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Martha Jurksaitis

Red Shift, Gunvor Nelson

Red Shift, Gunvor Nelson

We spoke to Martha Jurksaitis, Deputy Programme Manager of the Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF) and founder of independent experimental film organisation, Cherry Kino. The Cherry Kino programme at LIFF continues this week with a selection of wonderful shorts, including Sarah Turner’s Perestroika on Friday 19th, Guvnor Nelson’s Red Shift on Saturday 20th and a Warren Sonbert retrospective on Sunday 21st.

How did Cherry Kino come about?

Back in 2007, inspired by helping out at the Evolution Festival in Leeds in 2006 and 2007, I curated a long evening of experimental film during the Leeds International Film Festival. It was such a huge success that I convinced LIFF we should create an entire strand during the festival dedicated to experimental film. They were supportive in this, being a very open-minded festival, and so it was born for the 2008 edition.

It was initially called KiNETIKA!, but I changed the name in 2009, because there is also a Polish film festival in London called Kinoteka. The “Kino” part of the name came about because I wanted to fuse the romantic and germanic terms for film together – I was tired of ”cinema this, cinema that”, and felt that the emphasis on the word mirrored an emphasis on region too – feeling that the cinema ‘of the west’ predominates in cultural discussion. Also of course it relates to the Greek word meaning “to set in motion”, which is the foundation of the word cinema anyway.

So in a way, going back to the roots of cinema linguistically mirrored my interest in the similarities between early kino and experimental kino. The ‘Cherry’ part is both crude and romantic at the same time – “Cheri” (the French for “darling”) makes the phrase a sort of love letter to film, translating, in 2 languages, as “Darling (Cheri) Cinema (Kino)”. It also has the implication that it can be someone’s first introduction to experimental film – i.e. they pop their cherry with it! Cherry Kino has evolved to become an independent film organisation which organises year-round activity, as well as the LIFF programme, because it seemed crazy to me that it popped up during a huge festival where there is so much going on anyway, and then just disappeared again for another year. The year-round activity seems much more conducive to creating community around wondermental film appreciation.

I also run the Cherry Kino Lab, which is a DIY film lab, to encourage the making of film as well as the watching of it. I managed to get a little bit of funding for one year, but after that… I have faith though!

You programme ‘wondermental’ films – where did the term come from and how do you define a wondermental film?

When I first came up with the term it was a bit of fun, stemming from a few things: I felt that ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’ were problematic terms, and just wanted to inject a sense of the joy and wonder that I personally experienced (and constantly still experience) when I discovered this type of film.

Then came a sense of anxiety – kind of like “how dare I coin a phrase for such a huge body of work?! How arrogant is that?!”, but honestly, it came from me wanting to be creative with my curation as well – I don’t think that curators are in any way separated from the creative process, and for me, that is part of the reason I adore doing it so much. I actually feel that very often, curators try to remain distanced from their programmes to show respect for the work and the multitude of interpretations they can give rise to, but actually I think often this does the work a disservice because it isn’t conveyed with passion, and it also gives a false impression that the programmes are somehow self-created, which is not the case.

In this post-post-modern situation of “it can mean anything you want it to mean” I think perhaps we have lost sight of the need to make personal approaches organic and visible, not just so they can be appreciated or criticised, but so that people can find a way into the work and so that the programme becomes more accessible, more able to be engaged with, and not put on a pedestal of high concept which nobody really understands but everyone is afraid to say that they don’t. At the same time, I now refuse to dumb it down. Being open is not the same as being vague.

In terms of defining a wondermental film… it’s very very hard to say. Sometimes it’s a combination of technique and approach, sometimes it’s simply an aesthetic (which is in my view very often politically potent without being explicity so). I think my understanding of wondermental film is heavily influenced by the direction my career and interests have taken – I studied English Literature, but finding language inadequate in so many ways, I began working at LIFF, becoming one of the main programmers and responsible for programming a large proportion of the arthouse films (including the Golden Owl Competition) as well as some documentaries.

From there, after I discovered the world of wondermental film, I was just absolutely in love. I refuse to ‘write off’ fiction films, like some proponents of wondermental film do, because I still adore it and I find it a hugely enriching art form, and not as separate from wondermental film as people might think. There seems to be a large amount of snobbery when it comes to defining or standing up for wondermental film.

While I understand that this comes largely from its alternative, marginalised position, I still think that it’s unhelpful, and gives rise to things like the ‘experimental film canon’, where great ‘masters’ of experimental film are recycled over and over to the detriment of lesser known ones (and mistresses…).

At the same time, people do need a way in, and curating for a public festival like Leeds means you have to provide for the ‘virgins’ of the scene at the same time as curating for the more experienced and knowledgable wondermental film lovers. I felt that sometimes I would ‘dumb it down’ a bit in order to get people to come, but I have recently changed this, although I definitely avoid dry, over-intellectualised ‘artist-speak’ too. Hopefully I manage to strike a balance.

I’m very aware that wondermental film slips into the space between definitions of ‘art’ and ‘cinema’, and frequently get annoyed by the art world’s naivety (“ooh, look, this ground-breaking artist is using REAL FILM!!”) and the film world’s ignorance (“that’s not a proper film! What’s it about? Where’s the story?”). I find that a lot of artist’s film that is submitted to LIFF display concept, as understood in the art world, but very little film technique. Likewise, narrative filmmakers making ‘experimental’ work often produce films which are more in line with arthouse.

How did you become involved with LIFF?

I volunteered in 2004, as soon as I’d graduated from the Uni (doing literature), and I felt a really strong gravitational pull towards the festival – I somehow just knew that it was for me. I’d always loved alternative films, and remember a few seminal experiences – my dad showing me Murnau’s Nosferatu when I was 4 (4 years old, I mean, come on!), and also Dario Argento’s Phenomena when I was about 7, and Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups by my French teacher when I was about 12. Also, Channel 4′s offerings (when it was still a good channel), and then a whole range of films like Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain and countless others which I saw on the Australian film channel SBS when I lived in Melbourne in 2000.

I also went to loads of events organised by Bio Reykjavik when I lived in Iceland in 2003, who did all kinds of film screenings including epic marathons in empty warehouses and other interesting venues with a sense of passion and fun, which, looking back, contributed to my feeling that this was a wonderful thing to do. But ultimately, the freedom, support, deep friendship and education I’ve received through working at LIFF have had the strongest effect on me and have helped to shape my appreciation of and dedication to wondermental film, both showing and making.

Can you recommend any experimental films that you’ve recently seen that we should check out?

In terms of recommendations, I’m absolutely crazy about Gunvor Nelson‘s work, so I’d definitely recommend that. In terms of recent work, I was very impressed by Madame and Little Boy by Magnus Bartas – a film which would equally have fit into the festival’s documentary strand as well as Cherry Kino. The film won at Oberhausen this year. In fact Oberhausen was a very big inspiration with excellent programming. It was there that I also saw the work of Indian filmmaker Amit Dutta, whose work I hope to programme in the new year at one of the monthly Cherry Kino events.

Children by Paolo Gioli is also a film that really got inside me (I like his approach to filmmaking too), Tunnels by Christopher Cogan is unlike anything I can remember seeing, Looking for Apoekoe by Karel Doing is wonderful, as is Film about an Unknown Artist by Laura Garbstiene, Chladni Scheme by Peter Miller gets more fascinating after every viewing (I think I’ve seen it 5 times now), Cosmic Alchemy by Larry Jordan is wonderful, Forms are not Self-Subsistent Substances by Samantha Rebello is fabulously archaic and new at the same time, Project for a New American Century or Writing and the Art of Persecution by Keith Sanborn is challenging but so rewarding, Li: the patterns of nature by John Campbell just makes my jaw drop, Yves-Marie Mahe’s Relrap Erdnetne Suov Ed Edalam Dner Em Ac (“it makes me sick to hear you speak” backwards) is great fun (as usual), Peter Tscherkassky’s Coming Attractions is fabulous (and very Austrian), and Tischk – le Rayon by Olivier Fouchard and Mahine Rouhi is like the missing (wondermental) piece connecting art-house gems like Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, Paradjanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates and Pasolini’s Uccellaci Uccellini.

Not all of the films I’ve mentioned here are new – Cherry Kino doesn’t have a strict UK Premiere or new policy, as I don’t see the point.

You’ve recently put together a DIY filmmaking guide, what filmmakers inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Let’s see… In terms of arthouse directors, I remember very clearly seeing Onibaba by Kaneto Shindo and feeling very strongly that I wanted to make work with that viscerality, high contrast, fabulous… Also Lucia by Humberto Solas was a very important film for me, as well as I Am Cuba by Mikael Kalatozov (those wonderful, wonderful shot angles, and the incredible club scene). Paradjanov and Jodorowsky are also huge influences, and Bela Tarr’s The Werckmeister Harmonies too.

Sometimes it’s as much to do with the experience of seeing the film as the film itself – I saw The Werckmeister Harmonies at the Mediawave festival in Hungary some years ago, in this tiny makeshift cinema where you had to crawl through a gap to get to your seat, with just a heavy curtain separating the cinema from the bar, and it was just magical – the perfect setting. Kazuo Hara is also a big influence.

In terms of wondermental filmmakers, Alex MacKenzie, Paul Clipson, Etienne Caire, Sector 16 (a collective I stayed with for a month a few years back), EXP24 (a collective I was part of for 3 years), Eve Heller, Gunvor Nelson, Peter Tscherkassky, and David Larcher’s Mare’s Tail which I’m showing during the festival. There are absolutely loads more too!

You run 16mm workshops and labs – how did you get in to hand-processing film and why do you think it’s important to carry on the process?

I got into hand-processing through 2 friends, Mark and Joanna, who were co-founders along with myself and a guy called Dave of our collective EXP24, which has since disbanded as we’ve all gone on to do our own (still film related) things. We used to meet up at each other’s houses to process film and watch it together, make food, and organise screenings. For me, it’s such a creative process – I’m heavily into the processes, cross processing, and manipulation of the footage, as it is just as much part of making films as what you actually shoot (if you shoot anything!).

I guess there is a worry that it will take over and I’ll get lost in a mess of chemicals and forget about the film, but so far that hasn’t happened. I actually have never finished a film I’d say I’m happy with, but I’m hoping to focus on that once the festival is over. I’m really interested in the phenomenological aspects of film, and I’m looking at the concept of synaesthesia (the crossing over of senses – eg coloured hearing etc), and how wondermental film can bring that about.

I do feel very close to film as a material, but I’m also wary of pigeonholing it, and very wary of the whole ‘arts and crafts middle class leisure activity’ it can often become. I take film very seriously as well as having fun with it, and have far too much respect for filmmakers to just treat film as a thing. I’m interested in how the organic form of film translates the light and colour for it to reach our bodies and our consciousness. I’m not an analog purist – I’m not against digital film – but I definitely feel very attracted to analog film and analog apparatus. Perhaps that’s middle-class retro. I hope not!

In the same way I love non-verbal communication, I also love the x-factor you get from film – it does have an aura. Most definitely. I experience it and I know it is there. It somehow makes room for intuition. Perhaps it’s also something to do with presence – the film physically witnessed the light, and is somehow a testimony of light – its presence. I also like to show people that it doesn’t have to be expensive to make films, and that film is still available! But I do think the fact that film has a cost helps us to learn how to use it with consciousness – all the variables involved, rather than just pressing a single button to catch it all now and edit it all later, mean that we too are brought into the present.

I think that if you are ‘present’ when you film, that often comes through in the film. Perhaps that sounds like hippy rhetoric, but I really do believe that can happen. It intensifies the relationship between looking and creating, and gives an added dimension to the reality of the film and your connection to it.

Would you ever be tempted to go digital?

Hmmm. It certainly has it’s strong points! Perhaps I would one day, yes. But at the moment I feel like I’ve put so much energy into discovering analog processes that to go digital would involve me just learning a heap of new stuff which gets on my nerves – I spend so much time with computers and escaping into true darkness is a deep pleasure for me. I’m at a point where I want to make films intensively for the next year, so it’ll be analog that I use for that, as well as the foreseeable future.

What’s coming up for Cherry Kino?

A screening of Larry Jordan‘s films on 9 December in the Leeds Town Hall, and a black and white reversal hand processing workshop led by James from on 29 January.

The Cube in Bristol have also asked Cherry Kino to guest curate an event there in February, and Impressions Gallery in Bradford have asked Cherry Kino to guest curate one of their Intermission screenings too. Happy days!

The Cherry Kino Lab is also open more frequently over the winter (this is based at Patrick Studios, East Street Arts, Leeds – thanks ESA!) as I’ll have more time after the festival to do it, and I’m thinking about organising a programme for the Leeds Young People’s Film Festival too, to get the kids in on it.

Personally, making films is my top priority for this coming year, along with researching synaesthesia and keeping the activity and momentum up. The hope with creating the booklet is that people will use it as a manual so they can use the lab independently, and I can get on with some filmmaking. Sometimes, organising lots of film things means I don’t have time to work on films myself, and I think that’s super important if I’m going to keep loving what I do. Oh god do I love it!

If anyone reading this would like a copy of the Cherry Kino filmmaking booklet, just drop Martha an email with your postal address to:

  1. Adam Pugh says:

    To reconnect with passion is indeed what’s needed – and wonder. Pity the po-faced, as they sit on their spikes! Thank you for striking out.

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