An oasis amidst an overwhelming selection of not only premieres and galas, but also independent and foreign language selections, the Toronto International Film Festival’s annual Wavelengths lineup remains arguably the one section a viewer can look toward for consistently innovative, challenging films during an event with an ever-democratic sense of identity. This singularity is attributable to the work of Andréa Picard, head of programming for Wavelengths, whose intuitive sense for the exotic and frequently radical in cinema remains unparalleled in the work of North American festival programming. It’s therefore appropriate that the annual four-night series of avant-garde short film screenings is the heart of her selection as well as TIFF’s most unique, enduring facet. And with the New York Film Festival’s Projections program (formerly Views from the Avant-Garde) now under new guidance—and, judging by their forthcoming lineup, an inclination towards the field’s relatively bigger names (Ben Russell, Jodie Mack, etc.)—the Wavelengths shorts programs continue to stand as the field’s most intimate, carefully curated and progressive event.
The opening night was a showcase for both new and old work. Featuring two vintage films from the Polish art collective KwieKulik, the program, subtitled “Open Forms,” was themed as an evening of “performativity in both the landscape and the social sphere.” And indeed, the quite literally titled Open Form–Game on an Actress’s Face (1971), the first and more memorable of the two KwieKulik selections, took performance as its subject. Essentially a succession of closeups of a young woman’s face as she’s subjected to a series of messy facial provocations, including having paint and other unidentified liquids smeared on her face as she holds in her mouth a piece of glass on which she balances a number of everyday objects. What at first feels exploitative turns rather fun as the woman (apparently a famous Polish actress of the time) is seen to be laughing while simultaneously encouraging the experiment. Nothing else in the program foregrounded physical activity to such a degree, but it lurks under the surface of brouillard— passage #14, the latest in an ongoing series of films from Alexandre Larose, which subtly places images of human movement under a superimposed, layered (though slightly offset) panoply of tracking shots down a lakeside path, creating a free floating outdoor tour which eventually literalizes its oceanic feel as we meet the surface of the lake head-on.
Mary Helena Clark and Jean-Claude Rousseau, meanwhile, are present in their own films, though each from a different narrative vantage. Clark’s elusive and intriguing The Dragon is the Frame examines depression and the specter of death through a seemingly unrelated combination of landscape, domestic, and municipal shots which hint at notions of identity via recurring images of a young man self-styling in a mirror and the odd allusion (visual and aural) to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Rousseau’s Under a Changing a Sky is far more linear, documenting an afternoon around Edinburgh’s Monument Hill as storm clouds portend a downpour. Rousseau unassumingly captures the mundane activities occurring around the park, returning to each setup with sometimes inconsequential, sometimes humorous results (a sleepy sea lion makes for a particularly entertaining cameo). Rousseau himself is heard on the soundtrack on a couple of occasions, speaking from off screen to inquire thoughts of fellow visitors. During the post-screening Q&A, Rousseau described these moments as a kind of “making-of inside of the film,” and its through such subtle structural integrations that the film accumulates its unassuming magnetism.
The humor and serenity of the first night was handily offset in night two (“Something in the Atmosphere”), which featured some truly disorienting new works. Relief, by Calum Walter, being perhaps the grisliest, takes black and white footage of a car accident and filters it through an array of video effects, obscuring details to create a static-riddled blur of bodies and asphalt, faces and headlights. The images by themselves are often disquieting, but when coupled with the creaking, ominous soundtrack, the film attains a horror-like atmosphere as forbidding as any car crash educational video. Relief was programmed back-to-back with Blake Williams’s Red Capriccio, another startling found footage film which punctuates its images with intense aural cues, and together they articulate the audio/visual potential for contemporary non-narrative cinema. Williams (who, full disclosure, is a friend and colleague) manages to go one step further than even Walter, continuing as he does to work in 3D, and Red Capriccio represents his most refined use of the format to date. Sourced from YouTube, the films three major sections expose an outside light source to the blue/red enhancements of anaglyph technology. In the case of the opening segment, wherein a cop car (a Chevy Caprice) is swooped down upon and examined from bumper to bumper, the corresponding color scheme of the vehicle’s emergency lights create a violently kinetic light show, which Williams matches with the sounds of swelling keys and incidental noise (all with allusions to 18th- and 19th-century art and music). A truly sensory experience, the film is as disorienting as it is invigorating.
The intrigue of the third night (“Tales Told”) was mostly predicated upon the inclusion of Canopy, the new film by the legendary Ken Jacobs. A deceptively complex work, the film features a handful of shots of a New York City street scaffolding, positioned at slightly differing angles, and proceeds to interrogate the properties of the image by shifting along a horizontal axis in rapid left-right movements and inverting the natural composition of the setting with negative exposure effects. The result is a kind of urban dance of displacement, with no audible music but plenty of rhythmic internal dynamism. A very different but equally impressive accomplishment came courtesy of Jakrawal Nilthamrong, whose Intransit utilizes bygone special effects and art direction techniques to literally create another world. Models and fog machines create a looming lunar landscape through which Nilthamrong guides his camera, exploring his handmade set in inquisitive fashion. But then the film shifts about halfway through, looking toward the surface of the planet rather than the horizons, now capturing oils, liquids, and lavas in all their resplendent glory.
A natural depiction of an alien locale arrived on night four with the program’s title film, Shambhavi Kaul‘s Night Noon, which features geographical footage of deserts from Death Valley to Mexico, places where the vanishing point between sky and earth, water and atmosphere is nearly indistinguishable. Kaul, whose film Mount Song was one of last year’s Wavelengths standouts, seems deeply interested in the topographical nuances of remote locations and how cinema can bridge as well as exoticize such regions. Night Noon is more inherently “real” than its predecessor, which recreated set designs from imagined films, but is just as evocative and attuned to acquired knowledge and memory. But the highlight of the final night and perhaps this year’s short program as whole, was Sylvia Schedelbauer‘s Sea of Vapors, a hallucinatory work which spins black and white images into a stroboscopic avalanche of barely glimpsed landscapes and individuals. As the images helix in a sort of static succession of fleeting impressions, distant voices and disembodied screams are slowly smothered in an enveloping drone, pushing monochrome memories into a vivid, palpable present. And indeed, despite the traditions from which many of this year’s Wavelengths shorts emanate, in the best of them there’s an immediacy which continues to hint at unexplored cinematic frontiers.