Abstractionism on the bigger screen

How do independent artists survive the hegemony of Indian mainstream media? With the growing interest in experimental films, they have found new platforms to express their art.


Experimenta 2023 Credits: Sweety Mohanta

Sweety Mohanta

A visual fest where artists showcased their works without complying with the moulded box of mainstream media, Experimenta has always brought forth the most original and uncompromising films. The International Festival of Moving Image Art in India was founded by filmmaker and curator Shai Heredia in 2003. For over twenty years, this platform has been able to bring international attention towards India’s “underground” cinema.

This year, Experimenta was organized at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, Bengaluru, where the main focus was on the synchronicities of archival and found footage films. It was discussed how artists like Slyvia Schedelbauer, an independent German filmmaker, stitched celluloid footage and pictures together to dive deep into social issues through a psychological and symbolic perspective. To understand her approach towards cinema, let us first understand the Experimental school of thought for filmmaking.

Avant-Garde Cinema

A very niche and often misunderstood genre, this type of cinema is intended to please only some. Usually, it looks like a complete waste of time with no purpose or meaning behind the project but that is what avant-garde films intend to do. Experimental Cinema has always intended to break the convention of using art in a comprehensible format for the audience and has delved more into forming new narratives by experimenting with audio-visual elements of the film. Usually produced with a minimal budget, mostly self-financed, and a small crew (often a one-man show), experimental films are more personal than commercial in nature. This gives the filmmaker more agency to work with the material on hand without needing to follow any procedure or rules for screening. Many of them tend to have shorter run times due to limited resources and also because the primary function of the film isn’t mainstream distribution.

The genre is often termed as “artsy” or “being weird” just for the sake of it, and if reduced to a superficial level, the misconception does make sense to some extent. Filmmakers edit the shots with dramatised effects, add unrelated background music, and have unusual camera movements. A well-articulated chaos, these films use different ways to push the boundaries and see what works and what does not or what fits and what does not serve the purpose. It might look unnecessary but to the artist, it is an addition to the overall theme.

These movies also try to engage the audience with different sound effects like bass-boosted or distorted audio clips and voiceovers to liven the story-telling process. Some well-known filmmakers in this school of thought include Andy Warhol, David Lynch and Stan Brakhage.

Archival and Found Footage - Memories through the dust and deep

It is a cinematic technique which uses recorded footage, shaky camera movements, realistic acting and sometimes voiceovers. It is presented as if they have not been edited and are just “found”. Some of the common examples include the series Paranormal Activity, Cannibal Holocaust and Diary of the Dead.

A scene from Andy Warhol’s film ‘Empire’ Credits: The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, A Museum of Carnegie Institute

Many filmmakers use such footage in a pseudo-documentary way to weave a narrative relevant to the story-telling process. Celluloid pictures are digitised before editing or any old video documenting an event is taken and added to the film. These archival additions give a sense of realism to the media.

Sylvia Schedelbauer and her approach towards cinema

Program 3 of Experimenta 2023 included the Artist Profile of Slyvia Schedelbauer where some of her short films were screened. Born to a Japanese mother and a German father and brought up in Tokyo, she holds a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from the Berlin University of the Arts and is a Radcliffe-Film Study Center Fellow (2019-2020).

Much of Slyvia’s art involves themes such as multiracial experiences and a struggle for belonging. Her film essays follow a poetic narrative by using found and archival footage, many of them personal, to make it more immersive and relatable.

Slyvia Schedelbauer at Experimenta 2023 Credits: Sweety Mohanta

The first film that was screened was ‘Memories’ (2004) which included her voiceover and pictures belonging to her grandfather. A beautiful narrative essay where Slyvia showed vulnerability as she told the story behind her inter-racial culture.

The last film screened was ‘Oh, Butterfly’ (2022) which talked more about her Japanese heritage. With multi-layered pictures and sound quotations and shots from variations of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Slyvia spoke about the fetishisation of the Oriental nations, the advent of American Imperialism and the culturally diverse lives of people from inter-mixed families.

Two of the films were flicker films - ‘Sea of Vapors’ (2014) and ‘Labor of Love’ (2020). ‘Sea of Vapors’ used a series of oversaturated images in flickering transitions to create a psychedelic effect. While ‘Labor of Love’ had a slower pace when it came to the flicker and was rhythmic and symmetrical in its visual approach. The flickering of pictures was hypnotic as one was sucked in and saw different images overlapped together. One needs to focus on the movements since if its missed, the transitions might feel unnatural. Again, flicker films are not everyone’s cup of tea (trigger warning: it may cause headaches). They are not suitable for epilepsy patients.

All of her works have the central themes of individuality along with a sense of community, as emphasized by Slyvia herself during the Q&A session. When asked about her films, she expressed that it was her way of using films as a platform for talking about personal experiences. Using a fragmental and abstract approach gave her the power to tie together different pieces in a symbolic way and reflect upon social issues like war and migration. She got much of the footage from the Library of Congress, Washington DC, and had used copyright-free music.

A mesmerizing experience

The event was a great way of getting introduced to the experimental film genre. These films may not seem easy to sit through or may appear vague and scattered but they are unique in their approach towards different issues. They can invoke thoughts in the most innovative ways. As more people are getting involved in film studies and want to know more about the ‘underground’ works, experimental films are finding bigger audiences with regular film screenings, especially in India.

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