When watching new works in this springtime lull between award shows and festival season releases, it’s easy to miss the livelier capacities of new film work, and its ability to surprise. With the second edition of the hybrid festival Prismatic Ground, New York-based programmer and organizer Inney Prakash (previously of Freep Film Fest and Sundance, and currently working with the Maysles Center) has managed with an air of deceptive ease to fill that void.
The hybrid showcase offers a staggering array of experimental and documentary works which could suit a gallery, a theater, or any viewer’s home — all streaming free from May 4-8. (A selection of Prismatic’s first-year programming is also available on the subscription-based Criterion Channel now).
With its rare and welcome emphasis on shorts, Prismatic Ground embraces many forms of restless creativity, privileging its makers’ perspectives and immediate experiences above the authoritative pose of more familiarly mainstream documentary forms. By making diaristic, experimental, and essayistic works its focus — and in not treating the lines between artistically rendered fact and fiction as firm — it works to bring the oft-neglected sharpness of lived experience to viewers through all the works it shows.
Prismatic’s approach to screenings proves appropriately multifaceted as a kind of signature, highlighting the countless ways one might approach the world or making visual, time-based art. Organized into thematically aligned “waves” of film work, most clocking no more than two hours, each of the festival’s ordered selections might feature on its own more aesthetic and cultural perspectives than you’d get in a year at the average multiplex. The films come from places and perspectives rarely represented here, including firsthand, personal accounts of harmful developments in Thailand slotting in alongside meditative travelogues about journeys through the Suez Canal. The effect, so uncommon in festivals now, bypasses hype cycles and awards circuits to flatter both makers and viewers by allowing them to engage with even quite challenging works directly, in a context that reinforces each work’s respective forms of logic.
As an example, Prismatic’s first wave is oriented around circles (“look at that round ass shit” is the title, taken from its opening short), with selections ranging from two to forty minutes by its end. Opening with “Memory Playthrough,” Sim Hahahah’s brief and earnestly narrated reminiscence of growing up not only in precarious circumstances but amid whirls of new urban development, the film signals both the wave’s motif of rounded shapes and a more holistic meditation throughout on the passage of time. Followed by more abstract works like Fabio Andrade’s “Contour” — which features a frenetic, downward-pointed camera directed at various bodies of water — and Jodie Mack’s “Wasteland No. 3: Moons, Sons,” which looks raptly at water melting and draining from plant matter in time-lapse, the selections address a considerable range of thematic terrain by wave’s end. Touching on ideas of nature, human development, and questions of endurance over time, the suite’s last work, “Constant” feels just as at home within it as the rest.
At 40 minutes, Sahsa Litvintseva and Beny Wagner’s “Constant” bounces between creative meetings at present (rendered in animation, featuring the filmmakers themselves) and period-piece flashbacks to the explorer-centered past they’d like to depict. Focused largely on the “science of measurement,” metrology, the film-within-a-film looks to colonial histories of the meter’s development and Western Europeans’ efforts at mapping and thus controlling the world. Employing a musing philosophical tendency more essayistic than informational (but with narration and re-enactments linking it to more rote mainstream documentary forms), the film takes up animation, kaleidoscopic effects work, and a thrumming digital soundtrack as tools to excavate and reflect on the narratives it makes its subject. The result comes alive due to a considered, expressive artistic approach and wide-ranging technique, delivering a sense of variety reflective of the festival as a whole.
But that’s just one wave of thirteen available, part of a series united by ethos and Prakash’s canny curatorial organizing more than anything else. With other waves focused on concerns spanning the erotic (“touch me don’t touch me”), environmental (“destroying the earth, over and over again”), and militaristic (“the blessings of liberty”) among so many others, Prismatic benefits mightily from inviting a breadth of subjects as much as voices throughout. By employing a framework for showcasing works from a multitude of international and variously marginalized voices, Prismatic achieves an actually “free” artistic environment in terms of access and openness to a broad sweep of aesthetic modes. Blowing past domestic, binarized political discourses, the festival looks past borders to create an environment actually conducive to the expression of varied experiences and ideas.
In this light, what Prismatic’s catalog reveals about reality – or what it “documents” – proves persistent and unavoidable across works, letting them sing together with a harmonious ring of truth. For all the range of notes and techniques in play here, there’s unity anyway to what’s shown. The artists featured seem to pay close attention to what’s most pressing presently, so that even the most escapist works seem to retain an eye for social inequity, industrial excess, capitalist alienation and ecological precarity — and, crucially, some precious rays of personal expression in the shadow cast by them all.
If this makes the program sound heavy or off-putting, then I’d counter that the weight’s not too overbearing; it feels familiar and simply accurate to the everyday experiences we’ve all largely gotten used to. But it’s also more than that — by gathering so many welcome viewpoints, or angles, through which to see our fractured present, Prismatic Ground achieves something uplifting and conscientious in its assemblage, creating a sense of broad communion between the artists and viewers of the works it shows. In managing this while still honoring the particulars of the experiences its respective contributors share, the festival offers an experience of its own that’s angular, aesthetically rich, and not a little buoyant. In a better world, more festivals would look like it — which is all the more reason to enjoy it while it’s on.
The works showing online as part of the festival will be available on-demand from May 4-8 at prismaticground.com. A full program of works and descriptions is available at screenslate.com/events/prismatic-ground-2022.