Are you ready to attend the first “real” festival post COVID-19? The invite came in early July, four and a half months since my last memory from the festival circuit, a late-night Berlinale screening of Song Fang’s The Calming – in the diluted and jumbled chronology of this forsaken 2020, about a decade ago. So when a half-empty Air France shipped me to Marseille in the middle of summer, most of my energies of those first few hours were spent twitching my arms and staring at the festival’s posters in a catatonic spell.
Socially distanced screenings, face masks, hand sanitisers, online bookings, a cap on the number of guests allowed into the festival’s parties – yes, it was still 2020, but long before Venice, the 31st FID Marseille seemed to conjure a future in which things could somehow return to normal. It was summer, the chestnuts flanking the city boulevards in full bloom, the line-up promised an Angela Schanelec retrospective and a competition packed with world and international premieres: strolling down the city with a badge hanging down your neck, it was difficult to remember what the world looked like just a few weeks back. Browsing through my notes several weeks later, I’m surprised to note that the best films I saw in my three days in town were also just as concerned with memories as I was then.
The first theatrical experience of my post-lockdown era coincided with one of the two best films I saw at FID. Todo lo que se olvida en un instante (Everything That Is Forgotten in an Instant, 2020) is, as per director Richard Shpuntoff, “a bilingual documentary essay” through which the New York-born, Buenos Aires-based filmmaker tries to capture something of his fractured identity, pushed and pulled between two worlds and languages. It’s a family tree, and a tale of two cities. Born and raised in Queens, the son of a Jewish-Ukrainian immigrant, Shpuntoff arrived in Buenos Aires in the early 2000s, where he landed his first gigs as translator, writing English subtitles for Argentinian films. And subtitles play a pivotal and deliberately confounding role in An Instant, as the English text that should translate Shpuntoff’s Spanish-speaking voiceover doesn’t translate it at all, but proceeds along a separate track altogether, articulating thoughts, musings, and digressions that crisscross with Shpuntoff’s narration. Being able to understand both languages, the constant cartwheeling between audio and text felt somewhat maddening at first, but a few minutes in and I just followed Shpuntoff’s written instructions: “maybe it is better to just watch and listen to the foreign sound of my voice.” And the hour-long journey that followed proved a most singular, hypnotic experience.
An Instant is a film of dichotomies, of the clashes between many irreconcilable universes. These clashes are political (a conflict between Northern and Southern hemispheres which Shpuntoff addresses through the US imperialism in Latin America), linguistic (the many lost-in-translation vaults from English to Spanish), and urban (a long-distance exchange between Buenos Aires and New York, whose differences play out visually in the contrast between the 16mm black-and-white footage Shpuntoff recorded in Argentina, and the colour footage shot with a Hi8 camera in New York). But the film isn’t so much interested in bridging those gaps as it is in exploring the state of chronic befuddlement they lock Shpuntoff and audience in. An Instant is many things: it’s a family saga, a foray into urbanism North and South of the equator, a look at the US relations across South America, and a portrait of a “wandering Jew”, as Shpuntoff calls himself. But this protean, shapeshifting film boils down – reductive as the label may feel – to a story of belonging, an intimate and very often moving study of the difficulties that come with re-negotiating your identity in a foreign place, and adding your history to a city’s own.
I fear I may be painting An Instant as an unapproachable oddity. It isn’t. It’s a poetic and humorous look at a condition of perpetual restlessness, and the confusion that derives from all the film’s strident clashes (most notably perhaps in the free-wheeling interplay of subtitles, voiceover, and visuals) is also the source of its beauty. To watch An Instant is to partake in an act of exhumation, and to question the links to your surroundings. Time and again, Shpuntoff reminds us that our identities are shaped by the spaces we inhabit. “I am drawn to [New York] as if it were mine,” he muses early on. But the sense of belonging the film pokes at doesn’t narrow down all too simplistically to a question of fitting in, but a look at how we carry scraps of the places we’ve lived in along the way, and how those places shape the way we walk into the world. “I take pictures of Buenos Aires as if it was New York,” Shpuntoff says in one of the most significant passages: “I like that I have New York built into my eyes, as if it were the language of my vision”.
An Instant was slotted in the International Competition, whose Grand Prix went to Carolina Moscoso’s Visión Nocturna (Night Shot, 2020), another film that registered as a kind of excavation. Moscoso’s first feature is a chronicle of an unspeakable violence: a rape the director was victim of while still a film student. Eight years have passed since that fateful night, and Night Shot recounts the bureaucratic nightmare that ensued in its immediate aftermath. It’s a never-ending history of humiliations that sheds light on Chile’s deep-seated institutional misogyny and also – just as astonishing – the widespread insensitivity the authorities showed toward Moscoso as she first sought help. We’re told that the (female) doctor who visited the director after the rape initially refused to hand her a morning after pill on account of her views against abortion, that both police and mutual friends quickly began to gaslight the victim (“are you sure you didn’t provoke him?” “Didn’t you say you wanted to go out with him?”), and eventually, that authorities abandoned the case once she failed to demonstrate an “active involvement” during the investigation.
Teaming up with co-writer María Paz González, Moscoso makes no mystery around her own failings as a plaintiff. She refused to take a sexological test that would have helped ascertain the assailant’s identity; failed to attend meetings the police arranged with her; and when shown photographs, she said she could only identify the alleged assailant with “70 percent certainty.” But the notion that rape victims should be expected to behave rationally days, weeks, or even years after the trauma is precisely the kind that Night Shot seeks to debunk. Even as Moscoso admits she “instantly regretted” giving that 70 percent figure, the system her film exposes is hardly designed – or seemingly interested in – helping victims. Arguably the most lacerating proof of that comes from the temporal limitations the law sets for such crimes: because the accused was a minor at the time of the rape, the window for Moscoso to open the case again after authorities dropped it only spanned five years. And since eight have elapsed already, nothing more can be done.
To some extent then, Night Shot doubles as a tentative alternative to the impasse. “I hope you’ll find ways to heal outside the law,” a lawyer tells Moscoso toward the end, which begs the question around which Night Shot orbits: can a film offer the kind of solace the director is after (and indeed, can there be any healing at all)?
Night Shot doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer: as a visual foray into her lasting trauma, it doesn’t dissect the tragedy and its legacy following a traditional, awareness-raising fashion, but concocting a more impressionistic and experimental collage that feels in turns poetic and impenetrable. Evidence and documents concerning the rape are presented with shocking matter-of-factness (interestingly, the assailant’s name appears several times through the film, an obviously intentional choice that raises questions as to what legal consequences this may bear on Moscoso and her team). But the film juxtaposes these moments with others of spellbinding beauty and domestic candour – multiple road trips, house parties and bonfires, and a home birth Moscoso captures in a single shot. It’s a journal-like chronicle of those eight years, which straddles despair and warmth.
The film owes its title to Moscoso’s penchant for the camera setting she uses to shoot at night, which often leaves daytime images overexposed, amplifying the film’s unvarnished and raw aesthetic. Visually, it dances between darkness and light. The rape itself is evoked through a black screen over which subtitles recount details of the assault, and Mercedes Gaviria Jaramillo’s soundscape recreates the rustling of the wind along the beach where it took place. But the shot I found most staggering was one that had ostensibly nothing to do with the tragedy: a couple of minutes where Moscoso swims in close quarters with a seal, and the mammal stares back at her camera. In another film, the scene might have registered as an out of place head-scratcher; here, the disconnect between this moment of elemental grace and the film’s more devastating ones is hardly a clash, but a testament to the intricacy of Moscoso’s healing, and of the flickering, heart-shaking moments of joy that pepper it.
As rare as creative pairings can be when you’re in the thick of a fest – shuttled from one theatre to the next until your multiple daily screenings merge into one confused amalgam – leaving Moscoso’s feature debut and entering Milena Desse’s The Sun and the Looking Glass – For One Easily Forgets but the Tree Remembers (2020) felt like a wondrous double bill. Here too, the very act of filmmaking registered as an urge to shed light – a notion Desse’s short makes as literal and as explicit as it could be.
The Sun beckons us onto a barren slice of Israeli-occupied land along the West Bank, in the outskirts of the Palestinian village of Ein Qiniya. It’s a hill guarded by a majestic tree, a 200-year-old qaiqab which, in a film so finely attuned to the way landscapes harbour histories, stands as the short’s protagonist, a silent witness and receptacle of the land’s troubled past. (Incidentally, as Desse explained in a Q&A, the qaiqab’s fruit contains chemicals that help fight memory impairment, which makes the casting, so to speak, all the more apt). Running all through Desse’s portrait of that rural land, shot on super8 and digitally, is a poem Desse wrote, titled “Reading of an Absent Film”. The poem isn’t read (no words are uttered in The Sun) so much as revealed. Chunks of text written with invisible ink come to light – quite literally – as Desse wields a magnifying glass over the paper.
“Reading of an Absent Film”, which Desse read again in person once the credits rolled (and which you can listen to here), is a tribute to the resilience of that war-torn region through the decades. The text serves as the short’s backbone, but the intermittent way in which it is parcelled out echoes and mirrors the film’s overall mission: a gradual peeling and uncovering of the many histories sedimented below those inanimate objects. This is, in a fundamental sense, an archaeology of memory, a call to scrutinise which stories get to be told, and which ones are buried (echoed by Desse’s choice to return, time and again, to the same magnifying glass as an instrument to zoom in on the landscape’s minutiae, and flip around one’s perspective). “Colours symbolise a claim of ownership,” her poem warns, as the camera focuses on walls and stones daubed black by Israeli occupiers, “they say you are the other, you are the trespasser.” But Desse is all too aware of her position as outsider – a Brussels-based artist, a stranger in a strange land – to gloss over her own complicity in the same mechanism of appropriation. Her poem again: “the selection of which layer [of history] to look at is nothing but political.”
The Sun is unmistakably cognisant of its role in the colonial dynamics it challenges. But attuned as it may be to the ways cinema can both record and obfuscate history, it’s still in awe of the beauty and quiet magic of the place it treads into. Here, as in Moscoso’s Night Shot, a long and lacerating history of violence coexist with shots that reveal a stupefying and timeless world – and the results of those juxtapositions are both startling and entrancing.
I saw The Sun in a shorts program that also featured what was (together with Shpuntoff’s documentary) the greatest discovery of my three days at FID: Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Point and Line to Plane (2020). It was one of two films Bohdanowicz brought to Marseille, the other being MS Slavic 7 (2019), the final chapter of her “Audrey trilogy”, a triptych that follows the director’s fictional alter-ego (played in all three installments by Deragh Campbell, also credited as co-director of this last chapter) through tales loosely connected by their shared interest in unearthing the past – whether this is part of a family history (MS Slavic 7 and the 2016 Never Eat Alone) or an effort to salvage the legacy of forgotten artists (as in Veslemøy’s Song, 2018 – though family memoirs and artists’ archives are, all through Bohdanowicz’s filmography, intimately linked objects of pursuit). And even if Point and Line to Plane doesn’t fit within that trilogy, it still responds to similar preoccupations: a struggle to rescue someone’s memory from oblivion, and the role that art can play in the quest.
Bohdanowicz’s is a cinema of ghosts. In MS Slavic 7, Campbell’s Audrey visits Harvard’s Houghton Library to dig up letters her late great-grandmother (Bohdanowicz’s own, the Polish-Canadian poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa) exchanged with another real-life poet, Józef Wittlin. Bohdanowiczowa’s correspondence – and the poems of hers that surface all through the film – become a vehicle for resurrection. Undergirding the entire film is an urge to bring Bohdanowiczowa back to life by understanding her relationship with art, and salvaging the memories she disseminated all throughout it. (Interestingly, Bohdanowicz adds another barrier between Audrey and her great-grandmother, as the young woman doesn’t know a word of Polish, and the exhumation doubles as a beckoning into a foreign universe). This accounts perhaps for the spasmodic and desperate quality of Audrey’s search: hers isn’t a mere scholarly pursuit, but one that gradually takes on a life-or-death urgency.
Point and Line to Plane speaks to a very similar concern. The short is dedicated to Giacomo Grisanzio, a real-life late friend of Bohdanowicz’s who passed away at 37, and traverses the film as a phantom-like presence. It is both an attempt to come to terms with his disappearance, and to resurrect whatever is left of his evanescent figure, a search that sends Campbell (no longer Audrey here, but an unnamed narrator) to look for traces of Giacomo in the art that bound the two together, from Kandinsky’s paintings to Mozart’s compositions. But what art reveals and gives back isn’t single memories of the deceased, but a whole new way of being in the world – an ability to remain open and receptive to the myriad relics that outlive us.
This is the epiphany Point and Line to Plane arrives at through its harrowing and lyrical study of mourning, and what explains the serendipitous aura the whole short radiates. The film unfolds as a diary, following Campbell in a journey that shuttles her from New York to St Petersburg via Vienna, and reveals new and mysterious connections at every turn. We find out that Mozart and Giacomo shared the same birthday, that the painting that magically falls and shatters one night in a house Campbell is staying at was painted by Hilma af Klint, an overlooked predecessor of Kandinsky’s and known medium, which leads the young woman to visit a retrospective of the artist at the Guggenheim, to recall the memory of her late neighbour and colour theorist, and eventually, once in St Petersburg, to a moment of reckoning before Kandinsky’s Composition 6, which morphs into a final plea to Giacomo’s ghost: “if you can hear me, answer with the sound of colour: I want to know what form you chose to be.”
What do all these magical links and jolts mean, exactly? Everything, and nothing whatsoever at once. In a film that borrows its title from a book of the same name Kandinsky penned in 1926, and whose excerpts surface intermittently through Campbell’s mourning, the single most crucial fragment comes toward the end: “erstwhile mute surroundings begin to speak a language that becomes increasingly clear.” In a film orphaned by almost inexpressible sorrow, this is the kind of immortality Point and Line to Plane gestures at, the only way we can help the dead outlive their own passing: by absorbing – a word Campbell uses in reference to colours, but applies just as naturally to Giacomo’s presence – as much of their traces as we can, and all the otherworldly and unexplainable ties that still bind them to us once they are gone.
22-26 July 2020
Festival website: https://fidmarseille.org/en/