by Alice Stoehr "I can't imagine what you must think of me!" laughed Cecelia Condit. The audience had just seen her groundbreaking shorts Beneath the Skin (1981) and Possibly in Michigan (1983 (left)), plus a swath of her 21st-century work, and she seemed a bit sheepish about her own films' morbid sense of humour. Between the murders, masks, and nursery rhymes, a streak of dark whimsy runs through them, orienting her as a woman in the world. Condit's a garrulous storyteller in life as in her art and was forthright about the layers of autobiography in her work. Annie Lloyd (2008) shows her mother pressing leaves between pages at the end of her life. Within a Stone's Throw (2012) has Condit herself hiking Irish hills in the aftermath of her mother's death. Images of carrying and collecting recur across these films, a motif that suggests both affection and the assertion of control. These are rough-hewn fables that plumb the possibilities of video.
This year saw a number of memoirs about the politics of place. In I Think You Should Come to America, for example, Polish filmmaker Kamila Kuc revisits her teenage correspondence with a Native American political prisoner. She uses footage from old westerns and 1980s TV news to parallel the injustices of their respective nations. Maren Hahnfeld's North of Eden recounts her time as a German exchange student in Idaho, while Pia Borg's exquisite Silica journeys to the Outback town of Coober Pedy, known for its opal mining and Mars-like landscapes. Razan AlSalah gave the festival its most startling vision of displacement in her short Your father was born 100 years old, and so was the Nakba (right). Speaking as her own Palestinian grandmother, she navigates the city of Haifa via Google Street View, a tool the filmmaker astutely identified as "an embodiment of the refugee condition." This unreal imagery and the cursor's frantic motion bear her family's sorrow over the loss of their homeland.
Digital interfaces also figure prominently in Honane, a travelogue from Osaka natives Takuya Dairiki and Takashi Miura. The long-time friends and co-directors voice the film's unseen characters, a man and his uncle, who chat remotely as they watch the latter's vacation footage. (The title's a Kansai expression meaning "See you later!", uttered by the nephew at the end of each call.) The footage is mundane: rustling tree branches, hotel-room furniture, LED signs, a riverside parking lot. The film's mirth derives from its dry running commentary. The two men speculate about the thoughts of a worm as it wriggles across wet pavement. They discuss the appeal of udon, soft serve, and some tiramisu-like roof tiles. Other jokes play on the fact that both of them are off-screen, like a prolonged silence as the uncle dozes off or a paused video as the nephew gets up to pee. It's a genial film full of comic understatement.
Another of the festival's more playful entries was Anna Vasof's When Time Moves Faster. It documents the design and operation of four devices that yield real-time animation. Vasof steps forward, revealing a photo of herself stepping forward; smashes glass plates that depict the movement of gears; pulls curtains back and forth to animate a child on a swing; and has a camera rotate between her and several other subjects who together signify an ambulatory body. Once she speeds up the handful of frames these experiments capture, voilà: a Muybridge-esque loop of rudimentary stop-motion. The short presents each device bluntly, without remark, so the leap from set-up to pay-off comes as a total surprise. (Vasof has many more such contraptions up on Vimeo.)
The strongest program at this year's AAFF turned its gaze backwards. Late Saturday evening, former festival director Vicki Honeyman introduced "Vick's Picks," a batch of shorts culled from past selections. It featured the work of luminaries like Mike Hoolboom, Jeff Scher, and Dawson City: Frozen Time's Bill Morrison--a crème de la crème of avant-garde filmmaking. One beguiling pick was Sydney Harbour Bridge (1977), from Australia's Paul Winkler. It begins by panning across the title structure, then interlaces that pan with images of the glimmering water, all set to a bell's discordant chimes. The pan cascades across the frame in rows and columns proliferating for a full 13 minutes. It flowers from a simple conceit into geometrical beauty. Martin Arnold's Pièce touchée (1989 (left)) does much the same, taking as its source a short clip of a policeman at home with his wife from the 1954 movie The Human Jungle. Arnold stretches the clip out, making actors kiss or flip a light switch again and again. Through his editing, the action shudders forward incrementally, sometimes turning right to left or upside-down. A mechanical hum replaces the music and dialogue. What was once a crumb of Hollywood narrative starts to take on a strange, new meaning of its own.
Arnold's technique called to mind a brand-new short from earlier in the festival, Christoph Girardet's It Was Still Her Face. Like Arnold, Girardet snips from film noir, splicing together shots from dozens of movies that showcase women's portraits. Certain motifs cluster together: men staring at the portraits, drink in hand; clocks ticking on mantels below; slashes in the canvas; or even the canvas itself burning in a fireplace. It's a wry collection of scenes each telling the same story about male desire and female glamour. Seeing both Pièce touchée and It Was Still Her Face in the context of the same festival attested to the hardiness of their shared experimental tradition. Like Condit with her video melodramas, these filmmakers draw from more conventional movies, but twist those conventions towards weirder, more personal ends. Ann Arbor's the ideal place to watch this heritage with its roots in the past and its buds sprouting into the future.