The first full day of Prismatic Ground began on an overcast morning in Harlem, Manhattan, at the Maysles Documentary Center, following a sold out, opening night showing of Hello Dankness (2022), the latest film from Soda Jerk, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. Founded in 2021 by programmer and festival director Inney Prakash with a focus on experimental documentary and the avant-garde, the first festival brought together four “waves” of films, available to stream for free via the Maysles’ website and with support from the festival’s ongoing media partner, Screen Slate. What began in the digital space of the early pandemic has since become a festival that foregrounds theatrical exhibition. 

One might first associate moviegoing, naturally, with the physical space, or perhaps the chance to see a film “big” for the first time, or, as the festival often did, a film projected on film. By its very nature, Prismatic Ground, which took place across six of New York City’s most well-known theatres and screening rooms in five “waves,” calls attention to other aspects of in-person moviegoing: the commute, the lunch break, the dinner break, the bathroom break, the urge to rest one’s eyes, and the need to accept that all of these factors mean that, at least for most of us, seeing everything is just not possible. To be in the audience at Maysles was to overhear the excitement of those in attendance for what was to come in the days ahead, including talk of logistics, which often went something like this: “Will you go to the showings after this at BAM?” “I want to,” a voice replies, mentally calculating the time it would take to travel all the way downtown and across the East River to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Fort Greene, “if I’m feeling up for it.” Whereas the New York Film Festival, for example, takes place mostly on West 65th Street, Prismatic Ground traces a beautiful web throughout the city, connecting boroughs and screening rooms, showcasing a moviegoing culture that remains vibrant despite ongoing forecasts of cinema’s end. And yet, despite this emphasis on theatricality, the festival has not forgotten its digital roots. Several of the films screened in person were also available to stream (for free) via the festival’s website, including a selection of works by the video artist Anthony Ramos. The fierce commitment to the theatrical experience, coupled with maintaining a connection with the digital audience that first encountered the festival, which includes viewers watching from distances far greater than the subway ride from Harlem to Fort Greene, negotiates one of the central tensions of contemporary cinema: how to balance the realities (and benefits) of digital exhibition with the experience of being in the room. It is what makes Prismatic Ground one of the most exciting and generative festivals today.

A Chair

The program at Maysles began with a trio of films about chairs. First, Michael Snow’s debut film, A to Z (1956), in which two animated chairs have sex. Second, Takahiko Iimura’s A Chair (1970), a video in which the filmmaker explores flicker by filming a chair, on which black and clear 16mm film frames are projected.1 Beginning the first wave with two films made more than five decades ago is indicative of the kind of programming decision one might encounter at the festival, which often blends decades-old and a-few-years-old works with North American and worldwide premieres. Doing so brings with it the added benefit of making the festival more accessible, both in bringing out works from the archive for experimental film devotees, but also for those new to the avant-garde, who will undoubtedly benefit from the context such works bring to new releases. The works by Snow and Iimura served as perfect introductions to the wave’s third film, Tsai Ming Liang’s 23-minute short, Where do you stand, Tsai Ming-Liang? (2022). Set in abandoned buildings near the rural home that Tsai and his muse, the actor Lee Kang-sheng, shared during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the film begins with shots of chairs, elegantly framed inside the buildings, which are often flooded or covered in elements of the natural world like dirt and leaves. Through a mix of on-screen text and then later his actual voice and body, Tsai, in the film, reflects on his personal relationship with the chair as a category of furniture, bringing to the abandoned places some of his favourite examples, showcasing a range of styles and functions served. The quiet, prolonged, medium shots of chairs bear the style one would immediately associate with Tsai, who, admirably, always seems to take his work seriously but never himself. Few filmmakers so effectively craft images that begin with an unconventional premise, and may at first elicit a humorous response, only to then grow them into sites of rich contemplation. Such is the case with Snow’s A to Z, which, despite its premise, prompts one to think about the aliveness of chairs, of objects so necessary to our everyday life. As the film continues, Tsai then begins to show paintings of those same chairs he created during the pandemic, reflecting on his ongoing mission to improve as a painter. In doing so, the film, like A Chair, takes a reflexive turn, becoming a work about process and the act of filming, staging, and creation; a meditation, in the spirit of Plato, on the various forms we call “chair.” 

Where do you stand, Tsai Ming-Liang

Wave three took place at Firehouse: DCTV’s Cinema for Documentary Film, a cosy new screening room in Lower Manhattan. Janaína Nagata’s Private Footage (2022) is an engrossing work that recalls both the found footage tradition of the avant-garde and the desktop documentary, a genre commonly associated with the video essay, pioneered by filmmakers like Kevin B. Lee and Chloé Galibert-Laîné. The documentary centres on the filmmaker’s online purchase of an old 16mm film reel. In a gesture reminiscent of recent works like Bianca Stigter’s Three Minutes: A Lengthening (2021), for example, Nagata plays the footage without additional context at the outset. It soon becomes clear that we are watching a vacation film, one of a white, presumably wealthy family on holiday in South Africa. The film begins with the family on safari, including beautiful images of their close encounters with animals. We later see them taking rides in rickshaws pulled by Black men, swimming in glamorous pools, and enjoying other tourist attractions along the coastline. As the film continues, it becomes obvious that the patriarch of the family is not just some tourist, but a politically well-connected man: the markers of colonialism become more apparent and intense. The film takes on a split screen, with the digitised found footage on one side, and the filmmaker’s desktop on the other. Nagata then employs a range of digital and AI tools, including facial recognition software, to turn this vacation footage into a critical portrait of apartheid. Pairing the footage with modern vacation videos on YouTube and maps sourced from Google, for example, Nagata’s film also becomes about the legacy of apartheid, in which she mines the footage like an archaeological dig. Beyond the film’s effective use of spatial montage, the pacing stands out as a particular achievement. The film plays like an investigation, one that seems unpolished (I mean this fully as a compliment) enough to give the impression that it is happening in real time, as if Nagata were on a program like Twitch inviting us into the process. Films of this kind so often hide the labour of their creation. Among the benefits of the desktop documentary style is the chance for some of that process to be (re)enacted on screen. Private Footage not only foregrounds this labour but employs it to translate that sense of discovery across the screen. In doing so, it also offers a way for imagining the role that new technologies will play in further contextualizing images from decades past.  

The festival’s fourth wave was an all-day affair, set at Light Industry’s recently renovated new screening room in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Included in the program was Jim Finn’s The Apocalyptic is the Mother of All Christian Theology (2023), an engaging new film, made all the more so by the filmmaker’s Q&A session with Prakash after the screening. Finn’s film, a self-described “psychedelic portrait,” centres on Paul the Apostle, aiming to recontextualise, and at times reclaim, the Christian theorist’s life and legacy. The work could be described as a biography, but it is the kind that will (wonderfully) leave the viewer with more questions than answers. Among the most exciting aspects of Finn’s film is its generative potential, specifically the way it provides new possibilities for upending and reworking historical hegemonies. With a mix of found and original footage, including animation and digitised 16mm film, the film’s collage style leads to an effective display of thinking through the material, of Finn’s personal grappling with Paul through a mix of images, sounds, and objects, and his own relationship with the figures and trappings of Catholicism. 

Darkness, Darkness Burning Bright

The film that followed, for me, was the highlight of the festival. Travelling to New York City (for the first time) from France, Gaëlle Rouard projected her latest handmade film, Darkness, Darkness, Burning Bright (2022) to a packed room. In a preface to an interview with the filmmaker in MUBI’s Notebook, Maximilien Luc Proctor writes of the film’s compromised premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2022, noting that the festival’s last-minute decision to move works online meant that Rouard “did not have enough time to have the film scanned, and thus it was shown as a digital camera recording of the projection.” Luc Proctor continues, “Though difficult to watch in this form, it suggested the reward that would come from seeing the film properly.”2 And indeed, there was. The filmmaker’s first feature, Darkness, Darkness, Burning Bright is composed of original 16mm footage, shot in the rural lands near her home. Images of animals, the night sky, the trees, are all then treated with chemicals, the tools that, for Rouard, are central to her filmmaking practice. The abstracted images call attention not just to the materiality of film, but Rouard’s own labour throughout the roughly four years it took to complete the work. A central component to the viewing experience at the festival was the presence of Rouard herself: not only was she in attendance, but she manually worked the projector, feeding the original film strips on which she worked through the machine (an act that will, of course, slowly cause the material to deteriorate, and one that recalls the opening film of last year’s Prismatic Ground, Charlie Shackleton’s feature, The Afterlight, 2021). The hum of the machine, the presence of Rouard’s body, and the performative quality that such labour yields naturally informed the viewing process and enriched it. In the Q&A following the screening, an attendee, assuming the answer would be in the negative, asked whether Rouard would ever let anyone else project the original material, to which the filmmaker quickly replied, “No.” Though, Rouard did say, a 35mm copy of the film will hopefully be made for circulation in the future. In the production, circulation, and exhibition of Darkness, Darkness, Burning Bright lays a parable for our current moviegoing moment, where we must accept that copies of films as varied as their original 16mm frames, digital camera recordings, and 35mm prints will circulate. Is one better than the others? Perhaps. But what feels much more important than the answer to that question is assuring that audiences know which copy they are watching, and that the others exist. Will I ever see Darkness, Darkness, Burning Bright how I saw it that night at Light Industry? Most likely not. But does that mean I should never see it again? No. 

scènes de ménage

Prismatic Ground ended back in Manhattan, at the East Village’s venerable Anthology Film Archives. The fifth wave began at 10:00 am, lasting until 8:45 p.m., which marked the turn to the festival’s closing ceremonies: a screening of Alexandre Larose’s 2022 scènes de ménage trilogy: I (13 min), II (15 min), and III (12 min). As the 35mm films began to play, a man entered the theatre and sat by me, with only a single empty seat between us. I immediately sensed it might be Larose himself, a suspicion confirmed when he, in fact, later appeared before us for the Q&A. The presence of the filmmaker certainly enriched the experience, especially when hearing him describe the creation of these films. Each of the works feature Larose’s parents, who perform a series of repeated, domestic gestures. To return once again to labour, Larose’s tryptic at times belies its own production, masking the meticulous processes that result in the rich images he brings to the screen. Creation takes place in camera, with each take of a repeated gesture or movement layered on top of the other. II emerges as a particularly effective example. The film involves Larose’s father, who repeats the act of rising from a chair. Technically, II recalls films like Martin Arnold’s seminal found footage works, pièce touchée (1989) and passage à l’acte (1993), in which domestic gestures in classic Hollywood films are deconstructed through the optical printer, which in turn draws attention to repetition and time. In his visually rich trilogy, though, Larose seemingly depicts the gestures of daily life, repeating movements that, if not deeply familiar, are (re)enacted by those with whom he certainly is. The symmetry between the closing night and the beginning of the festival is apparent, reminding us that our relationship with a chair fundamentally changes when someone sits in it, whether that person is us or another.


  1. For more on A Chair, see Julian Ross, “Takahiko Iimura in Berlin from 1973 to 1974,” Arsenal: Institute for Film & Video Art, 2023.
  2. Maximilien Luc Proctor, “Classical Taste: A Conversation with Gaëlle Rouard,” Notebook, 22 July 22 2022.