Place is a beguiling notion in cinema. Part abstract construct, part specific location, it can create something new and uncanny. David Lynch’s wildly popular television series Twin Peaks (1990-91/2017), in which small-town Americana meets hallucinatory no man’s land, is just one case in point.
The same can be said about a number of intriguing offerings in this year’s Projections, the New York Film Festival’s more adventurous slate. In one of its seemingly simplest films, Kevin Jerome Everson’s short, IFO (2017), which stands for ‘Identified Flying Object’, African Americans look up at the skies and report alien sightings. Everson has used the austere, black-and-white documentary aesthetic numerous times before to comment on America’s racial schisms. In his memorable Ears, Eyes and Throat (2016), a woman’s loss of voice and her witnessing of a shooting create a subtle tension between silence and the need to speak up and confront violence in her community. In his recent feature, Tonsler Park (2017), which also plays in Projections this year, Everson points the camera at the fluctuating crowd inside a Virginia polling station.
Everson’s films are examples of just how fiercely cinema’s plain vernacular can be rooted in politics. Not much happens at the polls in Tonsler Park: the voters’ polite small talk and steady gestures reflect the occasion’s decorum. And yet, we can’t forget that this is a battleground, the America many would say we’ve lost (even though Virginia itself voted Democratic). Tonsler Park softly plays out such monumental concerns over the fate of the political system, access and power in the US from the micro-level.
If Tonsler Park was a study in miniature of a democracy about to be rocked, in IFO, we come face to face with Trump’s bewildered America. The sightings are delivered in a straightforward tone. No irony or dramatization, which only heightens the eerie displacement. One gesture is repeated throughout, that of a young black man raising his hands. We are left to interpret this as surrender, protest, or a welcome, and again, we can’t help but read it through the history of police violence and reports of shootings of young blacks. The film’s mixing of documentary and sci-fi elements, as a prism to comment on the persistent police brutality against blacks, echoes Brazilian director Adirley Queirós’s similarly forceful depictions, in films such as White Out, Black In (2015) and Once There Was Brazilia (2017), which premiered this year in Locarno. In both Everson’s and Queirós’s films, the contrasts between ethnographic material and fantastical elements, between place specificity and wildness of tale, result in an absurdist, eerie effect.
A sense of political reckoning also lies at the heart of Sky Hopinka’s Dislocation Blues (2017), in which a participant of protests at Standing Rock – where Native American and environmental activists opposed the Dakota Access oil pipeline by occupying an area and building a temporary camp, eventually razed by the military – comments on the events in which she’s taken part. The dual time frame of now, framed by a small Skype window on a laptop, and the past with imagery of the camp and protests inserted, plays out as a meditation on the pressures and uncertainties that lie behind any political action. On the one hand, first-person accounts and footage convey what it was like to be physically present at the massive event. On the other, the young protestor who speaks via Skype confesses to an inevitable nostalgia in any recollection of the event, and alludes to critiques published later on social media. The latter reflect Standing Rock as a speculative, collectively constructed space, and a source of tensions. In this context, media is both a hindrance and an enabler. It creates confusion, yet also gives protestors a powerful platform and the means to be heard.
Real versus imaginary, concrete versus abstract are also the organizing binaries in Pia Biorg’s playful short, Silica (2017), in which an unidentified traveler tours a land that in its bright colours, rocky terrain and vastness seems lifted straight out of Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) but is in fact South Australia, in order to revisit famous sci-fi movie locations. Delivered in a melodious voiceover, the story is a sly, humorous commentary on the gap between reality and imagination, and so cinema itself. As she journeys deep into the country’s heartland, the narrator encounters abandoned props that at times look like intergalactic objects, yet finds the context and the locations themselves strangely disappointing. The future, as she mordantly tells us, ‘has already been shot.’ But perhaps even darker are the scenes underground – in the caves, in a random Orthodox Church carved out of rock or the opal mines. Somehow the idea that, having access to such breathtaking, sweeping landscape, the sci-fi filmmakers nevertheless plotted the imaginary future of the human race in these dark, subterranean places is a little horrifying.
Meanwhile in Jorge Jácome’s short, Flores (2017), in which documentary and fantasy rub shoulders, the apocalypse is even closer at hand. It comes not as a nuclear but a natural disaster. As Jácome tells it, the hydrangea, a flower originally imported to the Azores, has since spread and dominated a number of the islands, pushing out the native flora. In Jácome’s futuristic scenario, two young Portuguese men take up a military post in the Azores, as a result of this botanical invasion. Yet the film’s second part, narrated in French, gives us a crafty capitalist view of the disaster: Where some see an apocalypse, others (in this case, honey producers) see an opportunity to increase production and profit. Gorgeously shot, with numerous images of purple-blue hydrangeas in bloom, Flores is in the end a coming-of-age tale disguised as a sci-fi: the two young soldiers are lifetime buddies, and pass the time chiseling out the names of friends they have left behind. But while a quick check on Wikipedia may confirm that indeed the story of the hydrangeas’s import is real, the ‘plague’ and the futurist, playfully constructed spaces in this narrative are another story.
Something similar takes place in visual artist and filmmaker Neïl Beloufa’s feature, Occidental (2017), in which a contemporary comedy of manners, transfixed with identity politics, divisiveness over ethnicity and nationhood, plays out inside a Paris hotel. As two suspected crooks (Paul Hamy and Idir Chender) rent a room, the obsessive manager, Diana (Anna Ivacheff) tries to boot them out. The intrigue deliciously plays out with street protests in the background, but the whole thing is set up more like an elaborate soap opera, a stylized pastiche. The vivid colours and bizarro details, including evocatively shot colonialist paintings, convey that Twin Peaks-sense of both quaintness and otherworldliness.
Then Takashi Makino’s short, On Generation and Corruption (2017) is really no place at all: a tangle of sounds in the darkness, and of loosely strewn colours on the screen, which emerge very slowly and dimly only about one fifth into this 25 minute film, with the faintest suggestions of flora. This animated painting – with hints of Monet’s sumptuous Water Lilies – is more about ambiance and experiential, associative response, and comes closest to a video installation.
Finally, artist Xu Bing’s debut feature, Dragonfly Eyes (2017), uses images of very real places, and people, but dissolves their specificity by moulding them into a single, chronological narrative. In this elaborate construct, hundreds of faces, features and gestures, captured at varying and yet often similar locations, are collected to complete each of the two characters in this romance, a male and a female. And while the film has stirred ethical questions as to its use of images harvested from surveillance cameras (increasingly a fixture of contemporary China and a sign, no doubt, of how its authoritarian regime battles for control), it is nevertheless striking in how it evokes the drama of a ‘global village,’ in which we each have the right to be unique, but somehow the same. The romance plot is conventional, for sure, but there is something undeniably Whitmanian in the growing, echoing string of endless restaurants, streets, corners and cafes where the action takes place, spliced as if they all were the same singular place.
Xu pushes this idea to the extreme, yet in some ways he is also harking back to classic cinema, particularly to the ‘creative geography’ technique pioneered by Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, in which scenes across space and time are artificially pulled into continuity. By the 1920s, Soviet directors, such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, were juxtaposing multiple, often unrelated images to see how to string them together into coherent narratives. They recognized the potential of our minds to fill in the narrative gaps, in search of cohesion, and of cinema to exert its suggestive power with minimal means. Indeed, while ‘place’ is concrete and limited, the ‘creative geography’ which Xu employs in his film with such breadth becomes virtually limitless.
The Projections section of the 2017 New York Film Festival runs from 6 to 9 October.
Main image: Neïl Beloufa, Occidental, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist
Ela Bittencourt works as a critic and curator in the United States and Latin America. She writes for publications such as Art in America, Film Comment, frieze and the Village Voice and runs a film site, Lyssaria.