Originally published by Film Panic Magazine, issue 5, January 2018
There is a new movement stirring in the world of cinema. Just when we thought all was dead and dry a fresh breeze blows and something wakes, new shoots emerge from the ground and something is born from the dust. For a moment we were alone, moving along our own path, wondering if these creations that are of such great importance to us were of any relevance or interest beyond our own horizons. But at the very moment when we began to accept our solitude as our fate there was a change, the horizon suddenly widened, the dust cleared and we have found that all this time, just beyond view, there were other filmmakers all working in a similar way, responding to the same conditions. Each moving along their own paths independently and unaware of each other, but connected, running parallel and moving in the same direction.
All these filmmakers are creating ambitious personal films which are experimental in form but do not fit neatly into the old definitions of experimental, underground and independent cinema, or any of the other categories which over time have become rigidly defined. For this reason most of these filmmakers work alone or with a small group of trusted collaborators, with very low budgets and limited exhibition opportunities.
This article presents our own observations and ideas about what is happening and what the connections are between all these filmmakers. Over the past two years we have begun collaborating, sharing our experiences and screening each other’s work and it was through these encounters and conversations that we started to perceive the underlaying connections between us all. It is still early days and we are certain that there will be more filmmakers out there who are responding to the same conditions and creating work in a similar way that will become known to us in time, and only in time will we be able to do a full survey of everyone involved.
What we would like to attempt to do here is sketch out some of the key characteristics that connect us all, starting by looking at the particular conditions of our time that have helped shape the paths of this group of contemporary filmmakers who we call The New Visionary Cinema.
THE CONDITIONS OF OUR TIME
In every era of cinema the technological advancements of the age have been utilised by the filmmakers, new tools create new possibilities as well as new restrictions. The same tools will create different kinds of films, depending on the sensibilities and intentions of the filmmaker. The industrial cinema will always incorporate what is developed and use it within its own structures for commercial purposes. Artists and those working outside of the industrial structures will embrace new tools in ways that enable them to work in the most liberated way possible. To a certain extent the tools dictate a set of limitations, and it is these limitations, married with the artistic forms and ideological standards of the day, that become the conditions which the artist either works with or against, in varying degrees.
Here are three very brief and simplified examples of how groups of filmmakers of the past have used and responded to the technology of their time:
French New Wave – The invention of faster film stock and portable newsreel cameras enabled filmmakers to shoot with less light, smaller crews and quicker set-ups in small spaces such as apartments and cars, as well as out on the street. The handheld camera introduced a more intimate tone to cinema, filmmakers began expressing their personal take on “the movies”.
Underground Cinema of the ‘60s – The increasing availability and cheapness of 16mm and Super 8 exploded in a myriad of experiments from the playful and performative to the philosophical and minimal – it was utilised by artists to create personal home-made movies that created an alternative film culture to the mainstream.
Late ‘90s/2000s indie film – The development of small affordable mini-dv cameras with the ability to shoot longer continuous takes than film, plus sync sound recording, allowed for a highly productive and liberated storytelling in the tradition of the narrative cinema but with a more personal approach and significantly lower budgets.
In the first decades of the 21st century, the appearance of digital filmmaking technology and the internet have affected filmmakers working on all fronts, from the industry to the artist, the amateur and the consumer. It is only now that we can properly begin to assess how much the new tools have challenged and changed 20th century paradigms, effectively creating a new ground for the next generations of filmmakers, setting in motion a transfiguration of cinema that irrevocably moves it into the new century.
Digital Filmmaking Equipment
The wide-spread availability of high quality consumer cameras, sound recording equipment and personal computers, all of which are affordable, accessible and easy to use, results in a situation where anybody with even the slightest desire can make a film with relative ease.
In the past, filmmaking was an expensive and complex activity which limited the choice of paths for the artist filmmaker. One option was to work within the industrial system, which had great financial and technical resources that allowed for creating ambitious visions, but you had to play by their rules and restrictions and your creative freedom was always subject to satisfying the commercial trends.
The alternative route was to protect your creative freedom but be technically limited to working with the available lower budget equipment of the time, such as 16mm, Super 8, VHS, etc, all of which are wonderful in their own right but equally may not fully serve one’s creative needs depending on the kind of films you wish to make.
The difference now is that we have much more choice. Many of the older low budget formats are still available and used by artists but we can now also for little money make films of a high quality image and sound using similar technology that is available to commercial films if we wish.
We can now pursue a highly ambitious and personal idiosyncratic cinema that is for the first time truly independent. The new technology gives the filmmaker a potential freedom from trends, hierarchies of taste, industrial processes and the influence of other’s opinions. In short the films can grow directly out of the interests and creativity of the individual, at their own pace and in their own way.
Of course, this liberation does not immediately result in an abundance of new visions. Much of what is being created with the new tools is simply repeating and regurgitating the same old forms, the same stories and experiments, influenced by aspirations that stop at wanting to break into the industry or the art world by fitting into well-defined categories.
But for those who are concerned with creating unique experiences and seeking to explore and expand what cinema can be, these tools are a great opportunity and give us the conditions to attempt processes and create images that had never been possible before. They allow for a film to have a single regulating force in its creation, the artists themselves, and the limits of their cinema will be only the limits of their own craft and imagination.
In this moment we are privileged to have at our fingertips a vast amount of the films that have been created over the last 120 years or so of cinema’s history. Without even leaving our homes we can view an enormous amount of films from all corners of the globe. In the past, one’s viewing habits would be limited to what was being screened at the local cinema and on TV. For those of us growing up with home video and cable TV we had a much wider choice of titles than previously available but it would still be limited to what was stocked by the shops or programmed by the channel. But now with the internet there are a myriad ways of finding and watching films, from all the streaming sites both free and subscription, to torrents, and online shops. There are of course still titles that are hard to find and films that are lost or locked away in a vault somewhere, but there is such an incredible amount of material available it would not be possible in ten lifetimes to view it all.
This is a new viewing experience, an experience of cinema where one follows one’s own thread through the material, creating a unique map of relations and associations between filmmakers and films which is tailored by one’s own interests. Today we have become the programmers of our own viewing, and as we document and share our research through social media networks, we are writing our own perspective of the history of cinema. This new experience is slowly breaking down hierarchies of taste, resurfacing forgotten and censored filmmakers, and constantly re-examining history.
The main revolutionary aspect of this democratic access to cinema via the internet is how it expands the breadth of our cinematic language. We have access to so much more of what has been explored in the medium, all of the different “dialects” that have been developed over the 20th century have become available to us and can be integrated into our own work whenever relevant. It is important to know the history of the medium, what has been done and the various ways in which one can speak in the language of moving images – to not know maybe in theory could create some naive and fascinating works but in the modern world we are so oversaturated with films, TV and all manner of moving images on a daily basis that even a person who has never once thought about making a film has an instinctive knowledge of film conventions. To have the widest and fullest knowledge of the variety of approaches to film language gives us the possibility of advancing towards a more sophisticated form of expression. Also, our understanding of craft does not have to be defined by the standards created by the mainstream, we have the whole history of the medium to show us other examples of rigour, craft and purpose. For an artist, these are the tools to utilise in their own work, that can liberate us and also urge us to go deeper.
On another note, filmmakers have been increasingly using the internet as a tool for promoting their work, finding audiences and supporters in places and cultures very different and far removed from their own. We can network worldwide at practically no cost now, finding collaborators beyond the reach of the place where we live, and with cheap international travel available through budget airlines, these online exchanges can easily lead to real world collaborations. The internet is not only an agent for the democratisation and decentralisation of knowledge but also of validation systems. No longer are the capitals of the Western world the sole magnetic centres for artists to work, survive in, find recognition and support; and slowly but surely, the values, structures and institutions of the Western world that had been the only standards by which history was written, and through which works of art made their mark, are increasingly put in perspective.
WHAT IS THE NEW VISIONARY CINEMA?
The New Visionary Cinema is an international avant-garde movement that has materialised over the last couple of years, not through design but organically and spontaneously out of the conditions discussed above. All of these conditions influence and concern every filmmaker working today, but what defines the New Visionary Cinema filmmakers is the particular response they have had to them.
The primary thing we have reacted to is the potential for full creative freedom, not simply the freedom to make films but the freedom to make uniquely personal films that result from intuitive processes, where images, sounds and narratives arise from an investigation of the medium of cinema as an extension of the imagination.
Visionaries are the ones who can’t help but see everywhere the edges and cracks of reality, the ones who feel utterly compelled to look beyond reality’s veil into the dark unknown, the ones who see value in the imagination. Visionaries can’t bring themselves to simply follow the beaten path and prefer to brave through the wilderness in their own way, relying solely on their own instincts and resources. As much as at times they suffer from their solitude, they value their experiences above anything else and could not act otherwise. Their single-mindedness might seem to others foolish, utopian, brave or inspiring – the truth is that visionaries have no choice but to act according to their own natures and follow after their visions.
Cinema is for us a portal between dimensions, a space to hold meetings with phantoms, a magic carpet to the dreamworld. We have all heard the stories about those screenings in the early days of cinema and the astonished reactions of the audience to seeing moving images on the screen for the first time. We are seeking to create films that give us those experiences and more, experiences that pull us out of our seats into the world within worlds of the screen, that jolt us to the core of our cells unleashing sources of untapped energy, or that pass through us leaving the feeling of otherworldliness in our bodies.
This is not a cinema where the audience can sit back and passively consume, or even where we the filmmakers can idealise, compose and execute to a preconceived perfection. We seek those moments that will spark off the right synaptic signals to send our perceptions astray and put our sense of reality in jeopardy. Our films are acts of discovery, born from a process of exploration that consists of experiments, wanderings, sparks of inspiration and unrelenting, systematic investigation. The process of creating a film is like water dowsing and our experiments and techniques are our dowsing rods – whether we write scripts, cast actors and do organised shoots, or record sounds and images in a diaristic mode, or create series of performances and studies to later (de)construct in the edit, or use absolutely any other process or technique. We let ourselves be guided by our abilities to sense the unknown or to activate the uncanny through the images and sounds that we record and process. This results in films that are a first person experience, crafted out of an encounter with the unknown, and delivered as a document and an artifice through which you may encounter the unknown too. They happen to us, the filmmakers, as they will happen to you too, the audience.
The actual process of working through the various aspects of the film will likely take a different shape according to each film, because each film has its own set of rules and its own key. This is why we are all concerned with developing a high level of craft – the more we hone our skills and develop our sensibilities, the more we can serve our creative impulses, the more articulate we can be in responding to each film’s demands, and the more complex and rich the films will be.
We came to the term visionary to define ourselves from a dissatisfaction with the uses of various existing terms – such as experimental, underground, independent and artist’s moving image – which increasingly felt inappropriate as each comes with some association that doesn’t apply to what we are doing. This is emphasised by the difficulties we have had in finding screening opportunities for the films we are making. The films are nearly always rejected for being either too experimental or too hand-made and low budget for those who are interested in arthouse and independent cinema; or too narrative, too long, too close to spectacle or not experimental in the “right” way for those interested in experimental cinema and artist’s moving image practices. These restrictions make no sense to us because the kind of relationship we have to cinema is as a whole, we love all cinema and see all its expressions as equal and valid possibilities at our disposal, there’s no need to be restricted in the kind of films we make and we don’t have to limit ourselves to the old boundaries, categories and labels of previous filmmakers.
The dominant value system within festivals, funding organisations and film criticism circles favours films that comment on current socio-political situations, ideally delivered in a digestible or accepted form, where the content is easily identifiable and relatable to current affairs. This is no doubt an attempt to address and try to understand the catastrophic situations we have been facing in the last decades and the even gloomier predictions of what the future holds for the current civilisation. The New Visionary Cinema is sensitive to these questions and fully living in the present moment, like anybody else we are directly affected by social, political, economic and cultural conditions. But our instinctive gut reaction is not to make statements about these things within our work, but to give value to personal thoughts and feelings, to delve deeper into our own dreams, fantasies, shadows and nightmares, in attempts to deal with them or at least face them directly. We do not pretend that we have all the answers for the world’s problems and we do not believe that art is the appropriate arena for distributing blame and justice. Instead, we seek to create a space which gives value to each individual’s inner experiences, and through the films we try to reach living images which are beyond the hierarchies and dualities that are at the roots of so many of today’s problems.
It is worth noting also that we are not concerned with expressing in our films a national character of the countries in which we have been born or in which we live. Many of us have indeed ended up living away from our birth countries or feel estranged in their own countries. Our sensibilities have developed from personal tendencies and a particularly international engagement with culture – cinema has always had this special ability to travel across borders, across cultures, and speak directly to each human being on terms that all of us can receive in some way. That is the position we seek in our films, to address and give value to the uniqueness of each individual, no matter who or where they are or what situations they are living through, individually and collectively. To remind us all that as individuals we are agents for the imagination, empowered by our ability to wonder, and reality is something we construct with every action and thought. The films of the New Visionary Cinema are a place where the imagination is unleashed, uncensored and free – it is not a cinema of definitions, it is a cinema of paradoxes and continuous creative exploration.
Key Characteristics Of The New Visionary Cinema
Here is a list of what we consider to be the key characteristics of the New Visionary Cinema. Many of these are direct reactions to the specific conditions of our time. Others result from a conjunction of certain personal tendencies and experiences.
1. VISIONARY: A tendency to pursue the unknown, the radical, the unfathomable, that which is beyond description, and to pursue it in a highly personal way. A focus and interest in the imagination, fantasy, visions, inner worlds and the artifice of cinema. A fascination with the dimension of dreams and myth and the mythologised world of cinema. This could be considered a first person cinema – the filmmaker as protagonist and the audience as protagonist.
2. EXPERIENCE OVER MESSAGE: Films not as statements or containers of information about socio-political ideas but as experiences with multiple interpretations, maybe even infinite interpretations, that can be beyond the creator’s intention – giving value to each individual viewer’s experience.
3. LOVE OF ALL CINEMA: Taking influence and inspiration from the entire history of cinema, drawing equally from commercial and avant-garde histories, beyond hierarchies of taste and quality. A deeply personal relationship with cinema, not rejecting any of it and not classifying films as good or bad.
4. IMPROVISATION & EXPLORATION: A strong interest in improvisation and exploratory processes that allow the films to evolve and develop in a creative way as they are being made. These films are not products that are designed and then executed to exact specifications, they are journeys of discovery that involve chance and unconscious exploration, which are not fully revealed until they are finished. The films are constructions as much as they are documents of creative journeys.
5. DIY HIGH CRAFT: In our age, do-it-yourself has become a standard practice of anyone wanting to make a film of any kind, the New Visionary Cinema is do-it-yourself but this is not simply a lo-fi or punk movement. There is a strong belief in craft, seeking to develop the best skills, tools and techniques to express ourselves and explore our subject matter. If Punk is the primal scream of creativity, then the New Visionary Cinema is the deep exploration into the nightmares and dreams of the one who is screaming.
6. NO HIERARCHY OF MEDIUM: HD, DV, VHS, 4k, mobile phones, Super 8, 35mm and all in between are the tools we have available to us, we reject the idea that any of these is better than another. Each format has its own particular expressive potentials and is selected by the filmmaker with this in mind, in the same way a painter can choose between watercolour, oils, acrylics or gouache.
7. EXPERIMENTAL NARRATIVE FORMS: A dedicated investigation into more sophisticated and nuanced cinematic experiences, with a special interest in non-linear and experimental narrative forms, seeking to go beyond the hand-fed clarity of the restorative three-act structure. The form is where the potential for liberation is, it is the carrier and deliverer of the experience, where the meaning lies.
8. ALL ART IS ARTIFICE: Art is an act of engaging with the world through creation, it is an active interference with the invisible meaning-making forces at work in the world, it is about manifesting our fantasies and visions. For the New Visionary Cinema, films are both documentaries and fictions, documents of a creative process and constructed fictions, an artifice created from a dialogue with our imaginations, both the creators’ and the audience’s. Everything is true and everything is fiction.
9. IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCES: Films that are meant to be seen as full, immersive experiences, designed to engage both the audience’s minds and bodies. Sometimes the experience can be physically and mentally difficult, sometimes exciting and enchanting, often it manages to be both. Sometimes it is necessary to disintegrate the ground of reality and make the audience feel lost. This is offering an opportunity where we can push against our own limits and discover something about ourselves. It is not about understanding, it’s just about allowing yourself to feel, to have your own unique experience and to give it value.
10. INTERNATIONAL: This is not a movement or group restricted to a single location or group of friends working together, it is something that has emerged organically and spontaneously from the conditions of our time, through people working isolated and independently in various parts of the world who nevertheless share certain experiences and personal tendencies. It is something natural and real, relevant to now and beyond anyone’s control.
11. A NEW CHAPTER: The New Visionary Cinema is not trying to reinvent the wheel – we are not trying to destroy the old to usher in the new. The world is constantly changing, mutating and evolving, and we are not set on imposing how cinema should be for anyone, but we have had to learn to fight to be able to make our films without compromise, and we hope that by sharing our experiences we can help others who feel the same restrictions to have the courage to follow their own instincts, and to make the films that only they can make. Nobody knows what is right or best for anybody else, we simply seek to create an arena where our visions and expressions can exist without censorship.
FINAL WORD FOR NOW
This essay has been written over the past couple of years as we have become aware of filmmakers working in a similar way to ourselves and with an interest in similar ideas. Since we have encountered each other, many of us have began collaborating together on film projects, screening each other’s works and writing articles such as this one. The more we reach out, the more artists seem to spring up who are working in this way and share a similar ideology. It is through these conversations and collaborations that we have been able to articulate and deepen what is central to our work. Where we go next is uncertain, what we do know is that there is more to explore and exciting possibilities lay ahead.