On the (Prismatic) Ground Floor

by MLP

Founded by Inney Prakash in co-operation with Screen Slate, Maysles Documentary Center, Video Data Bank and Ovid, Prismatic Ground is, in a fashion, the first (virtual, for now) festival of its kind.

While the current pandemic seemed to open the floodgates to making vast and rich swaths of film history suddenly available to stream in every direction, there was something missing. There was no shortage of careful curation, nor never-before-available-in-digital-form releases. And while communities well-established in their neck of the woods managed to reach a larger audience for their virtual cinemas (Maysles and Screen Slate very much included), I could not help but wonder about working filmmakers. This incessant appearance of festivals (there were so many that I’m surprised to remember some as I type this, including the Youtube-based ‘We Are One’ fest) had something of a numbing effect more often than the joy of discovering new work – the turnaround for smaller titles’ visibility seemed to reach lightning speeds. One could hardly ingest and settle with one’s thoughts on a new work before another appeared, and for a limited window of time, no less! For someone such as myself, who struggles with limiting my viewing selections more carefully, it was a dream come true, which ended up a nightmare. A year on, one is still drowning in streaming options. There are far more titles available at the click of a button than ever before, sometimes for a rental fee supporting virtual cinemas, and sometimes completely free.

Which brings us to Prismatic Ground: surely one might be overwhelmed by a festival comprising 80 titles, streaming for 11 full days, complete with opening and closing streams and countless webinars and talks with filmmakers, curators and more? Much to my own surprise, in its smorgasbord of options, I felt more at ease in making my own selections. The festival is already carefully curated and presented in four ‘waves’, but one also feels comfortable to peruse and choose from within these selections, to “explore thoughtfully and respect the work”, as the header asks of us. The website’s clean design and vimeo ebedded players with all controls removed except for a play/pause button and a full-screen toggle (meaning one is not able to rewind or skip ahead through a film, only watch it in real time) certainly grant viewers a stronger presence of mind.

Unlike so many streaming festivals before, one truly feels a part of it all; a part of a virtual community simply by keeping a tab open and returning to it for a short watch each day. The festival’s selections vary in runtime, from a few minutes to feature-length, and the filmmakers range from big-name veterans (at least for the experimental world) to virtually unknown newcomers and emerging voices. At the bottom of each page we are reminded of another vital fact about the festival: “PRISMATIC GROUND IS SELF-FUNDED AND PAYS FILMMAKERS. IF YOU HAVE THE MEANS, PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between PG and everything that came before is the insane number of interviews with artists. Over the weekend I tuned in for live chats & later broadcasts via Instagram & Zoom with Christopher Harris, Lynne Sachs, and Sophy Romvari – not to mention a discussion on Clubhouse about experimental media distribution between such distinguished guests as Sarah-tai Black, Jheanelle Brown, Greg de Cuir Jr., Ed Halter and Thomas Beard. I found this last talk particularly interesting, though the fact of its taking place on an iPhone-exclusive, supposedly invite-only app admittedly raises issues of access (I myself only joined the apple cult last December, with a years-old refurbished model – seemingly the only semi-ethical way of acquiring a new phone these days). In the talk, Ed Halter mentioned near the end that he ‘wasn’t worried about [the work of] Michael Snow’ being cared for, but rather the work by unknown artists sitting and waiting to be discovered – the question of whether such artists will be noticed, screened, or cared for in their lifetimes. Halter mentioned his own experience in coming across the work of Edward Owens (a student of Gregory Markopoulos) in the Filmmaker’s Co-op.

“I had only discovered Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts in 2009, by reading its description in the catalog of the Film-makers’ Co-op. There was little other information about its maker on file, and I assumed he might be dead. But then I noticed that he had made the film when he was very young, and decided to look up his phone number, wondering if he might still be alive in his native Chicago. One of the numbers worked, and over several more phone calls I interviewed Edward for many hours.” 
                                   -Ed Halter, in 2015 for Light Industry

Indeed, no festival can hope to uncover all of the hidden gems being made by lesser-known living artists right now, but if nothing else, Prismatic Ground certainly inspires one to keep digging; take for example The Curve of the Earth (2018), a six-minute title in which Lorenzo Benitez finds someone on facebook who shares his exact name, and three years later travels from the Philippines to Uruguay to meet his doppelganger. From such a setup, one might expect the first half of the film to focus on their facebook interactions before meeting, yet that is done away with in a high-velocity vision of their years of chat history, and a sudden plunge into fragments of the footage from their visit – not only cut into momentary glimpses, but truly minced into flash-framed memories. In this regard it bears a passing resemblance to Maat Means Land, which opens the same program (wave 2: kill the colonizer in your head). It is this kind of focus on sheer amateur ambition which grants Prismatic Ground much of its special energy and appeal. One hopes it will be around for many years to come.

Prismatic Ground is streaming for free, worldwide, through April 18th.

In addition to Inney Prakash’s own interview with Caroline Golum (director of The Sixteen Showings of Julian of Norwich) available on Prismatic Ground, our friend Joseph Elliott also recently did an episode-long interview with the same filmmaker on his podcast, Abandoned Films.

Maximilien Luc Proctor (MLP) is a French-American filmmaker and critic with a special interest in the avant-garde. He is a contributing editor for Photogénie, the founder and editor in chief of Ultra Dogme, and a curator for Fracto Experimental Film Encounter.

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