Experimental Film Lovers Rejoice! Light Field Returns With Its First Festival Since 2019

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A sun flare over yellow blossoms on left and darkness at right
A still from Erica Sheu's 16mm film 'pài-la̍k ē-poo (saturday afternoon)' 2020, part of Program 5 playing April 1. (Courtesy of Light Field)

It’s been a rough three years for the local film scene. Beloved neighborhood theaters closed, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art cut its film program and the Castro, our gilded temple, remains in committee limbo, seemingly on the verge of becoming forever changed.

And yet, there’s good news too: the 4 Star is back in action (though currently fundraising), organizations like Canyon Cinema, Shapeshifters Cinema and San Francisco Cinematheque are programming up a storm, and BAMPFA continues to screen around six films (!) a week.

To tilt the scales even more overwhelmingly into the positive, Light Field, our favorite celluloid film festival, returns to The Lab March 30–April 2. It’s been three years since the 2020 iteration was canceled on the eve of the pandemic lockdown, and the 2023 program debuts in a very different world. This time, the simple act of gathering for a series of carefully selected experimental films is a closely held privilege.

Living through the pandemic hasn’t changed the way Light Field approaches the festival — there are still hundreds of submissions to watch and all the intense behind-the-scenes work that goes into collectively planning the four-day event. But the past three years have deepened the curatorial team’s commitment to in-person gatherings and, as member Zachary Epcar wrote via email, “cinema as collective experience.”

“These things only feel more important, more valuable, and more precious now that we know how truly tenuous they are,” Epcar says.

Diffuse circles of color in pink purple and green fading to black at edges
A still from Bill Brand's 16mm film 'Circles of Confusion,' 1974, from the trilogy 'Acts of Light,' part of Program 10 playing April 2. (Courtesy of Light Field)

Like years past, each Light Field program is curated by a different collective member — the artists Samuel Breslin, Emily Chao, Zachary Epcar, Trisha Low, tooth, Syd Staiti and Patricia Ledesma Villon. The exceptions this year are Programs 1 and 2, which offer a full retrospective of the late Los Angeles filmmaker Amy Halpern, curated by her husband David Lebrun and filmmaker Mark Toscano, and the collectively organized Program 10, showing a trilogy of Bill Brand films made between 1972 and ’74.


A note here about that closing program, the spot reserved for each year’s “spectacle” showcase. Brand’s trilogy, Acts of Light, was originally slated for the closing night of 2020. And Rates of Change, one of the three films, actually showed at the 2019 festival, but the print turned out to be faded, creating what Low describes as “a generative experience” of different audience reactions (some saw colors, some saw only a blank white screen). Now we get a definitive opportunity to take in the whole of Brand’s trilogy — studies on the gradations and intersections of pure color — with the filmmaker himself present.

Another refreshing hallmark of Light Field is its agnosticism about “newness.” In Program 4, curated by Epcar, we get a 16mm film made in 1966 by the late Edward Owens playing alongside Madison Brookshire’s Two Suns (2013/2019), which features a live musical performance. In the same program: a 1987 film from local artist Lynn Marie Kirby called Sharon and the Birds on the Way to the Wedding. While I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, and writing about, several of Kirby’s projects over the years, I can’t imagine another context in which I’d get to view this film.

Image of Black woman in wicker chair with another transparent image of herself
A still from Edward Owens' 16mm silent film 'Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts,' 1966, part of Program 4, playing March 31. (Courtesy of Light Field)

My advice in planning your Light Field weekend is to trust your gut. If one name calls out to you from a particular list of artists, attend that program. If a still or a description seems intriguing, go! Light Field is about discovery. Even if one film isn’t your favorite, within a few minutes you’re on to the next adventure, yet another potentially sublime visual and sonic experiment.

Most importantly, bask in as much of Light Field as you can. We want to believe Light Field is back for good, but we also never could have predicted the ongoing pandemic and its rippling effect on arts events and spaces. (Each film I see at the Castro, I wonder if it’ll be my last time hearing the organ in those theater seats.)

“One thing that keeps coming up for me,” Low says, “is the increasing difficulty of creating events like this, and how they can only happen with so much labor, commitment and community investment. ... Every year it feels impossible, and yet here we are. It’s never not a surprise, even (or maybe especially) to me.”

Don’t let these rare and precious opportunities to take in the shape and texture of projected film pass you by.

Light Field takes place at The Lab (2948 16th St., San Francisco), with 10 programs between March 30–April 2. Tickets to each program cost $6–$10 sliding scale; a festival pass is $60. Details here.