Onion City Highlights Some of the Best Experimental Films | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Onion City Highlights Some of the Best Experimental Films

Tomorrow night, the media arts organization Chicago Filmmakers kicks off its 22nd Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival with a collection of shorts from around the world. For WBEZ, film critic Jonathan Miller previewed a handful of the films, and brings us this review.

June 17-June 20
Various Venues

Joe Weerasathakul won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year for his feature Uncle Boonmee Who Can Picture His Past Lives. The 18 minute video screening at Onion City constitutes an oblique gloss on the feature film. The film consists mainly of moving shots of uninhabitated interiors of houses in Nabua, a rural village in Thailand. On the soundtrack, several young men read a letter written by the filmmaker. The letter describes Weerasthakul‘s desire to make a movie about his uncle. It touches on his proposal to treat the subject of reincarnation, and the differences between the house in his script and the houses he's found in the village. The film melds location scout, ghost story, and political critique. Nabua is haunted by its own past: government soldiers engaged in purging the area of communists once tortured and killed the inhabitants of the village. Insects flit across the lens. Insects which Weerasthakul considered akin to ghostly presences. A group of young soldiers dig outside; they may be digging something up or preparing to bury something.

Acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zia Zhang-Ke sharply outlines the complex identities and emotional undercurrents of four reunited friends in Cry Me a River. Brought together to celebrate a former professor, they confront time's passage. Once they were members of the “next generation” — youthful provocateurs energized to institute change. Now they find themselves looking back, through veils of regret and disappointment. Zia quickly establishes a motif of the character's eyesight, no longer as good as it once was. Over the course of the few hours they spend together he shows how they have earned a painfully acute view of their unrealized desires and dreams that now are downstream.

In BEAUTY PLUS PITy, filmmakers Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby wield their grave wit to mount what they subtitle “a movie in 7 parts”. Deliberately flat computer animation alternates with found footage of a European hunting party celebrating the slaying of a pile of magnificent stags. Duke and Battersby's animals have pretty much had it with humans, because of the mess we've made of the world. But they haven't given up on us. The film concludes with the animals, as spirit guides, offering humanity redemption for behaving more ethically. The film candy-colors its bitter medicine, a treatment at once impossible and necessary, prescribed for a syndrome as hopeful as it is desperate.

Daichi Saito's Trees of Syntax Leaves of Axis weaves a stunning tapestry of sheer visual and auditory immediacy. A tour-de-force of optical printing, Saito's 35 mm film overlays multiple perspectives of tree trunks and leaves in precisely varying patterns, rhythmically expanding shadow and color. The movements between frames and sequences synchronizes with a serrated soundtrack of violin music, composed by Malcolm Gladstein, cutting out a tempo like a fine-toothed saw. The insistent audio-visual barrage creates a mesmerizing effect, abstracting nature into a pulsing presence. This is surely among the most breathtakingly exciting, visually stimulating walk in the woods imaginable.

Artist Sharon Lockhart's film Podworka directs our attention to the courtyards of the Polish city of Lodz. Urban pockets of varying shapes and sizes, these spaces are the de facto playgrounds for the children of the city. In long takes with a fixed viewpoint, Lockhart shows six different courtyards in which we see kids of various ages engaged in a range of activities: climbing, kicking a ball, digging a hole, riding bikes. In different ways they activate the spaces, bringing to life the uniformly drab, battered gray walls and cracked and pitted pavements with their imaginative play and vitality. In Lockhart's peaceful and meditative work, human patterns build subtle structures that depend upon and also go beyond the limits of the confined spaces in which they take place.

In our pervasively media-saturated world, channels for exhibition proliferate. As they do, more and more content pours forth, coming to roost on any available retina. Distinguishing works of merit from mere eye fodder requires experience and knowledge of media history. The discernment of the Onion City Festival's curators is second to none. They have assembled a selection of the best works from the shifting, slicing edge of innovation in media art. The films and video they've programmed in this years festival offer the chance to experience audio-visual art unburdened by the relentless uniformity of the same old, stale formulas that determine most of the media we consume. It's a summer vacation for the mind's eye.

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