I’ve been thinking quite a lot in the past couple of years about the history of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. In 2016, the Regrouping retrospective celebrated the wonderful decade of the 1970s, screening Lizzie Borden’s rarely-seen debut feature Regrouping and hosting a day of discussions with Borden, Laura Mulvey, William Raban and Sarah Turner. Last year, we brought Lizzie back to Edinburgh to present her legendary feminist film Born in Flames to a packed-out Filmhouse 1. I loved our ‘In Person’ event with Lizzie, who talked openly about her experience making the film and won the hearts of the audience with her sincere reflections on contemporary society and politics. These have been really exciting times, leading up to what is now my 10th year curating the Black Box experimental strand. It feels like a time for celebration, and I can’t think of a better way to do this than to go from Joyce Wieland to Barbara Hammer – both key female figures in the experimental film world. I’ve been a fan of Hammer’s classic lesbian film Dyketactics (1974) for a long time and it was a real privilege to co-curate a screening of her short films with Shorts programmer Lydia Beilby for the Time of the Signs retrospective. Her films combine open depictions of female sexuality and body politics with ironic humour and a unique formal interrogation of film and video technologies. Superdyke Meets Madame X (1976) is, to my mind, one of the most interesting reflections on the performative and self-reflexive qualities of video.
Joyce Wieland was a Canadian multi-media artist, whose work in film has largely been overshadowed by that of her partner Michael Snow. Like Hammer, Wieland’s films approach politics with an irreverent humour and an idiosyncratic use of allegory and metaphor. She made the most fascinating cat film before that even became a thing! Cat Food (1968) is an utterly compelling 14 minutes of a cat devouring fish after raw fish to the sound of rolling waves. National politics is a key theme in her work, and Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968) reflects on the Vietnam war through a story of imprisoned rats who break free from their feline captors and find their way to Canada. The films will be presented by Genne Speers from the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, and Genne will be taking part in a special panel discussion on 25 June, alongside Ben Cook (LUX) and Will Fowler (British Film Institute), on the theme of artists’ film preservation and distribution (Print Condition: On Preserving, Restoring and Distributing Artists’ Film).
I have my good friend Emmanuel Lefrant from Light Cone distribution in Paris to thank for suggesting this focus on Wieland and for his support in putting together the Hammer shorts. A lot of the time, the programme comes together in unexpected ways, through chance meetings and late-night conversations at festivals. Earlier this year, I was at Duke University to present a season of experimental films around the theme of material desire. Whilst there, I was invited to view Josh Gibson’s recently completed feature film. I was fascinated by its unique tone and strangely compelling storyline (itself a form of material desire) and thought about it for days after. Pig Film will have its World Premiere at EIFF and I’m pretty sure that audiences will have some questions for Josh afterward!
I’d encountered Zoe Beloff at the London Film Festival a few years ago and loved her passionate way of speaking. We met at an earlier visit to Duke last year, where we both presented symposium papers. She talked about her new project Exile – a re-staging of the relationship between Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht in contemporary New York City, picking up on the political situation that we now find ourselves in and its resonances with fascism. I managed to see the completed version at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January, and we’ll present its UK Premiere here in Edinburgh next week, alongside three short films that deal with the subject of political borders and cultural divisions. Talking to Zoe, I learnt that she actually worked at Filmhouse during that 1970s period of the Film Festival – what a lovely coincidence!
I’ve also picked up some beautiful shorts along the way, making up a diverse programme that is politically thought-provoking, formally innovative, and perceptually challenging. Juan David Gonzales Monroy and Anja Dornieden return to Black Box this year with Comfort Stations (Black Box Shorts: Physical Connection), a film that rocked audiences in Rotterdam. I really appreciate their deadpan style – it’s so different to anything else circulating right now. There’ll be some other regulars too – Vicky Smith, Siegfried Fruhauf, Sami van Ingen, Yuka Sato – as well as some new discoveries, many of whom will be in attendance. Simon Liu and Josh Lewis, both working at Negativland lab in New York, take very different approaches to the film medium, Josh working directly on the filmstrip with chemicals in An Empty Threat (Black Box Shorts: Physical Connection), and Simon using a 35mm stills camera to capture the illuminated energy of Tokyo and Hong Kong in Star Ferry (Black Box Shorts: The Shape of Light). There’s some truly fascinating approaches to landscape in Black Box Shorts: Radical Landscapes, including Lukas Marxt’s shocking depiction of corporate industrial agriculture and its effects on the Californian landscape in Imperial Valley (cultivated run-off). His bird’s-eye view sequences turn physical sites into seemingly endless abstract patterns.
Flicking through past EIFF catalogues last year, I noticed an interest in Canadian experimental film in the 1970s. In 1978, there was a screening of recent experimental films from Canada. I started chatting with the filmmaker Terra Long, who has long been involved in Phil Hoffman’s Film Farm – an annual retreat for analogue filmmakers. Almost every edition Black Box has included a film that results from this retreat, and we thought it could be interesting to focus on this material aspect of Canadian filmmaking, 40 years later: Black Box Shorts: Canadian Experimental Film – Forty Years Later. As chance has it, Canada ended up being a focus of this year’s festival – another fine coincidence!
As I write this, on the day of summer solstice, and when the world looks a bit topsy-turvy, I can’t help but feel hopeful about the power of cinema to make subtle changes in the way we think and see. Sometimes it seems that experimental film, with its tendency towards abstraction and ambiguity, is less equipped to deal with the pressing issues of our time. I’ve always felt strongly, however, that films which challenge us to look closer, to feel differently, and to find our own answers, set us on a path of discovery, both internal and external. Historically, Edinburgh International Film Festival has been a key platform for this work, and it’s always been my guiding principle for Black Box. Come and discover for yourself. It’s an intimate affair, frequently ending with long chats with filmmakers in the bar afterward.
Don’t be shy – join us for a drink and share your thoughts!