It is what it is. Though such remarks can be damningly diplomatic, they come in handy at the Locarno Film Festival—where, away from the main competition at least, one often encounters a brand of auteuristic cinema so unpretentiously personal that even the slightest criticism appears overly harsh. Such is the case with Recollection, the latest film by Kamal Aljafari, which received its world premiere in the festival’s “Signs of Life” sidebar. This 70-minute German production sees the director returning to his familiar themes of occupation, displacement, and belonging with a dialogue-free, found-footage portrait of Jaffa, the ancient port city that neighbors Tel Aviv in Israel. Sourcing archive material from films shot in and around the historic locale, Aljafari shows an eerily abandoned city whose stony, enduring architecture is rendered into a cruddy mix of pixilated beige and shadow.
The biographical significance of the film’s settings is conveyed with a lengthy inscription at the end of the film, in which Aljafari speculates about the precise locations of various streets, buildings, and alleyways, and their proximity to his childhood home—even asking, at one point, whether one of the figures we see in the background of a shot could indeed have been him. That said, this is a minor work, one in which Aljafari is prone to bouts of conceptual laziness. Though experimentation is any artist’s prerogative, moments in which the director flips his images upside down, or replays others again and again like the cinematic equivalent of a broken record, feel arbitrary and anomalous within the overall fabric. While these tricks add little, however, given the personal nature of the film, who can really begrudge the director such indulgences?
Now three editions old, Locarno’s “Signs of Life” section can be a great place to discover films that might garner little critical attention, but which, on the whole, are more compact and satisfying than those showcased in competition. One such work is Machine Gun or Typewriter?, the latest film by independent (and criminally slept-on) American filmmaker Travis Wilkerson. Confidently straddling forms as diverse as the essay film, agitprop, and noir, and themes as broadly different as Los Angeles, anarchism, and unrequited love, Wilkerson’s film is a wry, controlled, and witty engagement with how the historical and social both inform one man’s political maturation.
The protagonist, who we only ever see behind (and half obscured by) a microphone, narrates this idiosyncratic odyssey as the sole operator of a pirate radio station, using his latest broadcast to appeal to a former lover, for whom he’s searching in the aftermath of police crackdowns on Occupy. Delivering the voiceover in an amusing staccato, with each pause implying a real effort to find the precise words, Wilkerson pokes fun at his own incarnation of a doomed and impressionable romantic who finds his political principles tested and deepened by matters of the heart.
Days after its world premiere in Locarno, Machine Gun or Typewriter? took the Best Film prize in the International Dox competition at Dokufest in Prizren, Kosovo. I had the pleasure of serving on this jury, and by coincidence did so with Spanish filmmaker Lois Patiño, who had also just presented two new shorts in the “Fuori Concorso” section in Locarno. It’s been two years since Patiño won the festival’s Best Emerging Director prize after his first feature-length documentary, Coast of Death, was unveiled there. On that occasion, I was struck by the filmmaker’s sophisticated take on landscape and the eccentricities of the people living in it. Subsequently, it’s with a combination of curiosity, excitement, and concern that one approaches a new project by such an obvious talent as Patiño: Will the follow-up disappoint, or somehow undo the good work previously done?
It’s a relief, then, that Patiño’s new shorts, Night Without Distance and Strata of the Image, are extremely beautiful. The first, initiated by Vila do Conde International Film Festival earlier this year, is a quiet reflection on smuggling and other side economies that emerge along the Portuguese-Galician border. Patiño negativizes the image so that the sky is blackened and the landscape finds new richness, its greens appearing violet and the sharp shadows of the daytime shoot rendered so as to seem computer-generated rather than digitally captured. Strata of the Image is a conceptually less complicated, though also no less impressive, film. Depicting the silhouette of a static figure standing before (and transfixed by) a moving waterfall, the film opens with a quotation from Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio (“Colors are matter’s effort to become light”), before presenting us with a monochrome frame that’s gradually saturated in color. Seamlessly fluctuating from blue to green, green to yellow, yellow to red, and so on, it’s a dazzling display.
Screening in the same program as Patiño’s shorts were two other films initiated by Vila do Conde. The first of these, Sandro Aguilar’s Undisclosed Recipients, is a visually arresting concert film, juxtaposing scenes shot at the Paredes de Coura music festival in Portugal. Though Aguilar revealed after the screening that no two images appear on the screen together, the film appears to unfold as a series of rapid dissolves between shots of nocturnal partygoers connected in a single space by flashing, disorienting neon. No music though: Aguilar instead opts for the much more tranquil nighttime soundscape of crickets and acacias. The result evokes the ways in which we recall past experiences through displaced (and highly ephemeral) image-thoughts, without the benefit of a concrete soundtrack. Put another way, it’s as if the unfolding events are being relived here from the same location much later, with only the local insects as company.
Finally, in The Glory of Filmmaking in Portugal, Manuel Mozos employs, to great effect, the more familiar tropes of the essay film (voiceover, stills, archive footage, on-screen text, and so on) to trace the early development of Portuguese cinema. It all began, as the film tells it, on September 18, 1929, when Portuguese writer José Régio sent a letter to Albert Serpa proposing that they found a production company. Though no evidence of any further collaboration between the two was thought to exist, Mozos’s film uncovers an unlikely find. Oddball humor, delightful digressions, and a subtly cumulative melancholy all comingle throughout. Though more shrewd viewers might anticipate the understated finale, the name with which the film knowingly concludes its historical overview adds a poignant edge. The reference is to Manoel de Oliveira, the veteran filmmaker who made his first feature-length film, Aniki-Bóbó, in 1942 in his mid 30s, and who died this past April at 106.
The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 5—15.