See Through: The Art of the Real 2021
This article appeared in the November 18 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Wasteland No. 2: Hardy Hearty (Jodie Mack, 2019)
With nine lucidly interwoven programs of short and medium-length films, the eighth edition of the Art of the Real festival, entitled “Counter Encounters,” brings together iterations of ethnographic cinema that subvert the power dynamics of the tradition. While historically ethnographic nonfiction aimed to “explain” cultures and peoples, creating an illusion of its subjects’ transparency, the visual techniques on display in “Counter Encounters” complicate and disrupt our modes of reception. They reflect the varied ways in which filmmakers increasingly avail themselves of technologies to layer, splinter, or otherwise obscure images, displacing geographic and temporal markers. In this sense, they embody the postcolonialist thinker Édouard Glissant’s “aesthetics of opacity” as a main tactic to counter hegemonic positions of spectatorship.
In Jodie Mack’s Wasteland No. 2: Hardy Hearty, in Program 5: Collaborative Survival, images of flowers and plants flicker rapidly, conveying an impossible textural density. It wasn’t until I did the unthinkable and paused individual film frames—since I was previewing the program at home and could—that I realized that the film is, in fact, a jazzy riff on a handful of images: shots of plant roots, twigs, and flower petals in melting ice cubes. Although my optical nerves and brain had clearly been outwitted by the mechanical apparatus into believing that the film’s range of elements was wider and more complex, there was also a peaceful, restorative surrender in letting the flicker seep in, as if cinema was something you inhaled with your body. Placed alongside other films centered on human subjects, Wasteland expands the focus of ethnography beyond the exposition of cultural customs and history to include the camera’s fleeting encounters with nature, which reflect on our inherent subjectivity as viewers.
Minia Biabiany’s Toli Toli, in Program 2: Acts of Refusal II: The Persistence of Invisible Traces, is equally quasi-mystical. In voiceover, the film’s narrator chants a children’s song about a butterfly’s chrysalis (“toli toli” in Guadeloupean Créole) pointing the way to the sea while creating “an elsewhere inside.” That elsewhere, which Bianiany’s elliptical short attempts to visualize, is volcanic, mysterious, and often impermeable. More than once the entire screen bleeds red before it slowly morphs into other hues. Here too the sensation is of being mesmerized, this time by the film’s sonorous lullaby, which sometimes plays in the absence of the moving image, with brief title cards repeating the “toli toli” refrain.
Hypnotic effects also define the intensely artisanal cinema of Charlotte Pryce, including her silent 16mm short, Discoveries on the Forest Floor (2007)—a film I first saw two years ago at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). Pryce is as close to an alchemist as you’ll find in cinema. Her experimental films and magic lantern shows use dimmed reveals and stark detail to powerful effect. While the blurs and stutters of her films are attributable to chemistry and physics, botany is also always close at hand. In Discoveries, which riffs on a minor genre of 17th-century Dutch painting, Pryce employs microscopic close-ups of plants to unveil their underlying abstract structures, adding both geometry and poetry to the film’s disciplinary mix.
The piercing beauty of Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document, which plays in Program 1: Acts of Refusal I, results from a radical disjuncture. Early in the film, whose visual approaches and materials range from observation to a Facebook live stream to direct animation on 16mm film, Gary asks Black women and girls on the streets of contemporary Harlem iterations of the question, “Do you feel safe in your body, your environment?” The answers vary, with some invoking the fear of external threats while others avow an inner, often spiritually rooted strength. The film transitions from these street encounters to a radiant image bursting with color—Gary standing amidst a pond strewn with water lilies in Claude Monet’s historic gardens in France. A black-and-white photograph of Monet also appears in Gary’s transfixing montage, as does footage from a live cover of Morris Albert’s “Feelings” by Nina Simone, who speaks over the lyrics about racial violence and civil rights protests.
The jolt of Simone’s words, as she refuses to let her voice merely soothe—her “Feelings” is a protest in a world desensitized to suffering—bristles throughout The Giverny Document. When the film’s mesmerizing mix of street interviews, images from Monet’s gardens, and footage of Simone’s performance gives way to the disorienting live stream of Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, calling for help after Castile’s shooting by the police, the result is confounding and implacable. Circular and repetitive in its progression of images, Gary’s film denies easy resolution, upholding Simone’s bitter truth: “I do not believe in the conditions that produced a situation that demanded a song like that.”
The idea that anger or pain should galvanize us lies at the heart of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s evocative short, Only The Beloved Keeps Our Secrets, which plays in Program 4: Living Among Ruins. It documents the story of Yusuf Shawamreh, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy who was shot down by Israeli soldiers in 2014 after he crossed through the West Bank Separation Barrier in search of Akub, a plant prized in Palestinian cuisine. Grainy black-and-white footage from a surveillance camera shows the boy crossing the barrier, and later, armed Israeli soldiers seemingly carrying his body through it. These dispersed fragments loop and overlap with Internet-sourced footage of Palestinian ritual dancing and chants, images of bombings and the destruction of homes, as well as shots of the spiky Akub plant. Collating the past and present, the film’s perspective unmoors itself from reality and instead assumes a spectral aspect. Told as if from beyond the grave, Only The Beloved establishes a haunting subjectivity denied by the official surveillance-camera footage.
Another perfect complement to The Giverny Document is the sardonic and remarkably inventive Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams, which plays in Program 6: Troublemakers: Subversive Fictions. The film is a project of the Karrabing Indigenous Collective, a group of filmmakers and artists native to northwestern Australia, and features its members, including Rex Edmunds and Linda Yarrowin, as fictionalized versions of themselves. When Linda and Rex’s motorboat fails when they’re out on the sea, they’re forced to set off fire flares—a rescue plea that, when made by boats without safety equipment, incurs a hefty fine. Soon, a police officer drives to Linda’s house with a warrant. Meanwhile, Linda, Rex, and the others deliberate what might have caused the boat’s breakdown, reenacting various versions of the motor incident. Rex’s tale imagines ancestral retribution for white men’s invasion and the abandonment of Aboriginal traditions by younger generations, while Linda’s story has her praying at a church to return home after the motor failure. These skits, which also feature scenes of dead ancestors angered by the neglect of the living, are wonderfully irreverent (“I don’t know about Lord but I know about wiring,” one character tells Linda as they examine the boat’s engine). But they also give full weight to the dramatic and linguistic plenitude of Aboriginal myths and oral traditions, which are opposed to the dense bureaucratic paperwork that Linda has to sign to resolve her fine. The rigid, legalistic lingo of the official documents contrasts wittily with the mighty and fluid expressivity of the Karrabing members’ storytelling. An exhilarating and subversive counter-fiction, Wutharr dismantles accepted notions of authorship by weaving together polysemic perspectives that put each others’ veracity in check, revealing knowledge to be relational and even unwieldy—always in flux. In this sense, the film affirms the Glissantian “poetics of relation,” tracing a wide network of cultural and spiritual potencies that flourish beyond colonizing structures.
Ela Bittencourt is a writer and critic. She currently resides in São Paulo.