Magda

From the wide span of the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin, it was possible to mark the autumn equinox this September by gazing up that long avenue at the Texas state capitol building, watching the plum-stained sky fade behind its granite cupola. The usually spot-lit dome remained dark as dusk settled, glowing russet from inside as its silhouette blended with the night. About then, pedestrians on the bridge were enveloped by a whispery, sentient, black cloud: a massive swarm of tadarida brasiliensis, or Mexican free-tailed bats, emerged from its unique roost in the crevices beneath the bridge over the Colorado River to begin its nightly forage. During the summer the bats had spawned their litter, and in a few weeks more would return south, to central Mexico.

A different sort of migratory splendour brought sightseers to Austin for the ninth Cinematexas International Short Film Festival, which alighted in the heart of the Lone Star capital from September 22 to 26. Festival-goers new to Austin may be surprised to discover a thoroughly movie town, sustaining a year-round calendar of festivals (including Latino/a and LGBT, besides the steroidal South By Southwest), a clutch of arthouse theatres, and a bustling production sector popularly identified with local indie made good Richard Linklater, the whole scene undergirded by the University of Texas-Austin’s Radio-TV-Film Department, perennially rated one of the best film schools in the United States. Into this vibrant cinephile milieu Cinematexas was birthed in 1995 by a couple of ambitious, gifted UT students, local filmmaker and Festival board member Bryan Poyser, and international woman of intrigue Athina Rachel Tsangari, who flew in this year from her namesake Athens, where she’d been supervising official video production for the 2004 Olympics, in time to catch the Festival’s closing weekend. In a relatively short nine years the Festival has matured impressively, attracting outstanding new works by a growing roster of artists for its International Competition section, and actively promoting young, home-team talent through its UT student competition. The Festival has evolved a curatorial approach to combining short documentary, narrative, animated and experimental films that fruitfully troubles the boundaries between them, but pledges a primary allegiance to the cinematic avant-garde. Through a consistently high standard of adventurous, unabashedly cerebral programming, Cinematexas has earned a place alongside the long-running Ann Arbor and Black Maria festivals, and the younger New York Underground and Thaw, as one of the most vital showcases for visionary cinema in the US.

I Was Born, But...

Thus the Festival’s ninth edition opened to great expectations, and heralded momentous, sometimes turbulent changes within the Cinematexas family itself. The single biggest shift was the arrival of new Festival Director Ralph McKay, a storied pillar of the international festival scene who assumed the reins from former Artistic Director David Barker. Hardly a stranger to Cinematexas, McKay has been associated with the Festival since its second year, and his appointment is something of a Texas homecoming. From 1976 to 1989, he was the founding director of the film department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, before heading north to take a post at New York’s Anthology Film Archives. More recently, he has administered the Andrea Frank Foundation and served as North American representative for the Vienna-based distributor Sixpack Film and, since last year, the Filmbank in Amsterdam. But to younger generations of cineastes, McKay is perhaps most widely identified as a US liaison for the International Film Festival Rotterdam, an influential relationship visible in this year’s installment of Cinematexas’ “Face | Off” show, one half of which was curated by Rotterdam programmer Edwin Carels, representing his native Belgium. No shrinking violet, McKay impressed his sensibility onto the Festival at many levels. A tiny but flavoursome touch was an exquisite, oversized vintage poster of Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932) given to him by Nicholas Ray’s widow Susan, which he hung in the Festival’s temporary downtown office to advertise their screenings of both Ozu’s silent masterpiece and punk auteur Roddy Bogawa’s identically titled homage.

McKay seemed to proceed from a mandate to streamline and consolidate the Festival, shaving a day off the preceding two years’ editions and scaling back Cinematexas sections like Terra Cognita, a citywide scattering of site-specific installations and exploding-cinema events; Eye+Ear, a popular performance sidebar synthesising live music with film; and the cheerful, children-oriented Cinemakids. Instead, this year’s Festival foregrounded its widely noted International Competition and the UT Competition, a showcase for student productions of the university’s Radio-TV-Film Department. In recent years Cinematexas has hosted a succession of guests such as Todd Haynes, Werner Herzog and Babette Mangolte, presenting their rarely-screened short films under the winsome rubric “little films by big filmmakers”. Flexing his curatorial chops and upping the ante, McKay took a maximalist approach with special tributes to a triad of art-cinema auteurs – the Belgian writer/director Chantal Akerman, the American avant-garde demiurge Ken Jacobs, and the nomadic American independent Jem Cohen – each honoured with screenings of their most elephantine works, including Jacobs’ six-and-a-half-hour long Star Spangled to Death (1957–59/2003); and Akerman’s second-wave feminist beachhead Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Even Cohen unfurled one of his longest works to date, the experimental feature Chain (2004), running just short of his punk documentary Instrument (1999). Yet if streamlining was the goal, Cinematexas 2004 was still crammed to bursting, the five-day schedule a tantalising labyrinth of options. With usually no less than three shows running concurrently, the lineup thwarted any attempt at a comprehensive overview, and while the determined viewer could chart a course through any of the sections, one suspects the nonlinear scheduling was meant to encourage hopscotching and chance collisions. The Festival’s opening night, for example, offered nothing so literal-minded as an “opening night” show. Instead one could choose between two International Competition shows, two UT shows, the “Face | Off: India” program curated by Nivedita Deshpande – a triple threat as a UT Competition juror with an installation in Terra Cognita to boot – and “La Mesa del Capitan” (The Captain’s Table), a helping of shorts served up by skipper McKay.

Somewhat anxiously – what would I be missing? – I walked through Door A, into the first International Competition show, “From the Bump-Bump Room to the Barricades”, which proved an excellent introduction to Cinematexas’ hybrid aesthetic. Max Porter’s animated Red Things (2003) begins when a moppet’s red softball cap is snatched away into the mysteriously thrashing scarlet foliage of a towering tree. Before long, all things red are helplessly sucked into the tree’s centrifugal grip – it even saps the rainbow of its red band. Panic mounts until a studly fireman administers CPR to a starchy schoolmarm in distress, and cosmic harmony is restored through the kindling of repressed female desire. Hamish Dunbar and Jack Holden’s video And Then (2004) preserves glimpses of an archaic, now-endangered religious festival in San Bartolome De Pinares, west of Madrid, honouring Spain’s patron saint of animals. Slowed, sensuously layered images of nocturnal celebrants riding horseback through a roaring bonfire, a ritual believed to purge the village of illness, eventually hint at a transcendental interspecies metempsychosis. Chel White’s animated Magda (2003) spins a tight noir yarn about a luckless stooge who, one night at the circus, rushes to the aid of a contortionist seemingly stuck in one of her poses, falling for the bait and under her woeful spell. Painstakingly detailed and lavishly photographed in widescreen 35mm, Magda is almost too seamless, but wrings real pathos from jointed life-drawing manikins reminiscent of Hans Bellmer’s macabre poupées. In The Mesmerist (2003), Bill Morrison immerses sections of a nitrate print of The Bells (James Young, 1926), featuring Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff, in his trademark emulsion-bath, set to a simmering fusion score by guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Dave Holland and the legendary jazz drummer Elvin Jones. Music also drives the eye-popping, uptempo Marsa Abu Galawa (2004), which cuts underwater footage of coral reef fauna in the Red Sea (red again) to a live recording by Egyptian pop star Abdel Baset Hamouda. As his full-throated anthem rouses the stadium crowd to audible rapture, the anemones, stingrays and schools of brilliantly pigmented fish appear to leap and shimmy in time with Holthuis’ stroboscopic flicker-editing. Marsa Abu Galawa skirted Orientalist exoticisation closely enough to send my Arab-American viewing companion from her seat, but Holthuis’ affection for shaabi (pop) song is sincere and ultimately quite reverent.

Chain

Jem Cohen’s Chain satisfied the felt need for an opening night “event” screening. Premiered last February in the Berlinale’s Internationales Forum des Jungen Films, Chain had its official US debut at Cinematexas, notwithstanding an earlier sneak preview at the Portland Documentary and eXperimental Film Festival. A threnody for globalisation, Chain posits a 21st century society of anonymous shopping malls, office complexes and motels, merged into one vast, privatised super-landscape wherein human identity has been subsumed into corporate brands. Shot in hundreds of locations across several different countries, the film withholds this information until the end to reinforce its vision of an insidious hegemony that remodels every place on earth to resemble a soulless American edge city. Some six years in the making, Cohen’s first excursion into narrative feature format expands upon the assemblage structure of his earlier essays Lost Book Found (1996) and Buried in Light (1994), embedding minimal narrative strands into a primarily documentary fabric. Following an initial sequence of shots sketching the film’s terrain and establishing its sombre tone, the film’s two fictional characters emerge, as if at random, from observational scenes of crowds circulating through glassy atriums; at first it’s unclear whether they are indeed characters or if the camera just happens to linger on them a moment too long. Our protagonists, who remain only lightly individuated throughout, are Tamiko (Miho Nikaido), a willowy, petit-bourgeois Japanese businesswoman, and Amanda (Mira Billotte), a young, white American drifter. Severed from their families and alienated from everyone around them, Tamiko and Amanda communicate mainly in voiceover narration, punctuated at intervals with “found audio” inserts of telemarketing pitches and stray radio transmissions. The two women never meet, but over the course of the film their trajectories cross like an X, as Tamiko’s career at an unnamed firm tanks with the Japanese economy, while Amanda goes from squatting in a basement and scavenging food court leftovers to a tenuous niche among the working poor, sweeping cigarette stubs in a cruddy uniform for minimum wage. At the film’s end, the women disappear as unobtrusively as they emerged, back into the warp and weave of Cohen’s images.

Despite its dour aspect there is much to enjoy in Chain, beginning with the richly behavioural performances. Miho Nikaido, known to arthouse audiences through her work with Hal Hartley, transforms the thinly conceived Tamiko into a compassionate, fine-grained characterisation, sustained over three years of intermittent shooting with Cohen. Based more substantively on Barbara Ehrenreich’s working-poor persona in the nonfiction bestseller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, the laconic Amanda is embodied credibly and movingly by Mira Billotte, a musician from Baltimore recommended to Cohen by mutual friends. Above all there is Cohen’s own visual mastery, an inexhaustible profusion of lucidly framed, effortlessly balanced and often ravishingly beautiful compositions. A consummate cinematographer, Cohen’s refined visual sensibility bears the influence of American colour-photography pioneer William Eggleston, and shares with Eggleston’s descendants Wolfgang Tillmans and Jürgen Teller an affinity for the denuded post-industrial landscapes that recur throughout Chain. Yet for all its sleek vistas of high-rise towers and construction sites, there’s something slightly fusty about the film. The unresolved, “open” narrative centered on an alienated protagonist swallowed by an ominous industrialised landscape stretches back at least to Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), with Monica Vitti and Alain Delon’s vanishing act in its celebrated coda; for that matter, Chain‘s opening shots of a sleeping, silhouetted Potsdamer Platz unmistakably evoke the portentiously looming, half-built edifice in the finale of L’Eclisse. This modernist lineage points toward an even older discourse about mass culture as social decay, inscribed most clearly in Chain‘s lingering attention to ruins. Cited as inspiration alongside Ehrenreich in the film’s end credits is Walter Benjamin, that connoisseur of ruins, who holds an important key to both its aesthetics and ideology. Cohen’s statement in the program guide for the Berlinale Forum flatly states, “Chain is a political film”, an assertion repeated in the Cinematexas catalogue. This may be true in the general sense that all films are sited and function within historically contingent dimensions of power, and to the extent that Cohen’s artisanal films are antithetical to cultural commodities produced for mass consumption, Chain implicitly denounces the decadent, advanced-capitalist order that reduces art to mere entertainment or irrelevant distraction. But in any applied context, Chain‘s politics are finally as attenuated as its fictive characters’ personalities. In relation to the actual social movements organised to lessen globalisation’s harm, such films as Life and Debt (Stephanie Black, 2001), A Social Genocide (Memoria del Saqueo) (Fernando E. Solanas, 2003) and The Take (Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, 2004) are purposefully political. Transfixed by the epiphenomena of globalisation, Chain is instead, in Benjamin’s phrase, an aestheticisation of politics.

Day two of Cinematexas shaped up as a home run for its International Competition, the Festival’s mainspring. Among these programs, “I Only Want You to Love Me” and “Mermaids on the Golf Course” were the two most cohesively satisfying I encountered. A far cry from the abjection of Fassbinder’s eponymous 1976 melodrama, “I Only Want You to Love Me” was in fact an irrepressibly vivacious collection employing a faux primitivism to explore cultural difference and the postcolonial, remaining upbeat even when glossing sober topics. La Ardilla (2004), an entry in Jim Finn’s “lotería” video series, samples a glowing Rocío Durcal and Juan Gabriel duet while the lovestruck Finn courts a skittish amour. As the legends croon, “desde el principio / te quiero, te quiero, te quiero”, Finn beckons tenderly, patiently, and finally has you, and the squirrel, nibbling from his seductively pursed lips. La Historia de Todos (Our Story) (2003), directed by Blanca X. Aguerre, is a stunningly wrought clay animation created in a workshop for indigenous children in Mexico. Sculpting wildly expressive figures and settings in brightly hued clay, the children convey their humble stories of migrating with their families to seek work on a tomato plantation. The proto-psychedelic claymation whimsy is sharply counterpointed by the children’s matter-of-fact accounts of their poverty-stricken hometowns, the gruelling tomato harvest, and ethnic rivalries between Mixtecos, Tlalpecos, Nahuas, Mestizos and other groups at the youth shelter. When the film switches at the end to 16mm footage of the children gathered inside the workshop, answering the filmmaker’s question of what they want to be when they grow up, and why, it reaches right inside your heart and holds tight. Arianne Olthaar and Marjolijn van der Meij’s Souvenir uit Afrika (Souvenir From Africa) (2002) winks at Fassbinder in its mordant sketch of a wet-behind-the-ears African immigrant newly arrived in fortress Europe, biding time and keeping a low profile in an Amsterdam flat while spiralling into codependency with his European “protector”. Casting a flea-bitten, stuffed chimpanzee in the lead simultaneously ensures the viewer’s immediate, empathetic identification as well as the desired critical distance. Joshua Thorson invites you to feel his scar in No Downlink (2003), a playful reimagining of his origins as the civilised half of a Siamese pair rudely parted at birth in a bit of impromptu surgery. Still sporting the livid, symbolic wound as a sweet-tempered adult, Thorson plots a half-desired, half-dreaded reunion with his prodigal “wolf boy” twin through deftly calibrated split-screen compositions, his memories – both real and imagined – striated with the plumes of the Challenger space shuttle explosion. Finally, Xav Leplae’s I’m Bobby (2003) serves up an unbidden but utterly delightful détournement of the classic Bollywood blockbuster Bobby (Raj Kapoor, 1973), considered scandalous in its day (by puritan national cinema standards) for an eroticised treatment of its cross-caste teenage love story. Filmed on location in India, I’m Bobby shoehorns the original film’s narrative into a half-hour long contraption of exaggerated zooms and bumpy edits, and recasts the adolescent roles with adorably awkward pre-teens. Costumed in oversized shades and uproarious wigs, the kids lackadaisically mouth along with the original film’s dialogue and lyrics, in a droll send-up of lip-synching conventions in the Indian musical. Throughout, the child actors alternate with crudely drawn paper-cutout figures representing the same characters, a device that generates surprising dramatic tension in a climactic chase.

Comprised entirely of works by women, the program “Mermaids on the Golf Course” bore no literal relationship to Patricia Highsmith’s namesake short stories, but rather compiled impressionistic perceptions of the watery natural world and our slippery place within it. Julia Barco’s deceptively mellow Chelas y Pañuelos (Beer and Hankies) (2002) gets the fiesta started right, with a scene of Mexican women at a dance together visualised in tightly cropped close-ups of smooth brown arms encircling plump, gaily-attired waists, white platform sandals stepping beneath softly bouncing embroidered skirts, and water-pruned fingers snapping open bottle after bottle of Corona, all timed to a rock-steady corrida beat. This low-key euphoria spills into Palm (2003), Sandra Gibson’s beatific reverie on the natural geometry of palm fronds suspended in a bath of warm, diffuse light. Rachel Reupke’s black-and-white video Infrastructure (2002) was the most imposing work in the show, with a grandly scaled execution to match its bold structuralist conceit. In a series of four fixed-camera compositions, Reupke depicts a panoramic, symmetrical tableau of mass transportation systems — an airport, railway, highway and commercial port — humming smoothly along against a natural backdrop of Alpine mountains. The movement of planes gliding silently across a runway in the first tableau lays down an unhurried yet insistent rhythm carried into the following two shots, where Reupke introduces a liminal narrative with barely-glimpsed, costumed figures darting in and out of the corners of the frame in a primal chase. In the fourth, fantastically complex shot, the pursuer appears just long enough to collapse defeated in the corner, his quarry lost in the port’s teeming flow. Nature encroaches more oppressively in Flooded (2003), Julia Haslett’s memento of a family visit that finds her British aunt and uncle increasingly alarmed by a staunchless downpour that’s submerged the road outside their suburban home and brought rainwater to the doorstep – and they’re expecting company. The familial rapport is unforced and intimate, and Haslett’s shot of her uncle swaddled knee-high in plastic garbage bags, trying somehow to brush the water from their yard with a broom, captures a piquant image of human vulnerability to elemental force. Concluding the program, Su Friedrich’s video The Head of a Pin (2004) seems at first like an oblique carte de visite from neurotic New York lesbians on the land. But before anyone can unwind, this country idyll of dusty sandals piled by the screen door and hummingbirds orbiting a feeder soon plummets down a rabbit hole into a savage microcosmos. The pursuit motif from Infrastructure is followed here to its logical extreme through Friedrich’s close-up recording of a winged insect freshly trapped in a spider’s web. Intercut with suddenly disquieting shots of the women picnicking on brook-smoothed boulders or lazily sunbathing, the winged prey’s furious but inevitably waning efforts to repel the spider’s onslaught magnifies into a harrowing mortal contest dwarfing its human onlookers, who are rendered helpless by the feral spectacle.

Soothsayer

Cinematexas partakes of an easygoing demeanour that suffuses Austin as a whole, but this nonchalance can belie the Spartan rigours of some of its experimental programming, as with “Lite-Brite Blowup: A Video Art Showdown” in this year’s International Competition. If the show’s subtitle implied that the selections somehow vied for dominance, the works themselves could leave the viewer feeling at times like a bruised combatant. Leading the program was one of the best works in the Festival, Bobby Abate’s video Soothsayer (2004). Also represented in Cinematexas by Certain Women (2004), his feature-length collaboration with Peggy Ahwesh, Abate constructs Soothsayer as a digital breviary – in Christian tradition a chapbook of hymns and prayers for the canonical hours, but here a volume of terrifying omens. Quoting from tabloid mystics whose prophesies read like Dada fortune cookies (“Head for the mountains – The cities will not be safe”), Abate exhumes Jeanne Dixon’s famous augury of JFK’s assassination and recalls Nancy Reagan’s consultations with Joan Quigley following the 1981 attempt on President Reagan’s life. But he reveals that the crystal ball is clouded with cataracts. Soothsayer‘s darkly humorous eschatology traces a lineage to Craig Baldwin’s well-loved found footage epic Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1991). Both artists enjoy a superbly paranoid imagination, and Abate shares some of Baldwin’s fluency at integrating historical source material into a vigorous, richly graphic, but primarily fictive overall design. Whereas Soothsayer nods to Baldwin in its confident use of found footage, Abate transforms its effect by splitting it onto two, three, or four segmented screens within the frame, and with percussive editing – memorably, using industrial footage of a crash-test car mounted on a rotating arm, rhythmically pistoning back and forth. And the candy-coloured tableau of a yard-sale acrylic landscape, out of which fly two animated red cruise missiles hurtling directly at the viewer, is a flourish entirely Abate’s own, as are the amber searchlights – raking the barren skyline of a digitally rendered city – that reveal the inert forms of humanoid figures, horribly but bloodlessly slashed on their childish faces and anatomically correct genitals. Following on Soothsayer, the other titles in “Lite-Brite” had some trouble stacking up, but The Lighthouse (2004) was a pleasingly anodyne entry from James Fotopoulos, Chicago’s prodigious underground auteur. Karø Goldt’s Falcon (2003) is a minimalist exercise in chrominance manipulation, a slowly shifting colour field occupying nearly the entire frame, bordered by a thin stripe of contrasting colour, which offers the viewer only the distressed black outline of a fighter jet cockpit for representational purchase. A vertical black smudge in the lower centre frame obscures the already indistinct cockpit, and as the chroma steadily changes the work acquires a Rorschach quality, connotative yet indeterminate. The true test – for the hardy cineaste, to say nothing of the novice audience member – arrived with Luis Recoder’s ((())) (2004), a fixed-camera, frontal, symmetrical, nine-minute-long, single-shot recording of white light emanating behind and between what appear to be irregularly spaced vertical blinds; nothing less and nothing more. Depending on one’s disposition, ((())) could either transport you to a numinous otherworld of Platonic form, or freeze you in a benumbed, sensory-deprived rictus. Ending the program on a strong upswing, What Has Passed Will Be Dear (2003), by local artist Isaac Mathes, moulds a series of ruminative monochrome impressions shot in and around St Petersburg, Russia, into a delicately nostalgic wreath.

At the Festival’s midpoint other attractions beckoned, the most intriguing a performative collaboration in the Eye+Ear sidebar between special guest Jem Cohen and the American composer Terry Riley, a figurehead of the minimalist movement that begat Steve Reich, La Monte Young and Philip Glass, among others. On a mild Friday evening, a capacity crowd filed impatiently into the First United Methodist Church of Austin, a Romanesque pile sitting at the western edge of the state capitol grounds, grabbing seats on the hard wooden pews while jostling one another in a most agreeable way. Behind the altar, a large screen rigged on a square aluminum frame guided the audience’s gaze upward toward the austere white bowl of the church dome. Presently the unassuming Riley – eyes twinkling between khaki baseball cap and luxuriant silver beard – appeared at the Steinway grand piano, double-checking the strings he had earlier “prepared” with screws, pencil erasers, grosgrain ribbons, binder clips and other objects. Then, after a quick introduction by Ralph McKay, the lights dimmed and Riley commenced by unfolding an angular melodic line of gradually intensifying, steadily more complex sonorities, the prepared instrument allowing him to produce a startling spectrum of textural and timbral effects. From the balcony overhead, Cohen then illuminated the screen with a reel of sharply etched black-and-white images. As Riley improvised in tandem, the audience contemplated a stream of lightly dreamy views of an unidentified but recognisable lower Manhattan, uptight pedestrians stepping in slow motion over grimy reflecting puddles or hurrying past tatty storefronts and polished stone facades, culminating in sidewalks littered with ticker tape after a parade, which appeared to be outtakes from Cohen’s Super-8 short Little Flags (2000). As Cohen’s first reel ended and his second one began, this time a spool of desaturated colour travelling shots taken from trains or vehicles, Riley gamely improvised a rollicking progression that sheared off at harmonic intervals, stubbornly retraced itself, or ambled sideways, developing its own inward time while constantly pushing against conventional meter. Then, after a brief pause in the sights and sounds, Cohen unexpectedly began to recite a list of the names of the dead from Gulf War II, carefully pronouncing in an even monotone the names of American service members, identified by rank, and Iraqi civilians, identified by name and age alone or alongside “children of” or “family of”. Riley, whether by plan or inspiration, rose at the piano and calmly, fastidiously removed the objects with which he’d prepared it, each grating screw or popping clip punctuating the awful litany, and as Cohen continued reading the sense that the dead could accumulate indefinitely grew unbearable. But when it did end, Cohen threw a final reel onscreen: slow-motion observations, in bluish-tinted monochrome, of the 15 February 2003 “world says no to war” demonstrations and subsequent anti-war protests, again in New York City. Cohen’s mobile 16mm camera roams easily through the knots of spirited protesters, and even hops on the funicular above Manhattan’s 59th Street, appearing to float ethereally above the placard-waving columns. As the Cinematexas audience – many of whom had marched in these very demonstrations, or travelled cross-country just weeks earlier to defy the Bush regime at the Republican National Convention in New York – beheld these familiar, hopeful, sorrow-laden pictures, Riley, in a seemingly spontaneous gesture, met the images with a short melodic theme on the undressed piano, which now sounded disconcertingly smooth. Riley was concise, then the film wound out, and the audience sat hushed and swooning until Cohen, unseen in the balcony, released us with a half-swallowed “Yeah!”

The Glass Wall

In recent years Cinematexas has made a splash with “Face | Off”, an invitational, purely collegial match (contrary to the aggressive title) between guest-curated national cinema compilations. The past two installments hosted encounters between Iran, the Netherlands, Spain and Scotland, and the 2004 Festival convened the aforementioned Edwin Carels of Belgium and Nivedita Deshpande of India. The works in “Face | Off: Belgium” had been test-driven in Rotterdam last winter, and their overall quality was predictably very high. Tacatac (2003), by Bernard Mulliez, is a graphic animation of white assault rifles flashing in the centre of a solid black background, to staccato bursts on the soundtrack – a grimly perfect reminder of the expiration, days beforehand, of a decade-old federal assault-weapons ban permitted to lapse by scurvy Republican lawmakers, against widespread outcry from law enforcement and civilians alike. Doris Lasch and Ursula Ponn’s Die Hälfte der Zeit (2002) is an attractive miniature that depends for effect on the viewer’s foreknowledge that its single-shot, overhead view of a wide, sloping hillside, softly brushed in charcoal, is actually the site of Waterloo. This antecedent knowledge imbues the unremarkable landscape with a furtive aura, and the cloud shadows crossing the static frame quietly suggest an occluded yet ever-immanent history. Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier’s riotous animation Panique au village: Les voleurs (The Card Thieves) (2003) was the most sheerly enjoyable work I saw in the entire Festival. Capturing traditional stop-motion technique with digital cinematography later processed in AfterEffects, Patar and Aubier direct a dramatic ensemble of plastic figurines of cowboys, farmers, Indians, dames, horses and other creatures in a compact, deliriously hyperkinetic sketch. While there is scant “dialogue”, all of the characters, animal and human alike, babble nonstop in a semi-intelligible palaver, an adoring homage to the overlapping dialogue in Jour de fête (Jacques Tati, 1949). Incidentally, taken together with Chel White’s Magda, Blanca Aguerre’s La Historia de Todos, Bobby Abate’s Soothsayer, and the award-winning student short Means and Meditations (2004) by Scott Nyerges, Panique au village: Les voleurs also made this edition of Cinematexas an extraordinary year for animation. But “Face | Off: Belgium’s” electrifying revelation was The Glass Wall (2003) by Dora Garcia, a Spanish artist living in Brussels. The Glass Wall begins innocently enough, with a flaxen-haired young woman lolling idly in her bohemian flat in an unknown city. She wears one of those earpiece-telephones, over which she talks throughout with a never-glimpsed partner named Sybille (like Sybil, the oracle), who calls the young woman Melina (or sometimes Alina, her credited name). Although their relationship is never specified it soon becomes clear that Sybille’s role is master, her function to discipline and punish, as her initially purring banter with Melina slides swiftly from harangue into a drill of increasingly sadistic commands, which, under some arcane pact, the girl reluctantly obeys. Verbally steering Melina through her flat as Garcia’s mobile camera follows apace, Sybille compels her to gorge on pralines and olives, chug milk from the carton, recite subtitles aloud (“Louder!”) from a conveniently handy VHS copy of Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000), doodle on her legs with lipstick and smoke two cigarettes at once. The surface drama derives from Melina’s forlorn recalcitrance, and whenever she tries to dig her heels in – say, while she’s being ordered to shove two fingers down her throat, making herself gag – Sybille flays her, shrieking “Shut up! You’ll do as I say!” Sybille comes off like a cancerous superego, regulating naturally spontaneous behaviour with perversely bad advice. More evocatively, Garcia suggests a total surveillance state wherein the panopticon has infiltrated the individual citizen’s psyche, turning hearth and home into a monitored unit – an implication laid bare at the very end, when Melina finally ventures outside to the street and, no longer able to hear her master, she is struck dumb.

It would be remiss, in reporting a university-based festival made possible only by the labour of students, not to mention any of the student work in Cinematexas. Despite scheduling overlaps that usually squeezed the UT Competition shows out, I finally managed to catch one of the most exceptional entries, Susan Youssef’s Forbidden to Wander (Mane’ Tajawwul) (2003), which resembles the prototypical student film only in its modesty of scale. In every other regard Forbidden to Wander is an assured, fleet-footed, immensely involving chronicle of the young Lebanese-American artist’s travels through the Occupied Territories and Israel in summer 2002. On her website Youssef described this sojourn as above all “a summer of love”, and indeed the video fairly sighs with a romantic yearning established right off the top, with Youssef and a handsome fellow we later come to know as Muhammed canoodling on the beach in Gaza, making still-frame captures of their sunlit faces pressed close to the camcorder. This fluttery intro cuts to a tonally discordant, near-abstract image of a dull metallic band and grommets glinting on a black background as a male officer brusquely interrogates Youssef at a checkpoint, turning her away from a closed road. The main title follows, rendered in white Arabic script against a cobalt sky, and this prologue efficiently announces a blocked or impossible yearning as a major theme. Explaining in voiceover that she feels unafraid travelling alone through the Territories as a young woman “because this road is drawn for me”, Youssef implies a sense of shared destiny with her Palestinian brethren. Billeted by average Palestinian families referred by a friend back in Texas, Youssef opens the first segment in Ramallah, peering through shuttered windows at Israeli tanks crawling past in the streets outside. From her hosts’ balcony, she zooms the camera’s telephoto lens all the way in to the lights of Tel Aviv distantly visible on the horizon, a dimly glittering galaxy in a pixillated night sky. Moving on through the West Bank to Bethlehem, she is welcomed by a large, middle-class family introduced around a table in their garden, dandling children and puffing placidly on hookahs. One of their strapping teenage sons nourishes an obsession with Jean-Claude Van Damme that recalls the similarly motivated Ninja combat sequence in Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention (Yadon ilaheyya) (2002), a fantasy of superhuman strength anchored in abject powerlessness. Arriving in Jerusalem, Youssef joins a 400-strong, nonviolent, anti-occupation march that is abruptly set upon by Israeli security forces. In the melee of water cannons and charging horses, she is knocked down and her DV camera broken, yet in one of many felicities, the incident is recorded in footage supplied by another videographer at the protest. This confrontation presages the opening of the video’s second half, a scene of appalling carnage in Gaza immediately following an airstrike that killed 23, with dozens of men frantically searching the rubble for survivors. One of them extends toward the camera a plywood drawer containing what you realise after a moment is a mass of pulpy, charred human flesh; another lifts the horribly limp body of an infant from the wreckage. Against this backdrop, Youssef meets the lanky, uncommonly sensitive Muhammed, who resides with his family in a refugee camp, and she registers their fast-blooming courtship and romance with admirable delicacy, their love spreading a palliative balm over the traumatic stress. A singular departure from conventional Western reports on the Occupied Territories, Forbidden to Wander coins its own beguilingly fragmentary idiom to recount its many episodes, with an intersubjective reach that even accomplished documentaries like Gaza Strip (James Longley, 2002) or the posthumously completed Death in Gaza (James Miller, 2004), fine as they are, don’t come close to.

The Festival’s closing day effectively belonged to Chantal Akerman, not least because the Belgian icon finally managed to get there. The week before, Akerman had presented her latest narrative feature Tomorrow We Move (Demain on déménage) (2004) at the Toronto International Film Festival, and planned to arrive in Austin via a stopover in New York. Instead, Akerman was unexpectedly waylaid by security officers at the Toronto airport, who on the pretext of a technicality – they deemed her Belgian passport invalid, lacking a newly-implemented national identity bar code – summarily placed her on a flight back to Europe. This outlandish mishap disrupted the first leg of a month-long travel itinerary and kept Akerman from attending the entire Festival as hoped, but the undaunted pro bounced up to Brussels, nabbed an expedited visa, then heroically somersaulted down to Cinematexas in time for the finale. She must have known it would be a warm welcome. In the Festival’s catalogue and website, former artistic director David Barker makes the somewhat polemical claim for Akerman’s oeuvre as “the most important body of work by a woman director in the history of cinema”. While this Texas-sized sentiment inspires deserved adulation, even Akerman herself, who has worked so often and so well in collaboration with other women, might want to share this distinction. (Without putting too fine a point on it, in the European context alone comparably persuasive claims might be made for Ulrike Ottinger and especially Agnès Varda.) In the event, Akerman was toasted with three screenings, all of which were scheduled for closing day, including her very first black-and-white short film, Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town) (1968), the epochal masterpiece of cinematic feminism Jeanne Dielman, and Sud (South) (1999), a feature-length documentary about the racist lynching of James Byrd, Jr., in the town of Jasper, Texas, which by some happenstance was having its belated Texas premiere at the Festival.

Sud

In the early morning of 7 June 1998, the 49 year old Byrd was abducted by three men later linked to white-supremacist prison gangs, who bound the black man with chains to the rear of their pickup and dragged him almost three miles down a back road through one of Jasper’s black settlements. Byrd was killed when his head and right arm were severed on a culvert, and in a final obscenity the murderers left his mutilated corpse in the roadbed in front of old Huff Creek cemetery, an African American burial ground. Already researching and travelling in the American south at the time of the murder, Akerman’s decision to create a work about it seems clearly motivated by moral outrage even as the contours of her response remain entirely in keeping with her famously distanced poetics, what Barker describes as “a distance which constantly foregrounds the relation of the subject to the constitution of the gaze”. Foregoing autopsy reports, courtroom confrontations, jailhouse interviews with the killers and other desiderata of the documentary exposé, Sud is investigative only in considering how the peculiarly sedimented racial history of east Texas gave rise to such an act, but not in any interventionist sense. Akerman lays down a baseline of static-camera compositions in which at first everyone is black: traffic passing by a youth seated outside a sleepy storefront, inmates in striped uniforms cleaning a public plaza, a woman sitting despondently on her plain wooden porch, a lone man walking up a country road toward the camera as a freight train slowly crosses behind him. These tableaux, and long travelling shots of the area’s tumble-down streets, give way to staged, formal interviews with mostly black residents of Jasper who refer in passing to Byrd but recall in detail a shameful history of racial oppression; the first white character, a local journalist who provides the film’s prime account of the facts of the murder, does not appear until a quarter of the way through. Akerman is acutely conscious of her privileged position as an educated, bourgeois, white European – specifically the way her subjectivity both mediates and delimits her perception of events, and how her “exotic” presence shapes her encounters with black and white Texans alike – yet her emphasis on Jasper’s black residents resists ventriloquising, or attempting to enunciate her point of view in or through their voices. Likewise, Akerman’s attention to the black church, from the very first shot of a caretaker grooming the lawn of a Baptist parish to the film’s centrepiece, a memorial service for Byrd replete with stirring eulogies and gospel-drenched testifying, has nothing to do with an impulse toward redemption, but rather functions as a metonym for Jasper’s black society as a whole (although in these scenes Sud’s textual effect exceeds authorial intention, unavoidably recalling religion’s historic role in sustaining Africans through centuries of bondage). Poised between observation and reflexivity, yet neither coldly empiricist nor speciously neutral, Sud gazes evenly at the visible surface of Jasper, as if one concentrated closely enough the violence witnessed by this landscape would disclose itself. Akerman’s sole gesture toward the generic crime-scene reenactment, an extended, wordless track down the length of the road along which Byrd was dragged to his death, more than suffices to establish the unrepresentable horror, ensuring that the film hangs in the mind long afterward.

Come Sunday night, while other viewers were being ambushed by Jeanne Dielman‘s notorious dénouement or thrilling to Anthony Coleman’s live accompaniment to Ozu’s I Was Born, But…, my own private Cinematexas wafted to a close back on Congress Avenue, downtown Austin’s axis radiating south from the majestic capitol. Stepping out of an awards screening at the Jones Center, just across the street from the onsite Festival headquarters at the Hideout, I could observe streamers and pamphlets and other light debris left over from a civic rally held earlier that afternoon, when folding chairs had filled the cordoned avenue, facing a dais propped on a small, shallow stage; at one point an antique cast-iron cannon was even rolled out for a commemorative discharge that could be heard inside the theatres during a show. All this fanfare put one in mind of the long-anticipated day, merely five weeks on, when Texans and other Americans would cast their votes in the general election; by the time this report appears, it will be the eve of the crucible. Strenuously positive thoughts of the legions of volunteers organised by America Coming Together or MoveOn or other pro-democracy groups canvassing door-to-door in swing states helped to keep the goblins at bay, but the creeping dread of the unimaginable – of Bush finally winning the presidential election – had been gradually accumulating for months, and at Festival time, freshly awed by the nakedly fascistic display at the Republican National Convention, was near threshold levels. So it was that the capitol, occupied by the warlord himself four short years ago, had a foreboding, midnight air that evening, which only reinforced the impression of Cinematexas as an oasis of alt-cinema culture, progressive esprit and endearingly scruffy bonhomie. Regardless of the election’s outcome, Texans and an increasingly far-flung constituency will surely continue to turn to Cinematexas for more of the inspiring, thoroughly internationalist, critically engaged dialogues it enables, so essential to our contested democratic culture in these dark times.

Cinematexas International Competition Award Winners

Gecko Awards
Britton, South Dakota, dir. Vanessa Renwick
Marsa Abu Galawa, dir. Gerard Holthuis
I’m Bobby, dir. Xav Leplae
La Historia de Todos (Our Story), dir. Blanca X. Aguerre

Paul Pierre Standifer Memorial Award for Cinematography
I.E. [Site 01-Isole Eolie], dir. Lotte Schreiber

Screenplay Award
Diary, dir. Oksana Buraja

Editing Award
Planet of the Arabs, dir. Jacqueline Salloum

No-Budget Award
The Lighthouse, dir. James Fotopoulos

Special Jury Award
Infrastructure, dir. Rachel Reupke

Barbara Aronofsky Latham Memorial Award for Exceptional Emerging Video Artist
Nora Martirosyan

Cinematexas Director’s Choice Award
From Pompei to Xenia, dir. Kevin Jerome Everson

Cinematexas Programmers’ Choice Award
Reckless Eyeballing, dir. Christopher Harris

Russ Meyer Award for Cinematic Intransigence
Tung Wang Wu, for Hot Throbbing Cock

Audience Award
Cats and Pants, dir. Jennifer Matotek

Cinematexas UT Competition Award Winners

Bettye Nowlin Awards for Excellence in Student Filmmaking
State v. Reed, dir. Ryan Polomski
Means and Meditations, dir. Scott Nyerges
Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Movie, dir. Rachel Proctor May
Forbidden to Wander, dir. Susan Youssef

No-Budget Award
Marumari 5 14B, dir. Temsy Chen

Editing Award
Love Ya Like, dir. René Pinnell

Paul Pierre Standifer Memorial Award for Cinematography
lead role: Father, dir. PJ Raval; cinematographer, Franky Martinez

Screenplay Award
Milton is a Shitbag, dir. Courtney Davis

Documentary Award
Yuning’s Return, dir. Shu-Chun Lee

Audience Award
La Chienne noir, dir. Katy Daiger