2021: the year in experimental cinema

2021’s most moving experimental works dislocated settled consciousness in ways that felt urgent and energising

KaleidoSkeleton Ti Desi Cyborg (2021)

“Art doesn’t change the world,” warned the activist, journalist and globetrotting Marxist historian Vijay Prashad. “Art dislocates our understanding of reality and creates new utopias. Our role is as the dislocators of settled consciousness. It’s mass struggles that build power to change the world.”

Prashad fired off such sentiments in inimitably persuasive fashion during his dynamite opening keynote at this year’s Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, streamed to the world from Hawick in the Scottish Borders. The line made brief ripples on social media before its inevitable burial in the timeline refresh.

He’s right. By summer, the festival model by which consumption is organised and capital is distributed had begun to rumble reluctantly back to life: its production of outputs and carbon footprints, its precarities and rapid turnovers, its tendency to form cliques rather than communities, its burnt-out administrative and production workers and its self-involved, high-flying curators.

For the experimental community, this meant a return to the prevalence of events – and, as writers like Richard Misek and Jessica Secmezsoy-Urquhart have lamented, a potential abandonment of the access measures to which unspent hospitality budgets had been reallocated during the previous year’s digital pivot.

If 2020 had presented any opportunity for the bigger festivals, hitherto inclined to keep marginalised perspectives and more experimental fare to specialist sidebars, it was for encroachment on the less competitive, closer-knit and frankly more diverse communities of artists’ moving image. The line-ups of at least two documentary festivals in England this year were palpably more littered than ever with what might be called avant-garde work; one of them, governed by a board of trustees emanating from television, Amazon and project development, parted ways with its recently appointed artistic director and much of its programming team less than two months after the 2021 edition ended.

At any rate, the power of cinema – even from a laptop – persists. To agree with Prashad, that it is mass movements rather than cultural texts that catalyse policy shifts and infrastructural change, is to take nothing away from the art itself. As an excellent Erika Balsom monograph on James Benning’s Ten Skies (2004) reaffirmed earlier this year, the more enduring avant-garde works advance worldviews that are partial, located, grounded – and 2021’s most moving works dislocated settled consciousness in ways that felt urgent and energising.

Landscapes of Resistance (2021)

In Landscapes of Resistance, Marta Popivoda traces the life of 97-year-old Sonja Vujanović, a lifelong antifascist who survived Auschwitz after joining Tito’s Yugoslav Army in German-occupied Serbia in 1941. Parsing and condensing a decade’s worth of conversations with Sonja, Popivoda and co-author Ana Vujanović sculpt a cinematic monument to personal-political endurance. I loved the film’s extended dissolves, its textured studies of poppy fields, its sparing use of never-not-stirring partisan songs, which crescendo in like bullets ricocheting through time.

If I saw any film this year that spoke to the intense, Covid-specific interplays between interiority and exteriority, mundanity and imagination, and contentment and discomfort, it was The Last Name of John Cage. Margaux Guillemard’s lockdown-made riff on the thoughts that encompass and inhabit silence reveals a lived experience through apartment interiors and deeply touching voiceover. Referring in one moment to incidental, everyday minutiae unfolding off screen, and in the next to the trauma underpinning her months-long lack of physical intimacy, Guillemard gives voice to emotions in such a way that their abrupt, mid-sentence cut-off makes perfect sense – their residues haunting the quietude of subsequent shots.

KaleidoSkeleton Ti: The Desi Cyborg offers a radically different audiovisual experience. Like her other 2021 installation Exosomatic Echoes, Aminder Virdee’s tricksily entrancing, tech-clever piece plays out like a kaleidoscopic screensaver. The interpretation materials that accompany the work, however, reveal its genesis to be a blend of the artist’s own biodata and medical archives: X-rays coded and coloured to connote Indian symbolism tessellating in dynamic, unceasing flux.

Umbilic (2021)

But the most fascinating work I enjoyed this year was Umbilic, a new essay film and research piece by Scottish-Zimbabwean artist Natasha Thembiso Ruwona – one of those young and exciting artists, multidirectional and multidisciplinary, whose practice lends itself to different iterations. I caught the premiere of their latest work, an invitingly dense permutation on colonialism, water and the Scottish Black Atlantic, as a live gig on YouTube, one Friday evening in February, thanks to Edinburgh’s Hubcap Gallery – before commissioning an expansion to open this year’s Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival in spring. The latter, an audiovisual essay performed with fellow artist Khadea Kuchenmeister, was expanded cinema for the virtual age: delivered backstage over Zoom, it dislocated settled consciousness and created new utopias for our year-defining, fatigue-inducing communications platform of choice.

The best films of 2021