STAY AT HOME. That’s the best thing we can all do at the moment to try to reduce the exponential growth of the virus and #FlattenTheCurve. But staying at home means many different things to many different people.
Of course, one of the first places that many turn to is streaming films. As someone who watches movies for a living, I can offer the perspective of someone eminently qualified to recommend films you should watch to enrich your life, expand your aesthetic sensibilities, help you find escape and release through focusing on something outside of yourself. But, honestly, I’m having a tough time even watching films myself. I understand that peoples’ energies manifest differently—some clean the whole house from top to bottom while others stare at a wall for hours—but the constant deluge of information and uncertainty right now is stultifying.
That said, when Alison Scott and Rosie Roberts reached out to me, I welcomed the challenge to write specifically about some lesser-known works, many of which filmmakers (or distributors and institutions) have elected to open access to during this time. This feels generous, especially considering there doesn’t exist any easy-to-use, widespread platform that allows viewers to directly financially support filmmakers—arthouse, experimental or otherwise independent—through renting or buying their films outright. I hope in the post-virus period, we can think about supporting filmmakers and artists more directly, rather than relying on evil and greedy corporations like The Red N and The Big A, who don’t pump enough money back into the ecosystem of filmmakers beyond their own branded content.
Barbara Hammer, 1974, US, 4mins
Courtesy Company Gallery
Barbara Hammer’s Dyketactics remains a radical artistic and political statement, an unblushing look at female nudity and lesbian sexuality from the singular gaze of one of independent cinema’s most important voices. Viewing the film in the time of social distancing, I’m reminded of the importance of communality, sensuality and physical love, and of being in nature. The aesthetics of Hammer’s vision are today co-opted by influencers and fashion brands, but the astonishing clarity of vision with which she transmits an idyll of lesbian separatism—from within a time in which homosexual love was an actively dangerous public action—remains an enduring statement.
Lizzie Borden, 1986, US, 93mins
Courtesy Lizzie Borden
Lizzie Borden has shared her 1986 feature Working Girls with the message: ‘Please stay safe, especially sex workers.’ She describes the film as a ‘truer-than-fiction’ account of day in the life of Molly, a sex worker in a midtown Manhattan brothel. Considering Borden’s earlier features—the second-wave feminist experiment Regrouping (1976) and the legendary Born in Flames (1983), which provocatively imagines the United States as a women-led socialist democracy—Working Girls comes off as an incisive yet titillating critique of sexual labour within a capitalist society. Keep an eye out for a rare on-screen role by documentary trailblazer Richard Leacock.
INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls./]
Adam Khalil & Zack Khalil, 2016, US, 78mins
Courtesy Obsidian Coast
Obsidian Coast is a small art space in Bradford-on-Avon in the southwest of England. Its current exhibition, now closed, centres on artists Adam & Zack Khalil of the Ojibway nation, born in Michigan and based in Brooklyn. Despite the closure, the artists have allowed the gallery to host their 2016 documentary on its website. The film reimagines the Seven Fires Prophecy, an ancient Ojibway tale, relating the story of the tribe’s contact with European colonisers. INAATE/SE/ is by turns raucously humorous and full of invective as it recounts the transferral of ideas, traditions and trauma across generations.
Listen to Me
Carla Andrade, 2016, Spain, 7mins
Courtesy Carla Andrade/Novo Cinema Galego
Carla Andrade’s 2016 short film is a diptych of two differing moods. The first is in glimmering black and white: the sea reflects off the ground via multiple exposures, the textural base of celluloid film sparkles in full flower. The second half is exactly the opposite: slow, still, colourful and yet still transmitting the main thesis of the film, an examination and subversion of the roles and voices of women across societies. Andrade’s film forms part of 10 Years of New Galician Cinema, a showcase of works by diverse makers from the northwestern region of Spain.
Alexandra Cuesta, 2016, Ecuador, 66mins
Courtesy Alexandra Cuesta
Alexandra Cuesta’s brilliant documentary feature Territorio could perhaps be considered an auto-ethnography of the Ecuadorian artist’s home country. Free of narration, the film’s scenes unfold carefully at a gentle pace, with incidental dialogue and sparingly-used conversational interviews punctuating the diligent observational vignettes. Territorio is precisely the kind of film that I would most encourage others to watch at this moment. This incredibly strong work was shown at a number of international festivals, special screenings, and picked up some awards, but it’s the kind of work that feels a bit invisible within the current framework of cinema. It should appeal to a wide audience who are interested in new documentary forms, and the work confirms Alexandra Cuesta as a major talent. I’m excited to see what she will make next.
Jessica Beshir, 2017, Ethiopia/US/Mexico, 7mins
Hairat is a blindingly beautiful portrait of Yussuf Mume Saleh, an Ethiopian man living in the city of Harar who feeds a group of spotted hyenas every night. He has developed such a bond with these beautiful and dangerous creatures that he can even feed them chunks of meat from his own mouth. Mexican-Ethiopian director Jessica Beshir films Yussuf and the nocturnal creatures in near pitch black, with blinding lights picking up their dance and overlaid by an achingly beautiful poem from Harar-based writer Elias Shagiz Adonay Tesfaye. The film is one of over 300 that the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam has made available on their site.
Sky Hopinka, 2018, US, 11mins
Courtesy Sky Hopinka
‘Tell me again the story of you and the Xąwįska, and of how they came to be.’ Sky Hopinka’s Fainting Spells is a conversation sustained across moving images, text, sound and music, visual elements and atmospheric intangibilities. The densely-layered film invites contemplation and repeat viewing to gather its full meaning, which bends and accumulates through multiple rotations. Hopinka’s film is ‘an imagined myth for the Xąwįska’, an Indian Pipe Plant that was used to rouse people who had fainted. The hazy feeling of the film radiates warmth and electricity, not least through the gentle voice of Arlene Nofchissey Williams singing Go My Son in the opening sequence. Hopinka has made all of his short films available to view on his website.
Nihar + Subset live at Mutek SF
2019, US, 47mins
Courtesy Nihar + Subset. Photo by Jon Bauer via 48hills.org.
This isn’t a ‘film’ per se, rather a documentary of an audio-visual performance. Still, it takes inspiration from documentary, is more conceptually engaging than most films I’ve seen over the past while and is worthy of the same consideration as any of the works on this list. Nihar Bhatt is a producer and DJ based in San Francisco, where he runs a night called Surface Tension and a label called Left Hand Path. Subset is an artist who makes visuals to accompany live music. I think their description puts it best: ‘Concerned with global supply lines and the hidden costs of globalized labor, Nihar and Subset have been inspired by Rahul Jainʼs documentary Machines (2016), which chronicles the repetitive, back-breaking work that laborers endure in a textile factory in Gujarat, India. Both music and visuals mirror the contradictory nature of the textile factory floor—harsh bodily discipline and uniformity exist along the delicate and colorful clothing products. Together, they create a show that immerses and confronts, flirting with but never wholly converting to the established canon of danceable rhythms.’
Tuomas A. Laitinen, 2019, Finland, 8mins
Haemocyanin is a lovely film but it might seem a bit easy: filming an octopus in Ultra HD will probably be interesting no matter what. However, Tuomas A. Laitinen’s interventions—imagining the creature’s delicate, sinewy corpus as a conduit for digital drawings and glyphs—provide enticing and satisfying augmentations. The conversation between the artist and Vdrome curator Filipa Ramos, an expert writer and thinker on animals and art, expands on the work’s wider meanings and implications.
Tanoa Sasraku, 2019, UK, 14mins
Courtesy of LUX/Tanoa Sasraku
LUX’s current exhibition of London-based artist Tanoa Sasraku has also been cancelled, though it’s now made the artist’s two films available on the LUX website. Which is excellent because O’ Pierrot is one of the most exciting works I’ve seen in the past year. Created as part of The New Flesh Artists’ Residency, the film’s costumes, props and sets lead in a reinvigoration of Kenneth Anger’s Rabbit’s Moon (1950). The fairytale narrative centres on Pierrot Mulatto (played by the artist), allegorising the barriers to British identity for someone of her lesbian and mixed-race position.
Herb Shellenberger is a film programmer and writer originally from Philadelphia and based in London. He is Programmer of the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival, where he has worked since 2016, and Editor of Rep Cinema International, a newsletter on repertory and archival film programming around the world.