Run the World

Erika Balsom at the 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam

Shai Heredia and Shumona Goel, An Old Dog’s Diary, 2015, 16 mm and Super 8, black-and-white, sound, 11 minutes 50 seconds.

WAITING FOR MY FLIGHT to Rotterdam among the business travelers of London City Airport, I noticed the room was filled with men in suits. At my quick estimate, the male-to-female ratio stood at approximately nine to one. I began to cast mental aspersions on the sexism of the business world, smugly happy to be well outside it, but then remembered that the field of cinema is not so different. In press screenings the suits disappear but the gender balance remains about the same; ditto for film production. At this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, only thirty-four of the 252 feature films exhibited were directed by women. Short and mid-length works fared better, with women responsible (either solely or in collaboration) for seventy-six of 225 films. But though the festival came nowhere near gender parity—clear evidence that more work remains—Rotterdam did showcase many outstanding films by women, ranging across geography, generation, and genre.

At Lantaren Venster, home to the artists’ film and video programs, works by Rosa Barba, Yto Barrada, Azadeh Navai, Miranda Pennell, and Leslie Thornton testified to the strength and diversity of contemporary women’s practice, offering a welcome antidote to the still-persistent masculinism of some strands of experimental cinema, perhaps most flagrantly exemplified at IFFR by Peter Tscherkassky’s technically astounding yet ultimately dubious skin flick The Exquisite Corpus (2015). Of particular interest were Shai Heredia and Shumona Goel’s An Old Dog’s Diary (2015) and Laida Lertxundi’s Vivir para vivir (2015), both of which appeared as part of the exceptionally strong shorts program “Notes on Film.”

An Old Dog’s Diary reprises the fragmented portraiture of an artistic subject familiar from I Am Micro (2012), Heredia and Goel’s look at independent filmmaker Kamal Swaroop’s attempts to work outside the Indian film industry. Their latest maintains this interest in the relationship between cultural and economic value by engaging with F. N. Souza, one of the first Indian painters to achieve widespread recognition after Independence and currently one of the highest-valued Indian artists on the secondary market. It is not often that one has reason to speak of “surprise endings” in the world of experimental cinema, but An Old Dog’s Diary makes just such an abrupt pivot in its closing moments, and to tremendous effect. Much of its eleven-minute duration consists of gorgeous black-and-white images of mangroves, a reenactment of Christ carrying his cross (befitting Souza’s formation as a Roman Catholic), and Goan domestic interiors, all intercut with Souza’s drawings and accompanied by his first-person narration in the form of subtitles. The film avoids delivering biographical facts to instead atmospherically evoke the circumstances of Souza’s early life in Goa, before concluding with two shots of Souza’s stunning nude Stella Swift (1958) hanging in a domestic interior, accompanied by an auctioneer’s voice on the sound track. The hammer comes down at 1 crore 50 lakhs (roughly $220,000); prices for Souza’s work have since at least quintupled. This quantification stands in stark contrast to the semiotic economy of the rest of the film, which evades the delivery of information so as to insist on a different, less instrumentalized and measurable relation to the art object. In place of financial speculation, Heredia and Goel invite a different form of conjecture, one that joins the acts of seeing and thinking in a poetic encounter.

Laida Lertxundi, Vivir para vivir, 2015, color, sound, 11 minutes.

Quantification also looms large in Lertxundi’s Vivir para vivir, which approaches the vexed relationship between structure and sentiment, or put differently, between representation and experience. “If I want to remember what happened on this trip, what should I do?” This question, drawn from writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, is introduced at the beginning of the film in subtitles on a black screen, situated between shots of a southwestern mountain landscape. Within this frame of memory and desire, Vivir para vivir probes what happens to embodied experience when it becomes entangled with those techniques that seek to make it manageable and intelligible, filmic representation foremost among them. A color grid—the continuity of the chromatic spectrum disciplined into separate hues—cuts to the filmmaker’s own electrocardiogram, while a heartbeat fills the sound track. The West Coast Experimental Pop Band’s “I Won’t Hurt You” begins, marrying the physiological and emotional realms and opening a space between the measurable heart of the ECG and the unmeasurable heart of metaphor. Film, like an ECG, relies on an operation of quantization, sampling physical reality at twenty-four frames per second, but then reconstitutes movement in a qualitative way that denies and exceeds its preliminary rationalization. This tension between segmentation and synthesis is at the core of Vivir para vivir and surfaces with particular reference to cinema when Lertxundi stages a scenario of projection. She first reminds the viewer of the discrete basis of the apparatus before cutting to an extended series of shots of drifting clouds, precisely the motif that art historian Hubert Damisch saw as escaping the grid of linear perspective to revel in indeterminacy. Throughout the film, one gathers short glimpses of Lertxundi’s trip—a cactus, a cellist, a jar of pickles—that temper its conceptualism with diaristic sincerity.

Lertxundi concludes with a metonymical evocation of the ultimate challenge to representation posed by female desire: A sound recording of a female orgasm was visualized and the resulting images used to generate a synthesizer sound track and a pattern of solid color frames. The orgasm itself remains unheard. In their audiovisual abstraction, these closing frames suggest that private experience enters film only through a transformation beyond recognition—but seen in the context of Lertxundi’s practice, this transformation is not to be characterized negatively but understood as a site of distillation and creativity. As the notion of the quantified self becomes a neoliberal buzzword promising self-mastery and increased productivity, Lertxundi leads her viewers to a very different way of considering how life might be at once measured and unmeasurable, and how the cinema might be situated at the very intersection of the two. Never has Lertxundi’s tremendous ability to both continue and contest a predominantly male tradition of experimental filmmaking been as evident as in this intelligent and moving work, in which she continues to be fascinated by structure while casting doubt upon its ability to capture the flux of life.

Elisabeth Subrin, A Woman, A Part, 2016, color, sound, 98 minutes.

Several of Rotterdam’s high-visibility features by women were festival hits from last year, such as Chevalier (2015), Athina Rachel Tsangari’s darkly comic tale of male narcissism and competitiveness, and Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog (2015), a moving reflection on interspecies kinship, grief, and memory. The Tiger Award competition included world premieres of first features by two women with very established reputations as artists, Fiona Tan’s History’s Future and Elisabeth Subrin’s A Woman, A Part (both 2016). While Tan attempted to fuse an amnesia narrative with a wide-ranging quasi-documentary meditation on the future of Europe, resulting in an inability to do justice to either, Subrin’s A Woman, A Part testified to the expansive complexity that can be generated out of a restricted set of parameters when expertly executed. Subrin follows Anna Baskin (Maggie Siff), an exhausted actress on the brink who leaves Los Angeles to return to New York, reuniting with her old friends and artistic collaborators Isaac and Kate. If this sounds like Cassavetes redux, think again: With none of the penchant for hysterics characteristic of the misogynist/genius (to echo Le Tigre), Subrin communicates love for the strength and resilience of her characters despite—or because of—their deep flaws, following them as they navigate changing lives, changing technologies, and a changing city. At the premiere, Subrin described her film as being about “the search for authenticity and how it eludes us in an era of branding”; in this regard, she treads in territory not far from Lertxundi, though proceeds through radically different means. A Woman, A Part’s refreshing departures from the norm are to be found less in the film’s form, which remains rather conventional, and more in its treatment of human subjects, particularly its willingness to push back against hackneyed character types and insist on the need to represent diverse people and experiences onscreen. If only more American independent cinema was this poignant and compelling.

At the CineMart coproduction market, Yael Bartana posed the titular question of her fascinating project-in-development What If Women Ruled the World? in the conditional tense. But women did rule the screens of Rotterdam this year—even if they remained unsettlingly outnumbered.

The forty-fifth International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 27 to February 7, 2016.