For the next week DigBoston.com will be publishing reports from the 2019 iteration of the Camden International Film Festival (9.12-9.15), which I’m attending for the third consecutive year, meaning I’ll hopefully finally start to get the hang of its wonderfully complex rhythm. It’s taken so long because the program, which exhibits contemporary nonfiction cinema, typically spans an immense amount of ground, with regards to both the form of the films being exhibited and the locations they’re being exhibited at. To begin with, the movies themselves: This year’s slate includes 36 feature-length films and over 50 short films, as well as 17 different artworks featured in “Storyforms”—described as “CIFF’s growing exhibition of immersive documentary experiences and installations”, this year featuring “four room-scale VR and AR installations, nine works of 360-degree cinema, and a series of large-scale projections”. As for the locations: Samara Chadwick, senior programmer of the festival, explained that element in an interview we published last week—“The Camden Opera House offers a breathtaking setting and draws big crowds,” she wrote via email, “the Rockport Opera House is very much anchored in the community and feels very cozy, the Strand has terrific sound and projection, [and] the Farnsworth is an art museum and is the home to some of our most artistically ambitious work.”
For non-locals, the festival, which takes place across Camden, Rockland, and Rockport, Maine, thus becomes a meeting-point between moviegoing and tourist-style exploration, sometimes compelling one to move not just between auditoriums but also sometimes between whole municipalities to get from one show to the next, if that’s where the films you want to see happen to be scheduled. Which is not by any means a bad thing. And of course reflects the programming itself—which, as mentioned, is designed to span a lot of ground. Bringing together various different forms of nonfiction cinema ranging from from commercially-minded journalistic films to museum-ready video art, this year’s program includes new movies by some of the most exciting and important filmmakers currently screening work in the United States: Among them are Ja’Tovia Gary, with The Giverny Document (Single Channel) (2019) (9.14, 12pm, Farnsworth Art Museum); Juan Pablo González, with Caballerango (2019) (9.14, 5pm, Farnsworth); Sky Hopinka, with Lore (9.14, 7pm, Farnsworth); Brett Story, with The Hottest August (2019) (9.14, 2:30pm, Rockport Opera House); and the late Agnès Varda, whose last feature, Varda by Agnès (2019) (9.15, 10am, The Strand) inaugerates the final day of this year’s festival.
Yet despite the wide range of filmmaking modes being exhibited, there’s also a tight curatorial focus that is most prominently visible in the subjects of those films, which often crossover and overlap. Understandably, and perhaps “correctly”, the most constant preoccupation carrying throughout this year’s program is the subject of global warming, and climate change in general, which has of course been true at prior iterations and other festivals but never quite to the extent that it’s true here: Of the 12 short films and small handful of features I’ve seen thus far, global warming is the primary topic of probably at least half. And even in the films where climate change is not the “subject”, so to speak, it still remains present, perhaps unacknowledged within the frame but still informing the material nonetheless. Take for instance one of the best short-length films I’ve seen from this year’s CIFF thus far—it’s covered in further depth below, along with another standout—Culture Capture: Terminal Adddition (2019). On its surface the film, which is directed by a collective of artists often referred to as the “New Red Order”, concerns the documentation and defacement of “indigenous material that museums and other institutions may hold and public monuments that celebrate the ideals of a region’s European settlers”, but it also confronts the aforementioned subject, at least according to a note included within the press release that announced its completion: “The stakes are high,” the film’s representatives wrote, “in the face of impending ecological catastrophe and unprecedented global inequality, the futures of Indigenous Peoples are bound up with a livable future for all”.
Culture Capture: Terminal Adddition, directed by Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, and Jackson Polys
U.S., 7min. Screening as part of “Shorts X: The High Priestess”, 9.15 @ 11am, Farnsworth Art Museum. Tickets currently available online.
A collage film which looks upon domestic iconography from a large volume of different angles (quite literally), Culture Capture seems to move into a new filmmaking mode almost every single minute. Contained within is news footage of colonialist monuments being torn down or damaged; a flickering montage through still images of the sculptor James Earl Fraser and some of his works (for instance the “Buffalo Nickel” that was struck by the U.S. mint from 1913-1938); and original footage shot in the Fraser archives at Syracuse University, a significant location for this work on various levels—the Light Work photography center, also in Syracuse, commissioned CC:AT on behalf of their public art initiative, Urban Video Project, which then had it projected on the facade of the local Everson Museum of Art for a period of two months. Before the film has concluded, we also see more original footage now featuring individuals wearing masks as they do their own ‘rewriting’ on colonialist monuments (it should be noted that the filmmakers, who represent an indigenous artist collective, have sometimes listed the country of origin for their prior works as the “so-called U.S.”), in the process creating a response to the news footage of the “defaced” monuments just as the footage in Fraser’s archives responds to the historical photographs shown via flicker right before it. Moving with exhilarating speed between different photographic formats and representational strategies—the aforementioned monuments are constantly reframed or altered by smartphone cameras, 3D renders, and other methods, including of course by Culture Capture itself which in its final state offers yet another presentation of the preexisting objects contained therein—the film quickly creates an entrancing dialogue between physical and digital forms of resistance. If this is really agitprop, as the accompanying notes pretty much claim, then it’s surely more philosophical than ideological: What it calls for are efforts to retain and recontextualize extant representations of history, no matter how inhumane, as opposed to flatly painting over them—a righteous effort by any proper register.
Gyres (2019), by Ellie Ga
U.S./Sweden, 39min. Screening as part of “Shorts X: The Hermit”, 9.14 @ 7pm, Farnsworth Art Museum. Walk-up tickets will be available at the door.
Originally presented in a looping installation format at the Whitney Biennial, Gyres is here presented as one single 39-minute film, although even in this form it retains a rather circular structure. The artist performs a monologue on the audio track from start to finish, while the composition (which also remains constant for the whole runtime) is set up so that we can see a horizontal line of space at the bottom of the frame as well as a boxier space in the center (as shown above). Both spaces are filled by translucent still photographs that are laid out on a light tablet which the frame looks straight down upon (making this one of at least two films in this year’s program that evoke Hollis Frampton’s 1971 film (nostalgia), the other being Hopinka’s Lore), and throughout the film, the artist’s hands are visible above those photographs, moving them one-by-one from the larger group at the bottom into the main stage in the center, where they’re often stacked and superimposed in continuously shifting patterns (also present in the frame at certain moments are short moving-image clips, which play to the left or right of the center space). As mentioned the film was originally presented in three segments, which are retained here and play out in succession; the first has the speaker talking about the funeral of their mother, the art-historical legacy of writer and antiquities expert Bruce Chatwin, and other subjects prompted by each; the second has them speaking about the history of the “message in a bottle”, specifically near the Greek islands, where the tradition is inextricable from beliefs regarding legendary iconography of the archangel Michael; and the third has the artist offering a number of reflections which sit at the intersection of the personal and the professional, eventually provoking returns to specific ideas and images that were presented during the prior two segments. In fact the whole piece is structured to shift between modes repetitively—moving from academic report to personal essay and back again—in a way that complicates and enhances the various juxtapositions. Representing the human element of her reflections exclusively via photographs—most of which don’t even depict the people being referenced, but instead show objects and landscapes which Ga associates with them—Gyres engages productively with the inherently materialistic nature of the moving-image form, and its built-in tendency to objectify (on that note, at one point Ga reads a quote, “Objects are the mirrors in which we watch ourselves disintegrate”, which seems to describe movies themselves—those mirrors which appear to capture for posterity, despite the resultant objects being just as disintegrable as the realities they record). Once in the frame of mind that Gyres conjures, the return into the frame of certain photos seen earlier bring with them pangs of renewed meaning, an experience not unlike that which one might have while looking at the semi-familiar detritus that arrives on beaches worldwide courtesy the circulating ocean currents that give this film its title.
THE CAMDEN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL OCCURS SEPTEMBER 12-15, 2019, AT VARIOUS LOCATIONS IN CAMDEN, ROCKLAND, AND ROCKPORT, MAINE. FOR TICKETS, PASSES, THE SCHEDULE, AND OTHER INFORMATION, SEE POINTSNORTHINSTITUTE.ORG.