Ann Arbor Film Festival is the longest running avant-garde and experimental film festival in North America. 1963 was its foundation year. This year would bring 40 programs, and 180 films selected from 3,500 submitted from 100 countries. The festival shifted from purely 16mm a decade ago and retains a commitment to innovation in international moving image practice. Ann Arbor showcases films of all lengths and genres including experimental, animation, documentary, fiction, and performance-based works. It was voted #1 film festival in North America in a USA Today reader’s poll in 2019. Like all international artistic events this sustained profile offered no resistance to the Covid-19 virus.
The 58th Ann Arbor Film Festival retreated online this year to protect the local Michigan Theater audience from any viral transmissions. Twelve days before the festival’s opening film the word went out online that instead of cancelling completely the festival committee had decided to move their hard work online, or what they could of it. Given the festival’s strong and historic community base there was a will there, despite the financial loss of ticket sales, to keep the event alive. This had been very much a social and networking event based at the Michigan Theater as the scrolling photographs on the Vimeo screen, where the program shifted to, reminded us. This is an event where guest are accommodated with Ann Arbor locals. I tip my hat off to festival director Leslie Raymond, technical director Tom Bray, the Board, Staff, volunteers and all those Ann Arborians that kept this festival breathing. Given the hit the entertainment industry is taking world-wide, it is the history and community involvement that this event maintains, that sets it up productively for a future, when the dust clears.
The already compiled festival program shows how much had to be jettisoned. The Salon Sessions, workshops, special screenings, live performances, installations and after parties had to be discarded, but a quality thread remained. The festival’s competition program would be screened online at set times. Pat Oleszko’s performances remained as video only in the online introductions to the screening program and the after party DJ sets also played on the Vimeo site. After each program a zoom discussion with the artists took place. The Q&As offered more in-depth and intimate discussions than the previous stage-based conversations in the Michigan Theater possibly because they could be extended beyond their allotted times.
I had planned to attend as my experimental animation Pattern Recognition had been selected, but I was now grateful that I was not marooned in the United States, with a growing pandemic at my heels. I could watch from my couch at some ungodly hour in Australia, sipping coffee with a toasted BLT sandwich instead. From Wednesday 25 to Sunday 29 March, I watched films between 1 am and 10 am in the morning. Sleeping during the day and consequently suffering from jetlag despite not shifting, or being able to shift, from my home bunker in suburban Melbourne.
The festival jury this year were Osbert Parker, Lynne Sachs and Lisa Steele whose careers all range through the wide of artist-based programming threads available at Ann Arbor. Osbert Parker’s work, both commercial and personal typically combine cut-out animation with live action with a focus on film noir. Lisa Steele is a video artist, educator, curator, and co-founder of the Toronto-based distribution organisation Vtape. Steele has worked collaboratively with her partner Kim Tomczak since 1983 on videos and installations in dialogue with the personal and political. Lynne Sachs’ experimental films, installations and performances place personal experiences into historic and political contexts. Her The House of Science: a Museum of False Facts (1991), for example, synthesises found footage, home movies and re-enactments into a personal and political essay form, extending the work of early feminist filmmakers like Yvonne Rainer.
The Chris Frayne Award for Best Animated Film went to Soetkin Verstegen’s Freeze Frame. The manipulation of ice, a difficult material to animate contributes to this film’s success, but leading to some arresting ghostly textures reminiscent of early microscopy and underwater photography with a well-crafted storyline.
Goodbye Fantasy by Amber Bemak and Nadia Granados won the Ken Burns Award for Best of the Festival. It begins with an abandoned rubbled white space peppered with numerous air filled black bags dancing in the breeze. These props eventually reveal the bodies of the two naked female performers, the film’s directors. These bags recall Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds (1966) but here placed in contested spaces that resemble a war zone, a zone that gets assaulted and occupied with a body-centred intimacy and gesture by this duet of performance artists. This film has its place in a long line of feminist personal-political work. Two elements that extend the envelope on this feminist historic thread are the duet of naked bodies in dialogue that deflects any voyeuristic take and also the potent screams projected across borders that source sound poetry art.
What I find engaging in a festival like Ann Arbor are those sequences and films that tell stories in unexpected ways or introduce a new technique or strategy that pushes the envelope and history of innovative filmmaking and consciously relates back to that history.
Eva Kaukai and Manon Chamberland’s Katatjatuuk Kangirsumi (Throat Singing in Kangirsuk) had a magical soundtrack produced by two women face to face, eye to eye in an arctic landscape caught in a trance-like chant that played off each other’s breathing and vocals. In Inuit throat singing, or katajjaq, two women sing duets in a close face-to-face formation with no instrumental accompaniment, as documented here. It is a playful contest to determine who can outlast the other. The performance brought me back to some of the detailed soundtracks that Frank Lovece scored for Arf Arf, evident in their experimental documentary, Thread of Voice (1993), and also more recent vocal performances by Myriam Van Imschoot and Marcus Bergner.
Shot on Super 8 and edited in camera, Derek Taylor’s Scenes from the Periphery, maneouvres an accumulation of black and white aerial photographs of the area of his residence. With the Super 8 sprocket holes still resident at the side of the frame, Taylor turns this material into a graphic dance of squares and lines, repurposing the aesthetics and materiality of early abstract animations like Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921). Scenes from the Periphery is further relatable to that palimpsest of imagery from Google Maps and Google Earth, as animated in Irish animator Páraic Mc Gloughlin’s Arena (2018).
With a jazz soundtrack motoring the animation along, Candy Shop by Patrick Smith, through an abundant rush of pixilated pills, provides commentary on the pervasiveness of the pharmaceutical industry. At this speed individual images do not all register to the eye and strong graphic elements persist, jumping up out of the image stream’s surface. Smith’s archive presents 2,863 of the 11,926 pills available worldwide. Their choreography channels the single frame technique Frank Mouris used in Frank Film (1973) and that was later taken up by Paul Bush in the insect archive animated film, While Darwin Sleeps (2004), and the self-explaining Furniture Poetry (1999)
Simon Liu’s E-Ticket provides another image rush but this time meticulously constructed from the artist’s 35mm image library which was materially cut and re-collaged with 16,000 tape splices into a relentless image rush.
Other films that pushed the envelope of storytelling were Colors & Shadows, Blue Honda Civic and Home in the Woods. Andreas Hadjipateras’ documentary Colors & Shadows, homes in on an old man re-collecting his life and memories as he moves slowly though his day. Jussi Eerola’s Blue Honda Civic is filmed from inside a car with muted colours as a kind of existential minimalist travel movie. The Civic is recorded stopping and starting in a largely remote winter landscape, suggesting a driver, who we never see, processing some unspoken intimate personal crisis. Brandon Wilson’s feature length Home in the Woods captures an intimate visual dialogue of the Northwest forest over a year near his home, sustained productively for 97 minutes.
3-D animation, partially because of render time and the expansive nature of 3-D programming has been slow to move into experimental animation, but experimental works such as Nikita Diakur’s Fest (2018) now challenge that view. Shynola’s The Littlest Robo (1999) was an early animation that demonstrated the potential of mixing 2- and 3-D animation techniques, strategies that now dominate the industry. Two works at Ann Arbor re-affirm these developments. Jack Wedge’s short animation Goodbye Mommy and Jon Rafman’s one and a half hour Dream Diary 2016-2019.
On the surface, Goodbye Mommy is a sci-fi detective story, involving extra-terrestrials and a king, and processed through a conglomerate of surrealism, film noir, psychedelia and comic aesthetics. Wedge expanded his artist toolkit from 2-D to incorporate 3-D, tempering a concern for making his objects perfect, but with use developed a more layered style in constant movement where imperfections become a style-defining aesthetic glitch. Animated graffiti-like sketches are scattered over the bodies of his characters. The movie was made using the Maya, Zbrush and After Effects programs. Zbrush is a very hand-crafted sculptural tool that allows the production of artefacts efficiently.
Dream Diary has a related layered surreal aesthetic but Rafman’s worlds originate in 3-D technologies. In it bizarre characters move through and populate disturbing landscapes and the work extends into surrealist form the kind of aesthetic spaces that David O’Reilly constructs in the Gameplay trailer for Everything (2017). Everything has a soundtrack by the Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts explaining how “everything” is connected, which is worth listening to before negotiating Rafman’s world. Dream Diary was originally conceived for gallery presentation where viewers could enter at any time, to sit on vibrating chairs designed to disorient the viewer further. Its unstable centreless worlds evolved out of Rafman’s dreams and daily automatic writing projects. In the Q&A after the screening Rafman stressed that to circumvent self-censorship creeping into his practice he avoids analysing these worlds or its characters.
Rafman commits to a trance-like roaming attitude, developed over years of impulsive online grazing, where the unconnected is put together purely through movement and time. This is a dynamic space where cause and effect are not a simulation of the natural laws of physics but the articulation of a field of technologies flipped through with speed. Once this bundle of disconnected instinctual delusions reached feature length proportions Rafman felt he needed a metaphoric journey to wrap around this technological rapping, to stitch his dreams together. This became Xanax Girl’s search for her abducted companion, a hybrid dog-seal with the head of a boy. Dream Diary is a dialogue between the structure of reality and the structure of media, the outcome of which, contributes to the construction of the artist’s identity.
This formula could also be applied to the winner of the Best Experimental Film at Ann Arbor, the Spanish feature Video Blues by Emma Tusell, who enlists technology to approach the real. Tusell sources a VHS collection that her father accumulated during his life. On his death she interrogates it, and even with this archive, the memory of her childhood remains a contested space. Conversations with her partner add a dialogue of uncertainty. These moments excavate Tusell’s loneliness, fears and nightmares. Using collage and repetitions of her own depictions to retool this archive, we have an instance of the formalisms of structuralist film re-combining with memory and the social, extending the work of ‘70s feminist filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman, Yvonne Rainer, Sally Potter, Michelle Citron and Lynne Sachs.
Chris Peters’ Vertigo A.I. processes images and texts from Vertigo through machine learning algorithms to create an abstracted trace of the film, with images that resemble the distorted figures from a series of Francis Bacon Paintings. The intense collage processes and the automatic writing that came out of Dada that are often used in experimental film and utilised by Jon Rafman in Dream Diary have here been outsourced. Over two days the classic Hitchcock film Vertigo (1958) was run through a machine learning program 20 times. A separate A.I. program was used to process sound from the film, to spew out to produce an innovative form moving image production. These strategies relate back to the syntax of the scratch and splice in experimental film and the glitch in video art production. This is Chris Peter’s first film using this technology, a technology that he previously applied successfully to landscape paintings.
Thomas Renoldner’s Don’t Know What has had a successful run at international film festivals and in part speaks to the contemporary explosion of online GIF animation and can be traced back through a history of experimental film. From memory, it is based on a single take in which Renoldner walks in, sits in front of a table in an empty gallery-like space, stands up, says some words including “don’t know what”, moves and then walks out of frame. This sequence is repetitively re-edited. For the initial edited section Renolder’s micro-editing jog shuttles through 1 to 8 frames, creating a stuttering looping song. He adds vertically mirrored image manipulations and horizontal mirroring in the last two sections.
Enabled by the technical image’s flexibility this film tests the boundaries of genre by infusing slapstick into formalism and collapsing formalism into animation. Renoldner’s strategies here have been sampled out of found footage cinema. Significantly he cites Rafael Montanez Ortiz’s ritualistic found footage manipulations as an influence, rather than Bruce Conner or Martin Arnold’s psychoanalytic work. Don’t Know What also connects back to Renoldner’s earlier film performance work such as Der Dialog / The Dialogue – between film & reality (16mm film performance, 1987) in which he is in dialogue with his own image on film. This in turn is reminiscent of Guy Sherwin’s continued Man with Mirror performances which originated in 1976. Renoldner’s relationship between media also suggests a connection with Polish animator’s Zbigniew Rybczyński’s early 35mm work, for example, Mein Fenster (1979) which was also made in Vienna, Renoldner’s home town.
Another Austrian work, Virgil Widrich and Martin Reinhart’s tx-reverse extends and challenges our understanding of the cinema space. The images were recorded as a 360° panorama inside the Babylon Kino in Berlin with a 10K cutting edge resolution 360° camera rig, the Omnicam 360, as an audience occupying the theatre is choreographed in and out of their seats for the film. Like Don’t Know What this content is subsidiary to the technical pyrotechnics imposed on this recorded material. A radical intervention is imposed on its big data, one that Reinhart had experimented with 20 years earlier in the analogue-based tx-transform (1998). The time and space axis of the film are swapped over, or reversed. When and where are flipped. Normally a frame of motion picture film records and an entire space for 1/25th of a second. But here we see the entire time of the film in one frame, but only a slither of that space. This is a bit like looking at a closed book from the side. The left part of the image is the start, the right part of the frame is the end. If the camera and nothing in the frame moves during this time it looks like a static shot of this space. If there is movement, change is only captured in that slither of the image when it occurs across the frame. This can result in a morphing fun palace distorting mirror of bodies and faces. When Widrich and Reinhart’s camera pans around the Babylon Kino with the audience mingling you get tx reverse. Is this what travelling in a time machine would look like? What results is a stretched out distorting technical image field aesthetically similar to the kind of architectures that Christopher Nolan presents at the conclusion of Interstellar (2014) when Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) reaches out across time to contact his daughter. There are Cinema, Dome and VR versions of tx-reverse. This project displays its eccentricities most clearly as a Dome projection or on a VR headset. As a dome projection the centre of this projection above the audience recalls sections of Max Hattler’s abstract animation Spin (2010).
I look forward to a full physical festival next year on two large immersive screens in the Michigan Theatre, Covid-19 permitting, and a continued engagement with cutting edge technologies and story-telling strategies by established and emerging artists working outside mainstream cinema, re-affirming that position that Maya Deren established outside the Hollywood Industry system. The techniques and strategies showcased at Ann Arbor may emerge outside the mainstream, but audiences change and develop and the unexpected eventually get incorporated in in mainstream cinema some way. Let us hope that next there is a return of those installations, talks and events that wrap around the competition screening program. The way we see the world is continually in flux, with monumental shifts in technology that impact the syntax of film language. The moving image works encountered document and predict those changes.
Ann Arbor Film Festival
24-29 March 2020
Festival website: https://www.aafilmfest.org/