This year’s HOME Artist Film Weekender was bound to be different. As film festivals large and small, national and international have adapted to pandemic conditions, the idea of programming an artist film festival takes on extra challenges, both logistically and curatorially.
‘Challenge’ itself is a word which has taken on added connotations this year. It seems that much writing on culture wants to express a challenges overcome narrative arc. We constantly use the language of ‘in the face of’ and ‘despite’ to discuss the way culture and especially cultural events move and shift in the wake (that’s another one of those phrases) of the happenings of 2020. With this in mind, it was a pleasure to participate in an online event which felt contained, self-sufficient and had none of the hallmarks of something being transposed from its originally intended offline setting.
As well as screening films which somehow speak to our contemporary moment, the curators of the festival at Manchester’s flagship art cinema, Jamie Allan and Alice Wilde, also leaned into ideas of communal viewing, immersive video experiences and the panel discussion in the events surrounding the weekend. Looking to practitioners embedded in the regional arts scene to bring in voices and filmmakers from further afield, as well as embrace, rather than just endure, the virtual setting.
Hope Strickland’s curated programme on ‘the archive’ opened the Weekender. Three short films selected by the Manchester-based visual anthropologist looked at the practice of storytelling both through and against archival material, often questioning its validity as the authorial material of truth-telling. Her own film ‘Home Soon Come’ (2020) centres the elderly Caribbean community in South Manchester, within domestic spaces, looking at collective memory. Using both 16mm and 8mm film, the setting of a day centre raises questions about what we mean when we say community, support and home. Words that can often feel as empty as they do powerful and pertinent.
For instance, Tamikia Galanis’ film ‘Returning the Gaze: I ga gee you what you lookin’ for’ (2018) uses an innovative double-screen approach to present archive and counter-archive material. The Bahamain multimedia visual artist took the United States Library of Congress as her starting point, specifically some of the earliest ever ethnographic films contained within it. Deeply racist and dehumanising in the way they depicted people of colour and the project of colonialism, Galanis wrestles back the autonomy of these silent subjects by mimicking the scenes of everyday life in full colour, utilising for subtitles a poem by Patricia Glinton Meicholas as an alternative narrative.
Onyeka Igwe’s film ‘the names have changed, including my own and truths have been altered’ (2019) completes the trio. The artist and researcher seeks to question the validity of the archive by telling the story of her grandfather and an encounter in Nigeria through different modes of storytelling, such as a VHS tape and early British colonial film. By stripping back many of the details we know as ‘true’, Igwe questions where in a story of memory truth is located, and like the ship which is rebuilt but remains the same ship, how many parts we can switch out for new ones while emotional validity still holds. Within the film itself there is a beautiful piece of communication between Igwe and her grandfather. The artist-narrator says to him “I’ll have to send you the film”, the man asks “there’s a film of this?”. They are watching the film together, but truth and modes of storytelling have become muddled, as they often do.
In a Jennifer Martin-chaired panel discussion with the three filmmakers, she started the discussion by invoking a 2017 Nicholas Mirzoeff essay Below the Water: Black Lives Matter and Revolutionary Time about the photographic history of black resistance. “What times mingle in these frames?” was the question she posed to the artists, who spoke generously about working within the field of anthropology, which has racist and colonial origins, the problem of centering the self in documentary and, for Galanis especially, how feminist struggles in the Bahamas conflict with its status as a literal paradise on earth.
From one supposed paradise to another, ‘Terror Nullius’ (2018) is a deeply cinematic film about Australia, and Australian film. It too is centred around, and has a resistant idea to, the idea of the archive, though this is executed with much irreverence and a near-sadistic pleasure. Taking a cut-out-and-stick approach to the Australian movie canon, the New York-based studio collective Soda_Jerk created a near hour-long experience that was kitsch and uncanny in equal measure. Through creative editing and sound techniques, ‘Terror Nullius’ is a patchwork of a film, which, through its patchiness, draws attention to the prevalence of white, male and straight narratives in Australian cinema and the absence of alternatives. In their violent remoulding of the canon, Soda_Jerk insert queer, black, female and trans revenge narratives into films such as Mad Max, Romper Stomper, Crocodile Dundee and Priscilla Queen of The Desert in a way which is audacious in approach, but serious in intent. The title itself is a take on the 1770 doctrine of Terra Nullius or “nobody’s land”, which permitted Captain James Cook to claim Australia for the British, beginning the process of colonisation.
The natural environment is rendered sinister and hostile too in Clément Cogitore’s ‘Braguino’ (2017). An environmental drama told between two feuding families in deepest, inaccessible Siberia, the Yenisei river acting as a physical and mythic barrier between them. Mostly told through the perspective of the youngest family members, there is vulnerability and violence in the everyday; the tension punctured by images of hunting.
Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s ‘Moisturizing’ (2020) is another instance of the digital platform allowing works to come into their own. The interactive film highlights the power of naming and given names as the viewer navigates alternative versions of truth. It’s a ‘create your own adventure’ framework that is weighted from the start as the viewer is asked whether they identify as trans, non-binary or cis, thus determining the trajectory of the film to follow. Prompts to be ‘honest’ as well as a questionnaire around when the viewer was last made to feel invisible allow preconceptions and blind spots around gender identity to be projected back at the viewer.
April Lin’s 林森 four-part presentation now i close my eyes the world i see is so beautiful is a selection of work from over the past few years. A combination of performance, animation and digital interfaces, Lin’s work is deeply embedded in a mode of thinking that tabulates between different textures and approaches, mimicking the disparity of a constantly multi-screened world. ‘R: Rest’ (2019) and ‘< Digital Traces >’ (2019) stand out, the first as a contemplation of the role of rest, repositioning it as not simply the absence of doing things, but an active, restorative practice at which we all must work. The latter, ‘< Digital Traces >’, looks at death and afterlife on the internet, taking as its main artefacts the ‘memorial’ function on Facebook, to preserve the content of deceased users, as well as virtual memorials for players on MMORPG fantasy games.
Pedro Neves Marques’ film programme A World of Many Worlds included an eerie and pandemic-adjacent film about intimacy, contagion and paranoia called ‘A Mordida (The Bite)’ (2019), in which the vector of illness and delusion is a mosquito. The Portuguese artist’s interest in anxiety, illness and difference was also clear from the materials that formed the festival’s reading group. In a 2018 poem shared with the reading group entitled The Sound of Mating, they write “there is a gap/between the flapping/of wings of/the male mosquito/and the female mosquito./ There is always a gap/between genders./ synchronicity is fleeting.”
Elsewhere, across the festival weekend, participants were invited to take part in a Collective Filmmaking masterclass with anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli, as well as conversations with individual creators such as April Lin 林森 and Pedro Neves Marques, and panel discussions on historical moments and movements, such as the UK Black Film Workshop Movement. There was a celebration of the 50 year anniversary of The Moon and the Sledgehammer and a presentation by the indigenous filmmaking group Karrabing Film Collective (who explore the conditions of inequality for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory of Australia). Many of those fleeting moments of synchronicity, then.
In Pedro Neves Marques’ essay If Futurity is the Philosophy of Science Fiction, then Alterity Is Its Anthropology: On Colonial Power and Science Fiction (also shared as part of the reading group) they write, with the force and assuredness of a manifesto: “I want to see science fiction that goes against both apocalyptic dystopias and political utopias.” The films presented and discussions facilitated here are not all science fiction, but are very much doing the radical work of (re)imagination against these restrictive categories of truth/untruth and triumph/adversity.
HOME Artist Film Weekender 2020 was available online 3 – 6 December 2020.
Lucy Holt is a writer based in Manchester.
This review is supported by HOME.