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Vertical Cinema: Joost Rekveld subverts tradition

Christy Collins

The monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey and a scientific paper provided the inspiration for Dutch artist and filmmaker Joost Rekveld’s experimental Vertical Cinema film #43 – one of the ten experimental vertical films showing at Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) this year.

According to Rekveld, Vertical Cinema is an “ambivalent homage to classical cinema”. It’s a subversion of the traditional cinema format, and these ten short films from Dutch and Austrian artists encompass a “clash of the classical film format” with other types of art. The project unites the talents of artists skilled in many fields including performers, musicians, digital artists and filmmakers.

The idea for the Vertical Cinema project came to organisers Sonic Acts in 2011, before they were due to stage a film event in Austria. They needed to find a way to screen a film in an empty church, and so the idea of tipping the projector and screen on their side was born. In 2013, Vertical Cinema premiered; since then, more than half of its screenings have been in churches.

However, the innovation brought with it some substantial technological challenges: including how to get the projector to work when turned on its side, and how to hang the screen. The project now utilises a special projector, which was shipped to Melbourne especially for MIFF. “The archetypal horizontal format is perhaps westerns,” Rekveld reflects, “where you have the big landscapes. It’s imposing and man can be really tiny. If you turn [the screen] vertically you get very different types of associations.” Rekveld also relates an experience of being in a network of caves in the south of France a few years ago. Each cave contained ancient cave paintings. After walking through the dark you arrived in a particular cave that had the same paintings as the other caves, but which had a much higher ceiling: “[Y]ou have this experience of being a part of something that is much larger – which is something which can inspire awe, but which is for me the root of fascism… and I was very much aware of that dimension of the Vertical Cinema.”

Rekveld was attracted to the spectacle value of the format, but remains cautious about its imposing, monolithic quality – which he tried to avoid in his piece. For his own film, he says the format encouraged him to use processes which are very slow so the viewer’s gaze can wander around the screen, engendering a much more interactive way of looking.

He takes much of his inspiration from science. “I look for a non-verbal entry into the worlds opened up by scientific discoveries or ideas,” he tells me. In this case he used a mathematical model that describes how nerve pulses move through the body. “It interests me that these abstract ideas become something the viewer can relate to on a very physical level,” he says, “because you know these processes: you’ve seen them in your kitchen sink or in a pond or under a stone.” His film includes soundscapes taken from the world around us to emphasise the association between the images and the concrete processes they represent. “You can’t stop your mind making these connections,” he says. “You’re actively trying to find connections and there’s always some connection.” The film’s soundtrack is also important to Rekveld: he studied electronic music and started out making films with his own soundtracks, so he has enjoyed returning to this aspect of filmmaking for this project.

Vertical Cinema lends itself to being displayed in a number of different ways. It has screened at contemporary art galleries as well as at music festivals, and has travelled to international museums and festivals. MIFF’s broad programming – which includes documentaries, narrative features and experimental film – allows Vertical Cinema access to a wider audience than it would have reached in a gallery or a more narrowly focused festival. Some venues even provide pillows and cushions so people can lie in front of the screen. “Some people really like to indulge in the size and ‘trip out’,” says Rekveld.

Many of us have a vertical camera on us every day, in the form of a mobile phone. “People are looking for different formats of cinema, incorporating these mobile technologies so in the larger sense the mobile phone is part of the shifting of formats,” Rekveld says. “With the disappearance of celluloid there is also a new space.” Vertical Cinema is, in some ways, a reminder of other possibilities that are yet to be explored.

Vertical Cinema is screening at two MIFF sessions on Friday 14 August, at 6.30pm and 9pm at Federation Square’s Deakin Edge. Joost Rekveld is a guest of the festival.

Read all of our 2015 Critics Campus features