New York – can it be real?

UnionDocs, 25 October

‘That which on first glance is alike, on closer inspection tells us apart’

Like a guiding proverb, these words appear in Barbara Rosenthal’s film Secret Codes shown at Difference Screen’s second New York screening at UnionDocs, centre for experimental film and media in Willamsburg. Black and white hand-print images from prison archives flick between texts in English, German and Yiddish allude to commonalities and differences. The sound track by DJ Robeat (electronic musician based in Germany, who Rosenthal works with) winds up the pitch. A sudden colour image of the artist’s crossed hands indicate that her own identity is key.

New York artist Shelly Silver has lived in Chinatown for 25 years. Her film 5 lessons and 9 questions about Chinatown evolved out of 50 hours of footage from a commission for the Museum of Chinese in America, to bring to light the complicated and difficult 150 year history of the Chinese community in New York – raising more questions than there are answers. It also uses texts – alternating English words and Chinese symbols, like a graphic language lesson, with poignant images of children with bright toys and domestic paraphernalia in cramped apartments. We, the audience, are part of the lesson, invited to reach out, and back in time, to understand a little more about this community’s history and in so doing, linking artist, subject and viewer.

Zohar Kfir’s film Sometime.Somewhere re-uses found footage of people in the snow and trees set against resonant voice recordings of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett, like a blurry dream, reminds us of growing old. Zohar is Israeli, had been based in Montreal, and is now moving to New York, epitomising this huge city of people who come from somewhere else.

UnionDocs panel
Panel at UnionDocs
Left to right: Ben Eastop, Shelly Silver, Barbara Rosenthal, Zohar Kfir, Bruce Allan, Lydia Matthews

In the discussion with 35 or so present that followed the screening, we were asked by UnionDocs director, Christopher Allen, whether ‘difference’ is a unifying force for the project. Although the notion of difference was a starting point, and is of course an underlying feature, the intention of the project was not to present a blithe or simplistic message of diversity.

Difference is a trigger for motivating creative enquiry, and is what drives the project forward, with dialogue and interaction from meeting new artists, curators and venue hosts along the way…as Gareth Evans states in his essay, difference is an ‘engine’….by ‘creating new constellations of location, artist, and unpredictable sites of projection the project generates difference’. (See Essay page on this website).

Perhaps Barbara’s phrase, inverted, can also be a guide for New York: difference is everywhere, but on closer examination lies a commonality, people with origins elsewhere are linked in a struggle to forge their identity in this city that never stops.

Panel discussion – Shelly Silver, with mic (Photo: Oli Eastop)

Shelly’s film prompted a discussion about the nature of documentary – arousing a passionate contribution from an activist in the audience who has been campaigning for many years to elevate the issues facing Chinatown’s communities – especially rising rents and property prices – in an attempt to bring them to the notice of the city’s authorities. It raises the question of whether art has a utility in bringing about social change.

Audience at UnionDocs (Photo: Oli Eastop)

Cordelia Swann’s film, Desert Rose, also employs a documentary style, in which a silky voiced narrator tells us about the horrific effects on ‘down-winders’ – people near Las Vegas who suffered terrible afflictions from the radioactive dust that blew in from nuclear test sites in the 1950s. Shot in black and white, the casino lights of ‘the strip’ create patterned motifs set to a seductive country and western soundtrack which makes you question the authority of the narrative – can this really be true?

Ben Eastop, October 2014

New York’s East River (Photo: Oli Eastop)

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