John Akomfrah, The Nine Muses, 2011, still from a color video, 94 minutes.


THE SECOND FILM FESTIVAL IN TORONTO, the Images Festival, which completed its twenty-fifth edition on April 21, was created as an alternative to the first: the Toronto International Film Festival, that September cine-glut (which is now the largest film festival in the world) whose mandate seems increasingly, relentlessly, to be about generating “Oscar buzz.” (To be fair, TIFF did add Wavelengths, a highly regarded sidebar devoted to avant-garde film and video, eleven years ago.) There are no red carpets at Images—“the largest festival in North America for experimental and independent moving image culture,” per its website—but there’s plenty of ambitious, adventurous programming, introduced by gracious, welcoming hosts. For its silver anniversary, Images presented eighty-eight film and video works of varying lengths from twenty-six countries; most screened at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall—a cozy, calm venue, if one not as memorable as the auditorium of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, where I spent most of my time during my first trip to Images in 2009.

The opening-night film, John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, like several of the feature-length titles on view, extends, complicates, and enriches the definition of documentary. This ruminant, time-toggling examination of migration from the Ghanaian-born British filmmaker interweaves archival footage of African, Caribbean, and South Asian immigrants arriving and settling in the UK in the 1960s with contemporary footage of mysterious figures in brightly hued parkas, their backs often turned to us, somewhere in Alaska. Though the juxtaposition of newcomers stepping off boats and planes fifty years ago with anonymous beings who appear to be trekking toward the edge of the world is always striking, The Nine Muses also impresses as a densely layered sound (and text) piece. Broken into chapters named after the Greek goddesses of the title, Akomfrah’s work incorporates readings from Homer, Shakespeare, the Bible, Beckett, Dante, and Nietzsche—and intertitles sourced from Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot. Though lofty, The Nine Muses is never grandiose, taking as its subject the primal notion of what constitutes home.

Much smaller in scale, Simone Rapisarda Casanova’s The Strawberry Tree also investigates home—specifically, its vanishing. Just a few weeks after Rapisarda Casanova completed shooting the residents of Juan Antonio, Cuba, in 2008, the fishing village was destroyed by Hurricane Ike. The prologue of The Strawberry Tree, Rapisarda Casanova’s first film, focuses on four of Juan Antonio’s now displaced citizens good-naturedly joking with the director, their jovial mood darkening somewhat when they talk about all they have lost. This jocular ease with Rapisarda Casanova runs throughout the prehurricane footage, which immediately follows the brief introduction. Though he is never seen, the director is constantly addressed—and occasionally critiqued—as he captures the quotidian activities in the beachfront hamlet. “What a boring image of the old woman grinding coffee,” says the vieja preparing the brew. A loose, relaxed ethnography, The Strawberry Tree is as much a record of a (now eradicated) place as it is an open dialogue with its subjects.

Daily rituals in a vastly different climate are explored in Jacqueline Goss’s hypnotic doc/fiction hybrid The Observers. A portrait of the Mount Washington Weather Observatory in New Hampshire, Goss’s film is a study of isolation, monotony, empirical data, and merciless elements. Two women—filmmakers Dani Leventhal and Katya Gorker—“perform” as weather recorders, their days consisting of measuring wind speed and temperature, sit-ups, dental care, knot tying, and the occasional instrument-playing. Goss referred to Mount Washington as a “shrine to measurement” during the postscreening Q&A. The fastidious logging by the observatory’s employees may not tame or control that which will always control us, but it does help make sense of it.

Melissa Anderson

The 25th Images Festival ran April 12–21 in Toronto. The Observers plays May 10–16 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.