Acts and Intermissions

San Francisco Mission District’s Other Cinema featured film experimentalist Abigail Child last Saturday night, with her new 57 minute film Acts and Intermissions.  It was preceded by her 2004 short The Future Is Behind You. Child’s work blooms from the soils of the academic experimental film world, crafted with an East Coast sensibility: studious, meticulous, theory-based, and low-budget. Her films display a unique mastery of both form and content, graced with delicate editing, and colored by whispering sound designs which are all her own.

The Future Is Behind You, a work of sheer archival beauty, fabricates a film story of a Jewish family’s displacement and murder, interpreted from scraps of German home movies from the 1930’s. It delivers history from the inside out, bringing nuance to a familiar story of holocaust. Child interrogates the footage with repetition, zooms, slow motion, and flipflopping screen direction, foregrounding moments of laughter over impending terror. The daily joys of two sisters provide a filter — sifting historical events in bits and pieces, treating history as a moving, incomplete process, centralized by real lives.

Arts and Intermissions uses similar techniques from the point of view of famed anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940). The film challenges the viewer by creating an impressionist painting of her life, an assemblage of dots, with heavy use of onscreen text, drawn from Goldman’s letters and diaries. Child uses Emma Goldman to make a film that is not quite about Emma Goldman, but about cycles of political resistance in the last century and a half. The style undermines expectations of traditional historical biography, and may better coalesce if you study the basic facts of Goldman’s life before seeing it. When I asked the filmmaker about her choice to include only a handful of images of Emma Goldman, Child replied that she was trying to “disperse [Emma] into the present.”

Indeed, remarkable early-20th century protest footage interlaces with recent scenes of mass resistance. The film also includes contemporary scenes of workers in a yarn factory. These surreal shots of beautiful mess and mechanization, establish the film’s ground in a Marxist viewpoint. Another recent biographical documentary,  I Am Not Your Negro, about author James Baldwin, similarly interweaves images of past and present. (See my February 12th blog post)  The days of the traditional documentary, with its objectifying, distanced historical perspective, seem to be over. These films suggest there’s no longer space to simply observe. However we choose to act, history is living us, and we are participants.

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro

The documentary I am Not Your Negro resurrects the exquisite humanity of author James Baldwin, as it deconstructs the history of racism in America. His pained perspective, as a self-declared witness of the civil rights era, strips bare the nation’s ugly history of slavery, segregation and the successive assassinations of America’s best black leaders:  Medgar Evans, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. These three men were Baldwin’s close friends and all died within five years of each other. Drawing from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House, the film describes these friendships and their loss from a personal perspective.

Directed by Haitian Raoul Peck, the film does not delve into details. Its factual scope is basic and familiar. However, it uses Baldwin’s written and spoken words to dissect the cultural complexity of race relations, particularly as it conscribes the black man. It relies heavily on archival newsreel footage, but also interweaves Hollywood’s treatment of race through the decades.  Movie clips range from 1950’s seal tight white Doris Day to interracial fare such as Imitation of Life (1934) and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), and express a bizarre dissonance in how race functions from various points of view.

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The film’s most radical contribution happens to be James Baldwin himself, who defies stereotype as a gay intellectual ex-patriot returning home to Harlem from the literary comforts of Paris. With stark clarity, Baldwin describes the psychology of racism and renounces it, without negating its tragic power.

I am not a nigger, I’m a man.  But if you think I’m a nigger, then it means you need it.  And you got to find out why.  And the future of the country depends on that.

James Baldwin also declared:

 The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.

I am Not Your Negro is not simply a historical documentary, for the present bleeds into it.  Footage of recent events — Black Lives Matters protesters, police brutality, and violence in Ferguson, MO — are offered without comment. It leaves us viewers high and dry, uncomfortably awake. Awake to the reality that white supremacy now inhabits the White House, and to an unknown future fraught with racial unease.

See the trailer here.

The Eagle Huntress

Bring your preteen daughters to this uplifting, feminist tale about Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl who outmasters the town elders as she commands her tamed eagle to swoop in competition and capture foxes in the snowy backcountry. Both otherworldly and accessible, The Eagle Huntress takes us to remote northwestern Mongolia, to the ancient tradition of eagle hunting, where the Kazakh people tame wild eagles to hunt for food and fur. Over centuries, eagle hunting developed into an art form, with dramatic competitions proving eagle speed, obeisance and hunting prowess.

The film contains almost no plot, but this does not diminish the experience.  Its style combines exceptionally vivid wildlife photography with observational ethnography, while emotionally functioning as a childhood fantasy. The beauty of this fantasy is its grounding in reality, a heartfelt sharing of an ancient culture and a celebration of family ties and the passing on of tradition. The unique subject, the gorgeous dance between human and bird, and the warm performances by native actors captivate and refresh the mind.

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Actors Aisholpan Nurgaiv and Rhys Nurgaiv give warm and inspired performances.

Playing at an independent movie theater near you.  Watch the trailer here.

Häxän Project

Above:  performance by the Church of Color and Light

Last night, Other Cinema hosted a gathering of witches, both embodied and bound in celluloid. The night began with a brewing of cups by the Church of Color and Light, a local ritualistic performance collective that uses overhead projection, dance movement, and incantation for audience involvement and transformation. One slithering spirit even abandoned a rubber snake in my lap. Soundtracked by the buzzing of flies, their cultus ceremony set tone for a spooky evening with intermittent camera flashes punctuating the dark.

Cohesively curated experimental film and video from past iterations of the Häxän Festival filled the remainder of the evening’s program. Häxän celebrates witchcraft and the personal occult from a feminine perspective, with all works curated and made by women. The program was strong yet scrappy, with a generous dose of silence and nudity. A couple of pieces veered too close to the works of experimental film great Maya Deren (unsurprisingly) and animator Lewis Klahr, to be truly original.  But the lovely, ghostly Trapped Between Frames by Nazare Soares seemed outright possessed with its multi-exposed film frames trembling and twitching.

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Trapped Between Frames by Nazare Soares

Saturn Return was the other standout. This homemade video set on a rocky Mexican outcropping featured creators Ale Bachlechner and Olivia Platzer in a smart and satirical take on astrology, self-help and the nature video. Creative costuming and absurd dialogue left us laughing at the enactments of a string of relationship breakups triggered by the unpredictable age of 29-1/2, otherwise known as the dreaded Saturn Return.

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Saturn Return by Ale Bachlechner and Olivia Platzer

Photos by Kristin Cato

Dust to Dust at Gray Area

Above:  Improvised multi-projection by the Trinchera Ensamble

San Francisco Cinematheque‘s Perpetual Motion series opened on Friday night at Gray Area to host a large crowd of live cinema enthusiasts. The series extends through December 7 and features both international and local artists who show up to create work in the moment. A growing arts movement, expanded cinema offers film experiences as live rather than prerecorded events. These may include multiple moving projectors, live manipulation of image and improvised audio tracks.

This premiere installment featured arc, the sentinels of West Oakland’s Black Hole Cinematheque, projecting layers of found film detritus. Jürgen Reble, on a rare visit from Düsseldorf, Germany, and the Trinchera Ensamble, with its eyepopping abstractions, rounded out the show.  These pieces all come from the School of Art as Endurance Test with elongated TRTs (total running times) to form immersive aesthetic experiences.  The chaotic yet repetitive confluences require audience surrender, as they aim for a kind of purifying transcendence. Either they (or you) pass the test or they (or you) don’t.

It was the second piece, Alchemie by Jürgen Reble, that most caught me with its ritualistic fury.  It raised the stakes to fulfill the promise of a true one-off event with a higher level of unpredictability. In this piece, the film loop circled across our consciousness to the point of mania while passing through chemicals and agent-changing solutions.  We saw orphaned, trance-gripped beings change from negative image to positive image to pure grain to obliteration.

The object of art being destroyed by the very act of its presentation isn’t new. Years ago, I witnessed a similar event: a loop of black leader film punctured and eventually destroyed by a sewing machine.  However, this one featured haunted visages that glowed beneath unraveling streams of emulsion, faces of those seemingly lost in time and space under the spell of, or perhaps in communication with, sublime cosmic forms. It was enough to induce a mystical fever in those of us susceptible to such enchantments.

The next Perpetual Motion show takes place on October 11 with Ken Jacobs’ Nervous Magic Lantern.

Vagabond by Agnes Varda

The story begins with a corpse, and through this tragic lens, we learn about Mona Bergeron, a lonely vagrant, in a fictionalized investigation, through the eyes of all that crossed her path one winter in the countryside of France. After watching it twice, I am awed to discover such a brilliant and unusual film only now, after over 20 years of studying cinema. It belongs up there with the greatest of the greats, not only as a feminist film, but a masterpiece of storytelling, social commentary, and nuanced character.

Originally named Sans toit ni loi, “Without Roof nor Law”, the film, released in 1986, represents an early cross-genre experiment, mixing fiction and documentary styles, with a startling surrealist scene at the end. Ravishingly well-photographed, paced beautifully, expertly edited, the film is a stunning work. Mona meanders the countryside, small towns and graveyards with nothing but a backpack and a shredded tent.  As we trace her journey in flashback, people in her story turn to address the camera as if being interviewed, to share their varied impressions of her.

Mona confesses to no purpose or worldview, other than her hatred for bosses and her belief that three is a crowd. She possesses a carelessness that allows her into places few others go. She exhibits sexual freedom, she accepts and turns down various invitations for help, she makes friends, and she unearths the long-dormant joy of an elderly woman. She also gets raped. The camera fixes on her every move, yet restrains from psychologizing or sympathizing, and depicts a hardy, unvarnished lifestyle of mere survival.
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The film does, however, reveal plenty about the people who meet her and the worlds through which her movements pass. It adeptly teases out social beliefs that surround her and the self-constructed cages people live in. Yolande, a maid with a criminal no-good boyfriend, envies Mona’s freedom, as well as her fleeting yet tender relationship with a man, when Yolande discovers the two sleeping together in an abandoned chateau. A professor who studies tree disease adopts Mona as a car companion and views her as an aspect of her guilty conscience. An aspiring, wealthy graduate student despises her, simply for her outsiderness, as a potential threat to his status. When a Tunisian field worker takes her in, Mona enters a love relationship that is quickly undermined by circumstances. The Tunisian’s testimony about Mona has no words, delivered only through a heartbroken gaze into the camera.

This unspoken, unconditional love represents the feminist voice in the film, the one that allows Mona a space to exist outside the codes and strictures of society. Many of the town folk in the film reflect on the rarity of a sole woman wanderer. Indeed, with so few cultural prototypes of the female drifter, we can barely frame Mona, as she floats through the world, inured to overdetermined roles. While leaving her unframable, the film also shows us how precarious and short-lived this zoneless space can be.