Shipments of Time: Some Fragments for Jeannette

May 23, 2019 | Articles

Today we want to share with you a text by James Edmonds part of the book
Jeannette Muñoz. El paisaje como un mar, published by Asociación Lumière (the book will be available for purchasing during the festival), courtesy of its editor, Francisco Algarín Navarro. A stroll through one of the projects that Muñoz will show in her cine-lecture: Fotogramas.

In the captions for her Fotogramas, a series of enlargements of filmstrips containing approximately 5 images, Jeannette Muñoz states in the caption of each work as having a certain number of images per second. This ranges from the standard 24 images per second, up to 50 – which would have the effect of slow motion if that film were being projected. These film strips, Fotogramas, are giving us a depiction of time in a “single” repeated image, the frames are, according to Muñoz, a “retained reality”. Each static piece of film, even in its captioning, refers to it’s technical interaction with a given place and time.

What is it that film retains from reality itself, and is this misleading? Is the reality, rather, something within the film, or about the film material itself.

In this latter respect, Muñoz is showing us the simple fact of film material, and in a simple gesture allowing us access to the intimacy of the filmmakers view of her work – a work which is usually an invisible part of the cinematic form – when it is on the reel, on the table, in the hand. In the reality of analogue film, these works could also represent this extra-visual reality that filmmakers feel when handling their films, a grounding sense of the concrete, which underpins the medium’s inevitable aspect of “otherness”.

Within the various traditions of experimental film, a focus on medium specificity is a familiar recurrence, and yet Muñoz is one of a few contemporary filmmakers who manage to use this understanding to intimate affect – to balance the discovery of a medium’s specific methodology, with the inherent quality of searching that it seems to call forth, when approached from an open, personal perspective. The key to this is that she allows the camera to be her primary tool, an instrument of searching, even when seeking out previously researched or historical subjects, directly or indirectly.

The Fotogramas, like the Envíos (single rolls of film dedicated and physically gifted to individuals – friends, colleagues), are like little pockets of time, delivered or projected outward into the world, into the mind of the viewer. In this case, they are offerings of a continuity of stillness perceived as seemingly identical frames. This continuity is in the imagined film fragment and the subsequent doubt of its possibility as a reality. (Even if we imagine no subtle changes of light, no flicker of a plant in the breeze in these static shots, we know for certain that the film grain within each frame of celluloid reacts of it’s own accord, within this fraction of recorded second).

The containment of a temporality, within a given frame, or set of frames, is what lead me to think of the link to the Envíos project, to shipments, deliveries, gifts in the present. Like images themselves, they come from elsewhere and contain intrinsic otherness and yet, when they are unloaded and unpacked and held in the hand, they are ours.

This intimacy is what I imagine Jeannette’s films to be like, in the gesture of their formation and their deliverance into the public intimacy of the screening or performance. (It is no accident that she also presents projection performances straight from the editing table itself – a direct cinema if ever there was one). And yet there is nothing grand or sensational about these modest gestures. Even though the images are often quite striking, their beauty does not seek to overwhelm or sensationalize. Rather they make their radical step in muted everyday endeavors, real life is never far away both within the frame and its surrounding context of cinematic presentation. Jeannette makes silent gestures. Complex and multilayered, at times invisibly so, but never intellectually suffocating. They have an integrity that is supported by an immediate given reality of film and filmmaker without pretence – and in the case of Envíos, this reality of film is quite literally, given. It is this sense of generosity that is perhaps most welcoming as a viewer. Indeed we are approached not quite as viewer but more as fellow traveller – witnesses to the filmmaker’s own thoughts and feelings, but somehow invited to be there as equals. A key to this is the notion of the fragment – which becomes the overall methodology of Muñoz’s oeuvre. Our experience of these fragments exists in time, within a film, or within a screening, or on separate occasions, with real life allowed to permeate the space between them. Within each fragment, an openness to the subject keeps us observing, searching, guessing, just as Muñoz’s camera searches, our imagination simultaneously directed to the edges of each depicted scene, to what is not included, or to what came about in the surrounding decision to film.

Of course, the nature of the fragmentation, in cinematic terms, could perhaps be summarised by a discontinuity, or a placement of seemingly unrelated multiple moments. Again this technique or phenomenon could be traced through the history of the Avant Garde film right back to Surrealism, or as philosophical attribute, to Walter Benjamin, but more importantly here, as viewers it allows us to free associate readings, whilst remaining on a very personal level with the filmmaker.

Often metaphors seem to come to us through these everyday depictions. The activities of child, or an animal, can spur thoughts about the location and context of the film. The girl throwing stones into a pond or the infant attempting to blow away Dandelion seeds only to have them stick to her face in East End (2002) – activities that become unconscious attempts to release time itself, as moments of material understanding – through our engagement with natural phenomenon – pockets of the future and of the past. The dog that plays dead on the sands of Puchuncavi (2014-ongoing), mimesis of a deep colonial history performed in black and white minidrama of the everyday. In another film of the same series, waves come crashing through the iron girders of an industrial structure reaching out into the sea. The camera peers down its length like the interior of a corridor, as the waves divide the receding depth of the shot, it’s tempting to recall Ernie Gehr’s serene velocity. There are other echoes of formal cinema in the repeated zooms through a large ‘window’ of rock towards an industrial complex beyond, and back again. A naturally occurring architectural fragment frames industrial architecture via the medium of industrial-era image making technology: the camera itself.

The activation of or interference with the natural environment, also seems to recur as a conceptual structuring in several films. In Villatalla (2011) the beautiful range of blueish greens of a misty forest, in the quiet, almost deserted mountain town form a poetic rhythmic section that spans the first half of the film and almost exclusively depicts the natural environment, with only a few shots of elderly inhabitants making their way calmly through their daily tasks, which they seem to have been performing for the good part of a lifetime. The presence of humans in the landscape only becomes gradually apparent when rapidly panning shots of the forest begin to follow electrical cables from post to post – echoing previous shots of a spider’s web attached to the head of a poppy, the settling of both species introduced by its appropriation of the wilderness. The camera’s horizontal movements seem to almost bring about this phenomenon, itself a tool that cuts through the natural landscape – albeit here with a certain subtlety. After a vertically panning shot of the town glimpsed whilst still within the forest, the inhabitants then appear. The sense of the secluded location and the simple slowness of the few figures going about their business suggests they are just another naturally occurring aspect of the landscape.

At its centrepoint the films floating soundtrack of insects, birds etc, suddenly cuts out shortly before a sequence of shot ends. The next images we see are black and white, the soundtrack returns with only the minimal, somewhat colder sound of crickets chirping. An elderly man is seen cutting back the grass of what looks like a fairly wild patch of land. Humans have re-entered the frame, this time as active agents in the landscape. It is almost as if the previous rich green substance of the film material itself were being altered from within, at an imagined deeper level than the previously seen colour emulsion.

Towards the end of the film we are taken onboard the elderly man’s small off-road vehicle which was previously seen in the colour section. Our gaze becomes mobilised, the landscape a backdrop to a mini “road movie”, the forest now pure light and shadow as the hand held camera is ferried along. Again the sound cuts out and after the final shots we return again to colour. The human is now absent, the focus is again on individual plants as the camera pans between shrubs and grasses, again seeming to tease out structure from the chaos of nature. Following the experience of the stark black and white, the colour of the forest now seems even more radiant, permeated with warm golden light.

Earlier on in Villatalla is a short sequence involving animals in captivity – a subject tackled with revealing depth in essays by John Berger and one that seems to return in several of Muñoz’s films. This occurs most strikingly in strata of natural history (2012). In a complex sequence of fragments covering seemingly disparate subject matter, a conceptual-visual ethos is built up which cuts a cross section view into the tragic history of colonialism, racial hierarchy and exploitation. We are introduced to the films context by the accompanying synopsis which states that “in 1881 a group of kaweshkar natives from Tierra del Fuego were exhibited in human zoos across Europe, organized by the merchant of wild animals Carl Hagenbeck from Hamburg”.

From the outset of the film we see still photographs of the kaweshkar natives in Berlin in 1881, overlaid with filmed images of tourists pointing, taking photos, and a leopard pacing up and down inside a cage in Berlin’s Zoological Garden, all in stark black and white. This brief sequence is followed by footage of a bird, which in the text we are told is a Greater Rhea, also originating from Tierra del Fuego, and now at the same Zoo in Berlin. The bird, according to Wikipedia is listed as “near threatened” but strangely has also established a small group in Germany in recent years. Whether this is the result of captivity or not is unclear.

Although the shocking fact of the films subject, faced head on in the opening sequence, are key to understanding the context of its images, they seem to also offer a starting point to a visual language that develops throughout the rest of the film. The next sequence involves soft focus camera movements following a woman and child, as they bathe and play in a public fountain. Again the text informs us, this is the Fuente Alemana in Santiago, Chile – a monument gifted from the German colony to mark the centenary of Chile’s independence in 1910. The monument itself (not represented clearly in the film) depicts a boat in which a young man stands tall with his arm extended, as if dominating the seas. This is apparently interpreted as the progress and development of Chile. To his side sits the Roman goddess Victoria, personifying a metaphor of the triumph of the free and sovereign nation. Another image fragment, another connection is formed through invisible information. Absent from the image itself yet active in the mind of the informed viewer, the underlying subject is contrasted by the depicted reality which remains defyingly light-weight – the innocence of the everyday both uncanny and triumphant.

The placement of these fragments in juxtaposition, in a sense also depict the filmmaker herself, a Chilean now resident in Germanic Europe, finding fragments of a buried past as she travels and allowing the camera to reroute these histories formally in the present tense, leveling their hierarchal power with the light of enigmatic observation. A self proclaimed “cineasta a la deriva” (filmmaker adrift), Muñoz seems to present these fragments as subtle exposes, souvenirs of a dark history and at the same time poetic coincidences that represent the simple truth of the moment-as-monument, like postcards sent back from another reality where the seas carry messages of constant re-configuration.

In other sections of strata we are carried along the s-bahn of Berlin, a natural double exposure provided by the window’s reflection. A singular tree on a highly cultivated lawn stands strong – the site perhaps also a monument – and glimpses of what looks like a concrete bunker pass by in horizontal pan, momentarily re-framing the landscape. A boat tour floats slowly down the Spree in Berlin, an avenue of trees is replaced by the receding pillars of classical architecture, visual elements becoming more symbolic and less direct.

An astonishing moment occurs at the end of the film when the photographs of the kaweshkar return. The hollow sadness in their eyes seems more than ever to bare witness to the indescribable experiences endured – much like Berger’s animals are no longer animals, these people, to our horror, can no longer return the camera’s gaze as human beings. This time we see their faces and bodies becoming gradually more overlaid with shots of birch trees. Perhaps the imperialist-romanticist fantasy of the European forest has obscured their history completely, or perhaps it is the contrary – that the violent colonial representation has, in this silent moment, blossomed internally with the timeless truth of nature. Whichever way we read them, these powerful fragments continue to interact in the here and now of an ever-searching, deceptively simple, personal visual cinema.

A text originally published in Jeannette Muñoz. El paisaje como un mar. ALGARÍN NAVARRO, F. (Ed.). Barcelona: Lumière, 2017.