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What The Experimental Films at TIFF Tell Us About the Future of Film

By David D'Arcy | Thompson on Hollywood September 16, 2013 at 12:47PM

Wavelengths, the expanding home for experimental film at the Toronto International Film Festival, is not just a sampling of new films. It's an attempt to take the temperature, on the extremes, of cinema -- or moving pictures, as we should call them.
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"Manakamana."
"Manakamana."

So do Stephanie Spray and Pancho Velez in the odd and delightful “MANAKAMANA,” which creates gentle surrealism with ordinary people in cable cars rides that traverse mountains in Nepal back and forth from the Manakamana Temple. Executive-produced by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel ("Leviathan," Wavelengths class of 2012) from Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Laboratory, the film was praised at its premiere in Locarno as an improbable heir to "Leviathan." In an enclosed cabin, against a dramatic natural background, riders sit pokerfaced, inured to the spectacular landscape beneath them, but quiet in the presence of a movie camera. The mix of intensity and ordinariness is comic and soothing. A sequel beyond sequels in the world of ethnographic image-making, it's an indie alternative to the screaming business of sequel-mongering in the commercial cinema.     

"MANAKAMANA" will be irresistible to festivals, as was "Leviathan," which took in a mere $74,000 afterward at the box office, despite hyperbolic  reviews. One of the new work's next stops is the New York Film Festival.

Archaeology, the ethnography of the dead, blended with landscape in “Trissakia 3.”  In a year at TIFF where a number of features looked at art and artists ("Tim’s Vermeer," "Ralph Steadman: For No Good Reason," "Finding Vivian Maier"), or were the work of artists ("Midway"), "Trissakia 3" led a silent 9-minute tour through the fragments of a Byzantine church in Greece, in the Mani peninsula in the Peloponnese. The interplay of close examination of frescoes and glimpses of landscape through randomly-shaped holes in the structure is the third film of the decaying church by Nick Collins. This time, Collins found a new corrugated iron roof meant to protect the Byzantine structure blown off by winter gales and strewn in pieces around the fields nearby. Another Greek fix gone wrong.

Collins's film cost around $7000, a lot less than it would take to restore the place, although the frescoes of saints and the Last Supper remain there, unbothered by the looters who have preyed on other churches. Their silent presence suggests hope against hope in Greek resilience.

Speaking of resilience, Wavelengths also witnessed the return of Miguel Gomes, whose "Tabu" showed last year. The 26–minute "Redemption" (also at Venice), a series of parables on memory in Portuguese, French, Italian and German, made sure that each tale of sadness was redeemed by wit. How can a marriage in Leipzig  - where deference is paid to the German Democratic Republic – not have a punchline lurking inside? Gomes and his co-writer, while working on their next feature, have produced bagatelles of emotion from found footage.

Back to cinema on cinema. One of my favorites was "The Realist," in which Scott Stark takes us back to Fernand Leger's "Ballets Mecaniques" and to a mix of Hitchcock and "Marwencol," as his pulsating camera strobes its way through a department store, suggesting an intrigue that the viewer has to construct. The way these mannequins shake (with emotion?), it's a literal approach to animation. Shopping may never be the same after these 36 throbbing minutes. David Goode's music is essential to the spirit of adventure in this silent film that isn't silent -- or is it just scoring a mock-heroic jab at consumerism?

The cinemas where Wavelengths films showed, often in combined screenings for press and industry and the public, usually had a plenty of free seats. The screenings were a welcome relief from the tactility of film festival crowds. Every programmer wants a sold out hall, but the exposure will ensure that these films could have a life beyond TIFF, even at places where the death of film as film has already come true.

This article is related to: Reviews, Toronto International Film Festival, Wavelengths, Manakamana, La última película, João Pedro Rodrigues, avant-garde, Experimental Film, Ming-liang Tsai, Festivals





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