Disruptions of Privacy:
Frame X as the Next Rupture in a Regional History
published as liner notes to the Frame X DVD: AFCOOP, 2008.
click here for a printable PDF version
The disruption of privacy is that unexpected moment of penetration into your personal space, private thoughts, or sensory perceptions. This private space may be as localized as the frontal lobe of your brain, or as broad as the geography of your bedroom, home, or neighbourhood. The disruption of privacy can occur in the broadly charted intersections of public spaces and private lives or in the delicate interruption of sensory perceptions and intimate thoughts.
In the context of film, the public space of the cinema directly intersects with the private viewing experience of each member in the audience. The more subjective and unconventional the film, the more private and intimate the viewing experience. In the case of more abstract experimental films, the intimate experience and personal relationship between each viewer and the film, subverts the disruption of privacy as it fractures the shared public space of the cinema, by shattering the collective consciousness of the audience into a diverse topography of private autonomous experiences.
In the case of intimate and autobiographical films, the mere exhibition of these works can be seen as a forced form of privacy disrupted as the filmmaker directs the audience into a voyeuristic position; a motley public crew peering into the private life of the filmmaker and her subjects. The exhibition of these intimacies is an extortion of privacy through the construct of cinema that is conquered by the viewers themselves as they become accomplices with the filmmaker in a sensuous dismantling of the intimate space.
Five new films by emerging filmmakers in AFCOOP’s Frame X program are complicit in this private disruption of cinematic space, as well as in the broader disruption of a continuous timeline of film history in Atlantic Canada.
There is an intriguing link between the idea of privacy and the idea of a continuous timeline. Errors of omission and commission fill the timelines of our history books, while hidden beneath these official timelines are lived private histories. In this respect the timeline can be seen as just that; a line, a rope, or a strip of fabric like the tie that holds a bathrobe closed, keeping the private bits covered. In this sense, the official timelines of our history books, with their canons of ‘seminal’ works, heroes, villains, victors and authorities, is like a smooth unbroken fabric; a historical space-time continuum wrapped around our collective memory like a soft sheet, draped over our naked bodies as we sleep and dream our most intimate dreams in the privacy of our homes and hidden fantasies. Along these lines of thinking, a rupture in the continuous timeline of history, can be seen as a disruption in the privacy of the personal lives lived between the sheets and lines of the history books.
While Atlantic Canada has a long and rich tradition of independent filmmaking, it has a sporadic history of experimental filmmaking that comes in and out of the historical timeline in gurgling spurts, bursts, pulses, and rips in the fabric of Atlantic Canadian film history. Most of these spurts are disruptions in a timeline that is dominated primarily by independent narrative and documentary work created in the context of the commercial film and television industry. Each rip and tear in this historical continuum, challenges norms of film production and film viewing experiences. These tears, in the regional fabric of Atlantic film history, are often initiated by external forces of visiting artists from other centres, or by fresh blood moving in to settle; ‘come from away’.
A few examples of external forces disrupting the privacy of the Atlantic regional timeline include: Robert Frank, from New York, who inspired some art students to establish the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative in 1974; Helen Hill, from North Carolina who taught experimental animation and created her own artworks at AFCOOP; and Gerda Cammaer, from Belgium who taught at NSCAD and was involved with AFCOOP in the curation of screenings, and the production of her own experimental films. Each of these artists penetrated the region and disrupted the normal flow of linear filmmaking through the use of workshops, curated screenings, and the production of their own art works. Eventually however, each of these makers left the region in search of things that Atlantic Canada could not provide. It seems that after each disruptive tear in the Atlantic film history continuum, after each rip in the fabric, there is an exodus of experimental filmmakers.
One of the reasons for the repeated exodus from the region is the lack of access to cultural funding and screening venues. Most cities in the Atlantic region do not have municipal arts councils, and Nova Scotia does not even have a provincial arts council. This leaves artists in Nova Scotia with the Canada Council for the Arts as their only option when it comes to accessing government funding for non-commercial and non-marketable projects.
In addition to the lack of funding bodies, the Atlantic region does not have a single Cinematheque or art house theatre in the entirety of its four provinces. Occasionally, universities and artist run centres will present curated screenings of experimental work. But these screenings are infrequent, few and far between. It goes without saying that viewing work made by other artists is an integral factor in the development of artistic maturity in a community. Viewing other experimental films not only provides a fertile ground for inspiration and ideas, but it also provides an understanding of historical trajectory of the art form. Without regular opportunity to view work from afar, experimental filmmakers in the Atlantic region are left to breathe air into earth in a marginalized void of dust.
In the wake of interventions made by visiting artists and curators over the past thirty-five years, there are many local artists who have developed and evolved into insightful and accomplished experimental filmmakers through the influence, inspiration, and instruction of those external piercing forces. Such filmmakers include James MacSwain, Chuck Clark, Andrea Dorfman, Chris Spencer-Lowe, Becka Barker, and Lisa Morse. While some of these artists continue to live and work in the Atlantic region, holding the fort and maintaining their unique style against all obstacles, many of us were not so tightly tethered to the land, and hence drifted away to other regions and nations.
The continual repetition of this Sisyphian exodus lead AFCOOP to introduce the Frame X program which brought emerging filmmakers together with experienced mentors in a collaborative learning environment replete with screenings, workshops, and means for production. I was privileged enough to have the opportunity to return to Halifax, to teach a few workshops and to provide mentorship to these individuals in the early stages of the Frame X program. Other mentors and instructors included Gerda Cammaer, Anthony Christiano, Chris Spencer-Lowe, and Solomon Nagler. It is under these circumstances that five new filmmakers became complicit in another disruption of the Atlantic Canadian film history timeline; tearing the continuum, to reveal the intimate interruptions of privacy hidden beneath the fabric of regional viewing experiences.
Shi-Eun Kim, for example, thrusts the cinematic viewer into an autonomous private response within the crowd, by keeping his presence absent from the viewer -- despite his physical on-screen presence – through a tangled web of ambiguous connections and unexplained images. His silent film, 1) Try Opening the Box 2) Incomprehensible contents within 3) Listen, dismantles the multi-sensory experience of every day beauty into a series of decontextualized visual images. Sensuous aspects of cold snow, fragrant flowers, kinetic climbing, muscular exertion, and the smell of the ocean are stripped away as each of these multisensory experiences is reduced to a purely visual, and occasionally static image. This guides the viewer away from a collective public experience and into an internalized private experience in the pursuit of interpretation.
S. T. Elliot’s film, For the Love of My Life, presents intimate images from a privileged perspective; looking down on a pedestrian from a voyeuristic vantage point. In this film, the viewer is unwittingly watching from a sniper’s perspective; a voyeur surveying a target from above. Elliot positions the public viewer in a geographic location of privacy looking out into a public space, while concurrently evoking a public subject that seems to exist in an internal local of private thoughts and imaginings. The intense black and white grain created through the multiple printings of the film conjures a sense of distance between the watcher and the watched and reminds the viewer that he is watching a constructed private reality in a public space.
In Chris Giles’ Cliffe Street the cinematic viewers are presented with a glimpse into the private life of the filmmaker as they enter into the intimate space of his home. This film presents an obsession with a location as an integral component of personal identity and intimate history on the brink of disruption. The audience becomes a public witness to the destruction of this personal architectural space. The climax of the film comes in the complete collapse and demolition of the house, watched by a man walking down the street with his dog. We as the audience become complicit in the destruction of the house as we derive visual pleasure from the disruption of the intimate lives of the characters within.
After the destruction of Giles’ private home, Bradon Cannon, presents us with ghostly traces of architectural images in his film, southHalifaxnorth, in which urban landscapes relay the ever-present lingering weight of economic gaps between two polar neighbourhoods in Halifax: the South end being a stereotypically wealthy neighbourhood, and the North end, a stereotypically impoverished one. The residual noise on the soundtrack conjures a sensation of cold harsh winds while concurrently acting as an acoustic shadow of the image base fog that absorbs all but the faintest outlines of the architectural structures. Noise, being disruption of a signal -- the interruption of a biased message from a privileged class – becomes the muzzled rebuke of the unheard voices of private lives affected by public and corporate entities.
In Construct + Conflict, Jeff Weaton violently disrupts the private mental trajectories of his own subjects by creating a false sense of safety only to destroy it in an instant. Each of the subjects sensuously discusses their memories, ideas, and fantasies of violence, eliciting images, smells, sounds, and physical sensations. Without warning, blood capsules explode on their chests, violently interrupting their private thoughts. The viewers can practically feel the wet blood running down their skin and soaking their shirts, while empathetically sensing the racing hearts and the clenched stomachs. The explosive popping sound catches both the cinematic subjects and viewers off guard with a clapping sound that disrupts both the dialogue and the internal thoughts.
Guang Zhu’s film, Duh, speaks of a desire to hold onto a personal object for eternity by pinning it down and photographing it every hour. These private desires intersect with public constructs through her integration of pop culture imagery and computer generated emoticons with softly blurred images of naked people dancing, flickering and sticking in the projector gate. Her lyrical soundscape presents repeated variations of the monosyllabic word “Duh” which stands in for “Of course! It’s obvious and taken for granted!” The viewer is left to wonder, “What is so obviously taken for granted, that she would say this to me?” And as you sit in your uncomfortable seat in the public space of the cinema, she replies to you three times over: “Duh, your monument is built by a big mistake; the mistake is: you want your puppet to stay the same in the light; to get a photo taken every hour; so you pin it. It moved”.
We monumentalize our official canons of historical films and filmmakers of the Atlantic region, making lists of who is and is not important. We desire for these fragments of factual knowledge, these official histories, to stay the same in the light, to stay knowable, graspable, and constant, but they move and shudder with the ripplings of private lives teeming beneath the surface. And so the films of the Frame X program have torn yet another rupture in the fabric of the Atlantic regional film history timeline and emerged into the flickering light of cinematic day.
Let’s hope that this tear in the continuum is more than just a fleeting little snag or puncture in the fabric. Let’s hope for a long running tear along the bias of the fabric, ripping it into the tattered pieces on the cutting room floor of an editor’s seamstress. Heaving us from our of our complacency, pulling us from the private lives of our minds and into the physical space of the public cinematic viewing experience with all of its smells and sounds of strangers and strange ideas.