The texture and peculiarity of history, place, and the everyday color a ruminative set of short films in this year’s Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Screening in a pair of shorts programs, the films share the eclecticism and diversity of their feature-length nonfiction brethren, but some also boast something the longer works seldom do: the Venice Biennale’s imprimatur.
Featured in this past year’s Venice Biennale, Charles Lim’s “Sea State Six” and Vincent Meesse’s “One.Two.Three” did well at the crowded art show. But it is at Art of the Real that the two films seem most at home, screening together in Shorts Program 1, and where they interestingly form one of the most dissimilar pairings of all the selected shorts. Both plumb a deep sense of history and place and are skillfully shot, incorporating multi-channel projections and split screens, though that’s largely where the similarities end.
“One.Two.Three” could be called a historical excavation of a song. Presented as a three-channel installation in Venice and here at the Art of the Real as split-screen digital projection, Meesse’s film is rhythmic and alert, a filmic vivisection and revival of a protest anthem Joseph M’Belolo Ya M’Piku, a Congolese member of the Situationist movement, wrote for the roiling days of May 1968. Among the Situationists (largely European avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and activists) Guy Debord was a fountainhead and centerpiece, but that lofty status elides the contributions of African figures like M’Belolo, for whom the beat — and the conditions and convictions which inspired it — goes on. History is not dead in One.Two.Three; May 1968 is not over. Perhaps May ’68 never took off, one figure suggests. Or never began, and so is just waiting for its true start.
As it happens, the lyrics to M’Belolo’s song were recently discovered in the archives of one of his fellow Situationists. With this felicitous starting point, Meesse’s film follows M’Belolo and a band of female musicians practicing M’Belolo’s resurrected song in the labyrinthine and colorful rooms of Kinshasa’s storied music club, Un Deux Trois. The musicians speak and play the guitar and drum the walls and floors, animating histories past and future, political movements finished and not yet begun, rhythms and utopian dreams that never end. “History is made in reverse; the past is becoming,” a shrouded figure intones in one of the film’s more dreamy scenes. And happening just outside the club are actual political rally and riots (against what is unclear) — Meesse interleaves them into the panels of his film, linking them with the past and future, the imagined and so-far real, and the timeless exigencies of the song. In the end, the resurrected, new rendition of the song is captivatingly performed. But it’s not so much the music that they recover as it is an endeavor for freedom.
Sea State Six is tight-lipped and impersonal by comparison. Part of Lim’s Sea State series, it opens with him windsurfing in a sea off the coast of Singapore, huge tankers lurking in the distance. Mounted on the back of the sailboard is Lim’s camera which chops through the waves and records Lim (a former Olympic sailor for Singapore) repeatedly flipping the board and struggling to right it. Encased in a waterproof box, the microphone captures muffled, sludgy sounds. In these scenes, Lim frequently splits the screens, mixing shots from above and below the surface of the water, calling attention to the water’s surface as a boundary, a fluid barrier that divides and engulfs. (In much the same way, he calls attention to the presence and limits of his camera.) In a magical transition, the board and Lim sink, bringing the two and the film to the bottom of Singapore’s Jurong Rock Caverns, where things get a little more uncanny. Exploring the elastic definition of place, the extremes and elements of space, Sea State Six is an acute and fantastic foray into the enormous environmental and geopolitical shifts happening in Singapore, not to mention around the world.
A pensive preoccupation with place and history similarly hangs over Philip Cartelli and Mariangela Ciccarello’s “Lampedusa” and Dane Komljen and James Lattimer’s “All Still Orbit.” But the places they are interested in are emergent ones; these films track the responses, displacements, and echoes that came out of the creation of new cities and new land. “All Still Orbit” is about a place you might now: the Brazilian capital city, Brasília. “Lampedusa” is about a place that time has largely forgotten about, or, in a way, took back: a transient island born out of a volcanic eruption near Sicily in 1831. Not long after it emerged, the island was claimed by multiple European nations — that is, before it slipped back to the Mediterranean’s depths in early 1832.
Lampedusa juxtaposes wide, luminous digital panoramas with black-and-white Super 8 shots, knitting together an illusory, slippery vision of time and place. “What is past?” Cartelli and Ciccarello seem to ask; the ongoing migrant crisis — where Mediterranean islands play a role of desire, salvation, and uncertainty — undoubtedly imbues this film. “All Still Orbit” is more prosaic, focusing on windows tinted with saturated pink and blues; lovely, colorful walls dressed in light; and sleepy moments of boys playing in the Paranoá Lake. Both films feature transporting voiceovers that speak of dreams and plans (Brasília; claims on the volcanic island), of what was found and made and what was lost. A low-key, lyrical criticism of Brasília’s presumptive progress and idealism, “All Still Orbit” is surprisingly memorable, whereas Lampedusa, quietly resonant and beautiful, takes longer to unpack. Both are hopefully the starting point for more works from these two contemplative duos.
Also from Brazil is “Toré,” João Vieira Torres and Tanawi Xucuru Kariri’s thoughtful and playful ethnographic film. Focusing on a Xucuru-Kariri tribe ritual, it opens with a somewhat cryptic preface: “There is that which I see; which is shown to me; which I can’t see; which I don’t see.” Torres and Tanawi Xucuru Kariri, a leader in the Xucuru-Kariri community, are keenly alert to the act of seeing. Braiding scenes from the village and ritual with the music and sights of a boy watching Disney’s Fantasia, “Toré” is a reflection on the power of images, especially those of entertainment and ethnography, and how they are seen, used, and combined; how powerful the act of looking is and how it’s important is to investigate what you are seeing (and not seeing). It’s an engaged, intelligent, and illustrative film.
In contrast to the more solemn approaches of the other films, “The Mesh and the Circles” is a heady mixture, a fevered elixir of anthropological study, quotidian handiwork, and the occult. Co-directors Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela eschew voiceover, instead employing an unseen author who inscribes his/her thoughts into a notebook by hand, forcing the reader to read and examine (in this case, via subtitle) its many mystical-sounding passages: “A film can be a labyrinth which revolves around itself. Where we lose and find ourselves.” The film is a twisty, suggestive wunderkammer. Alternating between scenes of glassmakers, fish caught in a net, a reoccurring black-and-white board of many interconnected shapes and lines (“the mesh” of the title?), a closely framed shot of a hand carefully making notes, a nearby projector that cycles through images, and numerous other formerly ordinary, but now mystified scenes, “The Mesh and the Circle” is possessed by the importance and mystery of everyday actions. One of the best films of the bunch, it’s also oddly one of the most accessible.
The last film of the series, Daïchi Saïto’s “Engram of Returning” makes for a good place to end. One of Art of the Real’s few non-digital projection films (here in 35mm), “Engram of Returning” is resolutely experimental and opposed to narrative. Saïto uses found footage of landscapes to create a “metaphysical travelogue,” distorting the film’s images (e.g. of a coast scene) to exaggerate their color or clump darkness around their edges and in between scenes. “Engram” has a double meaning: the physical changes in the brain that are thought to dictate the way memories are stored and what Scientology defines as a “mental image picture which is a recording of an experience containing pain, unconsciousness and a real or fancied threat to survive.” While Art of the Real’s description thinks otherwise, Saïto’s use of engram seems to refer more to the former than to Scientology. In any case, his short is elusive and challenging, having the aesthetic of a blinkered, porous flashblack, as if memory was blasted by the erosive winds of time, blackened by the slide into forgetting. It seems to be about the way we remember, how memory processes change and loss. Positioned here at the end, “Engram of Returning” is almost a wry rejoinder: What will we remember of all the places and histories these short films transported us to?
Shorts Programs 1 & 2 in the Art of the Real will screen at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (70 Lincoln Center Plaza, Upper West Side, Manhattan) on Sunday, April 17 and on Wednesday, April 20. Visit the Art of the Real site for more information.