Cinema Project is back!
The Portland-based nonprofit has been highlighting since its founding in 2003 the work of global filmmakers who work outside the mainstream, narrative tradition, often incorporating multimedia elements. Some of us still have fond memories of climbing the stairs in a decrepit Produce Row warehouse to sit in folding chairs and watch 16mm projections. Always a shoestring operation, Cinema Project has had a series of homes over the last couple of decades, and has exhibited an ingenuity and survival instinct that far outpaced its modest means.
In 2016, the organization announced that the forthcoming season would be its final one featuring regular programming. That, however, didn’t last long. After an 18-month hiatus, Cinema Project returned in July of 2018 with a visit from Belgian-born, Berlin-based digital video artist Anouk de Clercq and a screening of her selected works on the giant screen at OMSI. Now, for its first event in two-and-a-half years, the group welcomes de Clercq for a return visit and another evening of her immersive, hypnotic work.
De Clercq’s latest films, generally shot in sharp, digital, black-and-white, incorporate textured, electronic soundtracks that draw one in to the miniature universes she creates. Rarely more than a few minutes long, each explores what de Clercq terms “radical empathy.” One (2020) consist of a single shot of New York-based multidisciplinary artist Helga Davis, standing in front of a bank of microphones, as a chorus of unseen voices recite a poetic ode to unity. In We’ll find you when the sun goes black (2021), which was inspired by a Bertolt Brecht poem, the camera explores a pitch-black sphere with a backlit corona. And in OK (2020), Davis (who-co-directed) reads a poem inspired by the racial justice protests of that year.
Describing works like these verbally, however, doesn’t do them justice. Neither, to be honest, does watching them online, as I did. These are experiential pieces, more commonly exhibited as part of gallery or museum installations. They invite introspection and contemplation, and trying to analyze them brings to mind the old “dancing about architecture” saw. These three new works will be screened alongside selections from de Clerq’s earlier videography. And, best of all, the artist herself will be on hand for a post-screening discussion that should provide illumination as to her techniques and inspiration. (Screens Wednesday, March 30, at the Hollywood Theatre)
TO DESCRIBE MASTER as “Get Out set in the world of academia” might be fairly accurate, but it wouldn’t do the movie justice. As a nominal horror film that uses genre tropes to excavate a critique of institutional racism, it clearly owes a debt to Jordan Peele’s transformative film. But, in her feature debut, writer-director Mariama Diallo gives her own unique slant, inspired by her own experience as a Black woman attending an elite university. In her case, it was Yale, and in Master it’s fictional Ancaster University, where the confident, high-achieving Jasmine (Zoe Renee) arrives as an incoming first-year student.
Jasmine soon begins to realize that, despite her suburban, valedictorian background, she’s an outsider in the very white, very male world of Ancaster, and the microaggressions she endures pile up quickly. The only other Black women on campus, it seems, are Professors Gail Bishop (Regina Hall, Support the Girls) and Liv Beckman (Amber Grey). Gail has just been appointed as “master” of Jasmine’s residence hall, the first Black woman to hold that position at the school, while the outspoken Liv is preparing for her tenure hearing.
There are all sorts of red flags. Jasmine’s residence hall was built on the site of the 17th-century gallows where a purported witch was killed. Her very room was once occupied by the school’s first Black female student, who leaped to her death from its window in the 1960s. Both historical victims of patriarchy and racism reportedly haunt the place. These rumors don’t help Jasmine’s mental state, and when racist acts—including a noose and a burning cross—occur on campus, she starts to be plagued by nightmares and visions. It’s certainly not for this reviewer to ascertain how accurate Diallo’s depiction of Jasmine’s experience is, but the banality of evil is on full display.
The professors each represent a different tactic for dealing with Ancaster, and by extension the wider, racist world: Gail is guardedly optimistic and accommodationist, counseling Jasmine to keep her head down and work within the system, while Liv refuses to conform or compromise. When Liv gives Jasmine a failing grade on a paper ostensibly exploring race in The Scarlet Letter, Jasmine files a complaint that threatens to derail the professor from the tenure track.
The question, ultimately, for all three women, is whether and how much to participate in the institutions and power structures that have historically excluded and demonized them. (It was interesting watching this film on the first day of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing.) There’s a final-act twist that, while gutsy, doesn’t quite land, but it’s redeemed by a haunting final shot that wordlessly captures the bifurcated nature of the ivory tower. (Available to stream via Amazon Prime)
Writing with Fire: Nominated for Best Feature Documentary at Sunday’s Oscars, this inspiring film follows the trials and triumphs of India’s only newspaper run entirely by women, all of whom are from the Dalit (untouchable) caste. From the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, enterprising chief reporter Meera Devi reports on a horrific rape case that the local police have been ignoring, while up-and-comer Suneeta Prajapati works to expose an illegal mining operation that’s causing environmental devastation. Meanwhile, the paper embarks on its transition to digital distribution. The film played Portland’s Living Room Theaters back in December, but is now available, just ahead of the Oscar, on demand.
Topside: It’s not surprising that this grim drama didn’t garner a wide release, but it’s more than worth a look on the small screen. Five-year-old Little (Zhalia Farmer) lives in the tunnels beneath Manhattan with her loving but very troubled mother, Nikki (Celine Held, who co-directed with Logan George). When a cleanup operation forces them “topside,” Little is thrust out of her familiar, if dank, world into an overwhelming cacophony of light, sound, and humanity. There’s some of Room here, including the extraordinarily self-possessed performance of young Farmer; a bit of Leave No Trace in the portrayal of a parent who would stop at nothing to keep their child out of “the system”; and the scattered urban intensity of Uncut Gems. That recipe results in an impressive first feature that’s authentically heartbreaking and peppered with moments of visual poetry. (Available March 25 on demand)
THE REST OF THE WEEK:
Friday 3/25: Kwaidan  (Clinton St. Theater); The Special People [2021, d: Erica Schreiner); Tammy and the T-Rex  (Hollywood);
Saturday 3/26: Caravaggio  (Whitsell Auditorium); Flesh and the Devil  (Hollywood); Out of the Past  (Cinema 21); The Road Warrior [1982, 35mm] (Hollywood)
Sunday 3/27: Drive My Car  (Hollywood); Hype!  (Clinton St.)
Monday 3/28: Beau Travail  (Clinton St.); The Piano  (Hollywood)
Tuesday 3/29: A Brief History of Time  (Clinton St.); The Torch [2019, Buddy Guy documentary] (Hollywood)
Wednesday 3/30: Peau du Peche [1929 silent w/new original score] (Clinton St.)
Thursday 3/31: The Hills Have Eyes  (Clinton St.); The Lure  (Hollywood); The Shooting  (Clinton St.)