Where is the line between entertainment and art? This was the question that came up in my conversations with Bill Brown and Sabine Gruffat, two experimental filmmakers and professors at UNC-Chapel Hill who are organizing the Cosmic Rays Film Festival. The event will be held Thursday and Friday at the Varsity Theatre in downtown Chapel Hill.
This question arose so easily in our talk partly because of the nature of filmmaking: As a medium of communication, film runs the gamut from feel-good, formulaic summer flicks to the sometimes minutes-long, individualistic and pensive experimental works characteristic of Brown and Gruffat. Certainly, experimental film often runs parallel to commercial film; it has its origins in cinematic and narrative works, tracing its birth back to the early and mid-1900s. However, experimental filmmaking is also a much more intimate process than mainstream or commercial filmmaking, sometimes entailing physical interaction with and manipulation of the film strip itself. Experimental film is art, and Brown and Gruffat consider themselves to be artists.
“I know we would definitely think of ourselves as artists who use film as one of the mediums we work with,” Brown said. “I think what we do is art-making, and we have artistic concerns.”
It is this blending of art and media within the medium of film that explains why experimental film has historically faced pushback from art galleries, which are influential and crucial to gaining exposure as an artist.
“Filmmaking is an art form … and certainly it has been since the beginning of the cinema, but it’s never really gotten as much respect in the world of the gallery because it grew up under different circumstances,” Brown said.
However, Gruffat emphasized that film’s ties to historical cinema and to media in general allows experimental filmmaking a unique form of exploration that is not possible with other mediums.
“Because [film] is a media form, it has a lot of purposes … but that also makes it even more engaging as an art form because it is also out in the world,” she said. “Media is a medium that people use all the time. It is a language that people understand, and to make art from it means taking the language and making something new from it.”
Thus, experimental filmmaking fits neither in the gallery nor fully in the theater. Perhaps no other medium of art is as characteristic of the contrast — and intersection — between entertainment and art.
As such, one might expect experimental filmmaking to be concentrated solely in metropolitan areas like New York, San Francisco or Chicago, which are dense with galleries that serve as the economic core of high-brow art and are the art world’s movers and shakers, defining what is and what is not popular. However, if one considers the clustering of universities and the culture of inquiry characteristic of the “Research Triangle,” the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area makes sense as a hub for experimental film. At times experimental films feel academic, like a cerebral exercise. The university is a center for intellectual vibrancy, so it is understandable that experimental filmmaking would find a home in such a setting.
“Durham and Chapel Hill have a storied experimental film history,” Brown said, citing a film festival called Flicker that was important in the 1990s, as well as the microcinemas and film festivals that have arisen throughout the years. “The Triangle has a lot of to be proud of in terms of experimental filmmaking.”
In the last several years, Duke has made an effort to embrace experimental filmmaking; in fact, the M.F.A. program in Experimental and Documentary Arts, founded in 2011, was the first M.F.A. graduate course of study offered at Duke. Duke has attracted a number of prominent experimental filmmakers, including Alex Cunningham, Anna Kipervaser, Roger Beebe and, of course, Brown himself.
“There’s a lot of people who have moved into town who are interested in animation and experimental film partly because there’s more of us teaching at UNC,” Gruffat said. “Also, the creation of the Duke M.F.A. program opened up the idea that this might be an area where there could be a growing population of people doing experimental work.”
The Cosmic Rays Film Festival serves as a signal of Durham and Chapel Hill’s growing role in experimental filmmaking. However, although experimental filmmaking is distinctly a form of art and at times may be baffling to general audiences, Brown and Gruffat emphasized that the festival is not merely a meeting for filmmakers. Experimental film utilizes the language of media and is thereby accessible to all.
“We were hoping to create a space here in the Triangle, and particularly in Chapel Hill, where filmmakers could present their work and audiences could have access to that work,” Brown said. “Some people get this idea that experimental filmmaking is difficult and not fun to watch. ... There is all this amazing, exciting and engaging work that people just don’t get to see.”
Junior Evan Morgan, a student in the Arts of the Moving Image certificate program who had his piece accepted into the festival, also noted the issue of accessibility.
“There is the obvious problem of accessibility in regards to experimental film; it tends to be concentrated in cities, there are view environments where it tends to be shown and [many of those environments] tend to be more academic,” he said. “I don’t think of experimental film as elitist, but in the state we are at right now, at least in this country, it is not something that is able to reach wider audiences because you can’t commodify it.”
Morgan also noted that “events are very important to increasing accessibility to experimental film.” Cosmic Rays, as one of the first experimental festivals to be held in Chapel Hill since the 1990s, aims to serve that purpose.
Morgan’s piece, “Contact,” made the cut for the festival and is a clear example of the intellectualism — and the intimacy — characteristic of experimental film. According to the film festival’s website, the film “immerses the viewer in the duality between digital and physical worlds ... using an array of out-of-camera techniques,” examining the film reel’s collision with printer ink, found natural objects, light and chemistry.
“Ultimately, the idea is to explore our different point of contact with the world in relationship to the strip of film itself,” Morgan said.
Cosmic Rays is the first established film festival in which Morgan has had the opportunity to participate. The festival aims to bring together the purely experimental and avant-garde filmmakers working in Durham and Chapel Hill. However, simply because this is the first time the experimental filmmaking community has consolidated itself in several years does not mean that the quality of work is elementary.
“The standards were just as high for the local as for the national pieces” being accepted into the program, Brown said. “We see this as evidence that there is world-class experimental filmmaking happening right here in town that also plays well with all the work coming from the rest of the United States and across the world.”
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