Prologue to the ring of fire
In Goiânia, a vast, arid and hot city founded in 1933, the Fronteira International Festival of Documentary and Experimental Film was born. The city’s occupation and urbanization was imposed by the progressive politics of Getúlio Vargas during the so-called Brazilian “March to the West”. Ergo, the festival’s appellation reveals to be very appropriate in every single sphere one can think of. In nine days of extensive programming (from August 30th to September 7th), the festival included competitive screenings of short and feature films, retrospectives of the work of Harun Farocki and Andrea Tonacci, screenings of local movies, itinerant sessions within agrarian and indigenous communities, and the sections Filmmakers on Frontier, Camera Doc - the Eye on the World and its Conflicts, Classics of Experimental Film and Something Else, Hambre Cine Selection (on Latin American film experimentations), Experimental Film Society, together with special screenings. Various immersive, meditative, provoking and incendiary activities ensured that high levels of participation shattered the spectator barrier. Our text is therefore a montage of fragments gathered from such an explosive event, a montage that fails and fails again and fails better (as Samuel Beckett would say) at the labile but tense dispersion of the flames of critical thought.
One day on the frontier between the illusion of movement and the ineffability of evidence
Serpentine (2013), by Stephanie Wuertz, is a tribute to the pieces of early cinema that recorded the avant-garde choreography of modern dancer Loïe Fuller in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fuller’s movements would later become a kinetic reference to Cubist artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Attired in a silk costume sewn into multiple thin layers, the American developed circular and wavy movements similar to the blossoming of a flower. As she projected colored lights onto the white surface of the fabric, she engendered an illusionistic wonderment worthy of magic lanterns and Chinese shadow theaters. It is known that her obsession with fantasy made her employ kaleidoscopic mirrors and even possibly radioactive luminescent salts in her presentations. Equally remarkable is her refusal of Thomas Edison’s request to film her, a situation that resulted in Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1897): a 34-seconds excerpt in which one of her main imitators, Annabelle Moore, performs the steps of the famous dance in her place. Later on in 1899, the Lumière brothers added a riot of color to this cinematographed performance, using the elaborate technique of painting directly on film, frame by frame. The manually applied pigment dyes the film surface just as the light fills the movement of the body with sense. There is thus an inversion in these mirrored processes: in the dance, it goes from a physical to a phantasmatic condition, while in the film it goes from dynamic trickery to static concreteness.
Wuertz’s fascination with this primeval material picks up the dilemma between the illusion of movement and the ineffability of evidence – a cinematic rationale of alternative, contradictory and mutually exclusive premises that tend, however, to establish a single conclusion. This contentious development is brought to the surface in this outstanding work screened in competition, whereas in the original films the trace of ingenuity is asserted through the presence of the stage, both by the noticeable dais and the artist’s frontality to the camera. (We can wonder, though, if we can conceive of these as “originals”, since they often show several different artists performing the serpentine dance instead of its actual creator, such as, for example, Papinta 'The Flame Dancer', a pioneer of vaudeville spectacles. The question is equally posed by Loïe Fuller’s own method of preservation – coherent with the epoch’s concern with patent – which consisted in recruiting dancers to learn the new choreography for publicity purposes.) From inertia to enchantment, as described by the W. B. Yeats poem quoted as an epigraph to Wuertz’s film, Fuller’s artifice is assimilated as animistic incorporation, a gesture of suspension of reality that nonetheless recognizes (and for an increased effect) the trivial motility of the action. In addition, the representation is actualized by its inherent repetitive nature, allowing us to enter the existence of what is singular. In Serpentine, though, the remnants of the procedural and constructive anchorage of these films are rarefied: the cold light paced by rhythmic insertions of black frames veils rather than demonstrates (even if we take the principles of “structural film” into consideration). There seems to be an attempt to approach an inorganic and thus infinite body, its unboundedness being accentuated by the use of superimpositions, transparency effects and variations of texture that generate vibrations in every corner of the theater. If at times we can identify parts of a female figure (her arms, breasts, hair or back), the flow of images lulled by Charlemagne Palestine’s music emphatically distends the referent, as in a low but wide flyover of the folds of a pictorial drapery. The richness of the golden orange coloration send us back to the details of Eastern Christianity icons, a sacrosanct realm of silent and flat mysteries. They are however less intense in 16mm than the hysterical patterns and ornaments of the art nouveau style, hysteria being understood as a neurosis whose symptoms manifest themselves as bodily disorders in the absence of organic problems. A sensuous atmosphere of apparent depth then falls, restoring a sumptuous aura supposedly lost in the age of technical reproduction: this is the spell cast by the carnivalesque converse side of the serpentine.
A few hours earlier, on the same day of the festival, we watched Harun Farocki’s Stilleben (1997), as part of the retrospective of his work. In the beginning of the film, the narrator questions the reason why inanimate things became the main focus of scientific interest throughout Western history. In an analysis of a number of seventeenth-century Flemish still lives, Farocki observes the growing attention to mercantile activity at the expense of religious motifs. First, he points out the decreasing value of the ascensional qualities of spiritual matters in favor of the primacy of everyday life. But shortly after he implies that the internal logic of this reversal is the elevation of manufactured and sold goods to the status of deities or demigods, as well as their constant anthropomorphization. Every still-life – in addition to attempts to dose disparities, by bonding isolated elements of a world connected by the triumph of the separation among weak individuals who are never identical to themselves – stresses transience as the essence of the human condition. Analogous to the supernatural effect aroused by the serpentine dance of Loïe Fuller in many enthusiasts of the fin de siècle technological experiments, the power of the image still resists the subsumption of its scattered discourses, to which rational thinking is denied access. Even the mechanical serialization, typical of the works of Eadweard Muybridge or Etienne-Jules Marey, for example, that was expanded to another level of automatism with the tautological black box, imposes its waste in negative, an unimaginable formlessness that contracts and expands itself as a cosmos. The meticulous glossing of a cheese board for an advertisement – which propels the perishability of the product to a monumental scale of monolithic proportions, one in relation to inception in primitive cultures – shares perhaps something in common with the fecund genesis of the spiral dance by Stephanie Wuertz.
The fever of the memory as disregard of the senses
The last cut of La Fièvre (2014), by Safia Benhaim, winner of CAMIRA jury’s prize for best feature film, seeks balance in a child’s altered state of perception to weave a series of impressions acclimated in the author’s affective memory concerning Morocco’s history (from a French colony through the post-independence monarchy to the Arab Spring). Distinctively from the seduction play perpetrated by Serpentine, in which “our bones are clothed in an amorous new body” (as in the Arthur Rimbaud’s assertion sketched as a synopsis), Safia’s movie aggravates the impoverishing malaise of the absurd by delineating a coalescence that is simultaneously flawed and wonderful between an hallucinatory innocence and social upheaval. However, the mute subtitles do not support the quest for reasonable answers to lives in exile, but an ardent hiatus of courage on the threshold of a sinister objectification of disembodied points of view, which happen to be just hovering there. Like an aporia, the more the ghost’s narrative is affirmed the more we cool down to clearly scrutinize the sights affecting the child in a family party, in the middle of a sunny courtyard, or at night, in bed. Whether walking through abandoned stilts on an empty beach or floating in the twilight in a street crowded with passersby, every filmed space holds its own ruin and dismantles itself in the narrow horizon of Gibraltar. The skill with which the director handles the camera in the sharp curves of a road surrounded by verdant woods contrasts with the editing’s oneiric vertigo. Her shots are accurate, a political will to remember; her matter, though, is evanescent, which is the quality of what bears time and does not conform to the territory. Although the plot has an intimate tone, traces of intention are hidden in the landscape and evoke an immersive involvement in surreal atmospheres. Still, in the abyssal tune between interior and exterior, past and future, the present is a short circuit between reverie and awakening, and it emerges against the current, fists clenched, through a vehicle window, igniting the shell of pure rapture.
In Laida Lertxundi's We Had the Experience but Missed the Meaning (2014), CAMIRA jury’s honorable mention for short film, there are Californian passages made of asphalt and sand between San Diego and Los Angeles that are coursed in vain by a derailed tracking. In a soft insouciance typical of the coastal freshness… ‘maybe someday, maybe tomorrow, you'll find a way, no more trouble’, as in the song’s invite to unwind. It is almost a rupture, most certainly a breakup. The meaning of a word is changed in the narrow margin of the event, as in a pendulous movement on the same axis, or as an object floating in the tide, continually going up and down. If someone gets up, the birds fly away and the meeting is over, for semantic links are this subtle. The storytelling of sparse souvenirs is shown as transparent, layer by layer of reflective surfaces, while Veronica is named in the third person, from an Adolfo Bioy Casares’ short story: a mirror in her hand and the sea waves infiltrating a chair that sustains the void (maybe it’s the chair by Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, the copy of a copy)... The girl alluded to would be the ideal sister for the reading voice, or the reminiscence of a lived friendship, or an oblique desire, but also the conceptualization of the deletion of memory – all of them figured as a mood change in the fraction of a look. Veronica is water but also plant, she feels simultaneously the tranquility of forgetting and the need to fix roots. The pots watered with patience and zeal and the taking of a shower with clothes on, both from the first part of the film, are replicated over the images of the desert projected on blank pages, leading to an abstraction of the meaning of experience – wilderness, a land of beasts. Here is the persistence of something exposed to the weather that lights up while disappearing: in order to preserve the joy of transformation, it is necessary to focus far, abroad, where it is possible to conceive of an experience through others. Because the past is buried in us by the currents of action; while in others the torment is not corroded by subsequent attrition (a free adaptation of excerpts from the poem The Dry Salvages, by T. S. Eliot, from which the movie’s title was drawn). The disintegration of sense is also liberation. To move outwards is to abandon the definition of our own experience – not something optional or conventional, but natural. As well as to attempt to reclaim it without success, coming across distinct resignifications in the process, until realizing that this revived experience is not an isolated one, but encompasses various levels and trespasses different ages. This is called anguish, primal terror, despite being exposed by the statute of vicariousness.
The mise en abyme of representation
The film Our Shadows Will (2014), by Vladimir Perišić, winner of CAMIRA jury’s prize for best short, is also a haunted tale. Declarations of honor, pride and lucidity delivered by members of the Black Hand, a secret society for the liberation and unification of the Slav nation, are whispered across mazy archive corridors until we reach young people at a roundtable. The speech was originally pronounced during the society’s trial for the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, the feat that ignited the First World War. Even if it is not presented as a sequence-shot, the film unfolds as a single piece, from a dark frame to a bleached one. The first moments are underexposed, muffled, and hold personal presentations as if they were conspiratorial secrets. The moments that follow are of tortuous and staggering suspense, as they take us through criminal records and sheets of presentment, and perhaps other books as well, certainly subversive ones. Then we watch the spectral walking of circumspect, taciturn boys, until they gather around a hanging microphone to perform the act of enunciation. At this point, a reverse ellipse manifests itself: were they recording the reading of the court’s annals from a century ago, reverberating as a residue of history against the grain? Echoes of a sectarian chant concentrated on that bursting time-space? Or could it be a present-day discussion about prohibited, dead words, dissolved in the resistant anonymity of black and deep networks, whose intensity, however, we feel weighing in the most undisclosed human den of our incessant generation? These shadows are an affront to the Yugoslavian youth, now a critical heterotopia; because you have to be present to be able to die.
From the tear opened by direct intervention versus political representation to the lapse instilled in any artistic production by the presentification of the failure of representation in the twentieth century: ladies and gentlemen, Production Stills (1970), by Morgan Fisher. If we were to ask the film what it represents, it would respond by throwing a set of precipices. As in the comic strip in which the painting asks back its observer’s question – an integrant piece of the series How to Look at Modern Art? (1946), by Ad Reinhardt, quoted in the opening of the lecture Cinema Through Media, Device and Subversion dispensed by Toni D’Angela (and symbiotically translated by Andrea Tonacci). A one-reeler, its literality consists in the displaying of a series of stills from a never realized film production, which is at the same time the development of its own production; it is, therefore, the fabrication of a making of as an end in itself. The soundtrack’s synchrony heralds the tempo for our mental gear, allowing us to anticipate each photo to be positioned before the lens; we hear the clicking of the camera and the crew making adjustments, technicians at work, one by one, just before the next image is revealed. Until this occurs, though, the pin-driven wall displays a riddle, distorting the perception of what is seen by the way it is seen and vice versa. Difficult to grasp, the film is nevertheless fundamentally materialistic; its insolent content being nothingness, which manages, by the porosity of its form, to match its disparate times of labor, neutralized when still in repulsion. The due delay is the seal of filmic truth and the minimum factor to ensure that some notion arises from the chaining of situations into a block. That is, if its design didn’t suppose its own determinate negation there would just be no sense to it. Because every great movie is in opposition.
From the responsibility of the invader to an haptic recollection
We thereby come to Andrea Tonacci's Os Arara (1980-83), an unfinished trilogy ordered by Bandeirantes (a Brazilian television channel) that documents the preparatory activities and following expeditions of the Arara Attraction Front. Carried out by FUNAI (National Indian Foundation), the mission’s goal was to attempt to contact the isolated indigenous tribe Arara, living in the state of Pará, for head counting, protection and the demarcation of their updated frontiers. During the digging process to build the Trans-Amazon Highway, their territory was split in two, forcing them to an impractical retreat, against which some Indians answered back by attacking surveillance posts. To prevent further violence from both sides, the politicians demanded a mollifying interaction, led by the sertanista Sydney Possuelo, to establish a relationship of dependency. The result of the hastily edited footage – under the risk of Tonacci being dismissed of the charge (because of the incompatibility between his filmmaking tempo and the logic of media) – shows, however, the failure of the enterprise: the supremacy of the forest and the absence of Indians in the filmed material. The physical effort of both the film crew and the FUNAI team – which form a sole invader body – is diametrically proportional to the indigenous camouflage that strains the invisible power of off-camera space, their traps being highlighted in the maps showed on the screen. If the wanderings and risks of mutual discovery support the dramatic expectation and the poetic prowess of the complete episodes, the previously unseen sequence shown exclusively in the I Fronteira International Festival of Documentary and Experimental Film introduces another order of involvement: the fear of conflict, the problem of the responsibility regarding the clash of civilizations and the uncertainty as to the impacts of invasion are all suppressed by the magnetism of the contact that does take place. In a fragile candor of touches, enamored observations and communications that go beyond logical understanding, Tonacci is carried away in an impromptu sharing of recorded vocalizations that he returns to the wild sources emitting them. There is a declared curiosity to comprehend the conception of an image, of a register, by a people different from the one who invented the camera obscura. How do the natives remember, how do they bring things back to the heart? The quality of the videos showed to us is sometimes bad, the camera succumbed to moisture or to malfunction due to the excess of light, which makes the wide shots look washed; the space itself seems to be crying for a more haptic, less distant approach. Would this be visual nonsense or a revolution?
Dalila Camargo Martins
(Translation from Portuguese to English by Dalila Camargo Martins, Tatiana Monassa
Revision by Paul Grant)