The American film and video artist Deborah Stratman has made a number of works that use sounds and images in elliptical ways to lead audience members to question their awareness of their own surroundings. Her recent hour-long film The Illinois Parables (2016) tells eleven stories set in the titular state (and, by extension, the United States), between the years 600 C.E. and 1985, that refer to past traumas through voice-over, music, and reenacted scenes combined with present-day landscape studies. The Illinois Parables is distributed educationally in the US by Grasshopper Film and will screen from November 16 to 22, 2016, at Anthology Film Archives in New York, with Stratman appearing in person November 16 and 17.
A PARABLE uses concrete phenomena to illustrate abstract or ephemeral ideas. To realize The Illinois Parables, I made a series of pilgrimages to landscapes filled with physical things: munitions bunkers, chalkboards, riverbanks, go-cart tracks, ice floes, dioramas, cave paintings. I was thinking about historical events that could be understood as ethical dilemmas around which questionable decisions were made: the Indian Removal Act, COINTELPRO operations, nuclear bombs, vigilante mob murders. I was thinking about what we do when faced with something we can’t explicate. I was looking to artifacts and to sites for nuanced perspectives on fraught situations. Think about how something as dumb as the height of a curb has inscribed within it a whole litany of decisions, reflecting trajectories of infrastructure, engineering, commerce, and state power.
The confluence of political and geological forces in any place is unique. I started filming in Illinois for the simple fact that I live here. An artist friend, Kate Brown, had proposed the idea of fifty filmmakers each doing a piece about a state. (She made one about Utah.) My initial balk became a creeping interest in Illinois’s ignominious, random histories. I looked for sites where the threshold was thin between the present and the past, where history is heavy due to an erasure or oppression—of indigenous groups, African Americans, seekers of religious freedom, storm victims, and others.
This thinness could also have been paranormal, a myth grown out of collective anxiety. I was attracted to stories I couldn’t resolve. Irresolution activated the sites, destabilized them, but productively. It was faith I went looking for, but what kept showing up was exodus. So that became an organizing conceit, with each of the film’s eleven chapters containing a journey narrative, or else the seed of some nascent expulsion. The episodes unfold chronologically, but they can stand on their own and be mobile as discrete entities in viewers’ minds.
I chose to shoot The Illinois Parables on 16-mm film partly due to its ungainliness. Pilgrimage means something different to me on celluloid than it does digitally—a strip of gelatin being materially altered by light represents a distinct kind of witnessing. There’s a necessary physicality to the process that mirrors the integrity of site, of traverse. And when I shoot on 16 mm, I also edit on 16 mm. The slowness suits the pace of my thought. The film’s editing is often associative. For example, a cut goes from an X-ray image of a living bird to a close-up of a fake cardinal in the native peoples diorama at the Illinois State Museum—from something monstrous to something quotidian, from something animated to something frozen, with the confluence evoking the uneasy fallout of “progress,” be it scientific or social.
While I was cutting the Parables, I thought a lot about liturgical forms, about how a liturgy is expressed as a communal response to the sacred or the ineffable. I was hoping to evoke the spiritual vis-à-vis the political, and vice versa. I’m interested in reenactments as performed monuments. Belief gets fortified through rituals of repetition, as does history. Reiteration delivers the past.
Making a film about historical events is making a film about today. It is always a combination of two moments, with the gap between past and present as primary charging agent. This is why history needs continually to be revisited, renamed, recounted, interrogated, doubted, reassessed, reenacted.
The resonances between habits of the past (forced removal, for instance) and their contemporary manifestations are part of the Parables’ poetics. What are the ways that we speak history? How does belief fit in? What makes a certain version of events the one that gets passed down? The film doesn’t answer these questions. It only concretizes a manner of asking.