The 2016 Wavelengths shorts program opened auspiciously with Ana Mendieta’s Silueta Sangrienta (Bloody Silhouette). Made in 1975 in Iowa City, the two-minute, Super-8 film begins with a high-angle shot of Mendieta stretched out on her back, nude and still, on a charcoal-colored creek bed. She lies at the centre of the frame, tilted a few degrees counterclockwise. A small portion of the rippling creek is visible in the top right corner of the image. Brown oak leaves and grey stones lie scattered about her. With the first of three jump cuts, Mendieta then vanishes, leaving a sculpted trace of her body in the soil. With the second cut, her carved-out silhouette becomes filled with sanguine liquid, like aspic in a mold. And then Mendieta reappears, this time face down, her right arm submerged in red, the bottoms of her feet stained with dirt and crimson.
Because Silueta Sangrienta was shot at a low frame rate, light darts unnaturally through the trees and the film reads as something akin to stop-motion animation. Time is trackable only by the shifting shadows, and the three cuts are syncopated and surprising. Each of the four images functions primarily, then, as a graphic composition – a portrait, an absence, a gouge of colour, a body – and Mendieta’s montage provokes (in the best sense of the word) not just the ideas at play in the piece but a visceral reaction. Made in the wake of the brutal rape and murder of a University of Iowa nursing student, Silueta Sangrienta is transgressive and sorrowful. The third shot constitutes more than half of the film’s runtime, so when Mendieta finally cuts to the image of her motionless body, the splash of red lingers in the viewer’s eye, like a superimposition. It’s striking and violent and strange.
Silueta Sangrienta screened alongside another of Mendieta’s short films, Anima, Silueta de Cohetes (Firework Piece, 1976), in which the artist’s silhouette is rendered again, this time as a sparkling sculpture in the night. Dozens of small, red fireworks trace the line of Mendieta’s form, with a cluster near the heart. The film begins at the moment of ignition, explodes with light and colour, and then ends, seconds later, in darkness. The Estate of Ana Mendieta recently completed a comprehensive digital preservation of her 104 films, a number of which have been included in recent exhibitions, but seeing them screened at full 2K resolution in a proper theatre was a rare treat. In Anima, Silueta de Cohetes, for example, a car could be seen passing in the background (it’s not visible on the screener) and the mountain horizon was more prominent (this is another of Mendieta’s body and landscape works).
A few blocks away, at CONTACT Gallery, five more of Mendieta’s shorts (in addition to Silueta Sangrienta) and two photo collections, Untitled: Silueta Series (1976) and Volcan (1979), were on display in a tightly curated installation, Siluetas. The contrast between the two venues was instructive. At CONTACT, the films were projected at lower resolution and in relatively small dimensions, looped side by side on the walls of a naturally-lit gallery (I visited during the day). Mendieta didn’t consider herself a filmmaker; rather, the films were for her primarily a means of instantiating her process. And indeed Siluetas confirmed that in a gallery setting her work loses much of its innate filmness. The pieces spoke, instead, in the formal language of video documentation – not terribly different in a categorical, experiential way from watching clips of the same films in an adjoining room, where Ana Mendieta, Nature Inside, a short documentary by her niece, Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, looped on a flat screen monitor.
Raquel was in Toronto to oversee the installation, and she mentioned after the first Wavelengths shorts program that, even for her, seeing the films in a theatre on a large screen was something of a revelation. That the films of an artist of Mendieta’s stature have so seldom been considered in this context testifies to the potential consequences of preservation efforts such as this (there are obvious pros and cons to the films being more widely accessible in digital format). It also speaks to the value of good programming. Over the past decade, Andréa Picard has fashioned Wavelengths into a grand critical project. When she took over in 2006 (co-programming that first year with Chris Gehman), Wavelengths was eight pages in the Toronto International Film Festival’s two-inch-thick program; now the Wavelengths brand, for lack of a better word, extends beyond short-film programming to features (fourteen this year) and installations (four, by Mendieta, Cyprien Gaillard, Albert Serra and Sharon Lockhart). While the fingerprints of other TIFF programmers can be spotted from time to time, Wavelengths now very much reflects Picard’s particular interests in the art world beyond the film festival ghetto. I make that assumption based on first-hand observation – I’ve attended every TIFF during her time there – and on Picard’s work as a critic, particularly the dozens of essays, interviews, and artist profiles she’s contributed over the years to Cinema Scope magazine.
The spotlight on Mendieta is typical of Picard’s programming in that it advocates for important recent work – in this case the preservations – by bringing it to a larger stage. Wavelengths has always had the feel of a secret outpost, hidden away amidst the celebrity chaos, but this is TIFF after all – among the largest and most rabidly reported festivals in the world. This year, in order to ensure best projection quality of the 16mm films, the Wavelengths shorts programs were moved to a smaller theatre at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which made the always scarce tickets even more difficult to come by. Still, among the nightly crowds were a not-insignificant number of critics and programmers, many of whom also saw the CONTACT exhibition and will, no doubt, share Mendieta’s work with an even larger audience. I don’t feel qualified to write at length about Serra’s Singularity, having spent less than an hour there, but Picard’s installation of the five-screen, twelve-hour piece, originally commissioned for the 2015 Venice Biennale, was similarly strategic (I say “strategic” without any cynicism or irony). TIFF has programmed three of Serra’s feature films, including The Death of Louis XIV (La mort de Louis XIV) this year, but the Singularity installation was a kind of declaration: that Serra’s work is significant and that Wavelengths is now a global platform for avant-garde work of significance. Picard’s curation in 2015 of Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Fireworks (Archives) at the Art Gallery of Ontario made a similar statement. That Wavelengths continues to expand its mission with such ambition, and that it manages to do so within the institutional machinery of the Toronto International Film Festival, is impressive. I have to wonder how much of an inspiration it’s been to the New York Film Festival’s selection committee, whose new features program, Explorations, kicked off this fall with six films, five of which had their North American premiere in Wavelengths.
Good programming is especially critical with the curation and sequencing of shorts, and Mendieta’s films certainly benefited from the context in which they were presented. The first Wavelengths program, “The Fire Within,” included six other pieces, all of which were directed or co-directed by women. Silueta Sangrienta was followed immediately by Ana Vaz’s Há Terra!, in which her camera hunts for a young woman who hides in the tall grass of the Sertão, a highlands region of northeast Brazil. In voiceover, the woman recounts two stories about this landscape. In the first, she’s bitten by a snake while picking fruit with her sister, which causes her foot to swell with each cycle of the moon. In the second, she describes a former mayor, Big Felipe, who ran others off the land by threatening them and burning their camps. The title refers to a line of dialogue borrowed from Manoel de Oliveira’s Francisca (1981) that Vaz injects into the soundtrack from time to time, creating a conversation of sorts between the coloniser/hunter and colonised/prey. Vaz has been interested recently in “cannibal metaphysics” – the idea that consuming an enemy can lead to a new perspective. “The Other is a threat,” she has said, “but also a possibility of seeing through different eyes.” If Há Terra! has a sound-as-brickwork logic (to borrow a phrase from Norman Mailer) that veers toward didacticism, it’s also leavened by Vaz’s rich, saturated 16mm images, which turn the woman’s shirt an impossible red and draw an association between her and the feathers of a bird we see later in the film. At this particular screening, it also recalled Mendieta’s red liquid. These are not just symbolic associations. Rather, this is the sublime, psyche-triggering, primary red of giallo films and Hans Hofmann paintings, a burst of sensation that short-circuits reasoning.
Camilo Restrepo’s Cilaos is shot in the grainy, warm brown style of a 1970s blacksploitation film. A musical in miniature, it concerns a woman’s journey to find her father and fulfill her mother’s deathbed wish for vengeance. Soon, however, she discovers he’s already dead, at which point the film becomes a kind of ceremonial incantation, a calling forth of ghosts. When we first hear the woman (Christine Salem) sing, she’s framed in a close-up against a black background. Her tall afro is lit from behind, and the only other light catches her eyes and left cheek. “It’ll drive him crazy to see a woman stand up to him,” she whispers, recalling with sadness and anger her mother’s final words. Cilaos is, among other things, a portrait film: Restrepo loves faces, especially Salem’s, which he often shoots from a low angle and in high contrast. The effect recalls Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (Cavalo Dinheiro, 2014) and countless earlier aesthetic precedents, from Space is the Place (John Coney, 1974) to the cover of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain. Salem, who hails from Réunion off the eastern coast of Madagascar, is a transfixing screen presence, and the final scene, in which she and two musicians wake the spirits with a Reunionese maloya, is great fun in the most basic sense – it’s one hell of a performance – but it’s also charged with an uncanny sense that the material world really might crack open before us.
“From where I was standing, I could actually hear this man trying to talk to [the cop]. And the sound he was making is a sound I will never forget.” In Kevin Jerome Everson’s Shadeena (2016), Shadeena Brooks recounts the 2010 murder of DeCarrio Antwan Couley, which she witnessed from her front porch. The bulk of the film is a four-minute shot of Brooks, who reenacts the scene of the crime as she talks, mimicking the murderer by leaning over and pretending to fire off bullet after bullet, “Bap! Bap! Bap! Bap!” When she recalls the “sound [Couley] was making,” she points unconsciously toward her left ear, then Everson cuts to the closing titles, punctuating her testimony. Everson intervenes in Shadeena by editing the sound so that her voice falls briefly out of synch until the first shot is fired in her story, which foregrounds the performance of it all. Brooks has told this story many times over the years, and she tells it well.
Shadeena is an intriguing piece in its own right, but it’s also a useful intertext for Ears, Nose and Throat, which was one of the highlights of Wavelengths and is among Everson’s very best films. Here, Brooks again narrates her account of Couley’s murder, but Everson shifts his focus from Brooks the storyteller to Brooks the witness/survivor. Ears, Nose and Throat opens with a series of night-time images of a street, presumably the location where the shooting occurred. The sequence eventually resolves to a low-angle shot of a street lamp, which reads on subsequent viewings as Couley’s dying vision. Everson then cuts to Brooks, who is in an examination room, listening as a doctor explains that her hoarseness is caused by a weak vocal cord. Again, it takes Brooks four minutes to tell her story, but this time Everson lays it over an image of her in an isolated sound booth as she takes a hearing exam. A beep in the left channel of the soundtrack is greeted by her raising her left hand. With a beep in the right channel, she raises her right hand.
Everson mentioned during the Q&A in Toronto that Ears, Nose and Throat was inspired in part by that gesture, by the raising of her hand, which reminded him of seeing Brooks swear to tell the truth in court (Couley was a close family member of Everson’s). In the context of the film, however, it transcends simple symbolism. As in Shadeena, Brooks seems haunted most by those dying sounds. “From my porch to where they were standing, I can hear him, like, trying to breathe and trying to talk,” she says. Her voice trails off as she finishes the story. “And then the ambulance came.” Her shift to the present tense is terrifying – “I can hear him.” Rather than cutting away to titles, this time Everson returns to the examination room, now in a tighter shot. It’s silent. The doctor busies himself in the foreground, slightly out of focus. All attention is on Brooks’s face. Ears, Nose and Throat is a self-consciously beautiful film, almost romantically so, and it culminates in this epilogue, which is sympathetic and haunting and full of grace. The film ends just as Brooks glances at the camera, which would be a cliché if it weren’t such a gut-punch.
After the screening of AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN, Manuela De Laborde said that making the film was for her like “returning to Montessori.” I almost applauded because one of the chief pleasures of the film – it was for me not only the highlight of Wavelengths but of all new cinema in 2016 – is its pedagogical form. By that I mean it reveals, reworks and illuminates the essential components of the modes in which she’s working: abstraction, sculpture and the materiality of celluloid. Like a musical theme and variation, AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN introduces ideas then spins them in new contexts by recalibrating the rhythm of the film and by modulating the degree of complexity in the individual compositions and the montage. It’s quite a feat.
AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN begins with abstracted shots of an unidentifiable surface that recalls a lunar landscape. The camera and filmed objects are still, but the screen seems to dance because of the magnified, blown out film grain. The only sound is hissing white noise, and each cut is separated by varying lengths of darkness. This opening section, then, presents two foundations of cinema in relatively pure form: image and duration. De Laborde simplifies (if that’s the right term) the abstraction by using an all-blue colour palette, presenting each image as if it were a stand-alone work, like paintings hung a few steps apart in a gallery. Then, at the two-minute mark, a flash of light reveals that the oddly shaped patch of blue we’re staring at is the blunt end of a sculpted object. Along with introducing new content to the film (it’s no longer just visual abstraction; it’s now about the object), De Laborde also uses that reveal as a jumping off point for a playful exploration of the sculpture. The pace of the editing quickens and then slows. She juxtaposes different perspectives of the object, cutting between shots of varying magnification and frame rates. In essence, she has introduced montage to the mix.
For the remainder of AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN’s 24-minute runtime, De Laborde continues along this line of enquiry. The blue palette is joined by red. The soundtrack is activated by electronic tones. One image is recomposed in real time as other shapes and colours are superimposed upon it. Gradually the sculptures become objects of contemplation in and of themselves. In that sense AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN is very much a sculpture film in its attention to the surfaces of things, and that includes the emulsion on its celluloid. The film ultimately resolves to total abstraction, ending on screens of red, blue, and black, again animated by dancing grain. As a critic, I remain at a loss for objectively evaluating a work like this, but AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN is one of those rare instances when an experimental film’s rhythms felt intuitively true and right to me. It ended precisely when I wanted it to and not a moment sooner.
The publication of correspondences between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Ceylan created a small sensation in 2008. Two of the most important German-language poets of the post-war years, Bachmann and Ceylan met in the spring of 1948 in Vienna, lived together in Paris for two months in 1950, and reunited briefly in 1953 and 1957. The nearly 200 letters, postcards and poems they exchanged over two decades, however, reveal for the first time the true depth of their feelings for one another and the complexity of their relationship, which lasted until Ceylan’s suicide in 1970. Their story has all the stuff of an Oscar-baiting biopic. Ceylan was a German-speaking Jew in Romania when Fascism swept through Europe. He survived his years in a labour camp, but his parents did not. Bachmann was the daughter of an Austrian Nazi and made her way to occupied Vienna after the war in hopes of joining the literati. In 1952, he married artist Gisèle Lestrange and soon after had a child; she had a years-long relationship with author Max Frisch. Each eventually met a tragic end: Ceylan drowned himself in the Seine and three years later Bachmann died from complications of barbiturate addiction and injuries suffered in a fire. Through it all, they carried on their correspondence, confessing their frustrations and jealousies, both personal and professional, and expressing with disarming clarity their longing for one another.
With The Dreamed Ones (Die Geträumten), Ruth Beckermann has found a brilliant cinematic analogy for Bachmann and Ceylan’s story. Staged almost entirely within Funkhaus, a Nazi-era recording studio in Vienna, the film features singer-songwriter Anja Plaschg and actor Laurence Rupp, who read snippets of the correspondences directly into microphones. We only discover this after six or seven minutes, however, when an engineer interrupts to adjust their mic stands and then announces, “Take eight, rolling.” Until then, Beckermann cuts between Plaschg and Rupp, shot reverse shot, in low-angle close-ups. Rather than the scripts they hold in their hands, they appear to be staring into one another’s eyes. In those opening moments, the performances seem mannered and intentionally anti-dramatic but they still translate as acting, in the biopic sense. Beckermann skillfully complicates this dynamic by accompanying Plaschg and Rupp on their smoke breaks and on walks through studio soundstages and the commissary, where we witness, in documentary style, a “real” encounter between two artists in their 20s. “In the beginning, [Rupp] didn’t take [Plaschg] seriously as an actress, and she didn’t take him seriously as a person, but that changed,” Beckermann has said, and much of the pleasure of the film is in the tension of that transformation. Rupp is a natural leading man, with Tom Hiddleston charisma – never moreso than when the earnest and reticent Plaschg mocks his flirtations.
In the opening titles of The Dreamed Ones, we learn that Bachmann and Ceylan never wrote to each other of their war-time experiences, but Shoah haunted their lives and reverberates through the film. In an early letter, Ceylan confesses his loneliness, complaining that anti-Semitic Paris “has forced me into silence.” Bachmann, for her part, refers casually and with some bitterness to the sight of her home being bombed. “I risked everything and lost everything,” she writes of their relationship. After reciting that line, Plaschg jolts back from the microphone and hides her tears behind the script. I’m not sure how to classify Plaschg’s performance, exactly, but it’s a remarkable thing. She is unnervingly present onscreen, especially in close-ups. (I experience a small shock each time Beckermann cuts to a wide shot and we see how small Plaschg is – like watching a fierce performance by Isabelle Huppert.) In one of the documentary asides, Beckermann frees Plaschg to interpret Bachmann. “The role of the lamenter… got to be too much for her,” she tells Rupp. “Nothing ever slipped out” between them. The film rests in this –Plaschg’s uncanny empathy, in the pain she experiences for Ceylan and Bachmann, who were too scarred to express themselves.
In Austerlitz, Sergei Loznitsa goes to actual sites of the Holocaust. The film is built from 30 or so long-duration, static shots that were filmed in and around the camps at Dachau and Sachsenhausen, now transformed by time into tourist destinations, complete with snack bars and audio tours. Loznitsa intervenes little, instead standing his camera on a tripod and observing quietly the movement of bodies through these sacred spaces. Simple in concept, Austerlitz encourages some measure of quiet contemplation, provoking in those of us with even a basic familiarity with post-war philosophy questions about memory and the problems of creating art under the shadow of Shoah. However, by seating us at a distance, by forcing us to observe the throngs of tourists rather than the sites, Loznitsa makes a stinging and unambiguous argument. Posing under the Arbeit Macht Frei gate with a selfie stick is not problematic; it’s grotesque, a mockery, a kind of fascism in its own right. Righteous anger is, I think, Loznitsa’s defining characteristic as a filmmaker, and I say that as a compliment. Austerlitz, however, is simple to a fault and would be essentially the same film at half the runtime.
In the first act of Angela Schanelec’s Der traumhafte Weg (The Dreamed Path), one of the film’s four main characters, Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson), leaves his girlfriend in Greece to tend to his dying mother. The sudden health crisis reunites Kenneth with his father, now elderly and nearly blind, who asks him during their first significant conversation, “Do you still take drugs?” It’s a typically equivocal moment for Schanelec. There’s no reaction shot of Kenneth, only a close-up of his hands, which hold a chocolate bar. “Yes,” he replies, without affect. Moments later, in a dialogue-free sequence of shots, we learn the father’s motives for asking. Kenneth stands alone inside a derelict building, watching through a window as a small parade passes by. Schanelec then cuts to a close-up of neatly folded bills on the corner of a table. Someone then enters (we never see his face), takes the money, and replaces it with a vial of morphine, which Kenneth places in his pocket. Cut to a young woman sitting alone in a dank stairwell, the space briefly illuminated by sunlight as Kenneth (presumably) opens and closes a door off-screen. We then see Kenneth alone at a restaurant, finishing a meal and trying, unsuccessfully, to suppress his sobs. Finally, Schanelec cuts back to the hospital, first to a shot of patients walking past the small chapel and then to a wider shot of Kenneth carrying his mother’s limp body, his father following close behind.
Writing about The Dreamed Path demands this degree of attention to the specific details of shots and sequences because the essence and emotional life of the film are in those juxtapositions and in the odd geometry of its ellipses. Comparisons with Robert Bresson are ubiquitous, but Schanelec’s mise-en-scène is even more graphic and still, and her montage more associative. Her images cut against each other like panels in a comic book or like Chris Marker’s photos in La Jetée (1962), each one a singular, crafted object. The most mysterious shot in the sequence described above is the girl on the stairs. The rest can be explained in symbolic or narrative terms (this represents or this happens), but the brief glimpse of the girl suggests other, equally vital possibilities for the film to explore – other dreamed paths, so to speak. (Also, Schanelec’s use of light to mimic a door and expand off-screen space is both lovely and clever, generating a sudden, unexpected Hitchcockian thrill.)
Gastón Solnicki’s Kékszakállú drops us immediately and without much guidance into the privileged world of Punta del Este on the southern coast of Uruguay, where children spend their days swimming and surfing while their older siblings and friends make out on the lawn and organise barbecues. Gradually, the film settles its focus on three young women: Lara (Lara Tarlowski), a teenager in that most awkward stage of adolescence; Laila (Laila Maltz), who is adrift, with little clue what to study or how to live; and Katia (Katia Szechtman), who returns from vacation to an amiable social life in Buenos Aires. Solnicki, making his narrative debut after two documentary features, works in a festival-friendly mode, with non-professional actors speaking seldom and functioning primarily as figures in his designs. His compositions are often balanced and planimetric and his colour palate is a few degrees on the cool side. Solnicki’s style and world-building recalls Yorgos Lanthimos minus the jolt of transgression that charges so many of the recent Greek films. Solnicki seems most interested in simply watching the women as they explore the architecture of their different worlds – the beach-front estates of Punta del Este and the Styrofoam and sausage factories where Laila and her friends settle for work. In a typical shot, Laila stands in front of a large exhaust fan on a factory rooftop, a moment that is unmotivated except as an excuse to see her hair blow and to listen to the rumbling noise of the machine.
Kékszakállú borrows its title from the murderous villain in Béla Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára), which is notable, given that no specific danger threatens the women. Rather, the title hovers over the film symbolically, imbuing with masculine menace a more general anxiety – the prospect of stepping, ill-prepared and with uncertainty, into adulthood. In his director’s note, Solnicki refers to the “supposed white paradise” of Punta del Este as a “kind of involuntary hell”, and the film’s final image, of Laila escaping at night by ferry, is a stunner that certainly invokes Stygian dread. If its surface-level economic critique never quite lands, Kékszakállú does, however, suffuse the women’s lives with disarming pathos by laying Bartók cues over several scenes. Solnicki’s use of Bartók activates otherwise unexceptional images from the film – Lara eating from a cereal bowl, an usher standing alone in an opera house, Laila shielding her eyes from the sun – in the same way Claire Denis’s use of Benjamin Britten mythologises the legionnaires in Beau Travail (1999). It’s difficult to overestimate the effect those brief snippets of music, scattered throughout the film’s 72-minute runtime, have on the overall shape and experience of Kékszakállú. Without them, it’s one more slow-cinema study of ennui, indistinguishable from the pack. With them, it’s a lively curiosity and a compelling calling card for its director.
Fellow Argentinian Matías Piñeiro returned to Wavelengths for the third time in four years with Hermia & Helena, the latest in his series of films that sample playfully from Shakespeare. Agustina Muñoz stars as Camila, a theatre director who relocates from Buenos Aires to New York City for a fellowship. There she passes her days translating A Midsummer Night’s Dream and wandering between brief encounters with past loves and potential new ones. Inspired in part by his own relocation to the States, Piñeiro cuts across time throughout the film, juxtaposing Camila’s new life – its loneliness, transience, and winter snow – with the family and friends she left behind.
Piñeiro is a reckless practitioner of kitchen-sink cinema. Like Viola (2012) and The Princess of France (2014), Hermia & Helena is bulging with ideas and diversions, as if the script were pasted together with scissors and glue from a year’s worth of jotted notes. The results are more than a bit uneven, but one section is worth special notice. Camila decides to contact her birth father, which precipitates a weekend trip out of the city to his small-town home, and the resulting scenes are unlike any I’ve seen from Piñeiro. The father’s house is a century old, with white walls, creaking wood floors, and a ticking grandfather clock. Piñeiro slows his pace to match the Bergman-like setting, even inventing an excuse for Camila to explore each silent room and indulge her curiosity before her father arrives. Silence is in short supply in Piñeiro’s films. Typically, his actors deliver their lines at a practiced pace, not so much reacting to others in a scene as reciting in their presence. (Performers lacking in star-power charisma often don’t come off especially well in these films.) When the father (Dan Sallitt) comes home, the sense of space and quiet remains, even during their conversations. In one especially nice image, Piñeiro frames Muñoz in a medium shot from a fixed camera position (both relatively rare for him), catching Sallitt in a reflection, ghost-like. They then play a question and answer game, each taking turns, and it’s an uncommonly free (improvised?) exchange. Piñeiro holds on Muñoz for more than two minutes as they begin to talk, withholding the first reverse shot as long as possible so we can enjoy the subtle transformations of her expression. When she asks if he’s told anyone about her after all these years, her wordless response to his answer touches a pathos that I hope we see more of from Piñeiro.
Toronto International Film Festival
8-18 September 2016
Festival website: http://www.tiff.net/tiff/