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Onion City Film Festival goes way beyond the mainstream

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When: Through Saturday

Where: Columbia College Chicago, 1104 S. Wabash, fifth floor

Tickets: $8; $25 five-show pass for Friday and Saturday screenings at Columbia College, where Columbia students with ID get in free

Info: or (773) 293-1447

Updated: July 23, 2012 6:56AM

Mainstream narratives with known stars are not in sight at this festival. Dialogue features absurdist wordplay like “I would rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

In other words, set your sights for the unexpected at the 24th Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival, presented by Chicago Filmmakers, the city’s longstanding showcase of personal cinema.

For the festival, which runs through Saturday, independent curator Patrick Friel has lined up works from 11 countries, including titles by Ken Jacobs, Pat O’Neill and Ben Rivers — names well known on the experimental circuit. Among masters acknowledged in shorts by younger filmmakers are Stan Brakhage, George Kuchar, Kurt Kren and Martin Arnold. Local artists include Adele Friedman, Jake Barningham, Lori Felker and JB Mabe.

What’s new this year is a trend also spotted at the recent Chicago Underground Film Festival: an increasing number of entries from one to two hours. For instance, American animator Lewis Klahr offers a 65-minute piece, and Canadian animator Barry Doupe has a new work that runs 119 minutes.

All screenings, except for opening night, are at Columbia College Chicago.


8 p.m., opening-night program: The fest launches Thursday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, then moves to Columbia College. The opening program consists of a short by Lewis Klahr, 80 hand-crafted 35mm slides by Luther Price, and a surreal 1963 short that Chilean avant-gardist Raul Ruiz re-edited. Repurposing is on view in “Boxing in the Philippine Islands,” a recap of old black-and-white footage; in “Maneater,” a manic loop of shark clips, and in “One Way to Find Out,” a collage Hollywood trailers. Best in this style is “Dangerous Light” by Robert Todd, who extracts light-saber scenes from “Star Wars” films to create a shadowy abstract ballet. The highlight is “Big in Vietnam,” in which French-Vietnamese director Mati Diop depicts a film crew in Marseilles on hiatus as she encounters a Vietnamese exile in this lovely reverie on dislocation.


6:30 p.m., “Tributes – Pulse”: Chicago-born Bill Morrison continues in the style of his 67-minute “Decasia” (2002) with a 65-minute montage of more decaying nitrate celluloid. Buffaloes, planes and melodrama are partly visible in the old frames, but the main show is on the slowed-down surface where bubbles and blisters erupt in a delirious flux. One misstep, though, is ending with new footage, shot from a helicopter in the “golden hour,” of rusting ships off Staten Island. Other works include “Crop Duster Octet,” where Gregg Biermann reworks a classic scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” In earlier fests he did likewise with bits from “Casablanca” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” (Also, noon Sunday)


1:45 p.m., “Dragonflies With Birds and Snake”: For his 61-minute digital video, Wolfgang Lehmann blends his own shots with footage from zoological and educational films to create a visual marvel of beating wings and assorted interspecies acts. Nature never looked so alive yet mechanical in this highly recommended rhapsody of critters moving at the speed of camera and projector shutters. It screens with two six-minute films by Jorge Preloran from 1965 and 1972.

5:30 p.m., “The Terrorists”: For this challenging essay by Thunska Pansittivorakul, a 113-minute Thai-German co-production, night scenes of men fishing and harvesting blubber lead to bloody videos of soldiers shooting protesters in the streets of Bangkok during the Red Shirt uprising of 2010. On the soundtrack, the filmmaker speaks about his mother’s memory of anti-communist violence in the ’60s. Sequences of young men masturbating alone, however, make awkward interludes for linking politics with erotics.

7:45 p.m., “Deep State (Shorts Program)”: Politics are upfront in Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s “Deep State” as their video in­tercuts recent protests and riots with 20th-century archival footage. This heady essay on political resistance shows the burning of a Sony TV/VCR with “Occupy” on its static-filled screen.

More allusive is “Austerity Measures” from France, in which Guillaume Cailleau and Ben Russell layer colors to sketch Exarchia, a site of 2011’s anti-austerity protests inAthens, Greece. Joshua Thorson’s “Horizon” features an astrophysicist’s voiceover about her life on an outer-space colony with her husband and two kids.

Visuals come from Hi-8 video shot on the Horizons ride at Disney’s Epcot Cen­ter near Orlando, Fla., where visitors met a family of life-sized figures. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow is the futuristic backdrop for this homey critique of class and materialism.

Bill Stamets is a free-lance reviewer and writer.

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