Consistently one of the most intellectually enriching programmes of the Toronto International Film Festival, Wavelengths (curated again this year primarily by Andrea Picard) often brings filmmaking back to its most primal of roots. If cinema truly is “the seventh art” (of however many arts there actually are worth discussing), then Wavelengths strives to put the “art” back into the equation. But perhaps more importantly the films booked to play in the series offer the chance for deepest analysis and introspection. Sometimes relaxed, sometimes incendiary, but always thought provoking, Wavelengths offers prescient glimpses of cinema’s past and present through some of the best voices of the future.
The four programmes of experimental and avant-garde shorts playing Wavelengths this year are all grouped based on variations of a similar theme designed to appeal to the adventurous viewer. Many are often silent or at the very least wordless, drawing immediate attention to the frame. Sometimes the experience includes an aural component designed to heighten the experience and play a part in a greater point being made. Many are shot on film stock, and in some cases even more archaic technology. Others are so far on the next level that filmmakers have simply invented their own technology and techniques to satisfy their muses.
In the first program, renowned artist Kenneth Anger takes flight with his three part film Airship. Reconstituting newsreel footage of enormous flying crafts (the first of which has been run through old school analaglyph 3-D) with often high and low end rumblings, there’s an eerie life to it that takes place when you realize you’re watching ghost ships that have long since left this Earth. It’s an uneasy bt of history that calls into question why such crafts would be created in the first place.
Also in Programme 1, titled Variations On… (taking its name from the screening of Canadian director David Rimmer’s recently restored 1970 work of art Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper) is Scott Stark’s masterfully edited, sprawling, shaking, and strobing anti-capitalist piece The Realist. At 36 minutes of constant cutting between different consumerist imagery (suits, parking lots, traffic jams, crowds) it might be a bit of overkill, but after a while the point sets in that occasionally the film slows down. The human mind is what’s still going. It’s been bombarded by images like caffeine injected directly into the bloodstream.
Programme 2 – titled Now & Then – contains a lot of works that are deceptively serene, but build towards sometimes harsher truths about humanity. Hanna Schupbach’s Instants and Helga Fanderl’s Constellations are almost perfect 16mm mirror images of each other, with the former wordlessly looking at the silent serenity of the woods with flashes of humanity peeking through (sometimes full speed, sometimes still, sometimes dark), and the latter observing the patterns in more of a serene macrocosm.
In programme 2 title Pepper’s Ghost (from Toronto artist Stephen Broomer) humans exist within the frame, but all as passive observers and tools for a seemingly unachievable set up. Please note that this doesn’t mean the film is a failure by any stretch, but mainly as a description of how coloured lighting gels, shades, lights, and mirrors are constantly changing the look of a single room as the people who file in and out of it seem to be questioning their own motives.
Also playing in the second programme is the best of the series, Naoko Tasaka’s Flower, which takes a simple narration about a greedy bear dealing with hunger during a harsh winter played over alternating images of majestic waterfalls (seeming to be a theme across several Wavelengths shorts this year) and almost cellular looking constructions. It builds to an inspired and terrifying kind of crescendo that’s equally intense and beautiful to watch.
Programme 3 gets its name from Basma Alsharif’s staccato short Farther Than the Eye Can See, a story of Palestinian escape from Jerusalem narrated by a calm older women and a monotone narrator that stand in stark contrast to the fast cutting images and subtitles that flash across the screen. The story being told is thrilling, but it’s up to the image to convey the sense of danger and immediacy being told. It’s an intriguing gambit that pays off nicely.
Also included in the third programme is a pair of interesting pieces that take extremely close looks at expansive spaces. In Philipp Fleischmann’s Main Hall, he created his own set up of 19 35mm cameras to capture a surprisingly detailed, yet obfuscated portrait of the Vienna Secession’s main exhibition hall. In the second best in the Wavelengths’ show, Sarah J. Christman’s Gowanus Canal, the filmmaker takes the viewer as close to a polluted ecosystem as humanly possible, with gorgeous and tragic results in every frame.
A similar sense of dread and decay are found in Programme 4’s Trissakia 3 from Nick Collins. It seems tailor made for a programme titled Elysium, as the deserted (and almost desert in appearance grounds) of a former Greek Byzantine church almost ooze death, decay, and loneliness. Caves and holes add an air of claustrophobia. Everything looks so dry it’s like an old west gulch town. Cracks directly through the pictures of the apostles – once so lovingly painted and now taking on the appearance of cave drawings – look like lightning smiting the designs.
Perhaps the greatest gift Programme 4 offers up to viewers, though, is the gift of perspective. In Chris Kennedy’s Brimstone Line, surveying grids along Ontario’s Credit River divide the frame and the landscapes behind them into smaller frames. Then those frames are divided into smaller frames behind that. Eventually the frames disappear and open to shots of the water instead of literally seeing the forest for merely the trees. But when it shows the trees, it shows different ways of looking at them and ways to look at them specifically. It’s kind of a Rosetta Stone for understanding the Wavelengths series as a whole and what makes it so important and special to the festival.
Programme 1 screens on Friday, September 6th at Jackman Hall (AGO), 6:30pm
Programme 2 screens on Saturday, September 7th at Jackman Hall (AGO), 8:30pm
Programme 3 screens on Sunday, September 8th at Jackman Hall (AGO), 7:00pm
Programme 4 screens on Monday, September 9th at Jackman Hall (AGO), 7:30pm