Nested Forms

Hito Steyerl, Abstract, 2012, DCP, color, sound, 7 minutes.

THE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL ROTTERDAM has long provided an outlet for short, experimental, or just plain eccentric filmmaking, and in recent years it’s gathered these less classifiable films into a single venue (Lantaren/Venster) and screened them together. In this year’s edition, there was an intensified focus on the process of filmmaking itself, as much from avant-garde film veterans as from artists who have worked their way into the movie theater. Among the latter group was Hito Steyerl, whose two-channel video Abstract was presented as a split-frame film. What begins as a didactic exercise—each side of the screen is labeled “This is a shot” or “This is a countershot”—becomes an essay on the essential grammar of film, one with devastating personal and political consequences. We see as Steyerl does: her image on one side of the frame, filming through her iPhone, and, on the other, the views she records, namely a bombed-out Kurdish rebel cave and the Lockheed Martin offices responsible for manufacturing the weapons used in the attack. For the seemingly vast distances separating these two spaces, they’re bridged by Steyerl’s perspective, and through her eyes the video demonstrates just how proximate the shots of cinema are to those of war.

Mohsen Makmalbaf’s feature documentary The Gardener, part of a program on Iranian cinema, offered a different kind of double take. Best known for his role in Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), where he played himself in a real-life story about a man who impersonated him, Makmalbaf is joined here by his son Maysam as they travel to Israel to investigate the Baha’i faith. Each Makmalbaf takes a camera: The father vows to present a “positive” view of the religion, while the son investigates the “negative.” Since they film each other as frequently as they do the gardens of the Baha’i temple in Jerusalem, The Gardener becomes as much an Oedipal dialectic as it is a discourse on faith.

Multiple views are swapped in Michael Snow’s Reverberlin, which consists of an audio recording of a 2002 improvisational music concert Snow performed, on the piano, with “soundsinger” Paul Dutton and alto saxophonist John Oswald. In the absence of video footage, Snow layered clips of the group from other performances, his cuts dense and frequently superimposed, lending Reverberlin a quality of visual spontaneity not always apparent in his more formally rigid films. Meanwhile, in Erik Moskowitz and Amanda Trager’s Two Russians in the Free World, various views are nested compactly within one another. Depending on how you look at it, the film’s subject is either Moskowitz and Trager’s attempt to edit a film; a billionaire and a Russian performance artist’s path to love; or a trio of “spirits” that, like the Fates in a Greek tragedy, orchestrate events invisibly. All three scenarios dovetail on the computer screen where the video is made and unmade, and the line between art and critical discourse is blurred, especially as the characters’ speech is slowed, multiplied, and set to music.

Gabriel Abrantes also draws from Greek theater in Zwazo, a film obliquely about a production of Aristophanes’s Birds in Jacmel, Haiti. As a barker in a brightly painted truck informs us, Abrantes is not only the director of this local ensemble, but an artist keenly attentive to the process of filmmaking, as well as the problems that attend his outsider view. While Birds can be read as anti-imperialist allegory—the scene Abrantes stages includes the birds’ attack on the men who enter their lair—the locals are less convinced by the play’s cathartic release. “Intoxication won’t make you forget,” raps one man over a car stereo. Zwaso attempts a kind of anti-ethnography, its Haiti largely resistant to the intrusive looks that often attend documentary filmmaking, as well as narratives imported from the West, be they the classical truisms of Aristophanes or the modern glitter of Twilight.

Karen Yasinsky’s Life is an Opinion, Fire a Fact offers another take on cinema. Zooming in on the dancing fuzz of black-and-white video static, images (including meticulously hand-animated frames of a man immolating himself, from Tarkovskiy’s Nostalghia [1983]) appear and recede. The shot moves in reverse, matching the sound of a VCR playing, rewinding, then playing again. Yasinksy approaches found footage in a mode of obsessive viewing, one perhaps familiar to many of us: the way we might run a scene forward and back, or pause on a single, trembling figure. Here though the image always escapes, leaving just a blush of color, a blot in the fog of white noise.

The forty-second edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 23–February 3, 2013.