Shorts Circuit

Erika Balsom on shorts at the 44th International Film Festival Rotterdam

Thibault Le Texier, L’Invention du desert (The Invention of the Desert, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 7 minutes.

IS THERE A MAJOR FILM FESTIVAL that takes artists’ film and video as seriously as Rotterdam? What too often figures as a marginalized sidebar emerges here as a key focus, with dozens of screenings covering the broad spectrum of experimental practice. From curated programs to installations in hotel rooms open 24/7, from gorgeous photochemical film to the wilds of digital psychedelia, from an eight-performance retrospective by Bruce McClure to the world premiere of Kevin Jerome Everson’s eight-hour Park Lanes (2015), Rotterdam had it all.

In the shorts section, several standout films explored the affective resonances of place. Luke Fowler’s Depositions (2014) worked with footage from the BBC Scotland archive to posit fading ways of life as a challenge to the present, while Nicolas Boone’s Bailu Dream (2015) led the viewer in a single take through an area in Sichuan, China, destroyed by an earthquake in 2008 and reconstructed as a copy of a French village. Revisiting locations of Vertigo in the wake of a friend’s suicide, Mary Helena Clark’s The Dragon Is the Frame (2014) reminds the viewer with lyric beauty that the first trauma in Hitchcock’s classic statement on the fragility of appearances is not the apparent suicide of Madeline Elster but the loss of a friend. In The Old Jewish Cemetery (2014), Sergei Loznitsa employs grainy black-and-white 16-mm film to trace with precision what were once the borders of Riga’s Jewish ghetto. Throughout, fragments of a commemorative plaque offer clues of what might have taken place in the impoverished neighborhood, but it is not until the film’s conclusion that the inscription is readable in full. While so much documentary practice traffics in excavating visible traces, Loznitsa delivers a portrait of place replete with absence and implication.

Despite their immense formal and thematic differences, these four films share an investment in using the camera to capture fleeting moments of life that remain beyond the filmmaker’s control. Fowler does so while explicitly articulating a broader critique of standardization, but all adopt cinematographic styles that emphasize the contingency and chance of recording. Thibault Le Texier’s L’Invention du desert (The Invention of the Desert, 2014) appropriates images from computer-generated architectural renderings found online to stage the horror of a world in which this vulnerability of the real has been entirely tamed by machines. Simulacra of shopping malls and apartments are accompanied by a voice-over recounting how the singularity has arrived and computer intelligence has overtaken humanity: “The perpetual movement of life was no longer adapted to us—so we got rid of it.” This perpetual movement—in all its unruliness and mundanity—is precisely what comes through in the work of Fowler, Boone, Clark, and Liznitsa. It takes on an ethical charge when set against the fantasies of control and mastery that inhere in the worlds fabricated by computers, calculated as they are down to the last pixel.

Such questions of how different forms of imagemaking configure their relation to the real are at the heart of Ben Rivers’s Things (2014), which shared this year’s Tiger Award for Short Film with Ben Russell’s Greetings to the Ancestors (2015) and Safia Benhaim’s La Fièvre (A Spell of Fever, 2015). In a four-part structure based on the seasons, Rivers fruitfully moves into more thoroughly semiotic territory than in any of his previous work, though without losing any of his trademark sensitivity. The film opens with the famous image of the bird-headed man from the Lascaux caves before cutting to a picture of a woman that could have been pulled from a 1950s pulp novel. Millennia apart, these shots stage the persistence of the anthropological desire for the production of images of ourselves. This notion undergirds the film’s twenty minutes, as Rivers creates a self-portrait through objects and images that form an intimate part of his life. But in so doing, he also grapples with the specific limitations and affordances of a host of forms of representation, including photography, literature, drawing, and sculpture. In reading Robert Pinget’s Fable (1971), he finds an image obscene in cinema but communicable in literature; in a squirrel’s hilarious encounter with his carved-coconut double, he provides an account of sculptural tangibility. The final section, “Autumn,” is a CGI rendering of the filmmaker’s apartment that echoes the interiors of L’Invention du desert. On the soundtrack, Rivers periodically sighs as a machinic eye roves through the space. In the film’s closing shot, a digitally rendered hand reproduces the Lascaux painting on the digitally rendered wall, but there is a key difference between original and copy: The buffalo and rhinoceros that had surrounded the man are gone. Nature has been vanquished and the man is left alone with the small bird, modeled after his own image—a seeming allegory of CGI’s estrangement from the vicissitudes of the world.

Alexandre Larose, brouillard - passage #14, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 10 minutes.

In 1920s French film theory and practice, superimposition was hailed as a way of claiming film as art by injecting subjectivity and making clear that the image was no mere copy of reality. By 1946, in “The Life and Death of Superimposition,” André Bazin argued that this once-vital technique had become but a cheap and ineffective convention for representing the supernatural. At Rotterdam, superimposition was alive indeed, appearing as a privileged device in the work of numerous filmmakers, often to striking visual effect. Positively virtuosic was Alexandre Larose’s exquisite brouillard – passage #14 (2014), a single unedited roll of 35-mm film exposed thirty-nine times as the filmmaker walked down a forest path to the water. But in works such as Basim Magdy’s The Dent (2014) and The Many Colors of the Sky Radiate Forgetfulness (2015), Ben Russell’s Atlantis (2014), and Filipa César’s Mined Soil (2015), forms of multiple exposure and rephotography function as more than an aesthetic; they provide a way to negotiate between reality and representation, leapfrogging over Bazin’s dismissive understanding of superimposition to return to the complex interplay of recording and subjective intervention that characterized its use in the ’20s.

Two terrific films married historical strategies of abstraction with a contemporary interest in cultural reference. Jodie Mack’s Razzle Dazzle (2014) might appear as a pretty, glittery bauble, and indeed it is. But as a flicker film constructed of brocaded and sequined fabrics, it should also be understood as a feminist intervention into the austere tradition of Color Field abstraction most closely associated with Paul Sharits, the subject of a documentary by François Miron that made its international premiere at the festival. Mack works with the tactility and luminosity of these textiles, playfully posing their chintzy cultural associations as a challenge to modernist purity. Jean-Paul Kelly’s The Innocents (2014) concludes with an abstract passage of colored circles that recalls the visual music tradition. This closing section retrospectively sheds light on the film’s opening, in which a series of found photos—including images of Julian Assange and pornography—are punctured by holes colored around the edge. These rhyming sections bookend a reenactment of the Maysles’ Truman Capote documentary, in which fiction and reality merge. Together, the film’s three parts work to question how style and representational convention shape our encounter with supposedly “true” images.

Three reels from Anne Charlotte Robertson’s Five Year Diary (1981–97), recently restored by Harvard Film Archive, offered an utterly singular experience as devastating as it was rewarding. These intimate Super 8 chronicles of mental illness, environmental concern, and daily experience have a split sound track, with one channel consisting of Robertson speaking in states of psychic distress, while the other offers her more lucid reflections on sound, image, and life. Addressed to her future true love and conceived partly as a form of therapy, these films possess a candor that far surpasses most of what gets called “diary film,” to the point that they are sometimes uncomfortable to watch. But even so, if the eighty-five minutes exhibited at Rotterdam are any indication of the quality of the thirty-six-hour opus, Five Year Diary is a major work deserving of a central place in the history of women’s experimental filmmaking—something that sadly eluded Robinson in her lifetime.

The forty-fourth International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 21–February 1, 2015.