Death and the online film festival

One of the first blog posts here was about cinema as ritual, in two senses: as a social practice and as a formal set of actions that may address an abstract or supernatural purpose. The pandemic has brought about a crisis of collective rituals, from the quotidian to the transcendental. This unravelling of common habits has mundane consequences, like losing track of the days of the week, but also profoundly painful ones. At tens of thousands of lonely hospital beds and funerals, the conventions that allow human societies to cope with death and grief are tenuously sustained by video-calls. It is both miraculous and crushing in its banality.

If the most sacred and necessary of rituals are being mediated by online streaming, it is no surprise that everything else, from pub quizzes to orchestras, is streaming somewhere. After a spate of cancellations, film festivals and academic conferences have also now returned as online programmes, and probably stand a better chance of survival than the cinema venues and universities that would have hosted them. For anyone lucky enough to have a computer, an internet connection and a safe home, and who isn’t being forced to risk their lives at work, this situation has generated a surfeit of ‘content’ far beyond the usual limitations of geography and timing. The expanded remote access includes participants that otherwise would have been excluded due to disability or location, and it excludes others who have divergent relationships to technology. I don’t want to enter into a discussion of whether streaming is good or bad, better or worse than cinemagoing or conference panels, as I have no interest in protecting those rituals. I don’t care if they survive; I care deeply about the people who depend on them for a livelihood, but that’s a different issue.

This is not a festival venue

This is not a festival venue

Online access is the consummation of mechanical reproducibility, and as Benjamin argued, the breakdown of uniqueness can demystify the reproduced object and wrench it out of the sphere of ritual. The tension between reproducibility (of the film) and uniqueness (of the event) is constitutive to the existence of film festivals, conceived as a way to ‘eventify’ film. This is being negotiated online in many different ways, as the sector fumbles towards new models that may enable some semblance of survival. Live streaming, time-limited access, and live Q&A sessions are some of the strategies that festivals are using to assert a sense of occasion, which is to say, a ritual time. The first online festival I attended this year was Alchemy, which had live screenings and a very pared down, straightforward interaction centered around brief introductions by programmers and a chat box after the film. As a taste of the new normal, and it had many advantages, such as an international audience and the ability to eat lunch during the screening without bothering others. But it didn’t have the treasure hunt of site-specific screenings around Hawick, the floor-to-ceiling screen in perfect darkness, or the gap between screenings to write notes in a sunlit window, go charity-shopping, or eavesdrop on earnest filmmakers at the café. It’s the ‘in-between bits’ that are missing, as Tara Judah wrote a few days ago. The gaps are backfilled with housework or email, and so the ritual contract is fragmented.

It becomes very difficult for festivals to offer a distinctive experience without their unique locations. In a recent piece, Erika Balsom considers how “presented online, moving-image artworks risk absorption into a ceaseless cascade of undifferentiated “content.””. From behind a laptop screen it all looks pretty much the same, despite the bewildering proliferation of platforms and logins. It is all also a bit more intentional, less random, like most things online which depend on being called up by the consumers, and are therefore less likely to surprise them. The waning of unintentional, unplanned sociability is harder to articulate as a loss in the pandemic, as governments entrench a worldview where the important relationships are those of wage work first, and normative family unit second. Online film viewing is – in my experience – similarly tending towards the productive or the familiar, more fully realised as labour because the stretches of time around it have been minimised. With no travelling to the cinema or waiting in the lobby, there is nowhere online where you can just sit and do nothing, let things unfold that don’t depend on your intervention and choice.

The fantasy of digital availability of everything presents itself as a fugue from mortality. You can’t miss anything – you can always watch it later (I am still genuinely upset about MUBI’s departure from its 30-days-only model, which at least allowed you to move on if you had missed a film). But of course, you don’t have infinite time. You don’t know if you can ever watch it later. Life is literally too short. The life of images can also be shorter than you think, links rotting all over the web, emulsions sliding, nitrate burning. At Alchemy, several films reflected on the failure of the archive to deliver the future promised by the past. In Salma Shamel’s short film, Those That Tremble as if They Were Mad, an inkjet printer sits in a backyard, printing certificates intended to reward contributors of oral testimonies of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. The bureaucratic attempts can’t help but extinguish the same radical fire they intend to record, and soon succumb to the reactionary collapse of the popular uprising. In another screening, Onyeka Igwe’s No Archive Can Restore You lingered over the rusted cans of the Nigerian Film Unit. The decay of analogue film has a well-established romance, perhaps because its time is just out of reach, within living memory, and hence its destruction is imagined as preventable. But as with any technology of memory, the loss of film is as indispensable as its survival to its history.

The Orphan Film Symposium is premised on this ephemerality. Orphan films survive by accident. They give the lie to the fantasy of total availability, representing as they do the tip of a lost iceberg. Meant to serve a time-limited purpose, the passage of these films into history has been crafted with today’s arguments, technologies, and archival optics. Often meant to be private, their public existence diffracts their modes of address and complicates their understanding. This is perhaps the logical setting in which to think about death, and this symposium offered a needed space to do that. It was also one of the best academic conferences / film festivals I have ever attended, and its expanded universe of blog posts and videos constitutes an incredible, generous, and timely resource. Against the relentless futurity of business as usual, the mood at this event felt more authentic. The incredibly skilled technical team greeted us from Mexico DF, wearing facemasks. Presenters joined in from around the world, lamenting a missed appointment at Amsterdam, and always finishing with ‘stay safe’. The combined themes of the symposium – water, climate and migration – reminded us that beneath the current emergency there is a catastrophe that hasn’t gone away with the decreased CO2 emissions of recent months. In other words, widespread death, closed borders, and a retrenchment into the private sphere are not going to stop the waters from rising.

There were two moments in the festival that confronted me with death more directly. At the end of the first day of screenings, as I watched from my sofa well past midnight, I was taken by surprise by a film where Eiren Caffall reflected on her life with the same chronic illness that will probably kill me one day. Safe and alone in my house, I could let my fear run through me until it exhausted itself, find a healing use for that metaphor of the sea within. In that moment I was glad not to have to make small talk with colleagues over canapes afterwards. Then on the third day, also late at night, Ja’Tovia Gary introduced her extraordinary essay film The Giverny Document. Watching this multilayered inquiry into Black experience and pain, on the day of George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman, amplified the rage that the images demand. The artist talked about the intricate, beautiful work of animation directly onto film as a somewhat therapeutic practice, which created a powerful tension with archive footage including evidence of police brutality recorded on phones. In conversation with archivist Terri Francis, they consider the fact that thinking about Black media is also thinking about the moving image as evidence. Over the days since then this question has been on my mind, as the harrowing images of George Floyd’s death, filmed by a black teenager, join this ‘counter-archive’ of atrocity and injustice.

But also in the archive: a Black child twirling in the sunshine with a paper plane.

And also for the archive, today: the statue of a slave trader being hauled off its plinth and into the water. Signs of life.

(via GIPHY)

The featured image is a still from In de Tropische Zee / In the Tropical Sea (1914), one of the films screened at the Orphan Film Symposium. It can be seen here with an introduction by Ned Thanhouser, but please be warned that it is a disturbing, cruel film infested with animal death and deploying a racist, colonial gaze.

Alchemy 2019: Notes from a weekend away

This year I finally made it to the Scottish Borders town of Hawick for Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival. I had been hearing about Alchemy for years, as it build a reputation for its fresh and knowledgeable programming, and for staging a distinctive event using the official and hidden infrastructures of the town. Due to the festival’s interest in artists’ moving image, video installation and mixed-media projections in unconventional sites are an integral part of the programme. This, along with the premiere of Phil Collins’ feature documentary Ceremony, persuaded me to get on the train and bus to the Borders during a weekend on the cusp of summer.

Dudendance, Out of the Wild

Dudendance, Out of the Wild

According to the website 147 works were screened over five days. I was there for two, and spent some time answering emails from coffeeshops and climbing the somewhat underwhelming motte, so I only saw a fraction of them. Enough to get a sense of how special this festival is. The variety of venues is certainly an attraction: shopfront venues up and down the high street, in the museum, the archive, and of course the very well equipped arts centre. The festival is a visible presence in the town, without commandeering it. The programme shows a serious labour of research, curation, and presentation, sourcing films that would hardly be available elsewhere. I didn’t like them all – but that’s irrelevant. They give me something to think with and some time to do it. Experimental films, especially those that draw attention to the surface of the image, and to the flow of time, are devices to untether the mind from its obsession with yesterday’s petty failures and tomorrow’s little problems. They make time for something else – sometimes more abstract, sometimes more visceral.

The first film I watched, in the superb auditorium of the Heritage Hub, was Tondal’s Vision. This is a highly stylised reinterpretation of a single-reel early silent film, stretched to feature length. In its fascination with patina and decay it is in the tradition of Bill Morrison, but it departs more radically from the existing footage. Slowed down to an extent that is either meditative or exasperating, depending on how much coffee you’ve had, the footage is looped, mirrored, repeated, and reframed. The filmmaker hijacks the film’s tableau aesthetics, dwelling on the contortions of condemned souls in a nightmarish circular journey. The sticky, flattening effect on the emulsion had its moments. At its best, it abstracted the figures until their movement, the articulation of their joints, was all that mattered. This modernist strategy was intensified in the segments of blank lead film, dirty and scratched and tinted with rainbow colours. I found myself thinking I would like to freeze the frame and paint my room in those colours, or have a t-shirt made; this is how decorative this film is. The catalogue says the technique used to unpick the nitrate figures from their backgrounds is called mordancage, a word I had never heard and which has led me to a very pleasant ten minutes of internet browsing. I was taken with the neon colours, pushing the boundaries of the spectrum, and found myself disappointed to learn the colourising had been achieved digitally. Not because I necessarily hold on to the romance of celluloid, but because I had hoped that these colours were accidental discoveries, rather than design choices.

No such disappointment with Esther Urlus, whose 16mm works were shown a bit later. There she was, as full of light and mischief as her films, with red hair to match, standing by the emergency exit just in case. Each film was a genuine experiment; I could imagine the filmmaker in the dark room, trying this or that chemical bath, strips of celluloid running through her fingers. I tried to imagine the artist-run film lab in Rotterdam where this was made. I watched the impossibly flat landscapes of Idyll or Red Mill and wonder what it is like to grow up without mountains. She told us of a homebrew emulsion she used for the somewhat hermetic Konrad and Kurfurst, a historical tale told against the grain. The approach to sound was as uncompromising as the images. Like Tondal’s Dream, some of the films here – particulary Elli – used flicker and rapid reversals to produce physical discomfort. This was a formal strategy that reappeared in several other films, but here it was used in small doses to greater effect.

An example of a more all-encompassing take on flicker was Take It Down, a short included in a programme addressing memory and history. I really wanted to like it, as it played with documentary footage of the movement to remove statues glorifying racists from American university campuses, and of local reaction. The decolonisation of universities and public spaces is an important struggle. Unfortunately, this film’s formal strategies felt unjustified, and this diluted its political stance. The relentless flicker and solarisation of the little Confederate ceremony at the start did not counteract the fact that the audience gets to listen to their arguments for a solid few minutes. The film platforms these white supremacists and, rather than confronting them, just makes them painful to watch. This is not critique – this is the ‘enough rope’ argument that has made Farage a constant presence in the supposedly liberal BBC. The second part of the film, with the visual removal of the monuments, was less jarring but more disquieting. The postcard images of the sites were improved by the removal of the offending statue, but this seemed to absolve the very institutions standing right behind them of their blame. Yes, of course the statues of confederate warriors should be taken down from the front of the court house, but let’s not pretend that black people are not going to still be imprisoned much more than whites. The pretty colours added here were less distancing than embellishing. I am not here doubting the anti-racist commitment or the intentions of the filmmakers, but acknowledging that it’s really hard to make sufficiently sharp socio-political critique through the medium of experimental cinema.

In the same programme, I liked Morwenna Kearsley’s string of reflections laid along a train journey I make often. But while I get off halfway, she goes all the way: To Perth, to those reflections on cultural memory that I always abandon as too complicated and unproductive. Her project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and in unpicking the thread of injustice that holds together the institutions of heritage, there was one bit that she didn’t pull: The connection of the Lever fortunes with forced labour and genocide in the Belgian Congo. (Disclosure: I was also funded by the Leverhulme Trust till last year.)

But it was the first film in that programme, the simplest, which held my attention. Armindo and the Dark Chamber (Tânia Dinis) was possibly my favourite film in the festival. Apart from two bookending sequences, it is simply a continuous shot of a metal band carrying old photographs one after the other, from right to left, and her voiceover. The writing is precise and well paced. As we looked at endless provincial children and weddings, she said that we strive to find ourselves ‘in other people’s faces, in other people’s houses’, a grasp for recognition. That ease of recognition was poignant for me, because it necessitates colonialism. I can recognise myself in those Portuguese provincial middling classes because my whiteness is like theirs and it’s the same Catholicism that produces the rituals to be photographed and that makes grandmothers look like one another.

Another film that builds on a romance of analogue media is That Cloud Never Left, but its documentary lyricism is harder to pin down. I was intrigued by this, a collaborative work that doesn’t stop to explain its process. In an Indian village, people make toys out of scrapped 35mm film. Young men build a platform and a giant version of their rose-tinted cellophane lens. The red filter is also the blood moon. On television, spellbinding animations explain the lunar eclipse, awaited by the town. I am fascinated, as always, by making, craft, tools: the curved knife to peel fruit, the handsaw to cut clay. I am drawn to re-use, and this, like so many places in the global south, is a scavenging place. The staged elements get in the way of my ethnographic desire to see and understand the ‘authentic’ way of life of the village’s inhabitants, which is a way to say I didn’t enjoy them but think that’s as it should be. At the end, we tried to Skype with the director, but we couldn’t hear her, which was a much better outcome.

On paper, Phil Collins’ Ceremony is a similar type of film: Video documentation of an intervention, a process carried out with a collective. In intention and execution, it is the opposite: prosaic where That Cloud is lyrical, expositive where the other is more cryptic. This comparison is not intended as a value judgement, though I did think that there was too much Momentum-style certainty to Ceremony. In short, Collins orchestrated a public outdoor event during Manchester International Festival, the centrepiece of which was a statue of Friedrich Engels brought by road from the Ukraine. The journey is the best part of the film, as people in Eastern European towns half-recognise Engels with a mix of Ostalgie and mistrust. That ambiguity is diluted in the celebratory and celebrity-led street party. That is understandable: this is not a time for subtleties. On the other hand, it is not a time for Great Men From History either.

Image from What does she see when she shuts her eyes (Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff)

Image from What does she see when she shuts her eyes (Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff)

There were, by the way, several special programmes, all of women filmmakers (eat your heart out, Cannes). And lots of individual works by women. Before getting the bus back out of town, I stood in a low-ceilinged room at the back of an empty shop, watching as a rocky, snowy path stretched across two screens facing each other. Sequences of words swirled towards and away from the viewer, simple sentences announced by a tinkling of tiny bells or beads. It was joyous and cold, the playfulness of the WordArt defiant amongst the sharp edges of the rock. The words were about dogs and desires for a good life. Simple, mundane things; a simple, small setup. The work is called ‘What does she see when she shuts her eyes’ and it is a collaboration between Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff, but also a kind of memorial to Ott, who died recently. The information sheet says the rocky paths are Icelandic lava tubes. Somehow, in this austere room, in the intimate words moving between the two projectors, I feel hopeful.