Seeing Red

17 October – 1 November 2007

“We are an island drifting away from the BFI Southbank…” were the words curator Mark Webber used to describe the screening auditorium in the introduction to his Experimenta program at the 51st London Film Festival. This drift or slow movement through time either refers to the position experimental film holds within the greater sphere of moving image practice today, or, was a clear analogy to the program he presented with many of the films progressing within the well-established “tradition” of avant-garde cinema. For example, filmmaker Peter Hutton cited the Lumière brothers’ efforts of making actuality films when outlining the inspiration behind his striking At Sea. And Samantha Rebello’s unsettling take on the unfamiliar in the mundane The Object Which Thinks Us sits firmly amongst previous formal avant-garde experiments. In the eight unique themed programs, the best incidences of this “drift” were those that sailed out to sea, leaving the historically-loaded shore, confident of their chosen path, adding more than just a token reference, but rather instigating new possibilities of refracting the inner and outer worlds within us all.

In the first program, The “I” and the “We”, Su Friedrich’s exceptional Seeing Red explored the ordinary and even obvious aspects of her inescapable anxiety in confronting the process of aging. Narration is presented to the audience, without artifice, in her own voice. Random thoughts, confessions and insecurities are raw, honest and often humorous. Friedrich entrusts the audience with personal information so naturally that it disposes of any hierarchy whereby a point must be proven, or a particular agenda articulated. These personal confessions are offset by footage detailing various occurrences of the colour red: a scooter, an ice drink, a robin and the filmmaker herself peeling off “layers” of red clothing in front of the camera are some examples. The images present alternate between her intimate perspective of these red objects and pictures of herself. Her face is cut out of the frame as she challenges herself to “perform” whilst a sincere attempt is made to ignore the gaze of the lens. Without seeing the full face of the human protagonist, we are rewarded with a degree of understanding, a means of internalising the insight and sympathising to a higher degree with our filmmaker’s confusion, charm and everyday eloquence. Without an overriding agenda and without taking on the guise of a preacher this film successfully provides one of the most frank portrayals of aging and maturing and the complexities and confusion that can result as a consequence.

At the other end of the scale in The “I” and the “We” program was Mara Mattuschka and Chris Haring’s Part Time Heroes, a film rich in foreign movement, unusual camera composition, strange dialogue and abstracted voice and body. Indeed, manipulation plays a key role in this unnerving exploration of doomed ego, failed seduction and perpetual frustration. Working with the Austrian dance company Liquid Loft ensures a symbiotic relationship between the odd framing, angles and cold sets. Inhuman shapes are formed by their bodies as multi-pitched disembodied voices speak dialogue relating to success, fame and ultimately the balance between artistic endeavour and the question of authenticity. The world evoked is stretched to such an extent that any relationship to reality is solely in the unconscious. It’s an unnerving display of the uncanny wrapped in a psychological maze in which all the protagonists ultimately fail. When, in the last scene, the various characters, left to their own devices, are seen performing in shop windows (reality) to the general public they are ignored entirely. A successful exploration of failure in its many guises.

The program Past Imperfect showcased a series of films, which made tangible references to the past by re-constructing known films, or incorporating found footage. Jayne Parker’s Catalogue of Birds: Book 3, although not a film relying on existing footage, also fitted well amongst the other work due to its solemn tone. Having filmed a solo piano performance of Messiaen’s musical studies of birdsong, “Catalogue d’Oiseaux”, Parker created a visual interpretation of the third movement, “The Tawny Owl and The Woodlark”. This is an exquisitely shot and edited work that juxtaposed three main elements: the music, the performance itself and the themes that are carried through the music – the notation of bird songs. A close up of a bird’s claw is placed next to the inner workings of the piano. The footage (shot in black and white) delicately offsets the sombre tone of the music detailing a subtle yet rich tapestry of music, artist and film.

Marguerite Duras / Alain Resnais (0.65, 0.85, 1.0fps)

In Marguerite Duras / Alain Resnais (0.65, 0.85, 1.0fps) American filmmaker David Dempewolf re-edits the opening sequence of the Duras/Resnais film Hiroshima mon amour (1959). The original sequence is cut into a six-minute loop with crude masking techniques altering the image on each revolution. The result is a curious mélange of abstraction, repetition and altered memory. Due to the repetition of the sequence that occurs, the text takes on a more “rhythmic” quality as the film progresses. The audience becomes well-acquainted with the (foreign) dialogue as the only constant (the images are the same, although different parts of the image are revealed each time the film repeats and an on-screen time code outlines the change in frame rate occurring with each repetition of the sequence). A result of this simple manipulation of the original footage is an embellishment upon the themes of memory and the perception of reality that are raised in the original, heightened to a level whereby a new thematic form takes shape.

One of the bleakest works in this sombre program was the 18-minute Helenés (Apparition of Freedom), a genuinely arresting film by Christoph Draeger. Two elements are juxtaposed: a voiceover (Draeger himself) reading George Bush’s inauguration speech [“(an idiosyncratic interpretation of the concept of freedom)” is also subtitled] is layered upon historical Hungarian footage made to inform and prepare citizens for a Nuclear attack along with harrowing footage of the bombing of Dresden. The assemblage of the footage is reminiscent of another classic work of inverted propaganda: Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1964). Even more disturbing than Watkins’ own vision of hell, Draeger’s film uses found footage, exposing a relentless barrage of human atrocities. Mayhem ensues as firestorms and the dead en masse are seen through the gritty remains of the film stock which has been neglected for some time. In relation to the visuals presented this decayed film further accentuates the hopelessness portrayed. Given the aesthetics presented, this is a film that could have been made anytime in the last 100 years; it is not until the source of the text is revealed that it is instantly locked into the present. The masterstroke of this act is in the “trick” played on the audience. Without prior knowledge of the text’s source it would be easy to dismiss it as leftist hysteria, with its dramatic language, radical assertions and an uncompromisingly bleak and fierce tone. But here is a genuinely arresting moment as the displacement into everyday political rhetoric is as frightening as the hysteria previously witnessed on the screen. A harrowing take on found footage and text that successfully envelops the audience in the spectre of war.

In sharp contrast, the following day began with the inspirational Over Land and Sea program comprising two films that explored “breathtaking voyages across the ocean and arctic” (program subtitle). Both films were linked in their ability to capture unique aspects of the world in a sophisticated and poetic manner.

The Ivalo River Delta

Using long exposures and time-lapse photography in sub-artic temperatures (up to minus 37) Patrick Beveridge’s exquisite The Ivalo River Delta captures the alien presence of the Aurora Borealis amongst the extreme conditions of a hostile environment. The jerky camera and rough editing complement the beautiful chaos of this most extraordinary event. When asked by an audience member post-screening what he was trying to say and whether he was simply trying to make an aesthetically-pleasing film, Patrick rebutted gently explaining that his only intention was to see if it was in fact possible to shoot in these conditions and the “images were a sidebar” to this experiment. The result is indeed a staggering depiction of this most unusual phenomenon where the damage to the 16mm film stock and crude editing all play an intrinsic role in harnessing the alien atmosphere captured.

A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns.

– Joseph Conrad, quoted in At Sea

Director Peter Hutton has spent many years exploring the lost intention of the early cinema of the Lumière brothers. That is to say a cinema that places a camera in front of the world and captures the images and events that occur before it. His inspired film At Sea is an hour-long portrayal of “the birth, life and death” of a ship. With a single 16mm camera and only himself as crew, Hutton captures the humanity in industry. The camera remains a passive spectator throughout all three sections, the only human input controlling it being the positioning, which often results in wide, panoramic shots framing monumental industrial symmetry. The editing successfully invokes the vast span of time that passed in both construction, journey and the dissembling of the ship itself. Each sequence is given breathing space to present the action in real time and this patient approach is the key to the successful result.

The journey itself (“life”) successfully juxtaposes two major elements: an enormous man-made ship and the sea itself, a natural entity, which like the ship evokes awe from its magnitude and vastness. In this context, bracketed by a more overtly “inhuman” environment, the sea itself became the focus. In his presentation following the film, Hutton referred to the sea as “an industrial quilt” which carries this machine from one location to the next. Shot at night and during rain, the harshness of the environment slipped in amongst that of the ship resulting in a continuation of the mechanical refrain that had been undertaken with the first section. Although the film is silent, in the final (“death”) sequence, there occurs a shift to an even quieter world. Gone is the industrial strength of “birth” or the monumental nature of “life”, here the ship is alone, a neglected shadow of its former function. In Bangladesh, the spectacle of the first part and the grandeur of the second is replaced by a corpse, a ship embedded on the shore slowly pulled apart by workers who act to remove the body in a painstaking manner without tools or industrial machinery. Human vultures picking away at a giant industrial carcass. The mood is solemn and the task steeped high in frustration.

Stripping back the filmmaking process to its most fundamental elements, without words, without text, Hutton’s was one of the most powerful films at the festival, one which stepped away from 20th century film practice, incorporating theoretical positions of the pioneers which have long since been subverted by the Surrealists onwards to create a cinema which is more dependant purely on the entertainment or intellect.

The Object Which Thinks Us

One of the more abstract components of the festival, The Anagogic Chamber, suffered to an extent as many ideas and techniques presented referenced established 20th century practices without developing upon the overall schema. An exception to this was Samantha Rebello’s powerful short, The Object Which Thinks Us, a disorientating representation of everyday household objects as refracted through distorted perception (tight close ups, sometimes out of focus). The soundtrack develops upon the uncanny nature of these representations by incorporating short snippets of unidentifiable audio protruded from elongated silence in a manner similar to the early violent audio art of Swiss experimentalists Schimpfluch Gruppe. When the objects themselves became apparent – a collection of everyday hygiene; toothbrushes, blood in water – the unusual atmosphere does not dissipate as the symbiotic relationship between visuals and audio establishes itself a foreign territory in which one was deeply immersed. Straddling the line between the comical and the creepy, Rebello’s use of space (silence) and event (revelation) was in perfect ratio to catapult these humble familiarities into an unsettling world, and highlights the work of an exceptional artist in control of her chosen themes and techniques.

Focusing on a small handful of the works presented at Experimenta does not reflect the overwhelming quality that was presented as a vital alternative to the bulk of the London Film Festival. The program Webber assembled for the BFI 51st London Film Festival was an inspired effort, both in film selection and presentation. For the most part “tight” categories worked in favour of the films selected, providing a critical context and a sense of community despite the disparate themes and assorted processes undertaken by the individual filmmakers. Support came from large attendances, and audiences utilised well the breaks to discuss the films, meet the filmmakers and basically operate within a nexus of experimental film culture today. Webber’s enthusiasm and expertise when it comes to harnessing all the disparate threads within this slippery film approach is a substantial asset to the London Film Festival and for film culture as a whole.

Experimenta at The London Film Festival website: http://www.bfi.org.uk/whatson/lff/film_programme/experimenta

About The Author

Mark Harwood is not www.markharwood.com. He has never been to the Caribbean.

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