Rating *** A must-see
Directed by Ernst Karel & Veronika Kusumaryati
“Imageless” films — which both exist in defiance of and in tandem with their more traditional, camera-photographed cousins — have established a small but notable lineage, and not even exclusively in the realm of the avant-garde. Derek Jarman’s landmark Blue (1993) is probably the most beloved example, with the sole image of International Klein Blue representing its ailing director’s eyesight. Anthology Film Archives is currently running a series which highlights such works, including Movies for the Blind, Volume 2 (1999, Jeff Perkins) and The Disappeared (2018, Gilad Baram & Adam Kaplan); to this series could also be added the borderline case of James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s The Republic (2017), which very slowly shifts from a black screen to a white screen, and João César Monteiro’s Branca de Neve/Snow White (2000), which, partly owing to unspecified filming difficulties, takes place almost entirely in voiceover save for interspersed shots of clouds.
Especially for the examples from before the past decade, however, there is the question of what “imageless” truly means, on the most basic level of form and experience. Even in something like Blue, there is, or at least was, still the sensation of watching a series of projected images on multiple reels, and the inevitable print alterations that occur as a print is run through various projectors over and over. In the present digital configuration, the black “leader” is still a projected image of sorts, as film grain-less as it may be, and the lack of an image may (and perhaps should) cause the viewer’s eyes to wander more towards fellow audience members, emergency exit lights, and the like. “Imageless” films can thus cause an even more interactive experience, without even getting into the sonic possibilities and thematic resonances that each of the above examples invoke.
Into this heady mix of films steps Expedition Content, the first significant salvo in a few years from the esteemed Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, and appropriately credited as being “composed by” Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati. The choice to craft an “imageless” film may seem especially strange from the SEL, considering that their films have yielded some of the most beguiling visual textures of the century, from the rich 16mm of Manakamana to the wild digital experimentation of Sweetgrass and Leviathan. But Karel — who has sound edited and mixed not only the above films but also for the SEL at large, along with films by Anocha Suwichakornpong, Luke Fowler, Trương Minh Quỳ, and Ben Rivers among many others — and Kusumaryati — a Harvard University Film Study Center fellow — both making their feature directorial debuts, are after something different, and not only because of the near-total lack of conventional image.
For Expedition Content is, unlike most SEL films, a found-footage film, or in this instance a found-recording film, editing together and remixing the thirty-seven hours of audiotape recordings made on a 1961 Harvard Peabody Museum anthropological research trip to West Papua among the Hubula (or Dani) people. Among the participants were the filmmaker Robert Gardner, who made the notable ethnographic film Dead Birds (1963) during the expedition, and, of all people, Michael Rockefeller – son of Nelson and great-grandson of John D., who had invested in oil exploration in New Guinea decades prior – who made the recordings and disappeared later that year while attempting to gather artifacts on the island. Aside from a late, brief flash of Gardner’s footage that lasts about a minute and a half, depicting a dark cave interior along with native villagers and a fire, the only images that appear are a few explanatory intertitles and some interpolations of baby blue leader, which are accompanied by a low tone and seem to presage the minimal number of translations of Dani provided; the rest is pure sound collage.
What predominates then, in the deliberate absence of both image and translation, the Western viewer — bearing in mind that, despite Kusumaryati’s own Indonesian background and dissertation focus upon West Papua’s highlanders, Expedition Content is ultimately an American film and very much aware of that fact — is left to focus on audio as its own form of immersion, and upon the role of Rockefeller and his fellow travelers as interlopers. Rockefeller has a very particularly tentative manner of introducing the myriad audio cuts that Karel and Kusumaryati highlight at the beginning of almost every recording, and the initial irritation eventually becomes a structuring device, a purposeful intrusion that often cuts against the supposed naturalness that the researchers are attempting to capture.
At some points, the beauty and power of what is being captured speaks for itself. The rush of a waterfall, the sonorous communal chanting, private singing; an astonishing amount is contained within Expedition Content‘s scant 78 minutes. But by freely moving across all of these privileged captured moments, Karel and Kusumaryati implicitly make the ethnographers themselves the subject; the black screen allows the viewer to focus on the precarious nature of the recording apparatus itself, all blown out audio and faint whispers, something only highlighted by the inclusion of a few crisp modern recordings of the cataloguers of these tapes.
Immediately after the aforementioned film footage, the tensions simmering within Expedition Content come to a head in the longest piece of continual audio recording within the film, though it is unclear whether it was done accidentally by Rockefeller or not. During a ten-minute tape of a drunken birthday celebration, the researchers speak in blaccents; converse about Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, and Oscar Peterson; and speculate about the possibility of copulating with one of the natives. In an additional touch, Karel and Kusumaryati provide subtitles that compel the viewer to stare at and contemplate the true nature of the ethnographers’ interactions with those they purportedly attempt to understand, casting the previous hour’s recordings in a light that had been latent until this moment of nakedness. By using the traditional means of translation as reinforcement, they are examined with the same unrelenting gaze that they themselves deployed elsewhere.
The brilliance of Expedition Content lies, in large part, in its ability to be so direct, so unflinching in its perspective, while also seemingly refracting its observations through the plethora of direct field recordings. If the opening and ending intertitles confront the political and ethnic issues in a manner uncommon for the SEL — the former implicitly links the expedition with Attica via Nelson Rockefeller, the latter raises the United States and Nations’ ongoing support of the brutal Indonesian colonization of West Papua — that sentiment is bolstered and transmuted by the contemplation that is engendered by the uncommon aesthetic experience. In the same way that, say, Leviathan‘s elemental torrent or Manakamana‘s durational interconnectedness arise moment to moment, Karel and Kusumaryati’s ultimately defiant aims exist within the gap between the researcher’s perspective and the previously undisturbed world, a distinction that becomes only more glaring with each fumbled appellation, each interrupting utterance.