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The new garde

AFCOOP launches a festival of experimental film history, screenings and workshops this week. Hillary Titley takes a look at FrameX.


When Christopher Spencer-Lowe noticed that Halifax's experimental and avant garde filmmakers were escaping to bigger opportunities in larger cultural centres in Canada, he did something about it.

Everyone leaving "generated the idea to have a celebration of the form in the hope it would generate some new interest in experimental filmmaking," he says from his office at the Atlantic Filmmakers Co-operative, where he works as production coordinator. "We did it and it was great and basically it seemed to get enough response or surprising response; people started to call it a festival so we thought "Hey, let's actually do this thing again!"

The "festival" is back and branded as FrameX. Avant garde and experimental filmmakers from Halifax and the Netherlands—local Amanda Christie lives there and cajoled Dutch scenesters into taking part—have banded together to feature screenings and run workshops in order to regenerate interest in the form and to educate experimental first-timers. There's even a program where five artists will participate beyond the FrameX week to complete short, experimental films of their own.

Experimental films aren't shown in the multiplexes, attached to fare like The Bourne Ultimatum, which creates a problem for the organizers. Such filmmaking isn't as accessible as a summer blockbuster, so potential audience members may be looking at the posters and advertisements for FrameX but have little idea as to what they would be in for.

Luckily Spencer-Lowe laughs good-naturedly at the somewhat obvious question of what an experimental film actually is. "That's great," he says. "That's what we're hoping, is that people who've never seen something formally labelled "experimental' will come.

"There are a few definitions that people agree to and to what an experimental film actually is. Generally, one of the more accepted ideas is that it's a work where the process of the film is as important as the finished piece itself. So as opposed to content-based, an experimental film tends to be more based in the process, technique and the idea that brings someone to making the film."

Solitude is a hallmark of the genre. Feature filmmakers are forced to be more collaborative due to the larger scope of their works. Experimental and avant-garde filmmaking is more lonesome—the filmmaker is often the only member of the crew.

"A lot of the experimental filmmakers I've met tend to be a bit more solitary—they often end up doing the photography themselves and not just that but hand-processing their films, making their own prints, doing much themselves that would even be done by a laboratory," says Spencer-Lowe. "Again that's part of the process nature of the form. It does lend itself to more solitary working methods but that's not a definite thing."

But a solitary nature isn't a definite thing and the size of one's crew usually depends upon the financial resources at hand. Dutch filmmaker Pim Zweir regularly works with producers, according to Spencer-Lowe. Zweir is going to be in town to host a screening of works from the Netherlands.

"That's one of the neat things about FrameX week, with the Dutch connection, we've got Pim Zweir coming to talk about the way things work in the Netherlands—revealing the structures they've got for funding and producing," says Spencer-Lowe. "They often treat their experimental films the way Canadians treat narrative films—they go after producers."

FrameX, in its aim to foster support and interest in the experimental filmmakers of Halifax, has been also subtly designed to answer the question posed to Spencer-Lowe earlier. The irony is that most have already been exposed to the genre right under their noses.

"Music videos," he says, "they say, for instance, came from the experimental film movement of the '70s. A lot of people say that the music video is the modern, socially acceptable form of experimental film. The experimental form is always on the tip of the spear."

AFCOOP’s FrameX week: History of Experimental Films, August 23 at the National Film Board (5475 Spring Garden), 6pm, $20/$25. Internal Territories screening, August 24 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (1723 Hollis), 8pm, $5,

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