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Rebels With a Cause: Digest this film fest, don't just consume it!

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Rebels With a Cause is a four-day-long politically minded and socially conscious film festival co-ordinated by members of the York University community that took place on campus last week. I had the opportunity to view some experimental shorts from the “FAG Selects” series curated in collaboration with FAG: Feminist Art Gallery. 

The atmosphere of the screening was unconventional, as this particular section of the festival took place as a part of a first-year gender and women’s studies lecture. The course is Sex, Gender, and Popular Culture, and it is taught by Allyson Mitchell, one of the founders of FAG. The 50-minute screening included seven shorts ranging from 30 seconds to 14 minutes in length, and was followed by a talkback led by Allyson Mitchell and a representative from Rebels With a Cause. 

How does an artist create a politically charged, innovative film that is 30 seconds in length? How does an inexperienced film critic unpack the complex and intense issues addressed in 50 minutes of experimental film? The talkback was a crucial part of the film screening in this case, considering that the majority of the audience members were students from a first-year gender studies course, and visitors that may not have any formal background in gender and sexuality studies, or experimental film at all. As a member of the latter group, I found that a guided discussion of the subject matter in the seven short films revealed a lot about how to approach political art, and how to unpack the heavy tension that surrounds the uncomfortable topics that political and experimental film shoves brazenly in your face.

On the surface the films presented issues that could not possibly be discussed fully or reconciled in the short talkback period, but Mitchell provided several tools that the audience could take with them, if they chose to try and analyze the subject matter of the films on their own time. The most important of these tools was the ability to confront the tension of the films.

Some of the shorts, notably Lesser Apes by Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, and Target by Rehab Nazzal, were profoundly unsettling and dealt with uncomfortable issues and used uncomfortable techniques to convey their message. Lesser Apes combines scientific footage of bonobo apes, homemade computer animations, and unconventional love songs to challenge society’s conceptions of perversion, language, and the human vs. nature superiority complex. While that description sounds like standard activist artwork, the audience must grapple with the fact that these messages are being conveyed through a narrative that describes the sexual relationship between a female human primatologist and a female bonobo ape. Considering that this narrative is the surface of the film it is easy to understand how tension and discomfort mounts as viewers must reconcile what they think they know about acceptable human behavior in order to sift the meaning out of the film.

When it comes to confronting the tension in Lesser Apes, a critical viewer can ask why the notion of bestiality makes them so uncomfortable, and why the film makers chose this topic to frame their message with. In the film, the ape Meema is given the ability to communicate human ideas using a computerized voice. Viewers get a glimpse at the love affair from the ape’s perspective, and it is from this perspective that the concept of “perversion” and what it means to be a “pervert” arises. What does it mean to be a pervert? From learned experience it seems inherently bad, but it is also a word that gets thrown around whenever people are uncomfortable with something. “Pervert” is a sentence; it is a way of separating deviants from orthodox members of society. Why is this problematic? By asking these kinds of questions, viewers push past their discomfort to see what the film is really trying to prove. You can view the film Lesser Apes here, and ask yourself these questions.

Target is a film that creates tension in a completely different way. The subject matter of the film is not difficult to grasp: it is a series of black and white oval portraits and inscriptions that seem to represent deceased citizens. It’s easy to recognize the political and social nature of the short when the viewer notices that all of the portraits are of people from the same ethnicity. They are visual obituaries. The tension comes from the fact that while these ovals are appearing, and fading into a collage of oval shadows in rapid succession, there is complete silence. There is no sound to this film. For four minutes the audience watches these obituaries in complete silence. As they become more and more uncomfortable with the silence, the audience becomes a part of the film. Every uncomfortable shuffle of belongings, every uncertain cough or clearing of a throat adds to the piece. This audience participation asks aggressive questions about silence. What is the audience doing while these obituaries flash before their eyes? How long can the audience stand to be silent before they react? Check out Rehab Nazzal’s portfolio here.

Of the films screened as a part of the “FAG Selects” portion of Rebels With a Cause, I particularly enjoyed Beyond the Usual Limits: Part 1 by Deirdre Logue. This three-minute short featured a person of indiscernible gender trying to force themself horizontally between their mattress and box spring, beginning with their hands and ending with their feet. The film is three minutes of struggle, in contrast with the sound choice of a '70s-inspired funk background music. This film seemed to ask really simple questions about difficult tasks: why bother? Why try and achieve such a strenuous goal? Additionally, the ridiculousness of the trying to squeeze between two heavy pieces of a bed made me wonder if I could do it. What does this struggle represent? Answer that question yourself by having a look at this preview, and the rest of Logue’s website.

Other shorts screened included This is Not a Test, by Marisa Hoicka, Woodcarver by Ehren BEARwitness Thomas and A Tribe Called Red, Covered by John Greyson, and Bending Over Backwards by Heather Keung. All dealt with heavy issues, all prompted an endless stream of intellectual inquiry. Some were visually uncomfortable, some were mentally uncomfortable, and others were aurally uncomfortable. So why is it important to confront tension when viewing politically and socially critical film? Why bother curating a film screening that makes its audience uncomfortable?

The purpose, as is the purpose behind Rebels With a Cause Film Festival, is to demonstrate that film should not be passive or escapist: an audience should not simply consume. They should also digest. Rebels With a Cause urges its viewers to be critical, and if the films screened as a part of “FAG Selects” are any indication, Rebels also forces viewers to be critical.

To get information on the festival so that you can be a critical participant during next year’s edition, bookmark their website.

For more information about FAG Feminist Art Gallery, you can look here.

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