For the second year running, the critics are the ones who have drawn up the programme. This time, the films selected come from very far afield to provide us with a view of what is other, and yet only to reveal that, in fact, we are the others. What was one day in front of a camera, and is now on the screen, keeps on reminding us of a fact about the world: the most exotic of things can be right in front of you.
The fascination with seeing oneself in others has a constant presence in this year’s programme: first of all, the filmmakers have been captivated by a single place or community; then, the critics felt that same attraction when faced with these images; now it’s our turn, as the audience, to go out in search of the other with the help of technology. Film-makers, critics and the audience: we’re all ethnographers.
That’s why Raquel Schefer begins her text with a reference to the article “The Artist as Ethnographer” by the art critic Hal Foster. Her selection of short films, entitled ‘That Which Looks at Us’, is a challenge to the concept of alterity in the form of a series of works in which the other takes control of the representation: the wildlife in the case of Wayward Fronds (Fern Silva, 2014), and the urban nomads in Le terrain (Bijan Anquetil, 2014) – two examples of the fact that the distance between the one who films and what is being filmed can be eliminated.
Brais Romero’s selection is similar: Of the North (Dominic Gagnon, 2015) is a playful yet acerbic work, a selection of bizarre videos taken from social networks, in which the inhabitants of the Canadian Arctic Circle shamelessly portray their own idiosyncrasies. The view of the person making the film here is the same as that of the subjects represented in it, as they film their stories for the own pleasure and that of others. Gagnon brings order and meaning to this torrent of audiovisual input, enabling us to see that the Arctic is, unfortunately, as awful a place as anywhere else to live. The result of all this is a punk rewriting of Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922), a kind of autoethnography.
Finally, the film selected by Sergio de Benito, When the Earth Seems to Be Light (Tamuna Karumidze, Salome Machaidze & David Meskhi, 2015), takes us to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where a group of skateboarders are trying to transform their reality through the looking-glass of the west. These boys and girls keep on striving for freedom while never leaving their boards, and their daily, naïve and admirable efforts are infectious, because, in the end, their struggle is ours too.
by Martín Cuesta Gutiérrez and Iván Villarmea Álvarez
That which looks at us
In 1995, Hal Foster published a landmark article, The Artist as Ethnographer, whose title evoked Benjamin’s “the author as producer” and also identified a new paradigm in “advanced” art. For Foster, anthropology has become a disciplinary reference point for artistic practice and critical discourse. While, with the transition from the productivist paradigm to the “quasi-ethnographic” paradigm, autonomous art remains the object of contestation, the ethnographic artist now focuses on the “cultural other”, rather than on the proletariat as the “social other”, However, according to Foster, certain fundamental assumptions of the old productivist paradigm are still present in the new one. These include the claim that the site of artistic transformation, and of political transformation, is also located “elsewhere” and that the point of subversion of the dominant culture is always perceived as coming from outside, as being a cultural or social alterity. In this environment, the artist must seek to appear and be perceived as “a cultural or social other”. As well as the risk of “ideological patronage”, which Foster, following Benjamin, draws attention to, the system of binary oppositions which anthropology (and colonialism) promoted in the past is still present in this paradigm.
More than twenty years after the publication of The Artist as Ethnographer, the That Which Looks at Us programme questions the recent “ethnographical turn” in cinema. Films such as Ana Vaz’s Occidente (2014), or Alexandra Cuesta’s Despedida (2013), rethink the notions of “sameness” and “otherness” by means of a reconsideration of the positions of what is inside and what is outside, and which also takes into account the specific features of cinematographic medium. What happens when otherness is neither wholly inside or outside, when it can be viewed as being both at the same time? To what extent does the reversibility between sameness and alterity enable the opposition between subjectivism and objectivism to be overcome and the separation between the subject and object of representation and knowledge to be left behind?
In contemporary cinema, narratives concerning alterity frequently take aesthetic approaches and use experimental structures. Not only do these five short films provide evidence of this trend, but also, as they jointly rethink alterity and sameness, they also portray the opposition between history and “fabulation”, in the Deleuzian sense of the term, by adopting a system of representation which is marked by genre indeterminacy and the fabulation of the cinematographic experience. Films such as those mentioned above, along with Basma Alsharif’s Deep Sleep (2014), Fern Silva’s Wayward Fronts (2013), and Bijan Anquetil’s Le Terrain (2013), describe visual experiences in which the subject of the representation is provided with the view of the object represented possesses. To paraphrase the title of a 1992 book by Georges Didi-Huberman, what we see is looking at us.
As the visual experiences of the exposure of oneself to the gaze of the Other, the five films attempt either a semi-rotation (Cuesta, Silva, and Anquetil) or a complete rotation of the gaze (Vaz and Alsharif), leading to the confusion of the boundaries between alterity and sameness. As they rethink the aesthetic, political, epistemic and ethical conditions of cinema, they redefine within this particular field the “quasi-ethnographic” paradigm proposed by Foster. The outside and the Other cease to be elements for the subversion of the dominant culture. By creating a co-presence effect, the use of the observer’s point of view by the one observed removes alterity from its position as the point of subversion, and substitutes it with the thought of the relationship between representation systems. Via a reflection on the relationship, on “the point of curiosity” of vision within representation systems, these films, while still within the “quasi-ethnographic paradigm, move beyond its binary system towards an anthropology of form and relationships.
by Raquel Schefer (La Furia Umana)
“Deep Sleep takes us on a journey through the sound waves of Gaza to travel between different sights of modern ruin. Restricted from travel to Palestine, I learned auto-hypnosis for the purpose of bi-locating. What results is a journey, recorded on Super 8mm film, to the ruins of ancient civilizations embedded in modern civilization in ruins, to a site ruined beyond evidence of civilization”. Basma Alsharif
Sound Mix: Nicolas Fernández
Shot in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, this transitory neighborhood resonates with the poetry of local resident Mapkaulu Roger Nduku. Verses about endings, looking, and passing through, open up the space projected. A string of tableaus gather a portrait of place and compose a goodbye letter to an ephemeral home.
Produced by L’Atelier Documentaire
What is a “place of your own”, a home? Surprisingly, it could at the very least be a “plot of land”, a cadastral term that confines a barely tolerated community to non-residence on urban outskirts (here near Saint-Denis in the Paris region). For one year, Bijan Anquetil filmed a group of Roma who settled on one such plot before being “displaced” to a neighbouring town.
Occidente is a film-poem by Vaz which discusses an ecology of signs that speaks of colonial history repeating herself. Subalterns become masters, antiques become reproducible dinner sets, exotic birds become luxury currency, exploration becomes extreme-sport-tourism, monuments become geodata. A spherical voyage eastwards and westwards marking cycles of expansion in a struggle to find one’s place, one’s sitting around a table..
Wayward Fronds reference a series of historical events that helped shape the Florida Everglades today, while fictionalizing its geological future and its effects on both native and exotic inhabitants. Events in this film imply that nature begins to take over, that the Everglades, switches roles and tames civilization after centuries of attack, and even guides it into its mysterious aqueous depths, forcing humans to adapt and evolve to its surroundings.
Of the North
Almost a hundred years have gone by since Flaherty showed us there is life within the Arctic Circle, and now Dominic Gagnon’s film seeks to demystify the Inuit lifestyle. There is critique here, and his vision of life in this place is removed from the virginal white landscape of classic cinema, in which life was based on routines derived from centuries-old Inuit traditions.
Of the North is absolutely contemporary, showing this time in which there is a saturation of imagery from all the different screens and settings of daily life. Gagnon makes use of the videos posted on sites like YouTube in order to observe the landscape through the eyes of the inhabitants themselves. Exoticism and mere sightseeing are left behind, enabling us to gain a direct view of daily life. In the videos, scenes from life at home or at work are mixed together with others depicting alcohol consumption and prostitution. We no longer see the society which Flaherty wished to record, but the product of the western colonization of a region whose resources, especially its oil, are much coveted. Large chimneys tower above the land and trucks empty their loads without any thought for the environment; they stain the formerly white landscape. While at one particular place in this landscape a fascinated family record a bear from their car, at another a whale is butchered by dozens of people.
Gagnon’s approach, while impossible to categorize, is based on a highly contemporary vision. Also, the fact that the film has “no dialogue”, as the director says, reinforces this idea. Words are left to one side, ensuring that the film speaks through its images. All of them are different in some way, but they all speak of a present in which everyone has a camera to hand and a desire to film something new. And yet, similar images recur. The same situations keep awakening a desire to film them and the act of recording becomes a kind of need as basic as breathing or eating. If nobody films it, it didn’t happen.
But who is filming? At certain times during the documentary, the people holding the camera are not Inuit but westerners who live there. It is then when we see another aspect of the value of Of the North. These scenes, taken from the point of view not of the inhabitants but of the colonizers, encapsulate that near-racist superiority inherent in westerners’ vision of the indigenous people. Any episode of their life can be transformed into internet fodder. Thus, the camera becomes a weapon of conquest and, for the indigenous people, it opens up a voluntary conversion process in which the Inuit erase their culture in order to integrate into the colonial society.
by Brais Romero (A Cuarta Parede)
OF THE NORTH
Sound: Dominic Gagnon, Bruno Bélanger
In this new film that, like its predecessor, draws on amateur films posted on YouTube, Dominic Gagnon shows the descendants of Nanook in the process of making “their own” cinema. He creates an anti-exotic Vertovian “Kino-Eye”, which reveals trashy and unbridled acculturation and takes apart the existing clichés about the Inuit, too often confined to the borders of the contemporary world.
When the Earth Seems to Be Light (Rotsda Dedamitsa Msubukia)
The resurgence of Georgian cinema has been one of the most interesting phenomena on the international festival circuit in recent years – while part of the USSR, Georgia produced filmmakers of the calibre of Otar Iosseliani and Mikhail Kalatozov. Newer filmmakers such as Levan Koguashvili (Blind Dates) and George Ovashvili (Corn Island) are evidence of a marked trend towards documenting the present, but also of exploring the inheritance of the past as a tool to bring its contradictions to the fore. When the Earth Seems to Be Light could be seen as a kind of documentary contextualization of this new wave, or even as the urban counterpart of the fictional I’m Beso (Lasha Tskvitinidze, 2014), in which the sound of rap absorbed the hopes of a teenager in the midst of a rural landscape in ruins. Yet, although the view of this Caucasian republic as a nation obsessed with preserving the old structures is shared by generational counterparts, the film co-directed by these three almost completely inexperienced Georgians is of sufficient interest for it to be taken into account for its own merits.
The close interest in the world of the young becomes obvious during the initial sequence, in which we see a group of skateboarders moving into some deserted wasteland. Their desires for the future take centre stage in the film, as they are given the opportunity to put forward their ideas on complex issues such as freedom or death. Their love for their four wheels soon becomes the ideal vehicle for the visual communication of how they move through the decaying streets of the city, laying bare their relationship with space, which becomes a theme which runs right through the whole film. The imposing presence of Georgia, as a concept, reveals the protagonists, with their powerlessness and lack of opportunities, to be the ideal mechanism with which to reflect on the eternal paradox of the post-Communist world. They are the weakest links in the chain in a country which groans under the weight of its ingrained traditions and in which the centuries-old power of the Orthodox Church is still considerable.
With its inclusion of a variety of archive footage, which ranges from the breaking up of a gay protest march through the Tbilisi streets by the religious authorities to a TV debate on the listlessness of the young, When the Earth Seems to Be Light is also a heartrending urban collage, in which the sounds and imagery are just as important as the confessions of the teenagers, who are marked by the almost paranormal influence of the architectural monstrosities which surround them. The night scenes show the Georgian capital as an inhospitable environment, in which the vestiges of the Soviet past are exposed to the energy of the present and so inevitably collapse under the strain. This is a consequence of establishing the past as the country’s only asset, a past which these young people do not recognize as their own. Just as in many other narratives concerning the new generations in the East, the protagonists’ rebellion takes the form of adopting western cultural expressions with a local twist.
If one of the roles that cinema must have is to give a voice to those who would otherwise have none, this documentary succeeds in this objective, through the use of a torrent of images, as chaotic as they are strangely beautiful – and these two adjectives are applicable to everything depicted in the film. The need to transform the old socio-political mechanisms of a country blinded by its obsessive nationalism becomes obvious as one watches, but one also sees that this crumbling city is also an integral part of the lives of the interviewees, despite the fact that they do not identify with its values. As a single, indivisible, painful whole, their daily lives are Tbilisi, the remains of a past whose silence cries out for real change.
by Sergio de Benito (V.O.S.)
WHEN THE EARTH SEEMS TO BE LIGHT
Cinematography: Levan Maisuradze, David Meskhi, Tamuna Karumidze
Sound: Irakli Ivanishvili
Editing: Tamuna Karumidze, Salome Machaidze
Music: Natalie Beridze, Nika Machaidze, Maxime Machaidze
This is a story of kids, skaters, artists, musicians, in a post soviet country. A country in a distracted condition, where one can be crushed by the power of church and politics. It’s about them being lost in a controversial reality, searching for non existing spots of their freedom and romantic state of mind.