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Looking Back: the stories of the Experimental Competition

25 June 2020
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Although more recent, the Experimental Competition is already one of the distinguished images of Curtas Vila do Conde, as it screens the vanguard and the best of what is done in the world within this area, through a rigorous but also bold selection. It is in experimental cinema, associated in large part with short films, where we find the riskier proposals, a permanent search to stretch the limits of cinema, either in its different physical or digital formats, or in its non-narrative forms, a place always looking to find something innovative, something that still surprises. In Curtas, the experimental quickly gained its own space, even before it became an official competitive section, since some of the films shown and even awarded were close to this genre.From 2003 onwards, the International Competition began to award the best experimental film, as was already the case with documentaries or animation, for example. And since 2009, that is, for eleven editions, the festival has presented an Experimental Competition, an autonomous program that increasingly asserts itself as a very exciting aspect of cinema.

It is in the 1995 edition of Curtas, its third, that we can immediately begin to recognize some of the most important names in experimental cinema in recent decades, and a proof that even before the creation of a competition of its own, this cinema already gained prominence in the festival. In this edition, two names were awarded whose work would be followed in future editions: Matthias Müller, Grand Prize for Best Film in 1995, is a prolific and innovative director, who early on worked with found footage images to create beautiful poems or essay films, featuring more than twenty films throughout the history of Curtas, in his own name and in collaboration with Christoph Girardet, a precursor filmmaker in the way he uses images from other films to create new stories. Also in 1995, Jay Rosenblatt, a filmmaker who explores the possibilities of the documentary format and the use of archive images to seek new ways to revive the past, was also awarded an honorable mention - he would also be awarded in 1998 with the prize for Best Documentary and several of his films would be shown at the Experimental Competition.
The first prize with the seal of Best Experimental Film happens in 2003, still as part of the International Competition, for the American director Deborah Stratman, for the film “In Order Not to Be Here”. Stratman, a multifaceted artist and one of the most original and distinct voices of her generation, would still be present in several editions of the festival, both in the International Competition and in the Experimental, proof of her hybrid cinema, between genres, but always political and personal. She would be the winner again in 2014, with “Hacked Circuit”. Rosa Barba is, along with Deborah Stratman, the only one to be doubly awarded in this competition, winner in 2016 with “Bending To Earth” and 2017 with “From Source to Poem”, works that address the ambiguous nature of reality and memory, and which examine society, man, environments and landscapes as materials to create new possibilities, new stories, amazing new ways of looking at the world.
Another name that soon stood out in Curtas is Nicolas Provost, winner of the prize for Best Experimental Film in 2004 with “Oh Dear”. A belgian filmmaker whose works have been a constant presence at the festival for several years, he explores the illusory nature of cinema and the boundaries between fiction and reality, when for example he transforms everyday life into a fiction film that follows narrative and cinematographic codes in “Plot Point” or "Stardust". In 2005, it was Peter Tscherkassky's turn to be awarded “Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine”, a director who has more than ten appearances in Curtas, with works that continuously explore the possibilities of the archive and found footage. Even before the creation of this competition, Ben Rivers was awarded in 2008 with the Best Experimental Film, for “Ah, Liberty”. Rivers is one of the most relevant contemporary artists for his constant search for innovation and experimentation in the representation of the relationship between man and society, often using 16 mm images; the director has several participations in Curtas, either in his own name or in collaboration with Ben Russell, another innovative multimedia artist, who works on film history and cinematic grammar, in a form of visual anthropology - the duo was honored at 2005 edition.

The first prize of this competition created in 2009 was for the prolific artist F. J. Ossang - besides being a director, he is a writer, editor, poet and musician. His cinematic work, always enigmatic, with a punk influence and an idiosyncratic style, was honored with a full retrospective in 2017 at Curtas. Winner in 2011 of the Experimental Competition with “The Push Carts Leave Eternity Street” and a director with a regular presence in Curtas, Ken Jacobs is one of the fundamental names of experimental cinema in the last decades: since the 60s and 70s at the forefront of exploring possibilities cinema, his work often involves the appropriation and assembly of found footage images to create his own works, but also the use of his home movies, with some adventures through stereoscopic and three-dimensional experiences, always in search of innovation and new ways. Jacobs was one of the directors in focus in the 2010 edition, and won the Grand Prize for Best Film in the 2007 edition, with the films “Capitalism: Child Labor” and “Nymph”.
Bruce Conner is another giant of experimental and avant-garde cinema, director of some of the most important works of this genre, and whose work has been screened several times at Curtas, in the International Competition and later Experimental, but also as a tribute in 2011 to the way his work can be seen as a precursor to music videos. In the 1997 edition, Curtas dedicated a retrospective to Kenneth Anger, another pioneer and fundamental name of experimental cinema and its history - since his first short film in 1937, this underground director reinvents languages and possibilities, in a fusion between abstractionism and the conceptual, that the festival has shown over the years. One of the authors featured in the 2002 edition and present in different sections and editions of Curtas, especially between 1999 and 2005, Gustav Deutsch is another experimental filmmaker whose work the festival has followed, highlighting his interest in the phenomenology of the film and his film series “Film-ist 1-6”. An essential figure in the structuralist cinematographic movement and minimalist art, Morgan Fisher has a long career as a multifaceted artist, focusing his cinema activities on the obsolescence of film as a physical and artistic expression - he was the winner of the Experimental Competition in 2018, with “Another Movie ”, a kind of homage to“ A Movie ”(1958), Bruce Conner's film that is recognized as one of the most remarkable works in the history of experimental cinema.

In addition to these iconic names in experimental cinema, Curtas seeks to introduce new emerging talents, filmmakers willing to take risks in order to find a different look at cinema. Curtas has accompanied and screened first-hand authors that we can frame as from another generation of experimental filmmakers. Bill Morrison, whose work Curtas has exhibited since 2004, is one of the most relevant current artists in the field of found footage, using the deformations and distortions found in the deterioration of the film to create amazing new compositions, such as “Light is Calling ”. The Austrian Rainer Kohlberger has been a regular presence in recent years, continuing to explore the territories between cinema and music, and working from a variety of algorithms with the aim of creating, and later manipulating, the noise of the information in the image itself, always in an innovative way.

Awarded an Honorable Mention in 2017 for the film “Fajr”, Lois Patiño is a Galician filmmaker whose hypnotic works explore notions around space and time, the ephemeral nature of life, but also identity in a transcendent, almost religious experience, that only the poetry of cinema allows. Ajna Dornieden and Juan David González Monroy, a duo of directors based in Berlin, were awarded in 2018 with an Honorable Mention for the film “Comfort Stations”, a reinvention of films that build a narrative from archival material and a new soundtrack, which unfolds as a psychological test to the viewer. With only two works exhibited at Curtas but with an irreverent innovation and a poetic vision, Brazilian director Ana Vaz is one of the most unique artists currently exploring the experimental genre.

Winner of the competition in 2019 with "Suspended Island", the duo Jane and Louise Wilson already have an established career as multifaceted artists (nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999). In recent years, their films, which have been shown in Curtas, explore an interest in a lost urban geography and an alternative architecture, showing hidden landscapes that most people do not see and that thus gain new meanings and attention. In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the female directors in this field, such as the cases of Deborah Stratman, Rosa Barba, Jane and Louise Wilson, Ajna Dornieden, or the Indian duo Shai Heredia and Shumona Goel, winners of the Competition Experimental in 2013, with an inventive work that looks at the cinema itself.

Over the years, there have been several valuable participations by Portuguese filmmakers in this competition, authors who have been working with experimental cinema as a creative force to explore new forms of artistic expression, also reflecting the enormous vitality in Portugal of this category of cinema. Jorge Quintela, winner of an Honorable Mention in 2010 for the film "Ausstieg" - a pocket film on a train between two stations in Berlin - is the only Portuguese to win this competition, but several other names have shown their works, revealing and affirming themselves as inseparable from experimental cinema in Portugal, cases of Edgar Pêra, Filipa César, Daniel Barroca, Paulo Abreu, Mónica Baptista, João Onofre, Salomé Lamas, Luís Alves de Matos and Pedro Maia.
This plurality of names, of different approaches to experimental cinema, of different possibilities, of different generations and influences, is a reflection of the experimental as a last stronghold where the paths of cinema are drawn, film by film, from the past and thinking of the future.

(João Araújo)