Leaving a Mark

Prismatic Ground

Last Thursday I woke up and briefly scanned the old Twitter timeline to see about the latest industry scuttlebutt or film nerd drama. Usually all I find is misery and embarrassment, but to my surprise there was actually something useful to read - an announcement for the inaugural edition of Prismatic Ground.

This brand new New York City-based film festival (April 8-18) would be showcasing an assortment of short, medium and feature length experimental documentaries through a cleverly mapped out virtual format. Founded and curated by veteran film programmer Inney Prakash, the festival’s uniquely structured program is split into four different “waves” that group together thematically connected works from all over the world.

After spending the last few days watching some of the selections, I’ve only just scratched the surface of what is an expansive and diverse crop of films from some of today’s finest non-fiction artists. But so far, my favorite of the bunch is Jim Finn’s The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant, a 66-minute essay travelogue of Civil War battles, oddities, details, and legacies cut to 70s-era synth music cues and sharp voice over narration.

Shot on 16mm at battle sites all around the country, it depicts monuments of the American south in a beautifully desaturated rigor mortis. In between these landscape shots, Finn relies on Civil War table top games, elaborate arts and crafts, and even Topps cards help to reenact key battles (both renowned and forgotten). None of the aesthetic methods distracts from the destructive nature of the war itself, and the urgent push by Grant and his Union Army to destroy the very foundation of white supremacy.

The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant avoids the didacticism of more conventional documentaries about the Civil War by embracing the serpentine nature of its admittedly gap-riddled historical record. The film may moves mostly linearly through time, but it beautifully ebbs and flows between perspectives like the Mississippi River itself. It’s a real gem.

Another film worth prioritizing is Sophy Romvari’s Still Processing, a 16-minute emotional reckoning in which the director pieces together a forgotten period in childhood after receiving a box of old photos and videos from her parents. At times a tough watch, it nevertheless speaks to the power of cinema as a means to gain closure through remembrance.

I’ve been a fan of Bill Morrison’s work since seeing Dawson City Frozen Time (2016), so it was exciting to see Prismatic Ground feature four new short films by an artist who so often mines the depths of film history. That’s exactly what Morrison achieves with the wonderful Sunken Films (2021), in which he looks at the overlapping of 20th century current events will their depictions on celluloid, and how so many have been literally submerged over the years.

Finally, Abby Sun and Daniel Garber’s Cuba Scalds His Hand (2019) shows just how much a film can capture about its subject in only 4 minutes of rowdy screen time. The duo follow a Latino ranch hand working in the predominantly white Wyoming Rodeo circuit, and the sudden accident that interrupts his already frustrating day. It’s a swift blast of pure character (and frustration).

Other films and special programs that I’ll be trying to catch up with in the next few days are listed below.

Prismatic Ground is free but encourages donations to help support the filmmakers and future editions. Subscribe to Afterglow and help support future newsletters.