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Despite their central role in the histories of avant-garde and experimental cinema in Europe, and the undeniable importance of their monetary prizes to marginalized artists and filmmakers, film festival competitions remain an uneasy fit for artists’ moving image. However well-intentioned, they instrumentalize aesthetic judgement in submission to a neoliberal impulse that posits competitiveness as the engine of artistic quality and innovation. The various ways that these terms are defined is what distinguishes one festival from another, part of an organizational identity that functions more and more like a brand. Individual juries and jurors exert some influence on how artistic excellence is characterized, through recourse to subjective tastes, personal expertise, and reflections upon the currents of global politics and culture (and, always, discussion and consensus), but the product remains a kind of protection of a status quo. Sustainability and growth are as central to the administration of experimental film festivals as they are to any of the corporations like which they increasingly function.

And yet, competitions like the Ammodo Tiger Short Film Competition at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) remain a vital venue for the avant-garde and the experimental, drawing together work by artists and filmmakers of all styles and at all stages of their career—in this year’s edition of the competition, for instance, artists/filmmakers Laure Prouvost, Rosa Barba, and Ben Rivers competed alongside a number of recent graduates, including Tiger winner Dorian Jespers. What, then, does a competition like this represent in 2020? At this most recent moment in a long history of economic austerity and the defunding of art institutions and universities, perhaps IFFR’s corporate guise should be seen as something newly radical, albeit paradoxical: the economic safeguarding of art’s autonomy. A festival inside a festival, the short film competition (which plays out over the first four days of the eleven-day festival, concluding just as many of the film industry delegates arrive) carves out a space which benefits from the infrastructure of a major industrial film festival and market while often working explicitly against the cinematic codes and market imperatives that govern the feature film industry.

With space made elsewhere in the festival programme for the screening of shorts addressing the crisis of democracy in Hong Kong, the slate of films selected for this year’s competition reflected a turn away from overt political engagement and art-activism in favor of a return to the self as a productive site. Corporeality and embodiment, voice and gesture—these, rather than a witnessing or documenting, seem to have been the thematic responses to a year of frustration, anger, and hopelessness across the globe. This turn inwards by many of the artists and filmmakers selected for this year’s competition is reflective of a trend in artistic praxis that would reinvest the body and the subject with a political force channeled through artistic expression—a re-examination of the relation between the sensible and lived experience, an unsentimental restaging of the proposition of art as life.

Figure 1. A still from IsmaÏl Bahri's 'Apparition' (2019).
Figure 1. A still from IsmaÏl Bahri's 'Apparition' (2019).

One of the competition’s winners, Ismaïl Bahri’s Apparition, compresses some of these concerns into a three-minute video in which a pair of hands holds a photograph between the camera and an intense white light. The hands move behind the photograph, blocking the light and making its image visible: a crowd gathered on the streets of Tunisia on 20 March, 1956, the day the country gained its independence. In this poetic gesture, Bahri emphasizes not only the materiality of the image (a longtime concern of avant-garde filmmakers) but insists upon the necessity of the sense-making relation between the human and the image. The short video illustrates an important reciprocity between the photographic image and its viewer, with each, in a sense, producing the other. Photography as an index of the real may be a troubled notion, but, as the shadows of a hand paradoxically reveal the image here, Bahri refocuses upon the indexical relationship between human life and the images it produces. It is the recuperation of this relationship, rather than the one between the image and pro-filmic reality, that unites sense and sense-making in the materiality of the image and the artistic expression and labor of the artist. Whereas film- or image-making as a mode of witnessing tends to privilege an idealized optics, Bahri’s film poetically intertwines the representation of history with a necessary human corporeality, making sensible this relation of dependence. The human figures in the photograph are, in a sense, reanimated here, both through the formal qualities of the moving image, and through the way the image is rematerialized. The video’s title, Apparition, nods to this question of the entanglement of human life, sensory experience, and the materiality of images—the way things are brought to appear. The work, then, functions as a critique of the ways in which histories can be made to appear and disappear by the materializing structures which bear their images, but does so specifically by centering the haptic—the body and its sense of touch—as the site of this critique. That so much is revealed in such a short, seemingly simple film is testimony to the power of the moving image to communicate and critique when artists and filmmakers are most attentive to its unique form.

Another of the competition winners borrows more freely from the conventions of narrative cinema to create a similarly layered and complex work. Named for the phenomenon whereby the liquid in conjoined containers always returns to a balanced state, Maïder Fortuné and Annie MacDonell’s Communicating Vessels explores a fictionalized relationship between an art school outsider and her teacher, whose fascination with the student comes to reshape her own identity. The work is narrated by the teacher, who recounts her experiences with the student, E., the video artworks that she produces at the school, as well as a tangentially related account of her own mother’s participation in a study of the effects of psilocybin, a hallucinogen, on terminal cancer patients. She speaks into a webcam and, as she begins to deliver her monologue, face-swapping software subtly distorts and transforms the features of her face. From the outset of the work, then, the stability of her identity is thrown into question; she becomes a cipher, blurring the lines between (auto)fiction and lived experience, between actor and character, undermining these static constellations that underpin the legibility of narrative cinema. If many of the films shown at this year’s competition reflect a return to the self as a site of political critique and artistic expression, Fortuné and MacDonnel’s work shows that this is not the simple gesture it seems to be. Instead, by foregrounding the technologies of the self—here, both narrative/narration as well as the more literal face-swapping technology—the artists emphasize the fundamental instability of identity.

Extending this destabilization, the teacher describes a number of video artworks made by E. which are, in fact, re-enactments of classic performance art and video works. In one, the student films her hands as she creates a Mobius strip out of a folded piece of paper and cuts it down the middle with a pair of scissors, the paper ribbon seeming to infinitely accumulate as she works until it tapers away to nothing. The work is a recreation of Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s 1963 work Caminhando (Walking), originally intended to be experienced only by the individual performing the act. Here, in staging the work as a narrated film-within-a-film in which the lines between subjectivity, individuality, and experience are continually blurred, Fortuné and MacDonnel collapse the distinctions between original and copy, self and other, materiality and immateriality, and fiction and reality. Where Bahri’s Apparition proposes a dependency between body and image, Communicating Vessels makes the case that image, identity, and experience are mutually constitutive in a much more complex way. The linearity of the narration grounds the work in such a way that the flow of images and identities it describes remain coherent even as they shift; as with the concept of communicating vessels, there remains an inevitable balance between connected bodies, a communicative ebb and flow that itself gives form and purpose to the vessels that contain it.

Figure 2. A Still from Maïder Fortuné and Annie MacDonnel's  'Communicating Vessels' (2020)
Figure 2. A Still from Maïder Fortuné and Annie MacDonnel's 'Communicating Vessels' (2020)

‘Communicating Vessels’ is the name given to another of E.’s films, this one a recreation of a Dennis Oppenheim performance in which one girl draws upon the back of another, who in turn attempts to transfer the drawing onto a sheet of paper. The performance, and the film as a document of it, returns to the reciprocity between image and body, but here tests the limits of that relationship, and the limits of the communicating image in general, as we are shown the imperfections of this method of bodily transfer. Compounding this, the film-within-a-film is at moments presented as a superimposition of one instance of the performance over another. This doubling, an echo of the double images produced in the performance, results in neither shot being perfectly legible, and the communicative register of the film slides from document to something more reflexive and conceptual. Just as Bahri’s film displaces the documentary image through performance and recapture, Fortuné and MacDonnel trouble the conventions of narrative filmmaking to explore the imperfect ways in which (filmic) images communicate.

The third award winner, which was also awarded with IFFR’s nomination to the European Film Awards, was itself the graduate film of its young director, Dorian Jespers. Entitled Sun Dog, after the optical phenomenon where atmospheric ice crystals cause a second ‘sun’ to appear flanking the real sun, the film devotes its twenty-minute runtime to a portrait of a locksmith in the Russian city of Murmansk. The city’s arctic climate is surreally rendered as an oppressive force against which Fedor the locksmith works, dispassionate yet resolute. As with many ecologically-minded works, Sun Dog makes the landscape alien and unknowable or unendurable; here, this bleak outlook stands for the alienation and disillusionment of the film’s protagonist. Where Jespers’ film ultimately succeeds is in the reversal offered by the final scene, which sees Fedor address the viewer, inviting them to walk with him into the arctic tundra to see the eponymous sun dog, a phantasmic image that transforms this oppressive ‘other-world’ into something unknown but affirming. The strange sight of the double sunrise inspires a terrible sense of awe towards the world without denying the possibility of hope.

Figure 3. The final scene of Dorian Jespers' 'Sun Dog' (2020)
Figure 3. The final scene of Dorian Jespers' 'Sun Dog' (2020)

Where the other prize winners perhaps took a more reflexive approach to the relation of the moving image to the mediation of experience, turning indexicality, narrative, and the documentary mode against their conventional deployments, Jespers’ film explores a subtler relation between life and cinema in which the aesthetics of the moving image bleed into the experience of everyday life. As the jurors remarked, the work “captures the acute delirium of tedious work,” a delirium that finds expression not only in the actions of the protagonist, but in the idiosyncratic visual style Jespers developed in response to shooting in the extreme conditions of Murmansk. The resulting film explores the affective scope of filmic communication, developing an approach that strips the conventions of narrative and documentary cinema away to work sensorially upon the audience. Less interested in the use of the image in recording history or shaping identity, Jespers transmutes the experience of an extreme and hostile environment into a work not so much seen as sensed.

A sole special mention was reserved for 2019 Tiger Award winner Wong Ping, whose work Wong Ping’s Fables 2 continued the moral excoriation of hyper-capitalist society that saw its previous instalment take that festival’s top prize. In his visually distinctive and irreverent style, Wong’s work allegorizes aspects of Hong Kong’s social character, couching sharp critique in deliberately amateurish animation, with the result playing like a demented Saturday morning cartoon, a transgression of the pedagogical association of animation and morality tales. Completed prior to the eruption of civil unrest in Hong Kong in mid-2019, the work does not confront the issues of national sovereignty or political freedom as such, but does thematise the damage wrought by blind adherence to both market capitalism and state authoritarianism.

Hiding in plain sight, the Tiger Short Film Awards programmes draw a relatively small but consistent audience of students, critics, curators, artists, and academics, raising the question of what role the competition plays in the broader context of IFFR and contemporary cinema as a whole. The competition website boasts that short films “prove that filmmakers play with a whole range of cinematic forms and ideas”, offering a lofty though unspecific justification for its place in the festival that seems designed to convince stakeholders more than attract a wide audience. But, returning to the idea that the most radical thing the festival does is simply maintaining an economically viable space for the screening of artists’ moving image, perhaps a lack of definition (which is not a lack of identity) is something like a survival tactic. This year’s slate of winners lend credence to the cinematic range touted by IFFR; in recognizing works of extreme brevity, works by recent graduates, and ambitious works by well-established artists and filmmakers, the Tiger Award competition makes clear that, in the face of increasing economic, institutional, and governmental pressures, the act of recognition itself is a necessary gesture.

Author Biography

Arron Santry is a PhD student at Goldsmiths, University of London. His research addresses the relationship between digital technology and the moving image in contemporary art, with a focus on digital aesthetics and art’s resistance to digital control.