Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be: 25 FPS Festival
Now in its 15th year, the 25 FPS International Experimental Film and Video Festival has become an important platform for promoting independent and non-commercial cinema. The festival, held in Zagreb’s Student Centre, is part of the Croatian capital’s long history of nurturing avant-garde filmmaking. In the 1960s, Dr. Mihovil Pansini, a physician-turned-critic, founded the Genre Experimental Film Festival — a forum where intellectuals and cinema enthusiasts from across Yugoslavia could exchange ideas. 25 FPS was created out of the ashes of Videodrome, a monthly TV show that broadcasted experimental movies on Croatian state television between 2002 and 2004. The team behind the festival have continued this tradition, screening films that rigorously re-evaluate conventional structures of cinema.
There were several common threads running through this year’s program, but the most prominent was the slippery nature of memory and its distorting effect on the present, something best observed in the recipient of this year’s Critics Jury Award: Pia Borg’s “Demonic” (2018). Over the past five years, politicians and journalists have become obsessed with the circulation of misinformation, with “fake news” blamed for everything, from the election of Donald Trump to the UK’s decision to leave the EU. But is the spread of disinformation really anything new? “Demonic” shows how paranoia and deception have long been used to stimulate society’s overactive imagination. A true story about false memory, Borg’s latest film revisits the Satanic Panic of the 1970s and ‘80s to explore the link between mass hysteria and media sensationalism. She focuses on two major events that occurred during the satanic ritual abuse epidemic. The first is the publication of Michelle Remembers, the scandalous bestseller co-written by Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his patient (and eventual wife), Michelle Smith. The book details Smith’s repressed memories, and the occult sexual abuse she claimed to have experienced as a child. The second is the McMartin preschool trial, in which it was reported that hundreds of children had been molested and subjected to satanic rituals. The media covered both these stories round the clock, but they were eventually proven to be untrue. Blending reconstructions of Smith’s therapy sessions with archival news reports of the McMartin trial, Borg’s attempt to retell the story only obscures it further. Instead of revealing facts, or exposing lies, she instead questions the malleability of memory, culminating in an exquisitely strange film that explores the sociology of moral panics.
Another film that revived the past through the stimulation of unconscious memory was Miriam Gossing and Lina Sieckmann’s “Souvenir” (2019). Set aboard an abandoned cruise liner during a dark and stormy night, the ship’s eerily empty corridors and dance halls are brought to life by the testimonies of various women who lost their husbands to the sea. Exploring the totemic power of romantic ornaments, the film positions these interviews against the souvenirs their husbands brought home. Each keepsake radiates with memories of abandonment and loss, but Gossing and Sieckmann are more interested in negotiating the conflict that arises when material objects from places of tourism are implanted in the home. The best example of this is a pair of earthenware Staffordshire dog figurines. Sometimes referred to as “Wally dugs,” these porcelain statues often took pride of place on the mantelpiece. However, after discovering they were routinely purchased in the brothels frequented by British sailors, their role changed, with one woman explaining how she would use them to signal her lover. Moving the dogs to the windowsill, she would place them back to back if her husband was at home, but if the dogs were facing each other, it meant the coast was clear.
These items of memorabilia, coupled with the faded décor of the cruise liner, allude to a history of seafaring in which luxury and exploitation go hand in hand. Interrogating the fetishization of intangible experiences, “Souvenir” depicts how the legacy of colonialism lives on through the trinkets lining the mantlepieces of many UK homes. But this nostalgia isn’t just confined to Britain, with many of Europe’s former imperial powers struggling to reconcile their postcolonial melancholia. “Was it better before?” asks the invisible narrator of Jorge Jácome’s “Past Perfect” (2019). “Much better” comes the reply. An attempt to understand Western Europe’s collective malaise, Jácome’s latest film is an associative chain of thoughts and images, with the Portuguese director fascinated by the tension between this form of melancholy and our tendency to misremember the past. Throughout history populist right-wing groups have intuitively been drawn towards conservative political ideas. But was the past really as wonderful as we’re led to believe? Unraveling society’s obsession with nostalgia, and manipulating it to wryly discomforting ends, the film travels backwards through time in search of the mythical sweet spot where everything was “perfect.” Discussions range from Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, to a rendition of “Yesterday,” the Beatles’ haunting ballad about losing someone you love to mistakes that time can’t fix. Accompanied by dreamy, unfocused images filtered through a purple haze, these irreverent conversations give the impression that the past is something intangible but also only slightly out of reach.
Lost in a gaseous cloud of nostalgia, “Past Present” demystifies society’s romantic view of history. For some, however, the past can be a reminder of how hard things used to be. That’s certainly the case in Albert Sackl’s unconventional self-portrait, “Stiffness 1-3/7” (2018). The project began in 1997, when Sackl first experimented with time-lapse photography. He used this technique to record a three-minute film of himself attempting to maintain an erection over the course of four hours. His goal was not masturbatory release, but a test of his own stamina, with the viewer presented with little more than the director’s grim determination to “keep it up.” Repeating this process every ten years, these three films (part of an optimistic seven-film project) produce an intimate perspective on vitality and mortality. The self-portrait is a timeworn form of art — one that reveals how artists see themselves and how they wish to be seen — but Sackl’s recasting of the male nude isn’t an illustrative portrait but a symbolic one, fluctuating seamlessly between narcissism and self-demolition. We all change as we age, and with that the image of ourselves may also shift and alter, but Sackl’s film reflects the unease one feels when their body becomes less responsive to the brain’s commands. They also highlight how technology has altered the way we access pleasure. Sackl’s mode of inspiration changes across all three films, from skin mags and adult VHS tapes to pornographic videos viewed on his mobile phone. One thing that doesn’t change is how oppressively alone he appears. There’s a trace of bewilderment in Sackl’s face as he attempts to keep himself aroused. What initially feels salacious quickly becomes prosaic, with the film suggesting that whatever we are as human beings, we are infinitely more than our bodies.
Memory can edit and blur the experiences of our youth, but as “Stiffness 1-3/7” illustrates, the camera isn’t always forgiving, often illuminating aspects of our past that nostalgia tries to erase. From tales of satanic abuse and infidelity, to acts of auto-eroticism, this year’s 25 FPS Festival revealed how difficult it is to embrace the future when longing for the past.
The 15th edition of 25 FPS Festival took place in Zagreb between September 26 and September 29.