Chicago-based filmmaker and anthropologist J.P. Sniadecki visited the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema on Friday, March 3rd, to deliver the inaugural Mary Ann Beckett-Baxter Memorial Lecture in addition to hosting a Master Class in filmmaking. Acquiring his Anthropology PhD at Harvard with connection to the Sensory Ethnography Lab, a centre at the university that draws from experimental moving image aesthetic practices to explore new forms of ethnographic research, Sniadecki’s work navigates the lines between innovative or experimental video practice and affective explorations of collective experience and urban life. While now based in Chicago, Sniadecki has lived and travelled extensively in China, with much of his filmmaking practice drawing from these experiences.
During the ‘Embodied Image / Embodied Camera’ Master Class, Sniadecki gave great advice to mobilize the making of an intimate, thoughtful cinema of the body: try to tap into and mirror the bodies you represent. Pragmatically, this means literally mimicking the bodily movement of those you are documenting. This is an apt way to broadly situate Sniadecki’s filmmaking, which is often embodied or ‘hand-held’ in style, utilising the structures of the body in order to make on the ground exploratory and experimental documentary works.
Sniadecki presented on a number of reference points for imagining the use of the camera as an extension of the body, citing Maya Deren’s ‘cine-dance’, Jean Rouch, and David McDougall’s book The Corporeal Image, among others. One commonality between these approaches is the idea of cinema as an embodied practice, where the structures of the body—bones, arms, legs, etc.—become the supports for the camera in a similar function to a tripod or dolly track. As such, after watching a series of examples from both narrative and documentary cinema where the camera had hand-held, embodied qualities (you can see one of these examples below), we were out in the ‘field’ – practicing hand held camera techniques such as tracking shots of one another walking down the various hallways of the FB building.
Later that evening for the inaugural Mary Baxter lecture, Sniadecki presented his film Yumen (2013), a collaboration with two artists from China, Xu Ruotao and Huang Xiang. Filmed in Yumen, a city in the western Gansu province that was once a prospering oil town within China’s extraction economy, the film explores the spectral qualities of the now dilapidated ruins of the industrial area, including the stories of people that once inhabited the space. As much as the film is, at times, loud and colourful, displaying the refuse of industry against a soaring Taiwanese pop soundtrack, it is also sparse. This is certainly the case in moments when Yumen’s purposeful soundtrack reflects and echoes the vacancies of the landscape itself, delaying and manipulating the sounds of the footsteps, or laughter, of the bodies on screen. The result is part ethnography, part psychedelic dream.
For the final event of the evening, the audience was privy to a special sneak-peek at the first twenty minutes of Sniadecki’s new film El Mar La Mar, a contemplative film made with Concordia Alumni Joshua Bonetta, which dwells on life in the border communities between Mexico and the US. The title is a play on the expansive desert that categorizes the zones between the two countries. Shot as Bonetti and Sniadecki road tripped around the southern USA, the film juxtaposes testimony from border crews, volunteers assisting those on the border, and individuals who have made the journey across. As with Yumen, the film is a rumination on space and place. Unlike that film, however, El Mar La Mar instead focuses quietly and statically on the landscapes between the official state borders, and despite overlaying the aural testimony of many, shows very few human figures. Yet – and as could be said of Sniadecki’s work more generally – through their engagement in experience, locality and industry, both shed insight into what it means to be an embodied subject in today’s globalised political landscape.