The best of Experimenta at BFI London Film Festival 2021

The LFF’s ‘Experimenta’ programme formed its own kind of micro avant-garde festival this year, featuring an Afro-futurist cyber-musical and a film that exists only as one single 35mm print.

27 October 2021

By Ben Nicholson

Neptune Frost (2021)Neptune Frost (2021)
Sight and Sound
  • Reported from BFI London Film Festival 2021 

Each year the London Film Festival harbours what is, in effect, a sub-festival in the form of its energising strand of avant-garde films, Experimenta. Rather than being dotted throughout the festival’s 11-day programme, the screenings all tend to be concentrated across three or four days and a lot of the same faces can be seen in each screening. As well as creating a convivial atmosphere across a long weekend, this format also allows for themes and ideas to emerge over several days and multiple works. This was the case this year, where various films in the strand seemed to be concerned with time and the legacies – or ravages – of history.

It might perhaps seem perverse to focus any discussion of Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s dizzying Afro-futurist cyber-musical Neptune Frost on its interactions with the past. A free-flowing tale of resistance and romance that coheres more to its persistent, and irresistible, musical rhythms than it does typical narrative structures, it revels in sci-fi trappings. On the run from a nebulously defined but oppressive regime, miner Matalusa (Kaya Free) and intersex hacker Neptune (Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja) discover a star-crossed connection in a lo-fi techno dreamscape before coming together in the physical world at a commune for like-minded rebels.

Williams wrote both the film’s musical compositions and its oblique, poetic dialogue – those familiar with his recent albums like Encrypted & Vulnerable and MartyrLoserKing will recognise beats, phrases, and motifs that recur throughout. Dialogue acts less as a vehicle for conveying information than it does tempo and feeling, but this doesn’t negate the deeper meaning of the work, which is born of a capitalistic history of plunder. Matalusa’s awakening from a life of subjugation takes place in the coltan mine in which he is forced to work, obtaining precious material for the world’s smartphones and laptops.

Neptune Frost (2021)
Neptune Frost (2021)

The vision of Africa conceived of by Williams, Uzeyman, and fashion designer and artist Cedric Mizero – who oversaw the film’s fantastic art direction – is one existing in the detritus of colonial exploitation. Sets and costumes often incorporate technological scraps, most notably in the form of an impressive cape made of discarded keyboard keys. While the film itself may be future-facing in its discourse on social movements, virtual and real-world identities, and gender fluidity, these ideas rail against a familiar history.

Kevin Jerome Everson’s Lago Gatún, which world premiered at the festival, occupies an area at the polar opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, but equally offers space to reflect on the nature of colonial incursion and the repercussions of a globalised economy. Everson’s film is a structuralist work that presents a series of 10-minute reels of 16mm footage shot using a Bolex camera mounted on the prow of a boat navigating the Panama Canal. 

Lago Gatún (2021)
Lago Gatún (2021)

Aside from brief moments of montage in which the broader journey is depicted, the footage primarily shows the inside of several locks as the boat carrying Everson is raised and lowered into the titular lake. As such, the images are largely abstracted. The audience watches the play of light on the lock gates and sees the surrounding mechanism slowly come into, or disappear from, view as the water levels change. The fleeting glimpses of the what lies beyond the gates perhaps reflect the minimal engagement those traversing the canal have with the rest of Panama, but really it is the time to reflect – on a gargantuan colonial undertaking, a feat of capitalist determination at the cost of more than 25,000 workers’ lives during the canal’s construction – that lends the film its cumulative power.

Historical narratives are more overtly treated in Marta Popivoda’s Landscapes of Resistance and Kamila Kuc’s What We Shared. Landscapes of Resistance centres on Sonja, the grandmother of the filmmaker’s partner and co-writer, Ana Vujanovic. Primarily, it comprises audio interviews with Sonja as she recounts her life during the Second World War as one of Serbia’s first female partisans and then as a survivor of Auschwitz. These are set against sparse shots of ­– often empty – landscapes, or textured detail that seems to echo, without directly representing, the content of the soundtrack. Occasionally inserted into this structure are extracts from Ana’s diaries which draw parallels between the filmmakers’ contemporary experiences of being a queer couple in an increasingly fascistic Europe and Sonja’s journey from devouring radical literature to active resistance. Rather than allowing her own life to become too prominent, though, Popivoda constructs the film as a touching tribute and memorial to Sonja and her spirit.  

Kuc’s What We Shared also forges connections between the personal and the political, but the director’s area of interest is, from the outset, considerably broader. Intrigued by the disputed state of Abkhazia, which also provided the setting for Alexandru Solomon’s 2017 documentary Tarzan’s Testicles, Kuc’s film seeks to explore its transformation from a sunkissed Soviet holiday resort on the Black Sea to a derelict shell of its former glory after the 1992-3 War in Abkhazia. “I was sitting in a café with friends opposite the beach,” explains one woman in voiceover, “when we saw a helicopter flying over the sea.”

Where Popivoda slowly faded between relatively still images in an attempt to evoke distant, fading memory, here Kuc uses a whole host of techniques to bring together a patchwork of history and memory in a portrait of time and place. Archival photographs and index cards detailing the historical timeline are combined with theatrical re-enactments by non-professional local actors, new footage, poetic voiceover and virtual imagery to both map Abkhazia and its people’s state of mind. One particularly striking sequence sees voiceover and subtitles mismatched, creating a sense of the difficulty and dissonance experienced living through the war.

Landscapes of Resistance (2021)
Landscapes of Resistance (2021)

Archival footage is both the medium and the message in Yu Araki and Lu Pan’s paean to the home video, Anachronic Chronicles: Voyages Inside/Out Asia. Compiled during lockdown with footage from their respective childhoods in the 1990s the film is, on the surface, a playful assemblage that finds much humour in the gurning showmanship of Araki’s younger brother and the sheer mundanity of what was sometimes captured. However, their ongoing conversations plumb much more significant depths than this might suggest, taking in the implications surrounding the status of owning video cameras for their two families (both of whom emigrated), the potential effect that the footage might have, and the power dynamics regarding who had control of the camera. In one particularly moving scene, Araki recalls his excitement to film and record a significant traffic accident as their car passed, followed by the sobering effect that the reality of it had on him as a child and, clearly, still does today. 

Screening in the same programme as Anachronic Chronicles and in a very different mode of reckoning with historical footage was Michelle Williams Gamaker’s excellent short The Bang Straws. It is a direct rebuke to the casting of caucasian Luise Rainer over Chinese American actress Anna May Wong as the main character O-Lan in Sidney Franklin’s The Good Earth. Gamaker’s film reworks and re-enacts the casting process to highlight the corrosive racialised conversations and maltreatment that can often define such processes.

Elsewhere, existing culture was also co-opted and reformulated in The Gift, by 2021 Jarman award nominee, Jasmina Cibic. An ostentatiously mounted competition invites three men to propose gifts – in the form of architecture, music and art – that could potentially heal a divided nation. Shot in eye-catching locations which were all ‘gifted’ (such as the Palais of the Nations in Geneva) and with a script made up of archival texts about soft power, it’s a beautifully mounted and spiky imagining of the mechanics behind cultural production. 

Archival material is also the basis for Charlie Shackleton’s The Afterlight, the world premiere of which took place as part of Experimenta and was surely one of its hottest ticket events. The reason for this is that the film exists solely in the form of a single 35mm film print with no negative and no copies and, as such, has a finite lifespan.

The Afterlight (2021)
The Afterlight (2021)

The movie itself is a compilation film – a form that Shackleton has worked in previously with the likes of Beyond Clueless – this time made from the starting constraint that everyone who appeared on-screen had to have passed away. The result is an eerie sojourn through a kind of cinematic limbo in which narrative is subsumed into movement; the editing process takes on the characteristics of the exquisite corpse technique, the end of one shot dictates the beginning of the next. 

There are cleverly edited sequences that imply some form of a story, including the congregation of various individuals for a postmortem tipple at the eponymous bar, but it is the atmosphere that pervades. It dissuades the perhaps natural inclination to try to guess which films individual clips are from or keep an eye out for familiar faces and instead encourages contemplation on the precarity of the filmstrip, the inevitability of the end, and all that has come before.

Originally published: 27 October 2021

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