Pilgrims and Progress: CurtoCircuíto 2015 (for Tribune)

Published on: November 12th, 2015

No city on the planet welcomes pedestrians like Santiago de Compostela, the north-west-Spain city whose mega-cathedral concludes the most famous Christian pilgrimage-route. More than 200,000 footsore—but nowadays increasingly well-heeled—walkers arrive in this steadily prospering capital of semi-autonomous Galicia each year, completing a ‘camino‘ that usually involves hundreds of miles of rural ambulation. Their reward: the superbly well-preserved old-town, whose mossily damp, granite-walled, rain-soaked and labyrinthine medieval streets are seldom penetrated by road-vehicles.

But riders of Shanks’s Pony don’t quite have it all their own way here. Any walker using the main light-controlled crossing on the Rúa da Fonte de Santo Antonio—where it meets the Rúa de Horreo on the old-town’s southern fringe—is temporarily but firmly relegated to second-class status. A scuttling, behatted green-LED man shows for 16 seconds, but then his immobile red counterpart holds sway for a patience-taxing 105—at a junction whose layout discourages potential jaywalkers.

Other crossings here are set to kinder sequences, but at least the Antonio/Horreo one allows its users—believers and skeptics alike—to gaze across the tarmac at their fellow humans, pondering the mysteries of existence, providence and urban planning.

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And an awful lot can happen in 105 seconds, which is the exact running-time of one of the decade’s great films: sound of a million insects, light of a thousand stars by Tomonari Nishikawa. Appropriate then that “soamiloats“, was one of two main prize-winners at the 12th ‘CurtoCircuíto—Festival International de Cine‘ (CC), held in Santiago between October 6th-11th.

The long-standing commitment of CurtoCircuíto—”short circuit”—to experimenta is proven by the fact that €3,000 is the booty in both the ‘Explora’ section (avant-garde) and the ‘Radar’ strand (narrative-based), both competitions being restricted to productions from 2014/5 of 30 minutes or less.

As he explains in a dry on-screen caption that ends the film, the Nagoya-born Nishikawa—who now teaches at Binghamton University in New York State—buried 100 feet of 35mm film overnight under roadside leaves 15 miles from the ruins of the Fukushima nuclear power-station. Despite official reassurances that the area is now safe for residents to return a few years after 2011’s disastrous events, the result is testament to the enduring effects of radiation.

soamiloats

The (digital) image is a jagged succession of pulsating, oceanic blues, enlivened with myriad scratches and distortions. soamiloats is aesthetically dazzling in its beauty, but stands as a quietly but unflinchingly accusatory political document. It’s also been blessed with that terrific all-minuscule title—the shorter the film, the more important the label—that bestows additional layers of cosmic poetry.

soamiloats‘ ten-word moniker notwithstanding, when it comes to short films—particularly at the more experimental end of the spectrum—brevity often points to quality. Firmly established as a “name” within the avant-garde community, Nishikawa has made 16 “pieces” since his 2002 debut, and only one of them—2010’s ten-minute Shibuya-Tokyo—runs longer than six minutes. His commitment to the form is thus as evident as his mastery of it.

But while in literature the concept of the brilliant miniaturist is well-established—nobody reckons Carver or Borges the lesser artist for never having written novels—cinema’s structures have long tended to sideline those who eschew conventional feature lengths.

soamiloats was by more than a minute the shortest of the 21 Explora candidates, a section whose other outstanding entries were those which operated with sufficient concision that they never threatened to outstay their welcome—shorts are bundled together in public projections, so the viewer’s impatience at stinkers is sharpened by the knowledge that something better may be next up.

Tehran-geles

In Tehran-Geles, Arash Nassiri sails close to the wind in terms of duration: indeed, he exceedes by two whole minutes the 16-minute average of all 50 films in CC’s three competitive sections. But the Paris-based artist’s concept is sufficiently bold to carry the burden of “excessive” length. He reappropriates stock helicopter footage of Los Angeles at night—these sequences look like heart-quickeningly glacial Michael Mann outtakes. We hear rough-audio extracts from telephone conversations about Tehran and its revolutions, and then gradually the familiar Downtown skyscrapers start to display gigantic advertisements and slogans in cursive Farsi script.

The Californian city thus blurs gracefully and imperceptibly into what is in theory its polar opposite–as signalled by the clunking pun of that dreadful title. None of the six longer Explora candidates (one of 19 minutes, four of 23, one of 26) managed to justify their relative longueurs, the tendency of certain film-makers to equate duration with profundity being just as marked among shorts as it is among features.

Deborah Stratman has produced several mid-length works over the course of her 26-year career, with one or two even breaking the hour barrier. But in the present decade the longest she’s gone is 15 minutes (Hacked Circuit [2014], a sly tribute to Coppola’s The Conversation). Her Second Sighted is a brisk found-footage collage whose quickness—it’s over in less than five minutes—is as economic as it is enigmatic; multiple interpretations are invited, but one detects ominous warnings about climate-change’s catastrophic potential.

The Reflection of Power

Johann Lurf’s ten-minute Embargo, meanwhile, is a technically complex but superficially simple exterior survey of blank-looking Austrian defence-technology plants in which the camera slowly dollies along the X-axis, moving closer to its subjects while simultaneously zooming out (or is it the other way around?) for a 3D-via-2D effect. The austerity of the image is counter-intuitively counterpointed by incessant, pullulating, bubbling electronica—part video-game, part juke-box—that represents a particularly risky but inspired creative gambit. Lurf trades rewardingly upon the enigma, implication and ambiguity that is the avant-garde film-maker’s stock in trade. But sometimes the gloves come off—as in The Reflection of Power by Romania’s Mihai Grecú, who was eight years old when Nicolae Ceaușescu met his grisly Christmas Day fate.

Evidently drawing on his experience of totalitarianism and its aftermath, Grecú now over nine transcendent minutes conjures hallucinatory visions of contemporary North Korea threatened by rising ocean-levels, via technically remarkable images that convey a puckish but violently nose-tweaking contempt towards the Kim dynasty’s delusions of permanence. Among its other achievements, The Reflection of Power also manages to be several times more “Ballardian” than 2015’s big J G Ballard adaptation, Ben Wheatley’s wretched misfire High-Rise, at less than a twelfth of the length and an even tinier fraction of the budget.

Neil Young
15th October, 2015
written for
Tribune magazine

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