Review: Iowa Film MaFiA and Contraband Cinema Invade MINT Gallery

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Jonathan Rattner, still from for issa, TRT 4:44, courtesy of the artist.

“What exactly is a visual haiku?” A disheveled voice in the front row proclaims this query aloud for all to hear. The projectile tone is more investigative than inquisitive. Bystanders seated behind the voice turn to each other and exchange mischievous sleights that are silent.

Re:Focus a photo exhibition on view at Swan Coach House in Atlanta through October 27

On Saturday March 2, 2013, The Iowa Film MaFiA invaded Atlanta’s MINT gallery. Or more specifically, the MaFiA took over Contraband Cinema, a microcinema safehouse located in the heart of the Virginia Highlands.

“Wielding the collective might of their curiosity, collaborations, teachings, and Iowa University MFA’s, the group brings experimental media for hacking into [the] eyeballs of all in attendance.”

At least, that’s the way it was billed.

No doubting the ambition of these projects. Or of these filmmakers. However, many aspects felt lost in translation.

Re:Focus a photo exhibition on view at Swan Coach House in Atlanta through October 27

For instance, Charlotte Taylor’s 3D projection on 16mm film with handmade 3D glasses. Fantastic idea. So much potential. But between her wry explanation for needing to use such glasses, and the nondescript storyline of both her shorts, as a viewer, I was puzzled. Taylor’s first piece, The Edge of Summer, had a very Tim Burton, Nightmare Before Christmas, feel to it, however the story was difficult to follow. There was a swing. A boy. Girl. Tree. Waterfall. And in the end, both characters dove into the waterfall, never to return. I didn’t get it. In fact, if there were a moral lesson to be obtained, it would be more of a reference to TLC’s biggest hit, don’t go chasing Waterfalls, than anything else.

Charlotte Taylor, still from Secrets, courtesy of the artist. Hand processed shots of shadows combined with optically printed photograms. Contact printed with a manipulated found footage optical soundtrack.

Evan Meany’s glitch films followed. Having never been exposed to ‘glitch’ culture before, I found Meany’s work to be particularly engaging. Essentially, glitch films alter the coding of what the viewer sees. For example, Meany’s first film, Ceibas: Sigma Fugue, began with an elderly couple opening Christmas presents. It’s a very short clip, but Evan chose to play it on a loop and gradually, the clip becomes distorted in a way that alters not only what the viewer sees, but what the viewer hears.

Meany’s second film, Ceibas Cycle: Epiologue: The Well of Representation, applied the same technique in a more subtle way. And his second film, out of the three shown, was the most cohesive. It was also perhaps the only film I saw that evening that contained a narrative that was easy to follow. While technique is what you notice most about his first and third films, the use of a more primitive Nintendo program is what makes his second film stand out. Flashback to BIG starring Tom Hanks, to the opening scene when a young boy is playing a game in which he chooses what his character does before he actually does it. Apply the same sort of program to Meany’s narrative, and you have a story that all audience members enjoyed.

Jonathan Rattner’s films screened third. Which brings us back to the question, “What exactly is a visual haiku?”

Before the films ran, Rattner expounded that his film, for issa, was inspired by one of his favorite poets, Issa, who specialized in haikus. One could also view Rattner’s film as a tribute to Issa, and while this may be a bit cliché to say, Rattner’s film was very poetic. As it should be. Simple music played in the background to emphasize the simple structure of the haiku. Viewers were presented with a variety of images ranging from a blade of grass blowing in the wind, to the dashboard of a car in transit. The imagery was beautiful, but the transition between images made the film drag. For example, thirty seconds would be spent focusing on a bridge at night, and the various passengers who travel across it, then thirty seconds would be spent staring at a blank dark screen. I understand the need for darkness. It’s like a cleansing of one’s palate. But just like when eating sushi, if you consume too much ginger, it almost ruins the effect. Rattner’s visual haiku could have resonated much louder had the dead time not been so long.

The last person to showcase their work before intermission was Deon Kay. His film, Report to the Police, was another fantastically innovative idea that didn’t quite translate to screen. Kay’s story revolved around an extended period of time he spent in Paris. To be a bit more specific, he focused on public spaces, transit systems, and museums while loosely adapting Mikhail Bulgakov’s, The Master and the Margherita via first-person point of view. Unfortunately, his ideas weren’t successfully realized. While Kay found creative ways to incorporate the text of the story onto various walls from the public spaces he recorded, it was often hard to read—both because the font was small or seemed too distant, and it was red. And although red is the easiest color for the human eye to behold, for one reason or another, it seemed anything but easy to read in Kay’s film.

As a collective, the Iowa Film MaFiA did not disappoint. They demonstrated creativity and innovation that you rarely see in commercial films. Did they fall a little short of the mark? Yes. Do their films show potential? Absolutely. But in thinking back to when I first heard the name of this group, when I first looked at the play on the word MaFiA, I remember feeling a sense of curiosity as to what this event would look and feel like. Masters of Fine Arts these individuals most definitely are. But a mafia? I think not. At least, not yet. There is potential, though. There’s always potential. 


Ryan Neumann is a writer and high school english teacher living in Atlanta. In 2004, he received his Bachelors in Creative Writing with a minor in Special Education from Appalachian State University, and in 2006, a Masters in Secondary Education from the University of Georgia. In the fall of 2013 he begins the PhD program in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Georgia.

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