Camera obscura

Though Detroit hasn't been able to sustain a large-scale film festival, particularly the tourist-drawing kind seen in Toronto or Chicago, that hasn't stopped local arts and cultural organizations from presenting a host of niche fests eager to expose local audiences to the mostly unseen world of truly independent cinema.

The Windsor-based Media City — whose 14th Annual International Festival of Experimental Film and Video Art will take place March 4-8 — is an accomplished organization. Its focus is film as an art form, freed not just from some Hollywood marketplace, but from traditional expectations of narrative.

These films are short, personal — more likely to be seen in an art gallery than a movie art house. Some, such as Zoe Beloff's The Somnabulists, are part of an installation: her five wooden theaters with 3-D video projections will be on display at Artcite in Windsor.

Media City's strength is how it brings artists to Windsor along with their work. A retrospective screening of Willie Varela's Super 8mm films, which have been featured in two Whitney Biennials, and James Benning's RR (USA 2007, 115 min.), a contemplative look at trains and the American landscape, both include discussions with the filmmakers. Media installation artist David Rokeby will also be on hand to tour and discuss his show, Plotting Against Time, at the Art Gallery of Windsor.

In addition to film and video screenings and discussions, there'll be live performances. The Detroit Film Center is the stage for an audiovisual collaboration, Cinemage, on Tuesday, March 4, with guitarist Loren Connors improvising to the slide projections of Japanese multimedia artist Aki Onda. Windsor's Capitol Theatre, the festival's primary venue, will host the multiple projector performance of Guy Sherwin with Lynn Loo on Saturday, March 8.

The films provided for preview run the gamut from bracing realism to idiosyncratic and impressionistic visions. Take into the air my quiet breath (USA 2007, 17 min.) charts an exercise in futility, but also peels back a veiled society's struggle to define its future. Los Angeles-based filmmakers Julia Meltzer and David Thorne, who use the moniker "The Speculative Archive," have taken a straight documentary format and turned it into a meditation on the modern Middle Eastern city.

In the Martyr's Square of Damascus, Syria, where a 14th century mosque once stood, the empty Basel al-Asad Center towers over the bustling city center, at once assertive and enigmatic. With insightful looks at the cityscape, the filmmakers chronicle the history of the still-unfinished building using the recollections of an architect who twice won a design competition only to have his plans scrapped by an in-fighting bureaucracy.

Jack Cronin's Invisible City (USA 2006, 11 min.) is part of the Regional Artists Program, which features filmmakers from Detroit and Ann Arbor as well as Windsor and London, Ontario. Cronin, a former director of the Detroit Film Center who was pivotal in getting the Detroit Docs International Film Festival back on its feet last fall, will be in attendance at this year's Media City.

Inspired by Italo Calvino's novel Invisible Cities, where explorer Marco Polo describes the metropolises he's seen to the emperor Kubla Khan, Cronin turns a dreamy eye on his own back yard, producing an atmospheric view of Detroit. He makes excellent use of the circuitous People Mover in the mostly silent Invisible City. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white, the film captures moments of ephemeral beauty amid the city's relentless solidity.

Bachelor Machines: Part 2 (Scotland 2007, 5 min.) utilizes split-screen images and narration in a very personal interpretation of artist Thomas Bayrle's discussion of the rosary's link to the machine age. In contrast to Part 2, where the connections between sound and vision aren't readily apparent, Rosalind Nashashibi's Bachelor Machines: Part 1 is more linear, a 30-minute impression of a cargo ship's journey from Italy to Sweden.

Alternating between starkly realistic and poetically surreal, The Mine (Belarus 2004, 16 min.) is an example of the breadth of Media City's International Program. Following a group of miners during their shift in a coal mine, filmmaker Victor Asliuk allows for some echoes of socialist realism while finding unexpected moments of beauty in this bleak subterranean world.

The illumination from the miners' hardhats function as spotlights, transforming the mine into a kind of stage set for their labors. Asliuk lets several shots — coal flying by on a conveyor belt, a vehicle headlight shining on a seemingly endless exit tunnel — go on long enough that the images become almost hallucinatory, making The Mine a trip in more ways than one.

By contrast, Jeanne Liotta looks up to the skies in Observando el Cielo (USA 2007, 19 min.), a mix of time-lapse photography and VLF radio signals. VLF (very low frequency) recordings are often described as the music of the magnetosphere, and it's an intriguing idea to match them with technical images of the heavens. But this symphony of the stars is more atonal than melodic, a lofty and challenging piece constructed from the ephemera of science.

Tomonari Nishikawa's Sketch Film #5 (Japan 2007, 3 min.) is purely visual: hyper-fast, black-and-white close-ups of the rural world, from ground cover to the sky above, touching on the commonalities of natural and man-made structures.

The dizzying, tilting shots of the Sussex landscape captured by Rachel Reupke with a camera obscura in Land of Cockaigne (England 2007, 14 min.) are the opposite: languid and seemingly random. Reupke shares a desire with the other filmmakers represented here to shift the audience's perspective, but her searching only yields a static shot reminiscent of a Breughel painting with a tinny version of the Talking Heads song "Heaven" as its soundtrack.

Cinematographer John Price manipulates film stock to great emotional effect in the silent, black-and-white, The Boy Who Died (Canada 2007, 8 min.), set in snowy Saskatchewan. Price's elegiac tale is short on traditional exposition, but on these children's faces, he captures all the beauty and harsh reality of the land where they live.

The Media City 14th Annual International Festival of Experimental Film and Video Art: Tuesday, March 4 through Saturday, March 8 in Windsor, Ontario. Visit or call 519-977-6564 for more information. Tickets are $8 Canadian per night or $25 Canadian for a festival pass. Main screening venue is the Capitol Theatre (121 University Ave. W., Windsor). Other sites include Artcite Inc. (109 University Ave. W., next to Capitol Theatre, Windsor), the Art Gallery of Windsor (401 Riverside Dr. W., Windsor), and the Detroit Film Center (1347 E. Fisher Fwy., in the Eastern Market, Detroit).

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]