FIFA in Montreal, in the Quebec province of Canada, is perhaps the most extensive international festival featuring only films on art – not just the fine arts, but literature, dance, music and theatre. In the enormous amount of cinematic works presented one can find short films, cinematic essays, more experimental studies of artistic method and techniques, and a few ephemeral flicks like Monsterland – a documentary on monsters in Japanese sci-fi films over the last 50 years.
The festival’s crowd of participants, and the way it was managed, also made it clear during my five days in Montreal that FIFA not only wanted to screen quality documentaries, but was striving to strengthen connections between professionals in the film industry – directors, producers, distributors, actors, critics (like me) et al. To me this was not so much a problem in itself as a syndrome of the lack of resolve concerning the festival’s identity: is it supposed to show films or act as a medium for meeting colleagues and new people to team up with? Another thing which puzzled me a bit was why there were so few new films – more than half of the featured films were quite old and some of them easily available online or on DVD. Another problem with FIFA is the lack of any real historical and theoretical context. When you arrange a film festival on the arts, one is almost obliged, I’m inclined to think, to make available at least some material on the films shown, and their broader contexts – a book of essays on the relation between cinema and other forms of art, perhaps, or a series of lectures? Some additional material would make the whole thing a lot more interesting to the international crowd of artgeeks and cinephiles. Perhaps we will see more of this in the future.
Psychological portraits. Nevertheless, from the circa 25 films I got the chance to see, the most interesting were, without doubt, the documentaries that drew on, or directly addressed, fine art or practising visual artists. The most touching film, emotionally, was the new film about the afro-American painter Basquiat – directed by Frenchman Jean Michel Vecchiet. A lot of footage from the early years of the artist is made available – when he did graffiti in the streets of New York before becoming a star. The film uses the interview as a productive vehicle for painting a convincing, although very bleak, portrait of the destiny of Basquiat. Still the film is more a story about the hubris and tragedy of a man than it is an analysis of his philosophy about art, or his method of working. Of course, this is not a problem and the film brilliantly conveys the complex mind of the artist – but it really doesn’t tell us anything new about the art. And art was, after all, what I wanted to learn something more about at FIFA, something new, hopefully.
Conceptual montage. This is where a film like Sol Le Witt: Wall drawings gives you everything you desire. Le Witt has always been somewhat puzzling to me – although I did, of course, notice the historical connections with both minimal art and conceptualism (and even Fluxus). Le Witt is apparently not an artist who touches you, at least not in an outright emotional manner. But the strict, dry principles of repetition comprised a life-long commitment for him and, while devoid of any human feeling or psychological content, still works on the mind, and has a more indirect impact. This film made clear to me the connections between the serial rows of frames made by Muybridge at the end of the 19th century, woven together with the genealogy of Le Witt’s historical roots in the art of the late sixties. This kind of conceptual montage does not, in fact, try to tell us the story of an artist, or even give us a broad view of the way he worked or his historical importance. What it does is present an unprecedented analysis of an aspect of two ways of working with seriality and a sequence of images. A fragmentary way of working on an artist, to be sure, but a juxtaposition of fragments which makes something essentially clear – and creates a space to think about the standardized history of art literally from another perspective.
Distortion of the real. Besides the Le Witt film there were some other interesting portraits of artists as well: the film on the Japanese sculptor Masatoshi Isumi, for instance, or the meditation on the art of Anette Messenger.
«a visual space where bursts, or splinters, from the contemporary spectacle of the real might suddenly appear»
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