54th New York Film Festival’s “Projections”
New York City
October 7–9, 2016
Focusing less on the avant-garde canonical tradition and more on the endless possibilities of the moving image, Projections, the avant-garde section of the New York Film Festival, has become a laboratory of visionaries where cinema invokes critical thinking on its own terms.
The focus of the festival-within-a-festival in a three-day span and the intimate space of the two screening rooms of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center enabled an ongoing discussion in which each program had its own internal rhythm while still creating a space for self-reflection. Projections featured forty-four films in eleven programs, downsizing even more from its two previous editions. Almost half of the work was screened on celluloid (fifteen films on 16mm and five on 35mm), including a recent restoration of Robert Beavers’s From the Notebook of … (1971/1998), three historical films by David Rimmer (preserved by the Academy Film Archive), and In Titan’s Goblet (1991), which was screened as a tribute to the film’s director Peter Hutton. Highlights included the premiere of new work by Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler, Deborah Stratman’s The Illinois Parables (2016), Kevin Jerome Everson’s Ears, Nose and Throat (2016), João Vieira Torres’s Ghost Children (2016), Camilo Restrepo’s Cilaos (2016), and Sky Hopinka’s Jáaji Approx. (2015).
The first program, “The Spaces Between the Words,” explored how communication systems are constructed and how users relate to them. In John Smith’s Steve Hates Fish (2015), a smartphone with the French language translation app “Word Lens” reads words from commercial signage in gentrified East London. The device arbitrarily looks for French words in an English-speaking world to “translate” them back into English. The film explores how misunderstanding emerges artificially from technological misuse, creating a playful performance of words without syntactical connection. By contrast, Jesse McLean’s See a Dog, Hear a Dog (2016) is interested in the opposite side of the coin. By combining iTunes visualizations, virtual reality reconstructions, chatbox dialogue windows and dog videos, McLean explores how animals and machines attempt to decode human desire, transforming it into readable coding.
The second program, “Beyond Landscape,” explored landscape and its qualities as a document, which is both reality and constructed fiction. Bending to Earth (2015) by Rosa Barba envisions landscape as an archive for social change. Aerial images of radioactive fields in the desert are intertwined with a narrator’s voice that is delivered via indistinct radio frequencies. Barba shows how history is not a preexisting concatenation of facts but an open reflection of the past that can be constructed and reconstructed. The film questions how transformations are framed by rhythms and are a combination of structural changes and natural chance. Tomonari Nishikawa’s Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon (2016) reiterates this idea of structural readings of landscape by means of visual rhythm. The film is a compilation of constructed images in twenty sequences, corresponding to the time structure spelled out in the title. It is a portrait of bridges on the Yahagi River, in which each bridge is shot by exposing one sixth of the frame at a time using masking techniques. By presenting a composited image where several temporalities collapse into a single image, Nishikawa returns to his interest in exploring temporal and spatial perception by subdividing the screen. The partitioned landscape appears to be simultaneously constructed and deconstructed, opening up the landscape to subjective perception.
Hopinka’s Jáaji Approx. looks at identity through space and language, combining multiple temporalities and interpersonal relationships. Through audio recordings of his father reminiscing about his life and his experiences as a powwow singer, Hopinka navigates the landscapes of Wisconsin, California, and Washington in the process of coming to terms with his own identity as a contemporary Ho-Chunk national. Landscape reconfigures itself throughout the film with juxtapositions of two landscapes on top of each other, and multiplicity of imaging that speaks to the loaded historical significance of space. Language itself becomes an active exploration of identity for Hopinka—in some sections English is phonetically transcribed into Hočak written language.
Everson’s Ears, Nose and Throat recounts the 2010 murder of DeCarrio Couley. The film opens with handheld camera night shots of the Mansfield neighborhood where the murder took place. The soundtrack is a series of beeps that alternate between the left and right channels, emulating an audio hearing test. Then we see images of Shadeena Brooks, one of the eyewitnesses of the shooting, getting her hearing and vocal cords checked. The soundtrack this time is the doctor telling Brooks that her hoarseness is caused by a weak vocal cord. Next are images of Brooks performing an audio test, raising her left or right hand alternately, depending on where the beep comes from, combined with a soundtrack of her recounting of the Couley murder. Everson explores Mansfield’s urban space through Brooks’s physical perceptions. As he mentioned, “movements, emotions, and the body were the ideas I had in mind. It really came together, like those moments when she is raising her hand for the hearing test became her appearing to testify to tell the truth.”1 Thus, Brooks’s hearing test is a mediation of her testimony in court, recalled by the gesture of raising her hand after every beep. The film ends with a silent shot of Brooks looking directly at the camera. The landscape’s memory in this case is tied to Brook’s perceptions and her body.
Stratman’s The Illinois Parables was one of the most interesting features of this year’s festival. The film is a concatenation of eleven parables focused on things that happened in the state of Illinois: the exodus of the Native American tribes along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, the Tri-State tornado of 1925, violence against Mormons in Nauvoo in the 1840s, and a reenactment of the restaging of the FBI’s reconstruction of the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton in 1969, among other stories. The repetitive structure of the parable is an organism in which each part is independent but intrinsically related to the other parts. Stratman creates a network of local stories that speak about larger epistemological questions embedded in historical narrative, landscape, and ideology. The film questions the paradoxical nature of truth by suspending the internal structure of visual history, allowing new forms of visibility. Stratman’s deterritorialization of visual memories offers no easy answers but certainly reveals larger historical questions; images become a new spatial landscape that overwrites reason and language.
Program Four, “Fade Out,” continued the conversation around the systems of belief connecting it to film materiality. The “spaces between words” become the intervals between the frames, giving priority to visual images and their structures. Mónica Savirón’s Answer Print (2016) explores the materiality of film and its temporal decline. The film is made of deteriorated 16mm stock, retaining the original soundtracks, the noise of the projector during its silent sections, and the splices in between. Each part is composed of twenty-six frames, reproducing the necessary distance between sound and image in 16mm film. An answer print is the first shape that a film takes during post-production, with the sound synced and ready for previews. It is what the filmmaker uses to direct the overall project. Savirón makes the answer print the final product, unveiling the internal structures of film and its ephemeral nature.
Kelly Egan’s Athyrium filix-femina (for Anna Atkins) (2016) also exposes the structural elements of film, showing splices and sprockets while combining it with handmade cyanotype emulsion inspired by the Victorian British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins. Vieira Torres’s Ghost Children is constructed entirely of still photographs. If in La Jetée (1962, directed by Chris Marker), the use of motionless images emphasized the false perception of film movement, Vieira Torres’s immobility emphasizes the false perception of memory. The ghost images of this film are enacted by four narrators that tell each other’s stories, with the exception of the director, who tells his own. Vieira Torres’s confusion of temporality questions memory and perception as an established position, addressing its possibility of reinvention and rediscovery.
Continuing with the idea of temporality, and historical fluidity, Restrepo’s Cilaos examines the interstitial spaces between the past and the present. The Maloya musician Christine Salem searches for her fictional father, known as “The Mouth” in Réunion Island, which is still a French territory. The precolonial times that survive through the Creole ritual music of Maloya connect the spaces between the living and the dead, the precolonial past and the present. “If the dead govern the living/I will settle her score,” says Salem, perhaps evoking the old desires of independence from France. Joshua Gen Solondz’s Luna e Santur (2016) is about the myopic qualities of human perception and the impossibility of possessing an absolute understanding of reality. Choreographed by an aggressive flicker and covered by layers of scratches and white paintbrushes are images of people covered with sheets frustratedly trying to physically relate to each other. Solondz suspends knowledge and the internal structures of perception proposing the first state of a new cycle of evolution and rebirth.
The “Site and Sound” program included Indefinite Pitch (2016) by James N. Kienitz Wilkins. A collection of black-and-white images of New England’s Androscoggin River unravels along with a monologue that starts as a film pitch and continues through personal anecdotes and local stories. The sound corrupts in the middle of the film, revealing the artificiality of sound synchronicity and the hidden imperfection of HD digital projection. The collection of still images would be perceived as flicker in film, but with digital projection everything is a stream of data that hides its motion under the frame rate. The data stream is parallel to the stream-of-consciousness of Wilkins’ monologue that unconsciously unveils “what lurks in the shadowy folds of our brains,” the truth underneath the surface.
In making Foyer (2016), Ismaïl Bahri set his camera up on a street in Tunis and began shooting with a piece of white paper covering the lens. When pedestrians ask him about the nature of his bizarre experiment, he explained how his sole intention is to record the luminal variations of the paper. In this case the conversations of the soundtrack are what reveal the conditions of the political landscape of Tunisia, with the lens remaining blindly white. The “interval between the frames” becomes the distance between the acoustic signs and their significance. The landscape is not a network of stories or images but a continuous stream of sound.
Dorsky presented two of his latest works, Autumn and The Dreamer (both 2016). Autumn is, as Dorsky himself said during the Q&A, a film “not about the autumn but from the autumn.” It is a beautiful composition of details extracted from nature that explore the cosmological rule of the universe. Like other Dorsky films, it is composed as a Japanese haiku that explores the universality of singular moments of self-contemplation through natural observation. Syntactically the film functions within the natural world, creating a continuous flow of images that breathe freely into each other. In this sense, Autumn is a moment of awakening and revelation that opens into reality. The Dreamer, by contrast, came to Dorsky as a sensation that needed to express itself on film and had a much longer process in the editing room. It is a mosaic of collected images that the director compiled following his instincts. While Autumn was an illuminative reflection that came from seasonal temporality and moved toward the interiority of the subject, The Dreamer came from an internal force that moved toward the outside world in a film form.
What stood out from the “Event Horizons” program was Ephraim Asili’s Kindah (2016). Kindah means “one family” for the Maroons in Jamaica, and is also the name of a legendary mango tree that stands in the historical village of Accompong as a symbol of unity and independence from the British Empire. Asili visited Accompong during the anniversary of the peace treaty with Britain, and filmed the pilgrimage to the Kindah Tree. The landscape of the area, the festivities, and the music reconnect once again all the tribes with one another, while creating a larger connection with distant images of Hudson, New York, where Asili lives.
Projections this year had a solid program curated by Aily Nash, Dennis Lim, and the advisor curator Thomas Beard, that explored film centrifugally toward the outside world but also centripetally toward its own inside. The interstitial spaces between the words, the intervals between the frames, the fluidity between the past and the present, and the distance between sound and significance cracked open ideology, proposing new spaces for the subject. Projections’ curatorial work revealed an immense aesthetic field of awareness and possibility that situated subjectivity and embodiment at its center.
Almudena Escobar Lopez is a PhD student in the Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.
NOTE 1. Michael Boyce Gillespie, “B.A.D. (Black Abstraction Dreaming): A Conversation with Kevin Jerome Everson,” Black Camera 8, no. 1, 2016: 155–168.