Compelling Banality: Fact and Fiction at Migrating Forms


Migrating Forms, the film festival hosted by BAMcinématek annually (despite its nomadic calendar placement), has carved out a niche for itself straddling repertory cinema and video art. This year, the festival’s seventh and its third at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (previous editions took place at Anthology Film Archives, as did Migrating Forms’ predecessor, the New York Underground Film Festival), curators Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry showed Frances Stark’s cat videos and online chats alongside Abbas Fahdel’s harrowing five-and-a-half hour documentary Homeland: Iraq Year Zero, 2015, in a program of challenging works that are arguably even more thought-provoking in their strange combination.

I can’t imagine another context where Stark’s masturbatory videos, usually presented as gallery or museum installations, and Fahdel’s war documentary, which is currently on the film festival circuit, would end up in conversation. The festival’s showcase of Stark’s work included a montage of the artist’s smartphone pics, mostly shot around the house, overdubbed with rapper Big Sean’s top 20 single “I Don’t Fuck with You,”  a video of Stark’s young son and his friend watching David Bowie clips on a laptop, and a single-channel version of Osservate, leggete con me (2012), in which white-on-black text edited from real online chats Stark had with younger Italian men is cut to an aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Fahdel’s film, in stark contrast, documents Iraq before and after the US invasion through the day-to-day lives of the filmmaker’s kin, a middle-class Iraqi family living in Baghdad. One of the first scenes shows the director’s nieces and nephews lounging around watching cartoons and making tea. Both Stark and Fahdel’s works are anchored by the intimacy of domestic cinema verité and, in some of their most revelatory moments, comprise the home video magic of children at once unself-conscious of the camera and performing for the family member behind it.

A compelling banality united many of the works in Migrating Forms. Britta Thie’s semi-autobiographical web series “The Transatlantics” (2015), dramatizing her life as an emerging artist in Berlin and New York, knit together documentary-style footage of the director-actor in an arcade in Chinatown and watching Star Trek with her uncle in rural Germany. While Thie pondered online avatars and differences between life before and after the Internet, several of James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s works also included prosaic realism and featured characters explicitly contemplating mediated representation. Wilkins’s short film TESTER (2015) consists entirely of surveillance footage from an AV repair shop, accompanied by a film-noir voice-over. Documentary textures in these narrative works function as a common thread connecting the festival’s fiction and nonfiction selections.

Everyday life under war and revolution, of course, has a particular quality. Fahdel presents it in Homeland, and it also resonates in the quotidian detail of Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan (2014), which depicts Ukraine’s 2013 anti-government uprising, and of Haskell Wexler’s 1965 documentary The Bus, about a cross-country road trip to the March of Washington, the pivotal civil-rights protest. Loznitsa’s and Wexler’s documentaries are not personal like Fahdel’s. Loznitsa presents the protest community that emerges in Kiev, choosing to document its scope rather than following individual characters. His camera watches nameless volunteers making sandwiches and stirring steaming vats of soup. Wexler, too, focuses on group dynamics in The Bus, though the crowd is much smaller. The protesters discuss pit stops and food options as much as—if not more than—politics, and Wexler, with a keen ear for dialogue, is able to reveal a great deal about the marchers through their small talk.

Wexler’s The Bus was part of a small retrospective folded into the festival spotlighting the lesser-known works that the legendary cinematographer shot and directed. Migrating Forms also showed his dissident Vietnam War documentary starring Jane Fonda, Introduction to the Enemy (1974), and the political drama Medium Cool (1969), set during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the summer of 1968. The latter tells the fictional story of a TV reporter and culminates in the real-life riots that took place when protestors and police clashed outside the convention. The film felt like a poignant choice in an election year that has seen acute social discontent and doubts about television journalism’s integrity in its coverage of the candidates. 

Works by Middle Eastern filmmakers and artists in the festival functioned as a corrective to the images typically seen in the US media, offering a relief from all-too-common villain-and-victim narratives. In addition to Fahdel’s Homeland, there were two programs of video art, one by the eight-artist collective GCC and the other by Palestinian artist Basma Alsharif. GCC’s selections included a found commercial for the Dubai Entertainment District and an original work in the style of a corporate promotional video that recapped the collective’s inaugural meeting and ribbon-cutting ceremony. Their winking conceptualism stood apart from more diaristic works at Migrating Forms.

Though Fahdel’s Homeland is a straightforward documentary and Alsharif’s works collage poetic voiceovers, ominous soundtracks and decontextualized footage (landscape viewed from a moving car, a girl playing the cello in her living room, a field full of turkeys), both artists present a fully human experience of war and occupation. Early in Alsharif’s 19-minute We Began By Measuring the Distance (2009), a voice speaks in Arabic as English subtitles read: “Our first memory was marked by the day setting off to a start/ with the worst of all evils/ BOREDOM,” accompanied by an image of forlorn-looking women and children sitting on the dirt ground. A similar sensibility permeates Fahdel’s Homeland. The filmmaker lingers on humdrum conversations and domestic scenes, but partway through he informs us through a jarring piece of onscreen text that his nephew, who begins to figure as the film’s protagonist, will die shortly after the invasion. All of a sudden, every banal detail becomes emotionally charged with the knowledge that the normalcy we’re watching will soon be irreversibly changed. And yet, even after the invasion, most of the footage consists of tedious scenes of picking up rations or dropping the kids off at school.

War is boring most of the time. Occupation is boring most of the time. Video art is boring most of the time, too. There’s a quality of attention that Fahdel’s exhaustive documentary, Alsharif’s abstract videosand many of the other works in the festivaldemand. As a description of art, the term “politically engaged” has been evacuated of meaning through overuse, but the commitment from the audience these works require suggests another way to think about artists’ approach to engagement. When the subject matter is as challenging as a child’s death—which Fahdel shows explicitly—or the bombing implied by the distant noise of aircrafts in Alsharif’s videos, the silences and long cuts that pose challenges to the audience’s attention seem to be the only reasonable response.