Not all of TIFF’s docs end up in TIFF Docs. In recent years, many of the festival’s most interesting documentaries have been screened in the avant-garde program, Wavelengths. This year is no different: with masters like Wang Bing, Ben Russell, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor sharing the bill with younger talents like Sky Hopinka and Laura Huertas Millán, among others, Wavelengths is the place to look for aesthetically challenging documentaries at TIFF.
Days before the launch of TIFF 2017, Wavelengths programmer Andréa Picard sat down with POV editor Marc Glassman and writers Tyler Prozeniuk and Daniel Glassman to talk about the intimate, political, artisanal and essayistic works in this year’s program.
POV: Marc Glassman, Tyler Prozeniuk and Daniel Glassman
Andréa: Andréa Picard
POV: There’s a border, or a semi-permeable membrane perhaps, between documentary and the avant-garde, and I’m wondering what you think about that.
Andréa: I think if you look at the history of Wavelengths—particularly when it merged with Visions, which is when we started showing more feature films—I would say that 40 to 60 percent of the works we have shown have been documentary in some sense. Even in the shorts—this year we have quite a few shorts that have documentary impulses. La Libertad by Laura Huertas Millán, who is from the Sensory Ethnography Lab, is an ethnographic film in the tradition of Chick Strand, and Sky Hopinka’s film Dislocation Blues is a documentary portrait of Standing Rock—it is a documentary, but it’s 30 minutes and it’s done in a very aesthetically moving, beautiful way that makes it fit in Wavelengths.
But I think these impulses have always existed throughout the avant-garde. Do we consider Joyce Wieland a documentary filmmaker, or Stan Brakhage, who really worked with the real and with the body? What is documentary? It’s still a pertinent question whether or not those boundaries within cinema really exist. What I’ve liked about working on Wavelengths is that we’ve been able to showcase the range of cinema. I like to give as an example that the shortest film we’ve ever shown was a 14-second video by a young artist from Chicago, and the longest was probably a 10-hour Lav Diaz film. They both screened in Wavelengths and they are both cinema, and they’ve been spoken about as works of cinema. That’s, I think, a beautiful thing.
Lucien and Véréna Caniba are academics and filmmakers who have studied under the tradition of Robert Gardner. You can look at someone like Ben Russell Good Luck, who is sort of engaging in a Jean Rouchian tradition—was Jean Rouch making documentaries? Were they performative? Were there elements of fiction? I think the two have always been intertwined, and I think that when filmmakers are approaching film as an artistic medium, then we’re going to see those elements arise.
POV: Have you seen any changes in that relationship between documentary and experimental cinema over the past decade?
Andréa: I think that the relationship has always existed within experimental cinema. If you look at even Méliès and the Lumière brothers, those are the two strands that we think about in terms of fiction and documentary, but they both included magic in one way or another. These fictional, magical elements belong to cinema innately.
In terms of the feature-length films, I would say that in the last number of years there is more of a documentary impulse, where fiction filmmakers are incorporating documentary elements. Someone like Miguel Gomes, for instance: Arabian Nights is half documentary and half fiction, and there’s a film that’s very similar this year called The Nothing Factory by Pedro Pinho. He’s a documentary filmmaker and this is his first fiction film. It takes place in an elevator factory on the outskirts of Lisbon, and everyone who appears in the film is a factory worker, so it’s a collective effort to make this film. But those are real bodies; they’re real people; they’re real workers in the film, and they’ve crafted a story out of their real-life situations. I think we’re seeing that more and more.
Narimane Mari, who directed Le fort des fous (which was shown at documenta along with Ben Russell’s and Wang Bing’s films, as well as Caniba) is dealing with a really taboo subject—the residual disasters of the French colonization of Algeria—and given everything that’s happened in France in the last couple of years, this is something that people really don’t want to talk about, because the roots of the problems still exist there, and the segregation of the cultures. So here you have an Alergian–French artist dealing with this topic, but she does it in a very subversive, playful way through re-enactment. But everyone she’s cast in her film, they’re real people; they’re not actors.
So I think there’s this disillusionment with actors and performers, but conversely if you look at the history of cinema, I think that this has always existed, because if you look at someone like Rivette — L’amour fou or Céline et Julie — he would say, “I am making a documentary of my actors and their bodies,” because it’s all performative in front of a camera. Because whether you’re Frederick Wiseman or Jacques Rivette, there are still some similarities there in how people will conduct themselves in front of the camera.
POV: I’m fascinated by the fact that so much of it is now presented as installation art in places like documenta. You see Michael Snow and Vera Frenkel being here at the last gallery show, and I think of Manifesto from a couple of years ago, which starts off as an art project and becomes a kind of hybrid documentary—what is it?
Andréa: It’s more of a performative fiction, I would say.
POV: Do you think so? Every word she says is real; they’re all from manifestoes.
Andréa: Yeah, but it’s not a documentary in my eyes; it’s a performance piece. She’s a performer, and the work is very performative and stylistic, and also the situations that were constructed…It’s very similar to Jeff Wall, for instance—a great photographer, very cinematic, but he stages everything, and I think Manifesto is very much in that vein. Or like Mark Lewis. The Sarah Gadon piece that was at the AGO as well.
POV: Is it the intention of the artist or director that makes it one thing or the other? Or is it how we perceive it?
Andréa: That’s a very large, philosophical question. I think we all have our ideas and notions about what that distinction is, and what is real. I mean, we can talk about André Bazin, and what is cinema and what is realism, and that’s changed too. In our world today—is Trump really real? Everything is so unbelievable. We’re living in surreal times.
Many of the films in Wavelengths this year are political, but not didactically so. So they’re political in ways that humanize things—a lot of localized stories, a lot of portraits of bodies. Denis Coté on bodybuilders, Caniba, a portrait of a body; Ben Russell’s film, a portrait of miners between Suriname and Serbia… So what is it about the distillation and us being very grounded and localized to sort of get us out of these big, declarative statements? I think it’s a very fundamental, human gesture to have to listen and be present. So that is something that I’m seeing in many of the films. I think that there’s a movement toward empathy and listening that we haven’t seen before. I feel like we’re living in really surreal, science-fiction times—a reality TV star becomes the president of the United States of America. How is that possible?
POV: In the past it would have been a subject of satire.
Andréa: Absolutely. But because we live in these big, declarative times and everybody has an opinion about everything, and everything is moving so quickly, many of these films are about testimony and about listening to individual experiences, and I think that’s a change that we’re seeing.
POV: What about the fact that at this point what we might call art documentaries, such as the Denis Coté or the Wang Bing, end up in Wavelengths, whereas 10 or 15 years ago they might have ended up in a more mainstream category?
Andréa: I’ve always wanted to include documentary works within Wavelengths. Denis Coté’s film, for me, is part and parcel with Bestiaire, which was also shown in Wavelengths, and the Wang Bing was of course commissioned for documenta. It’s interesting because Wang Bing screened both in TIFF Docs and at Wavelengths, and he really felt that he connected more with the Wavelengths audience and some of the critics who were writing about his work. I think TIFF Docs is also quite expansive. There’s this beautiful film called Makala that won the prize at Semaine de la Critique, which is very different from some of the interview docs. I think Thom sees a range of films, and he tries to represent different kinds of documentary, whereas I’m more formalistic. Because I don’t have that much space, either.
POV: Do you see any new or emergent themes in experimental cinema, whether aesthetic or in terms of subject matter?
Andréa: I would say that short films are getting longer, and the medium format has definitely risen as a major form, which can be tricky for festivals in programming when there’s not a lot of space. I think the majority of the films I saw were in the 35- to 50-minute range, which I love, because you put your faith in the filmmaker and the artist and you know that that is the right length for them—it’s non-commercial, they’re not selling it to TV, they’re not going to be distributing it in cinemas—so it’s for their own aesthetic reasons. So there’s a lot of strong work in the medium length.
I would say essayistic work is also very strong—films with more abstract imagery but which are thematically based. We still have a number of films on celluloid, so there’s a fair bit of 16 and 35. Unfortunately we can’t show Super 8, but I know that there’s a lot of work out there as well. There have been many, many lab closures, but there are also many that have bound together. There’s a circuit of artisanal labs throughout the world that filmmakers are still using. And in fact, because the shorts programs are so successful, we’re moving it into Cinema 3 [at the TIFF Bell Lightbox], so it’s a bigger cinema this year, and we’re putting 16mm into Cinema 3 for the first time. So I would say that, in addition to the traditional forms of experimental cinema, which are more artisanal, more tactile, there is more political work and more essayistic work.
POV: What about specific thematic concerns, for example, surveillance?
Andréa: Surveillance has been an issue for probably the last decade, and we still see many of those works, and there’s the whole question of post-internet art, and circuitry of images within images. If you look at someone like Harun Farocki, who has been working for almost 50 years and was very prescient, the lineage of Farocki is so strong right now in all these younger artists.
I think colonialism is still a very big topic, particularly given what’s happening in the world around terrorism and migration. I think civil liberties and social justice—filmmakers are becoming more political and more playful at the same time, which I think is really interesting. There’s Michael Robinson’s film Onward Lossless Follows, which we’re launching the shorts program with, which is basically about the decline of America, and it’s hilarious. It’s about finding these little moments of joy and happiness within a crumbling world, and I think that if anybody is going to do that it’s going to be an artist or a filmmaker.
POV: Do you think the avant-garde has become more politicized?
Andréa: It’s always been politicized, but then there have been issues where it’s the politics of the image, or identity politics, queer politics, feminist politics, body politics, and I think all of those things still exist, but whereas the work might have been more didactic 10 years ago, I think we’ve gone beyond that, because I think people felt like it was too laborious in some ways, or the world has become too depressing, and so we have to take certain things lightly. So they’re more playful, more mischievous, pushing buttons in different ways.
POV: Do you feel it’s because we’re questioning the image more? That we don’t necessarily believe in the images that we see?
Andréa: Yeah, I think that it’s the mass consumption of images, and I think that the internet has obviously had a huge impact on the way we view things, and I think that there’s also a slowing down, a deceleration of images in the cinema space—I’m not talking about slow cinema, but I’m talking about Wang Bing’s portraits of people, spending 10 days with someone dying. That does something to our body; that does something to our mind.
POV: The Wang Bing to me is a great film, but it didn’t seem to be obviously Wavelengths material. It’s not obviously an experimental film, except insofar as it looks like an art film and it takes on these allegorical dimensions at a certain point. Where would you draw that line?
Andréa: Wang Bing, for me, is a master. But I think that he’s found a really great, appreciative audience within Wavelengths. I think it depends on the festival and what the festival range has. For instance, he’ll win the grand prize at Locarno, but Locarno is really equivalent with Wavelengths in some ways. That entire festival has a similar vision of auteurist cinema, more artistic cinema than TIFF Docs, which can be more subject-based, even though this is a subject-based film. But this film was commissioned by documenta, so it was shown in an art context. I don’t think it’s difficult; some people might think it’s difficult. But I think you’re right; it could exist between… I think, for me, there’s been a relationship between Masters and Wavelengths in some respects. We showed Chantal Akerman’s last film, and there was a discussion about where that film belonged, because her previous film was in Masters, but we felt like No Home Movie would be best served by Wavelengths. So it’s more how we think the film will be best served by its audience and its critics. Lav Diaz as well, he’s gone between Masters and Wavelengths. Bruno Dumont has also shown in Masters, and now this film is a bit different from his last few films—totally anarchic and fun and a bit experimental, and it has a Straub-Huillet sort of materialism to it. It’s more where we think the film will be better served by its context. But these are permeable too, and it also depends on who’s going to advocate for certain films.
POV: Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s film Caniba looks like it might be the grossest film in the programme…
Andréa: I’d say it’s more disturbing—not only on a visceral, physical level, but on an ideological level, on a theoretical level—in the ways it deals with morality, dignity, monstrosity and evil, but also the ethics of representation and the boundaries of cinema.
Lucien and Véréna, who work out of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, have a very distinctive style, which is very close and very visceral. Those are the ideas behind sensory ethnography. In Caniba they’re dealing with a subject matter that has been thoroughly studied for years—they are anthropologists, and in fact Véréna did a lot of work around cannibalism—and it’s not something that’s gone away. In fact, I think there was a Guardian article last week or the week before about six men who turned themselves in in South Africa saying that they were tired of eating human flesh. You know, there are still cases, so it’s not something that’s just part of history; it’s actually part of modern-day society in some ways, or it’s been relegated to ritualistic forms of religion. So it also implicates cultural relativism, and it’s an area of serious study, and I think the fact that they are anthropologists and filmmakers and they’re merging their research with their stylistic, formal investigations makes it a very powerful piece. And I think that each person who sees it will bring something different to it, because we each have our own triggers around what is evil and whether someone can be rehabilitated.
It calls into all of those questions too, because [Issei Sagawa, the subject of Caniba] has lived as a free man for a very long time. Basically, he was caught in Paris in 1981 for murdering and eating a fellow student at the Sorbonne—he invited her over for dinner to read and study German poetry, killed her, had sex with her and ate part of her. He was deemed unfit to stand trial, was deported and then lived as a free man. And then, because he couldn’t live normally, because it was such a sensational crime, he had to live off his infamy. So he made obscene mangas, he became a sushi critic… It’s really unbelievable, so it says a lot about the context in which he lived, but also I think he saw it as part of his punishment to have to live that life. You can look him up online—there have been many films and sort of pseudo-documentaries, but they’ve done really sensationalist things, and so Lucien and Véréna wanted to stay away from those aspects, so it really is an interview with him. He’s now coming to a point in his life where he’s older; he’s faced with his own mortality; he’s had a stroke, so he’s semi-paralyzed and he’s being taken care of by his brother, and he wants to talk about certain things, and he wants to be eaten himself. And he knows it’s wrong. So the individual triggers will also deal with mental illness and the relationship between sex and death. There’s a twist in the film that I don’t want to reveal, and I didn’t include it in the note either, but the film is very graphic; however, the graphic nature does not replicate cannibalism in any way.
POV: How do you feel about the current state of experimental cinema?
Andréa: I’m consistently impressed and inspired by filmmakers who are making non-commercial films, because it’s such a dedication—it’s their entire lives, and they’re not going to sell these films. And every year, there are 10 to 20 films that I hold so dear, that inspire me so much, and I know that the filmmakers have spent all of their time, their money, their effort, and they’re not going to make a cent off them. They’re not going to sell them to TV. Other than perhaps in Paris, maybe a pocket in New York, they’re not going to sell these films commercially. And the fact that they continue to make work—if you’ve been on the film side, then you know how much effort it takes. And I do think that film is one of the greatest art forms today. I’m an art historian, and painting is my background, but for me film is just as important as great painting. I think every year alternates, and one year may be stronger than another, but there are always works that rise to the top.
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