Urgent upheavals: artist films that call for new understandings of complex times

Radical new ideas don’t have to be science fiction. The filmmakers featured in this year’s Experimenta programme use visual and aural ingenuity to challenge the status quo, says programme advisor Helen de Witt.

29 September 2021

By Helen de Witt

Mudança (2021)
London Film Festival

Inherent to the time-based structure of films by artists is a reworking of time itself. The films in the Experimenta programme at this year’s London Film Festival challenge conceptions of the normal or status quo with incredible visual and aural ingenuity. They call to dispose of the discourse of certainty, and instead seek one of discovery, rediscovery and sharing – a multi-voiced conversation that moves in numerous directions within the past, the present and the future. A provocation to a new kind of dreaming of a more just world.

How do we investigate the past to create a new future? It’s a question that sits at the heart of some equally disquieting but quite different films in the Experimenta programme. Often, when presenting radical new ideas, we’re told that it’s the stuff of science fiction; but simply, it is a plan for the future, a form of idealism. We may think that we are looking for something new, but really we are joining a process that started long before us, and will continue after us.

Much of this filmmaking is about challenging boundaries to imagine new worlds and reimagine old ones to create new possibilities of living. Experimenta shorts programme Memorials of Meaning brings together work that creates new visualisations to critique old certainties. John Greyson’s International Dawn Chorus Day unites the birds of the world in mourning for the death of two Egyptian queer activists, Sarah Hegazi and Shady Habash, who paid with their lives in the fight to end homophobic discrimination and violence. They sing for remembrance and for justice during lockdown via Zoom. 

In Disturbed Earth, which also features in the Memorials of Meaning programme, Didem Pekün dissects the diplomatic recklessness that led to the Srebrenica massacre, the final genocide of the 20th century. It was filmed as a rehearsal of a script inspired by the conversations archived by the UN, re-enacting this shameful process to banish it from happening again. Recent catastrophes, though, prove that learning from history is still not a priority for the mighty.

The Gift, a new work by Jasmina Cibic receiving its world premiere in Memorials of Meaning, dissects the rhetoric of the state to expose self-serving hubris. It examines the propagandistic purposes of cultural production in times of political crisis. Composed using existing cultural artefacts in architecture, art and music, which were themselves political gifts, the film imagines a competition for the creation of a new gift that would heal a divided nation. 

Both Colectivo Los Ingrávidos’ Tonalli and Welket Bungué’s Mudança – which are also in the Memorials of Meaning programme – use pulsating imagery of ancient worlds to draw us back to the foundations of our being on the Earth, decolonising western temporality and the biased idea of historical progress. Using 16mm and hand-processing to disassociate from stock capitalist images, Tonalli is a Mesoamerican spell unleashed, a shamanic and atavistic manifestation of the flowing cosmos in which all beings are immersed. 

Tonalli (2021)

Mudança, or Upheaval, is about generating new life, dialogue, understanding, to celebrate humanity. Through the music, poetry and dance of Guinea-Bissau, with multi-layered projected imagery, it contemplates the meanings of democracy, public health and individuality in a time of change. The film is a perfect complement to the Experimenta special screening of Neptune Frost, Saul Williams’ and Anisia Uzeyman’s Rwandan Afrofuturist queer musical about freedom from neo-colonial exploitation and gender normativity. 

The changing of borders is pivotal to Kamila Kuc’s What We Shared. A quietly devastating exhumation of the trauma of violent destruction of a homeland in post-Soviet Abkhazia, it seeks ways to express conflicting truths through visual and aural links between past and present. This film screens with Eye Cut, the latest work from Sarah Pucill, another world premiere. Her film creates a surreal journey to dramatise the violence of structural masculinity; how borders between genders oppress but liberate when crossed. Both of these films are receiving their world premieres.

Lago Gatún, Kevin Jerome Everson’s latest feature film, another world premiere, is a literal journey through the channel of capitalism, the Panama Canal, which was built by subjugated Caribbean workers to make others rich. Through this voyage we see the geography of the world not as natural but modelled to facilitate profit. Everson’s film unites political exploration with a vision of new opportunities. 

With the assistance and resistance of all these artists, and the others in Experimenta, we can experience new possibilities for visioning the future.

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