‘SURVEILLANCE, PROTEST, SPECTACLE’ ★★★
Video Data Bank presents three films by Michael Vass and Jem Cohen. Co-curated by Michael Green and Christy Lemaster. Total running time: 68 minutes. No MPAA rating. Screening at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Nightingale, 1084 N. Milwaukee. Admission, $7 -$10 sliding scale.
Updated: March 9, 2013 6:16AM
How to portray a protest is the theme of “Surveillance, Protest, Spectacle: Films by Michael Vass & Jem Cohen,” a program of three HD videos curated by Michael Green and Christy Lemaster and co-presented with the Video Data Bank.
Both artists document demonstrations: Vass went to the G20 summit in Toronto and the 2010 Summer Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.; Cohen covered Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They focus on faces in the streets to make essays on estrangement.
Vass writes, shoots and edits a portrait of two nameless Canadians in “Vancouver #1-13 (Notes for a Report…).” After a snippet from the 1961 song “Suspicion,” a male authority on the soundtrack announces: “Notes for a report to the special task force on security and internal information. Items found in a camera bag confiscated from an unknown detainee: one small orange notebook and 13 videotapes labeled Vancouver #1 to 13. No indication of the identity of the owner of these items. I will refer to the owner as ‘she.’” He is played by Nicholas Campbell, a Vancouver actor who sounds like William S. Burroughs.
Seeming like a reactionary caricature, the narrator disses “trust-fund anarchists” and asks, “Who in their right mind would want to turn things over to people like this?”
But as he pores over her tapes, he changes and intuits changes in the unedited footage. He tries to sync the video to a point of view: “a sympathy with the protesters can be sensed” and “none of it is exactly incriminating on its own.” His inconclusive “theory” is that she “subscribes to some dangerous ideas and these clearly have something to do with the footage she shot in Toronto and Vancouver.”
“I wander around all day somewhere between a tourist and a spy,” writes the detainee. She shoots people shooting one another with their cellphones and camcorders. A montage of freeze frames captures moments of eye contact. “We can film each other as long as we are not really paying attention to each other,” she notes. Vass is doing that, too.
Through the device of the notebook, Vass imports his own anti-corporate critique of “advertisements that already seem like ironic statements about themselves.” He mocks himself when the narrator cracks: “She clearly sees herself as some sort of intellectual.” She quotes nine famous writers, including George Bernard Shaw, who once declared: “Patriotism is the pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy.”
Vass uses a Franz Kafka quote as the epigraph for “Vancouver #1-13.” He used “absurd,” “absurdist” and “absurdity” to label three of his earlier short dramas. This new work meditates on two strangers making sense of politics through an ironic lens.
From a series of 10 short videos by Jem Cohen, Green and Lemaster, who participated in Occupy Chicago, pick “Gravity Hill NEWSREEL No. 2” and “No. 4.” Cohen dedicates his series to Belgian, Chilean, Cuban, Dutch, English, French and Russian leftist documentary filmmakers.
“No. 4” finds signs. At the encampment in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, “Coaching Visionaries” are on duty: “We are a coalition of certified professional coaches who have come together to empower everyone who supports the Occupy Wall Street. What is your role in this movement?” Cohen answers in moving studies of the faces.
A black marble facade in Times Square works as a special effect. In Cohen’s entrancing “No. 2,” an inkblot-like reflection splits images of passersby. Some appear to walk into themselves and vanish in the middle; others split in two and exit at the edges of the frame. Protesters are lens phantoms.
Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance reviewer and writer.