"A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet." —Orson Welles
The click and whir of film looping through a reel exposes the filmmaker to some of the crucial fundamentals of their craft: the material and textures of film. You can allocate that sentiment to the taps on a keyboard and swish of a mouse for a modern day writer. However, the parenchyma of film, the reel and its components, remain an integral part in learning the process of filmmaking. Before you can make the blockbuster, you must learn how a camera, an extension of our eye, works. Furthermore, the filmmaker must educate themselves how the eye works and how the mind processes this alternate reality. Experimental and avant-garde film exists as way of exploring these first steps. Experimental film isn’t just a teaching tool, it’s an art form of its own.
Toronto’s Images Festival focuses on experimental and independent film that challenges its viewers’ perspectives about cinema. Established in 1987, the festival is celebrating its 28th year with an eclectic lineup of filmmakers. Many of the films highlighted here are immersive, poetic in technique, and explore the camera as an ubiquitous capturer of moments.
This year’s program began with director Phil Collins’s eccentric film, Tomorrow Is Always Too Long. A commission by Glasgow's The Common Guild, the film is part documentary and part musical number mixed with animation and social commentary. Made of many little films spliced together at a frenetic pace, like a channel surfer gone haywire, there’s no continual narrative or story, but the film stays grounded in reality via intermittent interviews and reality show settings. Snippets include a bizarre quiz show, a health conscious fortune teller, heartfelt personal accounts by citizens, fake infomercials, cartoons drawn in sex infused night clubs, a neo-natal class, and a prisoner serving a sobering sentence. Animator Matthew Robin’s creations are drawn silhouettes set in haunting atmospheres among a chaotic dance club. The scenes are infused with random musical numbers danced by amateur performers and scored by Mogwai’s Barry Burns, feautring a song cycle by Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon. Overall, the film is a tender ode to Glasgow, but it has tiny messages in its chaos. As an example, the fortuneteller’s scenes start off with speaking to the viewer, extolling the wonders of cosmic awareness. She eventually works herself up, pleading with the audience for a human connection, understanding beyond the media screen. “I am me and you are you and something’s wrong!” she yells. It’s a moments like this are interspersed throughout the film, revealing Collins’ signature flourish, art with a big heart.
From quirky to political, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s The All-Hearing is an aural portrayal of the abundant noise pollution that permeates Cairo and the struggles to eradicate it. According to new laws in Cairo, Sheikhs are only allowed to give sermons on military government sanctioned topics. For his film, Hamdan asks two Sheikhs to speak about noise pollution as opposed to the government’s approved topic. Their sermons are raucously broadcast through omnipresent loudspeakers that line the outside of shops and mosques. The peripheral street rumble interweaves with preachers’ voices that preach the virtues of respecting their neighbors’ need for less noise. The determination in those voices is heard above the din of the city. By dictating the sermon topics, the government is not trying to police the noise, but rather silence the voice of its people. The chaos of the loudspeaker is a means by which the Sheikhs preach, but also a way of them speaking out against their government’s laws. Among Cairo’s barrage of sounds there are strong willed people demanding to be heard. Hamdan manages to display an interesting tension between resolute voices and the tumult of the city.
While The All-Hearing is about the cacophony of the city, Sun Song by Joel Wanek is a quiet respite. The film follows the all day voyage of the number 16 bus route in Durham, North Carolina. The journey is muted and still inside while the outside world goes from dark to light and dark again. The camera lingers on the faces of passengers, some look concerned, and others stay focused on the windows, pensive on the scenery that passes them by. Hands are shown in various states of repose, on top of bags or resting on laps. These views of limbs, clothes, and faces are clues to the internal and external lives of the commuters we see. The film is a meditation of the daily transit route, one where there are many anonymous lives that share a communal trek each day. Lives occupy space in the seats of the bus and even empty seats are shown in the film, looking like expectant placeholders. No physical exchanges are seen, but by concentrating on the silent journey, Wanek builds a narrative through the unspoken exchange between individual commuters.
Silence can be an inferred action, but what if strong voices had their choice of action taken away? Audre Lorde was a strident civil rights activist and radical feminist. Her powerful poetry is raw in its honesty and implicit in its language. In All That Is Left Unsaid, filmmaker Michele Pearson Clarke splices footage of Lorde speaking, cutting her off before words leave her lips. It is a compilation of the poet’s hisses, breathes, grimaces, groans, laughs and pauses. Her commanding gestures before speech stand for the powerful potential of her speech, but she remains unheard. This film is a compelling work. With a woman as outspoken as Audre Lorde was, this film is a testament of the true loss the world suffered when Lorde died of breast cancer in 1992.
Clarke's vision of a voiceless poet contrasted vivdly with Irish Ng's familial portrait in voice, Point of Departure, a compilation of personal interviews, present day footage, and home movies from the lives of Ng’s family in Hong Kong. Various family members recall the neighborhoods and homes they lived in describing the architecture or sensory details of their past surroundings. The descriptors, which range from scents in the kitchen to specific street names, denote the relationships of the family through the way of their memories navigating spaces they inhabited. Some recollect the hierarchy within the households while others will discern particular events that were personal to them while forgotten by others. These spoken visuals are set against present day views of the places being described. Where there used to be little houses, now stands a sprawling apartment complex. Where there used to be a communal playground, there is a busy street. Point of Departure is a poignant reminder that memory can be regained through the varied perspectives of the many people who inhabit the space with you.
While the above films speak of memory and space portraiture, Kevin Jerome Everson’s Park Lanes is an exploration of labor. Set in a Mechanicsville, Virginia factory that builds the all makings for bowling alleys, the film is an 8-hour documentation of the day in the factory. Everson spent three days shooting the film following workers as they set upon their tasks. He distills this footage into one full workday’s viewing timing it so that breaks and lunchtime coincide with the timeframe of an actual workday. Everson’s signature handheld camera focuses on the equipment, the faces of the workers, and the materials of they work on. Many of the jobs are repetitive and Everson’s lens stays for a significant amount of time on these individual components. The workers’ endurance is reflected in the camera that takes a concentrated effort on focusing on the minutiae of the equipment the workers build. There’s very little to no interaction between the workers and the camera, with the exception being a worker telling everyone to hush because “they’re filming,” or employees playing up to the camera at the end of their shift, relieved that another day of work is done. Some workers are solitary, entirely dedicated to one task over and over again. The camera lingers on them as the cacophony of factory noises surround the individual worker. It’s a solitary view of the manual laborer, but an enlightening one against the grander picture of the factory floor that is composed primarily of African American and Vietnamese American workers. Race and class are not the focus in this world, but rather their work creates teamwork camaraderie in their dedication to their work for the final product.
Park Lanes is a standard workday length, thus becomes an endurance piece for the audience with no intermissions. It forces the audience to be patient, to condense the varied aspects of the individual as laborer in the colossal world of industry. The skilled laborer’s work is a creative abstract sculpture, an artwork that is unique to the worker until it is fitted into the larger scale of the bowling alley where it becomes functional for mass consumption. In turn, the film’s audience consumes these views on manual labor as part of an artistic statement and entertainment. As the worker assembles, the camera observes, and the audience watches. The quiet tension between these three components in this film’s viewing makes Park Lanes a riveting film despite its long running time.
Observation of the lives of others came to poignant focus with Leslie Tai’s The Private Life of Fenfen. Tai gives Chinese migrant worker, Fenfen, a camera to make a three-year video diary of her life, recording her efforts in making her dreams come true. Fenfen returns the film and says, “You can have these. Now that all my dreams are dead.” Tai edits the footage and broadcasts it in various bars, shops and a hair salon. Some people ignore the footage while others can’t help but be enthralled by and even comment on Fenfen’s confessions. “What is she trying to say to society?” one man asks. As her life goes from hopeful to hopeless, through unlucky situations and Fenfen’s bad choices, the reality of her situation is palpable in its isolation. People remark as if watching a soap opera and go about their lives as normal while watching Fenfen’s tragic life story. Many are indifferent to Fenfen’s tumultuous life as it unravels in full view on the shops’ televisions. Tai’s imposition of Fenfen’s footage creates a cinematic dialogue between Fenfen’s real life struggles set upon every day real life settings. It’s like a documentary shown inside another documentary.
While Leslie Tai’s film is about human emotions, film poetics come into play in Eva Kolcze’s All That Is Solid. Kolcze’s film is a gliding view of three examples Brutalist architecture in Toronto: the Robarts Library, the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, and the York University campus. Filmed in black and white super 16mm and transferred to digital, Kolcze’s flying lens flows through and in and out of giant concrete structures, focusing on their exposed functional details. The stark lines of the hulking buildings contrast with the delicate silhouettes of the greenery around them. While the trees reach out, the buildings stand at attention like invaders transforming organic space for practical use. The camera pans across these contrasting perspectives, shadows and light displaying the erosion and stain of past rains on the buildings’ walls. Utilizing degrading film that has been chemically run through various processes, the footage pops and cracks with grain and dirt. This method casts the Brutalist architecture as a canvas for the filmmaker. The decay of the film melds into visible cracks and voids within the structures. Film, building, sky and trees become one with the white and black grains of film degradation, creating biological visuals upon very manufactured settings. This cinematic interaction and film manipulation makes the solid structures malleable and cellular on screen. Kolcze’s hands-on approach with film is like an artist painting their hands with the textures of her craft to create a movable work out of the solidly unmovable. Kolcze’s poetics are a visual rumination of human-made structures as less about functionality, but architecture as interpretable works of art.
The Images Festival continues to bring a plethora of challenging films to its attendees, and I am overwhelmed every year by what it offers. Avant-garde and experimental film continues to enjoy a diverse playground at Images, where the camera is the extension of the audience’s eye and it only has limits in the hands of a filmmaker.