JANUARY 26, 2016
I FIRST SAW Caroline Monnet’s IKWÉ (2009) while on staff at the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival several years ago, but seeing it in October at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (FNC) in Montreal recalled me to the space and time of my original viewing. Still, the lapse of nearly a half-decade between screenings also made the film — and my initial viewing of it — feel new again. This notion of making the past correlative with the present, or co-present, is at the heart of Monnet’s film, a reflection on how the filmmaker’s own body is a reservoir of indigenous history, ancestral wisdom, and ancient forces of nature. Such blending of past and present is also key to understanding the sense of nostalgia that haloes FNC, which usually includes over 50 retrospectives in its roster of about 350 films.
IKWÉ is one of these retrospectives, an experimental, hypnotic study of the body’s intertwinement with the lunar tides. Its loose narrative progressively animates the motionless form of Ikwé (“woman” in Ojibwe), a singular figure who reveals the multiplicity of her identity in the film’s final scene.
Ikwé opens the film in the fetal position, but as light from the moon projects the shadows of undulating waves onto her skin, her past becomes embodied in the present. By the final sequence, Ikwé is in constant motion: her silhouette is superimposed onto itself a dozen times, the specters of other figures rippling behind it as in a house of mirrors. At first, each silhouette performs its own movements, until eventually they sync up with one another.
The shot suggests an overlapping temporality, and a fluidity between Ikwé’s present form and the physical bodies of the women who came before her. This convergence is further accentuated by the film’s voiceover, through which Monnet offers the immediacy of the recorded event while simultaneously coloring these events with her later impressions of them.
Monnet, who grew up in Aylmer, Québec, reflects the experimental and forward-looking spirit of FNC. She is certainly an emerging filmmaker to watch. Remarkably, IKWÉ was her first foray into filmmaking; her more recent works — particularly The Black Case (which premiered at FNC 2014) and Roberta (2014) — also reflect how her First Nations ancestry resonates in the present. Monnet’s newest short film, Mobilize, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and will have its US premiere at Sundance in 2016. She will shoot her first feature in 2017. No doubt she has a bright future.
But it is a future that, like Ikwé’s many bodies, is rooted in an indigenous past that FNC celebrates. Through retrospectives like IKWÉ, FNC 2015 demonstrated how, through selecting films and cataloging their order of exhibition, festival programmers become archivists of contemporary national cinema, fixing that which is only just emerging into our cultural consciousness. Archiving the new immediately historicizes it, which means that film festivals inevitably become spaces for nostalgia — even when they’re firmly facing forward.
Nostalgia, a Greek compound of nóstos (“homecoming”) and álgos (“pain,” “ache”), was also the dominant affect of Paria, Omar Elhamy’s short film about a small-town New Brunswick fisherman coming to terms with leaving his birthplace. Extended scenes of open-shutter shooting rendered the film a study of duration, and what it meant to stay for a while within the feeling of reflective longing that the film embodied. When the film ended, I wished it were just a little longer — not that it felt unresolved. Rather, it invoked a bittersweet nostalgia that made me yearn to be back at my own rural home, nestled on the east coast of Newfoundland.
A similar yearning also permeated Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Sparrows, about an adolescent boy, Ari (Atli Oskar Fjalarsson), forced to return to his rural hometown in Iceland’s Westfjords to live with his deadbeat father, Gunnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson). But while the longing in Paria was bittersweet, Sparrows’s nostalgia was all pain and no pleasure. The film might sound like your standard coming-of-ager, but its story and characters, which are absorbed into a chiaroscuro of stark mountain scenery, cold dark waters, and wind-beaten family dwellings, made it anything but. Coming-of-age is about imagining a way forward, or a way out, but in Sparrows life has begun to stand still. Empty bottles litter every table, and the sun literally never sets.
Sparrows is punctuated by a glacial slowness, and the restraint of cinematographer Sophia Olsson’s static camera is twin to the minimalism of the acting. Fjalarsson’s spare emotional performance reflects that, for the first two-thirds of the film, there just aren’t many moments to get excited about. This aesthetic mirrors the ethos of Westfjords, which in the film is regressing into a dangerous culture of misogyny. The characters can’t decide where they stand on masculinity: Ari’s grandmother tells him that Gunnar’s macho bullshit is “his handicap” but later in the film tells him to “man up.”
Like the lives of the characters in Sparrows, this model of masculinity is going nowhere, something that becomes painfully obvious when Ari makes the ugly decision that becomes the shocking turning point of the film. After taking Ketamine at a party with his girlfriend Lára, he slowly comes to, only to realize that he is witnessing a gang rape. Remaining consistent with the film’s aesthetic, and his actions throughout, he lies still. The next morning, he tells Lára that she lost her virginity to him.
Rúnarsson’s Sparrows packed an emotional wallop because the arrested development it illustrated didn’t simply critique misogyny or stage resistance. Everything potentially redeeming in the film disappears, from its only agential female character (Ari’s grandmother, who dies early in the film), to Ari’s beautiful singing voice, the echoes of which are lost inside an empty oil drum. Like the flies languishing on the closed windows of Ari’s bedroom, in Sparrows no one can get out, and no one can connect — least of all the viewer: we don’t even get to see, hear, or learn about the eponymous sparrows. Consequently, the film’s nostalgic vector — the homecoming that drives the plot — serves to underscore the horror of the past.
The nostalgic gestures of the festival’s experimental programming were as nuanced as those within Rúnarsson’s film, particularly when the material depicted personal portraits of family histories. Aaron Zeghers’s Holland, Man, a dizzying collage of Super 8, 16mm, and digital images that follows the dissolution of the filmmaker’s family farm in Manitoba, was the most honest and sincere film of the festival. Much of the film includes voiceover of conversations between the filmmaker and his father, as well as footage taken from a Solographic experiment: Zeghers used a GPS to create a perfect circle of posts around the farm, on each of which he mounted a Solographic pinhole camera that was left exposed for six months. The result: permanent color images burnt into the black-and-white photo paper inside. In Holland, Man, this footage created a rainbow-arc effect that the migrating sun path etched into the images — proof of the farm’s existence over time, materially preserved.
The temporal significance of Zeghers’s Solographic footage is echoed in a scene in which the filmmaker and his family visit “Grandma’s Farm,” the site of the original homestead from generations back. For this scene, Zeghers placed a small square of video footage in the center of the screen and framed it with another full-screen channel in the background. The double-video creates a mesmerizing maelstrom of sticks, branches, and greenery drifting in and out of alignment. Through layering, both of time and of art, the camera literally excavates the past.
When I spoke with Zeghers after the screening, he said that shooting this scene was particularly memorable because it was one of the few times that his father — not an overly talkative person — spoke freely, without interview-like prompts. For Zeghers, the film represented a connection between his father’s life work and his own. Still, he didn’t wax sentimental, and neither does his father. Perhaps the tension between the film’s wistful subject matter and its sober acquiescence is part of why it has stuck with me.
In spite of the idea that the new is no longer new as soon as we recognize it as such, this year’s FNC bespoke a longing to return to what imbues “newness” in the first place. As my experience with IKWÉ conveys, immediately converting the present into the past is a problem, since both are inextricably tied to one another. Hinting at its own role in archiving “newness,” FNC 2015 demonstrated a paradoxical, nostalgic longing to dwell within the creative immanence of the new, before it recedes.
This “nostalgia for the new” was illustrated most vividly in Philip Hoffman and Eva Kolcze’s By the Time We Got to Expo. Screened as part of FNC Lab, the film is a found-footage tableau that explores the grounds of Montreal’s Expo 67, which, like FNC, celebrated progress, innovation, and new technologies. By the Time We Got to Expo amalgamates old and new by using tints, toners, and photochemical techniques on loops of promotional and educational footage of Expo events. Underlining the ephemerality of Expo 67 — the innovations it celebrated weren’t new for very long — the filmmakers’ manipulation of the celluloid gradually renders the images onscreen almost unrecognizable. As the film progresses, the photochemical corrosion of the emulsion strip symbolically performs the decay and disassemblage of the Expo 67 site, fixing it firmly within the past. And yet, the tints and toners used to manipulate the film stock change the “look” of the architecture and iconography of Expo 67. Saturation and shadow make the pavilions — including the geodesic dome that still stands as the Montreal Biosphère — new and different, ushering the archival images of the exposition into the present.
By the Time We Got to Expo’s present-day meditation on a past event — one specifically designed to showcase technological progress — suggests a nostalgia not just for the event itself, but also for the novelty it stood for. The film’s repetition of the same footage over and over implies a longing to dwell within this novelty, suggesting that the film’s nostalgia is, at least partly, for the feeling of the “new.”
Paradoxically about the desire to “come back” to the new, the FNC’s “new” nostalgia shows a resistance to the immediate packaging of the contemporary. Part of the festival’s longing is for what makes the contemporary feel fresh and modern — and for the chance to inhabit this feeling for just a little while longer. Like the fisherman in Paria who wants to remain, FNC demonstrates a longing to tarry with “newness” for a bit, before it has to leave. Though on the surface it seems like this nostalgia is in tension with the festival’s taste for the cutting-edge, they’re really not so antithetical; rather, they become entangled like the infinite loop of a Möbius strip. This is why, in spite of its resolutely future-oriented gaze, FNC cannot help but also look back, however obliquely.