Geographies of Solitude
Sable Island, the crescent-shaped sandbar located in the North Atlantic Ocean, is the site of Jacquelyn Mills’ debut feature film Geographies of Solitude. It’s an isolated area, nearly 200 miles southeast of Nova Scotia, and the film’s title hints at the quietude that defines its 12 square miles of land. Such stillness is a result of the small human population: Except for those in archival footage, the only people we see are Mills and Zoe Lucas, a naturalist who has conducted research on the island for more than four decades. She’s a genial, dedicated person, the kind that researchers need to be to live such purposeful lives. While watching Geographies of Solitude, one remembers the truth underlining all great people in science: In their unceasing and underappreciated work, they will never be celebrities. Geographies of Solitude is lovely because it doesn’t try to elevate Lucas to such superstar status; instead, we witness her simply going about day-to-day operations, showcasing the joy therein.
Initially, Lucas came to Sable Island because of its famed horses, but she felt an extreme desire to come back. She found a path to do this through volunteering as a cook, which led her to working alongside researchers. “It’s so compelling to be in a place where you’re learning things directly rather than reading about it in a book,” she says. It’s this enthusiasm for hands-on discovery that is crucial to Geographies of Solitude’s ethos. In periodic flashes of avant-garde filmmaking, Mills uses materials from the island itself to present dazzling lights and colors. She incorporates horsehair and sand, develops film in yarrow and seaweed, and uses contact microphones to capture the sound of specific organisms. These moments are less evocative for the images and audio themselves than what they telegraph: Mills is marrying her passion with Lucas’s, engaging in her own analogous research, but also deepening their relationship in the process. For a film that is subtly underlined by the innate loneliness of Lucas’ life, the act proves notably heartwarming.
For the most part, though, Geographies of Solitude is a straight-ahead documentary. Mills presents striking images of both landscapes and animals, with the graceful swaying of marram grass cutting to the resplendence of horses’ manes. Alongside such lovely wide shots are those in close-up: Lucas writing her findings in a notebook, the endless scrolling of data-filled spreadsheets, the careful handling of dead animal bodies. This juxtaposition of intimate research with grandiose spectacle highlights the feedback loop that is Lucas’s life: The obvious allure of this place led to this commitment to research, and it’s only in doing such work that more beauty is revealed. One testament to her neverending discoveries is how, after deciding to keep track of the island’s invertebrates, Lucas herself identified more than 70 new species.
Much of Geographies of Solitude’ second half, however, points to less enthralling encounters: Specifically, the huge amount of pollution that arrives on the island. At one point, Lucas reveals that 72 percent of the 300 bird corpses she’s found had stomachs filled with plastic. There’s also an incredibly large number of balloons that land on Sable, including one that came all the way from Indiana. Mills is smart to not just make this a clobbering of didactic moralizing though, as this problem is always coupled with Lucas’ solitary life; it’s only here, away from the rest of the world and in the distinct absence of other people, that one can really understand the grand ramifications of littering. There’s a hopelessness to it all, and as the film winds down, Geographies of Solitude moves into necessarily personal territories. “I lost track of everything else,” she confesses. “It appears that my life is Sable Island. That’s all I have, that’s all I do.” There’s a tinge of sadness and regret, but as the film concludes with her talking about the circle of life, there’s contentment in knowing she’s merely part of a greater ecosystem. She’s lived a full life and has done her part, certainly more than most, and she understands that one’s life can only ever be just that.
Writer: Joshua Minsoo Kim
How exactly to represent historical atrocities on screen has been an overriding ethical and formal concern for filmmakers for almost as long as the medium has existed. Major works like Night and Fog, Shoah, the films of Patricio Guzman, and more recent examples like The Act of Killing all share at least one common trait — what to show, or not show, and why. Archival footage, essayistic assemblages, talking head interviews, and dramatic reenactments all come under consideration. With his new film Camouflage (Camuflaje), documentarian Jonathan Perel opts for a kind of symbolic absence, crafting a circuitous quasi-narrative that dances around the edges of an ultimately unknowable void. His subject is Argentinian author Felix Bruzzone, who lives and works mere blocks away from the Campo de Mayo military base in Buenos Aires. Campo de Mayo served as the largest detention center during the Dirty War period of 1976 to 1983, and it’s where Bruzzone’s mother was disappeared to when he was only an infant. It’s not until years later that an adult Bruzzone discovers definitively that his mother also died there, along with thousands of others, and he becomes increasingly determined to investigate and research the facility. In the decades since the military junta was finally ousted, there’s been a gradual unveiling of information about the atrocities of the era (including the involvement of the United States government). But viewers with little or no knowledge of the era won’t learn much about it here. There are no talking heads imparting facts, no on-screen graphics or archival footage. Instead, the film consists entirely of Bruzzone jogging around the perimeter of Campo de Mayo (a massive area that covers something like 80 square kilometers) and meeting people that also live or work nearby. It’s a conceptually fascinating choice that nonetheless gets bogged down in uninteresting, repetitive conversations. There’s no enlightenment here, just a kind of wheel-spinning.
The film features numerous scenes of Bruzzone jogging, an action that functions as a kind of organizing structural device and as interstitial segments that cordon off Bruzzone’s various encounters. He has a long conversation with his grandmother, who raised him after his mother was taken away. Then Bruzzone speaks to a realtor who sells properties around Campo de Mayo and who is thrilled that property values keep going up — no one here seems particularly put-off by the detention center or its violent history. Bruzzone then visits the son of an old family friend who runs a restaurant, afterwards encountering an archaeologist and then an extreme sports enthusiast. All of them have some connection to Campo de Mayo, either literal — the sportsman rides his bicycle through the site, despite guards frequently stopping and threatening him — or metaphorical — the archaeologist digs up the past, finding as many human remains as prehistoric ones. There’s a sense that if Perel and Bruzzone can simply accumulate enough information, or meet the right person, that some kind of truth will reveal itself. It’s a noble goal, but every scene lasts for what feels like an eternity, and none of these conversations are interesting or emotionally edifying. Worse, the film is visually bland, content to roll camera and observe people talking with little regard for framing or editing rhythms. It all gets very monotonous very quickly. One hopes that Bruzzone found some closure in the process of filming this work, but there’s just not enough here to engage anyone who doesn’t already have a vested interest in this material. It’s almost too personal, too myopic in scope.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Every weekday, middle-aged legal worker Andrew Rakowski gets in his car and commutes home through suburban Melbourne: and indeed, this constitutes the vast bulk of David Easteal’s The Plains. Sometimes he calls his wife or mother, sometimes he chats to a coworker, who happens to be the filmmaker. Yet, despite its highly limited setting and subject, the film feels surprisingly expansive, as it slowly delves into the lives and minds of its two central “characters.” In this way, The Plains benefits from a well-chosen subject: Rakowski’s numerous, unusual interests and experiences eke out slowly, between successive rounds of small talk, domestic logistics, and silent, solitary rides. But its format and structure also show real consideration, which make this otherwise daunting, three-hour proposition a surprisingly relaxed and engrossing experience.
Stitched together from a year or so of commutes, The Plains captures the slow, halting emergence of a friendship between Andrew and David; though both, of course, have unique histories, dreams, and regrets, they are hesitant to broach these topics for numerous trips — what must have been weeks or months in real time. In this way, the film captures a pressure felt by many office workers and 9-to-5-ers to suppress or avoid disclosing anything “weird” about ourselves around our colleagues, the strange and alienating feeling that our personal lives are inappropriate to our professional ones. Instead, the two coworkers spend much of their time talking around what’s really on their minds, or simply not talking at all.
Consequently, much of the film’s runtime amounts to a patient study of the darkened office buildings and empty parking lots along this one, anonymous stretch of Melbourne highway. Our only glimpses outside the commute tend to take place miles away, in the wide-open plains alluded to in the film’s title. It’s telling that Easteal, who also works full-time at the law firm, had to make his film both figuratively and literally off the clock. Such constraints are certainly a familiar experience for many: grappling with the sudden relegation of interests and hobbies, the small bits of freedom found between commutes, dirty dishes, and, grudgingly admitted for this writer, a hair routine. Easteal and Rakowski’s exterior lives figure similarly as intersitices or marginal deviations in the structure of the film, like fleeting, thirty-second weekends before the onslaught of the next workweek.
It’s a little disappointing, at first, that the film covers such a small sliver of Melbourne itself. However, as the film progresses, the limited and repetitive nature of the commute begins to allow viewers to focus more intently on the small details of the two duo’s speech and gestures, and to take notice the passing of the seasons. In the winter, it’s already dusk or dark when they leave. The world feels a little more claustrophobic, and yet new facets of the landscape are revealed through the now-barren tree branches. In the summer, the streets are busier, and — perhaps because they spend more time waiting for crossing pedestrians — Rakowski and Easteal seem chattier too. The pleasure of The Plains, then, is in the remarkable elegance with which it captures these subtle gradations of the domestic, social, and emotional landscapes of “ordinary” life.
Writer: Mark Cutler
“Swimming in lakes and ponds one also drinks out of, and finding that everything that one sees is intimately linked to one’s body movements, constituted a kind of alternative to the physically passive position of the cinema spectator — and a hint of a realm that lies outside of our industrial civilization,” wrote Fred Camper in 2003, describing how his many wilderness trips taken throughout the ‘70s were his “deepest source of spiritual sustenance” over the cinematic likes of Brakhage, Gehr, Kubelka, and Markopoulos. Dane Komljen’s Afterwater, likewise, is probably the closest “film” — an odd descriptor for a work that features Hi8 footage and was partially shot on a digital camera — produced in some time to successfully emulate this liberating relationship between subject and nature. It’s comprised of three disparate segments, each one less concerned with narrative than the last: the first is a proto-Angela Schanelec riff, set in the present, and with two awkward biology students reading, swimming, and camping near Lake Stechlin in Brandenburg, occasionally spouting lines from American limnologist George Evelyn Hutchinson’s A Treatise on Limnology — all while the densely vegetated landscape continuously threatens to consume this nameless duo. The second takes on a more distant, documentary-like approach, seemingly emerging out from the past to provide a more global context for Komljen’s experiment (filmed at a lake in Zamora, located in Northern Spain). The avant-garde finale — which is easily the most exciting section, at least on a moment to moment basis, simply on the strength of its extremely garish, “deep-fried” videocassette visual aesthetic — drops any pretense at establishing a clear linear progression between each portion, existing in a space removed from an established time zone or geographic location; three nameless entities, once again, simply exist amongst an environment of constant alteration, grappling onto one another’s bodies with a slow, precise rhythm straight out of the physical theater (this one, on its own formal merits, feels like it would be right at home in Collectif Jeune Cinéma’s vast collection).
If this at all sounds a bit nonsensical — and to a degree, on a surface level, it certainly is — then perhaps some relief will be drawn at hearing that Afterwater’s greatest strengths lie in its impeccable textural details, not its deadening thematic interests: the mirroring, almost reverberating lakes these languished bodies always seem to be bobbing in and out; the floating poppies that litter the sky like small dust particles floating around a living room during cleaning day; the bright crimson roses of the second segment; and, perhaps most interestingly, the deteriorating grain of the camcorder-shot third. This is to say that the best approach to take toward this material is in a loose, atmospheric sense, almost like an art installation; here, Komljen proposes that once you free your body from the confines of commercial cinema, you can thus truly free your mind to the great ecstasy of heightened perception. While that’s a bit of a lofty goal considering the general shapelessness of the final product, its advocacy for a body-minded cinema — especially in regards to the aforementioned visual character of the feature — are refreshing in a world dominated by straightforward thought.
Writer: Paul Attard
Miryam Charles’ feature debut is a member of the final Talent to Watch cohort, prior to the industry intervention that would reshape it. Talent to Watch is a Telefilm funding initiative, seeking to fund the feature debuts of artists across the nation, allowing each filmmaker CAD 125,000 to organize independent production. The initiative would fund up to 50 films per year. Over the pandemic, Telefilm has reorganized its infrastructure, doubling the budgetary limit from 125k to 250k, but over halving the number of projects that are green lit. These changes came in the face of industry complaints that artists were exploiting the labor and time of filmworkers and rental houses; of course, these complaints are incredibly valid, though you can find similar grievances on any number of professional/industry sets. Were one to hazard a guess as to why these criticisms were so briskly harnessed and weaponized to limit access to resources — in a program meant to expand precisely that — a fair assumption would be to cite the fetishism at the core the Canadian industry to centralize and moralize authority. And so, the program once promising to widen the possibilities of a Canadian cinematic landscape has very anti-climactically bent the knee to its gatekeepers.
All this context is worth mentioning because Charles’ film offers a beautiful example of the type of film Talent to Watch should be seeking to represent it. Without being privy to the working conditions of the set, it seems that the film Charles set out to create is one far away from the industrial mimicry that the majority of filmmakers offered these funds so often articulate. This House is an elegiac fragmentation of the spaces ghosts once were, and Charles constructs of her limited resources a vivid lamentation, meditating on the violent loss of her cousin now 15 years prior, seeking to probe the schism such an event set in motion between the security of a familiar homestead and the whispered threat of vulnerability that an entire outside world evokes. To emphasize this estrangement, a magical realist bent is introduced within the construct of a post-Brechtian cinematic language. Sets are built of the rooms in which this tragedy unfurls, suggesting a theatricality that subverts our instinct to passively engage with the narrative at hand. These rooms shift in their set decoration to emphasize their anomaly: Dogville-like minimalism is juxtaposed with a fully textured interior whose floor is landscaped like a garden, while the kind of palpable security which one’s residence can often offer is absent. But such stage-adjacent techniques to aesthetic construction pose merely a Brechtian reflexivity of the medium; it’s in the reconvening of cinematic sensibilities where the post-Brechtian element enters. Punctuating the structure of this play is a collection of patient cross-dissolves, striking double-exposures, and methodical cross-cuts with Haitian landscapes. Initially throwing us off of a normative spectator position, This House seems intent on giving primacy to the apparatus: first breaking down narrative agency through the theatre, to then exhibit a vigor only possible through the cinema, an apparatus, itself, of ghosts, of time stunted and forced to repeat itself over and over again for all eternity. The ghosts of Charles’ past and the specters of cinema find resounding companionship.
Canadian artists must seek forms and structures that come in conflict with the inflating hegemony of industry-bred visual literacy. Independent artists that Telefilm sought to uplift are unfurling the labor concerns that the industry has been exploiting toward its own self-interest. By emulating the infrastructure of industry, in both the organization of work on set and the very aesthetic sensibility being expressed through the work, these emerging artists are exposing the failures of a system that has quickly swept in to protect its image, countering this burgeoning problem by cutting off its mobility, by enforcing, once again, limited access. It’s not that artists have no sense of how to properly use this limited budget resourcefully, it’s that they are taught not to. With This House, Miryam Charles offers a vision that rebukes this hegemony and proposes how new and idiosyncratic forms can configure under these restraints. She has made the first film to come out of this program that proves what an understanding of your contexts, as properly siphoned into your artistic expression, can produce. Regardless if at times the film becomes a bit too literal in its intentions, expressing ideas more bluntly than necessary, what we ultimately have here is a beautiful object that it’s not a stretch to forward as one of the most integral Canadian narrative productions in over a decade.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind