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

Indiewire By David D'Arcy | Indiewire 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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"La Ultima Pelicula."

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. Film, except for rare holdouts in Wavelengths and elsewhere, is something you should look for in an antique store, or a museum.

Mark Peranson, one of those holdouts, said as much before showing his own contribution to Wavelengths (co-directed with the Filipino auteur Raya Martin), "La Ultima Pelicula" ("The Last Movie"). 

"This is a 35-millimeter print," he said defiantly, "It's the only 35 millimeter print of a new film showing at this film festival."

Peranson offered some context with three quotes. The first was from the poet and theorist Isidore Isou: "All forms, aesthetic and social, move from a stage of amplification to one of decomposition…In the stage of decomposition, forms turn inward upon themselves and become self-referential. Forms fall from grace and from history. As a form decomposes, so does the life to which it once gave shape." 

He cited Guy Debord, more briefly: "Boring is always counter-revolutionary, always."

Then came a line from the opening of Dennis Hopper's "The American Dreamer" -- which, along with Hopper's "The Last Movie," was the inspiration for the appropriately named "La Ultima Pelicula": "A creative act is to say, 'Hey, I'm not going to hide in the closet any more – at least I'm going to be a witness to myself.'"

It seemed that there were as many manifestos as there were films in Wavelengths. But Peranson summarized the key tenets well enough.

For Wavelengths programmer Andrea Picard, to whom Peranson dedicated that screening of "La Ultima Pelicula," the section this year had broadened its mandate, which grew out of its expansion into a bigger tent. "We’re still representing the best in avant-garde cinema -- that includes the best in 16 mm cinema, exercises and studies, tactile experiences," she said, "but also with room for auteurist experiments."

Another dimension to Wavelengths, she added, was the range of filmmakers, from veterans like Tsai Ming Liang and Wang Bing (both of whom were at TIFF with co-productions) to newcomers like Stephen Broomer, the Wavelengths publicist last year, who premiered his 19-minute "Pepper's Ghost."

The range was extensive, so extensive that I missed "Stray Dogs" by Tsai-Ming Liang, "Three Interpretation Exercises" by Crisit Puiu, and "The Strange Little Cat" by Roman Zurcher. Chances are that critics and public will catch up to these on the festival circuit soon.

If film is already in the rear-view mirror, moving pictures are still on the rise in the world of exhibition beyond the theatrical feature, where much of the work in Wavelengths will be seen.

Some 70% of the works in this year's Venice Biennale, by my fallible estimation, were video, perhaps even more. Many of those found their way to Wavelengths at TIFF, like "Letter to a Refusing Pilot," Akram Zataari's musing on an Israel pilot's refusal to bomb a school in southern Lebanon. The video was at the official Lebanese pavilion in Venice, a gesture of common humanity from a region where there are few right now. Lebanon won't show Israeli films, with exceptions that can be fund mostly on the black market, and Lebanese distributors won't let their films be shown in Israel. Here's hoping a pirated version of "Letter to a Refusing Pilot" finds its way to Syria.

History was a recurrent theme in Wavelengths, and not just in "La Ultima Pellicula," the self-referential retelling of the enterprise of making a western in the Yucatan. Film as film may be decomposing, but Martin and Peranson prove that it will die with its sense of humor intact.

Next: Portuguese bodybuilders and a Chinese mental asylum.

"The King's Body."

History in Wavelengths was so broadly evoked and discussed that it felt as present as cinematic allusion – itself a historical statement.

The conversation between the past and the present was evident in "O Corpo de Afonso" ("The King's Body") by Joao Pedro Rodrigues of Portugal. Body builders – could we get more literal? -  remove their clothes against backgrounds reminiscent of those used by the photographer Rijneke Dykstra, known for her full-length pictures of subjects (not wearing much) at the beach, or for deceptive pictures of criminal youth.

The director asks these youths about history. Only one, a teacher almost twice the age of most of them, can answer a question about a king of Portugal. Only one, the same man, can tell why Spain still has a king, while Portugal does not. So much for the Golden Age, but would the men of any other country do better? That golden finish is further tarnished when the young men take turns describing the tattoos and scars on their bodies – in front of what look like Baroque wood carvings.

We hear the legend that the first Portuguese man was the issue of a whore and a Galician. Don't look too closely at that era's heroes, it's implied, since they would have been guys of this sort. Fassbinder and Genet, who arrived at this insight long before, would have loved it.

Let's not forget that Portugal was the last and poorest colonial holdout in the 1970's, back in Fassbinder’s day. Had these young men been of military age then, they would have fought the wars to retain territories conquered by Portugal's kings. Portugal lost those battles.

Africa was that battleground, and Senegal is where Mati Diop filmed "A Thousand Suns" (Mille Soleils), a look back at the 1973 classic "Touki Bouki," directed by her uncle, Djibril Diop Mambety, by way of a walk through Dakar and far beyond. What a walk it is, with the actor of that 1972 film, Magaye Niang, herding cattle then as now. His peregrination takes us through the noisy streets filled with motorcycles decorated with cow horns (an homage to "Touki Bouki"), into a noisier slaughterhouse where he brings his cows (a sequence reminiscent of the work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard), and eventually to the snows of Alaska.  Realism of the streets blends with nostalgia, culminating in scenes in the frozen North – a hallucinatory journey that adds its images to Senegal's many tales of emigration. 

A fantasy? In "Nefandus," translatable as abominable or execrable, Carlos Motta follows a small canoe down a river in Colombia named for a conquistador, as he and a speaker of the local Kogi language meditate for 13 minutes on the European Conquest and sex – the conquerors imposed strict rules for sex, as for everything else, on the local population that they scorned as execrable and enslaved. In this revery about escaping from civilized sex, the serene river, surrounded by thick forest, could not be more a more feminine symbol. The mode of propulsion of the boat is a long pole. The propelling emotion is a tremendous sense of loss.

The landscape in "Bann," by Nina Koenemann, is a street and the sheer façade of an office building, in whose shadows employees stand to smoke. The smokers are relegated by repressive laws to a public place where their challenge is to remain private, to be invisible. Think of images from Jafar Panahi's "The Circle," in which women banished by their families work as prostitutes in the public streets, hiding from the police. In "Bann," shot with a surveillance camera aesthetic, it's implied that to smoke is to be a fugitive, a presumed criminal. (As a former smoker and an asthmatic, I agree in this one case with the repressive state. These smokers are indeed guilty of committing a crime, against themselves, with a legal product.) That said, Koenemann finds a persuasive metaphor for the opposing view.

This year's marathon award in Wavelengths must go to Wang Bing, whose "'Til Madness Do Us Part" is a four-hour distillation of everyday experiences in a mental asylum in China. The palette is mostly grey on grey, the place doesn't conform to any standard of Western cleanliness (honored more in the breach in plenty of American institutions) -- yet we observe a camaraderie among the patients, who don’t seem to mind the camera.  The filmmaker is paying more attention to them than anyone working in that institution.

There's tenderness among the patients whom Wang Bing visits. Not that the internees want to be there -- the title suggests a lifetime commitment --  but life is better in the asylum than it was in "The Ditch," Wang Bing's grim 2010 drama about a prison in the desert in the 1960’s which consisted of a communal trench.

"'Til Madness Do Us Part" takes us to what the French used to call the oubliette, the place where souls are sent to be forgotten, many by their families. The internees call out for doctors, as Wang Bing films down long corridors that end in frames of metal bars, the symbol of a passage without an exit. Yet there's some hope in this place of hopelessness. Aware that they are here for the long term, the patients make attachments (as happens in all prisons), as we see them cleaning and caressing each other. Is this the solidarity of the forgotten lumpenproletariat?  Like Frederick Wiseman, represented at TIFF by his own four-hour "At Berkeley" this year, Wang Bing takes a long, deliberate look at his subject. He finds a society among those whom society excluded. 

Is he practicing cinema? Sociology? Anthropology? As in so many of films in Wavelengths, Wang Bing takes on multiple tasks. 

"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