Dawson City, in Yukon, Canada, was the ‘end of the line’ for silent film: home to the northernmost cinema screens, it received the reels two to three years after they first screened in the lower 48 – and there they remained, as it was too expensive to ship them back to the studios. In some cases – 506 reels from 372 films previously thought lost, to be precise – there they remained there until 1978, when a local with a backhoe struck silver while digging out the landfill under what had been the local ice hockey rink.
Bill Morrison’s found-footage documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time, and likewise the 2016 London Film Festival’s Experimenta programme, thus begin by kickstarting cinema from ‘the end of the line’. Morrison, best known for the nitrate tone poem Decasia (2002), returns to the medium to compose a rollicking Gold Rush ballad of newsreels, silent melodramas, comedies and actualities. Its argument parallels the early years of cinema with the white settlement of North America’s final wild frontier, as well as the archaeological digging of cinema historians and that of the miners. It’s an intricate and holistic look at North American history, from colonial encounters with members of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, whose fishing camp was settled as Dawson City, to the collapsing capitalism of the Depression and its injurious effects; a similar deep archaeology, informed by a rage against colonial capitalism, informs Deborah Stratman’s 16mm essay film The Illinois Parables.
Morrison’s film also offers a curious side note on how our understanding of history is shaped by the media that documents it, revealing that the ‘Ken Burns effect’ was invented when Canadian filmmakers Colin Low and Wolf Koenig discovered and used Eric A. Hegg’s photographs of Dawson City. Rescued from alternate use – like the film reels used as landfill – Hegg’s glass plates went from store windows to National Museum holdings to Low and Koenig’s 1957 documentary City of Gold and thence to Morrison’s film. Thrifty, inventive and witty, Dawson City draws the eye’s mind as much as the mind’s eye with its critical evocation of frontier days known from myriad Hollywood (mis)representations.
The relationship between moving and still images was also central to artist Fiona Tan’s second feature Ascent, a compendium of more than 4,000 still images of Mount Fuji, which played as the Experimenta gala. The film’s argument moves intellectually, culturally and aesthetically within the stillness of the frame to prise Japanese history and spirituality from European orientalism. Echoes of cinema resound too, particularly La jetée and Hiroshima mon amour (in the narration’s relationship between the English woman and her deceased Japanese partner, Hiroshi), but Tan’s contemplative address to what she calls “the teeth of time”, and its relation to movement, contrasts with Morrison’s quicksilver play, although both are concerned with how unseen histories can be brought into view from the surface of found media.
Such layering of historical and political narration through the investigation of the end (and the ends) of the cinematic and photographic could be claimed as the connective thread of the Experimenta programme this year, if not exactly definitional of experimental film itself. I Had Nowhere to Go, Douglas Gordon’s anti- or un-diary film with and about Jonas Mekas, both exemplified and defied such a definition: on the one hand, the film is palpably a collaboration between two moving image artists who possess a primary fascination with detourning temporalities; on the other, there is friction and resistance, not so much between the artists as with/against the idea of cinema itself.
The title is taken from Mekas’s 1991 memoir, which drew on diaries covering his time in a Nazi forced-labour camp, then postwar in a displaced persons camp in Europe and as an immigrant in New York City. Mekas reads from the diaries on the soundtrack, which orders them non-chronologically; for the most part, the screen is black, forcing the viewer against the limits of cinema. There are a few glimpses of 16mm film of Mekas making borscht, and of a gorilla in a zoo. In the middle of the film, the voice is displaced by an extended sound sequence that evokes an aerial bombardment described in an earlier diary excerpt, sound designed by Frank Kruse (most recent film: Hologram for the King) and edited in Dolby Atmos. It’s on an affective par with Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt as a solution to a problem: Gordon’s filmmaking has some way to go to achieve the subtle power of Mekas’s.
Not that subtlety is definitional of experimenta, either: a double programme of Curt McDowell’s films, restored by the Academy Film Archive, continued the festival’s representation of the funky (in all senses) side of the avant-garde to revel in play with bodies, colour and spectacle – ‘Peeing Into the Wind’, to quote the title of one programme, as a critical disruptive technique.
Sarah Pucill’s Confessions to the Mirror – the sequel to Magic Mirror – once again located both the gorgeously (and queerly) spectacular and the deeply serious in the work of surrealist artist Claude Cahun. Pucill uses Cahun’s love of the tableau to interrupt the ordered flow of history, particularly with relevance to the imprisonment of Cahun and her lover Suzanne Malherbe by the occupying Nazis in Jersey. The possibilities held by excess, disruption and ambiguity as powerful and political responses to the rigidity and erasure of the Nazi invasion resonate productively in our current moment.
Desperate Optimists, likewise (as their name suggests), find hope amid the despair of history (and indeed film history) in Further Beyond, a documentary about (not) making a period drama biopic of Ambrose O’Higgins, Irish emigrant and anti-colonial rebel. Like Gordon’s film, it wants to turn ocularcentrism inside out, to insist that seeing is not believing and that we need to listen harder. For stretches of the film, we watch one of two actors in a small recording studio, reading the script, which interweaves O’Higgins’ biography with that of Helen Lawlor (mother of co-director Joe Lawlor, and likewise a migrant), and occasionally questioning the directors offscreen. Like Dawson City, it takes a witty approach through its precise editing, pondering the vast depths of colonial history without being ponderous. Its deft references to Barry Lyndon and On the Waterfront make apparent a cinephilia that is also critical, a de-romanticising awareness that while films shape our memories and lives, we can still (and perhaps should) interrogate them.
Have You Seen My Movie, the first feature by Paul Anton Smith, and Exprmntl, by Brecht Debackere, both offered opportunities to do so: the former by collating images from film history showing film audiences and film-viewing experiences; the latter through its look at the EXPRMNTL festival in Knokke. A conventionally made documentary, Debackere’s film offered a fascinating insight into the shaping of an experimental film culture through international curation and conversations. With Smith’s film, it formed a double bill endorsing the importance of creating and holding spaces, with all the rituals attendant, in which audiences can view a range of films, and even look closely at how and why they do so.
Anja Kirschner’s Moderation, which follows a filmmaker planning a horror-movie set in Egypt, is at its sharpest when interrogating encounters with cinema, through three conversations about genre, performance and politics with film luminaries: Cairene filmmaker, activist and curator Aida El Kashef, of the Mosireen collective; Athenian actor Michele Valley, who played the mother in Dogtooth; and Roman actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice (John Morghen), best known for his role in The Omen. All three actors are set specifically in their urban, rather than national, contexts, and interviewed productively at length by the filmmaker (Maya Lubinsky), drawing on Kirschner’s conversation-based research techniques. All three give depth to a film that distracts itself from two interesting projects – the proposed horror film, and the cast interviews – through its focus on the filmmaker’s reflexive quandaries.
This prevalent trope was staged more successfully in four films outside the Experimenta programme: as well as in Robert Greene’s widely discussed Kate Plays Christine and Shola Amoo’s A Moving Image, filmmakers are the protagonists of the more experimental narrative dramas In the Last Days of the City by Tamer el-Said, a melancholy meditation that also addressed Cairo (and starred el Kashef’s Mosireen collaborator Khalid Abdalla), and the stunning (in both senses) By the Time it Gets Dark by Anocha Suwichakornpong, with its recursive construction of film-within-film-within-film. The delicacy and precision of Anocha’s navigation of both censorship and ethics in making a film about the Thammasat University massacre of 1976 raises questions about the line between world arthouse and (predominantly white Eurowestern) experimenta, especially given the increase in artist-filmmakers producing feature-length films, with Kirschner one of two British debuts in this year’s Experimenta programme.
The other is Eglantine by UK-based, American-born Margaret Salmon, winner of the first MaxMara prize for women artists, who has also worked as cameraperson for Ursula Mayer. Salmon’s film is nominally about a filmmaker – a mother of three, played by Salmon, wielding a Bolex as the family hunts for badgers in a forest on Skye – but she recedes into the background. The middle child, played by Salmon’s middle child Eglantine, leaves the family’s tent one morning and spends a day and a night and a day wandering alone, encountering teenage campers, adders, oaks, darkness and her own curiosity and resilience as she too looks (more successfully) for traces of badgers. The inverse of Gordon’s blank screens, Eglantine is a replenishing experiment in ways of seeing and attending to the whole of the visual – and indeed sensory – spectrum, and a rare experimental film that was not only made by a family (with parts of the score provided by Salmon’s children as well), but could be watched by the whole family.
The same can’t be said of Lizzie Borden’s radical manifesto Born in Flames, although the film’s how-to guide for anarchist organisation – for making films as well as revolution – should be on every syllabus. Restored on 35mm from the 16mm internegative by Anthology Film Archives, Borden’s 1983 film now looks and sounds as legendary as its reputation deserves, bringing added clarity and urgency to the Women’s Liberation Army and their pirate-radio partners as they fight back against a pseudo-socialist government that is spying on its citizens and pushing women back into the kitchen.
Like Margaret Atwood’s similarly prescient The Handmaid’s Tale (a TV adaptation of which is currently in production for Hulu), Born in Flames is one of the few texts of feminist science fiction to have broached the mainstream, and the Experimenta programme’s practice of looking back – whether through found-footage films or treasures from the archives – in order to look forward has never seemed more necessary. Driven by the sights and sounds of early 80s downtown New York, Borden’s film is also driven – like Morrison’s film – to deconstruct the American media and hold it to account for its misinformation.
Born in Flames’ continued resonance and growing popularity suggests (as Borden did in her Q&A) that we need radical approaches to image-and-sound making more than ever, and that experimental films, attentive to their own sources and processes, can act as reportage in ways that narrative drama cannot. Without Dawson City: Frozen Time, after all, how would we have put into context the revealing fact that Donald Trump’s wealth derived from his grandfather Frederick Trump, Gold Rush-era brothel owner in boomtime Dawson City. “Film was born of an explosive,” reads an early subtitle in Morrison’s film: in the hands of experimental filmmakers aware of their history, explosive it remains.