Images Festival has always been about thinking outside the box. So when COVID-19 concerns mandated the shutdown of large gatherings and events just days after the lineup for the 33rd edition had been announced, the festival team made a choice – rather than simply postpone or cancel the festivities, they’ve moved as much of the programme as possible online, allowing audiences to experience the work from the safety of their homes while the artists keep their much-deserved platform.
Taking place over the same weeklong period (April 16-22) that the festival was initially scheduled to run, Images will be hosting live streams of the planned screenings through their website, often with virtual Q&As with the filmmakers afterwards. Seeing as the festival has built a reputation on being one of the world’s premier venues for experimental and avant-garde work and that there is no charge for any of the events (although donations are certainly welcomed), there’s really no reason for film fans to miss out.
The festival kicks things off with the opening night film, maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, the debut feature from Pacific Northwest based Indigenous artist Sky Hopinka. Also known as a scholar and teacher of the nearly extinct Indigenous language chinuk wawa, Hopinka incorporates that speech into this documentary portrait of Jordan Mercier and Sweetwater Sahme, two people who reside in the Columbia River Basin and are in the midst of bringing children into the world. Shooting in an elliptical manner, this is also contrasted with trenchant narration of the Chinookian origin-of-death myth, leading to questions of reincarnation and the after-life while our eyes bask in the natural beauty of the lush forest surroundings. It all makes for a potently spiritual experience that we could all use right now.
Always ready to explore new forms of media creation, Images focuses this year’s Canadian Spotlight on Mohawk artist Skawennati and her nine-episode machinima web series, TimeTraveller™, which was created entirely with Second Life’s online virtual world. Taking place in a cyberpunk future world reminiscent of sci-fi touchstones like Blade Runner or The Fifth Element, we’re introduced to a Mohawk bounty hunter (cheekily named Hunter) as he acquires a new VR program that allows the user to travel back to important historical moments in time. In each episode, Hunter warps to a key moment in Indigenous history, gradually taking a more active role as he comes to better understand and appreciate his cultural ancestry. The unique computer-generated visual style comes across like a heritage moment by way of Reboot, wildly entertaining and sharply funny while seeking to rectify dominant Anglo misappropriations of Indigenous history.
A couple of UK-based filmmakers take center stage on April 21 with works showcasing themes of social justice and the importance of vibrant communities. Ayo Akingbade’s No News Today collects three shorts which make up a punchy social housing trilogy within the London neighbourhoods that the filmmaker calls home. Blurring techniques of documentary, experimental film and music video aesthetics, Akingbade becomes a firebrand against the forces of gentrification and modern urbanism that has left so many middle- and lower-class citizens displaced and generally voiceless, possessing a youthful verve that makes her an exciting new talent to watch. Meanwhile, fellow London resident Morgan Quaintance travels abroad to Chicago’s South Side to tackle the history of liberation movements in South and then to the capital of Senegal in Letter From Dakar to paint an energetic portrait of the local grassroots arts and culture scene as it stands opposed to the hollow attempts from government institutions to honour Black history.
For fans of tangibly experimental work in the vein of legends like Stan Brakhage or Hollis Frampton, Images has more than enough to satisfy. Julia Feyrer’s Broken Clocks series, for instance, compiles six of the BC native’s films that have played as installations in galleries over the last decade. In Feyrer’s world, clocks and other timekeepers are omnipresent, although by altering their appearances, functions and locations, they question our whole idea of temporality in film. And in one of the shorts, Escape Scenes, an apparatus is mounted to the back of a truck to fill with creative tableaus that are then tested by the elements from driving on streets and highways – a high-wire act that becomes akin to something out of an avant-garde action flick. Elsewhere, a new film from Ben Rivers (a mainstay of TIFF’s Wavelengths program with masterworks like A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness and The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers) called Now, At Last! highlights the “Good Look Now” program, presenting a languidly hypnotic vision of a sloth hanging off a tree, punctuated by surprising moments of colour and music.
Docu-fiction hybrids also hold an important place at the fest, especially with the closing night film Nimtoh (Invitation). Saurav Rai’s debut feature takes place in a remote Indian village, using real people to tell the story of 10-year-old Tashi and his grandmother, who live and work on a wealthy couple’s estate that is preparing to hold the wedding of their son and his new wife. As the wedding gets closer, Tashi gets more restless, hoping for an invite to the lavish party and then acting out when it doesn’t quite come. In a similar fashion, Yashaswini Raghunandan’s That Cloud Never Left uses residents from the town of Daspara, India to show their process of making toys with raw materials and old strips of film from the archives of Bollywood, all set against a magical realist story concerning an impending lunar eclipse. Both films share a wondrous energy that makes the viewer feel completely embedded in these intensely human communities.
Images also facilitates a variety of gallery installations each year, which were obviously a trickier proposition when faced with going online. But that certainly hasn’t stopped them from trying in a few specific cases. New York artist Silvia Kolbowski’s That Monster: An Allegory was meant to be shown as part of a solo exhibition at Gallery 44. Instead, this haunting work, which repurposes footage from James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein to take aim at the destructiveness of our current anti-democratic capitalist world, screens on April 18 with an artist talk afterwards.
The real revelation, however, is the modified presentation of Charlotte Zhang’s two-channel video installation, Pine Street, Now and Again. Originally meant to be shown at Critical Distance in Toronto and Centre A in Vancouver, with both channels projected simultaneously on walls that you would stand in between, Images has adapted this unique project for at-home viewing. As long as you have two screens, you’re good to go – just set them up facing each other, load up a channel on each screen, then sit in between them and hit play at the same time. Alternating between sequences of former Chinatown residents talking about its history, mundane observational footage, photoshop experiments, and dreamlike audiovisual moments, Pine Street really embodies that well-worn cliché of having to see it to believe it. By transferring it online, Images has also made the art of video installation, often inaccessible to a large population who aren’t near galleries located in urban centers, available to the masses.
And yet through all of this, I have still only barely scratched the surface of what’s available over the next week, with many more screenings and talks worth your attention. For this distinctive festival experience, the wonders of the moving image offer unending possibilities – dive in and get inspired.
Images Festival runs from April 16-22. Check the website for the full schedule and corresponding screening links.