This year’s edition of the Onion City Film Festival (formerly the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival) holds together nicely. Several clear themes emerge from the four-day event: the experience of women and other underrepresented groups, revolutionary politics, the relationship between people and their environments, and the humorous possibilities of experimenting with the film form. Curator Emily Eddy has wisely spread these themes evenly across the nine programs, so attendees can get a sampling of each no matter what day they go. In fact several themes appear in each program, barring a couple of exceptions. Thursday’s opening night program, “Histories & Futures,” contains work solely by female filmmakers, while program six, “The Vibrating World,” playing Sunday at 3:30 PM, is devoted exclusively to films about travel.
A standout of the entire festival, Chicago-based Melika Bass’s Creature Companion (playing in “Histories & Futures”) arguably synthesizes all of the festival’s concerns. A strange and funny meditation on the ideas of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (who also inspired Dusan Makavejev’s classic W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism), it’s a quasi-narrative film about two women doing weird things with their bodies (gyrating, rubbing against trees and other objects) in and around a suburban home. Bass creates tension between the domesticated interiors and the unconventional physical behavior, which has roots in Reich’s radical ideas about body-generated energy. Creature Companion also looks and moves like a narrative film despite presenting no conventional character development—the film brims with the energy of a story about to be born.
The other works in “Histories & Futures” are more direct in their engagement with social theory and practice. Local filmmaker Deborah Stratman’s Vever (for Barbara) combines footage shot by the great artist and filmmaker Barbara Hammer in Guatemala in 1975 with an elderly Hammer explaining to Stratman on the soundtrack why she never printed the footage until now. It’s a poignant and self-reflexive film about how artists engage with the world. Nazli Dinçel’s Instructions on How to Make a Film presents academic discourse on representation alongside provocative, sexually charged imagery. Closing the program is Cauleen Smith’s dense, associative Sojourner. That work pays tribute to John and Alice Coltrane before launching into a montage of female activists engaged in demonstrations, then peaks during scenes of a utopian female society in Joshua Tree National Park.
Another feminist standout is Cecelia Condit’s We Were Hardly More Than Children, which plays in program four, “Ephemerality Means No One Can Take It From You,” on Saturday at 5:30 PM. The short is alternately a portrait of painter Diane Messinger and a memory piece in which Messinger recounts helping a friend procure an abortion in the late 1960s and the hardships that followed. Condit combines documentary footage and abstract imagery to convey the lasting emotional pain felt by Messinger and her friend, achieving a moving effect.
The shorts that play before and after We Were Hardly More Than Children also consider movingly various underrepresented experiences. Kym McDaniel’s Exit Strategy #4 deals with the filmmaker’s history with an eating disorder, Cecilia Doughtery’s Joe features writer Joe Westmoreland reading a story about experiencing anti-gay bullying in high school, and in the work In Conversation With Venus and Octavia Xitlalli Sixta-Tarin presents a direct-camera confession about being a transwoman alongside similarly framed confessions from Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.
Screening in program five, “Giving & Taking & Losing & Listening” (on Saturday at 8 PM), the 24-minute personal documentary Lyndale considers the family life of another trans filmmaker, Oli Rodriguez, who codirected the piece with Victoria Stob. Lyndale introduces viewers to Rodriguez’s working-class family in the early 2000s, presenting colorful portraits of the filmmaker (who’s shown just after he started identifying as a man), his brother (who’s suffering from an unspecified mental illness), and their garrulous, recently remarried mother, who always seems to be smoking a cigarette. Also of note in program five is Saif Alsaegh’s 1991, which communicates the emotional isolation felt by the filmmaker, an Iraqi asylum-seeker living in the U.S., and his mother, who lives in Turkey. Alsaegh shows himself hanging out alone at a cabin in winter, occasionally talking to his mother via FaceTime and reading his mother’s testimony about giving birth during the Iraq War in 1991. Despite the sadness of their situation, the work contains moments of levity, as when Alsaegh collaborates with his mother on a recipe over the phone.
In its consideration of what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange country, 1991 sets the stage for many of the works in Sunday’s three programs, which mostly deal with the experience of orienting oneself in the world. All three works in “The Vibrating World” address this theme head-on, but none more viscerally than Joshua Gen Solondz’s (tourism studies), a dizzying, almost nauseating montage of footage the filmmaker shot in multiple countries over ten years. (Solondz heightens the effect by sometimes laying swirling geometric patterns over the footage.) Bill Witherspoon’s Thoughts on Light and Electricity is a gorgeous-looking work that starts with footage shot by director Philip Rabalais for a corporate video about retired Sky Factory CEO Bill Witherspoon, then uses compelling split-screen effects to consider a daunting desert landscape with a mountain in the background. “The Vibrating World” closes with my favorite piece in the festival, Electric Fogs, Swiss filmmaker Samir Nahas’s 36-minute personal documentary about hiking in the Alps after a rare illness rendered him bed-bound for months. Nahas employs impressive shots of mountains and trails to lead viewers to reflect on humanity’s place in the world as a whole.
Zachary Epcar’s Life After Love—playing in program seven, “Miserablism,” at 5:30 PM—makes light of the themes introduced in Electric Fogs, employing eerily precise compositions and zooms to frame images of people sitting in their parked cars in a lot. Epcar offers a wry, curious view of car culture and the impossibility of establishing humanity within it. His sharp sense of form and humor anticipates some of the pieces in the final program, “The Truth! Ha!” (which starts at 7:30 PM). I Don’t Know When the Armageddon Is and Elder Abuse, by local filmmakers Casey Puccini and Drew Durepos respectively, both begin as funny, knockabout family portraits, then get weird in surprising ways I won’t spoil here. Elder Abuse features a memorable turn by Durepos’s foul-mouthed grandmother, shown berating the filmmaker into giving her a cigarette. Not funny but certainly impressive on a formal level are Michael Gitlin’s 3D portrait film Eastern District Terminal and Grace Mitchell’s Magic Bath, a melange of footage and still images shot by the filmmaker between adolescence and early adulthood. Where Gitlin overwhelms with a heightened sense of location, Mitchell creates a rush of fragmented memories.
The highly personal Magic Bath speaks to how experimental filmmaking has always provided avenues for filmmakers to communicate intimate, even private experiences. If that’s your favorite aspect of the avant-garde, be sure to catch the programs on Friday night. Sky Hopinka’s Fainting Spells (which opens program two, “Casting Spells and Slowly Swaying” at 9 PM) uses an unpredictable collection of cinematic devices to create, in the filmmaker’s words, “an imagined myth of the Indian pipe plant used by the Ho-Chunk to revive those who have fainted.” In A Small Place (playing in program one, “The Tension Here,” at 7 PM), Greta Snider uses abstract imagery to convey the disembodied feeling of living in solitary confinement. Another standout of the festival, Kera Mackenzie and Andrew Mausert-Mooney’s Stones for Thunder, closes program one with a disjointed yet startlingly original montage that brings together shots of (among other things) nature, a television control room, fireworks, and gymnasts. Mackenzie and Mausert-Mooney convey nothing less than the disorientation of modern life in times of great change, a feeling that spans the personal and political selections of this year’s Onion City. v