Cine-File on Onion City Experimental Film Festival & “Maya at 24”

Friday, June 4 – Thursday, June 10 2021

by Marilyn Ferdinand


The Onion City Experimental Film & Video Festival, presented by Chicago Filmmakers, opens on Wednesday and runs through June 13 with a mix of online screenings and in-person events. While all of the online group screenings are available for the full length of the festival, we are splitting our reviews over this week’s list and next week’s, based on when the Q&A sessions are scheduled; check next week’s list for additional reviews. The full schedule and more info are here.

Program 1: Family Time Changes

Available to view between June 9 – 13; purchase tickets here

The vagaries of memory and assumptions made in the absence of real information are the subjects of director Paige Taul’s TOO SMALL TO BE A BEAR (2020, 5 min). Taul interviews her sister Jessie about their father, a short man nicknamed Cub who lost his chance to play professional baseball because he missed the bus going to the Negro League tryout. As Jessie theorizes that this unrealized ambition made him give up on his life, we see archival footage that focuses on No. 15 of the Indianapolis Clowns, a team that played in the style of the Harlem Globetrotters. His clowning seems to stand for the hopeless man who became a drunk over his missed opportunity. When Taul turns to her mother for reminiscences about her husband, the film cuts in and out as Dorothy tries to remember who played which positions. All that remains for her is the enjoyment baseball brought to the community. Luis Arnías’ MALEMBE (2020, 12 min), filmed in both Venezuela and the United States, is a memory film of a South American immigrant to the U.S. In Venezuela, we see a young boy in a soldier’s uniform in front of a bronze bust of some long-ago hero; is he a stand-in for Arnías? A parade, some elderly women sitting in a sunbaked courtyard, an abandoned ballpark with the sound of voices and crowds of years past—all give way to a winter scene, and a white woman and a young girl shoveling snow, and Arnías’ beloved tropical fruit frozen and unpalatable. As he chokes on some seeds, he spits out his tongue, his native language no longer acceptable in a country where his people clash with the police. With AVANTI! (2020, 8 min), EJ Nussbaum takes a short dive into the world of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist founder of the Italian Communist Party who was imprisoned by Mussolini’s Fascists in 1926 and died a few days after his release in 1937. In three vignettes, Nussbaum dramatizes Gramsci’s poetry and philosophical writing. Most touching are his letters to his son, Giuliano, whom he never met, and his meditation on whether loving the masses is really possible if one doesn’t love someone personally. Amusingly, he criticizes the quality of the photos his wife sends him, but admits they are still of interest to him. Amber Bemak and Angelo Madsen Minax’s video TWO SONS & A RIVER OF BLOOD (2021, 11 min) considers containers—pyramids, empty rooms, wombs—and how they are filled. The sexy beginning celebrating procreation and the anticipation of new life gives way to a sad, matter-of-fact consideration of emptiness. In the final scene, the filmmakers affirm that life goes on. In MAYA AT 24 (2021, 4 min), Lynne Sachs turned a fanciful gaze on her daughter, Maya Street-Sachs, through images she filmed in 2001, 2013, and 2019 running and spinning. The black-and-white images are overlaid with created film dust and pops, as well as intricate, animated designs that suggest the increasing complexity of the person Maya has become. Loving and beautiful, Sachs’ short is mesmerizing. In BORDER (2020, 5 min), Bryan Angarita recalls the day his brother was denied entry into the United States and how their mother visits him in the border town where he lives. The opening image of a tree-lined river viewed through what appears to be a screen window becomes obscured as the lines of the screen shift and reconfigure themselves as a border fence, a gun sight, a target, and other forms. The plain, black-and-white title cards seem devoid of emotion, but the Google Earth logo in the corner of many of the images speaks to the constant surveillance Angarita senses. LETTER FROM YOUR FAR-OFF COUNTRY (2020, 18 min) puts director Suneil Sanzgiri and his father together through Zoom and text messaging to discuss their family history, specifically, Prabhakar Sanzgiri, a writer, activist, and Communist Party leader in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Inspired by a prose poem written in the form of a letter, the director writes to his long-dead relative with news and questions, particularly about the 1989 rebellion in Kashmir that led to the death of Safdar Hashmi, a communist playwright and director, and the disappearance and murder of thousands of people. History, Sanzgiri says, runs through the personal lives of those who live it. His mission is to discover some kind of truthful continuity through art. [Marilyn Ferdinand]

Artist Q&A for Program 1 is on Wednesday, June 9 at 7pm; register