A Week in Review: The Athens International Film & Video Festival

By Justin Cudahy, Staff Writer

For the 44th year, The Athens International Film & Video Festival made its return to The Athena this past week, showcasing some of the best films and shorts from all over the globe. With over 230 entries across 40 different countries, moviegoers were given the opportunity to not only enjoy, but to also go outside of their comfort zone and learn about what is going on around them. Throughout the week, several filmmakers entered in the festival held various discussions, Q&A’s and talkbacks, giving people the opportunity to get a look behind the scenes as to how their works came to be.

The first two days of the festival took audiences all over the world to learn about topics and events that some didn’t know existed. First, The Athens International Film & Video Festival traveled to Norway to discover the art of Sami rap in Arctic Superstar, then over to Istanbul to check out why there are thousands of stray cats living on the streets in the adorable documentary, Kedi, and finally back home to examine the rise, fall and rebirth of the career of American performance artist, Chris Burden in Burden.

Along with that, on Tuesday night the Festival showed off this year’s best and most creative animated shorts from all over the world. Each one of the 12 shorts selected to compete had their own unique identity, whether it be its length, the art style used, the themes discussed or all three traits combined. Some were funny, a few pulled at your heart strings, and others were just plain weird, but that’s what makes events such as this so great. They may not all be perfect, but you can certainly appreciate them.
Throughout the week, many local and international filmmakers came to Athens to engage with their audiences and host discussions about their own works. Experimental filmmaker and curator, Margaret Rorison stopped by on Wednesday to show off her catalog of shorts, which certainly needed an explanation to understand. From a viewer’s perspective, each one of her shorts can be best described as ambiguous, disturbing or even just a bunch of nonsense. What is the significance of watching grainy footage of the moon, combined with static and clashing noises on 16mm for five minutes? Or listening in on a police scanner while shots of the 2015 Baltimore protests play out on screen? Well, there is a method to her madness.

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Filmmaker Margaret Rorison (Left) discusses what the shooting process was like for her collection of shorts.

“I’m obsessed with using the Bolex camera which is a hand crank camera,” Rorison explained, “I love it because there are limitations… it’s fun to work around them.”

When asked about the significance of her choice of sound in her works, it turns out it is a lot more important than you think. “I like how sound can debilitate me or can be an abusive or visceral feeling. I wanted to be true to the moment and improvise that.” Often, Rorison will have friends perform the music live over the footage to invoke the right emotion and “help guide the piece.” By understanding these concepts and getting the chance to explore the filmmaker’s mindset, it may not make the shorts any more enjoyable to watch, but it does rule out the “nonsense” aspect, making Rorison’s work much more appreciable.

On Thursday, The Athena brought in Dani Leventhal, Assistant Professor of Art at Ohio State, as well as Sheilah Wilson, an Assistant Professor in Studio Art and Queer Studies at Denison University to show off their latest collaboration. The event kicked off with a live performance of Shameless Light, a 25-minute piece in which both Leventhal and Wilson shared the stage, exchanging love letters written by the likes of Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, and Frida Kahlo. With the only light source coming from a lit-up crimson colored sign with the title, “Shameless Light”, it created an intense and sensual experience among the audience, making this the perfect transition to the second act of their performance, Strangely Ordinary This Devotion. This 27-minute experimental piece purposefully clashed emotionally with Shameless Light to make the audience uncomfortable, and it worked really well. By using shocking depictions of gore and sexually explicit images, the duo got their point across in the most brazen of fashion, delving deep into present-day issues, such as the global water crisis. While touching upon themes of love and family, the filmmakers also incorporated some personal experiences.

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On Thursday, filmmakers Dani Leventhal and Sheila Wilson kicked off the event with a live performance of Shameless Light – Readings from the Love Letters.

“The only thing that I can really know is my experience and I try to offer that … It’s a matter of how you do that,” stated Leventhal.

When asked about the collaboration process, it turns out that it’s much more difficult when two people put their minds together. “In every collaboration, there’s a chance where you can always ruin the friendship. Often times Sheilah and I will get into these arguments over the duration of a clip and it’ll last for months until we finally decide through a tie-breaker.”

Considering the future, Wilson is optimistic for what is to come. “It makes you want to make more. I think there is something about it once you make it work… That’s when your adrenaline gets going and you start to develop this mindset.”

Heading into Friday, the realization of just how fast this week had been going hit; A depressing feeling filled the air, knowing that the Festival would soon be coming to an end. At the same time, it motivated audiences to cherish these last few days and enjoy the ride. Personally, I treated Friday as an almost free-for-all kind of a day, blindly checking out whatever films or shorts that sounded interesting. (Doing this is often risky since you have no idea what to expect, but thankfully it paid off on this occasion.) I spent the day watching shorts, the first belonging to the category, “Mostly Charming” and the second being “Flicks and Giggles”, which showcased this year’s funniest and most creative short films. With films ranging from a mockumentary – shot and filmed here at Ohio University – to a Christmas tale about black magic, it was refreshing to not have to be emotionally attached or actively following the plot to enjoy it, but instead be able to just sit back and laugh like an idiot.

The next day, things got nostalgic when The Festival screened its collection of “Saturday Morning Cartoons”. People of all types filled the theater for the event – from families with young kids and babies to older couples as well as students, all sharing a common interest. Throughout the screening, audiences found themselves paying less attention to what was going on, and more time reminiscing about their own childhoods. Although it was only for a short duration, it was nice to go back in time and recapture the essence of what it was like to be a kid again, not having any worries in the world and being able to relax and watch some cartoons, just like you used to do on Saturday mornings.

The final guest speaker of the week wasn’t a filmmaker showing off his or her work, but rather the subject. Harlon Country, USA, is an Oscar-winning documentary directed by Barbara Kopple that covers the 1972 coal miner strike in Harlan, Kentucky against the Duke Power Company. With the effort of over 180 coal miners and their wives, the protests lasted a total of 14 months until negotiations were met, but not without the price of blood. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until one of the miners, Lawrence Jones, was brutally murdered while protesting when victory was finally achieved for the union.

Jerry Johnson was one of the coal miners who took part in the strike and he came in to share his experiences of the event. “If it wasn’t for the cameras we probably would have ended up killed,” Johnson explained while getting teary-eyed. “Like Lawrence Jones, he was my best friend and the guy who killed him didn’t pull a day. They fixed the jury.”

Johnson, who now suffers from Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, caused by his time in the coal mines, still has much to worry about today, including being able to keep his pension. “We started off at Brookside, we’ve organized, we’ve finally got safety in the mines, we finally got a pension… Now I’m going to have to call Ron Paul to try and keep my pension? I ask anybody in here if they would call one of your representatives and tell them to please let us keep our pensions and our health insurance.”

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Jack Johnson (Center) was one of the 180 coal miners who took part in the “Brookside Strike” in 1973, the subject of Barbara Kopple’s documentary, Harlan City, USA.

Johnson would close the discussion with one last thought. “It upsets me as a miner to see anyone’s rights violated, such as Muslims or women, because if they are hurting their rights, they are also hurting mine.”

By the end of the Festival, I had seen a total of five documentaries, two movies, and 47 shorts. (Not bad for a student who still had to go to classes during the week.) This week has given many the opportunity to learn about so many different people, places, topics and techniques. These past seven days have drastically changed the way I look at things today, and I’m very thankful for that. This is a special thanks to The Athena for hosting this amazing festival as well as The Arts for Ohio Program for providing free tickets for the students. You’ve certainly made this poor college kid happy.

You can find the full list of this year’s winners and honorees here.

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