The first feature I watched at this year’s virtual-edition New Orleans Film Fest was a 40-minute “experimental documentary” (read: essay film) about Black women’s cultural identity, a project that started as an art gallery instillation and an act of small-scale political protest. I gotta say, it felt nice to get back in the swing of things. The Giverny Document (Single Channel) is a little uneven & impenetrable in a way a lot of experimental art-project cinema can be, but its contextual positioning within a film festival environment made those qualities almost warmly familiar instead of cold or alienating. The Giverny Document packs a powerful emotional/political wallop when it feels like going for the jugular, but much of its runtime is a loose, dissociative experience that’s much more about puzzling through What It All Means than it is direct, clear messaging. As COVID has severely limited my access to film festival offerings of its kind this year, I found myself just as warmly nostalgic for this type of deliberately bewildering Art in general as I was affected by what this particular work was striving to say.
The Giverny Document is a conceptual art piece about Black women’s relationships with their own bodies and the meaning of “feeling safe.” These topics are clearly announced in plain dialogue & text so that the audience is at least grounded in terms of subject, even if the tools it explores that subject with are much more abstract. The “Single Channel” subtitle refers to the film’s nature as a synthesized work comprised of many smaller, disparate parts. In an art gallery setting, The Giverny Document is a three-screen instillation piece that simultaneously runs loops of multiple short films comprised of alternating, contrasting images: nature, police brutality, drone strikes, dancing, self-portraiture, etc. This distillation of that project combines all these opposing elements into a single montage, occasionally interrupted by people-on-the-street interviews fit for a local 1990s news broadcast and a stunning Nina Simone performance of the song “Feelings.” It’s a messy, provocative collage that attempts to make sense of the simultaneous, dizzying ways Black women occupy the world: from the personal & internal, to the globally political, to the spiritual & Natural. That’s a lot of ground to cover in a mere 40min stretch, which director Ja’Tovia Gary tackles by keeping its various thematic connections loose & poetic.
I don’t mean to contextualize The Giverny Document as A Film Festival Movie as a means of dismissing its artistic merits or political message. The film intentionally anchors itself to that Experimental Cinema niche by directly, cyclically referencing Stan Brakhage’s famous short Mothlight, which created a crudely beautiful form of animation by running actual insect wings through a film projector. This movie knows exactly what kind of Art World territory it’s trafficking in. It’s not all headscratching obfuscation, though. Often, the 90s-style news reporter will announce to potential interviewees that the movie is “about being a Black lady” to lure them in front of the camera, or police brutality footage will be interrupted by plain block text announcing “WE DON’T DESERVE THIS” as a direct plea for relief. Ja’Tovia Gary’s ambitious, poetic explorations of Black femme identity in both personal & political arenas is very much worth engaging with inside its own confines, which can alternate between disorienting & alarmingly direct the way its imagery alternates between Nature & culture. The experience just also made me consider how much I missed attending in-person film festivals over the past eight months of social distancing, since they’re one of the last places you can still encounter & enjoy this kind of Experimental Cinema provocation (outside the walls of an art gallery, at least).