In Lewiston-raised filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins’ 2012 movie “Public Hearing,” an Allegany, New York, town hall debate about turning a Walmart into a Super Walmart plays out over an hour and 49 minutes, including an intermission. And that’s it.
Taken from the publicly available transcript, the meeting is recreated by actors, shot on 16mm black-and-white film and completely faithful to every last word, pause and aside. Is it a deadpan joke? A commentary on the ubiquitous mundanity of municipal bureaucracy? An elaborately realized exercise in formalist cinematic exploration focused on the way the flood of electronic information creates a mind-numbing feedback loop?
And perhaps most importantly, is it a movie?
Those are just some of the questions raised by Wilkins’ work, which is the subject of a challenging and thought-provoking retrospective of the director’s eclectic filmography being co-presented by Space Gallery and Maine’s Points North Institute (of Camden International Film Festival fame). With the final night of the month-long series screening at Space on Sunday, I talked to the Points North executive and artistic director, Ben Fowlie, about Wilkins, the partnership with Space and just how ready Mainers are to delve into some of the most perplexing experimental films around.
“I haven’t really experienced anything like it,” said Fowlie of “Public Hearing,” which is showing at 3 p.m Sunday. “James is always prodding at the form and the gray area and asking, ‘What is this?’ ” For Fowlie, Wilkins is at the forefront of the documentary movement, even as his films continually and restlessly question just what a documentary is.
Calling Wilkins’ films “a creative take on nonfiction,” as Fowlie does, doesn’t even scratch the surface; the shorts and features in the Space series encompass the director’s constantly evolving attempt to come to grips with some basic assumptions about his chosen art form in a series of genuinely groundbreaking (and head-scratching) films. Says Fowlie, “You can’t not have questions about this experience.”
Thankfully, Wilkins himself has partnered with Points North and Space for this first American retrospective event of his movies. (Wilkins’ works have been celebrated with screenings, as well as multiple awards and accolades, around the world.) At the Sunday night screening of three of Wilkins’ short films (“Mediums,” “Indefinite Pitch” and “Occupations”), the now New York-based Wilkins will be on hand to talk to audience members about his process, thoughts on the form and, perhaps helpfully, what it is they just watched.
And the shorts program is a virtual, palate-tingling banquet of experimental film. “Mediums” (38 minutes) sees potential jurors passing the time discussing everything from Dunkin’ Donuts franchising to “Jerry Maguire,” all while posed in static medium shots in front of a series of conspicuously artificial backdrops. “Indefinite Pitch” is a 23-minute movie pitch monologue from the unseen director, who goes off on a series of tangents about history and commerce, while the visuals linger over gorgeously incongruous nature shots of Berlin, New Hampshire. And the 11-minute capper “Occupations” follows the daily routine of a renowned occupational therapist, intercut with film of Wilkins’ mother, a church organist playing her ancient instrument, amid flashes of golden human bodies. Says Fowlie of the former Mainer’s presence at the Sunday evening event, “James has a great way of infusing humor and satire into his work, and that carries over into his presence. Everything has a reason in the way that he does it, but he’s also aware of the humor viewers find in his work. He has a way of saying, ‘I’m right there with you guys.’ ”
Of the program (curated by Points North senior programmer Samara Chadwick), Fowlie says that the Wilkins’ exhibit is just the first such artist retrospective that Points North and Camden International are planning. “We’re going into our 15th year,” said Fowlie, explaining, “We now have five full-timers and one part-timer, and it’s allowed us to reach our potential in a lot of ways, just in the amount of stuff we can do.” Touting the institute’s role in both celebrating and developing new, nonfiction film, and forming bonds with the best and brightest talents in the field, Fowlie promises that lots more cutting-edge moviemaking events are on the horizon (including a few he says he can’t talk about yet).
For Fowlie, it’s an exciting time to be an adventurous Maine film fan. “There’s such great programming going on in Portland right now, what with Space and what Jon (Courtney)’s doing at PMA films. And with James, we wanted to take that energy and do a filmmakers’ body of work, really dive into someone’s process.” Of Wilkins’ bracingly experimental oeuvre (already honored at venues like the Tate Modern in London and film festivals around the world), Fowlie calls this initial foray into in-depth artist programming “an experiment for us, in many ways,” adding, “It’s an honor to highlight James’ work and introduce it to people who might otherwise not have the opportunity to understand its breadth and depth.”
The final installment of Space Gallery and Points North Institute’s retrospective of the films of James N. Kienitz Wilkins’ takes place on Sunday at Space, 538 Congress St., Portland. “Public Hearing” shows at 3 p.m., while a program of three of Wilkins’ shorts starts at 7 p.m., with a Q&A with the director directly following. Tickets are $6 for all at the 3 p.m. showing, and $8 ($6 for Spacemembers) in the evening. For more information, go to space538.org.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Starts Friday: “Be Natural: The Untold Story Of Alice Guy-Blache.” Part film history, part detective story, this documentary examines the life and works of one of the earliest and most influential filmmakers you’ve never heard of.
Wednesday, June 5: “The Garden.” One of the last films from legendary British experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman, this 1990 rumination on Christianity, homosexuality and persecution stars a young Tilda Swinton in a visually striking allegory filmed at Jarman’s home as the filmmaker was dying of AIDS.