“Spans on a Bridge” Shorts Program: Lost (and Perhaps Found?) in Translation
IDA’s Getting Real Fellowship seeks to spotlight emerging and mid-career documentary professionals who have inspired visions that will benefit their communities and the field at large. After attending Getting Real, the fellows spend the next year programming workshops and discussions inspired by their time at the conference. This shorts program was programmed by Getting Real ’22 Fellows Victor Guimarães and Winnie Wang through the following unique epistolary setup.
From August 7–28, 2023, Victor Guimarães and Winnie Wang took turns exchanging short films over email and receiving responses from each other about their experience watching the film. While the first film would be sent without context, the subsequent films and responses would address previous films and comments, creating a dialogue and a film program. They agreed ahead of time on a total of 4 short films, which would all be documentaries under 15 minutes long, ideally directed by people who are reachable for screening rights, and from a context the sender knows about and identifies with.
Victor and Winnie explained: “This exercise was envisioned as a game inspired by Victor’s interest in translation and our mutual love of writing and programming. We hope this brings out playfulness, experimentation, and curiosity, and encourages thought about programming and engaging with objects with/without context.”
Their email correspondence is an extraordinary record of the deep thinking on individual films that a bit of time can give programmers, in opposition to the fast-paced work of film festival programming. Additionally, it moves into a fascinating rumination about who should hold responsibility for considering the role of context and audience reception. The resulting shorts program counters the standard subject-based thematics of documentary film shorts program (imagine a “shorts program dedicated to stories of family,” as a common example), instead proceeding sequentially through rhythms, pacing, sound, and political commitments. The emails are published by Documentary magazine to serve as program notes for Winnie and Victor’s programming. Readers can either follow their exchange and watch the films while reading, or watch the following program first and then read the notes after. —Abby Sun
Shorts Program: SPANS ON A BRIDGE
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screening until November 20, 2023
1. Intervenção (Intervention) (Pedro Maia de Brito, Brazil, 2015, 4')
2. Every Grain of Rice (Carol Nguyen, Canada, 2017, 6')
3. Altares (Shrines) (Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, Mexico, 2019, 3')
4. Gephyrophobia (Caroline Monnet, Canada, 2012, 2')
Subject: Lost (and perhaps found?) in translation
I’m very excited about our little game of exchanging films from a distance.
Here goes the first one. It is called Intervenção (Intervention), it’s from 2015 and it’s directed by Pedro Maia de Brito.
I won’t tell you anything about the context because well, that’s part of the game.
I just suggest you watch it with headphones because the sound is very important here.
Thank you for the tip on wearing headphones.
In Intervenção, the narrative, to the extent that there is one, primarily unfolds through auditory cues. We’re immediately thrown into a noisy setting of running, yelling, shooting, blaring––there’s a protest, riot or revolt taking place though it’s unclear to me exactly what, when or why. When the camera turns on, it’s placed in hidden view from police officers who are cleaning and hiding weapons in bushes, unaware they’re being filmed. The faces of the police are out of frame, anonymized by the composition, but it doesn’t matter––they represent law enforcement as an oppressive institution. Soon after, the individuals behind the camera prepare a sort of weapon in response, likely a Molotov cocktail, and throw it in the direction that the camera is pointed.
I’m struck by the simplicity and potency of the premise. The film employs a single shot, begins before we see anything and ends after we cut to black through whispered dialogue from two figures who do not appear on the screen. We, as viewers, are placed directly within the action. The experience of watching it is visceral, anxiety-inducing, thrilling, and absorbing. Assuming this footage was captured from a real-life event, I want to know more about the context surrounding the film.
In the description, the filmmaker statement explains, “Film is like a battleground,” which feels like an extension of Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s metaphor, “The camera is a gun which shoots twenty-four frames a second.” There are many films that purport to be political or revolutionary, to act as a tool of resistance, but Intervenção is one of the few to which I’ve been exposed that actually seems to situate the spectator in a position where they are aligned with the protestors, demanding a specific type of mental and emotional participation while watching the film.
The short I’m sending you in return is titled Every Grain of Rice (2017) by Carol Nguyen, which engages the senses in a different way: https://vimeo.com/225473313
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts,
Sorry for being late. Yesterday I had a very unpredictable day because I’m participating in a selection process for a teaching position here at the University, and they only released the timeline on the spot (and I had to stay there the whole afternoon, instead of just a few hours in the morning, and then teach a class at night).
I’m glad you seemed to like the film I sent you. It is a very important film for me, and I guess you realized why, because almost everything you said is also what makes it special for me. I loved your way of describing the work. It brought me back to the experience of watching it for the first time, in a festival 8 years ago. Your description grasps something that interests me a lot, which is the particular place that the film creates for the spectator: it is, mostly, a film about being a spectator, and then suddenly not being one anymore—a film about what the French would call passage a l’acte, to describe a sudden decision to take violent action in politics. You mentioned Solanas and Getino, and I remembered the Frantz Fanon quote that their group, Cine Liberación, would hang on the wall during their clandestine screenings: “every spectator is a coward or a traitor” (“Todo espectador es un cobarde o un traidor”). I guess it would be a good alternative synopsis for Intervenção.
I think Intervenção, facing the impossibility of reacting to police brutality with the same amount of violence in reality, creates a sonic and visual chamber for the spectator where that reaction would be possible (the movie theater, the best space for violence to be treated, thought of, and elaborated). You asked about the context, and this film has a very specific one: it is a direct elaboration of a historic event in Brazil that was known as “Jornadas de Junho” (“June Journeys”). Basically, in June 2013, a series of demonstrations against the high prices of public transportation escalated to the most massive street protests the country had seen in decades. For several weeks, in all the big cities, millions of people with extremely different aspirations (from the radical left to the far-right) went to the street to protest against the government, in a very chaotic way, with no leaders and no organized demands. This was so big that, for the first—and only—time in my entire life, the traditional telenovelas were cancelled on TV, so the channels would air live coverage from the protests. As you can imagine by now, those demonstrations were violently repressed by the police, who injured, imprisoned, and killed several young protesters. The meaning of these protests would, years later, be appropriated by far-right movements, and there are a lot of ongoing discussions about them until today, but that’s another story. What is important about the film is that everyone who saw it in Brazil in 2015 would recognize those noises as the sounds of police repression, the characters as young militants, and the whole film as a reaction to that specific historic context. Intervenção somehow captured the anti-police anger that was in the air of those years and created a visual and sonic bomb to make it explode. I always thought, though, that it could translate to other cultures and be cinematically meaningful to spectators that don’t know anything about the context. I’m glad to notice, by your reaction, that my intuition was right.
Very differently from Intervenção, a straightforward, direct film (although extremely elaborated, as you noticed), Every Grain of Rice seemed to me as an intricate, puzzled work, in many ways. I haven’t read anything about it, in order to respect our little set of rules of the game. From what I understand, it is an autofictional, experimental elaboration of the experience of a young filmmaker in North America, whose family comes from a country in South Asia (I don’t recognize the exact countries), and she’s feeling anxious about the possibility of her culture to be assimilated in this new territory. This elaboration happens in a vivid association of domestic images, gestures performed for the camera by her family members, and a fragmented voice-over poetically reflecting on tradition, migration, and the possibility of assimilation. The most interesting imagery for me is those shots of food and plants, as if the film were composing a small collection of still lives, and I also appreciate how the editing builds a fluid intercalation between human and non-human elements.
You are absolutely right about the way it engages the senses: what strikes me most in the film is its ability to deal with almost inexpressible things such as taste and smell. There is a passion for the texture of things, especially food, and not only for what it means for the protagonist (the symbolic relations of certain edibles to her memory and her family traditions), but as a source of cinematic exploration. Sound is very important here too, as a way of creating engagement and proximity. As a spectator, you can almost smell and taste the food because of the way it is portrayed—and therefore relate to the importance of those things to the protagonist. I have to say, though, that the performances for the camera seemed a little codified for me, in the sense that I recognize their belonging to a trend in contemporary experimental films. The film sounds unbalanced in its dedication to the plant and animal elements if we compare it to the human figures. The acting sounds a little forced, as if they were trying too hard to convey meaning through gestures. One decision that I really liked, though, is the absence of subtitles when the relatives speak in their native language: that, too, is very relatable in terms of the subjectivity of the protagonist.
I would love to know more about the context of that film, the specific cultural aspects of it, and also about your relationship with the work. I’m very curious. For our next movement, inspired by the film you sent me, I would like to share a work that also deals with textures, natural elements and ancestry, but in a very different way. It’s called Altares (Shrines, 2019), by Colectivo Los Ingrávidos: https://vimeo.com/308051203
Looking forward to the next steps of our game,
After the last fellowship event hosted by Rodrigo [Dorfman] and Mostafa [Youssef], I’ve been reflecting on what Farid [Ahmad] said about audiences. Filmmakers are often asked to consider their audiences, especially for grant applications, when it seems almost absurd to ask a poet to do the same, or for a filmmaker to conceive of how viewers from different global contexts would receive their film. The responsibility of imagining audiences should primarily fall on curators and programmers, taking on the role of a translator to present a film with local viewing habits, cultural differences, and historical contexts in mind. When you wrote that anyone who saw Intervenção in Brazil in 2015 would associate those sounds with Jornadas de Junho, it confirmed to me the specificity of audience experiences and the difficulty of filmmakers having to think as programmers. Your description (and this exercise) also confirmed the importance of facilitating what and how viewers experience films as programmers, that we hold access to meaning and even the films themselves, particularly across boundaries of language and geography.
When thinking of a film derived from a context I know about and identify with, I wanted to speak to my experience with assimilation in Canada and immediately thought of filmmaker Carol Nguyen, whose films are interested in identity, immigration, and family relations. After her parents and sister immigrated from Vietnam to Canada, she was born and raised in Toronto. During high school, I encountered her work at student showcases, where she screened stop-motion animated films that compelled me to think about my parents’ decision to relocate here. Though she’s now known for recent works such as No Crying at the Dinner Table (2019) and Nantic (2022), I responded to you with Every Grain of Rice because I felt it might convey to you an anxiety held by many children of immigrants, despite Canada’s apparent embrace of multiculturalism and diversity. When I first saw it, I was captivated by the shots of food and foliage, just as you were, and how they felt tactile. It was as if I could crush those bean sprouts in my fist, as if I could place my hand above the bowl of rice and feel the heat radiating onto my palm. Unlike other immigrant narratives that the landscape of contemporary Canadian cinema seems to be saturated with, this film was specific and not defined by victimhood. There’s a sense that the film is not only an expression of her concerns but that it, and her filmmaking practice, is part of a reparative process of working through them.
I love your observation about the relationship between human and non-human elements. The images of jasmine flowers, cinnamon bark, and basil leaves are indeed noteworthy and perhaps deserve more attention as you suggest. They prompt me to think about language like “transplant” or “uproot,” which can be used to describe humans and plants alike, and the desire to access vegetables and spices that are native to ecosystems in our home countries. In the absence of being able to speak and hear one’s language thousands of miles away from home, food can be crucial to accessing one’s culture and traditions in a habitual manner. This includes carrying out gestures involved in the process of preparation, tasting and smelling the same dishes, knowing how to eat them, and internalizing them into the body. If I can display vulnerability for a moment here, I’ve been actively making an effort to learn Chinese recipes from my mother because I feel increasingly anxious about the effects of assimilating into Canada after two decades. With the limited time I have outside of work, it feels like I have to choose between improving my French to secure better career opportunities, or Mandarin to hold actual, meaningful conversations with my parents and extended family. What the film communicates beautifully, for me, is a sense of urgency, responsibility, and agency to change my situation.
Altares is an excellent follow-up, though I’ll be honest that my appreciation is primarily derived from the entrancing images and sounds assembled through rapid and rhythmic editing. This abstract, experimental non-narrative film displays figures, coins, pyramids, and skulls among sand and pebbles with cacti in the background. Though the shots are close-ups, presenting the faces of the objects, they’re rather short, fragmented and at slightly different angles, preferring to acquaint us with these items through frequent repetition. Halfway through, the film cuts to a busy sidewalk where these objects are at the center of a ceremony held by musicians and dancers—the music that has been playing from the start might be understood as originating from this context. Upon return to the desert environment, the figures now appear on a pile of rocks in the same shot, having been summoned to gather collectively on a higher ground.
On my first viewing of the film, I was disoriented, mesmerized, lost in its flashing colors, unsure of how to decipher its meaning. After a few rewatches, however, I acquiesced to the images and allowed them to unfold in front of me without trying so hard to interpret and analyze them. This more “passive” viewing position, if you will, seems more suited to the work compared to the first film you shared. Without any knowledge of these symbols, I’m hesitant to guess what the religious significance of the figures might be, but the title suggests that they might be sacred objects or offerings that a shrine might contain. I’m curious about these objects, the ceremony in the middle, and the contrast between the natural and urban settings in the film.
In response to Altares, I’m sharing a 2012 film titled Gephyrophobia (meaning fear of bridges) by Caroline Monnet, which shares similar investments in experimenting with form and texture: https://vimeo.com/109501315.
I was really glad that you brought up the last fellowship event. I thought about the accuracy of Farid’s intervention, and I was also thinking about all we have discussed in our little group, mostly comprised of programmers. It was a nice surprise to be in that virtual room with you guys, meeting people who show films in different contexts, and discussing things that matter to us. It felt like an unexpected preview of our own event. I was particularly happy because we could share and manifest our disagreements with some of the assumptions of the contemporary discourse about the relationship between viewers and films.
Trying to meditate on what you wrote about programmers being translators, I was willing to think about the limits of our interventions when we are dealing with this bridge between films and viewers (and I love the fact that the film you sent me is about a fear of bridges). I really enjoy it when a programmer does a good presentation of a film, be it orally or in the form of a text. But what is a good presentation? What is a good relationship between a programmer and a film, from the point of view of the audience? After being a frequent visitor of retrospectives and festivals for the past few decades, what I have learned from observing the work of programmers is: that the bridge between the film and the viewer should never be excessively rigid, nor overwhelming. I admire programmers who do more than provide context. I really like those ones that can bring up thought-provoking insights, and create connections. And especially the (very few) ones that can relate to the work in a sincere, emotional, sensual way, beyond pure rationality. But I admire even more those translators who are capable of leaving room for the viewer to do their own work. The ones that don’t fill all the gaps between us and the works.
I really enjoyed reading about your encounter with Carol Nguyen’s work, and what I most appreciated was the way you described your personal relationship with her films. Nowadays, it’s so rare to find programmers who can express this kind of deep connection with films, because the festival environment is so overwhelming, so overloaded with information. There are always too many films (even in small venues) and too little time to relate to them. The high doses of cynicism and detachment that I experience in this world sometimes make me question if the people who are currently working in festivals really enjoy watching films and having conversations around them. Most of the time, they don’t seem to.
What you wrote about urgency and responsibility is a feeling that I could never access in relation to that film, and that is the beauty of this exercise: each encounter between a viewer and a film is unique, and that’s why all the jibber-jabber about “audience design” feels so absurd and dangerous to me. Thinking about the reception of his films, Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Adriano says in an interview: “I don’t know myself, I don’t even know my friends, so I would never know fifty million people in order to communicate with them. I’m not that ambitious.” And yet, one of the most beautiful reactions I’ve ever seen in my life leaving a movie theater was from a bunch of viewers who had just seen one of Carlos Adriano’s films.
I selected Altares because it seemed to be a good follow-up to Every Grain of Rice in terms of texture and mood. Sometimes it’s not possible, but when it is, I always try to think about the mood of a screening, its internal rhythms and temperatures, and the different regimes of attention it requires. It felt like Every Grain of Rice left me, as a viewer, with a particular inclination to pay attention to textures and surfaces, and I wanted to follow that mood and perhaps make it explode, with a film that pays equal attention to materiality and politics. I’ve been following the work of Colectivo Los Ingrávidos for many years now, and recently I had the chance to program a significant retrospective of their work at FENDA, the festival I direct in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Davani Varillas, a member of the collective, was here, and talking to her was another way to dive into their work. What strikes me most in their films is their capacity to superimpose temporalities—traces of ancient Mexico and contemporary popular struggles – while creating dissonant materialities, between image and sound, image and image, sound and sound. I also love the way their camera behaves, always moving, always attacking (in the musical sense) the visual motifs. They never film to just register or document, but they try to shake apparently inanimate objects, reenchanting the world through light variations, colorful compositions, and kinetic power. All this is complemented by the forms of music they usually work with, composing a kind of cinematic celebration, a sort of visual and sonic ritual that is directed to our whole bodies, not just our eyes and ears.
I don’t know much about the specific meanings of each of the statues and coins that we see in the film. But if I’m honest with you, even if I could know more, I would prefer not to. It’s so fast, so furious that if we pay too much attention to the meanings involved, it would be kind of unreal compared to the experience of a regular viewer (and to position ourselves primarily as viewers is extremely important for me as a programmer). Also, if we pay too much attention to meanings and concepts, we would perhaps ruin the particular form of visual and sonic trance that the film proposes to us. It’s such a sensual experience that information overload is actually a danger. I loved the way you described your acquiescence to the film because that kind of surrender to the flow of images and sounds is what I think the film is asking from us.
Watching Gephyrophobia, my very first impression was very strong, precisely because the visual and sonic flow was intense. The visual exploration of the bridges and the landscapes around them creates a state of expectation, somehow translating this very particular anxiety related to the experience of crossing a bridge. Together with the music, that first monstrous figure sets the mood, and then the camera transfigures the bridges into something menacing, by avoiding them, retreating, portraying the river as tumultuous energy, evocating feelings of dread and fright. But when the camera crosses the bridge for the first time and the music changes, the film modulates its pace and quiets itself, contemplating those houses. That second part is less strong for me because I think the film believes too much in the sole qualities of analog beauty, and the flow it creates is not surprising anymore. A lot of analog experimental film today seems to me a bit lazy, in the sense that sometimes the lack of structure and actual visual work is too easily compensated by the obviously pleasing visual qualities of an analog shot compared to a galaxy of digital images. The shots of houses and windows and those lights in black and white are very beautiful, but in an obvious way for me—and this doesn’t happen in the first part, where I feel that the film is creating something unique.
The overcoming of gephyrophobia in the film kept me thinking about our own fear of bridges. I know nothing about engineering, and maybe that’s why I remember exactly the moment when I realized that concrete bridges are not continuously solid. They have to be flexible, they must have spans in their structure because of thermal expansion. If they didn’t have those empty spaces within the structure, the bridge would collapse. Isn’t that a beautiful metaphor for what we do? Perhaps what we must do is to always leave room for the heat. To create space for that sparkle provoked by each encounter between a single film and a single viewer to expand. And to believe that bridges filled with spans are (contrary to what common sense would dictate) the most solid ones.
The other day I was scrolling on Twitter and a quote by poet Robert Frost found me: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” I’ve been thinking about it a lot these days, trying to meditate on this exercise of ours. Somehow, I think that what we wanted with this correspondence, with this back and forth between films and ideas, was to find an exciting way of being lost in translation. I don’t know if I speak for you too, but I think we didn’t want confirmation for our own ideas and feelings related to the films, or that the other person would “understand” (such an overrated word, isn’t it?) exactly what (we think) the film is doing. We wanted to generously offer the other an opportunity to lose themselves with the help of images and sounds selected by a different individual. Sometimes there is a huge gap between contexts and personal experiences (as I mentioned about my inability to feel the urgency that you identify in Every Grain of Rice), but perhaps that empty space is precisely where the heat generated by our encounter with that alien work can fill in. That span in the bridge is perhaps what poetry (or film) is.
Winnie Wang is a writer, film programmer, and arts administrator based in Toronto.
Victor Guimarães is a writer, programmer, and teacher based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.