Thursday, February 2, 2012

BEFF6: An Escalator in World Order

Held every other year or so, or just whenever the eclectic group of film scholars, art curators, critics and filmmakers get around to it, the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival's theme for its sixth edition is "Raiding the Archives", and its focus is on finding new contexts for archival material, especially home movies and old footage.

Last Saturday's opening program, An Escalator in World Order, perfectly encapsulated that aim. Directed by Kim Kyung-man, the South Korean documentary was a remix of South Korean propaganda films and newsreel footage in which leaders pour on the vitriol that's just as staggeringly potent as anything cooked up by their Northern counterparts or by the Soviet Union at its height.

There's marching bands, processions of missile launchers and visits by U.S. presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Religious leaders take the pulpit to invoke the United States as South Korea's higher power, and only the might of the U.S. military can possibly protect the nation from the hell that is north of the 38th Parallel.

It's a perverted, twisted message – a wicked blend of Korean traditional culture and old-timey "America, fuck yeah" patriotism that could have only been created by the Statue of Liberty eating kimchi and then puking. It would have played nicely alongside Team America: World Police and Robert Altman's MASH.

Escalator, an audience-award winner at last year's Jeonju International Film Festival, was preceded by Ghosts in the Classroom by Ukrit Sa-nguanhai, which is a weirdly looping 2-minute short showing a bizarre discipline practice in a Thai schoolroom.

"History of Thai Experimenta 1" sampled Thai experimental films from several eras, going as far back as 1985 with Dome Sukwong's Nang Sod to last year's Cutter, Trimmer and Chainsaw by Pathompon Tesprateep. The program aimed to be "a historical ... arrangement of collected materials, where special memories dwell, magically brought alive." The highlight was an early effort by Panu Aree, 2000's Once Upon a Time, in which he used home-movie footage filmed by his father of the family's visit long-gone Dan Niramit amusement park and combined it with voice-over interviews of people remembering the place. It was mixed in with a bunch of highly experimental works like Boring Blinker by Surabongse Binichkhah (1985), that were flashing lights, blurry images and rushing sound that all seemed to coalesce into one mind-numbing work for a stylistic overload that wouldn't have been out of place in a Tony Scott action movie.

Nguyen Trinh Thi was present with some of her Hanoi DOCLAB team to present three short- and medium-length documentaries. A Soldier's Song Sample Experiment took an old Vietnamese social realism war movie and laid over new audio. Chronicle of a Tape Recorded Over is a road movie inspired by Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon, in which Thi travelled the Ho Chi Minh Trail asking people to tell stories. At one point she and her camera crew are detained by officials, but the camera keeps rolling, capturing the bureaucrat as Thi tries to pin him down on the differences between tourists shooting video and what she's doing. The third entry in the program was Hard Rails Across a Gentle River, a four-segment package of short documentaries of life around a railroad bridge and riverbank neighborhood. They'll also be showing a selection of other films at the Lifescapes festival this week in Chiang Mai.

Sunday's program opened with "Now You See It", "adventures in perception and a timely return to the politics of looking". The varied program made things interesting. Blur Luminous by Taweewit Kijtanasoonthorn looked at the world through an oddly refracted lens so that everyday scenes became geometric patterns. UK director Jessica Mautner's Phi used footage of the Greek riots with "puff, puff, puff" sound effects coming from her lips. Re-banho (Wash Herd) by Tales Frey had a half dozen men and women performing an odd washing ritual, fully clothed in front of a church. 724 14th St by Taiwan's Ching Yi Tseng was Super 8 footage shot a few years ago in San Francisco and is a memory of the streetcars and other sights from that address. The Big Picture by Suporn Shoosongdej has Siamese fighting fish and other images from "a broken record called Thainess [that] goes round and round and round and round." Coms Device by Nadav Assor has an actress performing an Israeli soldier's monologue about using a backpack radio transmitter as a "scanning device" to relieve boredom by messing with Palestinians passing through a checkpoint. The image is the actress reflected in the cameraperson's eye. And Pulsation by Pieter Geenen captures the last 14 minutes and 30 seconds of a night from the Greek side of Cyprus, looking to an opposite mountain, where a giant lighted Turkish Cypriot flag flashes on and off throughout the night. And that must be galling to folks trying to sleep on the Greek side.

"Women on the Move, Men at Home" was a program of home movies with talks by experts, beginning with clips by amateur female filmmakers in New Zealand of the 1920s and '30s, curated by the late Kathy Dudding of the New Zealand Film Archive and presented Mark Williams. The "Men at Home" portion was home movies from Taiwan and Singapore in the 1960s. Presented by George Clark, Zhuang Ling's works captured his wife's pregnancy and the newborn baby. Richard MacDonald was tasked with finding home movies in Singapore and Malaysia. From the National Archives of Singapore came films by Charles Ong of his son's 6th, 8th and 10th birthday parties. But sadly in Malaysia, no one seemed to understand the concept of home movies, or least the concept of archiving them.

The Singaporean birthday parties were complemented nicely in the next program, "Was Here, Was Now" in The Impossibility of Knowing by Tan Pin Pin, who captures old spaces in rapidly changing Singapore. The program, which sought to capture "cinematic acts of remembrance in the land of the victors’ amnesia", began with Untitled #1 from the series Eight Men Lived in the Room by Hyewon Kwon in which 45-seconds of newsreel footage of a Korean factory workers dorm is replayed several times, each time with different narration, telling the story of the building from its triumphant opening, to an accidental death, a fugitive hiding there and its eventual decay and demolition. It's surprising how effective and entertaining it was, even though the same footage is repeated a half-dozen times or so. Sutadi Ain’t Here Anymore by Marthen Luther Sesa chronicles the filmmaker's fruitless search for a bicycle taxi driver named Sutadi. And who knows, maybe Sutadi never existed. OZ@1950 by Dirk De Bruyn harks back to the "white Australia" era with hilariously remixed and zoomed newsreel footage of a speech about what defines the "new Australian". A Brief History of Memory by Chulayarnnon Siriphol recalls the April 2009 "Black Songkran" in which red-shirt political protests turned violent, and one woman lost her son. It was an award-winner at last year's Thai Short Film and Video Festival. And Lay Claim to an Island by Chris Kennedy remembers the 1969 American Indian occupation of San Francisco's Alcatraz.

Last Sunday's closing program was a pair of works from LUX, the London-based artists' cinema agency. New It New John by Duncan Campbell is a look back at John Z. DeLorean and the founding of his company in Northern Island to make his iconic stainless-steel sports cars. News footage chronicles the story of of DeLorean's Pontiac GTO musclecar, the oil embargo that ended that gas-guzzling era and then the promise of the 1980s, only to be followed by financial troubles. It ends with befuddled and contentious union auto workers who've occupied the shuttered DeLorean factory being interviewed, and one by one they trickle away from the camera. Sack Barrow by Ben Rivers is footage from some old factory. Not even sure what they do there, but it involves strange liquids, all in an dilapidated and decaying facility.

BEFF6 continues this week, with programs at the Goethe-Institut and the Jim Thompson Art Center's William Warren Library. This Saturday, the festival is back at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, starting at noon with "History of Thai Experimenta 2" – home movies collected at the Thai Film Archive. Another program on Saturday, "Poetics of Longing", features shorts by the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (his debut student short 0016643225059) and Wichanon Sumumjarn (Four Boys, White Whiskey and Grilled Mouse). A highlight on Saturday is the Thai premiere of World Without End, a 1953 documentary, partly shot here by experimental filmmaker Basil Wright. That's at 6.15. The closing day on Sunday starts at noon, and among the highlights are "From Experimenta India", "Hong Kong Bohemia" and "KLEX @ BEFF6", featuring selections from the Kuala Lumpur Experiental Film and Video Festival. Click the link for the full schedule.

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