The Harvard Film Archive began the “Cinema of Resistance” series in May 2017, with the programmer at the time, David Pendleton, offering something of a mission statement in the notes accompanying the first screening. “Cinema has always been a method of examining the world the way it is, in order to understand it, to begin to change it, to imagine it otherwise,” he wrote, quite rightly. “So we begin a monthly series of films animated with the spirit of protest, of pointing out oppression and working towards justice.” This week brings the latest “Resistance” screening, “An Evening with Ja’Tovia Gary” (April 26 at 7pm), which pairs two short films by that artist (a 2018-19 Harvard Film Study Center-Radcliffe fellow) with Med Hondo’s rarely exhibited feature West Indies (1979). In terms of subject, theme, subtext, and so on, the films by Gary befit the program’s concept entirely. An Ecstatic Experience (2015) and Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) (2017), which are each about six minutes long, both present structures that constantly juxtapose archival footage, direct animation, and specific historical signifiers (both seen and heard), all combining to center expressions of the experiences of black Americans (faces we recognize across the pair of films include Ruby Dee, Assata Shakur, Fred Hampton, Diamond Reynolds, and Gary herself). Seen together, An Ecstatic Experience and Giverny I reveal a consistent and deeply personalized cinematic syntax, a language of Gary’s own, one crafted with a rigorous control of visual composition and cutting rhythm. These are films worth describing just as much as they’re worth interpreting (if such acts can really be seperated), for the vast multiplicity of meanings they suggest and create is of course derived entirely from the dense complexity of their design.
That formal complexity becomes immediately apparent in An Ecstatic Experience, which introduces three disparate elements of its structure within just a few seconds. Following the title cards, there is black-and-white 4:3-ratio footage of a church and its congregants; cut between those shots are widescreen images of what appears to be direct animation on a film-based surface, creating something of a low-speed flicker effect; and simultaneously there is a song on the audio track, Alice Coltrane’s “Journey in Satchidananda,” which continues for about the first 90 seconds of the film. After the first shots pass, fades and dissolves begin to connect the animation to the churchgoers more smoothly, and the different footage sources even begin to conform with one another—an image of a young child from the church is seen all stretched out in widescreen (foregrounding a focus on family and lineage that is central to the film), meanwhile the animated images begin to appear in the boxy ratio of the black-and-white footage (sometimes even sharing a split screen for a second or two). Then as the sax comes in on “Satchidananda,” we see images of the church’s preacher, his body moving as if in sway to the music—concurrently the animation begins to cut into the black-and-white footage more closely on the beat, flickering on as if in lockstep with the high notes on the soundtrack. From a beginning of nearly total discontinuity, we reach something like discordant communion, a vague description, but one which for me describes the essence of both these films.
The second movement centers a legitimately extraordinary media object unearthed from obscurity. For this middle two minutes of An Ecstatic Experience, we’re looking at a monologue performed by actress Ruby Dee, from words by Fannie Moore (a former slave whose narrative was written in the mid-1930s), in what was originally a long unbroken close-up shot (the clip is from the “Slavery” episode of the 1965 television miniseries History of the Negro People, as identified by Rachel Churner of Artforum). And throughout Dee’s typically staggering performance, Gary continues her sculpture of image and ratio. When the actress’s speech reaches a high pitch, the shot of Dee often jumps in size (from an inset into the entire frame), or sometimes multiplies (split-screen is just the start). Meanwhile direct animation continues atop that older image, surrounding and even momentarily overtaking Dee’s visage, still resembling the look of scratches on a film-based material, but now arranged in a manner that’s more explicitly intentional, forming geometric shapes and other figures around the pre-existing footage. And this layering of the old and the new—this constantly shifting relation between the figures in the film (Dee, Moore, Gary, even the crew of the television program)—gives the image an immense depth.
When Dee’s monologue ends, the film makes a sharp cut to darkness, then returns back for what I’ll call its last sequence, which begins with a close-up shot of Assata Shakur from a pre-existing interview. Following a statement from Shakur (which includes a few quick cuts to the Dee close-up), the film returns to the clip from History, now fully zoomed out to reveal a group of other performers surrounding Dee. As they begin singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” purple animation (once more resembling the texture of a warped film-based material) is layered over the film. At nearly the same time, Gary’s editing introduces yet another element into the structure—her film begins to cut back and forth between the animated “Hymn” scene and footage of protests in Ferguson and Baltimore that followed the killing of black men by state officers. As the “Hymn” continues on the audio track, we alternate between the various images, the actors from History, the protests that became history, and for a brief few seconds, black-and-white shots of a tree, seen only in a flicker. Soon afterwards the image begins to distort, as if the source of the footage itself was corrupted, and the film concludes.
At this point it should be clarified that An Ecstatic Experience and Giverny I hardly represent the full extent of Gary’s oeuvre, and that in fact theatrical exhibition is hardly the only context in which these films have been presented. Both have also been shown as part of installations and group art shows, with An Ecstatic Experience often singled out by critics as a highlight within larger exhibitions, such as in “An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940-2017” and “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin” at the David Zwirner Gallery (one additional note on that subject: during her Radcliffe fellowship Gary is continuing work on a non-fiction feature, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which shares its title with a 1985 book written by Baldwin). With regards to the newer film, as its name suggests Giverny I is part of a larger project, for instance surely related to a recent installation work by Gary, The Giverny Document, that was on view at Galerie Frank Elbaz in Paris earlier this year. Additionally Giverny I itself has also been presented in a loop format, including at a BU art gallery just a few months ago. In this multivalent approach to exhibition, Gary finds her work set on the small overlapping space between “cinema” and “fine art”, placing her in company with contemporaries such as Kevin Jerome Everson and Jodie Mack. But much like the work of those other two artists, Gary’s films (at least this pair) have a linear quality (if not a narrative quality) which is most apparent when they are seen from start to finish, as they’ll be shown at the Archive.
The interplay between the elements making up Giverny I is even more layered and complex than in An Ecstatic Experience, so much so that I won’t even try to describe the newer film in those linear terms. It’ll hopefully suffice to say instead that five distinct sources of imagery make up Giverny I. First there are meticulously composed landscape shots of the Giverny gardens, usually with Gary either posed in the center of the frame or barely visible somewhere in the far off background; there are frames of flowers, leaves, and other plants, which flicker in and out momentarily (not unlike the animations in the first segment of Ecstatic); there are shots from a film of Claude Monet painting in that same garden circa 1915; there is footage of a Fred Hampton speech, which I believe is sourced from The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971); and finally excerpts of the video shot by Diamond Reynolds immediately after her boyfriend Philando Castile was shot and killed by a St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer on July 6, 2016. The audio track on the film is filled by a Norvis Jr piece that remixes a Louis Armstrong recording from 1950. And as in Ecstatic, these various sources are introduced in a relatively delineated manner, but then cinematic rhythm brings them into (and out of, and into…) a sort of chaotic alignment. The movie starts with the images of Gray in the garden as a base; first interrupting it with flickers and clips from the animations and the Monet footage; then with the recordings of Hampton and Reynolds, the latter of which stops the audio track cold whenever it appears, as if a separate interruption above and apart from the other sources. But soon afterward the five elements begin to mix together more closely via superimpositions, “glitches,” and other distortions that cast the images together, even the images shot by Reynolds, at some points even placing strips and bars from one source atop frames of another. Then Giverny I, again in line with An Ecstatic Experience, ends by further complicating the balance it just reached, by concluding on a note of disruption, of imbalance.
Incorporating standards of collage, “flicker films,” structural cinema (in the Sitney sense of the term), animation, glitch art, and various other experimental film traditions, in Giverny I Gary once again sculpts a shape for her film that seems open at all ends, producing innumerable associations within the disparate materials at play, up to and including the material of film itself. By this depth of form both An Ecstatic Experience and Giverny I constantly draw connections between politically urgent aspects of contemporary life that are all too often considered entirely seperate—raising questions (to name but two examples among many) about the relation of state violence to the state of the arts, or about the relation between images that are made for the sake of art and images that are made for the sake of survival. These films move and shift with kinetic fervor across different photographic textures and formats, almost literalizing Pendleton’s call for movies that are “animated with the spirit of protest”. And so if they do indeed reach a point of radical meaning, they achieve it by the artist’s radical command of form.
AN EVENING WITH JA’TOVIA GARY. FRI 4.26. 7PM. HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE. $9. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE ARTIST, SEE HER WEBSITE AT JATOVIA.COM.