For all the festivals forced to cancel their yearly rendezvous in response to the COVID pandemic, there’s a tiny contingent that have blossomed under it, digital safe havens put together in the midst of the apocalypse to offer solace to quarantined filmmakers and moviegoers. Such was the case for the first ever Long Distance Film Festival (LDFF), an online-only event organised by Elias ZX and Jason Ooi in partnership with the Brooklyn-based Spectacle Theatre and the online streaming platform Kinoscope. Rallying quarantined cinephiles to the paean “we are closer than ever”, the digital fest promised three slates of shorts and a full feature, which all screened live during the festival’s three-day run, June 19-22. Stranded on the other side of the pond and a few time zones away from the action, I could not stream the programs as they unfolded in evening time New York, but caught up with them during the next days’ re-screenings. LDFF co-head Jason Ooi, whom I spoke with shortly after the festival came to an end, tells me the audience numbers kept increasing each night, and by closing night the festival was pulling some 800 online attendees.
What those hundreds of viewers were presented with was a festival that managed to avoid turning into a mere receptacle of COVID-themed shorts, but sought instead to showcase films that dealt with questions that long predated the health crisis, and which the forced isolation only made more pressing. The first of the three lineups, “Culture”, was arguably the most protean. It kicked off the festivities with 14 shorts that vowed to embody LDFF’s overall spirit – to interrogate our notions of selfhood – and the mix of confusion and wonderment I was left to grapple with is, I suspect, testament to its ability to stay close to that ethos.
Nowhere did that feeling register more strongly than in Leto S. Meade and Agata Leniartek’s The Fishman, hands down the most visually entrancing of the menu. An animated short chronicling a dying fish’s last moments, it follows its moribund hero – a humanoid fish sporting a Where is Waldo? striped shirt – as he travels through an Escher-like incubus of shapeshifting landscapes, circus choreographies, and food chains. It’s a hallucinatory journey through different worlds and visual media: one minute we follow the fishman as he stares at his pencil-coloured reflection on a pond, the next we jump into a purple ocean, the waves no longer hand-drawn but made of digitised polygons, squares heaving and falling like flakes into the abyss.
The hypnotic charm of The Fishman lies in its playfulness, its magic in the way the whole journey is seamlessly stitched together, so that the transitions between different styles unspools as a single, entrancing continuum. And if the aesthetic turns the film into a lysergic trip, Jack James Riley’s sound design adds a spiritual touch that makes the odyssey a surprisingly moving experience, interweaving electronic melodies with a haunting rendition of Mary Pickney’s “Been in the Storm So Long”, whose refrain, “Oh lord, give me more time to pray,” echoing as the fish draws his last breath, doubles as a singular hymn to cross-species empathy. The highlight of the night – and in retrospect, of the entire festival – was this: a short that packed more ideas in its 4 minutes and 40 seconds than many feature-length films ever do.
This is not to detract from the strangeness and perturbing beauty of the festival’s only feature: Shonajhurir Bhoot (Ghost of the Golden Groves). Written and directed by Aniket Dutta and Roshni Sen (known collectively under the moniker “Harun-Al-Rashid,” after the caliph from the Arabian Nights), Ghost was given its own non-competitive slot outside the fest’s triptych. But the film did belong in LDFF, not least because of its singular shape, and for the notion of dystopia it navigates – a theme that traversed the fest in its entirety.
Gorgeously shot in black and white by Basab Mullick, Ghost is a diptych set in an unidentified village in rural Bengal, somewhere in the 1960s. It’s also – nomen omen – a ghost story, or rather two ghost stories that never quite cross, but run parallel to each other. In the first – based on a story by Dutta himself and entitled “The Polymorph” – a surveyor travels from Calcutta to prepare a blueprint for a road that will plough through the forest; in the second – “Maya,” based on a short story by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (famed for his penning the novels upon which Satyajit Ray would base his Apu trilogy) – a wandering cook is hired by an old villager to toil in his house, a derelict mansion smeared in frightening graffiti depicting astronaut-looking humanoids and snakes. Both cook and engineer are strangers in a strange land; neither of them will be able to resist the mysterious pull of the jungle and the demons that inhabit it, whether these wear papier-mâché masks, as the polymorphs haunting the Calcutta white collar, or lycra onesies, as the space creatures beckoning the cook into another world just past the jungle’s.
But while a great deal does happen in Ghost, the film is above all an extraordinary commingling of texture and atmosphere. Everything from the jungle’s foliage to the village huts and the ancient mansion’s weathered walls suggests a vividness that feels almost disturbing. Ghost is, among many other things, a visually stunning film, but its beauty coexists with a vaguely threatening undertow. Aside from the explicit references to the Japanese New Wave doyens (halfway through the film, a character exclaims, point blank: “Seijun Suzuki! Kaneto Shindo! Teshigahara!”), it’s no surprise that Dutta and Sen name Apichatpong Weerasethakul among their many influences: there are moments when the film unspools as one of the Thai’s lush reveries, engulfing you in a mesmerising embrace. In another – larger – festival, Ghost might have probably slipped past you without much fanfare; here, it felt like something of a revelation, a gateway into a singular and wildly original artistic vision.
I was still lost in Dutta and Sen’s fever dream of a film when I turned to the festival’s centrepiece program, the 15-strong “Connection”. The slate featured one of the festival’s finest: Duane Peterson’s Even in Paradise. An essay film dissecting the legacy of wars on present-day landscapes, it juxtaposes images of buildings and spaces across California with superimposed text detailing the atrocities committed therein in bygone decades. There’s a curious archaeological scope to the inquiry, as the film is engineered to unearth what’s essentially a history of continuities. We open with a shot of an unidentified river, while the text tells us of the massive explosions at a gunpowder factory that stood nearby in the late 20th century; moments later, we stand outside a state-of-the-art lab where tomahawk missiles are designed, with perfectly chiselled gardens belying a threatening aura. “Peace here requires that war is an export,” another text reads halfway through the film, “but sometimes we invite it back.” Yet Peterson’s inquiry lands on a far more radical message: that war probably never left to begin with. The images of rundown piers, abandoned bunkers, shipwrecks and ghost towns, all petrifying in their stillness, suggest that conflict has been a permanent feature of the place’s fabric.
In retrospect, Even in Paradise was also the only film to look at the night’s leitmotif as a conversation between past and present. All other titles seemed far less concerned with temporal connections than with human ties proper, and our frustrated desire to stay close to each other. In Trains, director Nina Maravic captures a chance encounter between two young men aboard a carriage running through an unidentified stretch of the Bay Area. As per the film’s synopsis, the two are former lovers, and the meet-up a fortuitous coincidence, so that the montage that kicks off the minute they lock glances (a series of progressively less saccharine images as the young men fall in and out of love) is a flashback to their halcyon days. Yet upon my first watch, the whole sequence seemed to work the other way around, with the montage offering a flash-forward to a whole gallery of memories the two may have shared if one had just dared to speak. The ambiguity – is it future, or is it past? – is probably a testament to the nebulous region Trains inhabits. There’s a certain didacticism in the way Maravic presents the romance – a creeping suspicion that, at times, the film may be rushing to tick all the conventional boxes, from the obligatory golden hour shot of the couple peering at the sea to a close-up of hands gingerly reaching and holding one another. But no words are uttered, at least none that we can hear, and that verbal parsimoniousness accounts for a great deal of what makes Trains such a delicate, low-key tale.
Very few words were uttered in another “Connection” title: Mei Liu’s Happy Ending, a portrait of a taciturn zamboni driver who, on a day off, follows a discarded coupon to an underground parlour promising an “authentic Chinese massage”. It’s a rumination on marginality that carries a distinct racial dimension. The unnamed driver is a reclusive African-American who tends to his chores at the ice rink with a near catatonic stare, seeking refuge in the predictability of his daily routine with OCD-type quirks. The masseuse he meets at the parlour is a Chinese immigrant who’s left a son back home – halfway through the massage, she picks up a call and sings happy birthday to the boy, leaving the driver to cry softly on his bed as he eavesdrops on a chat whose language he doesn’t understand, but whose meaning he can intuitively grasp. Happy Ending gestures toward a kind of solidarity, but the invocation doesn’t pivot so much on a shared working-class suffering, as on a far more elemental condition: loneliness. A pushier film would have probably teased out the links between race and capital more explicitly, but Liu leaves all that subtext under the surface, hidden somewhere below the neon-lit rooms that don her short a fable-like aura, a beguilingly simple and lacerating tale of belonging.
Happy Ending closed “Connection” and set the tone for the third and last program, “Covid”. Luckily, this was not the compendium of quarantine-produced shorts you’d have expected, but a far more varied and thought-provoking affair, showcasing films that sought to draw creativity out of confinement. Marco Chiappetta’s The View from the Window turns the camera skyward to superimpose waves and surfers onto gloomy late-winter cloud reefs above Italy; Prospero Pensa’s Outside turns familiar objects and home appliances into aural synecdoches of the outside world: the faint sound of rustling surf plays over a shot of blue sheets; street noises reverberate over a close up of shoes. And Rocio de Prat Gay’s Balconies observes the routines of unidentified neighbours stranded in the apartments across the street, making up storylines for her homebound protagonists. We are confronted with a claustrophobia that spawns imagination: everyday objects swell into some majestic time capsules, as frustration gradually gives way to a celebration of life’s epic banal. All through “Covid”, and in Balconies especially, I kept thinking of Chantal Akerman’s Là-bas (2006), arguably one of the finest reflections on self-isolation, and of the way Akerman marvelled at the life unfolding outside her Tel Aviv apartment, as if every little event outside accrued the scope of a heroic act.
That feeling of awe – and exasperation – ricocheted all through the night’s slate, and in the most fortunate cases sparked some thoroughly inventive entries. Take Lachi Ross’ Zoom Parties Suck, where a group of friends try to recreate a house party on the online platform, until things get a little too real. The dreariness of the virtual party scenario will be all too familiar to anyone who’s ever toasted to their camera and downed a shot in the company of 2-D mates stranded several time zones away. But in Ross’s humorous spin, the party host finds out his house is invaded by laptops, one per guest, each screen interacting with the others as though nothing much had changed, so that the fun and debauchery among laptops and tablets can continue undeterred.
One adjusts to the new normal, and life goes on – but how much longer can we expect things to last? The COVID panic only added to the general doomsday feeling of the past four years or so, but there was only one short that managed to capture something of that apocalyptic zeitgeist: Joe Lueben’s It Won’t Be Long Now. It’s a poignant father-son letter, read by the director in voiceover while the camera trails behind his child, and the boy ventures into the world with wide-eyed curiosity. Yet the kid’s stupor clashes with the Leuben’s fatalism, so much so that the whole letter rings as an obituary for a decaying planet. We follow dad and son into an aquarium, and hear Leuben address his child and their irreconcilable worldviews: “you realising the wonder of this world, me knowing it will all end, both of us right.”
Lueben’s it’s-all-too-late approach made for a strident clash with the two other parent-child films in the lineup. Running a mere 55 seconds, Gloria Kurnik’s Mothers concocts an endearing meditation on the lockdown’s unsung heroes. “Once upon a time I was a filmmaker,” Kurnik writes in one of the captions that accompany her scenes of domestic candour, “now I’m one of the lockdown’s most versatile creators: mothers.” And in the few seconds that follow, we see her display all sorts of makeshift props and toys, we hear her sing to her newborn, and watch mother and child play in the confines of home. Pitted against It Won’t Be Long Now, Mothers registered as a beam of hope, and its vitality survived intact in Korridor, Marie-Pierre Bonniol and Water Duncan’s quarantine fantasia. Conceived by a mother and her seven year-old son while confined in their Berlin flat in March this year, it features only a hula hoop, a lamp, and a clothes hanger, which become the ingredients for an experimental work of hypnotic sounds and lighting that turns a corridor into an otherworldly place.
In tone and looks, Korridor and Mothers may well stand at the opposite ends of the spectrum, but they both raised a question that lingered over the whole festival: has the pandemic given rise to a new kind of aesthetic? Difficult times beget new styles and formats, but the films screened at LDFF seem to reflect trends that emerged long before COVID forced productions worldwide to shut: homemade movies filmed on phones with minuscule cast and crews, or projects rolling out entirely in the digital realm, as Unfriended (2014). These changes are inscribed within far larger and seismic transitions in film distribution: the death of movie theatres, and the exponential growth of streaming platforms. “The cinema of the future may transcend what screen it’s shown on,” Ooi told Kinoscope, “especially independent and subversive works, which were starting to lose theatrical space anyway.” Leave it to the Long Distance Film Festival to give them a new home.
Long Distance Film Festival
June 19 – June 22 2020
Festival website: https://longdistancefilmfestival.com/