The sixth series of short films from New York Film Festival’s Currents features, referred to collectively as “Here and Elsewhere,” is comprised of narratives attempting to locate memory and unearth pain, wrestling with where we have been and where we go from here. Extractions by Thirza Cuthand, Aquí y allá by Melisa Liebenthal, Sanfield by Kevin Jerome Everson, and Apiyemiyekî? by Ana Vaz all explore displacement and depersonalization in different ways, poetically approaching the topic of “place” and the roots we make.
In the first film of the series Extractions (2019, Canada), Cuthand tackles Canada’s resource extraction industry, but filters it through a deeply personal perspective as she offers narration about her youth as a queer indigenous kid and considers what resources were offered or denied to her. Even as she reflects on trying to honor the earth and return to old ways of being, she tries to acknowledge how she and her reservation may have benefited from resource exploitation — capitalism and colonialism are pervasive and inescapable forces. Cuthand’s film is both social critique and personal essay, as she jumps between discussions of intergenerational trauma and exploitation to her own reflections on wanting to bring a child into the world. Manitoba has the highest rate of indigenous kids in foster care — and she fears if she has kids and moves there, her kids could be taken by child services. She draws a metaphorical parallel between resource extraction and the deleterious impacts of the adoption industry, comparing the mining of resources to the exploitation of indigenous women’s bodies for children. Indigenous kids are a resource exploited to siphon money into white pockets, and pain and trauma are often commodified. But does this mean this is the end of life? Or is there a future for indigenous people? Her film ends on a note of optimism — it may seem like the end of life on earth is imminent, but she hopes that there can be a world where indigenous kids can grow.
Aquí y allá (2019, Argentina/France) is another personal essay about family history and futures, as Liebenthal attempts to pin down the place and the idea of home. Liebenthal traces her German, Chinese, Argentinian, and Jewish heritage, and the path of her family’s movement in time and space, from 1930s Berlin to China to her birthplace in Buenos Aires. It begins with zooming in from an aerial shot on a digital street rendering, navigating this virtual map to try to orient the audience. But she also seems to be struggling to orient herself: “Today I live here,” she says as she zooms. “It’s my home but not my house. Or is it my house but not my home?” As she zooms in and in and in, the image pixelates and the pixels scatter about into pieces of data — as if proving how fragile the photographic image, and the reality it attempts to represent, are. Maps, archives, and digital material, passports and photographs and family artifacts can offer some insight into her past, but still she has no idea of how her family truly felt when resettling and attempting to place themselves somewhere new. She can zoom and zoom and zoom — but she can only get so close to the true emotion.
In Sanfield (2020, USA), the subjects know exactly where they are — but perhaps not who they are. Filmmaker Everson is acclaimed for his depictions of the lives of Black Americans and his portraits of the duration of labor. In Sanfield Everson, he turns to Columbus Air Force Base in Columbus, Mississippi, to show scenes of routine and physical exertion in the training exercises. The men and women of the 14th Flying Training Wing are shot in gorgeous black and white, and Everson frames his scenes in observational tableaux, watching soldiers converse and train. Yet the Black soldiers are stripped of their individuality and personhood through the uniforms they wear and the uniformity of their movements, and one soldier repeats the word “zero” again and again in response to offscreen questions. Everson’s film is ambiguous and ambivalent about its stance on enlistment, but captures a sense of (perhaps willful) , and the subjects seem to lose themselves in the looping audio and video as they give themselves to the military.
Apiyemiyekî? (2019, Brazil/France/Portugal/Netherlands) is a documentary that uses a mosaic of visual techniques to bring to life the oft-forgotten history of the Waimiri-Atroari people of the Brazilian Amazon, who were violently oppressed and robbed of their land by the Brazilian government. In ghostly black and white, Vaz takes us through sculptures and engraved plaques, and drawings of monstrous figures or strange forms by the Waimiri-Atroari people. Vaz gathers these images and archival drawings from their caretaker Egydio Schwade, a literacy educator and indigenous rights activist, and the film is a stunning repository of the work of the native Amazonian peoples and their brutal oppression under Brazil’s military dictatorship. Short and powerful, this packs so much history and an emotional wallop into only 27 minutes, bombarding you with sound, image, and anger. These tragic drawings of death and depression bear witness to the Ameridian genocide and demand we do, too.
“Here and Elsewhere” spans various countries and continents, family memories and histories of entire peoples, but exists mostly in a place of uncertainty, in the liminal space between here and there, now and then, fact and fiction. Our origins may be unknown, and our destination from here is unforeseeable — but perhaps there is beauty, or at least hope, to be found in this precarity.