by Ruairí McCann
The Experimental Film Society (EFS) is a filmmakers’ collective, co-op, distribution company and island within an island, for it is a rare example of independence within the colonized Irish cinema.
This year EFS turned twenty years young, an anniversary that has been anticipated and then celebrated with a range of objects and happenings. In 2019, the group’s most public member, if not their unofficial leader, Rouzbeh Rashidi, released a feature called Luminous Void: Docudrama. A series of phantasmagoric vignettes and flaunting—a la Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome or Raúl Ruiz at his most experimental—conceived and performed by the group. In the same year, the second most prolific member, Maximilian Le Cain, released a ‘compilation’ feature called Whale Skull, featuring original footage shot by Le Cain, as well as a kind of reeling through the years with excerpts drawn from his comrades’ films.
This retrospective revved up, more officially, in the actual anniversary year of 2021, kicking off with a book. Published by the society, Luminous Void: Twenty Years of Experimental Film Society was edited by Rashidi, Le Cain and Atoosa Pour Hosseini and features contributions from all the current members and affiliates, as well as essays from “expert EFS scholar” Nikola Gocić, international admirers such as Adrian Martin, Nadin Mai, and others.
And now with the freeze of Lockdown beginning to tentatively thaw, they have organized a retrospective exhibition in conjunction with its venue, Dublin’s Projects Art Centre.
LUMINOUS VOID: Twenty Years of Experimental Film Society began on the 13th May and will be running right through until the 25th of June. It consists of two parts. The exhibition’s main space will be dedicated to stills and loops isolated from the filmmakers’ work. The former blown-up and lining the walls and the latter flickering away on clusters of little TV sets. Then there is the cinema room, a small projection space where certain titles (features and shorts programmes) will be shown on the loop for a limited time, before being swapped out for another work.
On the day I could make the journey, they were showing three shorts directed by Pour Hosseini: Antler (2018), Kinetics (2019) and The Golden Mask (2020) — two of which I found especially stirring.
Pour Hosseini is a relatively new member EFS, and yet going by her position as one of the three editors of the abovementioned official history, one of their most prominent. Originally trained as a painter, she has since shot rolls of digital, Super 8 and 16mm short films and installations. Unlike the works of Rashidi or Le Cain, which are brimming with a far-reaching cinephilia—the latter being, like ex-EFS member Dean Kavanagh, also a fine film critic—Pour Hosseini instead seems to be pulling from different reference points. She is more intent on depicting and blurring notions of performed art and documentary footage with mythic and deconstructed imagery, and the Holocene mingled with the Anthropocene.
Antler, perhaps, is one that fits most snugly into the above, expedited summary. A young woman (Julia Gelezova), nameless and silent, wanders through a glasshouse. Her passage is tracked by a Super 8 wielding Pour Hosseini (who frequently appears on-screen) and by another, invisible arbiter, also shooting Super 8. Their surroundings, the teeming undergrowth, is represented through the use of archival footage of scurrying and emerging bug and plant life. Interspersed with these two planes — which are sometimes smoothly transitioned between, other times presented in stuttering overlaps — is the subliminally brief but acutely disturbing image of a deer, standing stock still and staring at the lens from out of a void. The transparently digital texture and black box space of this icon jarring violent with the warm, muggy textures of the rest of the film.
It is an exercise in transmogrification, taking humans and the natural world, the act of filming — or curated, constructed existence — and the natural world as an untamed, hive of many things and paths, all as separate entities and as ingredients poured into a single soup.
The woman is distinct from her environment. Her discreet black clothing and focused, neutral manner contrasting with the hubbub of life at her flanks. As much as the camera tracks her, she follows the camera, while the creatures who’ve captured the archival footage merely exist, unbeknownst and regardless of whether they are being filmed. And yet the way the film is arranged, with the woman on a path, progressing, while the archival footage not only ‘around’ her but succeeding her, implies that she, conducted by and in conjunction with Pour Hosseini, is some kind of éminence grise. Her movement musters all this flora and fauna, while being distinct from it.
The notion of being in-between, of classifications blurred, are baked into the film, right down to its bedrock, this choice of mixed media. The archival footage — a format often seen as more evidently truthful — is frequently indistinguishable from the freshly shot Super 8 footage. While the out of place seeming glimpses of the deer in the darkness is a more surreal and extreme analogy of the glasshouse itself. Both are instances of life encased within artificial and rigid confines. The droning soundscape, constructed by Karen Power, is highly synthetic but also has moments of creative alignment with this very different world on-screen. The instance that particularly struck me is when the hatching of a dragonfly nymph is heralded with a Stockhausean crackle and pop. The latter’s lack of meter, its spontaneity, likened to this eruptive manufacture of a new life.
Kinetics, shot on 16mm, is perhaps Pour Hosseini’s best work. It drinks from the same draught as Antler while adding a greater emphasis on the power of ritual, or the magic logic of performance. On a green cliffside, overlooking the churning Irish sea, a harpy — musician, visual artist and EFS close collaborator Katie O’Neill donned in a cabaret style, hawk mask — lurks and frolics. The Harpy moves and prostrates herself across a tightrope continuum of animalistic behaviours and stylised, but most definitely human, acts. Sometimes she is as naked as the day, others she is draped in a blue toga, like the ceremonial garb of an ancient oracle. She swims like a fish, or floats like a corpse, in the water below. While on land, she stalks the cliffs. In one shot, she tangles with the skeletal remains of an ungulate, either in the midst of sparagmos or inhabiting her bird self while it picks clean its quarry. Once again, Pour Hosseini overlaps many of her images, combining into one exposure, one mode, several of the aforementioned acts and states of being at the same time. Along with the recurring and disillusioning talisman of the Harpy/O’Neill in a Warholian screen-test close-up.
The combination of this ritualistic behaviour and the Northern European coastal locale recalls Jacques Rivette’s film Noroît (1976), and its form-disrupting and braiding climax; a black magic ceremony-cum-dance of assassins, atop battlements overlooking a raging sea. There are similar means and goals at play, as both films are complex configurations of archaic and modernist performance styles, in a strange tango and spar with the camera. Pour Hosseini’s mise-en-scène might not be as out there or unpredictable as Rivette’s, but she does find in the process an invigorating hypnosis. Especially with its own collapsing denouement, taking place in a strobe-lit ruin. The darkness and the pre-historic, painted and lacerated with modernity’s brush and sword; electric light and moving images.
Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer and musician, Belfast born and based but raised in Sligo. He sits on the board of the Spilt Milk Music & Arts Festival and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost, Screen Slate, Mubi Notebook and Sight & Sound. [Twitter]