Pie with Dignity

Melissa Anderson on the 22nd Images Festival

Left: Louise Bourque, Going Back Home, 2000, still from a color film in 16 mm, 1 minute. Right: Duncan Campbell, Bernadette, 2008, still from a film in 16 mm transferred to DVD, 37 minutes.

NIBBLING ON FREE PIE at the 22nd Images Festival, Toronto’s annual springtime showcase of contemporary moving-image culture, I realized that I had never attended a series that combined solid programming of experimental film and video with such a gracious welcoming of artists and audiences. Most of the screenings were held, curiously, in the auditorium of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on Queen Street West, giving the festival an occasional Titicut Follies–like ambience that simultaneously belied the actual calm and orderliness of the festival’s proceedings and underscored experimental work’s potential to blow your mind.

Though Isabell Spengler’s video The Pitch (2007) isn’t particularly accomplished visually, the work’s logorrhea is fascinating to listen to. An off-screen voice—a hard-to-place Teutonic-Texan twang—recapitulates the loopy details of an idea for making an “Easy Rider for girls” to a fleshy woman in sunglasses and a fur hat. As the plot descriptions become crazier, involving “Diet Coke cans on their pussies” and “nanotechnology fingernails,” The Pitch achieves bonkers verbal virtuosity. Similarly, Loren Hartman’s video Holy Smokes! (2007) might also be called How to Do Things with Words, featuring several bilious, audacious rants that seem inspired by the vicious faggotry of Leonard Frey’s Harold from The Boys in the Band (1970), who makes a ghostly appearance.

The phantom menace was also present in Mary Billyou’s haunting video 1–9 (2008), which consists of early-twentieth-century footage of convulsing figures that have been whited out, eerily ministered to—or further harmed?—by tweed-suited men. Filmmaker Louise Bourque, the subject of this year’s Canadian Artist Spotlight, has spent most of her twenty-year career exploring the haunting effects of the past on the present, returning again and again, in works such as Imprint (1997), to the exterior of a home, a little girl running to the porch. Beautifully manipulating the image through hand tinting, hole punching, and negative printing, Bourque awakens the primal memories of childhood.

More provocative evocation of the past was found in Duncan Campbell’s video, one of the strongest titles at Images, about the Irish activist Bernadette Devlin, who in 1969, at age twenty-one, became the youngest member of British Parliament. Opening with fragmented, black-and-white shots of the floor of a cell, a foot, and a hand before proceeding to an assemblage of archival footage of the pint-size, gap-toothed firebrand, Bernadette reclaims a revolutionary hero without attempting to lionize or explain her (as Aisling Walsh’s upcoming biopic The Roaring Girl, with Happy-Go-Lucky’s Sally Hawkins as Devlin, will almost certainly do). As interpreted by Campbell, Devlin remains an elusive star in her own clip reel.

Freedom fighters of a far different sort are the focus of Deborah Stratman’s superb film O’er the Land (2009), which, in fifty-one minutes, captures, as the artist herself put it, “iconic representations of how nationhood is defined.” That nation would be the USA, home of French and Indian War reenactments in Kokomo, Indiana; high school football games in Arlington Heights, Illinois; machine-gun festivals; and border policing—both to the south and the north, with a long take of Niagara Falls having a near-hypnotic effect after so much firepower. Yet whereas borders are vigilantly guarded in Stratman’s work, the Images Festival excels by doing precisely the opposite: presenting ten days of challenging work while always seeking to engage, never shut out, its audience.

The 22nd Images Festival ran April 2–11 in Toronto.