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A Perspective on "Images", That Other Toronto Festival

A Perspective on "Images", That Other Toronto Festival

A Perspective on "Images", That Other Toronto Festival

by Stephen Kent Jusick

Toronto’s Images Festival of Independent Film and Video is a
little-known northern gem that shines brightest when it is presenting
works that are truly independent. Wrapping up its 11th year on May 2nd,
the festival presented over 110 works from over 26 countries. Founded
in 1988 to create exhibition opportunities for marginalized communities
working outside the film and video mainstream, images initially focused
on shorts, screening works that “weren’t getting seen, barely produced.”

In many ways successful, the plucky festival spawned Crossing Boarders,
Inside Out: The Toronto Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (now the city’s
second largest film festival after the Toronto International!), Desh
Pardesh and others. But then the parent began to struggle with its
Three years ago Deirdre Logue came on board as executive director, and
has refocused the festival. Images has several sections, the most
prominent of which is New Screen, 16 shows curated by Stefan St-Laurent
and Paul Lee, largely from an open call of over 600 submissions. Much of
the discussion of the festival centers on New Screen, but Images also
includes a Canadian Artists Spotlight (this year Ali Kazemi), an annual
series of student work, international exchange programs (Finland this
time around), guest curated programs, collaborative projects with other
arts organizations, and, perhaps most significantly, installations. In
addition Images sponsors a series of intensive filmmaking workshops
on the two weekends bookending the festival, which speak to a real
concern about local production, providing tools for image-making
to a general public.

Images’ idea of independent definitely means working outside the
mainstream. As such, it focuses mostly on short films and videos.
St-Laurent was trying to be “as pluralist as possible” representing many
communities and genres. Indeed, the only features screened this year
were “Frozen,” the Chinese film by Wu Ming [Anonymous] about dissident
artists, and “Camping Cosmos.” Neither performed as well as Matthew
Barney’s 60 minute “Cremaster 5,” which was given feature treatment,
screening alone at the largest venue, the 440 seat Royal Theater. That
night the staff worked hard to get everyone into the packed and highly
anticipated screening. Ultimately everyone — art and film world
luminaries and hipsters alike — who showed up at the theater got a seat,
and the show got underway, a full hour late. I watched everyone file
in and out, and it was clear that they had come out for this Canadian
premiere. The sparse showing for “Frozen” is either out of repudiation of
Images flirtation with features, or it signals an outreach problem,
considering the massive Chinese population in Toronto.

For the majority of the festival, Images is comfortably situated in
downtown Toronto. The main venue was the 180-seat Music Gallery,
which, as the name suggests, is not generally a film space, and doesn’t
support 35mm. For Images, that’s not a big problem, since the majority
or the work, and the most interesting work is in other formats. But these
technical limitations did influence certain programming decisions. Hence
opening night (at the Royal) was all film, mostly 35mm, in a program
very generally about relationships in the 90s. , and leading off with an
experimental film-video piece by Academy Award-nominee Atom Egoyan.
Closing night (sold out at the Music Gallery) was a mammoth 2 1/2 hour
umbrella show called Mondo Video. The video screening was one of the
stronger programs I saw, and I think that’s because there was a variety
of work presented, and with an unpretentious aesthetic.

Other popular programs were the local screenings Home Brew and Home
Brew Q [for queer]. The ample, appreciative audiences would have been
welcome elsewhere. The audience was surprisingly sophisticated, turning
out heavily for Johan Grimonprez’s “Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y,” a non-narrative
68 minute video piece about airline highjackings over the years. If the
description sounds deadly, the results are surprisingly compelling, as
the viewer is left to assess the motives and merits of the various
hijackers. The final image of President Clinton laughing hysterically
calls into question the strictly informational take some may wish to
ascribe to this.

This is the kind of risk-taking that distinguishes Images, and shows it
at its best. The festival was less successful with 35mm programs
(The French film school shorts at the Art Gallery of Ontario stretch
the limits of “independent,” and were too aesthetically uniform to
satisfy), and packages from Denmark and Austria seemed out place, when
those slots could have been used for much stronger, individualistic
works that the programmers might have shown. I chafed long and hard
at “Danish Girls Show Everything,” a package that reeked of European
state film commission marketing. It diluted the festival’s curatorial
voice, and added little to the overall mix. More satisfying was the “The
Mysterious East and Little Known West
“, “two programs of animation,
from Calgary’s Quickdraw Animation Society and Halifax’s Atlantic
Filmmakers Cooperative.” From the latter, we saw the quirky vision
of James MacSwain, whose “Mother Marilyn” is a collage piece that
obliquely charts the lovechild of Monroe and JFK. The films of Helen
Hill and Helen Bredin were also delights, for their use of color, framing
and wacky situations. Of all the filmmakers present at the Festival,
Bredin & Hill, along with fellow animator Joe Kelly and Siloen Daley
were among the most enthusiastic about all the work they saw, having
a great time and enjoying Toronto. They even created a run on film toys
at the campy shop Funorama, which Super-8 filmmaker Martha Colburn
also made a pilgrimage, looking for props.

While the animation in Images was often colorful and inspired whimsy,
the installations were much more serious. It is important to note that
very few festivals present installations at all, since they are expensive,
time consuming and logistical nightmares. Images works in cooperation
with A Space and Interaccess (both located in a beautiful arts building
a few blocks from the Music Gallery), and to great effect. Steve McQueen’s
Deadpan” the single action of the wall of a house falling harmlessly on
the artist, who stands stoically. This is repeated from different
perspectives of the house, and each time McQueen suffers steadfastly,
in contrast to Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr., who mugged when the
same fate befell him. Francis Le Bouthillier’s “Onion Skins” is installed
in a tourist trap binocular viewfinder, revealing men cutting onions,
superimposed over images of Niagara Falls. Robert Anderson’s
double-projection film “Love and Death” is a noirish narrative in which
a gumshoe and a femme fatale endlessly encounter and dispose of each
other. More gimmicky, Gerard Courant’s “Cinematon“– consisted of
portraits each the length of a roll of Super-8 film — claiming to be the
longest film in the world, and all120 hours were shown (on video, its
only exhibition format) in the Music Gallery lobby.

Although there isn’t much money at Images, there were a lot of awards.
Most were just citations from various juries, but two came with cash
prizes. The Telefilm Canada Award for best Canadian Film or Video in
the New Screen section consisted of a $5,000 check that went to Istvan
Cantor (a.k.a. Monty Cantsin) for his anarchic experimental video “Black
Flag.” Cantor’s acceptance speech pretty much consisted of “Down with
the government that starves us.” The Viacom Canada Award for Best
Direction of a Canadian Work landed a $1,000 prize for Dennis Day’s “An
Illustrated History of Western Music
,” also a video. Other awards went
to Laurie Colbert and Dominique Cardona’s documentary “My Feminism;”
Claudia Escanilla’s “Sabor a Mi” (Best Cinematography), Veena Cabreros
Sud’s “Stretchmark” (Marian McMahon Award for autobiography). The
Images Board of Directors also cited 12 others films in categories
including best Doc, best Experimental, best animation, best Narrative,
Most Outrageous (Mara Mattuschka’s “The Assmachine Enterprise”), Best
International and Best Emerging Artist.

Images, in the work that it spotlights and in the way that it feels, is not
a slick, tony production. Logue calls the films and the festival “works
of extraordinary circumstance,” and this is evident in the real people who
introduce the screenings and get the job done, as well as from the friendly
demeanor of the filmmakers. Perhaps the best example of the Images
aesthetic is the funky slideshow(by Allyson Mitchell and Barbara Mainguy)
that used cut outs to energize and inform audiences about the possibilities
of DIY filmmaking and the declining state of funding in Canada. The slides
conveyed the homegrown exuberance that spill over to the rest of the
festival. Sure, some of the intros could be smoother, the parties a bit more
groovy, and crowd control could be refined, but Images is about dedication
fun. There’s no pretension or self-importance. There aren’t many festivals
where the main programmer will do a hysterical naked performance piece at
1 in the morning, but Images is one of them.

[Stephen Kent Jusick is a curator, administrator, and filmmaker. He is
working on several Super-8 films, including one featuring gay cartoonists.
has also begun exhibiting installation work, most recently at the Downtown
Festival and MIX NYC.]

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