Open City Documentary Festival

Focus: Frontierland: Shorts

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In this supporting text, Pamela Cohn introduces the shorts programme she curated that launched our new series FRONTIERLAND, which was presented as a livestream online on Weds 27th May

It’s always exciting to present a repertory program of any kind, one not beholden to release
dates, festival premieres, or anything resembling an arbitrary selection of “sure-fire favorites”
vying for audience amongst a massive program of films and competitions. There are so many
delicate and brilliant works that deserve a revisit – or even several revisits. Searching for those
films that can exhibit collectively in a meaningful way so that the spectator might go on a deep
and unexpected journey of personal sensation, thought and emotion, is one of the unmitigated
pleasures of putting together a themed selection like this one.

Inspired, in part, by the writings and ideas in books such as Giuliana Bruno’s Atlas of Emotion:
Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film and Tom Conley’s Cartographic Cinema, Frontierland is
a survey of new and older works that expand the idea of the filmic travelogue – moving image
works that reveal our evolving relationship to place. Physical presence in an increasingly
mediated era is no longer required to experience the breadth of ways one can move through the
world. This selection of films speaks to that shift in the way we conceive of distances traversed,
the world expanding and contracting, revealing terrain that is material, emotional, philosophical
and transcendent.

Here we present five beautifully realized works that make up one of the programs in our
Frontierland series. We are fortunate, as well, to be able to gather these makers together
through an alternative space – one of virtuality but still a space vying for communality. One
could say these five works of imagination are linked thematically, perhaps aesthetically,
philosophically, even politically. But one could also say they are not, since each film is a
universe unto itself, allowing glimpses of the more interior spaces of an idiosyncratic artistic
inquiry.

We open with Le Tigre de Tasmanie by French visual artist and filmmaker Vergine Keaton, a
small masterpiece of intuition, artful animation, and pristine craft. In footage shot in the 1930s,
we observe the last known Tasmanian tiger (a thylacine) stalking around its small barred
enclosure, a zoo animal used for spectacle. A glacier slowly melts, a volcano’s lava breathes
fire upon the landscape, the forests collapse and ever-resilient Nature reinvents itself anew,
imbibing the vestiges of another species permanently gone, its now-incorporeal aspect part and
parcel of the soil, the waters, the air. “I wanted to work on increasing acuity: by the repetition of
motifs, by the change of scale,” Keaton says. “I was aiming at gradually seeing the slightest
movements and materials in the image. …I wanted detail to become the event.”

Native American artist Sky Hopinka’s film from 2017, Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or
Boundary, evokes similar themes contained in all of his work. He utilizes personal memory
alongside the history of North American indigenes – a history that has been written and
re-written on the landscapes he traverses. Much of the power of the work emerges out of how
Sky juxtaposes and layers his audiovisual pieces into intoxicating blends that defy
categorization. Always collecting curiosities made up of passages he’s read, music he’s listened
to, images he’s seen, there comes the spark of realization that he’s making a piece that asks for
something very specific to set it aloft. In this instance, that inspiration comes from Japanese
architect Kengo Kuma’s book Anti-Object. “It was evocative enough for me to go ahead and try
to think about these different spaces around me,” Sky told me in an interview. “It’s like when you
have this sense of how you’re trying to navigate the world, or you have a way of thinking about
something, trying to think through it in order to define it. …So when I discovered [Kuma], I
recognized it as what I needed to help me figure out how to think through these different spaces
and locations.”

In Prospector, Talena Sanders explores the 19th century acculturation of two groups of people
living thousands of miles apart, but sharing the same name. There are other parallels in
common: histories of invasion, forced assimilation and eventual aspiration, and the concomitant
re-evaluations that reverberate through space and time. The tactility of Talena’s 16 mm film
stock manipulations helps to whipsaw the spectator between past and present through a collage
of text and audio drawn from Lord Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education” (1835) as
performed by Samarth Naik; Captain Richard H. Pratt’s speech printed in “The Advantages of
Mingling the Indians With Whites” (1892) as performed by Bobby Bass; G&E Show n’ Tell
PictureSound Record “Indian Pow Wow” (1965); songs from “Christopher Columbus”
Mel-O-Toons (1960) – and more. These reside alongside Talena’s own gloriously beautiful field
recordings in and around New Delhi, India and the American Southwest.

On its surface, a portrait of Sonja André, a 20th century adventuress now ensconced on her own little island, Maureen Fazendeiro’s Motu Maeva is also a rigorously constructed narrative of the freewheeling life of the glamorous wife of a French ambassador. Throughout the decades of their life together in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Sonja and her husband traveled to every
continent and filmed compulsively, extravagantly, constantly on Super-8. Eventually, we learn there is a much darker story here as well. The Super-8 celluloid stock employed by Fazendeiro, co-director of photography Isabel Paglai, and that of the Andrés’, creates an elliptical quality that denotes a profound and beautiful economy of expression in the film’s 42-minute running time.Encountering the textures of Sonja’s secret refuge, her Motu Maeva, a bucolic toadstool of a
place, feels like stepping back in time and as the film goes on and we see more and more of the
Andrés’ travelogues, we realize that Fazendeiro has matched the look and feel, the framing, the
exposure of the film stock’s sprockets on the left side – all are aligned with almost (but not quite)
identical qualities of fragility and disintegration while the author and her subject, on a night when
the electricity’s gone out, dance together by candlelight in Sonja’s derelict kitchen.

La Estancia by Paraguayan filmmaker Federico Adorno presents a succession of subtly
constructed tableaux describing a profound critique of systematic oppression. Instigated by a
massacre amidst a land-rights conflict in Campos Morombí in the city of Curuguaty, this
haunting and spare work is a ghost story told in fragments from a country where over 80% of
the land is in the hands of less than 2% of the population. Adorno captures the essence of a
moment, the shock and devastation where the unwritten, undocumented part of all this — the
never-ending, stunning grief of voiceless people — is absorbed by the landscape, one where
they are able to hide in plain sight. The surprise comes from how easily they blend into it. There
is nothing else but the breaking daylight and the soft susurrations of the breezes to accompany
the survivors as they go about discovering and recovering the ones that have fallen, left like so
much detritus scattered across the suddenly abandoned landscape that has defined them and
their families for generations and to which they can never return.

Pamela Cohn is a writer, film curator, non-fiction story consultant and festival host based in Berlin. She is the author a newly released book, Lucid Dreaming,: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers