Focus on Festivals

Reflections on Wavelengths

Report from TIFF’s 2017 experimental programme

La Libertad
Courtesy of TIFF


First things first: Wavelengths, the experimental and avant-garde program curated by Andréa Picard, is pretty clearly the best thing TIFF has going for it. Here, as nowhere else, the celebrity-centric mediocrity of much of the rest of the festival gives way to genuine uncompromising artistry. There are great films outside its purview, of course — Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Faces, Places are as wonderful as everybody says—but Wavelengths isn’t just about the films it plays; it’s about the community it hosts and the culture it fosters. It might as well be its own festival.

For most of its history, Wavelengths comprised just four shorts programs, but in the past five years, since being merged with TIFF’s Visions section, it’s grown to include, at times, over a dozen features. These range from what might be called genuinely experimental fare, like 2016’s I Had Nowhere to Go by video artist Douglas Gordon or this year’s 3-D film PROTOTYPE by Blake Williams, to what might be better classified as classic arthouse film, including formally challenging documentaries by masters like Sergei Loznitsa, Lav Diaz’s marathon melodramas and Matías Piñeiro’s various iterations of intertextual play. That expanded mandate has basically divided TIFF-goers into two groups: those who only look at the Wavelengths program (with maybe a glance at Masters) and those who don’t really register the program’s existence.

Yeti
Courtesy of TIFF


In spite of that increased mandate, though, the shorts programs remain the beating heart of Wavelengths. Picard confirmed as much in her introduction to the first program of TIFF 2017, saying that although there had already been Wavelengths screenings, the first shorts program felt like the real launch.

Each program is given a suggestive, imagistic title — Appetite for Destruction, Fluid Frontiers, Figures in a Landscape and As Above, So Below — but it would be reductive to think of them as just narratives or variations on a single theme. There are, instead, dialogues between the works in each program and a range of interconnected themes. Withal, each film remained complete unto itself but was also illuminated by its context.

***

The Watchmen
Courtesy of TIFF


True to its name, much of Appetite for Destruction seems like the post-apocalyptic detritus of a world destroyed through blasé excess. The sheer camp psychedelia of Michael Robinson’s Onward Lossless Follows, the first film on the bill, centres around what looks like a VHS PSA (or thriller) transformed via text into a perverse romance, and juxtaposes that with the rantings of an anti-science preacher and scenes from a suburban backyard. Fern Silva’s The Watchmen, an ambiguous piece seeming to derive from Foucault’s analysis of the panopticon, takes up that apocalyptic vibe, as does Dane Komljen’s Phantasiesätze, which moves from quasi-home movie footage of a pleasant family camping trip into a foreboding study of the imposition of human-made architecture in nature.

The lovely and impressionistic Wasteland No. 1Ardent, Verdant by Jodie Mack, which juxtaposes quick montages of flowers and circuit boards in classic 1960s experimental fashion, and Francesco Gagliardi’s some cities, a two-minute one-shot silent short in which disembodied hands play around with lightbulbs, initially seem slight in comparison with the rest of Appetite for Destruction, but, insofar as they play with themes of the ambivalence of technology and nature, counterbalance the darker sensations of the rest of the program.

The melancholic-utopian Dislocation Blues, Sky Hopinka’s poetic documentary about Standing Rock, proves a fitting conclusion, taking up almost all those themes and grounding a sense of hope in hard-won insights. Dislocation Blues is narrated by two Standing Rock participants, one seen on a Skype screen, the other unseen; for the TIFF screening, the visible narrator took Hopinka’s place for the audience’s questions.

The point is not so much to tell the story of Standing Rock as it is to meditate on the two subjects’ reflections on the new kind of collective consciousness and subjectivity that emerged in that space, that experience. The standard narrative of DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline), with its water protectors and militarized police, is relegated to the background of stories about identity and belonging; conventional categories give way to the kind of transcendent hope that is grounded in the experience of a radical event. The film smartly eschews the aggressive rhetoric and agitprop montage of classic revolutionary-political filmmaking in favour of slow, reciprocal engagement and encouragement. It’s a quiet film, to be sure, but its subtlety and looseness shouldn’t be mistaken for anything other than an attempt—necessarily partial and subjective—at a revolutionary embodiment of Standing Rock consciousness.

***

Fluid Frontiers
Courtesy of TIFF


In Fluid Frontiers, the titular film of the second program, director Ephraim Asili has people in Detroit and Windsor read Civil Rights-era poems published by Dudley Randall’s groundbreaking Detroit-based Broadside Press against a backdrop of local sites of historical importance. It’s all about voice: reclaiming a vital tradition of local politics and poetry, especially pertinent in a place that erases that tradition in a discourse centred on poverty, violence, displacement, and gentrification.

The biggest name in the second program, Kevin Jerome Everson, whose films deal principally with the lives and labours of working-class Black Americans, presents a film that resonates with Asili’s in terms of subject matter, but is a much more minimal, formalist affair. Everson shoots in extreme close-up the repetitive labour of a barman transferring liquor between bottles, which pulsate in and out of abstraction. Its closeness recalls La Libertad and perhaps even Caniba, but Everson’s approach is even more austere, never veering from what he first trains his camera on.

Following Everson’s film is Rawane Nassif’s film Turtles Are Always Home. It’s a startling, uncanny, beautiful film, visually polished in a way that avant-garde films don’t tend to be. It looks like it was shot in a depopulated dollhouse (or The Sims) version of Venice: pastel-coloured houses, picturesque bridges and eerily manicured parkettes immaculately arranged around perfectly turquoise canals underneath permanently blue skies. Partway through the film, distorted figures start to appear, first in reflections, then in cutouts, and the film eventually turns into a slightly terrifying deconstruction of artifice and the idea of home and belonging in the strange non-place it’s set in. As it turns out, that fake Venice, which looks computer-simulated, is real: it’s an artificial island in Doha, Qatar called Qanat, which serves a taste of the Riviera lifestyle for the Gulf state’s nouveau riche—“Venetian charm meets Arabian chic,” says the developer’s website. There’s the sense that the megalomania of the 21st-century capitalist imagination and its real effects on the physical world have actually outstripped artists’ imaginations; one task of the avant-garde now is simply to reflect the insanity of living among that grandiosity, which is at once surreal and utterly banal, and locate and advocate for pockets of resistance wherever they are to be found.

Preceding Asili’s film and standing somewhat alone is Rosa Barba’s From Source to Poem, perhaps the highlight of the program. Visually the film oscillates between the cold interiors of the archives of the Library of Congress and plots of arid desert filled with radar arrays, while the soundtrack mixes abstract electronics with decayed reel-to-reel tapes documenting American life in the early era of audio recording. The effect is an evocation of an archival impulse that grows ever more totalizing with the onward march of technology, while flattening memory into the universal form of data. At the same time Barba’s film manifests the poetic potential of the archive as a space out of time. From Source to Poem is fittingly preceded by a film by Lucy Parker that dwells on the ur-technology of fire. The program also features two films that fit within a more standard poetic vernacular: Friedl Vom Groller’s Ticino and Helga Fanderl’s Configuration in Black and White.

***

Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt
Courtesy of TIFF


Wavelengths 3: Figure in a Landscape begins with the strong thematic pairing of Yoni Brook and Pacho Velez’s Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt and Wojciech Bakowski’s Yeti, both dealing with everyday uses of technology. Bakowski’s film recalls the work of German film essayist Harun Farocki (Leben: BRD in particular) in its almost scientific gaze and its preoccupation with the uses of consumer objects and their place within industrial systems of production, and Bakowski has a similar sense of humour (a man tests the durability of a pair of dress shoes by repeatedly ascending and descending the same step on a staircase, resembling a glitched-out character in a video game). Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt presents a similarly repetitious, though more believable scenario—a commuter continuously attempts to enter the New York subway system with a magnetic card and is denied each time, while a fixed bird’s-eye camera suggests, perhaps, an unseen orchestrator. Arriving later in the program, but with a greater resonance with these first two films, is Sara Cwynar’s Rose Gold, which, in a rapid collage of images that are themselves collages, along with a fragmentary, overlapping voiceover, inducts the viewer into the secrets of a cult of colour and objects. Taking the mysterious, talismanic charm of the “rose gold” iPhone as its point of departure, Cwynar leads a meditation on the affective and ideological properties of colour within the universe of commodities.

Minjung Kim’s _ follows the coupling of _Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt and Yeti, resembling a performance art piece but for the low-gauge stock that asserts a specifically filmic dimension. Two figures in a static landscape walk in step along a line traced horizontally across the frame, beginning at the same point but becoming gradually separated by the difference in the length of their strides. The performance has a tone of fatalistic melancholy: one figure is shorter than the other by about a foot; therefore their separation is inevitable in accordance with the rules of the game. When the leading figure stops, suggesting a possible encounter, the film ends—right at the three-minute mark, or 100ft of film. Figure and viewer are both subjected to the imposition of cruel cinematic conditions. (100ft) is, in a sense, a kinetoscopic film in the tradition of Muybridge—it records, simply, the movements of bodies, and the differences in the ways different bodies move—but with a distinct poignancy that places it in the realm of the poetic.

Heart of a Mountain, from the Toronto-based trio of Ryan Ferko and Faraz and Parastoo Anoushahpour, is one of the more challenging films among the Wavelengths shorts, and certainly the heart of the third program, both sequentially and in terms of its artistic vitality. Shot in Taiwan, the film reads as a reflexive travelogue, tarrying with the theme of linguistic alienation, but tends toward something more ontological. Chinese characters traced with a fingertip on the skin of an arm suggest language’s essential corporeality, its predication on a sensory experience of the world, as well as its ephemerality and inherent link to the cycle of life and death. A disembodied voice explains in halting, broken English, first, perplexingly, that a bird is different from a mountain; his stuttering speech then coalesces into a lecture on the Tao (a principle which calls for a trans-linguistic intuition, as “the Tao which can be told is not the eternal Tao,” and insists against the demystification of reality). The film’s stream of images demonstrates a fidelity to that principle, and the its final sequence has the same voice rhythmically reciting Chinese syllables, which, in the absence of translation, act simply as sound-images.

In a puzzling and somewhat annoying inclusion, Benjamin Crotty and Bertrand Dezoteux’s Division Movement to Vungtau inserts 3D-animated anthropomorphic fruit (apple, banana, pineapple) into archival Vietnam War footage—make of that what you will. Jorge Jácome’s Flores is the only narrative fiction film in the program (unless you count Onward Lossless Follows), and while it is very pretty (the whole thing is tinted hydrangea-purple), it sticks out not only for its length (25 minutes, the longest film in all four programs) but for its lack of formalism—a defining and, one would think, requisite feature in the Wavelengths shorts programs.

***

Laura Huertas Millán’s Sensory Ethnography Lab-produced La Libertad, which leads off the fourth program, is a methodical study of a matriarchal group of artisans—weavers—and artists living in rural Mexico. It embodies, in its attention to the details of weaving—its repetitive motions, its iconography—and other artisanal acts (a brief art show culminates in a truly inspired piece of sublimated phallic urges, for example), the sense of identification with one’s material conditions that the women—in agreement, incidentally, with the anarchist tradition of Kropotkin and William Morris—understand to be the basis of freedom. (As opposed to the capitalist proposition that the good and free life is about being able to ignore many or all aspects of one’s material conditions.)

The three other shorts in the program La Libertad led — Wavelengths 4: As Above, So Below — shed further light on some of those themes and move off in other directions as well. Dan Browne’s visually lovely if straightforward Palmerston Blvd. pursues the filmmaker’s interest in the time-lapse effect, this time confined to the front room of his apartment on the eponymous Palmerston Blvd. in Toronto’s Koreatown. It’s pure domesticity—plants, shifting light, shifting seasons, a little human presence—until it culminates in a final twist that undermines that sense of stasis in a move full of bittersweet pathos. André Lehmann’s below-above, which gives the program its name, shares some of the fluidity of Browne’s film but takes it in a wildly visionary and almost hallucinatory direction, seeming to marry structuralist-flicker and lyrical-naturalist tropes in an intense and ecstatic vision of a landscape of rocks, rivers, forests and coast. (The director politely declined to attend the screening as his environmentalism precluded intercontinental air travel.)

The final short of the fourth program, Luis López Carrasco’s VHS- and Video8-shot portrait of musician and artist Tesa Arranz, Aliens, takes up several of the program’s tropes—freedom, certainly; imagination and art; alternative lifestyles—in a Bolañoesque piece of scene gossip raised to the level of art. López Carrasco collides performance footage of Arranz from the 1970s with interviews with her and some of her hundreds of paintings of extraterrestrials, all while she reminisces about who slept with whom, who was addicted to what, who was nice, who was a jerk, who was a genius, and so on. Its irreverent play on the program’s themes makes it a fitting conclusion to a tightly focused and tonally varied Wavelengths program.

***

Dislocation Blues
Courtesy of TIFF


It’s interesting to note that, even as each Wavelengths program discovers a sort of internal coherence, they can seem, at a certain level, somewhat arbitrarily divided: there are films in different programs that are productively thought about together. Take for example Dislocation Blues and La Libertad. The resonances between them are impossible to ignore: both are limpid, reflective documentaries about people—Indigenous, at that—practicing unconventional and quietly political forms of individual and collective liberty grounded in a strong identification with place and, in very different ways, technology as well. Neither film is in any obvious way experimental or avant-garde, in the sense of being in or responsive to the traditions of Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow or Maya Deren, etc.; in fact, their open-ended, collaborative, meditative spirit is rather closer to the ethics of cinema verité than it is to the more overt formalism of features in this year’s Wavelengths program like Ben Russell’s Good Luck or Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Caniba. One could also link La Libertad and Dislocation Blues with Fluid Frontiers, another study in local politics and identity.

That hits at something fundamental to this year’s Wavelengths program.

Many have noted a malaise hanging over TIFF this year. The bad news started trickling in before the festival; on the last day, the Globe and Mail published a 6000-word quasi-exposé on its website; and soon after, TIFF Cinematheque head Jesse Wente confirmed his resignation on Facebook. There’s the 27% decline in offseason Lightbox attendance, and the first decline in festival audiences in recent memory as well, which together contributed to downsize the festival by 20%. The closing of the TIFF gallery was a bad sign too. And this year’s crop of films—everyone from Cannes onwards has recognized that 2017 isn’t much of a year for film—doesn’t help. And to cap it all off, there’s TIFF CEO Piers Handling making the bizarre announcement just before opening night of TIFF 2017 that he would be stepping down after the 2018 edition. It’s a weird time to be attending TIFF.

Whether or not that atmosphere contributed to the Wavelengths programming decisions in any real way—after all, they only get to program the films people submit; they can’t be that responsive to extracinematic factors—it seems as though Wavelengths responded to it anyway.

There was something new in this year’s program: in the classic avant-garde of Deren, Brakhage, Snow, Frampton, Kubelka and so on, it was the artist who imposed a sort of poetic chaos, rearranging elements of the cinematic artifice to shed light on what had not been seen before, on a reality that, to all spontaneous appearances, was basically harmonious and structured. In the 21st century avant-garde, by contrast, things seem to have almost been reversed—there is a sense that these idiosyncratic films are just straightforward documentaries of a crazy world that is overflowing with images and juxtapositions.

Picard would agree. Speaking with her before the festival, we asked a rather inane question about her impressions of the current state of the avant-garde. She quite passionately defended it. To her, the ethics of caring, attention, localism, artisanship and so on are laudable and necessary counterbalances to the insanity and downright surreality ascendant all around us. She also espouses a respect verging on admiration for artists, for the sheer act of creating something beautiful and ethical with no market value. Over and against any (more or less understandable) nostalgia for the assertive, bombastic avant-garde of yore, any inclination to say that the current wave of experimental filmmakers needs to find a way to meet late capitalism head-on rather than retreating into localism, Wavelengths’ 2017 program opted, broadly speaking, for a poetics and a politics of personal, communal and environmental openness.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.