Wavelengths 2: Another Brick in the Wall (2018) by Various Filmmakers
Review by Zach Dennis and Andrew Swafford
ANDREW: Each of the Wavelengths avant-garde short programs had some sort of unifying theme--in this case, walls, spaces, and enclosures.
The first short in this program, Ada Kaleh, establishes the theme immediately: we see extreme close-ups on a blue wall, it’s paint chipped away and the exposed brown stone appearing (perhaps incidentally) to look like continents. The wall is the whole world, and the rest of the short treats the inside of the building as such. It’s an apartment building shared by a group of young bohemian friends, and the camera slowly circles 360-degrees to capture them in moments of repose (much like Chantal Ackerman’s classic short La Chambre, for those familiar). We don’t get a good look at them, but we examine the space they inhabit between these walls, which speak plenty for themselves. It’s a gorgeous, languid moment in time, encapsulated by space.
As with any shorts program, certain shorts resonated with me more than others, and I get the vibe that the next two--The Glass Note and mumok kino--didn’t really click for either of us. Anything to say about these first three before we jump into one of your favorites, Zach?
ZACH: I echo your praise of Ada Kaleh. It took me awhile to become absorbed in what Helena Whittmann was trying to present. There’s something soothing and kind of exhilarating about just exploring the space these people inhabit. It’s like...we don’t need to talk with them or engage with them in a more traditional narrative sense. By the end, you feel like you know them and what they’re about — all without hearing a word from them. It was like extreme people-watching and maybe I’m too much of a peeping tom. Lock me up.
I agree on the other two. The Glass Note was, to me, the epitome of “artsy-fartsy avant-garde short films” and I kind of tuned out quickly until the Terminator-esque animation of a chair appears near the end.
But, I very much would like to talk about Trees Down Here, which comes from filmmaker Ben Rivers, and captures these interactions between the nature and architecture on the campus of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge. The owl is the true star, but this harmony between these man-made constructed fixtures and the beings of nature was something inspiring. What did you think?
ANDREW: I enjoyed Trees Down Here quite a bit, especially the focus on the short’s two animal actors--the snake and the owl, which critic Michael Sicinski insightfully called “Two classical emblems of knowledge, the benevolent wisdom of the oracle and the decadent lure of the forbidden.” They kind of watch over this uninhabited human space, which simultaneously seems under construction (we see the blueprints, for example) and abandoned, only to be reclaimed by nature.
I thought that short paired really well with the next one, which was one of my favorites: 1986 Summer by Toshio Matsumoto. This was a rediscovered lost film, and I watched a few of Matsumoto’s other films to prep for it (notably Atman, which shares a lot of stylistic qualities with 1986 Summer). Matsumoto is a pretty wild editor, and cuts back and forth between two different moving images so fast as to create a strobe effect and a superimposition at the same time. In the case of 1986 Summer, he’s splicing together images of sunlight coming through branches with images of a brick (school?) building. And for the latter, he’s always zooming out--looping the same hard zoom over and over--which makes for a disorienting effect, like you’re being magnetically repelled from the building and off into the trees. As I said on our third podcast diary, I think the quality that I admire most in avant-garde shorts is their capacity to evoke singular sensations that narrative film can’t quite replicate--and 1986 Summer certainly did that.
ZACH: 1986 Summer is very much about enveloping you into this aura. While some of these passed over me, this one was so effective because of the way Matsumoto uses the superimposition and zoom techniques that you mentioned, but also paired it with the sound of these figures that we are seeing — making it seem almost overpowering in its sensory overload. Kinda appealing.
The next two shorts — Words, Planets and The Invisible Cinema 3 — didn’t have much of an impact on me. Do you have anything to say about them, Andrew?
ANDREW: I don’t, sorry.
ZACH: Then I think this is a good time to move to one of my favorites of the entire festival — Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Walled Unwalled. More of a documentary than what most people would associated as avant-garde cinema, the film features Hamdan in the booths of Berlin’s FunkHaus Studios, which were the former GDR’s state radio’s home, with various people moving among the booths and a drummer giving a steady beat throughout the film.
Hamdan tells a series of stories — beginning first with a story of a man who was growing weed in his house and had a case go all the way up to the Supreme Court because when authorities attempted to arrest him at his house, there was a disagreement over whether smelling the weed from outside the house was public or private due to the smell emanating from inside his private space. The second story is about Oscar Pistorius, who was on trial for murder, and details the neighbor’s claims that screams could be heard from the other side of the walls when gunshots rang out. The defense stated that the defendant could not hear screaming through the concrete walls, and was therefore unable to determine if an intruder was present in his home when he killed his girlfriend through the bathroom door with a shotgun.
The third and final story is about a specialized prison in Syria, which was designed so that the prisoners going in had zero idea of the layout of the building or how many other prisoners were inside. Once there, they were blindfolded and taken to their cell, which were specifically designed to allow sound to reverberate off the walls — bouncing all around the prison — and giving the allusion that you were the next victim of torture. As prisoners were tortured by guards, the anxiety of hearing what sounded like the act being done in the next room caused a dramatic psychological toll on the men in there.
The way the stories are woven together shows just how powerful walls and spaces, and how they’re used, can have effects on the people near them, which is something you never think about. We are surrounded by different types of walls and confined spaces on a daily basis but never take into account what that necessarily means.
ANDREW: I agree that this was a major highlight! I honestly would watch a feature from these guys along the same lines--oral storytelling in an interesting location that uses the space well. Among my favorite details of the film were the shots in which we’re looking at the storyteller’s face through glass, but a projector on our side of the glass is putting transparent words and images over his face, which to be highlighting the vague sense of permeability that the walls in the stories had.
Overall, I found this shorts program to be a bit spottier than Earth, Wind, and Fire--as evidenced by the significant number of films that we didn’t have much to say about--but the hits were really strong!
ZACH: I agree with that. I really enjoyed how Earth, Wind, and Fire all came together, and felt that this block was a little more, as you put it, spotty. Now, there were a couple highlights as we discussed so it wasn’t a total loss and I came away, overall, really enjoying the Wavelengths program as a whole (from what I saw) and would prioritize going to a block or two if we get to go to Toronto again. I blame Darren….and Nathan.