Tag Archives: Play-Doc 2015

Motu Maeva at the 11th Play-Doc International Documentary Festival: History Lessons

motu-maeva The Play-Doc festival, which takes place in the ancient river town of Tui in the northwest Galician region of Spain at the border with Portugal, is very special for a variety of reasons. It is one of those festivals that stay close to its roots, finding breadth and expansiveness in its imperative to stay intimate – in the ways in which the event of the festival itself is planned, certainly, but also in the curation of its program. This year, with just seven selected “essential” non-fiction films in its international competition, the programmers once again gave refuge (and a spotlight) to films at once elegiac and highly personal, rigorous in their narrative structure but executed with highly impressionistic and poetic imprints from their authors. The school of Impressionism in painting dealt with the nature of fugitive light falling on various surfaces, creating a play of ephemeral movement – one that is temporary, fleeting, rooted in the moment … and then gone. It was an event and a program filled with such moments that always stay long in the memory and make me long to return year after year.

In his book, Ways of Seeing, John Berger says: «Images were first made to conjure up the appearances of something that was absent. Gradually it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented; it then showed how something or somebody had once looked—and thus by implication how the subject had once been seen by other people.  Later still the specific vision of the image-maker was also recognized as part of the record. An image became a record of how X had seen Y. This was the result of an increasing consciousness of individuality, accompanying an increasing awareness of history.»

It is this nod to history – or History – that seemed to resonate in the two films awarded by a jury, personal, hand-made films made by young women each with début features. Both the international jury who gave its prize to a 42-minute film called Motu Maeva, and our CAMIRA jury who gave its prize to Talena Sanders’ Liahona, emphasized in both statements that what was valued about these films was the way in which a viewer was transported by the use of filmic languages that are at once personal and intimate, yet also have within these aspects an expansive and magnanimous relationship to landscapes and History.

Filmmaker and dancer Maureen Fazendeiro, who works between Paris and Lisbon, film and literature, is as much an elliptical presence as both her film and her protagonist, a woman she befriended called Sonja André. Shot on Super-8 – the preferred stock of memoirists, we could say – Fazendeiro meets André’s fragile narrative through the veil of the distant memories of an incredibly freewheeling life as wife of a French ambassador. Throughout the decades of their life together in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s as they traveled to every continent, Sonja and her husband Michel filmed compulsively, extravagantly, constantly. They filmed one another and the people around them, and they also shot on fragile Super-8. They filmed one another adoringly, lovingly, thrillingly, a visual manifesto of perfectly matched partners in adventure and lust for life.

Without being tied to any sense of linear time, Sonja’s reminiscences bring back both these entrancing adventures as well as a darker, more mysterious sense of tragedy that limns the edges of her narrative and has to do with her mother. One of the many emotional touchstones of this short piece is the way in which the director so carefully guards certain information, only to expose the wayward heart of an abusive mother and a terrible event that happened to mother and daughter together when Sonja was a girl. The history that has been documented (and is therefore researchable, knowable) is almost completely hidden here.

In the Super-8 celluloid stock employed by Fazendeiro and the Andrés’, the containment of several different layers of emulsions and filters, the speed and resolution are key qualities in this considerably ephemeral portrait. 8-mm film typically has the lowest resolution of any film stock, which results in more time per foot of film. This sense of time and the elliptical quality of the narrative denote a profound and beautiful economy of expression, full of dark hints, concise and straightforward declarations from Sonja, events sometimes on the verge of utter obscurity. This verge of obscurity is also physically where Sonja dwells, on an “island” she built called Motu Maeva in the middle of the lush French countryside where she lives alone among the detritus of what’s left of her life. She alludes to an illness that is painful and protracted, not really knowing the source of it but acknowledging that her mother suffered the same affliction.

From the opening shot, the textures of this secret place feel like stepping back in time and, indeed, as the film goes on and we see more and more of the Andrés’ footage, we realize that Fazendeiro has matched the look and feel, the framing, the exposure of the film stock’s sprockets on the left side – all are aligned with almost (but not quite) identical qualities of fragility and disintegration. Palimpsests of one scene bleeding through the surface of another are created with transparent overlays of flowers and other textures making the story tactile and immediate.

In French, we hear a woman say: «When I was still young, they locked me up somewhere and I told myself: «They might lock me up, but no one can lock up my mind.’ I just have to think about being outside and I started to wander about outside thinking about what I’d do…». We see a slight, bespectacled, almost-bald woman sitting at a table smiling and playing with her ear. She is dressed in tomboy attire of striped T-shirt, fitted pants and a baseball cap over her small head. «When I was little, my mother lifted up my chin and said, ‘It’s too bad. You’re pretty so you will be raped straight away»».

Then we are with Michel and Sonja in Paëa, Tahiti on Motu Maeva whilst Sonja tells us the story of the time she was in Paris, how she met Michel in a métro station. She tells of a great and immediate love story and of the man who felt she was his destiny, who avowed he would follow her «to the ends of the earth». There is unfettered freedom and sophistication to their relationship, and together they decide to honor their mutual desire to remain “unleashed,” to live as if they were alone, and free. «And together, to live it». Her voice is lyrical, filled with exhilaration at this profound love bestowed upon her and the one she was allowed to give and the happy memories that have never left her consciousness.

But there is a dark side to this tale and in the last ten minutes of the piece, Fazendeiro and editor Catherine Libert continue to deftly, and more emphatically, intercut footage from her camera with that of Sonja and Michel’s, the instability of this kind of expansive cinema reflected in the migration of the image from space to space from time to time. It is deeply affecting, tugging at some ephemeral rediscoveries of what has been lost, degraded, what’s gone missing. A violent storm approaches and the electricity is cut. Sonja’s voice fades and we hear a woman’s voice speaking in Dutch to Sonja and Michel that she has recorded on a cassette to send to them while they are traveling. We hear papers rustling and realize she is reciting from a letter she wrote to them and is reading it aloud. She starts to choke up with emotion – it has been twenty-four years and it is Christmas and she is alone. «And I’ll look into [my grandchildren’s] bright eyes shining like your beautiful dark eyes. …My greatest desire is to have you finally close to me and for a long time». From 1961, over half a century ago, the specter of the evil mother emerges from the winter of her own life. And then she is never mentioned again, that cassette just another memento mori left to gather dust amongst all the rest.

In her book of essays called When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson says: «There is dignity in the thought that we are of one substance with being itself, and there is drama in the thought that ultimate things are at stake in these moments of perception and decision. But the cosmos considered in such terms went out of style a few generations ago. We know that tremors pass through the sun as if it were a giant gong, that the earth tilts, that our hearts beat. But the thought of participation in reality on this scale seems to have been dismissed together with metaphysics as meaningless. In their place we have the casting back of anthropological assumptions to describe our remotest origins, which, by implication, also describe our essential selves».

Certain people are, at once, a complete world unto themselves. These are the same individuals who never forget that they are but an infinitesimal part of a larger world, where the matter of their being melds with everything else – the earth, the universe – both terrestrial and incorporeal spirit. The indefatigable Sonja shouts to the cosmos, «I love you», as only an individual who loves herself can express so unequivocally.

We see the last of the essential Sonja dancing drunkenly in her kitchen, celebrating the end of another day. With red flashes indicating that her roll of film is nearing its end, with barely any light, just a candle or two to film by, Fazendeiro dances with her subject, her camera held aloft on one shoulder as a Tahitian love song plays on the soundtrack.


Pamela Cohn

Interview with Talena Sanders – CAMIRA Prize at Play-Doc Festival


CAMIRA was invited to take part at the international film festival Play-Doc held in Tui, Galicia. The festival (artistic director: Ángel Sánchez, Víctor Paz programming and Sara García), in addition to its competition and a focus on the French documentary filmmaker Claire Simon, has organized some interesting workshops about programming as criticism, managed by the director of the Doc-Lisboa Cíntia Gil, the director of the Festival de Cine Europeo de Sevilla José Luis Cienfuegos and critic and filmmaker Gabe Klinger. The CAMIRA award, awarded by the jury of Clara Martinez Malagelada, Pamela Cohn and myself, was awarded to Talena Sanders’ Lihaona (2013). Below you can read my conversation with the artist and filmmaker Talena Sanders.

Starting from your experience at the last edition of Play-Doc (Tui, Spain), in which you won the CAMIRA prize: how was it?

My experience at Play-Doc was wonderful from the start. Since Tui is a small village, so it was a good setting for meeting other filmmakers, writers, and programmers. There were a lot of opportunities for conversation and sharing. The overall feeling was warm and inclusive, which was helpful for me, as I can sometimes be reserved or shy at festival. It was great to be surrounded by adventurous filmmakers and audiences, people who were interested in work that challenged and expanded upon traditional documentary form. I also had the opportunity to learn about the new Galician film movement and see some interesting new work being made in Galicia, an opportunity I’m not sure I would have had in the US. It was such a positive experience throughout!

And how was your experience as scholar, cinéphile, filmmaker when you were involved in a festival?

Watching lots of others’ work in a festival makes me feel more free to experiment in my own work. I see the formal risks they take, and it excites me all over again about the possibilities in cinema. I always leave a festival feeling more encouraged and more motivated to get back to the studio. In a festival day, I find I am constantly re-evaluating my own priorities, formal preferences, and sense of documentary ethics (even if the films I’m watching aren’t in the documentary genre).

The conversations I have at festivals with other filmmakers and scholars help shape my pedagogy. Spending long hours thinking through new work with other people from around the world illuminates new ideas to communicate concepts about cinema and storytelling to my students. I still have so much to learn about film and filmmaking – until 2010, I considered myself a gallery-based artist and was most engaged in navigating and learning about the contemporary art world and art history. A festival feels like an opportunity to feast on the world of ideas and approaches to making moving images. And it’s all the more exciting that I can often talk with the filmmaker about their process right after I’ve experienced their work. I become a student all over again, it’s a lovely thing.

You said you consider yourself as “gallery-based artist”, what’s your idea of relation/relais between art and cinema? It’s ages that we know that art (modernism, postmodernism, or both) is also involved into industrial, commercial “stuff”. Today, in a certain way, it’s easier to recognize relations between art and cinema. Many talk of “moving images”…

I started out working in with installation that moving image elements, and moved from there to thinking of myself as a video artist.  I thought about making work in loops, work that people would walk in and out of whenever they felt, so my sense of construction of work was about that experience – the hope that I could build something that could communicate meaning at whatever point someone walked into see it.

I still make installation work now, but over the course of the past 4 years I’ve become more and more focused on the theatrical setting – the idea that you have a (mostly) captive audience, they sit in the theater and (mostly) they don’t leave for the duration of the work. I’ve enjoyed re-calibrating my editing process to think about how films can build over finite periods of time, with the experience not of looping but of a definite start and end. Editing and production process in general, that is.

In structuring Liahona, I feel that there are 2 viewing experiences – the first 50 minutes, before my personal story unfolds are one viewing, and then once you learn the point of view of the maker, you have a second experience of remembering and re-contextualizing what passed before.

I think of myself as a filmmaker and interdisciplinary artist now. Lately, I have not incorporated moving images into my installation work, but I know I will return to working in that way in the near future. I also shoot still photography, do some performance work, and have made some attempts at social practice work.

For the moment, I’m more focused on filmmaking (also interesting to me to see a shift to referencing “artists’ moving image” lately), but some ideas and investigations seem better suited to still photographs, or to a gallery installation with physical objects.

I’m very interested in material culture, identity, and history, and sometimes I want to work with physical, 3-dimensional objects and interrogate the history and nostalgia that can magnetize to materials.

Here are some installations I worked on at the same time as I was editing Liahona – these dealt with other aspects of the Mormon experience that felt important for me to address, but I didn’t find a cinematic language for these issues and experiences:





Considering yourself as an artist and filmmaker, what are your sources of inspirations outside the filmmaking field? You have just sketched something about objects and history that can magnetize the materials. It’s interesting, in Minimal Art the object push the viewer to explore the space around and the perceptual consequences of this situation, turning the environment into a field of perception. In Joseph Beuys there’s a different operation: he works on materials like they were fossils and minerals, and he used them inside his “rituals” to “save” these materials.

It’s interesting for me that you bring up Joseph Beuys – he was definitely an early influence for me – I was most interested in his concept of social sculpture, but found so much richness in all of his work. In art, I’ve gone through a few different phases, with an interest in public art, social practice/relational aesthetics, installation, and performance.  I’ve found inspiration in Nari Ward’s work, especially his work from 2003-2007, his use of materials and vernacular objects. I was lucky enough to be a part of the crew for a work by Mika Rottenberg, Squeeze. The way that she activated the materials, props, and sets in that project was a huge inspiration for me – these odd, absurd settings full of meaning, the large scale of the production for an art piece, and her absolute confidence in directing the project.

Some of the feminist performance artists who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s were important for me, including Carolee Schneemann (well before I knew anything about Fuses). Ana Mendieta was a huge influence, and I still feel a bit of something spiritual when I encounter one of her works in a museum. My interest and admiration of the work of pioneering female performance artists is referenced in Liahona – through my presence in costume, enacting re-enactments, and the briefest moment of rebellion in the wedding section, where I am walking away backwards, facing the camera nude, having walked out of a wedding dress I had on in previous shots.

Another important influence, in thinking about my interest in material objects and installation – Eva Hesse. I’ve made a range of work that draws influence from her use of space and materials – wall-hung installations of flexible materials, textiles.

Ann Hamilton has long been a favorite!  I also draw inspiration from the work of friends – a textile and installation artist, Gabrielle Duggan, another textile artist, Ellen Molle, Lisa McCarty, especially her emulsion drawing polaroids and hand-built cameras, and Robert Beatty, musician and artist, multi-faceted and multi-talented friend who creates amazing sculptures, installations, music, videos, collaborates with Takeshi Murata, working out of Lexington, KY.

In a certain sense, in Liahona there’s an usage of landscape as medium that magnetize history, as if that landscape could coalesce with the history but at the same time there’s also a resistance. Capitalism turn everything (also the habits of Mormons) in its procedures, rules, games, but that landscape seems to resist. I had this impression.

Yes, totally.  Capitalism and Mormonism have a close relationship. To support a large family, you need to be a high earner.  With the Mormon atomic family values – the husband as the bread winner, the housewife/stay-at-home mom dynamic, there is a lot of pressure on Mormon men to succeed financially. The identity of the Church is very American – suburbia, 1950s family values, lots of consumption. Big families require rampant consumption, and it’s the duty of Mormons to have as many children as possible.  In Utah, the Mormon church recently opened a multi-billion dollar shopping mall directly across the street from its main temple and world headquarters.  Stores are required to be closed on Sundays, because the Church owns the mall.

Something that is amazing though – no matter where you go in Utah, there’s still that epic landscape. You are standing in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, and there’s a snow-capped mountain range behind it.


The landscape does resist its manifest destiny, though it has been somewhat conquered in some ways. The early Mormon pioneers struggled to understand how to grow crops in the desert, and there is related mythology that has become woven into the fabric of Mormon identity.

There are still large swaths of Utah that remain uninhabited. The land isn’t really able to support the kind of population growth that has occurred. Various environmental pollution studies have named Salt Lake City as having America’s worst air quality.

This is due to inversion-cold air from the mountains forms a sort of dome over the Salt Lake valley, trapping in the air from the city.  The pollution from private cars and industrial waste can’t escape. In the winter, when you drive down from the mountains into Salt Lake City, sometimes the pollution is so thick you can’t see the city until you break through the layer and descend into it. To me, that’s a kind of rebellion – there never should have been so many people living in a place like this, and the only reason they do live there is because of the prophet saying “This is the place”. to those faithful pioneers.

As they say, they made their bed, now they have to sleep in it, and breathe in the toxic fumes of their own consumption. The landscape is amazingly, breathtakingly beautiful, and very harsh. Unforgiving.

Toni D’Angela