Let's set the record straight, INDEED!

The Manifesto against the 1989 Experimental Film Congress (Toronto, Canada) opened with the following lines:

"We challenge the official History promoted by the International Experimental Film Congress to be held in Toronto this Spring. The time is long overdue to unwrite the Institutional Canon of Master Works of the Avant-Garde. It is time to shift focus from the History of Film to the position of film within the construction of history. The narratives which take up this new task must respect the complexity of relations among the many competing and overlapping histories which make up the activity within the field."

INDEED! But what a 'futile task' when the organizers themselves (primarily Bart Testa, and Bruce /Kathryn Elder, joined by Sternberg, Shedden, Zryd and others) had not only taken over the 'curating' (and export) of Canadian experimental films in the 80's, but were meddling in the distribution of experimental film (at Canadian Filmmakers where some sat on boards, or influenced officers), and had taken over the official 'history' (Bruce Elder's book on Canadian experimental film was launched at the same festival), or had taken over production grants funding (Elder sat on the Advisory Arts Panel at the Canada Council in the 80's and was cited by the Globe and Mail as having received the 'most' money and awards by the Council of ANY filmmaker to date), and had landed the 'BIG PRIZE' from the Canada Council: they got to curate the 'International Experimental Film Congress'!

What a 'success story' in such a brief period (less than 10 years) of time!

So 76 filmmakers signed in protest their manifesto, and their words still ring true today as they did then? Really?

Thirteen years later, in 2002, in FRAMEWORKS bulletin board postings we can read how this 'history' is interpreted:

From: Chris Gehman
Date: Mon Jan 21 2002
(excerpted)

" If you actually look at the programming that was presented at the Congress, it's clear that the criticism of of it was partly justified, but also dramatically exaggerated and oversimplified. In hindsight it looks like a tempest in a teapot, but it was all part of a very divisive time, in which a lot of energy was wasted in bitter debate between people who would have been a lot better off either just ignoring each other completely OR working together & letting go of the "narcissism of small differences" so endemic among those who perceive themselves as lacking in power and influence and which really DO weaken the field. See the contemporary anarchist/eco-anarchist "scene" if you can find it to make a comparison on a similar scale."


From: Fred Camper
Date: Mon Jan 21 2002

"Since I appear to be in a self-promotional mood today, I'll add that according to the organizers, the Congress grew out of their (presumably angry) discussions among themselves following the appearance of my Millennium Film Journal article, "The End of Avant-Garde Film," that I mentioned in an earlier post without naming by title. I think they wanted to show that I was wrong, and they partly succeeded, because I discovered at least one younger filmmaker there whose work I liked a lot, and some others who seemed promising. I was the conference's opening speaker.

I didn't agree with much of the petition, by the way, at least at the time. It was written before the event happened, by people who did not attend it, which may not be clear from its text."


Well, those commentaries are only 'symptomatic' of the general malaise of 'not knowing the facts' and coming to a conclusion (anyways). And as the manifesto stated in part: "It is time to shift focus from the History of Film to the position of film within the construction of history", this Congress, the stacking of workshops and films to conform to their views by the organizers, would in fact become another part of 'the history of film'.

And of course this offense continues.

The Camper 'self-promotion' obfuscates the origins and contexts of this Congress which came out of many discussions over the years (including one I had with Francoyse Picard in the early 80's to host it in Vancouver) and it certainly came out of the Congress organizers' (remember who they were) own apetites for self-promotion of their historical views (of 'relevant film'), especially those penned by R. Bruce Elder in his book, not coincidentally launched at that very same Congress.

The 1989 Conference organizers purposely chose to omit participation by the Funnel filmmakers (the Funnel being the only full-time experimental exhibition house in Toronto in the 80's and well known to the organizers), marginalized feminist filmmakers (Bruce Elder took the helm in presenting his works on the 'female body'!), excluded overtly political filmmakers (Yvonne Rainer, among others), placed Stan Brakhage at the forefront and on a yet another 'pedestal' (the Avant-Garde re-canonized with Elder's courtship of Brakhage acknowledged in Cinema Canada articles and his 'The Cinema We Need' essay), marginalized any discussion of video and film, and of course marginalized all 'new' (not sanctioned by the Elder - Testa theories of 'Canadian Experimental Film') works in something of an add-on 'open screening'. And that's just for starters. The rest was critically commented on by a number of writers in a number of publications typically absent from the 'history' of this event (as the same FRAMEWORKers grope around for 'sources' and 'links'!).

Camper's cited essay is notable for it's commentary and merits remembering, but it had little to do with the Congress context or it's history, and except garnering Camper an invitation to speak, it was hardly a relevant issue considering the scale of exclusions and boycott by filmmakers. (When a program is printed, and workshops / screenings are set, the fact that filmmakers are boycotting the proceedings does not mean, as Camper implies, that their position is 'irrelevant'.)

This Congress organizing bunch (or 'brood' as it was referred to in the Village Voice article) was the same clique that had offered to make special exemption deals (for certain 'certified artists - filmmakers') with the Ontario Censor Board of the 80's, the same clique that had co-opted curating exports for almost a decade in Canada, and the same bunch that had been previously denounced as 'reactionaries' in my articles on the subject of censorship in Opsis (1983/84) and Independent Eye (80's).

As for the Chris Gehman's characterization of the conflicts as "narcissism of small differences" (and he was nowhere near the scene of the 80's), this is both insulting and another glaring example of trivializing the conflicts under a guise of pseudo-authoritative psycho-babble (invoking presumptions of 'narcissism', and implied 'infantile fixation', 'projective identification') and without knowing what the hell was going on! Gehman, and others like him (who like to engage in this kind of borrowed post-analysis), should know that the clash of ideas was VERY REAL, careers were made (hey Barbara Sternberg, congrats on your 'Governor General's Award'!, hey Jim Shedden, good luck at the Art Gallery of Ontario!) and lost (a number of filmmakers (Lispkis, and some Funnel filmmakers gave up and stopped making works), and Canada Council policy shifted towards more commercial cinema and video.

However, if there was a positive result of that "clash", it was that it inhibited any further easy cannonization of 'avant-garde classics' (films), at least in Canada, where the experimental film 'scene' collapsed in it's own paralysis in the 90's!.

I've been accused (Welsby, Gehman, and other reactive persons) of 'ranting' in my writings, accused by those who would prefer 'polite discourse' on 'difficult subjects' to be 'constructive' towards the 'development' of the 'scene', at the expense, presumably, of truth (which is sometimes 'unpleasant').

However, there's nothing 'pleasant' about poverty and a re-writing of history that favors a select few over the activities of the many. This kind of academic conceit and elitism, complete with 'polite discourse' only works to further entrench the 'rear-guard academic' views that culture can be preserved from the 'pollution of the activists'. "Narcissism of small differences"? Wake up and smell what Toronto left behind!

In my experience of the Congress, and as a known, published filmmaker / teacher / critic, and having been ignored in the previous 'Congress' (London, 1979), and even though I had been responsible for a significant body of films and videos (extensively toured, exhibited), I was treated to the following:

  • My works were completely ignored for this Congress, with the exception of one film (Lumiere's Train) which was included in a program of shorts dealing with some 'technical' (optical printing) issues;
  • I was not invited to participate in any workshops, or screen any films, except for a single film that I could submit, along with a fee of $165, to an open screening;
  • My works (in particular AMERIKA) had been previously and were continuing to be attacked in writings by Testa (C-Mag, later Encyclopedia Canadiana, and others) and my works had been denounced as 'un-Canadian' and 'American' (by Elder), presumably meaning that the work was not acceptable to a 'International Experimental Film Congress';
  • By the time the Congress agenda was set, I would not have attended anyways ( read: Nothing Personal ), since I would have probably been arrested for 'disorderly conduct' and the Congress organizers were well aware of the 'incitement' that I had conducted in 1986 at the 'Avant-Garde Film Conference' in Vancouver, 1986 when I defaced the Pacific Cine Center stage;
  • And by Congress time, I was in Mexico and, after exchanging a series of inflamatory letters (including one I titled 'The Cinema We Don't Need' dealing with Brakhage and Elder) with Mike Hoolboom and Maria Insell, I could 'give a shit' about Toronto Academia taking over the by now 'divided and conquered' 'Canadian experimental film' scene.

Yes, let us, who were involved in experimental / avant-garde film at the time, 'set the record straight' and let those who weren't there or whose knowledge is gleamed from bits and pieces of recycled psycho-analysis and historical detritus listen first, or shut the fuck up.

XAl Razutis
July 2002,
Saturna Island, Canada



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