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NYFF 2020: Remains to Be Seen Shorts Dispatch

Apparition, Ismaïl Bahri

As the series title “Remains to Be Seen” suggests, the first program of shorts from the New York Film Festival’s Currents section is all about what is left behind. Whether these remains are bodies after death, remnants of possessions, or fragments of memory, they are resurrected by the filmmakers, who become equal parts archaeologists, archivists, and historians as they attempt to document the past and imagine how to fill in the profound gaps in our records.

The first film in the series, Apparition (Ismaïl Bahri, 2019, Tunisia/France), is silent and shows us only a pair of hands holding up a photograph to a lightbox. This photograph is a snapshot from 1956, captured on Tunisia’s day of independence, but this is revealed to us only in pieces as we at first just see the glowing rectangle of the light. As a hand moves over the picture’s surface, the image and the writing on the back slowly appear, retracing the past and allowing it to emerge in the form of ghostly traces.

The theme of resurrecting a half-remembered past carries into the next film, A Revolt Without Images (Pilar Monsell, 2020, Spain), which pieces together the history of a female-led rebellion in Córdoba, 1652. “We don’t know the faces or the names of the women who led the revolt…” but Monsell turns to archaeological sites and women’s portraits in museums to try to catch glimpses of this invisible unpreserved event. Nearly silent, save for some sounds of tolling bells and hollow rings, this film is about erasure and the attempts at filling in the gaps. We see countless female faces in paintings and portraits but never learn much about them. Remembrance can be political; we must interrogate what images we have access to, how we reconstruct our histories, and what people or perspectives might be missing from what is preserved in museums or collective memory.

UNTITLED SEQUENCE OF GAPS, Vika Kirchenbauer

UNTITLED SEQUENCE OF GAPS (Vika Kirchenbauer, 2020, Germany) is a somewhat inscrutable assemblage of remains that combines disparate visuals from infrared to neon to negatives. These scattered pieces, accompanied by a mysterious voiceover about an unidentified girl and the violence women can endure, hint at the frazzled and fragmented headspace that can come in the aftermath of trauma. The film is difficult to pin down in terms of its message, but perhaps such haziness is exactly its objective. Infrared lies just beyond what humans can perceive, but even though it is invisible to us, it is still measurable. UNTITLED SEQUENCE seems to try to name the unnameable and bears witness to the invisible traces of violence left in the present.

Mouadd el Salem carries on these nightmarish feelings and attempts to make sense of half-formed dreams in This Day Won’t Last (2020, Tunisia/Belgium). This video diary/personal essay places the filmmaker in a liminal space as he examines the uncertain and precarious future for queer people in the aftermath of the Tunisian Revolution. Whereas some of the preceding films were more impersonal, about all the faceless identities effaced from the stories we tell, here the filmmaker places himself at the center.

This Day Won’t Last, Mouadd el Salem

Hidden (Jafae Panachi, 2020, France) is perhaps the least abstract of the films. Following Panahi, his daughter, and her theater-producer friend as they visit a singer in a remote Kurdish village, it tells the story of how the singer’s traditional family does not want her to perform publicly — her literal and metaphorical voice cannot be kept hidden for long. This film lacks the poeticism of some of the other shorts but takes us on a hyperrealist and personal journey toward revealing true beauty in the world.

Taken as a whole, the “Remains to Be Seen” program lives up to its title by digging up the half-buried past and asking us to bear witness to what has been rendered hidden. Some of the shorts are more overt in making their points, but at times the most subtle ghosts, like Apparition’s wordless materializations of images, are the most haunting. The series prompts each filmmaker and viewer to consider their own role in constructing history and creating memory for themselves and future generations — bringing into the light all those pieces of political or personal history that we may try to forget, but will not rest quietly. In doing so, they open our eyes to new stories, and force us to acknowledge and interact with our society’s ghosts; but they also remind us just how much more remains to be seen.

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