Collective Records: New York Film Festival's Currents

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The shorts program of the New York Film Festival's experimental sidebar provoked questions of how to orient ourselves in our unstable world.

By Emma Piper-Burket

Experimental film for me has always been one of the best ways of gauging our collective subconscious, perhaps that’s why—before outlining any of the short films in the Currents sidebar of this year’s New York Film Festival—I find myself wanting to provide some sort of orientation for the moment that we now find ourselves in. Of course, it’s an impulse accompanied by an equal measure of resistance. How, in a few short lines, is it possible to meaningfully locate or make sense of what we have collectively (and individually) gone through over the past year and a half? Instead, perhaps we could simply pause to acknowledge the losses we have experienced in this period; not only the material or personal losses, but also the immaterial ones: the stripping away of any sense of sureness, of the illusion of forward momentum, or clear understanding of what it means to be alive in the 21st century.

This is what was in the back of my mind while watching the eight Currents programs. As I watched, I searched for clues—anything that might give release or understanding to this persistent feeling of being on the precipice of something not yet visible, perhaps even still forming.

To its credit (and perhaps detriment too in some ways, but no need to dwell there), this year’s Currents program is extremely diverse in form, geography, and voice. The 35 films in the shorts program range from more traditional-feeling narrative and documentary pieces and a scant serving of avant-garde, to the most richly represented category: a varied array of essay films. It occurred to me that such a globally oriented sampling of consciousness made during this unique period could be structured into a cosmology of sorts, one that might help explain our collective psyche at this peculiar moment in time.

This cosmology provides no origin story, it will not be a source of truth for centuries to come (not even decades, or years: it is just for right now) and perhaps most importantly, it is not linear. Rather, it circles around and doubles over on itself with 20 browser tabs open at a time.

“How to separate signals from noise?” Pablo Martín Weber asks in his essay film Homage to the Work of Philip Henry Gosse. It is a question that deeply resonates. Over the course of 22 minutes Weber draws connections between the exponentially growing stream of digital images (500,000 images from the Mars Curiosity Rover, 100 hours of contraband ISIS footage, et cetera) and the life work of Philip Henry Gosse: naturalist, contemporary of Darwin, obsessive collector of fossils. Gosse sought to answer the question of how old the earth was. Being a deeply religious man but also observant of what the fossils told him about the earth’s timescale, he came up with a theory that God created the earth in accordance with Biblical records but did so both forwards and backwards. Weber recounts this history, comparing Gosses’ idea of a God who “creates retroactively” to the work of a computer programmer today, digitally altering images, adding elements that weren’t originally there.

This notion of the untrustworthiness of visual documents and artifacts, and how that affects our perceptions of (and orientation in) time and space, recurs again and again throughout the program in countless ways.

Miranda Pennell’s Strange Object examines the imperial project and its legacy by taking viewers through a journal of aerial images of Jidali Fort in Somaliland that is housed in the National Archives in London. The fort was destroyed by the British in 1920; it was the first site in Africa to be bombarded in an air raid. As Pennell’s camera studies the images, zoomed in to near-abstraction, we get lost in their geometry. In a gentle trance-like state brought on by the slow succession of photo-fragments, Pennell questions the mechanisms that create the narrative after the fact, implicating the subjectivity of historical record, “What if there is no past? What if the white gloves are there, not to protect the past, but to make visitors believe that the past exists?” This historical questioning takes a more contemporary turn in Tiffany Sia’s Do Not CirculateShe describes the “Rashomon-like effect” of cell phone footage of police brutality during the 2019 Hong Kong protests, playing and replaying the events from a multitude of angles but getting no closer to the truth.

The reworking of documented truths also comes out in the self-reflexive narrative structure of Guillermo Moncayo’s (No Subject). The first portion of the film tells the story of a zookeeper who is injured and nursed back to health by his estranged daughter. Blurred credits roll on this simple tale, and the filmmaker wakes up from a dream on an airplane. In voiceover, he reads a letter to his sister detailing the film he wanted to make, how he had a persistent idea to adapt the story of their childhood, and troubled relationship with their father, into the script we just saw (but eliminating himself). He says that he realized that his impulse to tell this story was only a mechanism through which he could attempt to process their childhood together. Here it is not the image that is called into question, but the entire narrative device. Making a thing, showing it, and then retracting it and retelling it from a deeper layer, inching ever closer to the core of the matter.

These small nods to the precarity of our subjective experiences go beyond theme or narrative structure, traversing into film form as well. Tomonari Nishikawa’s Six Seventy-Two Variations, Variation 1 plays with the structural rewriting of history by literally marking and re-marking film leader as it goes through a loop over the course of a 25-minute live performance, with each layer adding more to both the visual and audio tracks. The image and sound that is added each pass around the loop does not vary, but the work creates a sense of anticipation- what will it look/sound like with more? How will what was there before change? Daïchi Saïto’s unspeakably sublime earthearthearth asks a similar question, transporting us simultaneously to the beginning of time, the end of time, and those quiet moments in between of pure existence. With its layers upon layers of horizon moving outside the realm of known perception, yet still feeling deeply familiar, earthearthearth somehow manages to root us deeply to where we are by rendering it barely recognizable. It is worth noting that the piece was commissioned by Oona Mosna as part of the Underground Mines series (Malena Szlam’s 2018 Altiplano was the first commission of the series, and another stunning example of perception-shifting landscape). Tonalli, the latest incantation by Mexican film collective Los Ingrávidos, uses superimpositions and a rhythmic repetition to create a visual and auditory ritual that also takes the viewers outside of linear time. Many moons dance on top of each other in a single frame, interacting with the plants and flowers that bloom on the earth below. Are we witnessing the representation of a single moment from multiple angles, or of many distinct moments happening all at once?

Richard Tuohy and Dianna Barrie’s In and Out a Window takes the distortion of time and space into the domestic sphere, focusing on a single window in what could be their home. For most of the film, the camera is placed inside, looking out to the garden on the other side. Inside the room is dark, invisible save for a few brief moments; outside the garden, outlined by the thick window frame, shifts size and orientation in rhythmic motion, giving a sense of both the passage of time and offering a nod to the myriad of emotions that unfold within the contained space inside the house. It is both claustrophobic and liberating as the camera shifts to the other side of the glass towards the end, revealing more clearly the room inside.

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