Khavn de la Cruz, Mondomanila, or: How I Fixed my Hair After a Rather Long Journey (2011). Video, 75 min. Courtesy the artist and Rapid Eye Movies
This may be bad form, but I’d like to start this piece with an admission: I don’t like film festivals. When they are not blatant slaves to commercial interests – a string of vodka brand sponsored after-parties with a few films sprinkled throughout – they are complacent or formulaic, rolling out the same type of programme, year after year. Often, they’re overcrowded or badly organized. They are long and tedious, and I’m usually ready to ditch the entire thing half way through. That is to say nothing of the physical damage, since I manage to make it through most festivals on a steady diet of coffee, cigarettes, and cheap slices of pizza in the time allotted between screenings. And who are we kidding: does any film festival really need a red carpet?
I only mention the above because Migrating Forms, which recently finished its fourth consecutive run in New York, isn’t really a festival at all. It’s the anti-festival, rejecting any and all categorization. (Is it a coincidence that it occurs the same week as Cannes?) Congregating at Anthology Film Archives, one of the last great theatres in New York, it’s a small group of people who attend Migrating Forms, but growing: those who attend once tend to come back. I’m one of them, and many of the faces in the crowd every night are familiar ones. The week-long ride promises to be anything and everything all at once – a little unwieldy, sure, but that’s part of its charm. Migrating Forms asks you to wade into its murky waters, letting the subtle connections and conversations of the attentive programming – handled by festival co-founders Kevin McGarry and Nellie Killian – slowly emerge throughout the week, and I’ve yet to hear somebody coming out the other end disappointed.
Eric Baudelaire, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images (2011). Video, 66 min. Courtesy the artist
The festival was bookended by films that set the tone for everything in between. Eric Baudelaire’s The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years without Images (2011), which opened the festival, was an invigorating piece of political filmmaking in which questions posed, about the subjects (members of the Japanese Red Army) and the film itself, arise but are never answered. Baudelaire uses the ‘landscape theory’ of Adachi, in which the camera is turned away from the individual toward the landscape in an attempt to better expose systems of power, combined with the interlocking voices of Adachi and May Shigenobu, daughter of Fusako, conducted as interviews with the filmmaker. The way Baudelaire uses the voices of his subjects, twisting in and out of conversation with each other, was mirrored in the final film of the festival, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Ici et Ailleurs (1976), part of a double-feature with Adachi’s less relevant Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971), programmed by Baudelaire. Godard and Miéville’s piece is the clear model for Baudelaire’s project, a self-critiquing essay on political filmmaking made from the scraps of an aborted project filmed in Lebanon in 1970 with Jean-Pierre Gorin. What was originally supposed to be a propaganda film in the more traditional sense becomes a platform for the filmmakers to ask questions about where they failed and how images change over time.
Naeem Mohaiemen’s The Young Man Was (Part 1) (2011), another film at the festival which took the Japanese Red Army as its subject – this time the 1977 hijacking of flight JAL 472 in Bangladesh – uses audio in a similarly disjunctive manner. Much of the film is constructed around a recorded conversation between the hijacker and negotiator – alternately funny and scary – which is accompanied on screen by text against a black background. Mohaiemen offsets this hermetic dialogue with local news crew footage from the hijacking, which provides the foundation for a personal remembrance of the event. Mohaiemen uses the two in conjunction to pose questions not of the nature of political filmmaking (in the way of Godard and Baudelaire) but of the politics itself. Phil Collins’ marxism today (prologue) (2010) took a similar approach, using interviews with three former teachers of Marxism-Leninism, all female, in the former GDR. The same goes for Redmond Entwistle’s Walk-Through (2012), a rigorous study of the filmmaker’s former school, the California Institute of the Arts, and its highly-regarded ‘Post-Studio’ course (originally taught by John Baldessari in the 1970s). In its brisk 15-minutes, the film manages to confoundingly – but intriguingly –move the viewer from a historical survey of the campus to a participant in a version of the ‘Post-Studio’ class which, at times, resembles an interrogation.
Redmond Entwistle, Walk Through (2012). Video, 15 min.
Courtesy the artist and LUX
The programme of Migrating Forms is meant to challenge, filled with work that is often mysterious and hard to grapple with immediately. This is not a criticism; it’s the reason why people attend the festival and why it’s ultimately more rewarding than others twice its size. With that said, one of the most surprising delights of the week was a program of early films from Chuck Jones, the pioneering director of animated shorts. It felt like a breather. To be transported back to the pleasures his work brings out of an audience was a joy, but to see them in a different light, as the subversive masterpieces they are, was something special – surly the biggest, if not only, gasp of the festival was when Pepé Le Pew, in the grasps of amour fou, points a gun at his head and pretends to shoot, feigning suicide.
All this was made even better by what immediately followed. In one of the canniest programming choices of the week, the Chuck Jones shorts were followed by Mondomanila or: How I Fixed My Hair After A Rather Long Journey (2011), surely the most disturbing and controversial work screened this year. Directed by Khavn de la Cruz, the film rollicks and thumps through the slums of Manila, following a cast of characters – most children, some missing limbs – as they taunt, steal, fuck, smoke, and kill. Pulsating between comedy and tragedy while sampling genres as diverse as noir and the musical, the film is unfettered by the shackles of bad taste, giving it a sense of freedom that is hard not to get sucked into. While I’m not sure I ever want to see it again, it is one of the films of the festival this year which has not left my mind.
There were programs throughout the week – Fritz Lang’s double-bill Indian Epic (1959); Raul Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale (1982) – that catered directly to the cinephile audience and were roundly praised, but none featured the kind of response as Lav Diaz’s masterful, six-hour long, Century of Birthing (2011). What begins as a bisected narrative – a filmmaker trying to finish his film amid pressure from all sides and the story of a small cult in the woods, the acolytes made up of young women named ‘virgins’ and ruled over by a leader named Father Turbico – turns into a grand rumination on what it means to be an artist. The film was screened in three two-hour chunks, which didn’t hurt the film in the least – each section felt like a concise chapter, and it was interesting to take a smoke break in-between and contemplate the echoes and reverberations between the sections, to let your mind sift through what you just saw. Maybe it was the early-summer heat, possibly the exhausting running-time, but the devastated look on the faces of the audience as they shuffled out of the theater was a moment I’ll never forget.
Nikolas Geyrhalter, Abendland (2012). Video, 90 min.
Courtesy Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproducktion
The protean landscapes of Century of Birthing are harsh at one point, poetic and gentle the next – a character unto itself. The foregrounding of landscape was a common motif throughout different films in the festival, from the slightly sci-fi or mystic (Ben Rivers’ Slow Action, 2010, and Beatrice Gibson’s Agatha, 2012) to the polemical (Nicolas Geyrhalter’s Abendland, 2011). These bridges and tunnels from film to film are the strength of an intelligently selected programme, but not everything is connected. Some works stand alone. Raymond Pettibon’s Sir Drone (1989), an idiosyncratic tin-pot masterpiece, features artist Mike Kelley and musician Mike Watt as two young dudes maneuvering down the tricky highways of authenticity toward becoming punk rock heroes. Pettibon’s video work is wildly funny, uniquely powerful, and sadly underappreciated. Naomi Uman’s Videodiary 2-1-2006 to the Present (2011) was at first glance a familiar diary film (about the artist’s time spent in the Ukraine) and ended up an evocative, at times profound, look at family and spirituality.
The reason you attend a festival like Migrating Forms is to break preconceptions about what film is and can be. But in breaking preconceptions, ultimately, you are just creating new ones. Ed Halter’s informative presentation on the history of fake-experimental film in mainstream movies and television reinforced this. In exploring how experimental film is viewed, and occasionally mocked, from the outside, the crowd reacted with smug knowingness. We laughed at all the parts we were supposed to laugh at, making sure, loud and clear, we were all in on the joke. It was only later that I realized how wrong that reaction was. The point of the presentation was not to let us revel in the stupidity of the mainstream, but to examine their jokes, their condescension, toward experimental film and use it to frame questions about what we think we know about cinema. Maybe the mainstream has a point? Maybe experimental film, at times, can feel like it’s turning its wheels? These are questions I continue to ask myself and, thankfully, the same festival that asked these questions provided the groundwork for some answers.