Now that Avatar in 3-D has blown out our sensory grids, we could all probably use some aesthetic recalibration. The Strange Beauty Film Festival, which takes over Manbites Dog Theater in Durham this Friday and Saturday, arrives in the nick of time, with an international lineup of more than 50 short films that offer quieter, subtler bedazzlements. The featured works, curated by Durham filmmakers Jim Haverkamp and Joyce Ventimiglia, cover a broad variety of topics and styles (sometimes in a single selection), from bizarre animation to quirky musicals, unique documentaries to elusive visual poems.
In Arne Muench's Aviarium, grainy dreamscapes lie in a deep field of layered planes—it's austere yet madcap, like Jan Švankmajer with a dash of Terry Gilliam. Jennie Thwing's Goat, a mix of crisp live action and stop-motion animation, achieves a pitch-perfect fairy tale feel with its blurry edges, naïve piano music and composed color fields. And Andre Silva's show-stopping "technomation," Ichthyopolis, has to be seen to be believed: It's a gorgeous, color-drunk, lysergic opera, a smart and approachable psychedelic freak-out.
But the festival has more to offer than surrealism. Anne Arrington's Chorus & Verse weaves together real interviews about people's hopes, dreams and memories with landscape footage that streams away like so much lost, lamented time. And there are arty, ephemeral documentaries, like Elizabeth Heny and Tony Gault's Fledgling, about an adopted crow, and Naomi Schegloff's Letting Go, a personal meditation with slowly zooming stills. Sometimes, the documentary-like entries are as peculiar as the more abstract ones. In Maite Abella's O Quam Tristis ("Oh, How Sad"), the Dutch filmmaker's mother and sister wrestle slowly on a beach, an analogy for their real-life conflicts. In the increasing disarray of their comfortably bourgeois clothing, the merely weird comes to disclose a touching poignancy.
For all of this diversity, common threads run through the selections: An emphasis on the personal; on handmade auteurism and errant technology (you'll be seeing a lot of film grain); on the texture of the medium itself—and most of all, an insistence on seeing familiar things in fresh ways. Landscapes proliferate, though at a dreamy remove, as if emanating from memory. The name of the festival summarizes its guiding principle concisely, although the backgrounds of its organizers develop the theme.
While Strange Beauty is new on the local film scene, Haverkamp and Ventimiglia (a married couple with a 3-year-old daughter) are not. Haverkamp, a freelance video editor by day, teaches in the continuing studies program at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies. The creator of a number of original shorts, he's perhaps best known for producing and editing Monster Road, Brett Ingram's documentary about the legendary underground clay animator Bruce Bickford. He organized Flicker in Chapel Hill from 2000 to 2002 and helped start Ms. Films Festival. He's also screened for Hi Mom! and Full Frame, making him something of a local film festival expert.
Ventimiglia, the creator of several short, experimental documentaries, films educational videos for the Distance Education Program at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics. She and Haverkamp often help each other out with their films, and they used to play in a band together, Holy Roman Empire. Together, they also made Hot Dog Man: A Case Study, a locally beloved documentary about a former Ninth Street landmark. Ventimiglia is also a local festival vet—she's programmed Ms. Films, screened for Hi Mom! and helped Haverkamp set up tech for Flicker. One particular Flicker film, Chocolate Bunny, struck both Haverkamp and Ventimiglia as strangely beautiful. "Wouldn't it be cool if there was a whole festival of strangely beautiful films?" they wondered. And so the new festival was born.
"It seems like every time you go to a film festival, there's a certain film that stands out for its otherness," Haverkamp says. "It's like the prize in the Cracker Jack box, the film that makes the whole festival worth it." So they set out to make an entire festival of nothing but prizes. "For the most part, we went for films that were emotionally evocative for us," says Ventimiglia. "At one point, we tried to come up with a definition of a 'Strange Beauty film' and couldn't do it." They settled on a variation on the old definition of obscenity: You know strange beauty when you see it.
A special Friday night program by Tom Whiteside of the Durham Cinematheque, a filmmaker and 16 mm film collector, sets the tone for the festival. Two Ways of Seeing (Things) meets at a nexus of archival film, modernist intervention, sculpture and sound. With two 16 mm projectors laying images on two screens, and source material including Whitehead's own films, Stan Brakhage's The Garden of Earthly Delights and footage from the Lumiere Organization (some of the earliest moving pictures on film), Whiteside will create a hypnotic meditation where light, time and space take on central importance over the image itself.
As highlighted by the Lumiere Organization selections, Whiteside strives to restore to viewers the magic of early film, a painstakingly spliced-together medium made by hand that produced entirely novel relationships to time and space. "On a related line of thinking," Whiteside explains, "consider how Cubism changed painting and the way we see the world forever. One can make the argument that without the multiple points of view that cinema offered via editing, Cubism would never have been possible. So my interest is not just in film history per se, but how film and the malleability of time in the plastic arts have had an impact on our world."
All in all, Strange Beauty seems intent on preserving aesthetic experiences and ways of looking that are slipping away in a tide of new technology. "Low-budget art of any kind offers a chance to share an experience that isn't trying to sell you something," Ventimiglia explains. "These movies were made because they are meaningful to the person who made them, which is rare when so many of our shared cultural experiences are commoditized in some way. You also get something from watching movies with an audience that you don't get from watching them alone on your computer." But above all, it strives to provide a home for films that don't fit neatly into other festivals. "If the festival scene is a large house," says Haverkamp, "we're hoping to be the weird uncle who lives in the attic." Haverkamp and Ventimiglia intend to continue the festival if the interest is there, so it's up to those who attend to make sure the weird uncles of the film world aren't left out in the cold in years to come.