Ela Bittencourt's column explores South America’s key festivals and notable screenings of Latin films in North America and Europe.
“Sooner or later all delicate things are butterflies with severed wings.”
— “Polyphemus Views the End,” by Henry Alan Potamkin, quoted in Potamkin by Stephen Broomer
“Perhaps these are not poetic times at all.”
—“For Saundra,” by Nikki Giovanni, quoted in Fluid Frontiers by Ephraim Asili
The premise of chaos theory rests on an impossibly poetic formulation: The delicate flapping of butterfly wings in one part of the world could, under certain conditions, cause a tornado elsewhere. This terrifying yet paradoxically hopeful vision links past and present, furnishes a unified vision, a linear geography, for the impossibly spread-out Earth.
A similar sense of historical, geographic, chronological connectedness was gorgeously on display at one of Brazil’s most ambitious and certainly one of its best-curated festivals, Fronteira, dedicated to experimental documentaries, whose 4th edition ran from April 12 to the 21. Fronteira is located in Goiânia, a city in Central Brazil, not far from the capital, which until now boasted little cinematic culture. Or rather, let’s rephrase: Goiânia has had a long lineage of local film clubs and vibrant cinephilia, until this tradition perished, with cinemas pushed out by more commercial fare (one of the old indie cinemas is now apparently screening porn movies). Yet Fronteira’s young programmers—Rafael Parrode, Camilla Margarida and filmmakers Marcela and Henrique Borela—are poised to change this dearth of history, and of cinematic options. Their festival, deeply rooted in the awareness of local cinephilia, has brought together this year such guests as Brazil’s film preservation expert Hernani Heffner, two experimental filmmakers/ teachers/ preservationists Stephen Broomer and Sami van Ingen, from Canada and Finland respectively, and Adriano Aprá, the Italian film historian who gave a master class during the retrospective of documentaries by Roberto Rossellini.
In a sense, the entire festival stood under the sign of preservation, meant to counter material, historical, cultural losses. One of the hot topics was film preservation, with the major concern of how rarely 16mm experimental cinema is being screened in Brazil (Fronteira itself is forced to show films on DCP exclusively, for lack of options), and the difficulties of young programmers to find not only suitable equipment but also acquire professional technical know-how.
In the program, no films illustrated the tension of cinema history disappearing, being forgotten, versus the need for its preservation, better than Stephen Broomer’s experimental feature, Potamkin (2017). Broomer drew inspiration from the work of a relatively neglected American film critic, Henry Alan Potamkin, whose passion, among others, was early Soviet cinema. To this end, Broomer works extensively with footage by Sergei Eisenstein, including fragments depicting the Odessa steps from Battleship Potemkin (1925), while also incorporating fragments from films such as Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).
Although Stan Brakhage may be a more direct inspiration for Broomer’s shorts, in its forceful cadence Potamkin shares some similarities with Ken Jacobs’s Capitalism: Child Labor (2006). Unlike Jacobs, Broomer works with multiple images, yet his soundtrack’s rhythmic repetition—the loud beeping of an MRI machine—is as oppressive yet oddly exhilarating as Jacobs’ visual monotony.
The Benjaminian aura of Jacobs’s short draws on the critical framing of photography as intricately linked to death. Death also haunts Potamkin. On one hand, by playing the footage of the Odessa steps backwards, and thus having the protagonists of Eisenstein’s film retreat, Broomer forces the film—and cinema—back to its origins. He thus undoes the progressive evolution that Eisenstein envisioned: Politicized masses rising to class-consciousness, partly via cinematic means. There’s a note of mourning, first political, then personal. Towards the film’s end, as the bells toll, we seem to be bidding farewell to Potamkin himself, as a forgotten cinema worshipper.
It’s no coincidence that Potamkin and another film in the festival’s line-up, Flame (2018), by Sami van Ingen, both re-work, or re-imagine the original material from the 1930s. Van Ingen uses the few surviving frames from a lost Finnish film with a famous period actress—by all remaining accounts, which are scant, the film, Fallen Alseep When Young, by the great Teuvo Telio, was a traditional, glittery melodrama. Van Ingen put the film through a computer-editing program, which, due to the celluloid’s poor condition, created the effect of the filmstrip warping and dissolving before our eyes, as if it had caught fire. The result is gorgeous decay, not unlike the lush, pulsating imagery of Potamkin’s mechanistic élan.
Ingen’s process, like Broomer’s, is multi-faceted. He subjects the lost film to an eerie resurrection, as if the characters caught in the melodrama were the living dead. He also changes the scenes’ sequence, so that the placid narrative takes on more striking, explicitly sexual undertones. The result alludes to cinema’s paradoxical vision of its own destiny: On one hand, as an opiod to sedate the masses, on the other, a philosophical, dialectical tool to jolt and awaken them.
In a sense, Potamkin and Flame are the yin-and-yang. In the latter, the mortification of glamorous images—a prosperous kitchen, fab women and handsome men, their flesh rendered luminous in the film-studio black-and-white shadowing—presents us with cinema as a consumer product, part and parcel of industry. Meanwhile in the former film, just as beautiful and morbid, cinema is a symptom of a diseased body, the ailments signaled by the scratched, nightmarish, dissolving images, as if fragile tissue scrutinized by a machine. Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov once hailed a similarly mechanized process as liberating, but in Broomer’s handling, via impoverished intellectual Potamkin, this mechanization gains a more pointed reading—cinema as a symptom, body politic as a near-corpse.
Another film in the program that is as aural and immersed in the gesture of preservation as Potamkin is Ephraim Asili’s short, Fluid Frontiers (2017), from the filmmaker’s Diaspora series. Asili isn’t working with archives or found footage; his object of preservation in this short isn’t so much the image as it is the spoken word—words’ ability to give coherence to places, people, and cultures, that may have traditionally been denied visibility, and therefore the more official means of cultural preservation. In this sense, it is perfect then that Asili chooses poetry—itself a fairly “underground,” or unassuming art form, at least in this day and age, in which literature has to some degree been supplanted by the movies. And poetry is synthesis, code, the uncanny, as already alluded to in Flame and Potamkin (Henry Alan Potamkin was himself a poet), that unquantifiable something.
Fluid Frontiers’ opening shot stages black elderly man and woman in historical garments, looking straight at the camera. On one hand, an image that may strike us as “off,” as if recalled from a historical theme park (think Williamsburg, Virginia, or numerous others); on the other hand, a silent confrontation that isn’t inserted into any narrative, and so allows us no means of immediate contextualization. From this silence we proceed to the reading of Margaret Walker’s poem, “Harriet Tubman,” done by Walker herself, whose voice is eerily high-pitched, yet has a powerful sing-like twang, a perfect match for the poem’s rhythmic, rhymed urgency. “You’d better run, brave Harriet”—Walker’s brutal poem, an ode to a runaway slave, loops in and out through the film, to the accompaniment of plaintive organ, as Asili shoots city scenes in Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. The imagery of an occasional monument, but also disjointed city blocks, some graffitied, others seeming abandoned, fills in our imagination of economic downturn. But Fluid Frontiers isn’t about urban blight, or industry collapse. Rather it seems to want to sing the cities, give them a voice, as Asili films various urban dwellers—in casual poses, against a wall, a city streetlight, on a corner, we can guess on a break from work—while they read African-American poetry.
Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Margaret Walker—some may recognize these lines, which often speak of pain, of anger and solidarity, of proud dangerous wounded self-love, either from college or from our own reading, while others will respond to the beauty and poise of the speaker’s pose, as if, for a moment, a city block were being wrapped up in new words, fresh gaze. A sense of rapture breaks in, not unlike the rapture elicited by Potamkin and Flame. A sense that cities are never unmade as long as they are inhabited—and to inhabit them is itself a kind of poetry, a code, which is constantly being re-written, performed.