Light Field Film Festival Returns to Push the Limits of Celluloid

A still from Bruno Delgado Ramo's film 'Locations,' playing at Light Field film festival. (Bruno Delgado Ramo/Courtesy Light Field)

UPDATE: Festival organizers on Thursday announced Light Field's cancellation due to novel coronavirus-related concerns.

Light Field, the artist-run film festival, has shown films that require fog in lieu of a screen. It’s shown films that require multiple projectors and films that require multiple projectors on opposite sides of a room. I’ve laid down at Light Field, looking up at temporal sculptures suspended in air. It’s often more accurate to say films projected at Light Field are performed instead of shown, really, and they accrete the material conditions of their exhibition like non-sentient collaborators. Outlandish bent aside, though, one lasting effect of Light Field’s experimental programming is enhanced alertness to the lines and shapes embedded in everyday imagery, and their emotional charge.

The fourth annual Light Field film festival runs this weekend, March 13-15, at The Lab in San Francisco. The program features an international cast of more than 50 artists, culled from hundreds of submissions by seven collective members. Light Field sprang from conversations at the now-defunct Black Hole Cinematheque, an underground film series in Oakland, and it differs from more established festivals in key ways. Submissions must be made for celluloid exhibition, but otherwise there’s no criteria; this year one film is 60 years old. There’s no submission fee. Artists receive stipends. Each program costs a modest $6-$10, and weekend passes are $25.

So what’s playing? Fever (1998), a 16mm film by Chicago artist Paula Froehle, joins phantasmagoric closeups with a tactile score of murmuring inhalation to explore a mother-child bond troubled by illness. It’s on Program 7, curated by new collective member Patricia Ledesma Villon, with several stirring shorts meditating on delineated space: Tomonari Nishikawa’s Amusement Ride (2019) shows the dense field of steel beams supporting a Ferris wheel, and Valentina Alvarado Matos’ El mar peinó a la orilla (2019 traces an ocean horizon in paint. Locations (2019), a Super 8 film by Bruno Delgado Ramo, seems to probe the limits of formal description through a diptych-like composition involving fissures and surveying equipment.

A still from Matthias Müller's 'Alpsee,' featured at the fourth annual Light Field film festival.
A still from Matthias Müller's 'Alpsee,' featured at the fourth annual Light Field film festival. (Matthias Müller/Courtesy Light Field)

Villon’s program also includes Odds & Ends, a 16mm film from 1959 by Jane Conger Belson Shimané, who’s often mentioned alongside her former husband Jordan Belson, the late experimental filmmaker based in San Francisco. Villon wanted her program to challenge the idea of the avant-garde’s boundless forward motion, a message sent most clearly by Odds & Ends: It comprises a rush of familiar and abstract imagery while a voice-over babbles about jazz, poetry and grants in a perhaps uncomfortably resonant spoof of experimental filmmaking and beatnik culture. “It’s rumored the film led to the end of her relationship with Jordan,” Villon said.

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Light Field collective member Emily Chao, an Oakland filmmaker and curator, selected two half-hour pieces for Program 6 that share an interest in unfinished or unending projects: George Clark’s documentary-like Double Ghosts (2019), shot in Chile and Taiwan, echoes an incomplete film by Raúl Ruiz, while Silvia das Fadas’ reverent The House is Yet to be Built portrays architectural sites built with utopian intentions. They blur reportage and fantasy, Chao observed, and appeal to her sense of photographic images as fossils. “They're both travelogues tracing a legacy or myth,” she said. “There's a reactivation of forgotten spaces that happens.”

Program 2, curated by Tooth, a founding collective member, includes rarely-seen work by Marcelle Thirache, a French artist who painted directly onto Super 8 filmstrip in the 1980s and 1990s; and Paul Sharits, whose Tirgu Jiu (1977), inspired by Brancusi sculptures, uses two projectors to produce a kinetic flickering effect. Trisha Low, the poet and performer, described a theme of containment in her program—dark and vivid in Matthias Müller’s Alpsee and Mike Stoltz’s Something to Touch that is Not Corruption or Ashes or Dust—that connects to broader ideas. “[Film] is marked by the touches of each person it passes through, hand to hand, each time it’s viewed,” she said. “In that sense it's a magnet for contagion, it is made to be contaminated.”

Stuart Moore's 'Zinn,' a film featured at Light Field, depicts the Dartmoor river.
Stuart Moore's 'Zinn,' a film featured at Light Field, depicts the Dartmoor river. ( Stuart Moore/Courtesy Light Field)

Light Field carries forward an experimental film tradition that’s struggling against cost-of-living and real estate pressure in the Bay Area. Tooth moved to New York last year after eviction ended Black Hole Cinematheque, and founding collective member Zachary Epcar now lives in Milwaukee. Running against this trend, however, is Shapeshifters Cinema and Brewery, a new exhibition space in Oakland. And the volunteer Light Field collective has actually doubled in size and begun to receive grant funding. It also has a strong relationship with Canyon Cinema, the important experimental film distributor in San Francisco. Tooth noted Dena Beard, director of the Lab, is an essential supporter. “After every festival she goes, ‘When are we doing it again?’”

The Light Field collective, which also includes Samuel Breslin and Syd Staiti, generally collaborates on a “spectacle” program to conclude the festival with a challenge to the conventions of film exhibition. (In 2016 the festival ended inside the sea cave at Sutro Baths.) The parting provocation this year is The Eyes Empty and the Pupils Burning of Rage and Desire by Luis Macias. The Spanish filmmaker, who’s presenting the piece live, manually advances black leader through two projectors while manipulating the lenses and bulbs. The light from the bulb singes the leader, destroying the film as it’s being projected. The idea, according to Macias, is to isolate the elements of a cinematograph device, resulting in a silent film “without image.”