Monday, May 6, 2013

The Search For Emak Bakia (2012)

WHO: Man Ray is the elusive (though not entirely so) subject of this piece.

WHAT: One of the most surprising discoveries of the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival for me has been this feature-length retracing, re-examining, and even remaking of Man Ray's experimental short Emak-Bakia. I'm pleased that Terri Saul has agreed to premiere an excellent (and essentially spoiler-free) review of the film for Hell On Frisco Bay readers:
Oskar Alegria's The Search For Emak Bakia is not a film that was made in the editing room; it was lived. The rough translation of Emak Bakia is a Basque term meaning, gruffly, "Leave me alone." 
Ekphrastic, the film-slash-poem-slash-collage, is a work of art that is made in reaction to, or to explore, another work of art, a 1926 film by Man Ray. It is art as dialog, a dialog requiring patience. If made in the traditional way the director would be constantly telling his backers, "Leave me alone. I'm not finished and I don't know when I will be."
The SFIFF audience reaction was a highlight of Saturday's experience. Alegria's curiosity made the audience curiouser and curiouser, alive, observant, awakened. He had an historian's sense of wanting to acknowledge truth, the forgotten past, a list of disappearing words, places, place names. 
Stepping into the unknown, not only linguistically (The film is primarily in French and Alegria began the project not speaking French) he took on the role of art historian, cultural anthropologist, and a poet who is also a linguist. 
Journalist and film-maker, Oskar Alegria told himself, "Let's follow a rabbit's path, down the rabbit hole." He knew his idea to chase a mystery by unconventional means, such as following a plastic glove blowing down the middle of a street, would never be fully supported by his occupational, rational journalist self who enjoyed reporting serious facts, counting the number of boats in a harbor for example. Alegria said during the Q&A that he wanted to kill his inner journalist, the editor with a sellable story in mind. 
One of Alegria's interview subjects, a Basque musician, also acknowledged what I call "salvage anthropology," those who attempt to rescue or are "addicted to" their own ancestral-patterned past vs. those who want to remember the past and yet adapt to their current context in a more musical way than via forced salvaging. 
One scene intermittently illuminates a silhouette of a cat watching lightning strike the subject of the film's treasure hunt. The cat has the same approach as the film-maker, to alternate between patience and curiosity to see what develops. Alegria seems to be saying: "Don't just MAKE a film. Don't make ONLY a film." In other words (spoiler alert), sit in the pigsty with the pigs in order to get your shot. 
While shooting a bull, engaging its eyes, Algeria kept rolling while wind blew his camera 360 degrees, violating, as did Man Ray, the horizon. We rolled with the camera then, remembering a soundtrack of whistling oak branches recorded earlier, in situ. 
When Alegria filmed volunteer "eyelid models," he juxtaposed their dreaming gaze with Man Ray's shots of freshly opened actress' eyes, fluttering not so much like butterflies, but more like like sleepy bulls in the aforementioned breezy field, matching the film's unselfconscious dream-state. 
A group of older women leapt from the audience to ask questions after the screening, notably those born prior to the digital age. Happily, Alegria treated the nonagenarian women in his art-story with the respect and attention typically reserved for the young and conventionally beautiful in the world of film, festivals, and media events. He also gave his festival audience the same. 
The film will probably not enjoy a release to DVD because as Alegria himself says, it's not a commercial project. It's not a film. It just happens to use film as its medium.
WHERE/WHEN: Two more SFIFF screenings: one tonight at 8:45 at the Kabuki, and one on Thursday, May 9th, at 3:30 at New People.

WHY: I'm fascinated that Alegria has been able to make a poetic, humorous, informative, and never-dull feature-length documentary about an experiment in film form, by investigating it from just about every conceivable angle except for its formal qualities. Emak-Bakia is explored through its documentary aspects, its linguistic aspects, as psycho-geography and as cultural artifact. But certain aspects of Ray's film are barely touched upon, particularly its cameraless and more abstract segments. Part of me feels that this means there's something important missing from Alegria's film, but another part rejoices that a self-described (in the q&a) non-filmmaker could put together such an elaborate and engaging work without demonstrating much in the way of Ray's technique. I'd love to see a similar approach applied to a film by Stan Brakhage or Paul Sharits or Chick Strand someday.

The SFIFF has one more screening of a short film made using some of the cameraless techniques pioneered by Man Ray: Conjuror's Box is, like Emak-Bakia, a silent film, and it will screen with a live electronic organ accompaniment by the one and only V. Vale as part of a shorts program on Thursday May 9th at 8:30 at New People.

HOW: Digital presentation of a digitally-shot feature.


  1. Brian and Terri: I am grateful for your recommendation, I was able to fit it in on the last day and loved the way the moviemaker used the "film essay" form(of which Chris Marker was the most noted practitioner) to go where chance and his thinking process of discovery took him, it showed a real openness to life in its many possibilities and curiosities.

  2. Glad to be of service! Was hoping (but not expecting) this might be a dark horse winner of an audience award, but, as expected, Twenty Feet From Stardom took that honor in the documentary category instead.