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Brakhage Symposium showcases filmmakers who experiment with how we see our everyday lives

Stan Brakhage may have died in 2003, but his legacy lives on in the town in which he made his home. To this day, the spirit of the experimental filmmaking legend lives on in many ways — and in Boulder, there is no shortage of places to go and see films and speakers whose work fits in the same vein as Brakhage’s experimental spirit.

One of the programs that continues his legacy is The Brakhage Center Symposium, hosted by the University of Colorado Boulder’s film studies department. In its eighth year, the symposium brings together speakers, guest curators and filmmakers from all over the world to discuss topics related to experimental film. The topic of this year’s symposium, happening March 16-18 on the CU campus, is experimental narrative. (See calendar, page 25.)

“We know what a narrative film is, and what an experimental film is, but what is an experimental narrative?” writes Kathy Geritz, a film curator at Pacific Film Archive who is helping to curate the symposium. “The selection of films and videos presented in this year’s symposium will present various ways filmmakers are exploring this terrain.”

One of the featured directors coming to Boulder for the weekend is Thai filmmaker Aphichatpong Weerasethakul, whose film Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Weerasethakul, who will discuss his films and topics related to experimental narrative on all three nights of the symposium, is a filmmaker whose work falls into no easily definable categories and who constantly experiments with new ways of telling stories, says CU film professor and interim department chair Suranjan Ganguly. He calls Weerasethakul’s style “oblique” and “filtered through a poetic consciousness.”

“He leaves a lot to us,” Ganguly says.

“He gives us the context and then invites us to become part of the construction of meaning.”

“What we take away from his work is … having been a part of his personal, poetic universe. We are initiated into a way of thinking about human life, entering into a certain consciousness, discovering magical and mysterious [things] in the everyday world.”

Part of the symposium seeks to examine the roots of documentary and narrative filmmaking. Some of the weekend will be dedicated to examining the legacy of films made by early cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière, who made short, silent films starting in 1895 that showed simple scenes of everyday life — a family with a baby eating lunch, a train arriving at a station, people walking through a crowded city square — and are often hailed as the first documentary films.

Part of the examination will include a short film called “Opening the 19th Century: 1986,” made by Ken Jacobs. In the film, he puts several of the Lumière shorts through a filter to make them appear 3-D and, in doing so, blurs the line between documentary and narrative — adding, or perhaps highlighting, elements of wonder within the films that could seem dull to the modern filmmaking audience.

“In some ways, people would think [in 3-D, the films] would be more lifelike, but some would say it would appear to be more magical,” Geritz says. “It makes it fictional, more than what you would see.”

The Lumière films will be contrasted with the work of George Méliès, whose work received a glowing tribute in Martin Scorsese’s recent film Hugo. Méliès’ work is often hailed as laying the groundwork for narrative film, and his best-known work, “A Trip to the Moon” will be presented with live musical accompaniment from the Boulder Laptop Orchestra.

Geritz says the works of Lumière and Méliès demonstrate how since the beginning of filmmaking, works were often placed into either one category or the other — narrative or documentary.

“[But] a lot of the films we’re showing make that dichotomy very complicated, show that it’s very hard to put a film in just one of those categories,” she says.

The Brakhage Cener Symposium will close with “Mothlight,” one of Brakhage’s most famous experimental films. But the word “film” might be a misnomer, since he didn’t use film, but splicing tape. He took dead moths he found in a fluorescent light casing and placed the wings, some blades of grass and some flower petals in between two pieces of mylar tape and pressed the two strips together. The five-minute film is what Brakhage described as “what a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black.”

It’s a stunning example of how the ordinary (moth carcasses from a light bulb) can become extraordinary. That change of perception also happens to be one of the main themes in the work of Weerasethakul, the Thai filmmaker.

“He wants to look at the banal with new eyes … and discover the richness in life that underlies the banal,” Ganguly says of Weerasethakul.

“I wish Stan were alive today, because I think he would be very interested in Apichatpong’s work,” Ganguly says.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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