Before Wavelengths, and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in general, were so rudely interrupted by a global pandemic, the section was known for reliably presenting some of the most innovative filmmaking happening around the world. 2020, as you may recall, featured a considerably scaled-back TIFF. Only three films that year carried the Wavelengths designation, but they were good ones: Sofia Bohdanowicz’s lovely short film Point and Line to Plane, and two feature films, Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance and Nicolás Pereda’s Fauna.
Now Wavelengths is getting back up to full-tilt, although still with a smaller-than-usual slate of films. The 2021 edition contains six feature films and only seven experimental shorts. The decision to ease back into the presentation of complicated film and media work is understandable on some level. Covid is still a concern, and the festival has to balance a number of considerations, including the exposure of festival staff during live screenings, and how that compares with the number of festivalgoers likely to buy tickets for those events. Cost/benefits analysis is always at work where big film festivals are concerned, but now there is the added exigency of human wellbeing.
Still, the pandemic and subsequent quarantines seem to have led to a spike in creative production. The New York Film Festival’s Currents section, North America’s other high-profile showcase for experimental film, is fairly engorged this year, suggesting that there is a lot of work out there waiting to be shown. The fecundity of the art-film scene, contrasted with the handful of Wavelengths slots made available by TIFF, suggests that ace programmer Andréa Picard had an even tougher task than usual, defining the section by hard choices between large numbers of very worthy films.
I hope that Wavelengths returns to its previous size next year; in no way do I want to suggest that less is more. Still, 2021 represents one of the best line-ups Picard has ever produced. Selections that were no doubt difficult if not agonizing to make have nevertheless resulted in an echelon of excellence, setting the bar high for all future Wavelengths presentations.
*Note: I have chosen to include one film that is playing in the Short Cuts section, but is very much of a piece with the selections in Wavelengths. What is film criticism without a bit of cheating?
The Capacity for Adequate Anger (Vika Kirchenbauer, Germany)
German film artist Vika Kirchenbauer has been making work for some time now, but it was her previous film, Untitled Sequence of Gaps (featured at NYFF and the Berlinale) that really solidified her place as a significant voice in avant-garde cinema. That work was a somewhat elliptical essay film about the visible spectrum. It described how there are multiple optic fields existing side by side, and none of them are any less real just because the human sensorium cannot perceive them. Her latest film, The Capacity for Adequate Anger, expands on this notion in a somewhat lateral way.
This is an autobiographical film in which Kirchenbauer takes stock of her own childhood, her development as an artist, and the often invisible forces of class stratification that have nevertheless affected her life in material ways. Kirchenbauer describes her early experiences as a queer child—young kids teasing her about giving them AIDS, or her choice to emulate Freddie Mercury when posing for photos. But she frames those and other experiences in terms of her working-class background. Part of this means that she had to rely on popular images, both good and bad, to figure out her sexual identity.
While it's not exactly accurate to say that Kirchenbauer makes questions of identity secondary, she is most interested in her past and present class positions, and how they have generated internal conflict and ambivalence about her success as an artist. At the beginning of Adequate Anger, Kirchenbauer recounts a conversation with her grandmother, who had no frame of reference for understanding Vika's career as an artist. Thinking that her granddaughter wanted to work in television, she eventually concludes that Vika is "working for museums," an amorphous concept that neither woman really grasped.
Describing her present situation, Kirchenbauer remarks on the cognitive dissonance that comes with, for example, having museum workers install her show to her exact specifications, or taking part in an artists' roundtable. She likens this to the actions of Marie Antoinette who, following French fashions of the Ancien Régime, made a fetish out of the peasantry by having her own art-workers build a shabby country house and populate it with hired peasants. These individuals were playing themselves, but were also forced to serve as representations of their social gest. (This can be compared with the persistence in arthouse cinema to generate scenarios in which non-professional actors are living objets trouvé.)
The Capacity for Adequate Anger is a strange hybrid of personal essay and artist's statement, in that Kirchenbauer made the film in response to the specific circumstances of mounting a single show. Since the 1970s a host of artists have reversed the gaze in order to examine the political structure of art and its institutions. This film, however, goes further by allowing the artist to interrogate her own position, resulting in a form of self-criticism that implicates the viewer as well.
Dear Chantal (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico / Canada)
“Cinema means putting a uniform on an eye that is otherwise naked.” These are the words of Catalina Pereda, the filmmaker’s sister, who is working with Nico to rent out her home in Coyoacan, a historic center in Mexico City. As Pereda films his sister conducting minor tasks of maintenance, such as moving paintings up the stairs and sweeping leaves off the skylight, we hear the filmmaker read a series of four short letters which he wrote to a prospective tenant in Belgium. That tenant is Chantal Akerman, making arrangements to spend a few months in Mexico.
It is Nicolás who writes in reply to Akerman’s queries. Catalina, an artist, is not familiar with Akerman or her work, since as Nico explains, she does not have a relationship with cinema. As the quotation above suggests, she has a problem with film’s tendency to demand that we view the world through the eyes of another, that element that Roger Ebert called the “empathy machine.” Catalina is committed to her own vision, and worries that cinema will interfere with her strategies for seeing the world. This assertion, ironically enough, results in Nico, a filmmaker who is very familiar with Akerman and her work, assuming the position of a real estate agent, negotiating basic terms with her such as the availability of Internet and the lack of heating.
This is one of Pereda’s very best films, in part because its plainspoken, epistolary mode is a stark departure from the narrative gamesmanship that defines many of his features. Dear Chantal links two directors—Akerman and Pereda—whose concern with the articulation of filmic space achieves an unexpected juncture in a small, two-bedroom Modernist structure. For Catalina, it is a place saturated with painful memories; for Chantal, it is a blank canvas where an uncertain future can be written.
earthearthearth (Daïchi Saïto, Canada)
Saïto’s earthearthearth is a landscape film, depicting the mountains and plains of Chile and Argentina. But to call it a landscape film is somewhat deceptive. Using a series of long shots, and then bi-packing positive and negative images into an optical printer, Saïto creates a work of bold abstraction. Like so many before him (Cézanne, Turner, O’Keeffe, Brakhage), Saïto coaxes complex shapes and patterns from the natural environment, hills and skies rendered in electric hues of lilac, teal, and royal blue.
earthearthearth frequently renders the ground as a pure black absence, coextensive with the empty border of the screen. So we are getting a series of horizontal forms of sky and hilltops that result in a set of scalloped objects of various colors, sometimes appearing alone, sometimes paired, and eventually subject to complex combinations. The high contrast cinematography combines with Saïto's otherworldly color palette to produce the painterly intensity of modified Pop Art. Some of the tones recall late Warhol (especially the "Electric Chairs”)and the overall style and approach resemble recent work by Pat O'Neill, only reduced to its graphic essence.
The film’s score, by experimental musician Jason Sharp, is restrained but propulsive, suggesting a mixture of Eric Satie’s loping circularity and Morton Feldman’s muted dynamics. And, as a soundtrack should, Sharp’s contribution elucidates the musical structures implicit in Saïto’s own visual composition, which evolves from sharp, fleeting images piercing the darkness, into complex alternations of curvature and hue. A major film from a singular artist, earthearthearth is a pulsing, painterly tour de force.
Futura (Pietro Marcello, Francesco Munzi, Alice Rohrwacher, Italy)
In the spirit of state-of-the-nation documentaries like Marker’s Le joli mai, Portabella’s General Report, and especially Pasolini’s Love Meetings, Futura attempts to learn about the youth of Italy, exploring the biggest question of all—what do they expect from their future? Or in some cases, do they even expect to have a future? Despite being directed by a trio of Italy’s most distinctive filmmakers, there is an impressive cohesion of style and method across the work, which is fitting since many of the young people being interviewed express similar concerns. Whether in the urban centers (Rome, Naples, Milan) or the rural farmland, there is a constant background hum of worry and a general sense that the Italian state, if not the modern world as a whole, has failed them.
“Fear is not what it used to be,” remarks one young man. “It has turned into anxiety.” Although the production of Futura was interrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak—beginning at the 30-minute mark, the interviewees are all masked up—one gets the sense that the pandemic merely brought to light a set of worries and dissatisfactions that had been simmering for decades. The majority of those interviewed express their belief that they will need to leave Italy in order to find happiness and economic stability. A group of leftists in Rome describe the loss of community and the encroachment of American-style individualist ideology. And it seems to be hard for these Italians, in their teens and twenties, to fully conceive of a vision for the future. As one woman notes, “the future is a series of tomorrows,” and that while she may know what she’ll be doing a few days from now, the times much further out than that are a mystery.
Considering the talent behind this film, it is ultimately rather conventional in its reportage. (The fact that Futura occupies a slot in Wavelengths says more about TIFF’s mostly-middling documentary programming.) And as informative as Futura may be, there are moments that will seem rather familiar to aficionados of nonfiction filmmaking. Rohrwacher goes to Genoa and finds that the students there have little to no awareness of the G8 riots that took place there in 2001. What’s more, many members of the Berlusconi generation evince a conservatism borne of a lack of imagination and possibility. “A small transgression is okay,” one Genovese man comments, “but don’t overdo it.” Still, some of the kids express Autonomia-influenced thinking, calling for the abolition of money and the imperative to work. Only time will tell who the future belongs to.
The Girl and the Spider (Ramon Zürcher and Silvan Zürcher, Switzerland)
Back in 2013, Ramon Zürcher's debut film The Strange Little Cat seemed to come out of nowhere and played by its own distinct rules. I guess you could call it a structuralist family comedy, in which most of the action unfolds within a single apartment, where family members, animals, and a set of banal objects jostle for position, staking out oblique angles and precise spatial relationships. Although some aspects of The Strange Little Cat were overtly amusing, most of the joy of that film came from the fact that we never knew what we'd be seeing next. Simply walking from one side of a living room to another could provoke disorientation or near-catastrophe.
Now, Zürcher returns, with a film he made with his brother Silvan. The Girl and the Spider operates in an instantly recognizable style. This time, we are shuttled between different apartments, since one of the main characters is in the process of moving. Again, narrow interiors dominate the field, with outside shots mostly restricted to flashback reveries, or certain repeated motifs—a jackhammer tearing up pavement, or a longing look out the window at a forlorn shop assistant stacking boxes. But the most dramatic shift from Cat to Spider is an intensification of personal relationships and the tension between various parties.
Cats walk on four legs, spiders on eight. This is apropos, since The Girl and the Spider doubles down on everything Strange Little Cat did, and moves a bit more quickly. The Zürchers have produced a film that is much the same as the previous one, only there's more of everything: more apartments, more foreground characters, more background characters, and a reconfiguration of Cat's dancerly awkwardness. This time, it's not just that everyone is in everyone else's way. Each interaction alludes to complex interpersonal relationships to which we are barely privy. Strange monologues and semi-random remarks hint and imply long-simmering resentments, erotic subtext, and deep psychological damage.
In particular, Spider projects an atmosphere that is so thick with multi-directional sexual tension that it could probably be measured in pascals. The two main characters are Lisa (Liliane Amuat), who is moving out, and Mara (Henriette Confurius), who is staying behind, and it is clear (from their body language, as well as a couple of dreamlike fantasy monologues) that the two were involved with each other. Also, Mara—whose name we don't learn until around the midway point—has a cold sore at the beginning of the film, and Lisa has it by the end. ("Something to remember me by.")
But everyone else in the film seems to be sexually connected with someone in the vicinity. Next-door neighbors and roommates may also be former or current lovers, and although this could very easily lend itself to door-slamming farce, the Zürchers play it all in a mannered, slightly hypnotic mode, pitched between Brecht and Strindberg. While Lisa's mom Astrid (Ursina Lardi) is obviously putting the moves on handyman Jurek (André M. Hennecke), and the handyman's son Jan (Flurin Giger) is passed among the ladies like a sexual plaything (he is literally the "handy man"), a couple of kids are on hand to watch with wide-eyed curiosity and confusion.
There is so much to admire about Spider, most of all its structure, which follows musical patterns much more than narrative ones. Actors and objects recur like motifs or conceptual totems. At the same time, Spider feels more systematic than Cat, resulting in a film that is only moderately surprising. (One of the recurring motifs involved couples exchanging weird stories and smoldering lust, punctuated by a sharp cut to someone—often Jan, or a kid—staring at the couple, violating their intimacy with their probing gaze.) Then again, it’s entirely possible that the Zürchers mean to suggest that as we get older and observe the rituals of lust and desire, our behavior slips more completely into patterns that are recognizable to the onlooker, but feel utterly singular to those in attraction’s thrall.
Inner Outer Space (Laida Lertxundi, Spain)
I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel very much like a “film critic” while watching and writing about the films of Laida Lertxundi. She is an artist whose use of the medium is consistently defined by invention and exploration, even as she harnesses it for her own distinctive sensibility. I find myself looking for meaningful things to say, other than “here’s another wonderful film by Lertxundi, each one better than the last.” It’s embarrassing, gushing over Lertxundi’s extremely personal, idiosyncratic efforts the way Harry Knowles blathers about Star Wars.
With her latest, Inner Outer Space, Lertxundi has returned to Spain following an extended residence in Los Angeles. There’s no question that this is a smart move in terms of geopolitics and salubrious living. But it also proves to be a shrewd way to gently nudge her filmmaking in a new direction. Whereas Lertxundi’s L.A. films frequently focused on SoCal’s car-centric landscape, Inner Outer Space is a coastal film, deriving its overall rhythm from the rolling waves hitting the shores of Euskadi. Still, as the title suggests, this is an exploration of an interior, subjective seascape, a space where ideas and impressions crest and then dissipate.
Inner Outer Space is also about the basic components of photographic representation (photography, film installation) and how they allow us to concretize memory, time-shifting within our own existence. Lertxundi begins with a cardboard proscenium set-up, accompanied by a makeshift TV-diorama. Photos enter and exit the scene, sometimes using edits, other times with a woman in a cable-knit sweater entering the frame and moving things around. In time, we discover that these are still images from portions of the film still to come. We see the two main performers sifting through a folio of pictures, with Lertxundi cutting to the “live” footage from which those pictures were taken.
By the end, the women are interacting with a film projection of the ocean, one of them standing on a ladder as if about to dive in, the other simply trying to immerse herself in the water. Lertxundi essentially asks us to be with the images she chooses, and to consider how our own mental processes are formed like and/or by filmic language. She even goes so far as to adapt that most disreputable of cinematic elements, the subtitle, to generate a fractured, telepathic conversation. In the past, I’ve compared Lertxundi’s work to Jarmusch and Kaurismäki. But Inner Outer Space partakes of the cryptic mind-magic of Rivette.
Neptune Frost (Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman, Rwanda / U.S.)
“All these things seem to be connected to something…”
In his classic aesthetic treatise Poetics of Relation, Édouard Glissant defended the “right to opacity,” claiming that the refusal to be fully understood, or to conform to expectations of logic and clarity, is a political refusal, a way for the oppressed to articulate their own vision of the universe without the confinement of accepted Western forms. This can perhaps serve as a way to understand what Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman have attempted, and more than achieved, in their groundbreaking new film Neptune Frost. Although an attentive viewer will observe passing resemblances to the work of earlier radicals, such as Haile Gerima and Souleymane Cissé, there’s an overall sense of witnessing something utterly unprecedented.
Neptune Frost is a dense cinematic text, in which nearly every line of dialogue or every single song can suggest a bold new philosophy. At first the film may seem incomprehensible, but it actually demands a new way of viewing and taking in information. Neptune Frost does not, in the words of one of Williams’ songs, “think like the books say.” Instead, it functions like a tapestry, with every moment representing the intersection of multiple themes and ideas. One gets the most out of Neptune Frost by approaching it with associative thinking, or even absorbing it like music, motifs woven into and through one another.
There is a narrative of sorts, but it emerges in discontinuous fragments and repeated refrains, like the traditional storytelling of the griot. We begin with Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse) working alongside others in a coltan mine. After his brother Tekno is murdered—essentially for the crime of having an interior life—he flees, encountering Neptune (Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo), a nonbinary techno-witch from the future. The meeting of Matalusa and Neptune creates a rift in the global cyber-universe, as it turns out that the mining of coltan, a mineral required for electronic circuitry, has transformed Matalusa into a post-humanist power being (with “I-fi”), capable of channeling the Internet through his body. Together, Matalusa and Neptune begin a hackers’ revolution. The lowly workers whose backbreaking labor in the mines allows international capital to flow away from them are now prepared to reclaim what rightfully belongs to them.
If one is unfamiliar with the concept of Afro-Futurism, Neptune Frost is an incredible place to start exploring it. Anthropologists like Michael Taussig have argued for the temporal coevalness of the Other, refuting the Western tendency to see Africans, and Black people more generally, as situated in the past but now, Afro-Futurist thought argues that Black people actually embody the future, and that the complex, non-linear structure of African thought is in fact well in advance of Western dualism. Computers rely on trans-individual, multidimensional networks, and the “primitive” ideas of African history are the closest that digital reality can come to human understanding.
Not only do Williams and Uzeyman articulate these ideas in the words and the structure of Neptune Frost. The filmmakers adopt highly specific formal techniques to build a world of Black futurity. Early on, several point-of-view shots place the spectator in unexpected, disturbing positions. We are the violent mine foreman, the police, or even the dead. Only as Neptune Frost progresses, and we learn how to watch it, are we permitted to assume the position of its heroes. This suggests that the filmmakers are meeting us where we are—a reality controlled by Authority, in which we tacitly partake—and guides us into the revolutionary consciousness of techno-queerness. Jean-Marie Straub once claimed that he was making films for spectators who did not yet exist. This statement certainly applies to Neptune Frost, a work of cinema that makes all other contemporary films seem quaint, if not antiquated.
A Night of Knowing Nothing (Payal Kapadia, India / France)
Kapadia’s debut feature begins and ends with scenes of young students dancing. The first is a film party of sorts, with students at the Film and Television Institute of India rocking out in front of a number of projections of Indian films. This suggests that in addition to feeling joyous and unencumbered, they perceive themselves as part of cinema’s long, hybridized, permeable history. They are literally becoming one with film. At the end, there are no projections, and the scene is obscured by shadow. By this point, they have endured police violence, public denigration, and for some, the loss of friends who did not make it through the recent unrest. Now, they are dancing in defiance, asserting their refusal to disappear.
A Night of Not Knowing is a documentary about the nationwide protests on India’s college campuses in response to the Modi regime and its consolidation of authoritarian power. Police assaulted students with batons and subjected many of them to extended jail sentences of dubious constitutionality. As we witness on-the-ground footage from various peaceful protests (one set upon by a masked mob of right-wing Modi supporters), we hear letters written by “L,” a protester who left her epistolary notebook behind in a cabinet at the FTII. She is most likely fictional, and yet she represents both the fear and the passion of youthful rebellion, the camaraderie that forms when people band together for a higher purpose, putting themselves on the line for social change.
Kapadia’s organization of the documentary material is illuminating in several ways. For one thing, most non-Indians who follow the news are well aware of Modi’s nationalist, anti-Muslim demagoguery. That is disgusting enough, but Modi’s government has also encouraged a resurgence of casteism and systematic discrimination against Dalits. Part and parcel of this movement is the privatization of state universities and exorbitant tuition hikes designed to keep a college education out of reach for anyone but the ruling elite.
But as informative and disturbing as the film may be, A Night of Knowing Nothing is unique in the way that it foregrounds cinema itself as a site of resistance. A painted mural of Ritwik Ghatak features prominently on a FTII wall, and protesters explicitly invoke Eisenstein and Pasolini. Kapadia herself synthesizes visual and sound material from various sources, infusing everything with the grainy penumbra of Super-8 or even pinhole photography, producing a texture that is miles away from India’s escapist cinematic mainstream. This serves to convey the sense that these students are living through a period of uncertainty, a political twilight prior to some bold new reality taking shape.
Polycephaly in D (Michael Robinson, U.S.)
DUO CAPITA SUNT MELIUS QUAM UNUM CAPUT.
In recent decades, academic discourse in the humanities has trended toward an abiding concern with affect, particularly as it relates to trauma. Part of the lure of these ideas has been their partial if not total break with semiotics, since they suggest that emotions and other bodily experiences are fundamentally irreducible to language. Some might even contend that they are anterior to language, but at the very least it is suggested that somatic sensations—sadness, horror, pain, ecstasy—articulate language’s excess. Affect is a part of human experience that we may struggle to pin down with mental concepts, but we always fall short.
Michael Robinson’s powerful new film Polycephaly in D is in some respects a narrative work, describing an experience shared by two men. Through a highly particular set of circumstances, two typically diametrical emotions, terror and love, coincided for the two of them. That is to say, the pleasure of their meeting, literally falling into each other’s arms, was shadowed by the shock of sudden disaster, the possibility that this unexpected instance of romantic bliss might in fact be the last moment of their lives.
Robinson does in fact provide images of the two men in question (both played by James Andrew), and stages a series of long-distance mental conversations between them. (Just like Laida Lertxundi’s Inner Outer Space, Polycephaly in D utilizes subtitles to suggest telepathy, as if their characters were able to overcome subjective isolation by locating a common language, not understood by others.) But even though these narrative elements are objectively present in Robinson’s film, it feels like a rank misunderstanding of the work to even explicate them. That’s because the real affective work of Polycephaly in D occurs between these interactions, in the bracing collisions of Robinson’s montage.
Many of the images in Polycephaly are recognizable from the cinematic canon. In addition to brief clips from Truffaut, Fellini, and Barry Jenkins, Robinson uses extended passages from a selection of films, notably Clash of the Titans and the various iterations of King Kong. These montages, set to music by Evening Botany, the Lastlings, and others, abstract the images, joining them on the basis of directional movement, graphic matches, and other forged continuities of color, framing, and shape. But there is an overall sense throughout Polycephaly that presses on the viewer’s unconscious. Love is a monster, a gorgon, an untamed beast. Or perhaps a thing with two (or more) heads.
As Robinson shows lava throwing itself back inside volcanoes, walls reassembling themselves, and the hazards of gravity reversed, the film considers the reversibility of violence, both ours and the planet’s. This is impossible on an objective, temporal level. But trauma is defined by its plasticity, its ability to fixate on a moment in time and replay it, relive it, or even project it outward onto the future. Polycephaly in D seems to suggest that desire is an equal and opposite force, capable of repairing us even at the most shattering of times. Perhaps even more than trauma, love and human connection allow us to recode the past and reimagine the future. As one lover keeps reminding the other, “present tense, please.”
“The red filter is withdrawn” (Minjung Kim, U.S. / South Korea)
Kim's latest film is, on the most basic level, a landscape study. The filmmaker takes her camera to the seaside, filming from inside caves and man-made oubliettes, producing multiple images of the outside, all surrounded by fields of darkness. This process evokes certain ideas familiar to anyone familiar with film theory, particularly the camera obscura and Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Shafts of light bombard the camera, forming pictures, while large natural formations shroud that image in an impenetrable black. And at times, Kim manipulates the color of the image, using multiple filters to withhold portions of the image from us. (A filter doesn't so much "make" red as it screens out green and blue.)
In the film's second half, we are outside of the caves, but almost immediately we are confronted with headstones, memorial markers, and finally a Korean national cemetery. In Plato, when we exit the cave and look at the real world, our eyes ache but we eventually accept the truth of real things, and leave the shadows behind. But in Red Filter, the emergence from the cave is almost immediately met with death.
Throughout the film, Kim presents subtitles (in Korean and English) that contain excerpts from Hollis Frampton's "A Lecture," in which he discusses the problem of cinema and knowledge. As he explains it, the white rectangle of light offered by an empty projector "contains everything," since there is nothing shaping, blocking or filtering the light. Once a filter is introduced, or for that matter a piece of film (what's the difference?), large segments of light are removed from that white beam. We receive something we call "representation," but at the cost of seeing what is actually there: illumination.
In the end credits, Kim provides a list of the locations she has shown in the film. In every case, we have been looking at hiding places or locations of death. Each dark space corresponds to a Korean military action and those who tried but failed to survive it. If we apply Frampton's theorems to these spaces, we are forced to conclude that cinema, and the society that produced it, are tantamount to death, and that it is survival that is the marvel. Forces are forever shaping humanity, culling it, and every day that we fall through the sieve is merely a stroke of good luck.
Ste. Anne (Rhayne Vermette, Canada)
It is a very delicate thing indeed to forge a hybrid between narrative and experimental cinema. In Ste. Anne, Canadian Métis filmmaker Rhayne Vermette grapples with ideas and identities that seem to ask for an unconventional treatment, allowing formal experimentation to serve as a concrete metaphor for cultural marginality. Centered on a family of Indigenous Francophones in rural Manitoba, Ste. Anne shows us a community rarely seen onscreen, even considering the somewhat expanded representations and production outlets available to Canada's Indigenous peoples.
Vermette's formal strategies make this paucity of representation into something palpable. It's not just that much of Ste. Anne is filmed with minimal available light, resulting in rich, murky images to which the eyes must physically adjust. Vermette foregrounds celluloid’s material presence, in ways that turn the human drama before us into unstable, often explosive light events. Narratively, Ste. Anne clearly draws inspiration from Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas, in its close attention to personal dynamics disrupted by the return of a long-absent family member. But the clearest visual antecedent for this film is the work of Stan Brakhage.
Much as we see in Brakhage's films, Ste. Anne employs handheld camera, flash-frames, end flares, scratches on the film surface, and other artifacts of the filmmaking process. We are constantly reminded that we are watching a community coming into visibility, as the grain of Vermette's images swirls and pops. But more precisely, Ste. Anne is a film about space and spacelessness, presence and absence. Renée (Rhéanne Vermette) has been gone for four years and suddenly wanders back to her hometown, and although nothing concrete is ever revealed, we understand that she was driven away by some shattering trauma.
The heart of Ste. Anne's story has to do with Renée's relationship with her young daughter Athene (Isabelle d'Eschambault). In her mother's absence, Athene has been raised by Renée's brother Modeste (Jack Theis) and his wife Elenore (Valerie Marion). Although the couple is willing to allow Renée back into Athene's life, they are worried that she will vanish again, either with or without her daughter. As Renée reestablishes her relationship with Athene, she shows her daughter a photograph of an empty plot of land, a place she hopes to build a home.
It is clear that this photo is a talisman for Renée, something that has kept her partially anchored, even as it depicts the lack of a structure. She has staked her identity on absence, and appears ready to pass this perpetual uncertainty onto Athene. In its articulation of gender, trauma, and spiritual homelessness, Ste. Anne bears comparison not only to Paris, Texas but Marilynne Robinson's modern classic Housekeeping. But Vermette is primarily a visual thinker, and the connections she draws between Métis Nation and the material film images are a thing of tremulous beauty.
Ultimately, Ste. Anne is a quiet film about an agonizing struggle. Although the family that Rénee's family left behind has lived on the margins of Canada's dominant white culture, we see their rich multi-generational community, their interwoven existence, their difficulties as well as their joys. But there is something within Renée that cannot allow her to find her place in the world. Vermette suggests that alterity can yield a deeper connection to one's place in the land, or it can produce a sense of perpetual drift. Neither response to the traumas of history is more or less correct. But in the middle of this crisis is Athene, and by extension, the future.
Sycorax (Matías Piñeiro and Lois Patiño, Argentina / Spain)
A truly impressive combination of two artistic sensibilities that I wouldn't have thought belonged together, Sycorax exhibits the literary gamesmanship of Piñeiro's feature film work while situating it within and alongside Patiño's own highly refined style. Initially, Piñeiro seems to have the upper hand, since Sycorax is partly another of his playful, allusive engagements with Shakespeare. Instead of tackling The Tempest full-on, though, he adopts an almost Stoppardesque deconstruction, focusing on a character—Ariel's mother, the sorceress—who never speaks a line of dialogue. Treating Sycorax as a structuring absence, Piñeiro looks for her everywhere, first among random women on the street, and then through an extended audition sequence.
But Sycorax also focuses on Ariel's entrapment within a tree in the forest, and this allows Patiño to draw our attention to the thick, complex textures of natural forms. Close-ups of bark and foliage alternate with expansive wide shots of the forest, light peeking through trees, rock formations and waterfalls. Employing slow fades from one image to the next allows Patiño's unique engagement with landscape and abstraction to envelop the film like a proscenium, a sylvan clearing providing a primitive stage-set.
I don't mean to suggest that there was some clear-cut division of labor between Piñeiro and Patiño. Their aesthetic tendencies combine quite effortlessly, even as one can observe moments that recall both men's previous work. It's unusual to see two such strong artistic personalities meld so gracefully, and this is part of the pleasure of Sycorax, a film that provides much more than either filmmaker could offer on his own. (Presented in the Short Cuts section.)
Train Again (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria)
Train Again is Tscherkassky's tribute to the great Viennese master Kurt Kren, and in particular an homage to Kren's 1978 film 37/78 Tree Again. (Kren began his titles with their corpus number and year of production. He made it all the way to 50/96.) Where Kren's film was about changes in light, weather, and shape over time (a single tree shot over fifty days), and Tscherkassky's recent works have been about the tension between form and culture, Train Again is about the formal condensation of history, as exemplified in the role of the railway throughout cinema.
There have been entire books written about the connection between cinema and trains. In particular, cultural historians of the 19th century have argued that the train's reorganization of the landscape for its rider was analogous to cinema's transformation of time and space, through montage or even just the segmentation of life into 24 frames a second. (Wolfgang Schivelbusch's book The Railway Journey is well worth a look.) Also, numerous filmmakers have explored this relationship in their work, including Dziga Vertov, Abel Gance, Ken Jacobs, and even Godard. So in drawing this connection between cinematic/perceptual history and the train (locomotives and locomotion), Tscherkassky is adding his own volume to this grand history.
The film begins with a startling opening segment, in which an approaching train at a 45-degree angle is juxtaposed with horses approaching (and growing in size) at a seemingly faster rate. This is a reversal of industrial history as we know it, the noble animal outpacing the "iron horse." But soon after, Tscherkassky embarks on a visual hit parade, citing films that have made express(ive) use of trains. We hear the score from The Man With a Movie Camera, and Tscherkassky introduces easy-to-spot clips from The Great Train Robbery, Ballet mécanique, The Arrival at La Ciotat, and other early train films. He subjects these bits of film to a process of material breakdown, with train tracks morphing into or colliding with the edges of the celluloid, or the essentially orderly movement of the trains being disrupted by jagged collaged intrusions. Optical printing produces new highlights and unexpected irises and shadows, resulting in a highly volatile representational universe.
Train Again is rollicking and relentless, setting up spatial dislocations and thwarting our expectations for how image and sound ought to follow another. The early silent comedies are an obvious touchstone, but where Chaplin, Keaton, and company executed comic stunts within coherent filmic space, Tscherkassky runs early cinema through a Futurist blender. Whereas the earlier Cinemascope Trilogy employed structural poetics to generate horror by other means, Train Again is more like a Michael Bay film, so fascinated by massive objects of iron and steel that he cannot help but blow them to bits.
The Tsugua Diaries (Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
If the reverse-card in Uno were a film, it would probably be The Tsugua Diaries. The first feature collaboration between Fazendeiro and Gomes, Tsugua Diaries takes its title from the word “August” spelled backwards, and that provides a bit of a hint as to what the directors are up to. Organized in 21 sections, arranged from “Dia 21” to “Dia 1,” the film establishes certain rules for the first twenty minutes or so, and they are fairly easy to suss out.
We are watching three friends (Carloto Cotta, Crista Alfaiate, João Nunes Monteiro) embark on some projects while they are under quarantine together. In particular, they are constructing a butterfly habitat, and from segment to segment we watch the structure become unbuilt. To drive the point home, Fazendeiro and Gomes periodically cut to some rotten fruit on a wall, which gradually becomes fresher as the film goes on.
But soon, things get a little strange. It begins at a breakfast table where the three actors are seated. Suddenly, the room is swarming with other people we had not seen before. And from there, Tsugua Diaries pulls back the curtain, just a little bit. The directors, co-writer Mariana Ricardo, and the principals are having a meeting to discuss their concerns with character, and how to “act” like they are living in reverse order. This becomes less of a problem than they (or we) think.
There are already a number of film projects that in some way contend with the Covid-19 pandemic. Some, like Denis Côté’s Straubian Social Hygiene, treat quarantine conditions as a formal problem to solve. That’s also true of Tsugua Diaries, but Fazendeiro and Gomes have also found a way to actually address “Covid time,” the bizarre temporal dislocation that is an unavoidable characteristic of the pandemic. At times, Tsugua Diaries recalls William Greaves’ classic Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, as remixed by Borges. How fitting, considering that as we receive contradictory medical guidance and the virus remains subject to all manner of political grandstanding, that we are constantly reminded that the world will never be the same. We can’t go back, and yet it’s unclear whether we’re gaining or losing ground.