Irony of Ironies

Tony Pipolo on Projections at the 55th New York Film Festival

Anthony Svatek, .TV, 2017, color, sound, 22 minutes.

NEAR THE END of Finnish artist Jaakko Pallasvuo’s Filter, screening at this year’s Projections sidebar of the New York Film Festival, a man wonders, “Why am I watching this movie?” It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves countless times and one we assume programmers of film festivals wrestle with as they decide what merits attention. Given the current political climate, it’s not surprising that many works in this year’s Projections were selected in light of growing concerns about the expanding list of endangered species—not only of the racial, gender, ethnic, and environmental varieties, but democratic values and ethics. The incurably reflexive Filter does not directly address these issues, but it concedes that all experience is perceived through distorting filters and unwittingly demonstrates that ironizing is often part of the problem.

Those who forgo irony in favor of artistic and moral forthrightness are more indispensable than ever. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s riveting Rubber Coated Steel, which won the short-film award at the Rotterdam Film Festival earlier this year, is a prime example of the artist who addresses political and social issues through a vigorous command of form. Born in Jordan, the filmmaker has a remarkable gift for listening—a “private ear” whose expertise not only defines his art but has led to his bearing witness when necessary.

Steel is an audio analysis of a case from May 2014 in which two unarmed Palestinian teenagers were killed by Israeli soldiers on the West Bank. The prosecution claimed that the soldiers fired live ammunition immediately after using rubber bullets, to cover their actions and elude investigation; further, they argued that such ruses had been used frequently to murder protesters. But for a few photographs—one which captured a bullet midair—Abu Hamdan uses neither the actual sounds of the event nor newsreels nor reenactments, instead setting the scene in a concrete tunnel-like space in which visual data moves back and forth on ceiling rails while the transcript of the trial appears in subtitles. This suppression of human and mechanical sounds induces an acute attentiveness in which the viewer must discern in blow-ups of sound frequencies the difference between real and rubber bullets. While the facts would appear to establish an open-and-shut case, the movie ends on an ambiguous note. Visitors in the court are asked to provide supporting testimony but no one comes forward; the screen goes black and the judge’s gavel is the last thing we hear. This is a work of audiovisual power that stands out in an atmosphere glutted with all kinds of cacophony.

Peter Burr, Pattern Language, 2017, video, black-and-white, sound, 10 minutes.

More personal but no less culturally resonant is Turkish filmmaker Nazli Dincel’s Shape of a Surface, an extraordinary exercise in first-person cinema, filmed in 16 mm. We first hear, and then see, the filmmaker’s sandaled feet via a high-angle shot from her handheld camera as she ascends time-worn rocky steps, pausing at the top to raise the camera and pan across the area, revealing the remains of a Greek amphitheater (the Aphrodisias ruins in western Turkey). No sooner does this register than we hear the salat, one of the daily calls to prayer in the Muslim world. As if to compound the contrast, the filmmaker holds a mirror, alternately confusing or conflating shots of the site with its reflection. With such simple hands-on means, she evokes not only a cultural divide but also the bearing it has on consciousness, perception, and physical existence—in short, questions of identity and place. From the start, the viewer is immersed in a filmic reality inseparable from the physical existence of the filmmaker, forced to accompany her, so to speak, on this personal journey. Questions arise: Are the shots of a bride and groom against these ruins of the ancient Greek city of love intended to mock their reduction to a cheap commercial backdrop? When Dincel cuts from a sculpture of a male nude to a bare chest, is she contrasting the Greek ideal to the real, or is she reflecting an internal struggle with another mirror image, of where she belongs within her conjurations of cultural spaces, past and present?

Peter Burr’s Pattern Language is further testament to the creative potential of computer-generated imagery, a visually stunning series of black-and-white graphics accompanied by a mesmeric sound design. The felicitous way animated human figures are incorporated within geometric grids prompts us to wonder which “species” controls which. A less benign view of our technological future is offered in G. Anthony Svatek’s .TV, a deadly serious but wittily poised prophecy of environmental oblivion. The title is the official domain extension given to Tuvalu, a group of Polynesian islands in the South Pacific. With a land mass totaling only ten square miles, Tuvalu is the world’s fourth-smallest nation and the 189th member of the United Nations. A warning voice from cyberspace, in the future, tells of Tuvalu’s final days, when it sinks into the sea. As it speaks of the “faceless threat eating away at its shore,” we watch alluring images of the island paradise with the bluest of seas and sun-drenched beaches. The acerbic punch line of Svatek’s work, as the voice intones, is that while Tuvalu itself has “vanished”—that is, from the point of view of the future—internet and industry experts declare that the websites of the domain, .TV, are too valuable to be terminated and are therefore protected from the fate of the islands and their inhabitants, assuring us of the ultimate triumph of capitalism.

Other short works deserving attention include: Rosalind Nashashibi’s Vivian’s Garden, a lovely portrait of Swiss Austrian artists Vivian Suter and Elisabeth Wild living in Guatemala, and arguably the series most lyrical film; Marta Mateus’s Barbs, Wastelands, which owes something to the work of Pedro Costa in its elliptical, enigmatic play with character and narrative; Luis Lopez Carrasco’s Aliens; and the five-film tribute to seasoned filmmaker Barbara Hammer, all of them preserved by the Academy Film Archive.

Barbara Hammer, Women I Love, 1976, color, sound, 23 minutes.

The feature-length works this year could not be more diverse. At 143 minutes, Ben Russell’s Good Luck is the longest, at once bluntly conceived and elusive. In the first of its two equal parts, Russell follows Serbian copper miners, filming them at work and engaging in conversation during breaks. The elevator that returns him to ground level seems to go on forever before the film cuts dramatically to another setting: Suriname, a country bordering French Guyana on the northeast coast of South America, where Russell films an illegal band of gold miners. His long takes capture the spatial and temporal dimensions of each site. Time seems suspended in the cramped and dark interiors of the mine, while the open, sunny vistas of the second part lend a languorous air to the workers. In both cases, the ambience exerts a power over these men beyond anything we learn from the dialogue. Russell’s questions are met with clichéd responses—as if, wary of this outsider with the movie camera, the men are reluctant to volunteer too much. Nevertheless, as they’re aware that they work for powers beyond their control, their demeanor speaks volumes.

Vera Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Caniba pushes the boundaries between aesthetics and revulsion even further than the filmmakers’ previous work, Leviathan (2012). Their subject is Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who murdered and ate the body parts of his female lover in Paris in 1981––he was tried in court, declared insane, and eventually released. Now older and feeble, he lives in Tokyo off his infamous history while continuing to disseminate sadomasochistic fantasies through home-drawn comic books. Apparently eschewing moral judgment, the filmmakers pursue an in-your-face style that alternately mesmerizes and repels. For long stretches, we watch restless, claustrophobic close-ups of Sagawa’s face as he muses over the past, an effect that tends to isolate him from the natural surround while daring the camera’s powers to detect hidden signs of what constitute the boundaries of the human. Home movies show him and his brother with their parents in what appears to be a normal childhood. But this impression is belied by the images of sexual and physical abuse and mutilation in the comics that suggest an ongoing condition, which his brother, Jun, for all his complaints, seems to share. While experts in sexual pathology may find this document rich in clinical data, viewers may be of mixed minds, with more than a few making their way toward the exit.

Kevin Jerome Everson, Tonsler Park, 2017, 16 mm, black-and-white, 80 minutes.

Race and human nature are front and center (and raucously mocked) in the must-see restorations of the films of Mike Henderson. Born in Missouri in 1944, Henderson taught drawing, painting, and filmmaking in the Art Department at the University of California, Davis. His 16-mm movies from the 1970s and 1980s, he insisted, were made for himself as a way of coming to terms with his experiences as a black man in America. Home movies or not, the eight presented in Projections radiate a genius and wit that belie their modesty. In Dufus (1970–73), we watch a makeshift “theater” space as different figures emerge from a door marked to designate social stereotypes. Each one enters, does a turn, and exits, accompanied by Henderson’s laconic voice-over mimicking their unspoken thoughts. Hands down, these are the funniest and most biting takes on character and race I’ve seen in a dog’s age.

On a more serious note, Kevin Jerome Everson’s Tonsler Park is a work of great beauty, simplicity, and hope. Everson takes on a public institution, fixes his camera unwaveringly, avoids overt filmic manipulation, and eschews commentary of any kind. While Frederick Wiseman comes to mind, it’s worth noting that he never tackled a polling site on election day, no less one seemingly run entirely by African Americans. The doc opens as a black woman swears in a group of volunteers who will serve as pages at several precincts in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the 2016 presidential election. Some stand at the entrance to guide people; others sit at the tables, check IDs, and otherwise assist voters. The seamless, unruffled manner is reflected in Everson’s long takes, the camera focused patiently on each volunteer performing his or her job efficiently, cordially, and without fuss. If Everson harbors a subtle irony, this white male liberal missed it entirely. What I grasped is a document, the directness and sincerity of which is grounded in every ten-minute take of the welcoming faces and earnest demeanors of the volunteers as voters enter and leave the frame, momentarily blocking our view, in a well-coordinated flow. What we witness, in short, is a white supremacist’s nightmare—aka American democracy in action. Essential to the movie’s impact is that Everson does not belabor the “point.” Tonsler Park is not just a forthright counterpoint to the deluge of violent images and condescending sermonizing offered by mainstream media. It’s an act of artistic and political clout that should run as a permanent installation on museum walls across the country in a continuous loop.

The Projections sidebar runs October 6 through 9 at the New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.