“It was just having no worth. It was being relegated to an animal that is only sure of its own death” – quote from 88:88
One of 2015’s most experimental and thought-provoking documentaries comes from 23-year-old Isiah Medina. It’s a daring piece of work that feels like it’s been engineered by a DJ: fast cuts, raw energy and pulsating emotion. The film premiered last August at Locarno and has since played at festivals around the world including TIFF and the New York Film Festival where Medina has been hailed as a prodigy.
Taking its cue from experimental works like Godard’s Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language, the film follows the lives of Medina and his friends living in a poor, downtown neighbourhood of Winnipeg. But there is no narrative through line or set of characters to guide the audience through this rarely seen world. To the uninitiated, the film can feel jarring: the opening sequence unrolls at breakneck speed with a stream of seemingly disconnected images, the sound repeatedly cuts in and out and a disembodied voice narrates passages of French philosopher Alain Badiou in a near whisper.
“The way it cuts is very precise, but it’s very fast for some people,” says the Toronto-based filmmaker. At the TIFF Wavelengths screening one of the audience members purportedly had a “mental breakdown.”
But Medina isn’t apologetic about his unorthodox techniques. The filmmaker likes to reference the Lumiere brothers’ discovery of moving pictures in 1895. “I don’t think anyone can tell us that we’re doing it wrong. Cinema is 100 years old and really it’s still up for grabs,” he says. “It’s less about breaking the rules than just being able to construct new rules.”
The Filipino-Canadian filmmaker grew up in the impoverished west end neighbourhood of Winnipeg where he decided to become a filmmaker after reading Dante’s Divine Comedy at the age of 11. Heavily influenced by mathematics and philosophy, Medina’s work brings together the disparate realms of art and science.
“I hate this whole belief that art isn’t science or art isn’t math so we should stop trying to bring those ideas in there,” says Medina. “They can still take inspiration from each other. There’s beauty in a math proof and there’s hypothetical experimentation that can happen in art.”
The title, 88:88, is a reference to the numbers that appear on appliances after electrical companies shut off your power. (When Medina was 17 he was living in a run-down home without lights or running water and filmed the repeating numbers that flashed on his stove, a sequence that appears in the film. ) But the number 8 is also an allusion to the idea of infinity, which graphically is an 8 placed horizontally, and the ‘gap’ that exists between reality and our ability to document it. “Reality itself is a gap that isn’t consistent or complete,” says Medina. Since reality is incomplete we make films to be able to make reality complete in different ways.”
88:88 is a playground for Medina to experiment with philosophical and mathematical ideas of truth and reality, although these subtle references may be lost on first-time viewers. Medina has been criticised that his work is abstract, his philosophy is skewed and that he’s merely cutting random images together.
“My first time watching 88:88 I didn’t know what I had on my hands,” says TIFF associate programmer Eli Horwatt who first learned about the film after a film scholar at Locarno tweeted TIFF begging them to programme the film at its festival.
“Isiah’s POV is very much his own. He brings a hip-hop aesthetic into formal film vernacular,” says Horwatt. “88:88 is diligent, thoughtful and unpretentious…it can feel purposeless if you don’t know what you’re looking at, but the biggest mistake someone can make is watching the documentary and feeling like it’s arbitrary.
“I think it’s simply an aversion to philosophy,” says Medina. “I think a lot of people simply hate philosophy and the fact we’re poor and coloured and speaking philosophy makes them doubly hate it. I think they’d rather me talk about identity politics. It would be much more valuable to them if I could play that kind of role rather than the universalization of certain concepts in philosophy.”
The film has made several film critics’ top 10 lists for 2015 and will continue to play the festival circuit for the next year. Medina has plans to put the film online once it has finished touring.
“I think it should be free,” says Medina. “It deals with questions of philosophy and how we’re going to conduct better ways of living. I think people who will want to see the film the most, like the younger generation, I’d really like to have them be able to watch it for free.