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IFFR2020 – On Seeing the Invisible

Diarios del exilio (Irene Gutiérrez, 2019)

As a first-time IFFR-goer, I had—to be quite honest—no idea how to tackle the impressive programme. Upon my arrival, I chose to go with the Bright Futures section, as discovering upcoming and still unknown filmmakers possesses an exhilarating aura that gets my cinephiliac heart pumping. This is how I ended up watching Diarios del exilio (2019), a contemplative documentary by Spanish filmmaker Irene Gutiérrez consisting of 8mm home movie footage compiled from various archives, about the mass exodus in the wake of the Spanish Civil War.

Irene Gutiérrez tied her mercurial film together with two particular shots reappearing at both ends: a shot of a clock followed by a shot of the arrival of a train in a station. The latter recalls a scene ingrained in our collective cinematographic memory, for in 1896 the Lumière brothers shot L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat. This short black-and-white proto-documentary records a group of bystanders watching a train arrive. Though arguably not cinematically complex, this pioneer film holds an iconic status in the history of the medium. The echo of this famous scene, appearing twice in Diarios del exilio in the form of 8mm home movie footage, raised a question that pertains not only to my personal understanding of cinema, but to an entire century of accumulated home movies, feature films and other audio-visual archival material: What histories can cinema still tell?

Is it relevant to ask this question? At IFFR 2020, it was not only prompted by Diarios del exilio, but by an entire community of films that seemed to arise around a shared impulse to create cinema by circling back to its past, through the use of archival footage, outdated technology such as VHS cameras, black and white photography, and so on.

Filmfarsi (Ehsan Khoshbakht, 2019)

Pro-124 Years of Cinema

Deep into a conversation about the different ways in which to approach history and how to talk about cinema, my interlocutor and I ended up talking about Jonas Mekas and the way he approached art and life.

Some are talking about the End of History. There are others who say that we are at the End of Cinema. Do not believe any of it!

See here the opening of Mekas’s Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto, in which he furiously raged against the celebration of a century of cinema. This text itself now being a quarter of a century old, it has aged, developed, and can now act as a thought-provoking guide through an ad hoc collection of contemporary films, some of which likewise deal with—or celebrate—the age and history of the medium.

I have seen the brochures, the programs of the museums and archives and cinematheques around the world. But these say, “we don’t care about your cinema.” In the times of bigness, spectaculars, one hundred million dollar movie productions, I want to speak for the small, invisible acts of human spirit: so subtle, so small, that they die when brought out under the Klieg lights.

 Referring to museums and arts institutions as mass graves/tin cans/ivory towers/you name it, is nothing new. Mekas railed against the ‘big’ history that archives and cinematheques celebrated at cinema’s centennial anniversary. But is there a way in which archives can “care about [his/our] cinema,” as Mekas puts it? In other words, what small, invisible histories are left to be uncovered? What new histories can cinema still tell?

In Filmfarsi (2019), filmmaker and critic Ehsan Khoshbakht explores one of cinema’s haunted houses. He carefully unveils the all but forgotten history of Filmfarsi—a unique branch of Iranian commercial cinema that died abruptly in the iconoclasm of the 1979 revolution, set into motion on August 19th, 1978, when Cinema Rex in Tehran was burned down by revolutionaries, while the audience who was watching The Deer (1974), a popular film in the Filmfarsi genre, was still inside.

In his voice-over, Khoshbakht does not hesitate to emphasize that this particular genre was made by the people, for the people. This makes it all the more tragic that, having had a meagre existence from the start (the productions “descended from B-Movie all the way to Z-Movie”, in the director’s words), these films did not even get the chance to enjoy a blessed afterlife. They were banned from Iran forever and lay secretly, invisibly in cellars in a deep state of oblivion and degradation. One could make a case that these popular, unpretentious films belong to the category of “the small, invisible acts of human spirit” Mekas wanted to speak for. In that case, Khoshbakht’s act of meticulously stringing these valuable pieces of history together and bringing them out into the light, with an honest regard for the silliness of many Filmfarsi movies (including the not-so-gratifying freestyling of the actors and the falling-apart of the film set), seems to be a contemporary inversion of Mekas’s claim that the more fragile end of the cinema spectrum dies “when brought out under the Klieg lights.” In this way Khoshbakht also shows that not only home movies contain hidden history, as was the case in Diarios del exilio, without a doubt a collection of small, (previously) invisible acts. Cinematic history can be actively and forcefully hidden, even after being an important part of the commercial circuit of a country. What was once big and obvious can become small and invisible.

The act of loving artisanal (as in: not industrial) reconstructions of tender strands of human history can survive even in the harsh LED-lights of a 2020 film festival (between the almost 600 films that were shown at the IFFR). This type of cinema that deliberately reconstructs the small and invisible in a (supposedly/not-so-) self-made way thrives in the shadows of glossy, gaga, Hollywood/industry cinema. It finds fertile ground in film archives, as it does in Diarios del exilio and Filmfarsi.

I Blame Society (Gillian Wallace Horvat, 2020)

Cinema hijacked?

In the times when everybody wants to succeed and sell, I want to celebrate those who embrace social and daily failure to pursue the invisible, the personal, things that bring no money and no bread and make no contemporary history, art history or any other history.

Mekas’s wish to speak for the small invisible acts of human spirit of course didn’t stop at the unveiling of invisible history. On the contrary. He advocated for those who in the present “pursue […] the personal, things that bring that bring no money and no bread and make no contemporary history, art history or any other history.” This raised a second question during my time at IFFR: Is a cinema that answers Mekas’s call viable in the context of an international festival?

In I Blame Society (2020), director Gillian Wallace Horvat plays her brutally honest self, right now, in her first feature. Genre-wise, the movie can best be described as an outrageous social critique, rather than a historical document (whether real or fake). Her original idea was to film the perfect murder, but as the movie unfolds, she oversteps and violently annihilates ever more boundaries. We follow her as she faces the difficulty of getting her project sold. On the surface, the film is an epitome of the DIY-attitude, shot on low-budget cameras, including the camera of a smartphone, an action camera and a DSLR, borrowed from a friend. Gillian plays exuberantly with the meta-aspect of it all, riddling the film with conversations in which she doubts that the footage will ever be shown to an audience, a subtle ‘by the people, for the people’ stance (and a not-so-subtle advocacy for a more women-friendly treatment of filmmakers: the film shows a typical case of supposedly feminist producers, for whom women need to be represented in the medium, but only if they can first be completely remade by men). In this way, the lines between reality—which turns out to be nothing less than a Grand Guignol—and fiction become difficult to trace. I Blame Society foregrounds the personal, through its meta-textual approach, its DIY-aesthetics, its focus on the struggles of a first-time filmmaker. But aren’t these supposedly vulnerable aspects precisely its strongest selling points (in the context of a festival)?

 In 2020, film festivals are partly built on the realisation that there is profit (be it in money or in cultural capital) to be made in celebrating the small, the personal & self-made, the invisible. It then becomes uncertain how small and personal these productions still are. It is especially interesting to bring up again then, that most of the films I saw at IFFR were part of the Bright Futures section: first features of new, up and coming directors. Would these newcomers reach a (relatively) broad audience by truly pursuing invisible acts? Or do they have to adjust their attitude, embracing perceived failure through a variety of tactics—personal storytelling, meta-fictional narration and DIY-filmmaking among them—while the resulting productions are not as ‘amateurish’ as they might be presented—simply by virtue of the conditions under which they operate, from the conditions attached to their funding, to institutionalised presentation—their pretences of  humility exposed by a bright and glossy spotlight, provided by a grand and prestigious festival?

In the context of a festival like IFFR, there’s an interesting conundrum at the heart of advocating for an independent cinema that relies on low-budget, do-it-yourself cinematography and is made by the people, for the people. The problem is that in the current context of production and exhibition filmmakers might not actually be able to truly achieve this ideal and still have their film shown at an important festival, but rather end up appropriating a style that was invented by avant-gardists who were obligated to work with whatever means they could obtain. Out with the subtle, the personal, in with an industry that makes cinema neither for nor by the people?

But who even are ‘the people’? What kind of cinema were we talking about again?

I want to choose to focus on the affirmative: it is imperative not to forget how difficult it is to make an entire feature-length film and to bring it to an audience, especially having to rely on an industry that can be as destructive as it can be helpful.

Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto (Jonas Mekas, 1996)

A Cinema of Senses

The real history of cinema is the invisible history, history of friends getting together, doing the thing they love. For us, cinema is beginning with every new buzz of the projector.

With every new buzz of our cameras, our hearts jump forwards, my friends!

 What Mekas tried to command through this short, though powerful manifesto is in many ways admirable. Being an avant-garde filmmaker, he—and he is a prime example in this with a wholly personal level of mastery—looked for the small miracles of life. His branch of cinema is time-honoured and holds for many a special meaning.

Out of this, my conviction rises that all cinema deserves to be seen and discussed within a framework that considers the specific circumstances it has found itself to be created in. I am thus for advocating a celebration-without-end of an ever-ramifying cinema, which incessantly creates a screen upon which we can project our affinity for Mekas and his friends, for the young, courageous filmmakers at the IFFR working in hugely different circumstances, and others around the world. Stressing the importance of criticism, I would like to advocate a focus on what was successful within a work itself, what was meaningful both in positive or negative sense, combined with an awareness of the difficulties contemporary filmmakers face in a profit-driven reality that pervades both “popular” and famous, “prestigious” art institutions on an equal level, precisely because in the framework that this reality provides, I fail to see the difference in function between the popular and the prestigious.

Though Mekas argued the real history of cinema to be invisible, that history’s flow is tangible, as we can feel it in every expression of the medium that comes into existence. On every screen our ever-differentiating eye for cinema is mirrored and our field of vision is expanded, our eye and the screen in constant exchange. Finally, the specific circumstances of different forms of cinema might render its realness hybrid, able to transform, so that both what Mekas and the Bright Future filmmakers have produced has an equal value assigned to what is real to them respectively. The real cinema Mekas raved about can return over and over again, albeit in a different historical form, like a train perpetually arriving in a station, whether it be in 19th, the 20th or the 21st century.