Photos | Connie Tsang

Challenging Canadian filmmaking through playful installations and prophetic virtual realities

Two exhibitions are now open to the public at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of an ongoing celebration of movies and filmmaking for Canada’s 150th anniversary. Canada on Screen Installations presents installations from Vera Frenkel, Michael Snow, and Stan Douglas: drawn from TIFF’s list of 150 essential Canadian moving-image artworks. Seeking to interrogate the filmmaking process and the technologies that mediate it, the exhibit actively questions history and its re-creations. 2167 is an ideal complementary exhibit; TIFF imagineNATIVE, Pinnguaq, and the Initiative for Indigenous Futures have brought together three pieces of virtual reality from two Indigenous filmmakers and an arts collective, imagining Canadian life 150 years in the future. Together, the two exhibits offer a glimpse of cinema’s possibilities and a rejection of any normative ideas of what movies should be.

Tucked into the corner of the atrium is Frenkel’s The Blue Train, with 34 screens across two walls. The two largest screens meet in the corner; one recounting a 1939 train ride across Europe taken by Frenkel and her mother, the other detailing the return of a German exile in 1945 to report on the destruction of the war. Beside the former screen, 32 smaller screens run down the wall in rows. They tell possible stories in subtitles and shared images of fictional characters who might have ridden the same train as the Frenkels. All the movies are made through a combination of video and archival photographs and play out simultaneously as a testament to shared experience. There’s something spectacular in the simple arrangement of the two large screens; separated only by the room’s corner, they jump six years in history, but speak to the same movement—a blue train, relentlessly chugging forward.

Moving into the gallery, Snow’s Two Sides to Every Story greets attendants. Hung between two projectors forty feet apart is a screen containing a movie on each side. To try to describe the narrative is futile, but it involves a common movement between the two movies and a physical duality between the projectors and the cameras which filmed the movies. Just as important as the films, is the effect they produce; the audience has to participate, moving around the room to see one side of the screen and then the other. Then, as one image becomes obscured or uninteresting, they have to move back to the other side. It’s an extremely playful and rewarding take on perspective and filmic reality. Every time a new perspective is achieved, the other is lost: reduced back to light within a two-dimensional surface.

Through another set of doors waits Douglas’ Overture, a deceptively simple piece of meditation. A dream-like reality is created by the combination of archival railroad footage of British Columbia’s winding mountains with a voice-over of excerpts from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The train is never seen, so the endless forward movement feels as if the camera’s rolling down the tracks itself—no coincidence that the projector whirs loudly at the back of the room. Like Frenkel’s work, Overture is a consideration of the technologies involved in re-creating the past, and like Snow, there’s a physical reminder of one’s current space. The projection plays a trick when the train passes through a tunnel; the screen goes dark and suddenly there’s no image or sound—just a dark gallery space. Eventually, the light at the end of the tunnel comes back and the train and voice-over roll on.

In supplement, the series also offers two in-cinema screenings of Rodney Graham’s Two Generators and Roman Kroitor, Colin Low, and Hugh O’Connor’s In the Labyrinth—available on select days.

The pieces occupy a physical space within the Lightbox, but also a kind of institutional space within the history of Canadian filmmaking. They’re historic pieces from well-established artists. In a possible inversion of these spaces are the spectacular virtual reality exhibits from Danis Goulet, Scott Benesiinaabandan, and Postcommodity. Set up in the atrium, these pieces occupy almost no physical space and look ahead, rather than behind. Each only runs about six minutes long, meaning they’re easy enough to see before or after a film—and they are extremely rewarding.

Goulet’s The Hunt is the most immediately cinematic, telling of a future where floating orbs enforce laws, and how the Mohawk people respond to them. It plays out in a linear narrative, with each shot allowing for 360 degrees of rotation. The viewer is given agency to create a unique experience. The subtitles curve to fit neatly and close to the characters, and the filmmakers have added enough to every scene to allow each direction to reveal something interesting.

Blueberry Pie Under a Martian Sky restricts the viewer in a cage surrounded by wheeling birds in order to set them free. Drawing from an Anishinaabe legend, it’s a film interested in the impact of language and its relation to identity. The viewer moves through time, through wild visualizations of space as starry abysses open up beneath them. If the legend is concerned about a young boy travelling back to his people’s origin, then this seems concerned with the possibility of a future re-becoming.

Postcommodity’s Each Branch Determined offers a walk through the woods of a dystopia. Located upon a hill and through a valley, electrical signals burn appliances and lakes are made of television static. Of course, the simulation moves the viewer into this lake, as a voice-over considers how to restore and manage the land. The film plays with notions of control, taking away the viewer’s 360-degree rotation, before restoring it again. The finale offers up a freeing, spectacular vision of light and colour.

These films can be experienced in any order, although The Hunt might offer the easiest transition for anyone who hasn’t tried VR before, such as myself. 2167 is an important exhibit, allowing a space for Indigenous filmmakers to show their work within a revolutionary medium, especially within the context of the Canada on Screen celebration.

Both 2167 and Canada on Screen Installations can be experienced for free from now until August 13th, every Thursday through Sunday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.