Following South: Madi Piller's Untitled, 1925

This essay first appeared in Shock, Fear and Belief: The Films and Videos of Madi Piller (Toronto: Pleasure Dome, 2016), edited by Mike Hoolboom and Clint Enns. Many thanks to Mike and Clint for the invitation.

Untitled, 1925 is a suite in three parts, through which filmmaker Madi Piller retraces a journey taken by her grandfather, Isaac Banarer, from his native Romania to Peru. Her tracing of this journey is not simply a physical re-enactment, a visit along a mapped route, but a confrontation with the nature of identity itself. Piller’s accompanying texts tell us that through the course of Banarer’s journey, he became a Peruvian citizen, a citizenship that later, with the coming of the Second World War, carried him and his family out of Europe to safety. With this suite, Piller confronts her identity, not by definitions of blood or sensibility, but as the result of a complex migration, an identity pitched between civilizations, each with their own deep roots and legacies. In a reductive sense the films mirror Banarer’s journey upon landing at the Pacific coast and travelling from Lima to Cusco in the southeast, and yet, each film is enhanced by Piller’s skill and poetic spirit to cast the journey elsewhere, into the metaphysical and memorial. Each film renews this task with narrations that ruminate on identity, time, and memory; and each has a distinct character in its imagery, in its interior relations of landscape to abstraction to figurative presence and absence. In this sense, the work is a travelogue in only the most porous sense, more memoir than diary, not a mere record, but a carefully deliberated reflection.

I. The Pacific Coast

As the suite begins, Piller speaks of mass migration, and of an uneasy relation between the city of Lima and the nature that surrounds it. The patterned rugs and decaying facades of the city — its ornate balconies, curtained windows, the huge steel doors of a church —  will soon stand in sympathy with other forces in the region, gulls and ducks performing their own rituals. Water careens down rocks, through a set of locks in a harbour, the largest steps. The city is seen through the steel bars of a railing. From a lookout point, the first sight of civilization: gulls and trawlers, a crowd of circling, bobbing ducks. The ducks spin and the gulls dive in mass unisons, amid all of these signs of man. And all of these signs point to absence. In the shattered brick walls and curtains rippled by wind, Piller betrays the city in repose, a city which has borne the brunt of transient visitors, a landing port for those journeying inland.

Piller’s hand holds a photo of Isaac Banarer against a backdrop of the docks, and this image gives way to fields, without a sign of human presence but by the signature of their tilling. The docks rise up over restless waters. When the image becomes interminably static, subtle variations of light bleed in. The soundtrack, of percussion with a falling decay, enhances the film’s spatial relations, the reverberations of each staccato beat becoming a call-and-response memory-game in itself: the strike, the resonance. As the film ends, on the shoreline, the gulls shake off water. As we leave this city it maintains its illusion of emptiness, like a painted landscape, and the clouded hills, the waves breaking on the rocks, persist in their remote continuity.

II. Port of Shadows

Piller’s introduction reminds us that this journey is a conflict between the romantic character of nature, and its unpredictable silences. The image finds us elsewhere along this journey: a restless sea, and wooden shacks erected over rocks and steep drops. The images glow unnaturally, assuming the perfect shape of something summoned out of the unconscious — water on a rocky shoreline, an image of Isaac Banarer, flags billowing in the wind. The images are flattened with a milky grey light, suddenly shifting to a sharp contrast of white and black. Rails are laid across an unsteady ground, disparate to the more traditional Andean pathways, built over time by the migration patterns of man and beast. The history of the land is etched upon its rocks. Silhouettes of buildings reveal a style that speaks as near to cathedral tradition as it does to the electric fantasy of the twentieth century, elaborated in bulbous poles.

Photographs show the stately dress of stadium entertainment, antique and distant. A boxing bout plays out in the stagger of animation: this must be, or must be a substitute for, Isaac Banarer’s Peruvian boxing match. Bowed music comes in short bursts against the bleating of children and animals. Speech varies in tempo and volume as it plays against the restless noise of the crowd. A pan along stones gives way to a pan of market stalls, each line again glowing at its edges. At this film’s outset, having travelled inland, Piller has turned to the stone to reveal time itself; it has given her only perceptual and sensual mysteries. The image has become stone-like by its silver visions; as a result, it has assumed these enigmas.

III. Everything remains the same

Piller’s narration has shifted from reflection to frank yearning, for a life of rich and earnest perception. When the image arrives, it is of the sea, so still that grains and specs of light show more movement than its waves. As the waves become agitated, the sky darkens. In a park, light bleeds down through trees, as Piller manipulates the aperture, giving us only glimpses of the full scene. This image is reduced further, to vibrant white lines, streaking horizontally in movement, that suggest again that electric century, like the staggered time of a tape rewinding. As in the suite’s earlier parts, the landscape is bereft of human presence save for that of Piller, behind the camera, and these compositions are stretching to a vast scale. The landscape takes on qualities of painterly brushstrokes. There is a contrast between ashen vapour and fog against the mountain ranges, and along the mountains stand preserved ruins of the Inca. This atmosphere achieves a grace against the coarseness of the land. The scale becomes intimate again as Piller admires the stalks of wet flowers, and blades of grass.

We are returned to the present as children play soccer under the windows of little shops and homes. People walk through the stone streets and steps of the densely built city of Cusco. Chickens and ducks are held in a pen, and by a revolutionary sympathy, the film cuts from the caged animals to survey an Indigenismo march, quickly passing over the faces of many indigenous Peruvians in lineups, and then, slowing to hold still on the faces of individual men and women, settling on the face of a child before shifting back into timed exposures.

A man makes bricks, densely packing wet cement into wooden molds, and a woman picks mushrooms on a hillside, daily labours that see their continuity in an entrenched tradition and skillset. An inland reservoir, packed on all sides by steep stone drops, reminds us as we approach the end of this journey of not only the tremendous beauty of the Peru, but the menace of earthly things, the menace of those geographic forms by which our identities have been historically cast. An arena, arranged for la Tauromaquia, has its seats designated and divided by hand-painted numbers and lines, each level extending in a circle around the centre. It has become the measured schedule of an immense timepiece, that summons pilgrims to gather around rebellions & main events.

Stephen Broomer, November 2016