John GIanvito
Credit: John Gianvito/Prismatic Ground
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

Fugue — John Gianvito

May 5, 2023

John Gianvito is one of the most daring experimental documentarians working today, and a new film from him is always welcome. A bit of a lone wolf in the film world, Gianvito is an American independent aligned with no movement or genre, making films on his own timetable and on his own terms. Recently, he scored an unexpected “hit” with Her Socialist Smile, his lovely and insightful film biography of Helen Keller. Using various techniques — such as separating sound and image, or rendering speech as text — Gianvito offered formal correlatives to Keller’s own means of processing and generating information. And, in an unanticipated bit of synergy, Her Socialist Smile was screening in theaters around the same time a host of Internet loonies began insisting that Keller never actually existed. (At least no one claimed she helped fake the moon landing.)

Fugue finds Gianvito returning to his roots in the political avant-garde, where he stands alongside such mavericks as Jon Jost and Peter Watkins. This short film is about the war In Ukraine, but more than that, it’s about the dissonance between that tragedy as actually experienced versus its depiction in Western media. It begins with a series of electronic street advertisements in Boston, reminding passers-by about the need to support Ukraine, and then going on to promote soft drinks or cognac. Most of Fugue consists of a first-person view of a series of walks into the woods, at various times of the year. This is interrupted by media images, some from the present-day Russian offensive, others taken from two World War II documentaries by Ukrainian master Alexander Dovzhenko.

The final passage of this fifteen-minute short features a reading of a poem by the Polish writer Mieczysław Jastruń. In fragmented images, it describes the experiential chaos of life under siege, while Gianvito continues into the snow-covered woods. One dominant image that recurs several times is that of a frozen lake, with a strangled current of water moving just below the surface. It is a potent metaphor for the lifeworld of a people, cruelly interrupted but still persisting, waiting for the thaw.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 18.