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NYFF 2020 Review: Currents Program 2 — ‘Free Radicals’ Spark Revolution in the Digital and Landscape

These shorts use digital renderings and uncanny landscapes to start to strip away our humanity and demand action to restore it.

King of Sanwi, Akosua Adoma Owusu

The second program of New York Film Festival’s Currents features five short films from different corners of the world: Akosua Adoma Owusu’s King of Sanwi, Simon Liu and Jennie MaryTai Liu’s – force –, Suneil Sanzgiri’s Letter From Your Far-Off Country, Shobun Baile’s Trust Study #1, and Riccardo Giacconi’s Ekphrasis. While disparate in their countries of origin and specific topics of focus, they are united in their political interest, looking at how revolutions get sparked and movements form. They’re never afraid to stir up some archival or digital ghosts, and prompt us to consider what rights and responsibilities our bodies have.

King of Sanwi (2020, USA/Ghana) centers on Michael Jackson’s connections to the African content, unfolding as a high-energy explosion of color and funky collage of archival video and animation. It begins with the Jackson 5’s 1974 trip to Senegal and builds up the moment in 1992 when the King of Pop was crowned King of Sanwi in the Ivory Coast, and its visuals are loud and brash as it animates a bizarre little slice of history.

– force –, Simon Liu and Jennie MaryTai Liu

Both – force – (2020, Hong Kong/USA) and Letter From Your Far-Off Country (2020, USA/India) use digital renderings and mixed media to explore human likeness and lost agency. These films go much more futuristic in their animations than King of Sanwi’s fuzzy vintage aesthetic: – force – features digital avatars and abstract computer-generated images, and a monotone voice drones on, dictating rules to follow and ways to live. “Vision, purpose, values… remain safe… remain stable…uphold rules…maintain order…” These mandates from the robotic regulator are as ominous as they are enchanting, as we start to feel our sense of agency, and humanity, start to slip away. In Letter From Your Far-Off Country, Sanzgiri’s journey is personal as it explores uncanny valleys of digital recreation. It intertwines Kashmiri poems with letters to politicians and the words of his own father, and the various voices join together to propel us onward. An eerie chorus of voices drones on in dissonance as we move through digital renderings of the Kashmir mountains, and the voice-over reflects how in this landscape, “Everyone carries his address in his pocket so at least his body will reach home…”  As the series  of shorts progresses, this idea of disembodiment and depersonalization keeps coming back, as we are left trying to figure out how to move through tumultuous societies and retain a sense of ourselves. 

Trust Study #1 is centered on movement, too — or rather lack of movement — as it focuses on the idea of “hawala,” an informal money transfer system, which it constitutes as transfer without movement. It takes hawala as the subject of its dialogue between Pakistani guide and tourist. This conversation is depicted in total silence, told through text onscreen: chatting about needing money, feeling skittish in the post-9/11 landscape, and demanding new definitions of trust and means of encryption. “In America, they translate hawala to trust, but that’s not exactly right…” the text onscreen tells us; “Transfer seems more accurate.” Not keeping records is important for hawaladars, because we never seem to know who might obtain that sensitive information — and obtain access to our personal lives through it. We are ever afraid in every encounter, whether physical or digital, that our agency or identities might soon be in jeopardy.”

Trust Study #1, Shobun Baile

Ekphrasis takes a dive into the past as director Giaccooni ventures to South Tyrol, a province in Italy home to a German-speaking population. He scrutinizes the symbols of Nazism and fascist ideology lingering in the present via a calm and formal female narrator who talks us through the scene, speaking in the second person to place us there with her. “It is night. You are outdoors…” she says to orient us; we see swastikas and crosses, stained figurines, people and statues, as we move through slide images and hear the click and the sound of a projector. How do we acknowledge, and reckon with, the atrocities of the former generations and our continued complicity? How can we get ourselves to recognize that the past is never dead and buried? The narrator reminds us how we can tell the time based on the shadows, but we never seem to quite glimpse our own shadow — and can start to think that maybe we don’t have one, becoming one of the many ghosts that need to be exorcised ourselves. 

We might grow increasingly disembodied or detached in the face of oppressive government, digital depersonalization, or the crushing weight of history, but there is always the potential for rebellion, resilience, and resistance. Like free radicals on a molecular level that are highly reactive, the political radicals in these shorts bound around independently, determined to stir up action. 

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