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"On Resistance" at First Look 2017

An eclectic program of new and old short films asks: Where is the resistance? And what would that resistance look like?
Malaise (Don Levy). Courtesy of the artist, The Don Levy Project, and Academy Film Archive.
This is the second year in a row that filmmaker / programmer Mónica Savirón has organized a screening of experimental films for the First Look series. Last year’s program, “A Matter of Visibility,” focused on women’s cinema from around the world. This is a subject about which the U.S.-based, Spanish-born Savirón is uniquely suited to illuminate us. Last year’s show was gratifyingly diverse in both style and national origin, the program anchored by a rarely-screened work by then-recently deceased Chantal Akerman, and including other artists whose work is all too seldom seen on these shores. Some, like Lis Rhodes and Cécile Fontaine, are reasonably canonical, whereas others showcased by Savirón were up-and-coming filmmakers such as Nazli Dinçel and Klara Ravat. While I don’t know of any experimental film programmers for whom diversity isn’t a primary goal, Savirón’s sensibility and awareness seems to continent-hop and border-cross quite effortlessly, and I find myself wondering just how she discovers so many fascinating filmmakers. I’m not the most knowledgeable guy in the world, but neither am I the most sheltered, and Savirón consistently turns me onto new talent with every program she presents. I’m certain I’m not alone in this. 
No surprise, then, that the Museum of the Moving Image asked her back to present a second group of films. This year’s theme, “On Resistance,” is no more or less political than “A Matter of Visibility,” although it adopts a slightly different angle of approach. Savirón indicated that, like many of us, her 2016 was dominated by fear and despair, as a great many dark forces seemed to gain purchase in public life around the globe. From the rise of authoritarians like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, to the consolidation of power by Putin, Assad, and Erdogan; from the Syrian refugee crisis to the xenophobia of the Brexit; and domestic and international terrorism, from Brussels to Orlando... Two very vital and related questions seemed to bubble up from the interstices of the dread. Where is the resistance? And what would that resistance look like? 
As expected, the answers provided by the films in this program are varied. Some resistances are more explicitly political than others; a few are rather aggressively aesthetic. If there is one constant that can be observed throughout Savirón’s selections, it pertains to the power of memory. Some of the films in “On Resistance” are themselves historical, their revival here serving as an act of memory. Others reflect cultural or geographical memory, mapping certain specificities of meaning. And still others engage with artistic and political traditions that run counter to the dominant discourse.
In virtually any circumstance, resistance requires historical memory, if only in order to understand that the world as we find it, or as certain individuals or groups demand that it be, is but one option among many. Ideologies naturalize themselves as a matter of course. But this process has become almost farcically accelerated, to the point that what a president-elect says before the microphones on Tuesday can be flatly denied on Thursday, and no one bats an eyelash. In such a sorry situation, the kinds of audiovisual training that the historical avant-garde once provided—the perception of shifts in articulation or gesture, or facilitating concentration over extended periods—can hardly seem like the playground of the elite few. These are survival skills, and we will all need to sharpen our senses as we go forward. 
These aspects of perception can be observed in the three oldest works in the program. Malaise (1964), by British maverick Don Levy, is comprised of images shot in Morocco, accompanied by a Nathalie Sarraute text read by Levy’s fellow filmmaker Peter Whitehead. Far removed from any sort of travelogue, Malaise is a fractured and confounding film, entirely by design. This is because Levy composes Malaise primarily out of close-ups of individual Moroccans, with landscapes and architectural vistas interspersed throughout. The result is a kind of disorienting pictograph combining the historical and the contemporary. Although some of the shots resemble the Straub-Huillet style in their approximations of antiquity, Levy’s closest cousin here is probably Jean-Daniel Pollet, whose Méditerranée bears a similar mystery. Under Levy’s gaze, “the Other” refuses to offer up its meaning.
Stadt in Flammen (City on Fire), from 1984, is a film by the three-man German collective called Schmelzdahin (“melt away”). The group, whose practice bears some comparison with the California-based eco-film collective silt, were actively involved in exploring the chemical breakdown of celluloid over time. They buried film, wrapped it in composting materials, exposed it to moisture, and otherwise accelerated the inevitable disintegration of the film image. In Stadt, the group interred an excerpt from a narrative film, creating an implicit battle between the linear communication of the original work and the slower, more synchronic decay of natural process. By setting these two incompatible temporalities parallel to one another, Schmelzdahin demonstrate that the “ordinary” world of means / end thinking is only one way of life.
Sakura, Sakura (Ute Aurand). Courtesy of the artist.
The other repertory work on the program is by French filmmaker Philippe Cote, who passed away late last year at the age of 51. A maker of lithe poetry in light, working in the increasingly rare and delicate medium of Super 8, Cote’s very practice represented opposition, a determination not just to exist but to thrive at the margins. For this program, Savirón selected Cote’s 2002 cameraless pinhole film L’en-Dedans (Inside the Inside), a controlled blast of prismatic color unfolding over 20 minutes of silence. At the start, we observe the workings of the pinhole, as single shafts of light explore from a single point of the dark screen, fanning out in orthogonals. But in time, Cote employs either multiple exposures, cut-out templates, or some combination thereof. The result is a piston-like set of vertical stripes, stretching and pumping as the light resolves into an ever-shifting array of colors. As a tribute to the late filmmaker, L’en-Dedans depicts the palpable expansion of vision, the movement from the singular to the variegated.
Savirón’s program allows these earlier works to serve as a kind of framework for understanding the different strains of resistance reflected in the nine current films. As I mentioned above, the selection is varied and quite strong, although there are certainly some works that are more impressive than others. Peru’s Diego Lama gives us a tracking shot and a flyover of Lima’s Palace of Justice in From False to Legal in One Take. The film plays on the proximity of the Palace to a dangerous neighborhood, forgotten by the very social edifice the building represents. However, Lama’s drone-based cinematography leaves it resembling too many other current films. China’s Sandy Deng is present with River in Castle, a found footage work in which the artist subjects a scene from a very odd horror film to a number of hand-crafted optical printing variations. It’s a fine work but covers no new ground. One could envision slipping it into the Peter Tscherkassky filmography with little disruption. 
The other works in “On Resistance,” however, are uniformly strong. Two filmmakers whose work I know well were represented with strong entries. Germany’s Ute Aurand, who has been creating exquisite cine-portraiture of late, delivered Sakura, Sakura, a two-part, 3-minute gem. The first half (in color) focuses on a Japanese woman making Temari thread balls, a traditional handicraft. Aurand displays the diversity of her wares. The second half (black and white) is a close-up portrait of the Temari artist. An impoverished, elderly artisan, her visage is cheerful even as it speaks to the difficult times she has seen. Sakura, Sakura forms a miniature dialectic about the sacrifices some people make to fill the world with simple beauty.
By contrast, there is nothing subtle about the dialectical thinking that gives shape to Talena Sanders’ Prospector. In certain respects, this is probably the most openly political film in the program, as well as being one of the smartest and supplest. A brief essay on colonialism, Prospector is built around a mistake, one of history’s most notorious cases of mistaken identity. Filming both in India and the U.S., Sanders explores relationships between the “real” Indians and the Native Americans, in terms of external vs. internal colonial conquest. How are both cultures commodified? How did the British and the Americans work to erase “savage” Hindu and Native American practices? Sanders’ film operates transnationally even as it locates some of its Nations within U.S. borders, articulating the politics of “here” and “there.” A strong film that deserves a substantial audience.
Calypso (Annalisa D. Quagliata). Courtesy of the artist.
One of the most interesting filmmakers Savirón is showcasing this year is Mexico’s Annalisa D. Quagliata, who is represented in the First Look program with two North American premieres. In her film Ñores (sin señalar), Quagliata creates a pointed political remix of Agustín Lara’s song “Veracruz,” blending it with recordings of the voices of writer Nadia Vera and photographer Rubén Espinosa, two freelance journalists who were both murdered because of the investigative nature of their work. Quagliata’s audio track also includes the voices of protestors denouncing the violence of governor Javier Duarte, responsible for the “disappearance” of over 100,000 students over the past eight years. The mottled, ink-blotted surface of Ñores recalls the films of Fred Worden and Greta Snider, while also directly implying obstruction and obfuscation. Quagliata’s second film, Calypso, is entirely different: a sun-dappled play of bodies in repose, in warm, faded colors that evoke the classic experimental cinema of the 1970s. An erotic triangle with mythological overtones, Calypso represents a genuinely bisexual cinema, the eroticism of two men ceding equal visual room for female desire, without hierarchy, competition, or acquisitiveness. 
Other works in the program establish their resistance to convention chiefly by refuting the transparency of the image. Sometimes, as in the case of Granular Film – Beirut by Charles-André Coderre, those images so refuted are ones that we have been taught to think we have a bead on, usually because of journalistic or geopolitical convention. Granular Film treats the frames and patterns of the Beirut cityscape as occasion for a high-contrast color study. Coderre is a member of the Double Negative collective in Montreal, a group known for pushing celluloid to its limits through hand-processing. Eventually, images fall away (or granulate) leaving nothing but searing color and light. Another formalist experiment, This Bogeyman from Spain’s Pere Ginard, resists in a completely unique way. The film refuses to give final form to our fears. Starting out with a throbbing black square, the Super 8 film rapidly mutates to include light spikes, found footage, and other gestures of shock. Their very plurality emphasizes the obvious—it’s only a movie—and turns fright into child’s play.
But perhaps the best film in Savirón’s program, and the single biggest discovery in this year’s Museum of the Moving Image program, comes from Iranian-Irish filmmaker Atoosa Pour Hosseini. Mirage is a deceptively simple study of a set of fragments of a landscape. Muddy puddles and hilltops in a pinhole haze, we soon see these same images funneled through reverberating sprocket holes, yellow light pouring through the edges of the grainy, black and white earth. The nearly silent film reverses its terms, with the landscape getting sucked into a rogue sprocket and vibrating horizontally, plunging up and down like the needle in a sewing machine. And then, suddenly, the apparatus asserts itself: the Super 8 projector clacks, and we see the red stripe of end leader bisecting the visual field. Are these artifacts “invasions” of an otherwise unified terra firma? Or is it this very instability that defines this locale?  
And did I mention that Pour Hosseini accomplishes all of this in a mere four minutes? A propulsive yet painterly film that never lets up, Mirage does in fact dissipate the closer you get to it. And now, as we are assaulted by all manner of pigheaded certainty in the media and the political sphere, it is that much more of a relief that Mirage thwarts easy assimilation. If we mean to resist, after all, it may be necessary to resist meaning.
Mirage (Atoosa Pour Hosseini). Courtesy of the artist.

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