Under the Dome

Experimental Film Festival

Each year, the Centre for Curating the Archive (CCA) works on a number of collaborative projects with Iziko Museums of South Africa, and this year the CCA took up the opportunity to work alongside staff from the Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome to initiate a film festival.

Under the Dome Experimental Film Festival opens to the public this weekend - Saturday, 16 and Sunday, 17 November - and will be showcasing nine experimental films throughout the festival!

I on Iziko spoke to Lyndall Cain, Project Manager and Liaison Officer, and Martin Wilson, part-time lecturer and researcher – both at the CCA – about the thought-processes behind creating a festival like this.

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Film still from Artists' Spaces by Melvin Pather and Moeneeb Dalwai.
Image courtesy of the CCA.

You mention that the idea for the film festival began after the Centre for Curating the Archive, in collaboration with Iziko Museums of South Africa, created the short documentary film, Fragments of an Untold History. What about this experience inspired the idea of a festival?

Lyndall Cain: Karen Ijumba and Martin Wilson, who created the film, were the ones who first came up with the idea to have a festival. They found creating Fragments of An Untold History such a unique experience—not many people get to create a film for a space like this—and thought it would be great if we could give others this chance too.

Given Iziko’s willingness to allow us to experiment and test footage as we went along, and Ofentse Letebele and Theo Ferreira’s help and guidance with this, we thought we would put out an open call. We knew it would be challenging given that it’s largely new territory, for most filmmakers in the country, but we wanted to try exactly because of this.

Martin Wilson: While creating Fragments of An Untold History we realized that we were only just scratching the surface of what could be done in the dome—and so in order to explore the many different ways of approaching dome projection we needed to get more people involved. We were especially eager to get young producers and filmmakers on board as we hoped they would bring less traditional ways of creating content to the project, and really explore what the dome has to offer.

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Film still from Diane Tsa Borwa (Southern Proverbs) by Chris Grava and King Debs.
Image courtesy of the CCA.

What marked the decision to put the call for proposals out to the public? How did you narrow the submissions down to just six – what criteria were you looking for?

LC: To add to what we said above, we wanted to give more people the opportunity to create work for the dome, and we wanted a more diverse selection of projects.

As far as criteria went we looked for filmmakers who dealt with the type of subject matter one wouldn’t usually see in the planetarium, but which could work in a hemispherical environment, such as the team who created WRPD who choreographed a dance in a desolate landscape; or Phumulani Ntuli who works with found archival footage; or Kali van der Merwe and her reanimated roadkill; and Ofentse Letebele and Chris Grava who capture King Debs (Letebele) painting calligraphy that represents  traditional proverbs from various Bantu and Nguni languages—none of this is the type of content one would expect to see in a planetarium.

MW: We didn’t only put the call out to the public at large: we also encouraged students and staff from UCT to apply, but given the short timeline and the heavy workload, recent graduates, young professionals and experimental filmmakers made up most of our applicants (as well as a few UCT and Iziko staff members). We were particularly looking for collaborators who were excited to try something completely new and engage with the curved, immersive surface.  Practically, we also needed applicants who had some technical filmmaking and editing skills, as well as a project that was feasible given the short timeline and the significant technical challenges faced when making content of this kind.

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Film still from Frequencies of a Birthmark: Episode One by Phumulani Ntuli.
Image courtesy of the CCA.

What is the importance of creating and sustaining an event such as the Under the Dome Experimental Film Festival; and especially in a country like South Africa – where although there is an incredible artistic and creative landscape, access to such spaces – and to such opportunities – are largely exclusive?

MW: In my opinion, this project was only possible due to the ongoing collaborative relationship between Iziko and the CCA. Such opportunities are very rare in South Africa, where public and state spaces are not often usable by the broader public. Furthermore,  the immersive moving image is a completely new area of visual research and so it is important to explore its possibilities, and how it differs from the rectilinear view that we’ve had for the last two-hundred, or so, years.

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Film still from Inside Out by Thomas Dreyer, Adam Oosthuizen and Ross Eyre.
Image courtesy of the CCA

LC: Museums are public spaces, especially South Africa’s national museum, and we wanted to give the public a chance to see work in the planetarium for free and to see work made by other South Africans. In general planetariums in South Africa have to import content from Europe or the United States, but we want to change this.

 

How does the screening of these films in the Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome differ to film screenings at a ‘standard cinema’? How does this space contribute to the ‘message’ of the experimental films – if it does at all?

MW:  That is exactly what we’re trying to discover. Already, having just worked with nine short films, we have seen a number of ways in which the digital dome offers both the filmmaker and the audience so much more than the standard two-dimensional screen can. For example, Fragments of an Untold History was shot using a hand-held 360-degree camera, which fosters a sense of intimacy and immediacy with its historical subject. Whereas Reflectance shows how using forced perspective in the dome can make you feel as though you’re in a space far vaster than the physical room in which the projection is screened. What we also see in all of the films is that, since the dome gives the viewer multiple places to look, the audience's gaze is less prescribed as there is activity taking place behind, in front and to the side of the viewer.

 

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Film still from Reflectance by Jason Stapleton and Jacques van Zyl.
Image courtesy of the CCA

LC: In the planetarium one is forced to recline to an almost lying position and the projection is 180 degrees of a sphere, just about surrounding you. Each group has used this to their benefit.  Animortis could work on a “standard” two-dimensional screen if it had to, but the feeling of being surrounded and overwhelmed by the reanimated roadkill is emphasised because the immersive environment allows for the sounds and visuals to overpower the viewer. Similarly, Inside Out uses this immersive feeling to transport the viewer through multiple new landscapes and environments, while WRPD, instead of trying to fix the distortion that the dome creates with the human figure, plays into this distortion through reflectance, and dance, creating a kaleidoscopic effect.

 

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Film still from Cape Town's Checkerboard: from slave ships to barbers' shops
​​​​​​by Dr Siona O'Connell and Jade Nair.
Image courtesy of the CCA.

Lastly – can we expect the film festival to become an annual event?

LC: Of course we would love to see a second, or third, festival but this would depend on resources and available funding. Iziko’s planetarium will be showing the films as shorts before their regular screenings and the majority of the filmmakers have agreed to give all planetariums in South Africa non-commercial screening rights for the next year, so we hope that other domes around the country will use the content and help give the films a life outside of the festival.

MW: We are all very excited to see how the festival is received, and what future opportunities it might bring about. However, this has been an incredibly difficult project to realise with multiple hurdles to overcome, not just on the technical side but also because of the many institutional mandates we had to comply with. Therefore, I believe our only hope to see such an event continue into the future would be a deepened commitment to open collaboration between state, public, academic, and commercial sectors.

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Film still from Animortis by Kali van der Merwe and Simon Dunckley.
Image courtesy of the CCA.
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Film still from WRPD by Louise Coetzer and Oscar O'Ryan.
Image courtesy of the CCA.