By Mónica Delgado
Before anything, I must transmit the surprise that caused tome to find a film festival adapted to COVID 19 times, with a clear mission of sharing experiences and knowledge. It’s not only about the availability of the films of the season, of viewings of focus and recovered films, beyond the usual competitive sections, but also finding a space where there’s a bet for creating senses from correspondences and dialogues that films can generate (a similar spirit that the latest edition of (S8) in La Coruña had). It’s about a festival where programming and curatorship serve a primordial role, that goes beyond the selection process, and that here appears defined by inventive, research, the quality of the selections, a bet for the discovery of new films, free of prejudices in times of political correctness. This is what I found in the 16th edition of the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival (BFMAF), realized in England.
This edition included the section Filmmakers in focus, which has selection of young filmmakers’ short films and which maintain a particular expressive universe. This is how we were able to discover certain works of the artist and documentary filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax, the Hindu filmmaker Payal Kapadia and the artist, writer and filmmaker Ayo Akingbade, from England. This panorama, this selection, allowed them to ahieve a value of the different works of these young artists, that went through international festivals like Rotterdam, Ann Harbor or Berlinale.
Let’s start by the works of Angelo Madsen Minax. He’s an American filmmaker who lives between New York and Vermont, an alumnus of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. His works has been shown and exhibited in Hamburg Festival, Ann Arbor Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, British Film Institute, among others. He’s a teacher in Vermont University. His second documentary feature, North By Current (2021), is currently being produced.
His work oscillates between the performative, the film diary, the direct documentary, the essay and experimentation, marked by his experiences as a trans male filmmaker, in his process of search and affirmation. The best feature in the works of Madsen Minax is precisely the “self” of the filmmaker as a narrator or omniscient creator who modulates the world between his gaze and decision. The focus allowed us to see his work as a progression, and I was particularly interested to travel through his work from his most recent works, maybe a more mature or pessimistic gaze, and go back to 2012, to perceive an artist in his beginnings who explored and went in depth with a particular irreverence and freshness that has mutated over the years.
In At the river (USA, 2020), some echoes of a mise en scene of Roberto Minervini cinema appears, specially since Madsen Minax registers his own family inclemently in a no-fiction tone. Walks in the woods with the father in a reflective and metonymic ambient, to then assist to a discussion at home between the mother and the sister about rejection and alcoholism, while the filmmaker play with his small nephews. Madsen is always out of field (and out of family trouble) or is barely perceived by the hand-held camera. Again, another ellipsis, where we see the family packing things in a van, threatened by an upcoming storm. And finally, in a sort of fourth act, where the filmmaker, or almost invisible protagonist of this family story, appears contemplating the rite of the 4th of July away from home, maybe awaiting a hurricane or flood that seems like a better alternative.
In contrast, in The Eddies (USA, 2018), the tone and protagonism of Madsen Minax is different. This is a film about procrastination, or about a slacker surviving through the passing of days. However, he slowly builds this lonely tale to add new voices that will break this solitude. Shots of an industrial suburb in Memphis, of abandoned tunnels as an environment for nocturnal walks and self-knowledge. The filmmaker embodies a trans male Eddie who asks in Craigslist for men who want to masturbate with some weapon in camera. Before that, the character makes clear his fascination about war cinema and his fetishes. When a volunteer arrives -also named Eddie- he turns down a sexual encounter but tells his guess about his transformation, since he just had a sex operation. In this way, The Eddies, becomes a route of encounters between these two beings that connect in an unexpected way, even if the film ends with the character watching a live concert of Freddy Mercury and his Somebody to Love. If in At The river, the presence of the filmmaker as a lead character in the shot isn’t necessary, and more focus is set on the setting of the shot from his distance, in The Eddies there’s a potent physical side, where the presence and performance of Madsen Minax is vital, for this recomposition of the world.
The Source is a hole (USA, 2017) and Because of us (USA, 2018) are his most ludic films, in the sense that are fed by collage, animation, appropriation or the resources of essay to reflect on the possibilities of the image in its temporality and expansion, as if we were confronted with a cosmic treaty. In them, there’s still an intimate (or particular) tone, like it was the only way for the internal researching, as a sort of new age atmosphere in times of hyper virtuality. There’s more “experimental” intention with these films, compared to the narrative of his posterior works. While in Forward into the afternoon (USA, 2014) of a more poetic impulse, and My Most Handsome Monster (USA, 2014) as a queer tale, some dynamic of observation and hierarchies are observed.
My Most Handsome Monster uses found footage, voice over, contemplative shots and recreations to talk about relations of submission, but from quite a different style that someone like Jan Soldat or Ulrich Seidl can make.
No show girls (USA, 2012) were made as part of an installation. Is very simple but not less marvellous because of that. It’s Madsen’s register of a trans friend, while he simulates being a strip tease, without music, from the silence. The subject being observed and the subject who films in a symbiosis of looks and movements. In one side is the reversal of the typical male gaze or the fixation of a desired object. But, ¿what’s impeding this lecture? Madsen affirms the following: “between trans filmmaker and trans performer, a trans gaze surges, while we redefine our necessities and mutual desires through the mere process of register”. It’s precisely the constancy of this interaction which defines the thesis of this short films, that opens (or closes) the focus on this edition of the festival.
The works by Angelo Madsen Minax reflect a filmmaker that has traced a universe of his own, with constant searching, with styles that appear once and again through the years, and which look renewed and disquieting, beyond the topics of trans or queer that could typecast him.
Berwick festival has allowed me to get closer to the work of Ayo Akingbade, who has shown her work in festivals like Oberhausen, Rotterdam, Sheffield or Images Festival. She’s an alunus of London College of Communication and actually studies a post graduate course in the Royal Academy School.
Most of AKingbade works are developed inside no-fiction, the archival documentary and testimony. In her trilogy No news today, conformed by Tower XYZ (UK, 2016), Street 66 (2018) and Dear Babylon (2019), she explores, from the textures of 16mm, a relationship with her environment, specially from young people and women of a migrant’s neighbourhood, of residential complexes in the north of London. Gentrification, the change of social panorama, the new aspirations in the city are told from the activist struggles of neighbourhood leaders or the pastimes of young people in a shifting city, or from the ghetto, something often mentioned by the filmmaker. The relationship center-periphery, the Jamaican minorities in Bristol (no longer minorities), or the senses of community are some of the categories or ideas which crosses the premises of these three works.
Much of this appears in the documentary So they say (UK, 2019), which describes from found footage and 16mm registry, the role of the Newham Monitoring Project, a collective from the start of the eighties that acquired relevance when they demanded justice for the assassination of Eustace Pryce. In one side, the film ties the current demands surged in the context of Black Lives Matter, posing that things haven’t change much despite the conquered struggles, and in the other, evidences strong organizations that still assume the role of the resistance (towards the crisis of Brexit, for example). Like in the trilogy No News Today, Akingbade poses a mechanic to translate this world of frictions, that are set in a notion of shared time (or stopped time), and reveals itself in the use and textures of the 16mm film, that give her shorts an anachronistic or out-of-the-present air. Because of that, the archival material in So they say works very well with the use of 16mm, to show a continuity of the state of the question: racism and police violence and institutionalized intolerance that perdure without being questioned by the British society. From the 80’s to today, it seems that little has happened in that matter.
One of the short films that crosses a different path is A is for Artist (2018), where the filmmaker films herself checking some old photos of her father, materials that, like a Proustian ode, awake new ways of thinking and creativity. Here, Akingbade stablishes a rhythm of times, smells and memories that modulate the mise en scene. Familiar photos that are revived in the present, strolls through the city that help to explore the ideas. Roots and walks. These memories blossom and make the filmmaker go out of her home and appear suddenly walking with giant hands, clearly quoting the performance Green Hands by Chilean artist Sylvia Palacios Whitman. Akinbade with A for artist, who dwells to capture, know and interpret the world without mediations. Or following the suggestion of Palacios Whitman, from the hyperbole of the tact to try to feel what’s humanly possible. A is for artist, filmed in a subtly grainy 16mm and black and white, can be read as a setting of a poetic, a way of translating the impulses of creation, always in movement, vitals and in constant self-searching.
Another focus of interest falls in the work of the young Payal Kapadia. Just like Madsen Minax or Akingbade, the three chosen works show a clear universe of hybrid techniques, with specific aesthetic and poetic codes. With echoes to the relations of the mythical with reality which appears clearly in Apichatpong Weeerasethakul, Kapadia’s work is marked by auscultation, in the registry of the profound passing of time, its weight and slowness (like in Tsai Ming-Liang’s work), reinforced with a sound treatment which hunts for details.
¿What joins these three works of Kapadia seen in this edition of BFMAF? In the first place, a great sense of framing and a delicate work to capture the possibilities of natural light and lighting, with a formal exploration of everything inside the sense, like in the marvellous beginning of The last mango before the monsoon (India, 2015), where we watch an old lady eating a fruit for several minute, while someone does house chores in a kitchen back in the scene. A perfect tableaux vivant.
While in Afternoon Clouds (India, 2017), in contrast with the other short films, there’s evidence of a narrative that nurtures itself with some commonplaces between the relationship of sleep and vigil, which sound like déjà vu, but the filmmaker gets away from these generalizations when she appeals to different symbols about the contemplation of time, through memories and memory. This film is about the relation of a housemate with the lady of the house, made by the necessity of a solitary life and the remembrance of lost loves. While in And what is the summer saying (India, 218), almost all shot in black and white, there’s an intention to deepen inside a rural India, of immense woods and houses with smoky chimneys in quite villages, of bucolic influence, where everything follows an special order, an order which the filmmaker spikes with inserts of certain engravings of legendary cut.
Payal Kapadia lives in Mumbai. She studies Filmmaking in the Film and Television Institute of India. Her short film Afternoon clouds was premiered in Cinefondation 2017 and her And what is the summer saying had its world premiere at Berlinale Shots. While The last mango before monsoon got the FIPRESCI and special jury award in Oberhausen. She’s currently preparing her first long film, All we imagine as light, which we await eagerly.