RYAN ERMACORA AND JESSICA JOHNSON'S UNEASY PANORAMAS
Empire Valley (Ryan Ermacora, 2018, Canada, 13 min, Digital)
Ocean Falls (Ryan Ermacora/Jessica Johnson, 2015, Canada, 13 min, Digital)
E&N (Ryan Ermacora/Jessica Johnson, 2015, Canada, 4 min, Digital)
Einst (Jessica Johnson, 2016, Canada, 12 min, Digital)
Hazel Isle (Jessica Johnson, 2018, Canada, 14 min, Digital)
Ryan Ermacora and Jessica Johnson in attendance!
Since 2015, filmmakers Ryan Ermacora and Jessica Johnson have worked collaboratively and independently on a series of lush and enigmatic non-fiction shorts that engage with interrelated questions of landscapes and duration. Working in the lineage of icons Sharon Lockhart and James Benning – filmmakers that privilege the contemplative over the chaotic – Ermacora and Johnson most often turn their camera to the sylvan unceded territories of interior British Columbia.
In films like Einst, Empire Valley, and E&N the filmmakers offer wordless examinations of places and gestures, while other works like Ocean Falls and Johnson’s Scotland-shot Hazel Isle incorporate interviews to produce intimate portraits of people in their lived spaces. Visually stunning, with an enveloping beauty enhanced by the filmmakers’ commitment to shooting on film, the tranquil nature of the films belie a troubled temporal and spatial palimpsest.
Tuesday 15 January 2019
Doors 6:30 PM | Screening 7:00 PM
$7 General Admission | $5 Students
Jackman Hall (317 Dundas St W.) - McCaul Street Entrance
Co-presented by Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival
Ryan Ermacora is an award-winning filmmaker based in Vancouver, B.C. His work investigates the visible and invisible ways in which humans have engraved themselves into natural spaces and is informed by an interest in avant-garde depictions of landscape. His style is defined by a self-reflexive and structural approach to cinema. His work has screened at the DOXA Documentary Festival, The Edinburgh International Film Festival, WNDX and the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Jessica Johnson is an award-winning experimental filmmaker based in Vancouver, B.C. She has made a number of short experimental films with a focus on narrative embedded within the landscape. These works often explore representation of space and time in the natural landscape with an attempt to subvert audience expectation. Her films have played at Canadian festivals such as VIFF, Festival du Nouveau Cinema, Images, WNDX, and internationally, in cities such as Edinburgh, Trento, and Leiden.
Steffanie Ling has published reviews and criticism in Brooklyn Rail, Canadian Art, C Magazine, Flash Art, Hong Kong Review of Books, among others. She was previously co-curator of Events + Exhibitions at VIVO Media Arts Centre (Vancouver, 2017-18), CSA Space (Vancouver, 2014-17. She has published two books, NASCAR: Stories (Blank Cheque, 2016) and CUTS OF THIN MEAT (Spare Room, 2015), a collection of minimal poems. Most recently, she began collaborating with Casey Wei on STILLS: moving image tract. She is currently the Artistic Director at Images Festival.
By Steffanie Ling
Ryan Ermacora and Jessica Johnson often take a boat, or a long drive, to make their films. They flatter the places they go, weaving together patiently framed shots of traversed waters, where the sky touches yellow and brown curves in the earth, and structures are forfeited to nature. They go to these places with names like Ocean Falls and Empire Valley, names that try to counter their overt rural dullness. The duo set out to test the sturdiness of natural beauty through the introduction of keepers, storytellers, or quiet inhabitants. Gradually, local contexts begin to leak in. The filmmakers’ theses are revealed, that in a contest for dominant narrative over the cultural memory of these places, mythology and imagery are steadily challenged by historical materialism.
The land the filmmakers flatter is often in proximity to economic activity, resource extraction, or other forms of environmental alteration, all of which effectively informs the alienation that propels the protagonist in The Glow is Gone (2017, directed by Ermacora, while co-written by and starring Johnson). The film portrays a woman who struggles to find economic stability in the city, and travels to British Columbia’s Gulf Islands to undertake temporary work on a farm. While not included in this particular program, I invoke this narrative short for the ways it informs Ermacora and Johnson’s non-fiction and landscape-focused works, making visible their subject position within a generation of working and middle-class young people. The film’s title suggests urban disenchantment, and its plot portrays a painfully typical Pacific Northwest Coast reflex, to retreat from the density and demands of a metropolitan context for some romantic, Thoreauvian affect. The sequences don’t get us very far in that direction however, as political discourse rages on the car radio, and awkward chatter about permaculture takes place between the woman and her island hosts. The film portrays a point of personal departure, one commonly felt but rarely made to be seen, from being “willing-and-trying” to “willing-to-try-something else” (though, perhaps, still not just anything). Johnson’s character performs that personal departure, which simultaneously embodies the filmmakers’ spatial movements towards external sites.
There is a substantial degree of activity and curiosity in the first few frames of Ryan Ermacora’s Empire Valley (2018). First, a rock placed strategically on a gravel path with two noodlely trails that shoot off of it. This rock, automatically revered, has instant mystique. Its importance is confirmed when a couple wearing sporty backpacks enters the frame. Each step transmits a goofy squeak from boots that appear adequate for a gamut of extreme weather, but perhaps unnecessary for navigating yellow grass on an overdetermined gravel path. The hikers circumambulate the rock, then begin to discuss and photograph it.
The film proceeds from this rather whimsical sequence to footage of the surrounding area, all filmed in long, wide takes. Framed from a distance, hills with gentle inclines, partially shaded by a patchily distributed cloud, appear like barely-there bumps across a large swath of earth. The distance provides us with a beautiful and earnest idea of land. Like a painting, does the landscape appear different, or better, if we just stand back and take it in at a wider angle? I don’t know...an image of land alone is too thin of an experience. Describing a beautiful image runs the same risk associated with retelling a dream, or a vacation. Even if you do manage to convey what you did, saw, or ate, something of the event is adulterated, neglected, or omitted by the description..
These vast swaths of land, shot near a place called Gang Ranch, don’t quite look like British Columbia. It has been altered for a combination of tourism—hence the rock—as well as large scale agriculture, cattle ranching, and logging routes. In the film we are not able to fully see the petroglyphs on the rock’s surface which inform its role as object of interest. “The rock was stolen in 1926 by prospector H.S. Brown and taken to Vancouver and put on display,” Ermacora tells me. “It had to be hauled by horses and then eventually put on a train. It was repatriated back to the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem and Tsilhqot'in territory in 2012.” This story is not at all obvious in the film, though these facts are not obscured, nor is colonial ideology ever far from the the consideration of oddly displayed artifacts. The repatriation of the rock, and its current status as a disregarded tourist attraction, is symbolic of an empty, bad faith gesture.
Empire Valley was shot on 35mm in 2-perf, which captures the image with elongated width. The rounded corners of the frame, created by the film gate in the camera, serve to frame these images as those that would adorn a vintage postcard. The formal emphasis on the tourism aspect communicates the way in which beauty satisfies our elemental desire for something lovely to look at, but the film cautions us to treat sublimity with suspicion, particularly for images couched in industry. Empire Valley complicates the dull complicity of trucks heaving down a road, of the simplicity of a gravel patch with a rock on it, or of mysterious beauty, as if supplied from a dream.
In Ocean Falls (2015), Ryan and Jessica continue to grapple with the tension of documenting nature’s inherent beauty at the site of its exploitation. While the film surveys nature’s creeping reclamation of this near-abandoned seat of industry, in the process it meets a human agent. The film approaches Ocean Falls by boat, and our introduction to the place is a feast of entropy—recent ruins, gnawed columns, and surfaces battered by wind and water. Rebar clangs, as mangled wiring and pink insulation bursts from the seam of a wall in a quaint looking house, as if Jeff Wall’s Destroyed Room gently brushed up against Grey Gardens.
Then, we are before a pair of commercial-looking double doors. Carpeted by foliage on both sides of the threshold, notions of inside and out are moot. In a widened interior shot, the double door recedes in importance, reduced to a spec in a space the size of an small airplane hangar largely eclipsed by growth. A row of window panels frame the sun-bleached and deciduous exterior. On the soundtrack, rustling ferns titter, victorious, or at least currently in the lead over the town’s former infrastructure. Ermacora believes this to be the cafeteria, but I think it’s the gymnasium, boasted as the province’s largest when Ocean Falls built its last school in 1971.
All that we see is beautiful in presentation, but the film withholds the explicit telling of an economic aftermath. What we see is the fallout of an industrial divestment. The American-owned paper and pulp company, Crown Zellerbach, purchased and developed a company town in Ocean Falls at the turn of the century after recognizing the geography’s capacity for hydroelectric generation. In the early ‘70s, the company sold the land back to the province, which ran the mill for another decade before its official closure, effectively cancelling the town in the process. The film’s train of atmospheric sequences is broken by the figure of a man hanging out in a small dockyard, his voice a regaling tone met by the filmmakers’ laughter in response. This man, Norm, spent years cutting down BC Hydro poles which started going up 28 years ago. “Why pay Hydro?,” he queries. The town has a population only of a few dozen with a seasonal peak hovering around 100.
I want to ask, do things necessarily need to be framed beautifully to command attention, to inspire historical research and historical listening? Is beauty then, a tactic? A flagging of a fury otherwise invisible to spectators who need our cinematic sensibilities catered to? The images Ermacora and Johnson present us with are complicated through the introduction of witnesses, storytellers, and human activity that betray these seemingly intent-on-beautiful films’ dual functions as experiments in psychogeographic representation.
Jessica Johnson’s film Einst (2016) is a single shot portraying a tranquil spot along the Lower Seymour River in Tsleil-Waututh territory, an area officially protected from environmental exploitation. Trickling water is layered with aural evidence of movement happening off-screen. It gives the audience something “to do”: that is, speculate. When we realize what it is, we expect the predictable to happen, and watch as a woman disrobes before submerging herself. The water moves curiously once the foreign agent is introduced, and we feel our expectations disrupted when the event of re-emergence is withheld. My mind is overactive, so I look for things that aren’t there, and this helps me to see things that are. In the time that has passed, I realize that I ‘m not too sure I have ever dedicated this much attention to looking at a painting or image of the Pacific Northwest coast, or trees and water —and the film is only eleven minutes. I think about the anxiety that must have invaded Johnson and her crew during the capture of running water and a casual skinny dip.
Though it is is not explicitly included in the film, Einst is accompanied by a passage from the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Ground of the Image (2005):
"A landscape is always a landscape of time, and doubly so: it is a time of year (a season) and a time of day (morning, noon, or evening), as well as a kind of weather [un temps], rain or snow, sun or mist. In the presentation of this time, which unfolds with every image, the present of representation can do nothing other than render infinitely sensible the passing of time, the fleeting instability of what is shown.”
The subject of landscape is oppressive in our Canadian context, and is often nationalistic, thoroughly rooted in the aesthetics of colonization. So, while Nancy states that a landscape calcifies time of year, day, and weather in a single moment, a moving image landscape becomes a nested articulation, the unfolding of that unfolding. (“In the presentation of this time, which unfolds with every image...”). In Johnson’s triangulation of camera ,land, and land in relationship to time, the relevance of the location is not concretely conveyed - it’s also notable that Einst is one of their few films that does not take its title from the location under consideration. Aside from the formal trust and dynamic entrapment of a willing audience to a film, Johnson has us looking at a specific part of the Seymour for eleven minutes, followed by a title card that situates the unceded Indigenous territory. Time is given, and spent, in directions that pivot around the image of the Seymour. Einst—“a word pertaining to past and future, meaning both once, and some day,”—is the simple notion that something is happening even if you don’t see it, or attain proof of it immediately though the given viewing apparatus.
We arrive not by boat, but by plane, at Hazel Isle (2018) also known as the Isle of Coll off the coast of Scotland. Described by the Vancouver International Film Festival as a “mesmerizing look at the tranquil countryside,” the copy—whether written in haste or indifference to nuance—would be better replaced by the quote by Scottish poet and filmmaker Margaret Tait that accompanies the film’s preview link: “There is a whole country at the foot of the stone/If you care to look” (The Scale of Things, 1960)
The first sounds of activity are animals, as chartreuse-tinted hills play host to some very placid husbandry. Brusque but friendly looking men wrangle sheep and gather their wool—the act of shearing looks weirdly tender. The indigo glaze of the film stock mystifies the maintenance of daily life. At first, I thought that Johnson was again flattering the landscape, but voices enter, after a long visual prologue. Credited exclusively to Johnson, Hazel Isle has the most dialogue of any of her and Ermacora’s autonomously or collaboratively made landscape documentaries. “It’s quite difficult”—we are thrown into a conversation with residents about about language, class, and place-names. Their focus turns to Johnson, asking her how long she’ll be staying, and about Canada. “Is [Canada] a gaelic name?” It isn’t, another confirms, but if it were it would end in “-aidh.” “I don’t know that it means anything.” How long are you staying Jessica?
Ermacora and Johnson’s films do not formally distinguish between land that is protected or exploited. The conflation of the two is the product of mediation, committed by the industrial powers and political energies that skim the edges of their films. Though their films take their audiences to different places—remote but provincial, obscure yet mythologized by way of tourism and resource extraction propaganda in the Pacific Northwest—I do not feel like a tourist. This is their version of that image, and there is agency in such an approach, as well as my guided skepticism of a well-composed, but industrially-textured landscape. The gamut of economic activity adjacent to images that ingratiate landscapes locate the films between capital complexes or endearing depictions of subsistence. All along, a human subject, with the voice that suppresses the held applause for beautiful landscapes. Uneasy panoramas make for shy appreciations.
 Temporary labour opportunities specific to the province include seasonal fruit picking, tree planting, and firefighting, lucrative and remote labour typically (though not exclusively) conducted by young, able-bodied, hipsters who then use their income to support personal projects in the off season.
 Whatever is meant by the “infinitely sensible” and the “fleeting instability” are philosophical flourishes that don’t inspire comprehension as much as it confirms a refutation of tangibility gained in the viewing of landscapes.