At the height of the COVID-19 quarantine, when movie theaters and film festivals could only offer their selections online, programmer and curator Inney Prakash had an idea for a new kind of festival. In an email conversation with Hyperallergic, he explains, “I saw an opportunity to do something unique without a lot of resources and to serve the passionate, rapidly growing community around experimental documentary — nonfiction work that’s more interested in form than narrative and sensory experience than information.” Prakash, a programmer for the Maysles Documentary Center, has been working with festivals for eight years. As he sees it, film festivals, like all institutions, are “fraught with some unfortunate entrenched dynamics. I saw starting one as an experiment in pushing back against some of those.”
What he devised was Prismatic Ground, a weeklong event in April 2021. It was free, featured a robust slate of conversations with filmmakers, and had no geoblocking, meaning anyone anywhere could take part. Despite its limited resources and scope, the inaugural edition found terrific success (a curated selection of films from that festival is currently featured on the Criterion Channel). This year, Prismatic Ground returns in a hybrid form, happening both online and at the Maysles May 4 through May 8, with additional screenings at Anthology Film Archives and the Museum of the Moving Image.
Praksh believes experimental documentary represents the most exciting development in contemporary moving image culture, and has been frustrated by how such films are often presented. “Most festivals that show this work tend to ghettoize it rather than center it … and emphasize its esoteric aura rather than frame it as something that can be appreciated by anybody.” Such titles in this year’s festival include Charlie Shackleton’s The Afterlight, which exists solely in the form of a single 35mm film print (meaning the movie records its own history as the print degrades over time), or Erin and Travis Wilkerson’s road trip essay film Nuclear Family, which indicts the United States’ “death wish” via a survey of missile silos across the country.
These titles are joined by scores of others, organized into a series of “waves.” (The festival’s name comes from a 1930 volume of poetry by Marguerite Young — it’s one way she describes the ocean.) As a curator, Prakash takes great pleasure in “putting works in conversation with each other.” Planning the festival this year, his priorities were “paying filmmakers, creating a context where shorts and features could be seen as equally valid expressions … and allowing work by both emerging and established filmmakers to exist side by side.”
Despite the wider scope, Prakash still manages most of Prismatic Ground solo. Last year, he mostly invited films he’d seen at previous festivals and reached out to filmmakers he admired for their work and recommendations. For 2022, he opened the festival for submissions, and found himself overwhelmed by the response. “I’m pleased to say that over half of the program this year is comprised of blind submissions, something that’s incredibly rare [for festivals].” Also unfortunately rare for festivals: actually paying filmmakers for their work. Prakash considers this norm “egregious,” and didn’t want to perpetuate it. “The first year was funded by unemployment and stimulus money, in addition to a few grand in individual donations. This year I got a few more grand in donations and made a few grand from submissions ($25 for shorts, $50 for features). Almost all of that has gone to screening fees — each filmmaker is offered $100 per film. Hopefully I can get some real funding for next year.”
Another priority is access. The online component of Prismatic Ground remains free, with no geoblocking. Prakash acknowledges that this makes it something of a gamble to count on people to show up for in-person screenings for anything that’s online (which is most of the program). “I’m hoping that people in New York will come be part of the physical festival. The virtual version is really meant for people outside the city and who have trouble accessing physical spaces.”
While he doesn’t play favorites, when surveying this year’s program, Prakash does have a few recommendations for anyone who might not know where to start: “I want people to take a chance on everything. There are a lot of quietly powerful, unassuming films in the lineup. Lida, by Lev Omelchenko, is a portrait of the filmmaker’s grandmother in Ukraine. Karthik Pandian and Andros Zin-Browne’s Three Songs Without Z is a fascinating vertical aspect-ratio film about Syrian artist/activist Zakaria Almoutlak, who was forced to flee the country. The film attempts to recreate the absent evidence of Almoutlak’s experience with archival videos and reenactments. Kamila Kuc’s What We Shared, in the same program, makes a similar attempt to recover memories of the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia. Ryan Clancy’s Oliver Sees Indigo is one of the most fluid, sensorially legible, and frankly beautiful films I’ve ever seen about drugs/addiction. Rhea Storr’s Madness Remixed reveals the fetishization of Josephine Baker. Isidore Bethel and Francis Leplay’s audacious Acts of Love has probably the best (and most straightforward) synopsis of all the movies: ‘When his older boyfriend loses interest in him, the filmmaker relocates to Chicago and uses dating apps to cast new lovers in an amorphous project that his mother hates.’ And finally, a short and brilliant piece which centers on ritual: Ayanna Dozier’s Maman Brigitte.”