Inney Prakash on Counter-Programming with Prismatic Ground

When Inney Prakash was making a decision on an opening night film for the second edition of Prismatic Ground, the experimental documentary festival making its triumphant return this week in New York and online, he looked for something you couldn’t see anywhere else, quite literally.

“I still really value the in cinema experience, so the opening night film can only be in person because it’s a movie by Charlie Shackleton called ‘The Afterlight,’” said Prakash. “And it exists on a single 35mm print as a conceptual nod to the ephemerality of all film and media.”

In many respects, there couldn’t be a more ideal introduction to what Prakash has in store for the four-day fest than Shackleton’s tapestry of scenes from old films that have been thoughtfully stitched together after the original reels they hailed from were destined for decay, an appreciation of cinema and the role it can play as collective memory, a recontextualization of the past in bold new terms and unique as an experience. However, it might be a surprising choice for an event that was initially founded in response to the cloistered world of film festivals in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as Prakash, a programmer at the Maysles Documentary Center in New York, seized the opportunity of stay-at-home orders to remove many of the barriers to entry for both filmmakers and audiences to worthwhile films that may have been seen as too radical or arrived without the attendant connections that usually give a leg up in a submission pile.

Being able to livestream over Twitch, there was a democratization of the festival, which was presented for free and though programming fell on Prakash’s shoulders alone, the lineup that didn’t discriminate between shorts and features, combining a number of both into thematically-driven programs called waves, brought out such well-known innovators and agitators such as Bill Morrison, Anand Patwardhan, Lynne Sachs and the Ross Brothers, whose making-of documentary for Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy” “Straight On ’Til Morning” may not have fit Fox Searchlight’s plans as a DVD extra, but found a home at Prismatic Ground. But equally crucial was the number of up-and-coming filmmakers that the festival gave a much-needed platform to such directors as Sarah Friedland (“Drills”), Sophy Romvari (“Still Processing”), Emily Packer and Lesley Steele (“By Way of Canarsie”) and Anthony Banua-Simon (“Cane Fire”), and Prakash inspired connections that were bound to make one more curious about voices that you were unfamiliar with based on the savvy selections elsewhere.

That sense of adventure remains even if Prismatic Ground has taken the shape of a more traditional festival as it moves into the physical realm in 2022 with the wind at its back. After daring institutions to look beyond their typical circles, many have become partners — the Criterion Channel is concurrently hosting a selection of last year’s festival titles and “The Afterlight” will make its bow at the Museum of the Moving Image on May 4th while the May 6th centerpiece screening of Erin and Travis Wilkerson’s “Nuclear Family” and the May 8th closing night film Rainer Kohlberger’s “Answering the Sun” will be at Anthology Film Archives. Yet Prakash is continuing down a distinctive as any of the filmmakers he’s featuring when the bulk of the lineup is once again being made available for free online alongside its in-person presentation at the Maysles Documentary Center, enabling audiences to travel anywhere in the world from Thailand to Chile and bereft of geoblocking, allows those audiences to really come from anywhere as well.

While an entire wave “The Blessings of Liberty” is devoted to how America has attempted to shape the rest of the world in its image, often through violent means, a critique of cultural hegemony is complemented by an expansive vision of what riches lie in other perspectives, turning what may seem mundane into the extraordinary. From Isidore Bethel and Francis Leplay’s “Acts of Love,” which finds humor in the painful aftermath of a breakup as Bethel tries to literally reconstruct the relationship dramatically, to Sasha Litvintseva and Beny Wagner’s “Constant,” where a history of the standardization of the meter becomes a recalibration of the senses, the program is filled with immersions into places and situations that might feel out of reach for the casual viewer but extends a notion of inclusivity as much to those seeing the film as those who are behind the camera.

On the eve of an ambitious second season, Prakash spoke about bridging gaps within a program that now transcends the physical/virtual divide, and blurring the lines between other traditional demarcations such as time, country of origin and when a work was created.

From last year’s experience, was there any takeaway to do this all over again?

Yeah, last year, I was responding to a very specific moment in time. That moment has passed, but I’m carrying things over because of lessons I learned. For example, I love the in-cinema experience. I’m a theatrical moviegoer, but I was able to reach so many more people than I had anticipated by making the fest available for free online, not geoblocked worldwide. I realized it would be a shame to alienate all those enthusiasts for experimental documentary by reverting to a purely physical experience, so I’ve decided to make it a hybrid and that’s an experiment really. I’m betting that if I show films in the cinema and have them available for free at the same time, people will still come in person for love of the cinema experience.

And I’ve had to learn how to translate [the festival’s] values into a different realm. It’s a learning experience. For example, something I wanted to do in the first year was try to break down the hierarchy between feature and short films by placing them side by side on the page. A big question I had this year was how do I do that in person? I played with a few different ideas, but what I landed on was having thematic groupings the way you would at many other film festivals, but instead of just including shorts, those programs will include a feature and several shorts or a mid-length and a feature and a couple shorts. If they happen to be too long because of that, I’ve inserted breaks where people can choose to come or go.

The organizing principle of waves is a beautiful way to describe the programs, given the flow of them. How does that idea actually help you curate?

I view curating as an act of creative expression, as a collaboration with the filmmakers and for me, the most exciting way to do that is by creating these instinctual, gestural groupings based on these themes. That’s nothing new. A lot of festivals do it, and [for me] a lot of it is homage to artists and ideas I love and a lot of it is an embodiment of values I hold, including various leftist politics and celebrations of the human spirit. But I think that I have a particular outlook and a particular flavor to the way I group films and I hope it’s one that filmmakers appreciate.

An example [this year] is Joële Walinga’s “Self-portrait,” which is a montage of surveillance footage essentially footage taken from webcams around the world for the purposes of surveilling and protecting property to create an incidental portrait of humanity’s impact on earth. This got me thinking a lot about the way that landscape and technology interact and I saw a lot of other films that with some of the same ideas and questions. That ended up building into a wave called “Industrial Capitalism and the World.”

Last year, there was a great dialogue between the newer films that were selected and the older films you programmed. When you start receiving submissions, do you start thinking of older titles to include?

Unfortunately, I ended up not including as much older work this year because there was so much new work that I wanted to show. I was overwhelmed by the quality of submissions and I wanted to show as many of them as possible. I also wanted to honor the submissions base by primarily programming the festival from submissions, which I didn’t have enough to do last year and which most festivals don’t do. Even if they accept submissions, they tend not to build the bulk of their program from there. I wanted to push back against that and I calculated about 63% of the films in this year’s festival were programmed through blind submissions — people that I didn’t know who haven’t played the festival before who happened to just submit. And I’m happy to say that number is way higher than most festivals. But there will still be older work represented online in the form of the Ground Glass Award, which is being given to Christopher Harris this year in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the field of experimental media and a selection of his filmography will be available online.

There is a real global scope to the selection, which I wondered you actually feel was a benefit from not geoblocking the festival and making it so accessible.

Yeah, a global perspective is something that is entirely exciting to me, but I don’t think that I’m there yet. A lot of submissions that I’m getting are still from the “western world.” There are definitely counter-examples for that, but a big concern for me moving forward is how to create a more globally representative program while still maintaining the community spirit on the ground.

Still, you’ve got to start somewhere in terms of building traditions and community and one way appeared to be the return of Erin and Travis Wilkerson with “Nuclear Family” after they participated in a conversation about the making of the film at last year’s festival and screening Sasha Litvintseva and Beny Wagner’s “Constant” after “A Demostration” played last year. Are those kinds of callbacks exciting?

Absolutely. The waves we mentioned, there were fewer last year because I didn’t have to deal with the practicality of them being in-person programs also, but a lot of the ideas and those themes are carrying over [too] and I think people who responded to those will see similar ideas in this year’s festival. The Wilkersons’ movie is representative of a lot of those themes in terms of its content and I appreciate having them involved again, but it’s [also about] striking a balance between returning filmmakers but also making room for new voices and new ideas.

Prismatic Ground will run through May 4th-May 8th both in person in New York at Maysles, Anthology Film Archives and the Museum of the Moving Image with filmmaker Q & As and available to stream online worldwide here. A full schedule of events is here.

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