The Age of Animals

The centerpiece of this year’s Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival is Sauerbruch Hutton Architects (Sat 1/31, 3 PM), the penultimate documentary feature by German filmmaker and theorist Harun Farocki, who passed away last summer at age 70. Farocki’s massive body of work—which spans films, gallery installations, and critical essays—centers on the theme of social control in everyday life, and Sauerbruch documents a group of Berlin architects as they design an impersonal-looking office complex for a French software company. The longest scenes depict intensely focused discussions of things like window handles and the backs of chairs; as presented by Farocki, these moments are quietly disturbing, showing how much money and planning go into public spaces we’re meant to take for granted.

Unquietly disturbing is Gregg Biermann’s 40-minute video The Age of Animals, screening as part of a shorts program (Fri 1/30, 8:30 PM). Biermann creates head-spinning effects with footage he shot at the Vatican, the Bronx Zoo, and the New York Museum of Natural History, manipulating the images so they look as if they’re being projected on the inside of an ever-shifting prismatic structure. On the soundtrack a paleontologist discusses the extinction of the dinosaurs and warns that global warming could bring about the extinction of all animal life on earth. His words add a layer of dread to the vertiginous imagery, creating a scary yet hypnotic experience.

That same program features two other provocative historical meditations. In Asleep, Paulo Abreu intercuts recent footage shot on and around an active volcano with documentary footage of the volcano erupting in the 1950s. Talena Sanders’s Prospector is a collagelike essay about the effects of Western imperialism on northern India and on Native American communities in the southwestern U.S.; interwoven shots of untouched landscapes and tourist kitsch suggest an ongoing conflict between past and present.

Like many shorts in this year’s festival, Prospector uses 16-millimeter film to evoke feelings of nostalgia, fragility, and irreparable loss. All but two pieces in the first shorts program on Friday (1/30, 6:30 PM) were shot in this format, the standouts being Zach Iannazzi’s California Picture Book and Fern Silva’s Tender Feet. Both are impressionistic works that convey a vivid sense of place and the feeling that life flits by too quickly. By contrast Tania Dinis’s Super-8 short They’re Not Fava Beans, They’re Scarlet Runner Beans, screening in the second shorts program on Saturday (1/31, 5 PM), presents a life slowly drawing to a close, as Dinis’s grandmother engages in archaic farming rituals.

Fava Beans makes a perfect lead-in to the next short on that program: Philip Hoffman’s Aged, the most touching piece in this year’s fest. Hoffman assembled this 45-minute work from footage he shot over six years while tending to his infirm father. Using both analog and digital manipulation techniques, he makes the images appear otherworldly while maintaining a heartrending intimacy with his subjects.