Tiger Shorts Competition

<p>In the Eye of the Tiger</p>

  • Datum 28-01-2013
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Six Day Run

Andrea Picard got a round trip ticket from Toronto, writing about how the world premieres in the Tiger Shorts Competition took her to the other sides of the world and back: a list with hefty name recognition.

Odilon Redon famously remarked that Eugène Delacroix was as "beautiful as a tiger", oozing "the same pride, the same elegance, the same power" as the feline beast. Now I haven’t a clue as to the origin and exact significance of IFFR’s iconic mascot, but its Tiger Awards certainly come with clout and cachet, built up over the festival’s remarkable 42 years of existence. While the Tiger may have lost some of its swagger in recent editions as IFFR’s programme has arguably become less stealthy, with its main sections ironically appearing under-curated despite the curatorial craze sweeping the festival field, the competition still harbours the promise of novelty and prominence; case in point, last year’s inclusion of one of 2012’s best films, Kleber Filho Mendonça’s astonishing feature debut, Neighboring Sounds (O som ao redor), though the film disconcertingly tiptoed away Tigerless…

One of the festival’s longstanding hallmarks and strengths remains its inclusion of short films scattered across the entire programme, and in a rabidly attended competition of their own. When expressing enthusiasm, cinephiles rarely distinguish between feature length and short films. A great film is a great film, is it not? At a time when the ontological implications of the medium (rather, media, and molti multi-) have transcended their crisis, whether through acquiescence, ascension or resistance, cinema is and remains, at its best, an unfathomable presence that penetrates mind, body and soul for those who are alive to the encounter, regardless of its format or running time. In other words, cinema-going is far less a passive activity than many have claimed (especially in art circles where the black box has too often been likened to a lifeless, vacuum-sucked abyss in comparison to the expansive, idea-laden white cube) and remains as fervent as ever despite economic collapse, a death knell for celluloid and a widespread epidemic of apathy. History has shown how the flip side to all this chaos and confusion can be unbridled and superbly generative, spewing in fits and starts and in all shapes and sizes. One can only hope.

This year’s Tiger Shorts Competition features 23 films, a fair amount coming from IFFR household names (David Gatten, Sergei Loznitsa and Nicolas Provost among them) and from celebrated artists whose work regularly shuttles between the gallery and the cinema, including Omer Fast, Kerry Tribe, Beatrice Gibson, and Guido van der Werve. It’s a list with hefty name recognition. The running times, taken on the whole, run long for shorts, some far too long, and while many genres are represented in the selection, from the lyrical and the abstract to the conventional yet arty narrative (not to mention a Greek mythology, hip hop infused docu-drama, Claire Hooper’s shape-shifting Eris), this year’s competition is dominated by what I will imprecisely, perhaps even conceptually term a paradoxical ‘surface conceptualism’, a sort of indeterminate space that is less experimental on an aesthetic level (Rotterdam has an august tradition of supporting experimental cinema, not as fulsomely represented this year), but still somehow hewing to the surface (glistening plasticity) despite laying narrative eggs into the imaginary. These are works with conceits that vary in their degree of obviousness, are built upon repetition or chapters employed as formal composition (especially Omer Fast’s acclaimed dOCUMENTA-commissioned Continuity; Van Der Werve’s highly idiosyncratic Nummer veertien, home which is part requiem, part droll triathlon; and Kerry Tribes’s five-part Masterpiece Theatre-like Greystone), and deploy laden devices (like the Patrick Keilleresque voice-over in Willie Doherty’s sharp-lensed and shaggy sci-fi Secretion or the spectral blurring in Loznitsa’s enigmatic but also problematic The Letter, which uses 10-year old footage from an insane asylum to create an otherworldly and timeless kitsch pastoral. One cannot help but think of Raymond Depardon’s spine-chilling San Clemente as antidote.)

With such diversity — also including a dance film (David Verbeek’s Immortelle), an astute essay film (Zachary Formwalt’s Unsupported Transit) a candid quasi-home video gay encounter (Figs) — the works that rise to the top are not those that emanate a stalwart confidence, but rather the ones displaying a profound curiosity for their ideas through a sort of masterful messiness; even when the hand is steady and graceful an unrestrained inspiration counters the regular flow of life, insinuates pregnant silences, hesitations, and gaps in knowledge.

If I were on the jury this year, I’d be arguing in favour of Amit Dutta’s lovely and thoughtful Museum of the Imagination, Mika Taanila’s charmingly oddball Six Day Run and Beatrice Gibson’s fascinating and fragmentary The Tiger’s Mind. I’d also be open to convincing arguments from my peers on a few others: David Gatten’s By Pain and Rhyme and Arabesques of Foraging is suffused with a kaleidoscopic impressionism as it literally skims the surface of a book, resting on a text by 17th century naturalist Robert Boyle and cross-cutting to the blurs and refractions of coloured glass and naturalia summoning the formation of a Petrarch sonnet. It’s quiet and quiescent (especially in its silence), characteristic of the filmmaker’s anachronistic works which seem to hover in time long since past, though here one also yearns for the textures of celluloid now gone. Workers leaving the factory (again) (Die ArbeiterInnen verlassen die Fabrik) by Katharina Gruzei is a sound contribution to one of the most oft-cited and reproduced tropes in the history of cinema superbly shot on 35mm, with a gripping sense of cadence and choreography, not just of people but of space and lightplay (the spooky appearances and disappearances of the workers a haunting visual metaphor for the continued perturbations of the industrial era and its toll on human life). Ernie Gehr’s seminal Serene Velocity (1970) comes to mind, its fluorescent phantasmagoria a prelude to this corridor march. Emiliano Rocha Minter’s Dentro marches mysteriously toward a more final conclusion as an entangled and mangled black and white forest is wrested through manual labour before a disquieting denouement.

What I find so refreshing in the films by Dutta, Taanila and Gibson is that they are (very distinctive and dissimilar) odes to human endeavour (failure, too, inevitably), from the scholarly, transcendentally eccentric to the obscure and improvisational. In The Museum of the Imagination, Dutta continues his exploration of Indian art history and culture (Rotterdam attendees with recall his elegant feature Nainsukh which screened in 2011), forging a portrait of leading Indian art historian Professor B.N. Goswamy; one that breathes, listens, looks, ponders and, ultimately, gets lost in the beauty of achievement and the impossibility of seizing it all. The quietude in the film — the quest is to the understand the silences as much as the conversation — speaks volumes about the weight of art and creativity, its unquantifiable contribution to the well being of the world, its unique abilities to capture and seize moments as they unfold, sculpting history as quotidian narrative. While the film exudes precision and grace, its admiration and respect for its subject is awakened outward, never venerated into stasis. Studying art is a way of seeing the world; the film’s official subtitle, "portrait in absentia" suggests infinitude as Dutta’s discerning eye alludes to the images that will forever remain lodged in our memory spurring us on as a life force.

Mika Taanila’s Six Day Run also falls into the portrait category as it follows Finnish ultra-marathon runner Asprihanal Pekka Aalto as he participates in the Fifteenth Annual Self-Transcendence Six Day Race that took place at Flush Meadows Corona Park in New York City from April 22 through 28 of last year. Held in honour of Sri Chinmoy, the Indian spiritual master who began teaching meditation in the West upon moving to New York in the Sixties, the race consists of six consecutive days of running in which participants sleep very little (two to three hours a night) as they accumulate miles along a one-mile track in the park, a pursuit as bodily grueling as it is spiritually enlightening (apparently!). Taanila, a Finnish experimental filmmaker and visual artist much deserving of this year’s IFFR spotlight (he is being profiled with a retrospective and two new installations) with sensibilities reminiscent of Craig Baldwin and Jean Painlevé and with a penchant for techno sounds and utopian fever dreams, shot the film on widescreen Super 8mm and used music by German tech-house label Circle to create an atmospheric study that captures the rush, euphoria and exhaustion as the days wear on. With melding images, surging energy and hypnotic rhythms, the film makes sly use of recorded sound in order to blur the boundaries of the natural and the supernatural until Aalto, a three-time champion, loses the race. Though ostensibly needed for a ‘non’-competition, the bloody bandages on the runner’s toes make clear the many paradoxes of the situation, some painfully, blissfully human.

Perhaps a failed utopia lies at the heart of Beatrice Gibson’s beguiling pseudo-thriller, The Tiger’s Mind. (Gibson’s Agatha was in competition last year.) A film-à-clef in-the-making delivered in the past tense, the film revives the titular (and seemingly impossible) score cum script written in 1976 by British experimental composer Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981), one of the major composers to have emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. Cardew’s radical inquiry into the social limitations of art and music is fitting subject matter for an artist whose focus has been on utterances and their challenges of representation. A hushed, sensual meeting of artistic minds, The Tiger’s Mind is heady, rapturous (in its 16mm cinematography and crystalline AMM score), an experiment in collective creation and notation, and not unlike Dutta’s film, composed of "remnants of a conversation" among six characters-artists-embodiments. The film’s open-circuitry, which snakes around the grounds of a hilltop modernist villa, emanates from sound frequencies, and revisits gruesome, unidentified photographs is momentarily halted by a spectacular shattering of ceramic tiger-a clarion call to the competition if ever there was one.

Andréa Picard is a Toronto-based film curator and writer. She is the Chief Curator of "Wavelengths", the Toronto International Film Festival’s celebrated avant-garde section, and a columnist for Cinema Scope magazine.