Seen and Unseen: The Films of Marie Louise Alemann

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MADDY: The pleasure of discovery is always dampened when you realize that what you’ve discovered was dismissed from the canon in the first place. Such is almost always the case with female experimental filmmakers, as if the initial medium weren’t niche enough. Luckily, Emily and I had to chance to watch a screening of the films of Argentinian filmmaker Marie Louise Alemann. A significant figure in the Argentinian experimental film scene of the 1970s and 1980s, she is all but unheard of here in North America. Shifting between documenting happenings with her fellow artists Narcisa Hirsch, Claudio Caldini, and others, Butoh performance, criticisms of the dictatorship, and razor sharp depictions of female experience, the handful of Alemann’s films we saw were of a considerable talent. What really struck me was how each of her films were so different from each other, and yet they still made up a consistent whole. The programmer, Federico Windhausen, lamented after the screening that they were not in the order he wanted, but still managed to work. Because of this I made some assumptions about the work – who she collaborated with, how the collaborations worked, when she made it, what her focus was, etc., only to realize that they probably weren’t the right assumptions to make.

EMILY: Yes, one thing I really loved about the scrambled order was that it confused those assumptions. Windhausen mentioned in his introductory remarks that many of the films Alemann directed were filmed by her friends and collaborators, such as Claudio Caldini and Narcisa Hirsch, presumably because so much of Alemann’s work draws on her own embodiment and performance. The last film that we ended up seeing was an untitled one by Juan Jose Mugni, which the program notes inform us was made as a “tribute to Alemann’s face, which she sought to use as an enigmatic and multi-purpose mask in many of her films.” To me this film so clearly showed how Alemann was in control of its image of herself. It did not seem to me to be a series of passive representations of her (something we have been taught to expect in a structure of film production organized around the objectification of women) but rather a vital creative act she directed.* It was to this power that Mugni paid tribute. Maybe I especially liked this because it brought together the site at which I am habitually restricted to searching for women’s creative power in film (the female performance as both enabled and constrained by the conditions of film production) and a host of radical possibilites for that power in an experimental space of collaboration, through which film is given direction and force from both behind and in front of the camera.

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*To direct (per the Oxford English Dictionary)
To write (a letter or message) expressly to.
To address (spoken words) to any one; to utter (speech) so that it may directly reach a person.
To impart, communicate expressly, give in charge to a person.
To keep in right order; to regulate, control, govern the actions of.
To give authoritative instructions to; to ordain, order, or appoint (a person) to do a thing, (a thing) to be done.
To supervise and control the making of a film or the production of a play, etc.; to guide or train (an actor, etc.) in his performance.

How interesting that in the contemporary and classical film industry “direction” is about organizing objects, people, images in ways that collect at the authoritative end of this spectrum of control (think Griffith with his megaphone or, my favourite, Abel Gance directing with a revolver–images of masculine power) while the sense of communication–direction in service of transmitting a message to someone–is subdued, even though that is ostensibly the point of making a movie. Even in movies she does not “direct,” Alemann’s (silent) face and body still direct messages to the viewer and so send viewers in particular directions. Alemann’s wider artistic practice disrupted film direction’s model of gendered authority in other ways, too. I loved the story Windhausen told about how she would teach all of the housewives she met on the beach during her summer vacations how to use their super 8 cameras: she acted as a mentor for films and directors not recognized as “real” films or directors.

MADDY: The close-up of a woman’s face is one of those key cinematic images that just keeps recurring (lately it seems to be thriving in music videos). I’m reminded of early cinema, and Munsterberg’s writings on the close-up. Generally a close-up is a shot that’s used to direct and focus the viewer’s attention on one spot, but is still tied up in ideas of truth and authenticity. If we see the close-up on the face, there is nothing that can hide from us, and there’s the impression that we’re seeing some kind of truth here. But Alemann is much too smart for that. Her close-ups are interspersed with filters (which she controls), paint dripping, and other means of distortion. The rapid cuts, instead of a long take (as is the norm with the close up of the female face) also challenge any passive looking, or any chance of suture. As you’ve said so well already, she is not an object of our gaze, but rather a very stark reminder of who is in control of what we are watching, and by extension how we understand it.

Not to be a gender essentialist, but this feels like a very female understanding of the world. It’s a fact at this point that by constantly being considered objects to be looked at, first and foremost, women’s humanity has become secondary. To take on a project where what one sees is clearly constructed, and constantly being altered, is a very clear challenge to those norms. She has a similar project in Autobiografico 2 (1974), with her face spray painted silver and her body tied up to trees with a coarse rope. There are rapid cuts here as well, but here they slowly reveal information, for example, that she is tied up to trees is only gradually shown to the audience. The initial shots are of her face, and then parts of her body, and then the trees tied up with parts of the rope. As the cuts show more and more, the rope begins to untie itself, and eventually it becomes completely untied. The rapid cutting loosens the ropes that bind her, and also gives and takes from the audience. The pleasure of seeing is postponed, and when we are finally able to see “the whole picture” of her entrapment, she is freed. Though Alemann is tied up, she is control of the camera, and by extension in control of her own experience.

self defense

EMILY: This interplay between performance, direction, and the camera is important in all of the work that we saw from Alemann but I’m thinking of it right now particularly in the context of Legitima defensa (Self-defense, 1980), which was my favourite of all of the films shown that night. In this black and white short, the camera slowly follows Alemann as she circles around a room in an indeterminate location. Alemann’s hair is hidden beneath a white cap and her face is covered with white paint. She confronts the camera with aggressive facial expressions (smiles? grimaces? threats?) and holds a long wooden staff at the ready, presumably for attack. The soundtrack is screams and groans – at least I think so. All I remember is being profoundly unsettled. I loved this movie, first of all, because the intensity of Alemann’s performance in it gave me literal goosebumps. As well, the film was such an incredible exploration of the relationship between the camera and its subject. The camera follows Alemann around, documenting her–this surveillance evoking at once the traditional position of women as the object of the camera’s gaze and the specific political context of Alemann’s life under a repressive and violent dictatorship in Argentina during the Dirty War. In this film Alemann flips the experience of being watched. Her eyes never leave the camera and never blink. With the staff in her hand she could easily break the lens but doesn’t, and the camera follows her direction as it is forced to keep this danger in its sight. She controls its movement. She is flagrantly visible and will not be disappeared, but even though her face is the camera’s obsessive focus it cannot be deciphered under her layers of paint and performance. It was so interesting to see this film in juxtaposition with Sensasion 77: Mimetismo (Sensation 77: Mimicry, 1977) which is about hiding from sight/the camera.

MADDY: I remember being so struck by her eyes in Self-Defense. Wide-open and aggressive, a stark contrast to her white face. She circles around the room challenging the camera, and at times is clearly seen, but against some walls she almost disappears. Still, her eyes remain. Which I think is the key element to both of her explicitly political works: When a corrupt government tries to disappear its subjects, nothing can truly be disappeared. Something always remains, whether it be the person or the actions of the government. In Sensasion 77 Alemann is trying to disguise herself amongst foliage, but also failing. For me, to film someone trying to hide, is a very conscious decision that is inherently critical. I’m trying to hide, but I’m filming it, so there will always be a record of this act. So it is a false hiding, or rather, hiding to show something else.

Windhausen mentioned that Alemann’s group was visited by the fascist government over concerns of subversive works, and after watching these films the artists were left to continue as they were. He noted that the government was afraid of militant works, those that would inspire an uprising. These works, though deeply subversive and critical, weren’t about challenging the government. They’re more insidious, more intelligent. I can see why they weren’t arrested over them, but I think that’s their merit. They’re more about life under dictatorship, the everyday quality of fear and desperation. But both are radical challenges, both in what they depict, and in their very existence.

And I think a woman depicting her everyday existence, under any form of oppression, is inherently radical.

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Fireworks (Archives): Impressions

Madeleine Wall: After some time, I’m quite certain the best thing I saw at TIFF was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s installation Fireworks (Archives). I saw a lot, and, to be honest, too much, but this was the only piece that I was excited by.

After being told by the ticket vendor that it was “very dark, very scary, and that people are going to get hurt,” I met up with Maddie, and knowing only that warning, entered the installation. The vendor wasn’t wrong — we had trouble orienting ourselves in the space, and only after some time did we realize there were chairs, and that they already had people in them. This difficulty in situating ourselves didn’t change in regard to the video piece. An inaccurate summary of it would be a man and a woman wander around a statue garden, which is sporadically illuminated by fireworks or the flash of a camera. The subjects, whether the moving people or the many statues, are only ever seen briefly and partially by these lights, and the sound of fireworks turns into the sound of gunfire.

For me, this piece is very much engaged with the sleight of hand that is inherent to cinema. We believe, when watching a film, we can see it all, that we are presented with an authentic, as close to reality as possible, picture, and that sound functions to reinforce that illusion of reality. In actuality, light, darkness and sound are three separate parts that work together, in ways that are not perceptible to the human eye, to create the illusion of the moving picture. Light becomes something we take for granted, and we trust in its abilities completely.

Here, on the other hand, the light only partially illuminates, and is meant to function as such. Fireworks are a spectacle, meant to distract rather than illuminate. The flash of the camera and the click of its shutter only provides a brief glimpse of what is going on, and the image it takes the audience does not see. It is a film of mostly darkness, with the light adding to the disorientation rather than clarity. When we see fireworks going off as they should, there is silence, and the sound we expect is replaced with gunfire, but at times it is difficult to tell the difference.

On a technical and aesthetic level I loved it, but lacking any context, I knew this was (pun not intended but I’m keeping it) only part of the picture. The statues in the garden were such a mishmash of figures that its reason for existence remained unclear. If this is an archive with gunfire, there’s a history and politics here that I’m missing.

Madeleine Lee: A few hours before I met Maddy, I went a few floors down from where Fireworks (Archives) was playing to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul in conversation with critic Dennis Lim, where they discussed both Fireworks and Apichatpong’s new film, Cemetery of Splendour. I hadn’t yet seen Fireworks in motion, so my initial contact with it was the opposite of Maddy’s — I only had the context.

Fireworks (Archives) is an offshoot of Cemetery of Splendour in that both works were shot in the northeast of Thailand, the area where Apichatpong was born, and the two actors who appear in Fireworks are also the main actors in Cemetery of Splendour, more or less as they appear in the full-length feature. The major context of Fireworks, however, is the location: the Sala Keoku Temple, founded by a handsome, charismatic mystic who had fled from Laos and established himself as a guru of sorts back in Thailand. He covered the walls of the temple with his portrait, and designed all of the sculptures in its garden. The sculptures draw on images from multiple religions (including Buddhism and Hinduism) as well as contemporary culture, giving them a primal, pantheistic look.

Apichatpong also explained that the northeast of Thailand has been traditionally a marginal area of the country both economically and politically. An audience member who had seen the piece asked about the photographs of people that are shown at the beginning and end of the film without commentary or labels. The filmmaker identified them as people who had been executed in uprisings against the government. He had included their images in the work so that they wouldn’t be forgotten. Given all this context, I couldn’t help but come to Fireworks already viewing it as a heavily political and intellectual work.

At the same time, I kept thinking of one of my favourite moments in the Q&A session earlier: An audience member had asked Apichatpong about his intent in using black and white versus colour in a different short film, and what kind of statement he was trying to make by choosing one or the other (for instance, evoking a certain sense of time). The filmmaker’s response was, “I choose according to what looks right to me” – not an evasive answer, just a simple one.

From its historical context alone, Fireworks is a political work. But it is also a very visually and aurally striking one, and by its creator’s own admission born as much of experiments with capturing different sources of light on camera as it was of historical research into the location. In Fireworks, the political and the aesthetic are not two different layers or different readings of the piece, because both are located in one place, in one person: the work’s creator, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. If Fireworks has a political viewpoint, it is the political viewpoint he expresses; if it has aesthetic value, it is the value of the creator’s instinctive choices, “what looks right” to him. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his aesthetic choices are subconsciously informed by his politics, because he is the one person making both decisions. And I don’t think it’s much more of a stretch to say that his taste for formal experimentation and fascination with the images found at the Sala Keoku Temple might come from a similar place as his political leanings.

MW: It’s interesting, because without the context I assumed that the photos of the men were those of the perpetrators. There is an overwhelming sense that something is not right in this garden, and beginning the film with the photos of men does alert one to some historical event. (Though since we walked in half way through the film, we didn’t see their photos until the end, so our time line was off, or at least mine was.)

I suppose it was a kind of Act of Killing syndrome, where I assumed the only evidence we have of any crime in the non Western world is only of the perpetrator, and most certainly they were not punished. Here, these men become part of this archive, and though what happened is never explicitly stated, we still understand it, predominantly because of the aesthetic/political alignment you were talking about.

ML: I think your initial impulse raises an interesting point, which is that despite designating this work as “Archives”, the photos are not labelled, and there’s no designation given to the exact location within the work itself. In the Q&A, his insistence that his purely aesthetic choices be recognized as such also leaves them open for alternative interpretations (or shuts out the possibility, depending on how much authorial intent matters to you).

I think the ambiguous identities of the people in the work for anyone unfamiliar with them works into the overall theme of ambiguity in the piece that you mentioned in your initial impression — the firework noises that become gunshots, the parallel drawn between the flash of a camera and the lights given off by fireworks, the part where the two actors hold hands and are conflated with a statue in the temple of two skeletons holding hands. Even just the fact of all the lighting being done by a single source in each shot confuses the concept of an archive: rather than preserving these things in their whole form, only their impression is preserved, if that makes any sense. I think this plays into the photography as well, then: the people in the photographs are presented not with biographies and history, but only as impressions.

The artist’s statement is here:
fireworks (Archives) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul