving target. More than a descriptor or genre, “experimental documentary” affords artists a wide berth to do just that: experiment with cinematic and journalistic techniques within a nonfiction framework. To that end, I began to understand the dual significance of Sixteen Showings as a documentary about Julian of Norwich’s life and, by extension, my own.
In a festival space laid low by last year’s pandemic, Prakash saw an opportunity to challenge “the toxic or tedious norms governing festival culture, and to emphasize inclusivity and access.” Where the year’s higher-profile festivals sought to replicate the exclusivity of their in-person events with geo-blocked premiers and Zoom happy hours, Prismatic Ground promised viewers a deliberate antithesis. Its programming, ethos, and even web presence were tailor-made for the online space, prioritizing widespread access and a filmmaker-centered focus on screenings and Q&As. Prakash’s curation was mission-driven: “It was important to me to strike a balance,” he said, “between early career and established filmmakers, palatable and challenging work, passion and polish.” The line-up generously gave equal weight to artists at every stage of their process. Instead of single-film, time-sensitive screenings, audiences enjoyed free reign to explore and engage of their own accord, a heretofore unheard of format—online and off.
Organized in a series of “waves,” Prismatic Ground was structured around four separate collections touching on simultaneously personal and societal themes. It was reassuring to screen Sixteen Showings alongside equally intimate works, each with a different visual and philosophical approach. I was, and still am, grateful to Prakash for including my film. Despite being a newcomer to experimental filmmaking and documentary, I never once felt like an impostor. That feeling carried over to my experience as a viewer as well: these were films unlike any I’d seen, whether due to their newness or, in the case of repertory titles, my own lack of access. I am grateful to the festival for offering an avenue through which to engage with the work of other like-minded artists.
I was eager to hear from my fellow filmmakers about their road to the festival and experience as participants in this bold experiment in public exhibition. While we all arrived through different avenues, I immediately noticed a shared resonance. A wide net-approach to programming naturally attracted filmmakers reeling from the exclusionary nature of the mainstream festival circuit. Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Max (Two Sons and a River of Blood, 2021) was quick to note how “Inney was able to really access all of the different layers of what the piece was doing.” For director Sarah Friedland (Drills, 2020) it was the fervor of how Prakash had “created the festival he wanted to exist, instead of trying to reform an established festival” that drew her to the event.
For filmmakers navigating constraints brought on by the pandemic, and its ongoing economic aftermath, social media provided the sense of community missing from in-person festivals. Elias ZX (You Deserve The Best, 2018) was already familiar with Prakash’s programming work on “After Civilization” when they submitted their film. “We became friends through Twitter, [and] he told me about his plan to make an experimental documentary festival.” Screening online “gave my film space to breathe in a way that is really uncommon for festivals. Every viewer was allowed to have a completely unique experience with the film.” Virginia-based filmmaker Lydia Moyer (The Well-Prepared Citizen's Solution, 2020) saw the festival as a chance to broaden and strengthen these seemingly disparate filmmaking communities. “As a person who lives in a rural place, it’s great that so much interesting work has been available this year to anyone who’s got enough bandwidth (literally and figuratively).” Moyer said. “The way this is set up is for online viewing, not just trying to transfer an in-person experience online.”
Programming the work of early career filmmakers alongside more established artists was more than a canny curatorial choice. The variety presented across these four waves expanded the audience’s access to repertory titles, while simultaneously reiterating the connection between both older and more recent offerings. Prismatic Ground’s streaming platform and presentation stood out for director Chris Harris (Reckless Eyeballing, 2004), who “had some streaming experiences that weren’t so happy in terms of the technical aspects.” The festival’s creative exhibition format was especially taken by “the mix of programming, special live events, and the flexibility of accommodating filmmakers with the option of live and recorded Q&As.” For prolific filmmaker Lynne Sachs, Prismatic Ground represented “an entirely new, unbelievably adventurous, compassionate approach to the viewing of experimentally driven cinema,” emphasizing that the festival itself was “beyond anything I have ever seen in my life.”
Among the filmmakers I spoke with, Prismatic Ground’s liberal approach to exhibition belied a tremendous sense of potential for artists navigating a post-COVID festival ecosystem. Harris noticed an “[increasing] festival bandwidth for underseen/emerging Black experimental filmmakers,” a tendency that he “[hopes] to see continue after COVID.” In lieu of a return to in-person only screenings, the general consensus saw streaming as a fixture in future festivals. “I don't think it is going to be possible to put the toothpaste back in the tube here,” noted Zx, emphasizing that “more access will be good for filmmakers... and will challenge programmers to be more competitive, to release more obscure films that are harder to find.”
Prakash’s groundbreaking work has already heeded the call, citing critic Abby Sun’s Berlin Critics’ Week essay “On Criticism” as a guiding principle. “Festivals aren’t merely reacting to social conditions,” Sun writes. “They are often the primary creators of them.” Prismatic Ground’s focus on diverse curation and access reaches well beyond the artistic ramifications. Prakash’s end goal is emboldening, a manifesto of sorts: “Enough of premiere politics, prohibitive pricing, playing only the same handful of films at every festival. Let’s create better conditions. There is a moral imperative to keep doing virtual screenings now that we know we can and how.”