The Journey (Putovanje, Bojana Vujanovic, 1972): Bogumila Milla going up in a modernist lift, colour footage. Courtesy of the artist.
The Journey: a single continuous shot, black and white footage. Courtesy of the artist.
Tree of Life (Bojana Vujanovic, 1977-78): filmed at the Academic Film Club, Belgrade. Courtesy of the artist.
Tree of Life: red lipstick. Courtesy of the artist.
Tree of Life: graphic match: from red lipstick to a red car. Courtesy of the artist.
Tree of Life: the tree of life, The Hague. Courtesy of the artist.
A Moment of Truth (Gisèle Rapp-Meichler, 2013, France): Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace. Courtesy of the artist.
A Moment of Truth: Perverse contrast: sunny meadows of Struthof. Courtesy of the artist.
A Moment of Truth: The film is dedicated to Diana Rowden, Vera Leigh, Andrée Borrel and Sonya Olschanezky, all executed on July 6, 1944. Courtesy of the artist.
A Moment of Truth: White and clean dissecting table. Courtesy of the artist.
A Moment of Truth: The coldness of winter. Courtesy of the artist.
Lloyd Fein Must Die (Charles Lum, 2012, USA): Criticism of capitalism. Courtesy of the artist and Experiments in Cinema Festival, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The Residency (Ioannis Savvidis, 2014): Tati-like gag. Courtesy of the artist.
The Residency: Sisyphean task of making an art work. Courtesy of the artist.
‘16mm Loop Workshop’ by Michelle Mellor, Basement Films, Albuquerque, New Mexico: Students’ film screening on the final night of the Alternative Film/Video. Photo by Kamila Kuc.
‘16mm Loop Workshop’ by Michelle Mellor, Basement Films, Albuquerque, New Mexico: Students’ film screening on the final night of the Alternative Film/Video. Photo by Kamila Kuc.
The Torso Exhibition leaflet: ‘the movie hurdy-gurdy.’ Photo by Kamila Kuc.
This trend of what Sijan calls "Antifilm" was praised by the U.S. critic P. Adams Sitney in 1969 as "Structuralist Film," which Sitney said marked “a movement toward increased cinematic complexity” with films of predetermined and predefined shape.”[open endnotes in new window] According to Sitney’s definition, the structural film “insists on its shape, and what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to the outline.” In 1976 a British experimental filmmaker Peter Gidal expanded on this definition distinguishing it from his own, "Structuralist/Materialist Film," as seen in his influential book, Structural Film Anthology. For Gidal the most important aspect of Structural/Materialist film is that it “attempts to be non-illusionist” and aims at demystifying the film process. Above all, such film “does not represent, or document anything”; instead it “produces certain relations between segments, between what the camera is aimed at and the way that ‘image’ is presented.” For Gidal specific filmic devices such as “repetition within duration” are employed to decode both the film’s material and the film’s construct, and “to decipher the precise transformations that each co/incide/nce of cinematic techniques produces.” The discovery of shape thus may become the theme and the narrative of the film. For Gidal, this constitutes “a crucial distinction for a (dialectically) materialist definition of structural film.” “That is why,” he argues, “Structural/Materialist film […] demands an orientation of definition completely in opposition to the generally used vague notions concerning ‘Structural Film.’” Other functioning definitions of structuralist film include David Curtis’ category of conceptual "Minimal Movies" in Britain and George Maciunas’ "Monomorphic Structural Film" in the United States that has “a single simple form” and which exhibits “one structural pattern.”
The less known but certainly not less fascinating Yugoslav contribution to this tendency includes Sijan’s definition of structuralist film as "antifilm," with its main characteristic being “a basic reduction of the means of expression and observation of subjects and things in front of the camera.” As Sijan points out, another Serbian film theorist, Dusan Stojanovic, most accurately defined these films by singling out “fixation as common principle of antifilm.”
What unites all structuralist filmmakers in Britain, the United States, and Yugoslavia is their wish to attack the mechanisms of representation of reality based on identification, which prevailed mainstream cinema and which required mostly passive audience. Structuralist filmmakers achieved this by turning the medium of film into a conceptual, self-reflexive exercise. Structuralist films draw attention to the very form of film rather than offer the viewer a straightforward experience of devouring what he/she sees on the screen. Thus, they question the politics and aesthetics of representation.
The sheer range of films presented in the structuralist program at this year’s Alternative Film/Video Festival, as well as the complexity of the debates surrounding structural film, call for a revision of what we include in this important international avant-garde trend.
This reassessment is also required where the contribution of female filmmakers to the avant-garde film tradition is concerned: the (non)incorporation of women throughout the Alternative Film/Video Festival requires further attention. The role women have played within the avant-garde film scene in Yugoslavia remains under-acknowledged, and this program featured only one female filmmaker: Bojana Vujanovic, with her 16mm short film, The Journey (Putovanje, 1972). A member of the Belgrade cine-club since 1968, Vujanovic encountered some of her influences there. The Journey partly reflects her fascination with the work of the cinematographer Petar Blagojevic, who shot Gotovac’s Kruznica. At the time of shooting The Journey, Vujanovic had only heard of Blagojevic’s and Gotovac’s film. Limited by her film equipment, “which could only film several minutes of tape in one go,” after which the roll in the camera needed to be stopped, rewound or changed, Vujanovic decided on the technique she heard was used by the two male filmmakers in Kruznica. Vujanovic’s film depicts a woman (Bogumila Milla, who also acted in Vujanovic’s other films) going up a stylish modernist lift. As the lift ascends, the camera pans through 360 degrees in a spiral movement, resulting in a feeling of dizziness. The film was made from a single continuous shot. Developed partially in black and white and partially in color, the piece was initially to be a part of Vujanovic’s project, "Vanishing Belgrade" (1968), which included filming old streets, buildings and parks.
Her next film, Tree of Life (1977-78) was shot in The Hague, and begins with a half-naked woman putting red lipstick on her face. The red color is matched with that of an apple rolling on the floor, and the film consists of effective graphic matches and a highly experimental use of sound, slowed down and manipulated, which gives an eerie, disturbing effect. The Tree of Life is now being digitally re-edited at the Academic Film Center under the title New Life of the Tree of Life. Rarely shown, Vujanovic’s films are no less engaging and technically arresting than those of her male colleagues, suggesting that the question of women in relation to avant-garde film in Yugoslavia needs further investigation.
As Diana Nenadic from Academic Film Centre in Zagreb explained to me, until the emergence of video art in the 1970s the position of female filmmakers within the alternative film scene was generally weak. There were, however, exceptions. One was the prolific Divna Jovanovic, now considered the pioneer of Serbian avant-garde animation, who emerged from the Belgrade cine-club in the 1960s and was renowned for her concept of pure animation and non-narrative visual poetry. For her films Deadline (1960) and Rondo (1964), Jovanovic painted directly on celluloid, while for Life is hard (Zivot je tezžak, 1969), Fetis (1971) and Metamorphosis (Preobrazaj, 1972), she scratched the surface of the film, leading to comparisons with the work of Norman MacLaren. In Zagreb’s cine-club, female filmmakers appeared sporadically, with Tatjana Ivancic being the key example. Between 1967 and 1986, she made approximately seventy shorts, mostly lyrical documentaries. The first female filmmaker within Split’s cine-club was Dunja Ivanisevic, who was active in the 1960s, but whose achievements were largely overshadowed by her male colleagues until 1987, when she made an experimental documentary Zemsko (1968).
It is because of such reversals of history that festivals like Alternative Film/Video Festival have a responsibility to paint a more accurate picture of avant-garde film by demonstrating women’s prolific input. This year’s Festival’s programmers, members of the advisory board and the jury, were all men. However, since the 2013 Alternative Film/Video Festival considered the theme of fragmentation in both film form and in the process of constructing a history of avant-garde film in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, it should also extend that theorizing to investigate how and why the contribution of women artists remains conspicuously left out. The consequences of such significant omission to the general history of avant-garde film require thorough exploration, something the Festival should address in the near future.
Writing a history of anything is a non-objective, ideological practice, especially to consider the complexities surrounding histories of visual arts (where the contribution of women remains one of the most neglected aspects). Such a history and its complexities in the countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans are still being assessed. Here it is worth mentioning Jackie Hatfield’s argument regarding the absence of women from the history of avant-garde film in general. In the 1970s and 1980s, Hatfield states, women were written out of the history of avant-garde film for yet another reason: their preoccupation with narrative, as opposed to abstraction and the formalist film tradition that dominated at the time. This partially explains the exclusion of women from discourses surrounding the structuralist film tradition, with Vujanovic’s work as one example.
However, there are other considerations. In the United States, women filmmakers such as Carolee Schneeman who dealt with explicit sexuality and body art (Fuses, 1965) were often neglected, even within the feminist canon. In addition, numerous experimental women artists wanted to disassociate themselves from special consideration as women artists, often decrying the label “feminist.” This has also been true in the former Yugoslavia. For example, in my email conversation with the filmmaker, Vujanovic underlined that her concern has always been with the quality of her work, and she separated herself from any connection to feminism: “Can’t I be regarded just as an artist, irrelevant of my gender?” Similarly, in a recent forum "Women’s Images of Men" (Nottingham Contemporary, UK, 2014) an artist Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty remarks: “Ideally one wouldn’t want to be a gender. One wants to just be an artist […] but in its time it was important to define that you were a woman artist.” Chepstow-Lusty refers to the early 1980s Britain when she was involved, alongside Catherine Elwes and Sarah Kent, in promoting feminist art and discourse. After all, as Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock argue, “[The] sex of the artist matters. It conditions the way art is seen and discussed.” The inequality of the means of production and distribution of film, as well as the exclusion of certain films because of their approaches and subjects not fitting “into the current zeitgeist” still remains an issue that needs addressing when writing about the history of avant-garde film.
Considering the absence of women on the Festival’s advisory board and the jury, it is even more important to draw attention to at least one of the films made by an acclaimed female filmmaker in the Festival’s main competition, Gisèle Rapp-Meichler. Rapp-Meichler has been making films with her husband Luc since 1976 (Allée des signes, 1976; No Hans Land, 1988). They are also the members of Light Cone, a non-profit making organization (founded in 1982 by Yann Beauvais and Miles McKane), which promotes, distributes and preserves experimental cinema in France and which since 2009 is under the presidency of Gisèle Rapp-Meichler. Her film for this festival, A Moment of Truth (Un instant de vérité, 2013, France), is an understated, and thus all the more powerful, meditation on the crimes committed in a Struthof concentration camp in Alsace. This fine and subtle film brings to mind Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard, 1955) in its examination of the impossibility of representing directly the horrors of the concentration camp. As the camera pans through the sterile interiors of the camp and the contrasting, sunny meadows around it, Nina Simone’s 1964 performance of Waring Cuney’s poem "No Images" (1926) plays on the soundtrack. A Moment of Truth is dedicated to the memory of four resistance women murdered in the camp: Diana Rowden, Vera Leigh, Andrée Borrel and Sonya Olschanezky, all executed on July 6, 1944.
Born in Upper Alsace, Rapp-Meichler visited the camp for the first time in 1959 on a family trip, she informed me, following the custom for the locals to confront the disturbing facts of recent history. The film can be seen in contrast with the first feature film about the Holocaust, Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (Ostatni Etap, 1948, Poland). Although this was not a documentary, some of the film’s images were considered so "authentic" that Resnais used them as actuality footage in Night and Fog. Rapp-Meichler’s short, subjective piece is a powerful journey around a now deserted concentration camp, and its emotional effect is achieved largely through the absence of any documentary footage. Instead, the filmmaker creates an impressionistic image of the camp based on her own memory of a ‘white and clean’ dissecting table in a cold and empty room.
Very few films in the program were as gripping as Rapp-Meichler’s, but Charles Lum’s eyebrow raiser, Lloyd Fein Must Die (2012, USA), deserves some attention. Part of the "Happiness is a Warm Projector: Select Work from Experiments in Cinema Festival, Albuquerque, New Mexico" program presented by the Festival’s Artistic Director Bryan Konefsky, the film is a fierce attack on Lloyd Blackfein, the CEO of Goldman-Sachs and of the highest paid executives on Wall Street. The film collages pornographic images of naked men and metaphorically equates them with the obscenity of Fein’s daily procedures, which contributed to the irreversible economic crisis. In tune with such recent documentaries as 99%—The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film (Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites, 2013, US), the piece is a criticism of capitalism and its detrimental effects on nations.
Ioannis Savvidis’ The Residency (Germany/Ireland, 2012), which was singled out by the jury, and Krasimir Dobrev’s Bloody Mr. Tomazo (Bulgaria, 2012), the recipient of the Ivan Kaljevic Prize, should also be mentioned. Savvidis’ film is a witty take on the difficulties surrounding the creation of a work of art. It's a semi-autobiographical films about filmmaking. Faced with the near-impossibility of making a film as part of his residency, out of desperation Savvidis decides to film his everyday activities, ranging from washing dishes, watching cars passing by from his balcony, to purposelessly carrying a table up a mountain. Such impossible and pointless, Sisyphean task can also be seen in Francis Alÿs’s When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), in which the Belgian artist hired hundreds of volunteers in Peru to move a shovel of sand one step at a time from one side of a dune to another. In its simplicity and humor, Saavvidis’ film also resembles Jacques Tati’s gags. The Residency —in its diary-like form and investigation of the filmmaking process—is reminiscent of Robert Beavers’ From the Notebooks of… (1971); the U.S. filmmaker, inspired by the notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, investigates his 16mm camera’s functions, following on-screen instructions, written by Beavers himself: “Close the window shutting to a crack, film my reflection in the mirror as my hand moves in front of the mirrored light.” Residency can be seen as a nod towards this self-reflexive tendency.
Awarded in memory of the avant-garde author and patron of alternative film, Ivan Kaljevic, this year’s prize went to Krasimir Dobrev’s Bloody Mr. Tomazo, a film that uses fast-cutting YouTube aesthetics to create an ironic portrait of Balkan machismo. The titular character, played by Dobrev himself, appears in a variety of costumes and poses to mock a cult of violence. Following the announcement of this prize, the audience was treated to a surprise screening of Kaljevic’s humorous 1975 film, Society for the Preservation of Silliness (Drustvo Za Zastitu Sasavih Dogadjaja). In this Dada-like piece a group of men perform surreal, meaningless activities, such as watching TV in a middle of a field. The amateur quality of the piece is deliberate and defies the conventions of mainstream cinema. The film’s title brings to mind Kurt Schwitters’ "Ideas for Poems" (c.1926), with his proposal for a "Society for Purposeful Services." In Kaljevic’s film, everything these men do is purposeless.
One of the most engaging parts of the Alternative Film/Video was the "16mm Loop Workshop" delivered by the experimental filmmakers Michelle Mellor and Bryan Konefsky of Basement Films, Albuquerque, New Mexico. This friendly and inspiring event brought together local students and members of the public, as well as Festival participants. Opening with a screening of Bruce Conner’s Marilyn Times Five (1968-1973), the workshop resulted in the production of numerous loop films, which were projected during the Festival’s last night. Established in 1991 as an alternative film screening collective, Basement Films holds thousands of 16mm and Super8 films, alongside other archival media and also hosts the annual Experiments in Cinema International Film Festival.
Lastly, a few remarks on the The Torso exhibition, which opened the Festival. Containing fragmented stories from Belgrade placed "in small appliances, objects and performances that tell those tales," the exhibition was created by three energetic performance artists: Erich Goldmann, Michael Strohmann (both from Austria) and Momo Subotic (Mostar/Copenhagen). In a photo and sound installation, The Belgrade Loop, the push of a button, pressed by the viewers, allows a carousel of images to move and stop at a random moment. Every image (of various place sin the city: parks, clubs, blocks of flats) is synchronized with its unique, pre-designed sound recording. In My Private Belgrade—“the movie-hurdy-gurdy man,” Subotic is filmed strolling the streets of Belgrade, sharing stories of his life with passersby in exchange for their own stories. These tales are exhibited in a "movie-hurdy-gurdy": a box with a monitor and a crank, with which the viewer can control the speed of the film and rewind or fast-forward it. The interactive exhibition invites the viewer to be a part of it and thus engages with one of the most powerful principles of the avant-garde, as defined by Peter Bürger, among many others, as breaking the boundaries between art and life.
The Alternative Film/Video Festival is one of the most dynamic experimental film festivals. In its admirable commitment to the spirit of alternative art and film, the Festival has been described by Karpo Godina, the Slovenian filmmaker, cinematographer and a former jury member, as a “factory of new film expressions.” Since these "new film expressions" are often produced by women, the 2014 Alternative Film and Video should invite women to participate as programmers. In addition, women themselves ought to demand greater parity as members of the jury and advisory board. The input of female artists and filmmakers within the cinematic avant-garde, with particular attention to Yugoslav artists, of whom we still know so little, could be dealt with by programming a selection of films by women filmmakers and explored further as a key theme of the Academic Forum. This gesture would constitute an important and long overdue step towards addressing one of the largest omissions in film history—the role of women within it.