Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark is ostensibly a film about the 1976 Thammasat massacre, a historical tragedy in which university students protesting the return of an ousted dictator were met with brutal violence and death. Suwichakornpong explained after the film’s screening that the massacre is still taboo in Thailand – to this day it is not taught in school. Still, Suwichakornpong claims some sort of connection to the event; she did not have any direct experience, but she was born in the same year, and describes it as a sort of second-hand memory. This inexplicable connection is the foundation on which the rest of the film grows out of, spiralling into many complex parts which are not immediately understood in any logical sense of relational narrative.
Beginning with black-and-white images of military men with guns taking power over a warehouse of young people laid on the ground before them, this scene is soon redefined as voices reveal that the scene is either a photoshoot or film set. The next scenes introduce us to Ann, a sort of protagonist, as she interviews writer and activist Taew about her experience in 1976. Ann is a director, planning to make a film about Taew and the 1976 massacre, the two staying in an isolated home, most often shown in the process of interviewing. There are hints of what is to come in these scenes; the opening scene of soldiers has already introduced an element of narrative uncertainty, the interviews are filmed through a window so that the two women are behind a reflection of the exterior, and in one scene Ann says to Taew something like “I’m watching our reflection on the television. It’s beautiful.” This sort of reflective doubling will continue throughout, as the narrative becomes increasingly unhinged. Ann walks through the forest, sees a small child in an animal costume, follows her, and the child morphs into herself. A trippy sequence of mushrooms growing in nature and Melie’s A Trip to the Moon follows.
Soon other characters are introduced, including a young woman working different menial jobs and a young male actor, named Peter. Peter’s scenes continue the uncertainty of narrative levels introduced in the film’s first scene; it is often unclear whether this is Peter’s life at the basic reality of the film or within a meta-narrative of a film within the film. As the film progresses, the meditation on reflections, doubling, and unsettled realities form not a subtext, but the film’s text itself. The film isn’t not about the Thammasat massacre, but it uses that event and Suwichakornpong’s connection to ask larger questions about cinematic representation and experience. In the Q&A following the film, Suwichakornpong stated that the film is both her love letter to and critique of cinema. She gives us a complex view of the nature of film; it isn’t reality or unreality, but a reflection in which it is often difficult to tell what is true and illusory, the two often existing simultaneously.
The film’s constant radical narrative and formal breaks build towards the ultimate such moment at its conclusion. The young woman dances in a night club, electronic music pulsing, the editing cutting between different angles of her in the transcendent moment of the ecstatic crowd. Suddenly, a digital glitch breaks down the image and transforms the sound, the night club replaced by a peaceful green landscape. It’s the brilliant kind of film moment which is not simply explained, but wonderfully felt. The entire film is like this, offering a calm serenity to wash over the viewer while also demanding attentive reconsiderations of the spectator’s relation to the narrative.
- Nick Malbeuf
The second round of Atlantic Auteurs was an eclectic delight. From the poetic drifting of THE WIND THE WAY to kaleidoscopic lake drifting in Folded River, from the quiet days of doubt to the frenetic energy of When You Need a Helmet, HIFF screened some definite favourites in this mix. Here are a few highlights.
days of doubt (Solomon Nagler)
This black-and-white, beautifully shot short is striking. Without a word of dialogue, the visual language is rich with much represented both on and off camera. Moments of an elderly duo's daily routines are imbued with significance as each mundane task, from washing a body to a leather bag, is performed with a kind of watchful silence and dedication. The care of the familiar and the ominous tension of passing time coexist precariously in the spaces Nagler creates here. In response to a question about a wounded bird trapped in the cluttered house, he recalls an old superstition that sees such an event as an ill omen or a portent of death, a connection he only realized later, but is one that underscores the film's weight.
THE WIND THE WAY (Kira Daube)
When asked what brought about this film, Kira Daube's reply is that she notebooks a lot. “Notebook” is modest. Daube writes poetry that's inquisitive, introspective, and expansive. Close-ups of snails, tree trunks, and a face making faces play against the freewheeling, occasionally funny narration as it talks about wandering and wondering, acknowledging the privilege of getting lost or of losing things. Daube mentions her time in AFCOOP'S Expanded Cinema Summer residency, picking up a super-8 camera as a visual notebook to complement her paper equivalent. Her results with each medium fit each other snugly. Snail trails and Daube's thoughts make an endearingly intimate team. This is good stuff, folks.
Black Cop (Cory Bowles)
Armed with body cams and satire, Cory Bowles's Black Cop explores racism in the hands of law enforcement and the luxury of aggression that comes with being in the position of power. A radio talk show sets the context for the film as people call in to voice their opinions on the latest killing of a young black man at the hands of police. We ride along as the listener, who is both black and a law enforcer, goes from policing the local police to turning the tables on the most privileged portion of the population he is sworn to protect. The film's questions of the psychology of duality and the reversal of double standards will be further explored, presumably with the same steady satire, in a feature-length film of the same name. Bowles aims for smart provocation, so watch for it!
And When Alone, Repeat (Becka Barker)
What do you get when you give Robert Frost, a 9th grade choir, and weather balloon footage to animator Becka Barker? You get the rotoscoped And When Alone, Repeat and an interesting Q&A lesson in curmudgeonly poet feuds of yore. This five-minute animation takes its title from a line in Robert Frost's “Choose Something Like a Star” as the young choir performs a musical rendition of the same. Ostensibly, the words ask for the quantification of an experience that may not be easily quantifiable. Becka points out the misconception in the poem. Frost's star is simply a critique on the obscuring tendencies of the contemporary poets of his day, namely T.S. Eliot. Playing with obscuring and misconceptions, the animation morphs from one landscape to the next, not always clear what it will become even as it changes. Barker's animation turns footage gleaned for scientific research into something fluid and surreal.
Folded River (Alex Balkam)
Alex Balkam generously invites a theatre full of people to one of his childhood haunts on calm Nova Scotian waters. This is a place he says he keeps coming back to, noting the theme of returns. Appropriately to this idea, the film, shot on 16mm, is “folded” back on itself to create a kaleidoscopic effect, adding uncanny features to a familiar scene and creating what feels like a circular journey through the landscape. Folded River is only three minutes long and, while I could zone out to this for much longer, those three minutes neatly span from morning to dusk. There is nothing to break the film's continuous and curious sweep, making for three extremely relaxing minutes.
When You Need A Helmet (Tim Tracey)
Tim Tracey, the award-winning stop-motion animator, switches gears in a big way. His characters are created from reclaimed bits and bobs and are set loose in the cluttered shadows of a warm, dirty world that seems like a post-apocalyptic fever dream. A mechanical, lizard-like creature makes good with hitch-hikers, set to a score by DoubleTooth that complements the film's high energy. Any attempts to describe the feel of Tracey's work seems doomed to fall flat. When You Need a Helmet was one of the most enjoyably bizarre shorts of HIFF. I highly recommend checking out his other works at his site, timtraceyanimation.com.
- Rose Scoville