Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Many Thousands Gone (2015)

WHO: New York filmmaker Ephraim Asili made this.

WHAT: This 8-minute short opens with a title card explaining a bit of context  for what we're about to see:
The original 1861 Customs House was partially destroyed in a fire in 1986. After reconstruction, it was transformed into a tourist market, the Mercado Modelo. When shipments of new slaves arrived into port, they were stored in the watery depths of this building while awaiting auction. Night guards report all sorts of phantasmic activity after closing hours...
The text is about a structure in the Brazilian port city of Santiago, which the San Francisco International Film Festival website takes care to note was the last city in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. The next image is of a group of people dancing, drumming, and otherwise congregating on the veranda of the Mercado Modelo, facing the Bay of All Saints, for which the state that Salvador is the capital of, Bahia, got its name. On the soundtrack we hear what we think might be quiet drumming, and then we see a cut to another title card, this one attributed to the Patron Saint of Cinema St. Tula, a key figure at Bard College, where Asili teaches: "Love the Scratch. Love the Grain. Love the Lightleak too. They are the lines, the freckles, and the suntan upon the face of cinema." This film was shot on 16mm film stock and transferred to video without trying to hide that fact whatsoever. Grain, Lightleaks, and even a Scratch or two are indeed evident and indeed contribute rather than detract from the textural beauty of the image.

With another cut we're elsewhere, although we may not realize it yet; we see water against a curb and we may think we're looking at the edge of the Bahia. The camera makes a hand-held tilt to reveal this was the water from a Harlem street hydrant. But with another cut we're back in the Brazilian bay (the above image, which I shamelessly grabbed from a Facebook event page), on a boat. By now we're starting to realize that the "drumming" sound in fact emitted from a wind instrument being played as percussion. Air is blown through a the tube (my guess is that it's a trumpet) and keys are tapped in rhythm, but never enough to produce what might be called a "note". It's a virtuoso performance of beautifully "non-musical" sound that continues throughout the piece, and that we in the end learn was created by a multi-instrumentalist named Joe McPhee. The images, alternating between street and sea scenes, Harlem and Salvador, dancers and musicians and the natural world around them, are perfectly accompanied by McPhee's emittances, which are summed up perfectly from a quote from Alice Walker's The Color Purple follow-up The Temple of My Familiar, which I will leave a surprise for the viewer.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens as part of the SFIFF's Shorts 4: New Visions program, 8:45 PM at the Roxie tonight.

WHY: Many Thousands Gone has screened a couple times already in Frisco Bay cinemas. It was part of a one-person show Asili attended at Oakland's Black Hole Cinematheque last December, and I caught it when it screened last month on the first night of SF Cinematheque's annual Crossroads experimental film & video festival, on a program also including Helen Levitt, et. al.'s In the Street and Khalik Allah's stunning Field Niggas. Crossroads programmer Steve Polta's very tightly thematically-focused programming may have done a small disservice to Many Thousands Gone; its formalist traits seemed a bit swallowed up sandwiched between two powerful experimental documentaries. So I'm thankful to SFIFF for giving it another big-screen chance to shine.

Specifically I'm thankful to Chi-Hui Yang, former director of the SF International Asian American Film Festival (now CAAMfest), who filled in to put together the SFIFF New Visions program in the absence of Sean Uyehara, who had for over a decade taken the lead in making selections for this annual showcase/Golden Gate Awards category as well as the Animated Shorts program, the annual match-ups (or should I say mash-ups) between indie rockers and silent films, and more. Uyehara's deep knowledge of both the film and art worlds (not to mention the music world) helped him create New Visions programs that consistently placed some of the most formally-focused short films and videos together with the most conceptually-oriented festival selections. His touch is missed as he moves on to new pastures at the Headlands Center For the Arts in Marin. (although he came back to interview Peter Lord on-stage at the Castro last weekend).

But Chi-Hui has put together a very compelling program this year as well. If it doesn't exhibit quite the diversity in range of approach that we usually saw under Uyehara's guidance, it does a better job at putting the "I" in "SFIFF" than Sean's programs did, or than perhaps any other section of this year's program, period. (runner-up: Cameraperson). Every film in the program takes us to at least one corner of the globe underrepresented on US screens of all sort: we see images of Morocco, South Africa, Turkey, and Lebanon. Syria, Bangladesh, the Netherlands and more factor in as well. In a way Many Thousands Gone is the odd one out, with its time divided between Brazil and New York, but making a connection that has implications for a more universal African diaspora.

HOW: The entire New Visions shorts program screens as DCP.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the last chance to see French-Canadian documentarian Philippe Lesage's narrative debut The Demons, at 3PM at the Roxie, or L.A. Rebellion alumnus Billy Woodberry's new doc about San Francisco Beat poet Bob Kaufman, And when I die, I won't stay dead 6:30PM at BAMPFA. It's also the next-to-last screening of Hong Sangsoo's Right Now, Wrong Then, 9:30 PM at the New Mission.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: A 35mm print of Mikio Naruse's 1960 masterpiece When a Woman Ascends the Stairs shows along with a lecture at 3:10 PM at BAMPFA today.

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