Reconstructing Memory

November 2015
Echo Park Film Center website / facebook page
Portland, Oregon

Specially curated for Echo Park Film Center‘s Marvelous Movie Mondays online series.

Monday, November 2, 2015:
This month in Portland, the Association of Moving Image Archivists is holding its annual conference, which means different aspects of the world of moving images (panels include “Ephemeral Films of National Socialism in Austria” and “Processing Film Collections Labeled in Non-Latin Alphabets”!) coming together, collaborating, or at the very least getting a drink with one another. And no doubt people will also be talking about accessing archives for creative use. Film and video archival footage, especially that which documents historical events or from films that are culturally significant, is most often thought of as the go-to for documentary projects. But with its long history of found-footage films, the experimental and avant-garde worlds are also invested in the topic. After all, its practically the very definition of experimentation: cutting it up and editing it, putting it in a new context, and perhaps finding new meaning. With this in mind, I’ve rounded up a few recent film and video works that do indeed attempt to find new meaning (or perhaps reveal the truth that was already there?) by re-editing and examining historical and culturally significant images and documents, and doing it in unconventional ways. Let’s call this little journey “Reconstructing Memory.”
For the first in the series, I’ve selected a short work by French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot from 2006, Eût-elle été criminelle / Even If She Had Been A Criminal, which presents a sort of condensed history of WWII, and takes as its topic the public humiliation of French citizens who slept with their German occupiers during the war. Like much of his work, the short is highly constructed from archival footage and Internet-sourced images. Périot is a tight and precise editor who creates image sequences that become social critiques on labor conditions, war atrocities, gay rights, persecution, and revenge. There is a theoretical foundation to his method: the “iconology of the interval” proposed by German cultural theorist Aby Warburg. The idea being that history is located in the intervals between two images. On this Périot himself says: “Those dark and unexpected spaces were purposed to the viewers as spaces of liberty, the liberty for them to think and to fill the missing links by their own thinking. There, in a time where media try obviously to make the audience not to think, is the place for some radical and political art.” For all my long-windedness though, it’s best to just watch the film. You’ll get it because it hits you in the gut.

 

Monday, November 9, 2015: This week under the theme of “Reconstructing Memory”—where we’re exploring short films that use archival image materials to reexamine in unconventional ways the past and its representations—I’ve selected one of the latest works by filmmaker and artist Basma Alsharif (who is currently based in LA!). The 12 minute O, Persecuted takes footage from the 1974 Palestinian militant film called Our Small Houses by Kassem Hawal. In a way the film is performed, which I think very much links it to Basma’s other works, as someone (and I’m guessing it’s Basma herself) paints black paint onto the surface on which the image was projected, but in reverse, and at 2.5 times the speed. What we see then is the black being unpainted from the surface, the images being uncovered, revealed.

A couple of things about the online link and the film itself: first, the link is to an excerpt so you’ll get a good 3.5 minute taste of the film; and second the original film, Our Small Houses, had just recently been restored. These two things speak to me about the two intertwining concepts of accessibility and preservation, so I’ll quickly pose a couple of questions. Should we expect everything to be available online? I’m not so sure.  A lot of things that I thought about sharing as part of MMM are simply not available (now, ever?). Is restoration what made it possible for this film to be made? Perhaps, though I don’t know. But if it were, one might wonder at all the other images that are waiting to be re-discovered (or hoping not to be). But to fill you in on what you don’t see from this excerpt: The film opens on black with the sound of marching feet and moves quickly into the distorted fluttering or shuttering sound evocative of…motors, machine guns, the quickly flapping wings of a moth, or maybe a film projector. And at the end, a surprising twist in which the film erupts, first via soundtrack, from a woman bellydancing and then her image superimposed onto a contemporary, colorful scene of an MTV-style beach club, techno beats and all. This is how one gets catapulted into a present state. Speaking generally about her work, Basma writes “Information is never objective, documentary is not a representation of a “real” event, and experimental cinema offers various aesthetic structures through which to find alternative ways of delivering information.” This digging through the archive and experimenting with how those images/information is delivered, perhaps its kind of like a radical visual archeology…

Watch the excerpt of O, Persecuted.

Monday, November 16, 2015:
Another excerpt this week (though I wish we could all watch this film over and over together on the big screen), or perhaps we call it a trailer, or maybe a fragment… Under the theme of “Reconstructing Memory” we’re exploring fragments of visual material, archival footage lost and found, that has been recontextualized, reexamined, in an experimental (and this week a quite poetic) mode. Return to Eole Street is a 14 minute film (the link is for a 45 second trailer) from the young Greek-born, France-based filmmaker Maria Kourkouta. The film transforms, through varying speeds and looping, footage from popular Greek movies of the 1950s and 60s into something both hypnotic and touching. The images are accompanied by Greek poetry and music, including music by Manos Hadjidakis, a Greek composer popular in the 1960s (and actually an Oscar winner), it is described on Light Cone’s (the film’s distributor) website as “insignificant fragments, reworked, reassembled” and as a “found footage movie, a collage which evokes a return journey to contemporary Greece.” Made in 2013, one imagines it is also in some ways a response to the current economic and political upheaval in Greece. But even to an American viewer unfamiliar with popular Greek films of that era, these fragments never feel insignificant, but so full of a feeling of nostalgia, sadness, and hope. LA-based filmmaker Thom Anderson, who also makes films from films, calls his newest work “The Thoughts that Once We Had” a personal of history of cinema’s greatest hits. Maria’s film also feels a bit like a personal history through culturally and historically significant popular images of a nation, but so poetic in its interpretation. If you have the chance to see more than just this fragment, take it. Return to Eole Street is a moving (emotionally, rhythmically, psychically) short film.

Watch an excerpt of Return to Eole Street.

Monday, November 23, 2015:
Over the past three weeks, we’ve gone from Nazi-occupied France via direct documentary footage in Jean-Gabriel Périot’s Even if She had been a Criminal; then to workers of the Palestinian Revolution via Basma Alsharif’s O, Persecuted and her use of the militant film-poem Our Small Houses; and just last week to a dream of Greece with Maria Kourkouta via loops, swells, and fragments of popular Greek film from the 1950s and 60s. For our penultimate week under the theme “Reconstructing Memory” we continue to explore short film works that attempt to find new meaning (or perhaps reveal the truth that was already there?) and that reedit and recontextualize historical and culturally significant images and documents in unconventional ways. This week we head back to Nazi-occupation during World War II with US-filmmaker Deborah Stratman’s Village, Silenced (2012), which like Alsharif’s O, Persecuted reacts to a film that was itself a reaction to its contemporary political and humanitarian situation. Village, Silenced takes footage from the 1943 docudrama The Silent Village by English documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. In the original film, a Welsh mining village and its people reenact the lives of the people of Lidice, a Czechoslovakian mining village, in order to show their way of life before 170 of its men were killed by the Nazis. And again like Alsharif’s main source material, it’s about labor solidarity. But where Alsharif reveals the images through a (reversed) performance (un)painting the screen, Stratman’s focus is on repetition and sound (given and taken) to reveal how sound can be used as a mode of social control. That focus and questioning through sound is not new to Stratman. Her 2014 short video Hacked Circuit is actually dedicated to American editor and sound designer Walter Murch (in addition to being dedicated to Edward Snowden); and in her feature-length 2009 film O’er the Land, she often uses sound to play with physical scale by moving from sound to silence, allowing sound to collapse into what she calls “sonic vertigo.” Neither is she a stranger to using found and archival footage, as in Second Signted (2014), …These Blazing Stars! (2011), and others. Village, Silenced repeats a single sequence of the Jennings film three times. In the first it’s actually a sound segment stripped from another section of the Jennings film full of final warnings against resistance activities; then Stratman shows us the footage again, now an entirely new sound source of gunfire and sirens; and finally in the third iteration, silence. Like Jean-Gabriel Périot’s Even if She had been a Criminal, it’s sort of a condensed version that tells the story of (the) massacre, but then again perhaps like Maria Kourkouta there is a poetry and impact (though sad and difficult in a very different way) through repetition. This week’s link includes the entire film, so you can see for yourself and make your own interpretations. In what seems like a simple exercise and framework for showing the relationship between sound and image, it’s a complicated history that gets revealed.

Watch Village, Silenced.

Monday, November 30, 2015:
Under the theme of “Reconstructing Memory” I set out to explore the contemporary use of archival images in unconventional and experimental modes and to consider our mediated experiences of history. I took the Association of Moving Image Archivists annual conference in Portland this year as an inspiration on the theme, but now in looking back I see more how present and immediate these short films are, so thoughtful about certain current global states of affairs. For this final post I’d like to end with the same artist with whom I began, Jean-Gabriel Périot, and his short video 20,000 Phantoms(2007). I end here because the 11-minute work is very much about reconstruction and not just memory, but (re)construction of a particular building and the space around it after destruction: the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima, Japan. Through 600 still images, Jean-Gabriel shows the entire history of the Genbaku Dome, from when it was built in 1914 to when it was shattered (though miraculously not destroyed) on August 6, 1945 by the atomic bomb Little Boy that detonated only 500 feet away from it, and all the way up to the film’s present of 2006. Not just a silent reminder of the horrors of war and nuclear power, the structure is also a pretty straightforward symbol of resilience. And the film itself, as you will see, is painstakingly constructed and a meticulous collage from which one might feel the intense meditation that must have been felt by the artist. So with that I’ll simply sign off with a hope that we all might meditate on resilience (and perhaps the enduring power of images as well).

Watch 20,000 Phantoms.