Text of Light No. 1:

Villa Medici
By Jordan Cronk

As the line between experimental, documentary, and narrative cinema has blurred over the last decade, it’s been interesting to watch as filmmakers and festivals alike have adjusted to contemporary notions of what was once called the avant-garde. At the same time that the kind of “visionary” cinema exalted by the likes of P. Adams Sitney (who coined the term) and Jonas Mekas has fallen out of fashion—along with its archetype of the white male genius—so too have once-pressing debates over medium specificity and the relationship between experimental film and moving-image work made for the gallery mostly been settled (or at least tabled until more burning techno-futurist concerns like AI are addressed).

If such arguments can now seem rather quaint, they’re at least worth remembering as a majority of the most notable experimental film showcases have adapted (not inappropriately) to reflect wider trends in the field—namely a turn toward essayistic nonfiction (a fad indicative of the art world’s post-millennial influence on the scene that has only grown stronger in the last few years) and the kind of language-heavy narrative work that Phil Coldiron, writing recently in Artforum about the “Currents” program at the New York Film Festival, lamented “as signaling a diminished ambition for finding out just how much hasn’t yet been done with moving images.” Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine the sort of didactic cinema that Coldiron describes occupying similar space even a half-decade ago, when form and style still superseded subject or theme. Which is to say, things move fast in the realm of experimental film, something I hope this column will bear witness to as I periodically take stock of what’s new and notable in this ever-evolving ecosystem.

Now in its third year, Rome’s Villa Medici Film Festival, which I attended for the first time this September, is unique in its approach to film-art considerations, in that it mostly disregards such designations. Organized collectively by a rotating committee of film and art curators, the program, which includes a tight, twelve-film competition comprising works of various length, style, and provenance, is heterogeneous in conception. Built in the early 16th century and acquired by Ferdinando de’ Medici in 1564, the Villa Medici has housed the French Academy in Rome since 1803. In 1974, the Academy began hosting visual artists, and today a year-round residency program supplies its cavernous corridors and labyrinthine gardens with all manner of modernist art. If it seems like an odd place to host a film festival, it’s in keeping with the Academy’s tradition of reimagining art-historical contexts. Unlike the moving-image installations presented as part of group exhibitions like documenta and the Venice Biennale, Villa Medici focuses squarely on the theatrical presentation of its selection—which, considering the Renaissance-era backdrop, makes for some surreal viewing environments, like a grotto-like screening room tucked away down a stone staircase, or an 500-plus-seat open-air cinema in the Villa’s courtyard, surrounded at this year’s edition by French artist Théo Mercier’s exhibit featuring full-size automobiles arranged in vertical configurations as if dropped haphazardly from the heavens.

Not every work translated well to this setting. Both Basma al-Sharif’s Capital and Aria Dean’s Abattoir U.S.A.!, each of which originated as gallery pieces, suffered in the cinema space. As an installation, Dean’s CGI-generated tour through a slaughterhouse would make for a diverting enough stop, ideally as part of a larger exhibition, but on its own hardly warrants such sustained viewing, while, on the opposite end of the spectrum, al-Sharif’s satiric exploration of unchecked urban planning and domestic alienation is almost too dense and disorienting to absorb in a single sitting.

More effective among the shorts that have also spent time in the gallery was French filmmaker Paul Heintz’s Nafura, a strikingly conceived investigation of Middle Eastern cultural mores that discriminate against women. Set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the film follows three female friends, their faces digitally masked into featureless voids, as they travel through the city by night, smoking and discussing such verboten topics as drugs and sex as King Fahd’s Fountain, the world’s largest artificial geyser, spurts like a phallus in the distance. Replacing banned phrases and subjects with the word nafura—Arabic for fountain—the women co-opt a patriarchal symbol as a covert way to converse and comment on an oppressive system. Part road movie, part political parable, Nafura speaks, in so many words, to the irrepressible power of collective resistance.

A similarly subversive spirit animates Mast-del, in which the Persian filmmaker Maryam Tafakory confronts issues of censorship and discrimination by pairing semi-risqué original footage with clips from post-revolutionary Iranian cinema. Framed around a woman’s recollection of a fateful first date, the film unfolds in passages of color-coded onscreen text that describe a young couple’s traumatic night out. Against an overexposed image track of lips, hands, breasts, and hair, the woman tells her current partner about the incident while lying in bed, recalling how a winter’s night walk to the cinema ended with her male companion being assaulted by the police. As details—snowfall on a frosted windowpane, spilt ice cream, a bloody lip—accumulate and the story grows increasingly dark, so do the previously tender images of female bodies turn ever more troubling, a feeling matched by the ominous synth tones of composer Sarah Davachi, whose song “Magdalena” slowly usurps the sounds of wind, rain, and static that accompany the story. Telling among the 30-plus film excerpts (spanning 1982–2010) is a snippet of Fereydoun Jeyrani’s 1999 feature Ghermez (Red), about the abuse suffered by a woman at the hands of her former husband and the movie we learn the young couple was planning to see the night of the attack. Like Nafura, Mast-del deals with the criminalization of bodies and the ever-present threat of state violence on forbidden desires—themes pushed to literal abstraction in each that nevertheless translate with utmost clarity.

Considering the eclectic competition and the diversity of the jury, which included director Alice Diop, visual artist Cyprien Gaillard, and art historian Chiara Parisi, it was somewhat surprising to see the festival’s top prizes go to two features—Mehran Tamadon’s My Worst Enemy and Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge 3—that, excellent as they are, have garnered no shortage of attention and acclaim since debuting in Berlin and Locarno, respectively. A stronger statement could have been made by awarding a short or, maybe even more valuably, a medium-length work like Declan Clarke’s How I Became a Communist. In this transfixing 55-minute essay film, which quietly premiered in the “Other Gems” sidebar at FIDMarseille, the Irish artist frames the story of his political awakening around the strange history of “The Musicians of Bremen,” a 19th-century fairy tale by Dorothea Viehmann that was first collected and published by the Brothers Grimm in 1819. Unlike other traditional stories from the era that were later republished and edited to reflect contemporary Christian values, subsequent iterations of “The Musicians of Bremen”—a tale of four aging farm animals who, fleeing their master’s neglect and mistreatment, overtake a house of robbers on their way to becoming buskers in the titular German city—have remained faithful to Viehmann’s original version, which Clarke discovered as a child as part of the iconic Ladybird Books series “Well-Loved Tales.”

Drawing parallels between the plight of the animals and the politics of William Gallacher’s 1949 monograph The Case for Communism, Clarke—who recalls finding this book later in life among his mother’s belongings—forges a personal-poetic intervention into a historical continuum stretching from the industrial revolution to the atomic age, a centuries-spanning epoch in which rural labor practices and agricultural traditions have been slowly marginalized, if not rendered outright redundant. In bookending sequences, including a wordless 20-minute opening chapter, an old woman is seen toiling away on a farm and tending to everyday domestic duties, occasionally joined by a friend in front of the fireplace after a hard day’s work. Reminiscent in tone and style of Dominique Benichetti’s observational portrait of an elderly blacksmith, Cousin Jules (1972), these scenes of workaday labor and autonomous living echo the film’s wider socialist streak and themes of class conflict, which Clarke in turn traces through his own coming-of-age in the era of Margaret Thatcher and The Troubles.

With its modular structure and interlocking story threads, one can easily imagine How I Became a Communist as a multi-channel installation. In this case, however, the work would be done a disservice by that setup, as much of its intrigue is generated through its carefully calibrated temporal shifts and the nimble interplay between its various modes of address, which include first-person voiceover narration, passages from Viehmann’s story read aloud by Clarke’s mother, blocks of onscreen text, and tactile images of newspaper clippings and vintage paperbacks. In a year of artists’ cinema short on discoveries, Clarke’s film qualifies as a welcome surprise, parlaying much of what’s grown tiresome about the cross-pollination of experimental and nonfiction filmmaking into something both formally fresh and insightful—further proof that looking to the margins also applies to viewers exploring the film festival circuit.

Photo by Jordan Cronk