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I’m such a loser for falling asleep both times I tried to watch Battleship Potemkin, I berated myself when a friend surprised me with the offer to be his +1 at the Moscow International Experimental Film Festival. A whirlwind of visa applications, and soon I was arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport, grasping for some shred of insight into how the next few weeks would unfold. Though it plays to a mainly Muscovite audience, the festival — now in its fourth year — boasts a heavily international slate. In fact, only one competition entry, Victor Ailmpiev’s Piazza (2018), was a Russian production. Opening night commenced with Lawrence Lek’s AIDOL (2019), the tale of a démodé diva set in a digitally rendered Malaysia of 2065. The screening was held at Dom Kino, a film club fashioned by Sergei Eisenstein — a crumb of familiarity to orient me amidst the novelty of my first day in Moscow.
Later in the weekend, I caught Stephen Broomer’s Tondal’s Vision (2018), one of several special screenings adjoining the competition program. Tondal’s Vision pays homage to L’inferno, an early cinematic adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, by rephotographing and altering a print of the 1911 film. The resulting 16mm print was worked over through both analog and digital means, pushed and dissolved to the boundaries of abstraction. The introduction by a renowned Russian medievalist was, of course, in Russian, and they never made me read Dante at Barnard, so my comprehension was at Broomer’s mercy. Like most of the films that made the festival’s cut, Tondal’s Vision is fervently un-didactic, sometimes to the point of impenetrability. But the wavering, brightly colored bodies of archival celluloid, mutilated to the margins of figurative representation, gripped me for the full 64-minute runtime. ASMR-ified into sensory receptivity by the projector’s gentle hum, I couldn’t help but feel keyed in to some sense of connection.
There’s a certain affective charge to the kind of avant-garde cinema that floats and melts, where shifting, soluble forms are felt in the body before they can be pinned down by the mind. Typically, these qualities are associated with analog, and particularly with direct filmmaking. But as the festival’s lineup asserts, digital cinema shares this power. AIDOL, created in the video game development tool Unreal Engine, has a similarly wavering, abstract quality to certain shots. During a Q&A, one viewer asked if it had been produced using neural networks, referring to that unique flickering visuality associated with machine learning that recurs throughout the film.
Similarly, Rainer Kohlberger’s It has to be lived once and dreamed twice (2019) employs a static-glazed sensory affront in its call to action, thematizing ecological crisis despite its almost inscrutable abstraction. The film, which is loosely structured as an apocalyptic thriller, comes together through damaged, droning movements. Electromagnetic interference and digital distortion blanket spectral figures onscreen, tied together by vague and eerie voiceover. Stefano Canapa’s The Sound Drifts (2019), a wordless ballet of magnetic sound waves, snagged a jury prize for its postproduction work. Across these films, a sense of textural, embodied intensity transcends media and means of production. I found that the sense of activation conveyed across these films seemed to transcend the verbal, leaping into physicality. My stupidly monoglot American brain was revved up even when I forgot my glasses and couldn’t read the subtitles, just through the sheer formal ferocity of it all. It called to mind Dziga Vertov, who imagined a universal cinematic language beaming truth — kino pravda — straight past the language cortex into viewers’ subconscious through rhythmic evocation.
Are these abstractions merely a bunch of Rorschach inkblots onto which one can project a fantasy of intercultural affinity? This possibility crosses my mind as I consider the lulls in Dora Garcia’s Segunda Vez (2018), a loose snapshot of the Argentinian artist Oscar Masotta. The film is stitched together from re-stagings of Masotta’s Happenings — radical performances originally put on in 1960s Argentina, indebted to Lacan, referring periodically to Allan Kaprow, and screened at the festival with Russian subtitles. Though the film’s rambling pace feels mismatched with the political urgency of its subject matter, the best moments of its meandering long takes grant a worthy payoff: a sense of rapt wonderment shared with the participants onscreen, even across disparate layers of cultural context. Somehow, it all translates.
In a program so broad, so expansive in its embrace of formal experimentation as in its international scope, searching for a unifying thread is obviously reductive. Yet MIEFF had, for me, an exceptionally high hit rate. I sat captivated in the historic Illuzion Cinema for more consecutive hours than I’d spent watching movies this year to date. Exceptional programming, jet-lagged delirium, or mind-boggled provincial naiveté? Call it what you will, but when I relay the story, I choose to imagine it as an experience of genuine kino pravda.
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