Lis Rhodes’ Disquiet


Director and curator Pablo de Ocampo writes about Lis Rhodes’ Disquiet, screening in collaboration with Essay Film Festival for their 2023 edition.

It’s hard to speak about any of Lis Rhodes’ films without speaking to them within the trajectory of her five-plus decades’ career as an artist. Across this time, I could, on the one hand, say that Rhodes’ practice has been nothing if not singular in its pursuits: an unflinching insistence on challenging the veracity and authority of images and language. On the other, it’s important to recognize how within that vision, Rhodes’ poetic construction of visual essays is expansively multifaceted. Rhodes’ most recent film Disquiet, sits within this nexus of pursuits, echoing and extending what preceded it.

In the first image of Disquiet, the frame is fixed on a photograph of a decimated, flattened city. Held in silence, and slowly fading to black over a minute, before an onscreen text reads: “the past cannot prevent it can only warn.” As the text continues the context of the still image comes into focus as the incinerated aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

This phrase might on the surface be read as a retooling of that old notion, “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” though, I think has a distinct nuance, which calls to mind the poetic urgency of Rhodes’ landmark essay, Whose History? The articulation here, for the past’s ability to warn, is one of an active charge. If what the past can do has a clear limit, this phrase points to us, in much the same way as the provocation of Whose History?

After outlining the absence of advance notice in the atomic bombings in Japan, Rhodes asks: “Can warnings warn when thousands are already dead?” Though appearing on screen as text and not delivered with Rhodes’ recognizable voice, the tone of this is still distinctly hers, incisively direct, yet abstract at the same time. It’s a position that runs throughout the film (and reaching back to her early film, Light Reading specifically): a command of language that carries both exacting precision alongside poetic openness. When we first hear Rhodes in the film, some eight minutes in, she offers up a prime example of this duality, saying, “Possession depends on dispossession. To take is the given.”

The film begins in August 1945, then flashes forward in time, through the peak of the nuclear arms crisis in the 1980s and on to the present. As Rhodes recalls Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she grounds their warnings in the currently devolving state of nuclear arms treaties. As a child of the 1980s, my parents born just before and after World War II, I’m struck by how 1945 is a moment that is slowly slipping away from the lived experience of anyone in the present. Is there a limit to how long the past can keep warning?

Disquiet exists temporally like much of Rhodes’ films, radically situated at a precipice between history, and the history that has yet to come. This is not to say this film sits in the present. Rather, time is a continuum, and the film holds the past, present, and future together in one intertwined position. I can’t help but draw a line here to Rhodes’ 1975 film Light Music, and its exploration of the mechanical and optical dislocation of sound and image on a 16mm film.

Or, I could characterize this all in another context, that the film sits between here and elsewhere. From the ongoing threat of nuclear missiles, the film moves through a constantly compounding field of other topics, from the rentier economy, to the words of anti-caste activist and poet Shahir Shantanu Kamble, to the extraction of resources from Indigenous lands, and the slave revolution in Haiti in the 19th century. For as relentless as this list of references through time and across the globe may seem, Rhodes deftly weaves all of them into an expansive provocation.

From one perspective, a critique could be levied here that Rhodes’ approach to the content in the film lacks depth or direct experience. What does she know about life in Bolivia during the presidency of Evo Morales? Or of the destruction wrought upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States’ use of nuclear weapons on civilians in those cities? I’d counter though that critique asserted by Disquiet does originate from a lived experience, which may not be that of the Dalit in India or the citizens of Bolivia, but rather from Rhodes’ lifetime of lived experience within a system of violent capitalism.

Within the unease and anxiety invoked by the film’s title, I’ve been looking for where there is hope. One place I may locate it, is in this above argument about what lived experience may mean in this film, where experience is intersectional and about commonalities, not just single perspectives. This brings me back to the sentiment latently embedded in “the past cannot prevent it can only warn.” In the commonly known phrases about history that this statement seems to echo, the ones who need to learn from history, “those”, are always distinguished with a pronoun. In Rhodes’ wording, the pronouns are absent. And in this gap I read a charge, not for the individual, but a rally for the collective to not only hear that warning call from the past but to act on it.

Pablo de Ocampo is the director and curator of moving image at Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From 2014 to 2020, de Ocampo was exhibitions curator at the artist-run centre Western Front in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has curated screenings, exhibitions, and performances at galleries, cinemas, and festivals internationally. From 2006 to 2014, de Ocampo was artistic director of the Images Festival in Toronto, Ontario and in 2013, he served as the programmer of the 59th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, History is What’s Happening.