Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dianne Ouellette retrospective in Regina

Here is a draft of the program notes I wrote for the screening of films by Dianne Ouellette I curated for the Filmpool that screened at the Artesian in Regina:

Dianne Ouellette Retrospective, October 25, 2012
                From the first time I saw Dianne Ouellette's films, I was humbled. Even her earliest films had an incredible elegance and depth. She has always kept her techniques relatively simple; image with sound, but her instinct for combining these elements defies imitation.  
                In searching for Dianne's secrets, I have looked more than once at what she says about her own work, especially her earlier artist statements. Two factors emerge within Dianne's self analysis. The first is an admission of how long the project took to create with an inevitable apology for the film's late release. This type of rationalization has previously always seemed like Dianne's method of avoiding talking about the more personal aspects of the films, her brave, soul-searching content, but instead to safely redirect discussion towards the filmmaking process. The second factor I found was for Dianne to discuss her films in terms of their importance as documents of her family and family history. Again, a deflection exists as she shifts authorship away from herself and onto the individual subjects. I now wonder if my own dismissal of Dianne's self critique has been too quick. History, time, and aging are central to Dianne's discussion of her work as well as being central to the work itself.  Her criticism of the time it takes to create this work, the delay and distance between the shooting of the subject and the exhibition to the audience, is a curious obsession. This possible thematic element has become important to me when considered alongside evidence of my own viewing experiences as I revisit her films through the filter of time. An acute awareness of the events on-screen existing in the past within a confined  chronological period is reinforced through the discussion of production schedules and delays. We know that these events happened and we also know that events must have continued afterwards. In Brechtian fashion, we are not only aware that we are watching a film, we are also aware that the filmic events did not conclude with the completion of the project.  
                Age and experience cast new light on all art. In revisiting Dianne's films, I am seeing something new and surprisingly fresh in these images and voices. I still stand by my 2007 Splice Magazine analysis of her films as "memory presented as fluid and sometimes frozen through the use of formal conventions" and that "time stops just as memory obsesses over single moments, ignoring all others".  Five years later, I still see Dianne as a master at using film as a manipulation of time, but now, more than ever, I see her as an author of memory. She does not hold back; issues of death, regret, and sorrow mix with love, joy, and fun. With first impressions, Dianne's films strike the viewer as being more about melancholy than amusement. On multiple viewing, especially when viewings are broken up by large periods of time, the oppositional forces of her life appear to slowly merge into one. Dianne shows us her life, not as a series of historical moments, tragic hardships, or romantic trysts but rather as an amalgamation of events, each intertwined and indebted to the last. This is what cinema is best at, showing  a flow rather than a snapshot. Life does not have a decisive moment, it has blurred moments that are a bit of this and a bit of that. We sometimes choose to remember only the good or only the bad, but Dianne will be there reminding us that we live in a blurry place that cannot be so easily contained.

                Dianne shows us her life so that we can better see our own. She uses the camera as a mirror and then challenges us to gaze at ourselves. We look at Dianne's life, and ultimately at our own lives, as an unsolvable conundrum of sadness and elation. Her bravery makes us all better people. Yes, it may be that the creation of these films is cathartic for Dianne herself, but in making them so public, presenting them on film to be communally shared, a new catharsis is formed which allows strangers to begin down their own paths of self discovery.
                            - Gerald Saul, curator, October 2012
december (11 minutes, 16mm, 1997)
This was Dianne's second film and the first in which she truly embraced her now trademark style ; using direct address audio commentary alongside casual, almost home-movie-like film clips. Dianne discusses her own life and her relationship with her mother as she struggles with entering adulthood.

Ashes (7 minutes, 16mm, 2005)
Full of music and journeys, this visually powerful film features Dianne's uncle as he attempts to deal with the memory of his late wife. Amidst the melancholy background of photographs and the cemetery, brightly lit carrousels still spin and the cycle of life and renewal is constantly in motion.

sigh (9 minutes, 16mm, 2001)
This deeply symbolic film uses an image of a horse, it's grace and freedom confined by the slow motion process of filmmaking, to consider the illusion of emotion. Included here as a representation of how Dianne uses film to poetically come to terms with her own life and personal issues.  

1971 (3 minutes, super-8, 2008)
Dianne features her grandfather whose voice-over narration describes meeting his wife and how she eventually runs off, abandoning him for another more flamboyant man. The film challenges our trust of memory and the stories we hear when the images of a prone body suggest a different, far less romantic end to this story.

Aurthur (3 minutes, super-8, 2005)
A day in the life of new puppy; its energetic and spontaneous life captured with a controlled and steady camera. The dog finds conflict even though the film is without a story.

Departure (3 minutes, super-8, 2003)
This film combines moments of old television shows with film of Dianne's sister in the process of packing.  It epitomizes the fusion of the everyday with the momentous events which punctuate our lives as Alison prepares for a life-changing departure. Mass media, indifferent to the events of its viewers, punctuate the process with irony and wit.

Bootalicious (3 minutes, super-8, 2010)
Bold, strong, and fun, this film has always seemed like the best portrait Dianne ever did of herself.

Summer (45 minutes, digital, 2007) PREMIERE
With this complex weaving of events, voices, and images Dianne attempts to document her sister's struggle with a bi-polar disorder. The borders of time and history are drawn increasingly into question as Dianne blurs the events of the past and present, drawing upon images from her previous films and asking questions that do not yet have answers.

Gerald Saul, curator, is a long time member of the Saskatchewan Filmpool and a professor in the Department of Media Production and Studies at the University of Regina.
Dianne Ouellette - Artist Statement
                Film for me is about memory.  As life unfolds, so do the stories in my completed works. My work is a reflection of my experiences and memories.  Themes of love and loss flow through many of my films. Feelings of nostalgia come forth in the works with grainy images created with super 8 and 16mm film; as the images dancing on screen seem to be from some far away time like a distant familiar memory.
                I have found that throughout the years of public screenings that viewers watch my films and reflect upon their own lives relating with their own life experiences. There is a lot of sadness in the reflected images of my films, but there is also humor and happiness. There is a definite mix of emotions, even for myself when re-watching them years later.
                "december" tells the story of life, death and turning thirty. "sIgh" tells the story of failed relationships in contrast to the 50 year marriage of my grandparents. "Ashes" is a reflection of mortality through my grandfather's grief over the death of his wife and the most recent death of his son who once told me the secret of life. All these films are a reflection of life so far and all the expectations that are to come with aging.
                All of my super 8 films were created for the "One-Take Super 8 event" held annually in Regina.. "Aurthur" is a silent film that introduces my new puppy from years ago. "1971" is the story my grandfather tells about my biological grandmother who I never knew. In my Grandfather's mind she ran off with a movie director from Hollywood; when in fact she was found murdered on a street in Edmonton in 1971. "Bootalicious" is a bittersweet goodbye to the trucker I once dated. "Departure" is a step from the craziness that the cards of life had dealt as my sister and I depart on a journey to England to work on my film "Summer".
                Lastly, "Summer" is my documentary that was completed in 2006, but sat on a shelf collecting dust until now. It tells the story of my stepfather and sister who were both diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the summer of 2002. I wasn't ready to show the documentary until recently. It's a personal story about my family and the struggle we went through to get well.

                I look back on my work with great sadness at times because so much has changed since I started creating my work. I have lost my grandmother, who we see waving goodbye to me in "sIgh". I have lost my Uncle who we see playing his guitar in "Ashes" with my grandfather who could once play the violin. I see my grandfather in so much of my work and now he sits in a nursing home with no memory of his wife of 50 years, as he has Alzheimer's disease. Lastly, I see my brother, Guy,  in so many of my films. He was killed in a rig accident almost 3 years ago. The last images of my brother speaking on camera are in "Summer". For me this will remain my memory of the way he looks and the way he sounded when he spoke.
                Know that through all the sadness that is expressed in my films there is true happiness for having such a collection of work. "Life is good.", as my sister, Allison concludes in "Summer".

Dianne Ouellette - Biography
                Dianne Ouellette earned her BFA in Film and Video in 1995 and her BA in Theatre in 1993 from the University of Regina. She was born in Prince George, BC and as a child moved to a small town in Saskatchewan. As well as being known as an independent filmmaker, she has worked in the corporate training video world for over 10 years. Within the film industry, she has been a producer, writer, director, cinematographer, videographer, and editor. Dianne has served the Saskatchewan Filmpool as its president and as the editor of Splice Magazine. Her award winning films have been screened internationally in Paris, Croatia, India, Italy, San Francisco, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Telluride, Vancouver, Victoria, and Toronto. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Ethical Problems with Human-Centric Narratives in Lego Mars Mission Play Sets.

I wrote thisin 2009 and it was published in an online magazine, Rigor Mortis, which now seems to be altered or defunct, so I am republishing it here. It seems that all of the links to the Lego site no longer exist, so I've put in a couple of Youtube links. It will take some time to find all of the original material. Unfortunately, the Lego site was all in flash video and I didn't have the means to extract them at the time.

Ethical Problems with Human-Centric Narratives in Lego Mars Mission Play Sets.

Between 2007 and 2008, Lego produced a series of toy building block sets under the theme “Mars Mission”. Like all contemporary Lego series, the release included different sizes of sets ranging from 50 pieces up to 1000 pieces. To entice product/series loyalty and to establish a jumping off point for play, the Lego company created a website where one can find narratives behind their toys. In the case of “Mars Mission”, the story is about human explorers who have come to Mars, have discovered some sort of powerful energy crystals, and have begun to excavate the surface of the planet to extract these crystals. They do this through the use of a huge machine that rips open the surface of the planet. Then, according to the human Lego characters, they become the subjects of unprovoked attacks by the Martians who are stealing the crystals ( back from the humans. While two small text messages in one Lego character’s “blog” suggest that the green aliens are actually from somewhere else, this does not diminish the implication on the product packaging artwork and animated web videos that these aliens on Mars are Martians. Therefore I argue that there is insufficient information imparted to the toy user (the kids) to allow them any interpretation other than that the aliens are Martians, therefore I will maintain that assumption in my reading of the Lego narratives.
It is not difficult to re-interpret the Lego web site videos to see that the Martians are only reacting to an aggressive human (alien) invasion of their world. Case in point, the video ( depicting the Lego MT-61 Crystal Reaper shows the humans callously ripping through the planet surface, attacked by the aliens as a reaction to their invasion. This “reaper” machine is a giant strip mining tank that would certainly be questioned as a tool if used on Earth, but in terms of quickly conquering and colonizing Mars, such ethics and precautions are cast aside. Furthermore, the design of the MT-61 Crystal Reaper features one of the aliens connected to the machine for reasons that are never explained. However, the hose inserted into the chest of the prone alien that leads to the central reactor of the “reaper” suggests that the alien is the battery/power source for the machine and that the mining effort is as much to collect aliens as it is to collect power crystals. This is further supported by the larger Mars MB-01 Eagle Command Base   which features pneumatic tubes for sending prone aliens from station to station. 
Crystal Reaper on right
            Thus, my view of the “Mars Mission” Lego is one of invasion, colonization, slavery, and unethical scientific experimentation. Being “just toys”, there seems to be little critical discussion of the implications of the visuals and narratives that are presented alongside of the toys. While I do not advocate for absolute political correctness in all matters, I do suggest that the marketing departments recognize that their stories and products have a cultural impact and may be interpreted, even by children, as having subtext. Deeper meanings behind the stories affect the way children play with the toys and relate to each other while playing. I have watched and listened to my son ( and his friend play with these Lego sets, creating never ending variations on the stories that were rooted in the website. When playing with “Mars Mission”, neither of them ever choose the role of the aliens as their own, nor are they meant to as implied by the catch phrase No matter who the enemy, you can defend the mission  The Martian aliens seem to be voiceless, non-communicative aggressors. They evoke no sympathy or empathy from the kids who see them undoubtedly as being responsible for their own situation. Worse yet, the green aliens are not human and in the realm of Lego, there seems to be no worse crime. Without exception, non-human figures in Lego Castle, Lego Space Police, and Lego Power Miners are villains. With such a human-centric pattern spanning every original fantasy/science fiction set designed by Lego, it is surprising that they have not attracted more negative critiques so far.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Queer City Cinema screening, 2012

On June 7, the 9th Queer City Cinema festival opened in Regina. Run every two years, this festival was created by curator Gary Varro and is named after this city's nickname, "the Queen City". This year's events take place at Neutral Ground, an artist-run centre art gallery in the heart of downtown. These are some of my observations on the dozen videos shown in the first screening on  opening night.

Tashina by Caroline Monnet contained many strong visuals. She juxtaposed the rigid domineering man-made structures such as escalators, bridges, rows of book shelves, and hallways filled with pipes against less dominant background scenery; water and snow.  The story, told in voice over, discusses home as a place of sanity, and the journey away from it is punctuated by foreboding music.  Education is not an end but a means to bring an end to the poverty stricken reserve life. A phone call to her grandfather, ending in a disconnect, is a perfect metaphor for the frustration and anxiety of her urban transition.

Kyisha Williams video Red Lips mixes straight forward interviews with a number of women, each audibly identifying themselves as black and queer (along with other individual specifics) with text and extreme close ups of red lips which act as the narrator. Stories revolve around unfair incarceration of black or aboriginal women and declarations of the oppressive nature of the prison institution. The close up lips simultaneously fragment/dehumanize the body while making the voice universal, individual, and specific.

"You're just not what we were looking for" is a repeated sentiment in How to Stop a Revolution by Kenji Tokawa. Again, fragmentation seemed a dominant motif as bits of story are either told in voice over or demonstrated in re-enactments.  With each story interrupted and left incomplete, the  overall sense of her universe is one of animosity or indifference. When she finally declares that "The walls are crumbling in" we share the feeling of being an outsider, of the world simply not being big enough to fit everyone's individuality into.

The Dance by Bandit Queen was the only example in this screening of what was once a dominant trope at queer festivals, the graphic and often violent depiction of sex. These re-enactments of Afghan prison camps are chilling, not so much from their realism but for the symbolic absence of identity of the aggressors. Even the camera sits alone on a chair, having no witness to hold their eye to it.  

Filmmaker and artist Allyson Mitchell is the subject of Lesley Loksi Chan and Dilia Narduzzi's video Making Ladies. While this is basically a traditional documentary format program (interview with b-roll of the artwork being discussed), the subject matter was highly engaging, thought provoking, and humorous. Mitchell is passionate and articulate as she discusses her views on the need for her sensual nine foot high lesbian sasquatches to attract and confront the viewer, her championing of the honor of (feminine) craft in a world which prioritizes (masculine) Art. and her interest in the emotions imbued into hand-made objects which she reuses in her work.

Candy Fox, a local film student, was in attendance with her first festival entry, Being Two Spirited. It features interviews with a number of people discussing their childhoods and coming to discover their strengths of being two spirited. It is a call to all of them to take on the obligations this brings, to be proud, to be leaders. Fox answered questions about her video, describing it as being motivated by her desire to answer questions she posed to herself about her culture, her identity, and her past. Discussion after the screening was enthusiastic, focussing primarily on the many connotations of being "two spirited".

Seeking Single White Male by Vivek Shraya is a visually interesting study of the self identity as oversized text questions and criticizes the various photos of the filmmaker as changing hair, lighting, and makeup alters who he seems to be to an outsider's eyes. This is certainly a question for everyone today as our image to the outside world shrinks to a one inch frame on your social media page.

Farrah Khan uses pixelation to create a frenetic and comical journey in her video Cab Ride. The mixture of approaches, animation, live action (feet washing) and voice over text evokes the early works of Ann Marie Fleming as Khan weaves a tale about being questioned by a traditional Pakistani driver about her views on arranged marriage (to which she relies that she" believes in love").  The most touching moment comes at the end when she is  finally free of the cab driver's interrogation with her sexuality and true opinions remaining safely guarded.  The image of the  animated moss and paper cab is obliterated by hands filled with turmeric which stain the tabletop and leaving a stronger signifier of her heritage than the one she was trying to erase. Only then does she reveal to us the true trouble in her heart; "I know being a lesbian is not a sin. I'm just a Muslim daughter who wishes her father would call".

Mary by Kent Monkman is a meticulously created film which features an evocatively dressed First Nations man in a sexy red dress and high heels. As he approaches and removes the shoe and sock from a wealthy white man, text panels question a forgotten promise. When finally the mascara tears run onto the man's foot, a final didactic spells out the metaphor, of the miscommunication of the treaties and the difficulties of the Indian Act. With such precision of lighting and design, the margin between love and fear seemed microscopic.  

Don't Ask Don't Tell GAY GAY GAY by Dayna McLeod is one of those videos where the idea and description (all the gay references in an episode of Boston Legal are extracted and cut together rapidly) is inadequate to express the savage humour, energy, and ridiculousness of this very short work.

Tina Takemoto's video Looking for Jiro  begins as a story about a man locked up during the internment of Japanese people in America in the 1940s but slowly creeps into being a performance. The white clad man, superimposed atop images of these camps or by early cinema images of body builders, is simply sweeping at first but eventually he begins to sculpt muscular arms for himself. In the end, the camp is not the prison, it is his desires and unachievable goals which keep him oppressed.

Last Kiss by Charles Lum is a study of graffiti on a memorial  for Oscar Wilde. As a bearded  man kisses the marble, we are told that the object will be covered with glass and will, therefore, be untouchable in the future.  Flashes of pop culture, including Wonder Woman, flash past at the midpoint, suggesting the far reaching impact of Wilde on who we all are today. History will now be guarded, safe and dead.