Despite the attention given to the Toronto International Film Festival, the Images Festival may be the city’s most ambitious, if not in scale, then in programming, which ranges across film, video, expanded projections, performances and installations. Its young, energetic audiences seemed well-accustomed to hopping between the cinema and the gallery, or those hybrid spaces in between, and they move easily among the festival’s many venues, from the stately Art Gallery of Ontario and the dazzling TIFF Bell Lightbox to the town hall-styled Polish Combatants Hall and the Music Gallery in an historic, once-burnt Anglican church. Regrettably, I left before the closing night performance (and the reportedly raucous karaoke session that followed), the screening of Tod Browning’s 1928 film West of Zanzibar accompanied by local hardcore favourite Fucked Up. Every time I was asked if I was going to see the band, I routinely misheard the question as “are you going to get fucked up?”

In a manner of speaking, yes. Sensorial, even sensual derangement is nothing new to experimental film, but the Images programmers were at least gentle in their defamiliarisation tactics. In this sense, Judy Fiskin’s Guided Tour led the way: the video travels through various art worlds, from the staid museum walls housing works by Richard Serra or Allan Kaprow to sidewalk craft vendors selling a vibrant painting of Vikings driving a sled team of polar bears. Every image is cheerfully misnarrated by earnestly pushy docents, the audio undoubtedly culled from another source. Through this deliberate mismatching, the film poses playful juxtapositions that question the limits of art critical discourse, as when Fiskin’s camera surveys a pair of cat plates (literally, plates with cats painted on them) while a voice asks us, “Which looks more realistic?…Yeah, he painted a gritty realism.” Though Guided Tour could appear derisive, what comes across is a sense of appreciation for all the work, which, whether high or low, appears marvelously strange, especially when stripped of context. And by scrambling sound and image, Fiskin highlights the crucial interpretive work that, like this video, shapes most if not all of our encounters with art. In Reconsidering the New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California by Lewis Baltz, 1974, Mario Pfeifer similarly moves the audience through two side-by-side screens, the left passing through the interior of a building in a tracking shot, and the right flipping backwards through the photographs in Baltz’s New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. As J.R. Billington, a building manager, describes the history of the southern California complex, both views eventually arrive at the corrugated garage door at the front of the same building, though like Guided Tour they don’t quite match up. It’s more than the over thirty years that separate Pfeifer’s 16mm footage from Baltz’s photographs, or the slight lag in one of the projectors in the screening I attended – in the present-day view, the door doesn’t completely shut. The past remains cracked open, imperfect, vulnerable to the machines that purport to document it. Billington identifies a flaw in Baltz’s exterior shot, how the entire image had been reversed and was not, as he says, “a true image.” “You being a photographer,” he tells Pfeifer, “you must know how that happened.”

Kevin Jerome Everson guides us through a blighted town outside of Mobile, Alabama in The Pritchard, training his single-reel, single-shot aesthetic on a man who pushes his car through the cracked, weed-lined streets of Pritchard, a primarily African-American community that is also one of the poorest in the United States. The car’s right turn signal blinks impatiently as the man heaves against the vehicle’s massive weight, and we see his shirt drenched with sweat as he passes rain-slicked concrete and flooded driveways. Everson’s hand-held camera remains a few paces back, trailing this post-industrial Sisyphus as he ascends a hill, coasts past its peak, and begins again with another arduous climb. Here, mythology meets the hard road of history in a town that progress left behind.

With History Minor, Ryan Garrett routes us through a different view of the past. Shot using the equipment of a ‘70s new program, he films a Vietnam War reenactment that took place in the woods of Jackson, Mississippi in 2008. At first, it’s difficult to discern Garrett’s footage from actual war reportage: with the tinny radio sound of Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells singing “Talk Back Tremblin’ Lips”, the men aim and clean their guns, flip idly through issues of Playboy, and nap with their hats covering their faces. Soon, however, the period façade begins to crack. One soldier is seen holding a plastic water bottle; another stands next to a black-robed Vietcong. You begin to notice that the men seem older, heavier, and altogether healthier (though probably in need of a long shower) than they should. Garrett intersperses these scenes of battle preparation with interviews he conducts with the soldiers, many of whom are veterans of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each answer the same set of questions: name, age, rank, date of enlistment; views of the mission, the Vietnamese, and the anti-war protestors. The youngest is a believable 20 year-old, and he’s also the steeliest. When asked if he has anything to say to the folks back home, he smiles and shakes his head. “Nothing”, he replies with chilling resolve. Whether the reenactment is meant to be a form of fantasy fulfillment or psychiatric treatment is unclear; Garrett dutifully plays along as reporter in this uncanny rehearsal of traumatic pasts and presents. The film ends in fire, and as machinegun rounds light up the night sky, the silhouetted men emerge momentarily until they recede into the darkness and yelling again.

With two expanded performances, Caroline Golum As and Rigmarole Reversal, Andy Lampert uses what he calls “contracted” cinema to turn inward and dig into his familial roots. In each, the actress Caroline Golum portrays one of Lampert’s Siberian ancestors from the 18th century. With Caroline Golum As, we see her gradually transform into her character, tying a scarf to her head and hunching over, her hand pressed to her waist. As she speaks of her longing to leave her family and the devastating consequences that followed, Lampert trains his 8mm focus on her slow-motion figure, filling in most of the details with his elaborate stage direction as she wails and slumps in front of a spare white wall. In Rigmarole Reversal, Golum reprises her role in the midst of a large field. On the soundtrack, we hear various audio tests she leaves via voicemail, improvised accounts of suffering, itchiness and the search for a lost child, all filtered through a muffled cell phone receiver and a thick Russian accent. While in Caroline Golum As, Lampert is heard giving Golum instructions (“This is a long time ago, they had thicker accents!” he declares at one point), she’s left on her own in Rigmarole Reversal, and with each subsequent recording her tone grows more desperate and frustrated. “You are not like King Vidor!” she shouts by the end, clearly enraged. Humorous and poignant, Lampert’s search for his own past is tied up in Golum’s sometimes fruitful, more often failed imaginings of it. Cinema, in both works, makes possible the visioning of an otherwise irretrievable past, even as it inevitably distorts it.

With Penumbra, Kimberly Forer-Arnias leaves the missing spaces of her family history intact, pairing spoken Spanish with English phrases that appear in the middle of a black screen. The two languages don’t always align; as we read at one point, “one person says one thing, and another person says something else, and no one understands each other.” Gradually black and white images interrupt the darkened frame: two women facing each other, the corner of a house, a face heavily obscured by shadow. The family comes into focus, but also resists it as the film’s languages insist on multiple accounts, contradictory views, that prevent us from seeing clearly into its murky and contested past.

At one of Images’ many “off-screen” gallery locations, Lindsay Seers’ Extramission 6 (Black Maria) had its North American premiere at Gallery TPW. Within a darkened room looms a structure resembling Thomas Edison’s Black Maria, the world’s first film studio. Inside, Seers’ looped video presents an account of the artist’s life as pieced together from other people: owing to the loss of her photographic memory as a child, Seers attempted first to be a camera and then later a projector. As images play of a girl covered in a black hood, a mouth holding a piece of crumpled paper, or a woman with glowing white eyes, the history of photography is written, sometimes violently, through the artist’s’ body. Yet as she tries more desperately to retrieve the past, her eidetic Eden, her images fail, blurry and obscure. She was not, as one person notes, a very good camera. Though her mother sees her later turn to the extromissive projector as life-affirming, Seers’ eyes still burn ferociously, igniting a patio table with fireworks.

Jean-Marie Téno brought to Images the Reframing Africa program, a vibrant selection of independent African filmmaking. Against an image of the continent as an exotic locale for foreign productions, or the crass commercialism of Nigerian or “Nollywood”-style films, Téno’s picks ranged from science fiction to silent, or at least reticent comedy, from folktale to ruminative essay film. One of the most formally and affectively striking of these was Sokhna Amar’s Pourquoi (2005). Over the image of a fisherman taking a pirogue, a small, narrow boat, out to sea, a woman reads a letter addressed to her sister. For the first time in ten years, she speaks about a rape that occurred while visiting relatives. The tiny vessel hits ever larger waves as the narrator’s voice swells and breaks. Overcome with emotion, she explains how she’s been haunted by a single unspeakable question: “why me?” The same type of boat is described in Mati Diop’s Atlantiques. As a group of men sitting before a fire describe, the pirogue is used to make the dangerous journey across the ocean. Some have made the trip before; others fear it, or the deportation that would arrive soon after. One tells of the magical transformation of a companion who was turned into a fish. As we see a rusted, spinning disc, a woman staring dolefully into the camera, and the fire crackling distantly in the woods, the film is infused with the sense of waiting, of time momentarily suspended before rushing into peril once again. “Forget Europe,” one of the men says (a stinging reprisal, perhaps, of the Rotterdam Film Festival’s “Forget Africa” series in 2010). “Let’s talk about here.” Téno’s own Hommage (1985), set in his hometown of Bafoussam, Cameroon, does just that, structuring this personal work as a dialogue between two voices, an older woman and a younger man. Over views of dusty yellow roads, tall grassy fields, and a lively market, they speak of the joys and difficulties of life in the small village. While the man defends the choice to leave, the woman disagrees. “There’s land for all,” she argues, though the film is unsparing in its view of the hardships that have drained this town since the colonial occupation, seen in black and white archival footage of schoolgirls exercising in uniform and scenes of political pomp. Independence ushered in its own challenges, and it is with a heavy, knowing heart that Téno celebrates the people of his homeland. He mixes still images with moving ones as if to linger on the film’s hand-wrought details, from the curls a carpenter carves into a bench, to a group of women gathered to cook a feast, and Hommage’s most enduring sight is also its most moving, the face of a man superimposed over images of a village festival. We later learn this man was the victim of a terrible bus accident, and also the father of Boniface, one of the voices who has been speaking. The film concludes with this image filling the screen, and leaves us with an unmistakable link made between his solemn, ever-watchful expression and the written dedication to Teno’s father, who perished in a similar accident.

Basma Al-Sharif’s We Began by Measuring Distance stands closer to its turmoil, beginning and ending in gunshots and crying voices so hoarse they’re barely recognisable as human. Yet though we see photographic vistas of Egypt’s deserts folded in the spine of a glossy book, the film refuses to name a specific crisis. More broadly it speaks to the experience of trauma that severs one from the past, and as the narrator remarks, “our homeland truly is a history that is no longer within reach.” In the latter half of the video, two people hold up the ends of a white cloth or flag, upon which numbers are superimposed: the shortening distances from city to city, dates marking conflict in the Middle East. The wind gusts and one of the ends breaks free. As the people strain to hold on, the narrator’s measurements turns to geometric shapes and fruit. The list becomes more abstract, arbitrary, and seemingly senseless. Yet in the fog of terror and confusion, and the processes of memory that trauma obstructs, what else is there to do?

Elusive narratives of a different sort abound in Anne McGuire’s All Smiles and Sadness (1999), part of a program of screenings that have been touring with the recently published book, Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945-2000. In McGuire’s video, small groupings of people speak to each other in phrases somewhere between soap opera hyperbole and language poetry. Flirting with greeting-card rhyme, each generically familiar scenario makes a lilting daisy chain that never resolves but instead perpetuates itself like a musical round, capped off by a impish cameo by George Kuchar. The link between music and voice takes on choral dimensions in Beatrice Gibson’s The Future’s Getting Old Like the Rest of Us, a film organised in six neatly letterpressed parts. Taking its structure from B.S. Johnson’s House Mother, a paperback copy of which is seen resting on top of a television set, Gibson casts eight elderly “voices” or characters in various states of dementia. The film is based on conversations she and collaborator George Clark conducted at four Camden care homes in London, though their script would be more accurately called a score as it layers and organises the voices in concert with each other. The effect is at first jarring, a cacophony of simultaneous speech, though as the work progresses, the words spread out into longer, more sustained musing about the 1969 moon landing, Christianity, film and all the mistakes Margaret Thatcher ever made. At the end of each chapter, we’re introduced to two voices that, against a black and white image of the same person, describe voice and physical characteristics, as well as the actor’s name. It quickly becomes apparent that voice means the same as character, and as each describes the character of their voices, they’re also describing themselves, the mannerisms and expressions that shape their personalities: compensating memory loss by speaking quickly, being careful not to interrupt others, losing the ends of words as they utter them. While the accumulated sound of the voices doesn’t necessarily amount to harmony, the musical structure borrowed from Johnson encourages a different kind of audience engagement, a listening that selects among voices, and among the carefully observed details seen in close-up, like a dandruff-dusted collar or the subtle pulse under a woman’s neck, or, later, a slow pan across the seated figures. The work is a portrait of and collaboration by a group that, through chatter and reflection, and a soft, gray afternoon light, attempt to hold onto the sounds and images of their own already fading pasts.

Images Film Festival
31 March – 9 April 2011
Festival website: http://www.imagesfestival.com/