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One of the American critic Otis Ferguson’s favourite platitudes was ‘a smooth clear line’. It’s a complex compliment, sourcing cinema’s fundaments, like music’s, in its nature as a highly time sensitive, fixed length medium, whose primary engine is rhythm. At the same time, it can refer to how cinema is not just a rhythm line but an ensemble. It’s a sonic-visual and sculptural medium, where a single but multi-faceted expression can be formed out of the linking of disparate elements and utilizing their strengths. To make a film then is a remarkable act of sustained balance, motion, and counterpoint, where in the interplay of parts, those moments of dissonance or drag, something profound can be communicated beyond even the sum of its parts.
The films selected by aemi for their programme ‘Súitú’ are works of remarkable tuned lines, smooth and rough, through and off-kilter; works that use cinema’s full range of possibility to speak about aspects of experience which are often intangible yet shape us down to the core of our being. Notions of home, cultural belonging and nature, and a personal and collective view of each, shift and rebound like the waves, and yet can be captured in a frozen moment of clarity or in honest confusion.
This propulsive rhythm engine is on full throttle with Fábio Andrade’s Contour, which also poses cinema as the progeny of both the natural world and of human intervention. Its stars and matter are pebbles, sand and water. The narrative: the tide and its incremental excavations of the earth, as perceived by an exuberant kino-eye. It’s musical not only in the emphasis on meter and tempo but how its elemental soundtrack merges with specific needle drops, including the griot and kora music of Alhaji Bai Konte, Dembo Konte and Ma Lamini Jobate, whose intricate harmonics and polyrhythms serve as a dexterous stage for the song of history. The film’s most pointed reference comes at the beginning, with shots of The House of the Flower, the life’s work of Gabriel Joaquim dos Santos. A salt worker, whose father was born into slavery, he forged his own visionary form of bricolage architecture and ornamentation. This collage style, where objects dismissed as useless are given new purpose, fits with a century old and still running strand of Brazilian modernism that reacts to a homogeneous, hierarchical view of Brazilian identity with a stormy, self-conscious splintering and revisioning of elements. Andrade evokes this tendency, with his own deceptively simple and innately political cinema of vicissitudes.
With just a few constituent parts; a phone conversation, some text, and several beautiful images of the southwest Donegal, Susan Hughes’s Eyes Like Cats suggests vast generational and geographical gulfs of experience, as well as the powerful inferences of linguistic and regional specificity. In a text intro, Hughes explains that she sent a letter to the renowned storyteller Gene Eoghan Ó Curraighín of Teelin, in the Gaeltacht region of Donegal, and that he phoned her a week later, a snippet of which will make up the majority of this film of and about communication. It conjures contrasting philosophies of geography and therefore of being and history. Hughes describes her Belfast studio as being in the ‘inner city’, evoking landscape as something man-made, planned out and regulated, while Gene’s musings evoke countryside as a more sprawling, blank canvas-like space, which can be as dense but with a reliance on the imagination to populate and to write a past over which the grass has long since grown.
Spurred on by the death-like loss of love and a contemplation of his own mortality, with A Human Certainty, Morgan Quaintance creates an essay-cum-resurrection film about death, both in the sense of shuffling off of one’s own mortal coil and in the many emotional endpoints that mark out a life. His diaristic account, delivered in text with a witty, melancholic air, is interspersed with case studies of death and its depictions, from the exploited and ignominious, to the personal and the transcendent. It’s a work that waltzes between distance and fabulation, with its formalisation of voice and the evocation of genres, like noir, where love and death dance cheek to cheek. The pain of loss is one which often escapes words and reason, and yet the urge to find the means to voice that agony and its insights, is vital.
Andre Bazin once compared the art of cinema to the ritual of embalmment, where its personages are preserved in a kind of holographic mummification that can invite awe and worship. In this sense, anyone who has ever taken a photo or video is a mortician. The chopping and screwing of Bárbara Lago’s Yon reveals and then tangles further the complex effect that this photographic afterlife has on our ability to remember, and therefore re-narrate, and our autonomy. Taking home video footage of themself as a child, and then re-editing it, the usual tenor of home video memories, that of happy times or pleasant mundanity, is transformed into an act of queer rebellion and ambiguity. Lago puts their and their family’s shades into a molten state of incessant mutation and therefore recontextualization, with a flux of effects that present not solidified memories but a hail with many possible viewpoints. Hollis Frampton, whose (nostalgia) (1969) would make an interesting companion, once described narrative as a spectre haunting cinema, a spectre which needs to be confronted, regardless of whether it is ultimately embraced or expunged. Lago’s film is one such act of confrontation.
Sofia Theodore-Pierce’s Other Tidal Effects is another acute timekeeper but less clearly so, with its delicious aura of disorder. Its spokes are images of running water, both the ocean-tide and a flowing river, and a French ditty in its relay of arrangements, and disarrangements, composed of words, people, animals and materials, fluttering in and out of being. Theodore-Pierce’s close-up mosaics, reminiscent of Manny Farber’s paintings with the table-top backdrop and strong, mixed colour and item schemes, give the impression of clutter not as a mess to be expunged but a badge of liveliness and creativity, as tangible, pile ups of relationships, histories, and desires. The end result is a kinetic view of the constellation of elements and factors that make up artistry and life itself, but presented as warm and casual, rather than suffocatingly momentous.
If Andrade’s Contour merges the rhythms of cinema and nature, in the spirit of creative cross-pollination, Lisa Freeman‘s Hook, Spill, Cry Your Eyes Out is a breakdown and blitz of the man-made and its stresses on mind and body. In a brief but packed runtime, Freeman takes on a dash through overstuffed, hectic modern existence. Her spasmodic yet pointedly eliding camerawork and propulsive editing throws the spectator from pip to the post, through a variety of scenarios and distinctly urban, constructed spaces where the overriding impression is of a hyperventilating rat race. The film depicts a life and gaze governed by the demand to keep going and going which is the paramount tenet of any neoliberal, capitalist society. Freeman counters this messaging through doubling down until it breaks, for much of her practice could be likened to a ‘primal scream’ in that through the pressurised prism of extreme performance, this psyche surfaces. Its ills are reckoned with and perhaps alleviated by going pop.
The system not only drives our movements, it also uses them to define a person’s humanity, and therefore what they are or not owed. Holly Márie Parnell’s Cabbage is a documentary account and creative exegesis of how the director’s family’s lives have been significantly dictated not only by her brother’s physical disability but even more demandingly, by the Irish state’s lack of acknowledgment and then consistent lack of support for someone expected to assimilate or disappear from a society for the able-bodied. It’s an acute rendition of bureaucratic violence which can appear as gentle and bland, taking the form of paperwork, doubletalk, silence, and denial, but is deeply disruptive in effect. Using not only images of her mother and brother, but dynamic use of text and more abstract moments, Parnell creates a contrast between this top-down inclination to reduce human beings down to non-human terms and x-rays, with how open and nurturing social bonds can be when they’re not coldly systemised. It’s a film about the limits of communication, and the limits for the cinematic form in illustrating them. This film, and the program on the whole, has been an excellent foray into the dynamism of the cinematic form, but sometimes images, like words, fail and only absence can represent.
Ruairí McCann is a writer and film programmer based in Belfast.