by Liam Kenny
Prismatic Ground is one of the cinema’s great success stories of COVID lockdown. Last year, it was a completely online festival comprising 80 films, among other events. Now, the festival is back for its second run and will recognize and revisit the importance of the online streaming festival in a world that is still very much battling COVID while incorporating the coveted experience of an in-person festival to New York City. To have an in-person community see this year’s festival together will be thrilling, and should provide a wider conversation among spectators and filmmakers. The “wave” format of last year’s edition will continue in-person this year, dividing the selection into thematic sections so as to provide better navigation through the festival’s large variety. Both editions of Prismatic Ground have done well in being an inviting festival space for submitting filmmakers, and in turn this allows for the wide array of programming that necessitates the “wave” format. Online and cinematic presentation together means that while enjoyment of this festival will continue worldwide, presentations on projected film prints will become its newest element, intertwining the global availability of the internet and the togetherness of film screenings for those able to attend. Some of these films, such as Configurations (2021) by James Edmonds, have already premiered to great praise. However, many of these films are brand new or have been difficult to see. In-person attendees will have the opportunity to see films such as Untitled (2021) by Joie Lee, which is only showing in theaters. Among the vast online selection, viewers should look forward to the day lives briefly unscented (2021) by Brandon Wilson, Strangers (2022) by Rajee Samarasinghe, and Ruisdael Clouds (2021) by James Thacher as only a small selection of great short films.
Untitled is Joie Lee’s second film as director, but she is better known as a writer, actor and frequent collaborator of her brother Spike Lee, having co-written and produced Crooklyn (1994) and other works. Untitled comprises a series of letters from Lee’s youth in grade school, before and after the death of her mother, Jacquelyn Lee. Images of letters and clippings progress in conjunction with the soundtrack and not in a manner that is conducive to reading every word on screen. Each viewer will see a detail in the flashes of letters that another does not. Due to this film’s density and swift pace, it may seem curious to only be shown in-cinema. Upon reflection, and certainly upon revisiting this film, the punishing gusts of grieving and pain that this film holds leave a greater and greater sore and having the opportunity to read through even a handful of letters presented in Untitled greatly changes the film’s emotional landscape. However, under the intended viewing conditions—which are in the cinema—the melancholy across letters and time in Untitled is presented ephemerally and in a way that is exacerbated by the cinema’s single viewing where pausing is not available. Lee’s intended acceleration of her early life proves to be a challenge amongst the heavy emotional weight of Untitled’s reflection on the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in the film’s first letter. The soundtrack, Clifford Jordan’s “John Coltrane,” fits alongside Untitled’s rapid visuals in its themes of eulogy and remembrance. “John Coltrane” was released in 1974, years after Coltrane himself had passed, thereby eulogizing him in the musical style of Jordan’s arrangement and simply in name recognition. These details further draw a powerful string of remembrance and praise to three of the great figures in Joie Lee’s life. In embracing the fleeting nature of this film, there is beauty in the epistolary form, providing a more personal artifact to the film than an IM or e-mail, and one that lends a material presence that is not seen in the digital world. Untitled’s soundtrack also works best to ward off the frustration of the image fleeting too quickly, which inspires a state of reminiscence. Those that will see Untitled in-cinema will experience a puzzle of lives told in a selection of only so many words, but I hope this film will continue to be screened across the world and celebrated as a greatly impactful depiction of Black life in America.
Untitled features in “Wave 8: Love as a Cry of Anguish,” which ponders the nature of grief and obituary in documentary filmmaking. Lee’s film will be showcasing this concept only in the cinema, but on the broader stage of the festival’s online showings, the day lives briefly unscented, by Brandon Wilson, tackles the obituary using a radically different form. Wilson’s film is a stunning visual manipulation of light, akin to Brakhage’s The Text of Light (1974) in its exploration of shapes in shadows. Wilson merges surrounding nature with the spectacle of light fading and flickering, creating paths and shapes with darkness, allowing other images to fade in and out, superimpose, or contain all of these effects all at once. Light in this film is constantly changing in new ways, and the images created via the perceived motion of nature as continuous verse are a magical sight. Dedicated to “the memory of my grandmother marilyn,” Wilson’s weaving of still images and close-ups presents Marilyn as a figure that merges in and out of nature at will, presented at times through still and archival photography. The merging of nature and archival stills into one further calls the traditional obituary into question. Instead of spoken or written words, Wilson conjures the natural world and what is readily available, further binding these elements through light, one of the most available and necessary parts of life, in order to recall the memory of Wilson’s grandmother in the grandest form. Wilson’s presentation of captured and new light, one that is constantly morphing and presenting itself as one continuous image, allows the obituary to feel more connected rather than the traditional fragmented series of memories. This film creates one single and eternal memory, one that provides a more detailed and personal approach to the remembrance of Wilson’s loved one.
Strangers (2022) by Rajee Samarasinghe is a similar exercise in recalling the memory of late loved ones. Samarasinghe writes in the introduction of Strangers,
“As a child, my mother was sent away to live with other relatives for a number of years, away from her own parents and siblings. This footage was shot shortly after the civil war in Sri Lanka on the occasion of my mother’s long-delayed reunion with Kamala, the aunt she lived with during that time. Kamala was living a life of solitude at this point and has now since passed away—this film is dedicated to her.”
Where the day lives briefly unscented is strictly dedicated to the memory of one person, Strangers is a film that is more loosely tied to the dedication. The events of Strangers vaguely resemble what might have happened to Samarasinghe’s mother, but what they do more clearly is create a broader perspective of spiritual identity for the child in the film. A visitor arrives, and the elder and child share a glance, one much longer than a natural glance, lengthened according to the nature of this film as a recreation of events not as they happened but reimagined and fragmented. This momentary glance is the most emotionally defined moment of Strangers, and it is a foreboding one that further illuminates the rest of the floating imagery. A glance, a piercing gaze that penetrates every slowly panning image of this film. A haunting gaze that is a premonition to dropped glass and dead bulls, moments of extreme spiritual violence in an otherwise peaceful surrounding. Nature may remain calm in the soundtrack, but it broods in visual surroundings, as dogs stop to stare and scamper off past the family’s home. This is placed against moments of togetherness and gentleness. The aforementioned glass is dropped and shattered, but a kitten moves across it as if nothing has happened, and the elder reacts similarly. Water is a fascinating subject in this film, as it provides moments of togetherness among Strangers’ subjects, specifically in the film’s only color sequence. Strangers is a film that does not explicitly state the nature of Hindu spirituality, but does provide a glance as to its effects on and perception of surrounding Sri Lankan nature, especially given that Sri Lanka’s population is spread across a wide variety of religions. In “Wave 12: Industrial Capitalism and the World,” lies one of the festival’s shortest films, Ruisdael Clouds (2020) by James Thacher. This is a film that further analyzes one of the great spiritual presences of human life, the sky and its clouds. Viewed through the lens of Jacob van Ruisdael’s paintings, James reimagines the towering presence of clouds in Ruisdael in a variety of media, explored through Thacher’s animated movement and cuts between Ruisdael paintings and an animated representation of what we now know as “the cloud,” the monstrous technological omnipresence that this festival is hosted on. Ruisdael Clouds might be among the shortest of works in this year’s Prismatic Ground, but its understanding of modern misunderstood mega-presences is one that ties the concept of experimental documentary together nicely. The towering presence of clouds dominate our eyes and communications, allowing for us to share much smaller moments and expressions to the individuals in our lives, to hold the shared, non-fiction experience of documentary in new ways, new cloudforms, ones that are infinitely evolving and becoming.
Untitled, the day lives briefly unscented and Strangers will screen on May 7th at the Maysles Documentary Center, New York as part of the Wave 8 program. Configurations will also screen at the same venue on the 7th in Wave 9, while Ruisdael Clouds will screen on the 8th in Wave 12. the day lives briefly unscented, Strangers and Ruisdael Clouds are also available to stream online for the duration of the festival.