Open Letter To The Experimental Film Congress (May 1989)

Let’s Set The Record Straight

(William Wees: “The principal author of the Open Letter was Keith Sanborn, working in collaboration with Peggy Ahwesh, Leslie Thornton and Ross McLaren.”)

We challenge the official History promoted by the International Experimental Film Congress to be held in Toronto this Spring. The time is long overdue to unwrite the Institutional Canon of Masterworks of the Avant-Garde. It is time to shift focus from the History of Film to the position of film within the construction of history. The narratives which take up this new task must respect the complexity of relations among the many competing and overlapping histories which make up the activity within the field.

We are concerned by the tone which pervades the announcements for the Congress. The recognition belatedly accorded to “the founding women of the avant-garde,” the ceremonious embalming of lively, refractory work, the minimal attention given to new work, the organization of screenings along nationalistic lines, and the “open” —read “unpaid”—screenings for those willing to pay $100 for the privilege, all betray a tokenism blind to any activities outside the officially sanctioned margins. And if our analytic concerns seem to prejudge the event, they are borne out with desolate clarity by the record of the Congress organizers in attempting to suppress dissent within their own community. Their efforts in Toronto against the Funnel experimental Film Centre and against feminist film theory speak for themselves.

And while the putatively timeless Internationalism of the Congress should make it all things to all people, the overwhelming majority of the announced participants consists of representatives of the 60s Avant-Garde and its decaying power base. Only one or two younger filmmakers have been part of the official program, though some of us will at least be discussed in our absence. Workshops are dominated by technological values and are led exclusively by older men. In this context, the organization of screenings along nationalistic lines promises a replay of the results with which we have become all too familiar over the past decade: a government-subsidized inventory of products suitable for export. Work is chosen to minimize linguistic, sexual, and cultural difference, typically to conform to the model of the “universal language of form” so dear to institutional esperantists. Difference is recognized only where it can be recuperated and diluted to a tepid pluralism.

The “open screenings” at best provide an image of damage control. These screenings, as the de facto venue for new and unrecognized work, have been scheduled mostly for late in the evening at the end of full days of featured panels, workshops, and screenings. Even without average festival delays, this scheduling usually bodes poorly for attendance. The priorities of the Congress organizers are clear: those without established credentials are to be marginalized within the consolidation of the official margins, to be presented as Film Historical leftovers.

There is a spirit of mind which continues to challenge the hegemony of industry, of government, of bureaucracy. The revolutionary frame of mind pervading activity in film in the Teens and Twenties and again in the Fifties and Sixties—which seemed to die in the Seventies—continues to thrive, but only where it has shifted and migrated according to changing historical conditions. The issues which galvanized the Cinema Avant-Garde of earlier decades arose from different conditions than those which confront us today. An event which promotes itself as of major importance to Experimental Film and fails to reflect the vitality and breadth, the vulnerability and urgency of current oppositional practice in the media renders nothing but obeisance to a moribund officialdom. It risks nothing but its own historical relevance.

The Avant-Garde is dead; long live the avant-garde.
May 23, 1989

We, the undersigned, find ourselves in agreement with the attached declaration concerning the Toronto Experimental Film Congress.

Leslie Alpen, Caroline Avery, Peggy Ahwesh, Timothy C. Allen, Craig Baldwin, Susan Banas, Jay Blakenship, Emily Breer, Don Brennan, Barbara Broughel, Lee Ann Brown, Edmund Cardoni, Abigail Child, Romy Charlesworth, Tom Chomont, Catherine Clarke, Ian Cochrane, Sharon Cook, Bill Daniel, Moyra Davie, R. Dickie, Paul Dickinson, Jesse Drew, Barry Ellsworth, Heather Evelyn, Steve Fagin, Betty Ferguson, Munro Ferguson, Bruce Fiene, Mary Filippo, Nina Fonoroff, Michaeline Fontana, Su Friedrich, John J. Gallagher, Kathy Geritz, David Gerstein, Joe Gibbons, Joel Roggins-Giroux, Arnie Goldson, Jill Godmilow, Brian Goldberg, Annie Goldson, Philip J. Guibeau, Barbara Hammer, Peter M. Hargrove , Todd Haynes, Marc Heffels, Mark Hesselink, Eve Heller, Peter Herwitz, Robert Hilferty, Chris Hill, Henry Hills, Karen Holmes, Kent Howie, Jim Hubbard, Daniel Jones, Ken Kobland, Ernest Larsen, Barbara Lattanzi, I. Lempert, Tom Kalin, Lewis Klahr, Elizabeth Kolz, Mark LaPore, Mark McElhatten, Gary McLaren, Ross McLaren, Deborah Meehan, Sherry Milner, Jennifer Montgomery, Andy Moses, Allen Mukamal, Julie Murray, Bill Nichols, Linda Peckham, John Porter, Bill Quinn, Rvonne Rainer, Berenice Reynaud, Tom Rhoades, Fabio Roberti, D. Rogers, Ron Rogers, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Lynne Sachs, Keith Sanborn, Lincoln Schlensky, Sarah Schulman, David Schwartz, Patrica Seaman, M.M. Serra, Pascal Sharp, Yseult Sharp, Jason Simon, Esther Shatavsky, Joe Shepard, Jeffrey Skoller, Karl Soehnlein, Philip S. Solomon, Andrew Sorfleet, Edie Steiner, Carty Talkington, Christine Tamblyn, Leslie Thornton, Mark Trumble, Christine Vachon, Luis E. Vera, Susanna Virtanen, Jack Walsh, Dan Walworth, Melony Ward, Marshall Weber, Ted White, Andreas Wildfang, Alexander Wilson, Sarah E. Wright, Tom Zummer