Updated: Mar 31, 2021
In our 'Notes from the Field' series, we speak with artists, filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, programmers, writers, and thinkers working across the spectrum of art and film, hearing about the ways in which they are working towards creating new ecosystems for the creation, circulation, and consumption of moving images. For this edition, we spoke with Inney Prakash, a film curator based in New York City. Prakash is on the cinema programming team at Maysles Documentary Center, Associate Programmer at Aspen Shortsfest, and Founder/Director of Prismatic Ground, an experimental documentary festival launching April 8th 2021. Matt spoke with him about how his experiences in film curation have helped him to formulate a programming ethos and how a year without cinemas has crystallized that, as well as the issues he sees within film festivals and institutions and how he hopes to avoid replicating them through the festival he has been working on creating, Prismatic Ground. Films are available during the festival period worldwide for free, and you can see the full lineup here.
Sentient.Art.Film: First, I want to know how and why you got into programming, and what your core philosophy is with it? What guides you when you think about programming films and what you want to do with the process?
Inney Prakash: That’s changed a lot over time, which I think is a good thing. I started programming rather accidentally. I was going to community college in a small town in Michigan, and I happened upon this film festival in the town called Hell's Half Mile. I ran into the person who was in charge of it, and just started talking to them and they invited me to be a part of the volunteer programming committee. I took to it really quickly. I really loved getting together with this group every week to watch and discuss films, and particularly seeing films that I wouldn't otherwise see. It was an awakening for me to realize that there's this whole world of independent film that never really reaches theatres or streaming platforms.
I was studying film production in Detroit, but I wasn’t really enjoying it. So when I finished school, I continued to seek programming work. I started working with a documentary festival in Detroit called Freep Film Festival. It’s unique in that it's run by a newspaper, The Detroit Free Press, and it has a mission of playing documentaries with some connection to Michigan or Detroit that have some kind of journalistic rigor. That was my first experience curating for a really specific context, which I enjoyed because it allows you to dig deeper. After school, I moved to New York and spent my first several months here going to every movie theatre in town every day, and earning money however I could, including working as an extra in TV shows. I discovered really quickly that what I was responding to most was experimental film. I saw screenings that the Flaherty put on, and stuff at Anthology Film Archives, and this is what that got me most excited.
Do you attribute that to New York City then, your interest in experimental film?
I absolutely attribute that to my moving to New York. I had experienced a little bit of that before, but there just wasn't anywhere to see it. It is kind of cool that in this day and age where everything is available online, that there is still something to being in a geographically specific place that can open up worlds for you. I just fell in love with this specific type of film which could be categorized as the experimental documentary. There are always arguments about how useful labels are, but Scott MacDonald, who's written a lot of great stuff about the intersection between experimental film and documentary, including his book ‘Avant Doc’, uses this label.
That’s on my list, I still haven’t got it.
It's really good. I discovered it after deciding to start the festival and it felt validating. If Scott MacDonald thinks this is a valid intersection, then it must be.
Anyway, I was going to theatres in New York, and then I went to a conference that happens, before Sundance, where I met the people who are now my colleagues at Maysles. We became friends first, and then they later brought me on to work at Maysles. Right after that happened, the pandemic hit and everything shut down, but luckily, I was able to stay on there. We immediately put our heads together to think about what can we do now? It’s a horrible situation, but instead of doing a weaker version of what we would have done in-person, what can we do online that we wouldn't have been able to do before. We decided that we wanted to focus on highly curated, highly specific series that would be available for an entire month as pay-what-you-want. The first series we did was called ’Le Joli Maysles’, in tribute to the Chris Marker film Le Joli Mai. That was a collection of films that were inspired by that film or had some kind of connection to it. Then we worked on a series called ‘After Civilization’, which was centered around speculative documentaries. With that series, we had a lot of conversations about what we saw our role as curators being. There was a crystallization of the combination of our aesthetic and political concerns. Coming up with that series, we realized that although we love movies at face value and purely for the aesthetic experience they can provide, we also have really deep feelings about what we think is wrong with the world and with the systems we work with. Film is most exciting to us when it addresses this, so a lot of the films in this series were dealing with the vestiges of slavery and colonialism, or ecological disaster, looking at the ways in which all those things are connected and perpetuated by the same forces. That only strengthened my belief that this area of experimental documentary is where the most interesting work is being made right now, work that is not only both aesthetically and politically exciting but where two things are deeply intertwined. I noticed a lot of work being done in this mode and a hole to be filled. So I was like, if I'm ever going to try this, now is the time.
The pandemic has been kind of weird for that. As much as it may have stopped many things from happening and caused all manner of harm, it has also facilitated things or given people the confidence to say fuck it and try something, because why not?
Yeah exactly, why not.
Something you touched upon was specificity, being attracted to restriction and limitations in programming, so I wanted to ask you what you think good curation is, or what the value is of bringing films together into groups in this way for people? The second part of that question is about who you think you're programming for, and whether you think programming has a social responsibility?
I would hesitate to say objectively what good curation is, not because there is no answer to that but because I wonder if I've even arrived at one myself. I can say what value I see in it as of this moment. Curation that speaks to me does a few things. One is elevating work that wouldn't have otherwise been seen. I think I've definitely fallen into this trap too, but I think there is a tendency among curators and programmers to just recycle the same work over and over again, which I don't think serves anybody well. It doesn't serve the filmmakers as it gives fewer of them a chance to have their voice heard. It doesn't serve audiences who then have a narrower perspective. And it doesn't ultimately serve us as curators who then get locked into a narrow sense of what our job can be. So I think it is important to elevate work that wouldn't otherwise be seen, which means really working hard on research, and being a very active and adventurous viewer, and not getting obsessed with standard markers of success or quality. I think one thing that is unfortunate about a lot of festivals is that they'll focus on highly polished work, when personally, I find that a lot of the work that is saying something truly vital may not be polished in the ways that a highly resourced film will be. I think being willing to engage with stuff that's rough around the edges is essential.
In terms of who I'm curating for, I think there's an analogy to when artists are asked who they are making work for. For me, the answer is primarily myself. When I'm making a festival, I'm making the festival that I would want to experience as a member of the audience. That's the only way to do it authentically. A lot of festivals will guess what the audience wants which is one way they really end up limiting themselves, assuming what people will or won't respond to instead of asking themselves what really moves and excites them, then assuming that that will also find resonance with others.
Yeah, I find that with film magazines also. A lot of editors are projecting an idea of what a reader wants, rather than thinking about what is interesting. They are doubting their reader’s intelligence by suggesting they only want what they've seen before, or relying purely on what has performed well before.
Right. I've experienced that in so many contexts, being told that an audience won't go for something. Now that I'm creating my own thing, I'm very intentionally not making assumptions about an audience, but instead sort of curating my own audience. Ultimately, the people who do respond to the films that I play will become the audience, but I don't want to have any preconceptions going in about who those people might be.
In terms of the social responsibility of programming, it's difficult for me to imagine being a person who participates in the world but doesn’t have opinions about the way it should work and what's right and what's wrong. I don't think there is such a thing as apolitical art because art is always created within a political system. You either acknowledge that or you don't. I don't think that means that you can't explore a range of ideas or that you can't have a purely aesthetic experience, but it would be pretty ignorant as a curator to absolve yourself of any social responsibility because your actions have consequences and the type of work you platform ends up sending a message, whether you want it to or not. I absolutely think there's a social responsibility to programming, without getting too high and mighty about or overestimating what the impact of your work will be.
I wanted to ask where you find new filmmakers and work, especially given what you were saying about how a lot of festivals recycle known entities or stick to safe or familiar styles? How do you continue to challenge your taste and your perspective?
There are a variety of ways, I guess. When you're starting a festival, one of the most basic ways is to take submissions. I wasn't sure whether I was going to, but I wanted there to be a sort of base-level where anybody interested can submit their work for consideration. Because I can't catch everything. That’s the most basic way, and then there's also going to other festivals as well, but then, as I mentioned, a lot of the festivals are playing the same stuff, so you look to festivals with bolder sort of programming styles. Ann Arbor is one of those for me. I like festivals. I just did the Berlinale, and I thought the programming was amazing, and I did Rotterdam, and I really enjoyed that as well. I’m playing things from other festivals. It's more about being aware of the limitations of the festival circuit. I did a lot of cold searching and browsing on Vimeo. I found a lot of interesting filmmakers that way. I also asked people to recommend filmmakers, which yielded a lot of great results for me. But I think the most important thing is just being really open to films coming at you from any direction at any time in any way. I think if you get too locked into a single process of programming, you end up excluding a lot of voices who might not be operating in that channel. For example, there are video artists who don't submit to film festivals because, for whatever reason, that hasn't been the lane that they've been told their work should exist in, though there is rarely any reason that should be the case. That answer is all a little bit all over the place, but I find that there's really not a straightforward answer to this.
You talked about this also a little bit at the start, but I wanted to go back to the definitions you are using for Prismatic Ground. What is an experimental documentary to you? It sounds like you have been trying to work through whether categorization is a useful idea?
That’s something I thought a lot about at the beginning and haven't necessarily resolved yet. However, the reason I decided to start an “experimental documentary” festival is that I saw a lot of filmmakers I liked describing their work this way. Arguably, that's because film festivals have asked them to pick a lane, and that's what seemed most appropriate. Regardless of what initially caused it, the work that I was responding to was self-described as “experimental documentary”, so that was the way I described it. When making my call for submissions, I listed names of filmmakers that I liked, people like Chris Marker, Lynne Sachs, Kevin Jerome Everson, the Otolith Group, Black Audio Film Collective, and so on. We can argue about the definition of the term with filmmakers, but it's easier to just say what sort of filmmakers I'm interested in, and whether there are resonances between that work and yours. I also talked a lot about work that engages with its own materiality, that's aware of its own image status and is exploring that as well as whatever is being recorded.
The book I mentioned, ‘Avant-Doc’ by Scott MacDonald, is a series of interviews with filmmakers who land at this intersection of experimental film and documentary. I found that book really helpful in confirming the validity of exploring this intersection. He says that one of the most useful things about using that label is indicating a cross-section of traditions, documentary film, and experimental film, and then a tradition where they have overlapped. It really helps to trace the lineage that this work is operating in. There are certainly institutions that have historically mastered this type of work. The Flaherty Seminar has been a nexus for experimental documentary for 50 or 60 years. Being able to trace that tradition is really helpful, but I am still wondering whether next year, or the year after that, I can just drop the experimental documentary label and not specify a genre. Perhaps once I set this sort of tone of what the curatorial vision is, I can rest on that.
There's a festival in London called Frames of Representation. I don't know if you know it?
It’s a film festival that takes place for a few days every year inside the ICA, a gallery space. They've held a number of editions now. For the first few editions, it was described as a festival for experimental documentaries. Then after two or three editions, more and more fiction films were playing in the program, so they stopped calling it a documentary festival and instead used ‘cinema of the real’ as their definition, which is basically broad enough to mean they could show whatever they want. They were saying that they didn’t want the descriptors they had created themselves; they’re no longer useful to them as a framework, which is kind of interesting in itself.
That's another question I had relating to Prismatic Ground and this idea of experimental documentary. Do you worry that there could be a problem with this sort of work becoming too siloed? Or do you think it’s good that there is dedicated space where this sort of stuff that might not find its time is not filtered out by the abundance of having to encompass everything?
That’s a really good question. I think it can be limiting. It can create a situation where work becomes too self-involved and gets almost to the point of self-parody. I think it's okay to be aware of these things, whilst embracing the strengths of having that space. I think the biggest strength is community. If you can find other people who are interested in what you are interested in, the work you do together can end up being much richer than if you had not found each other.
I can absolutely see Prismatic Ground doing what you described Frames of Representation doing. That would be ideal actually. At the end of the day, I want to play whatever I want. The reason for having an experimental documentary as a starting point was to have people know what I was looking for. To be able to use that as a beginning of the conversation and not the end is the key, to use it to open up worlds and relationships and possibilities and not limit things.
What have you learned about your programming practice through this year without cinemas? How has it affected what you think about exhibition, and what do you think will be different when you go back to screening films in physical venues?
It's crazy because this past year has changed how I think about curating and exhibition completely. I think I have grown more than the five years before this. All of a sudden everything felt really intense, and with Maysles I had an opportunity that had never happened before. The same amount of freedom wasn’t available in the physical world because it requires more resources to put on a screening every night.
There are four programmers at Maysles, and the intensity of the conversations we had about films and what they mean to us and what we saw as our role in presenting them was new to me. These hours were the deepest conversations I have ever had about this stuff. We had time to think about it. We weren’t dealing with the same daily routines we had been. That’s how my thinking changed. I learned a lot about myself - kind of a cliche thing to say - but I did learn about what is important to me in filmmaking. I can say unequivocally that it is a combination of bold and transgressive experimentation and some sense of political conviction, even if not explicit, combined with a meaningful awareness of the medium in which the message is being communicated. I also learned a lot about the power of putting works in conversation with each other, which can be harder in a physical space. In an online environment, all these works sit next to each other, which somehow feels less discrete than they need to be in the exhibition world.
That’s been extraordinarily exciting to me. How can we carry that back to the physical world? I honestly don’t know, but I will be trying. We didn’t have the ecstasy that we live for this year, which is sitting in a dark room with a lot of people and looking at the screen, so we had to come up with a lot of other things that make the experience special. I’m excited to go back, but I’m also hooked on the new ways that we found as a community online to experience film as well, so how do we combine those? This is what I am wondering.
What are the greatest challenges you face as a programmer? On the flip side of that, what problems do you see filmmakers facing and in what ways are venues, institutions, festivals etc. letting them down? Maybe that’s a tricky question. I’m not sure how I would answer that if I were asked to, thinking about it.
Yeah, it’s a lot. I think that curators and programmers share many of the same challenges as filmmakers, and that is important to recognize. Often filmmakers are suspicious of curators, with good reason - we should be questioned. It has to be said that my number one challenge as a curator is financial, and I think that’s true for many filmmakers too. So when deciding to start this festival, I had a little bit of savings to throw in, but I had to choose where that resource would go. The priority had to be paying filmmakers. It's not an extraordinary amount but it has to be on the table as someone who has worked with festivals who haven’t paid filmmakers, or also who were not paying or underpaying the people who work for them. In general, an environment is created that is not sustainable for anybody except the Executive Directors, and maybe not even them. So I think the financial aspect is important to recognize as it affects whose voices are being heard, both on the filmmaking and curatorial side. Seeing that we share certain challenges can help us bridge those gaps and make demands together. I think festivals have done a really bad job of building sustainable career pathways for people, and a lot of my time is spent trying to work out how to undo that damage for myself and to not perpetuate it in what I’m creating.
Filmmakers are dealing with a limited amount of financing. Many rely on grants coming from a handful of the same organizations who are then deciding what gets made and what gets seen. I think the dire financial situation affects everyone in a very negative way and it is very hard to overcome.
Aside from that, there is the challenge of making sure you are keeping an open mind and watching enough. There is only so much time in the day, so you have to be judicious and switch it up which can be difficult. I wouldn’t want to speak for filmmakers, but it seems to be difficult for a lot of them to work out which institutions to rely on and how. I have had a lot of filmmakers who would like to play at the festival but are trapped by a premiere. That’s one example of another industry norm that serves nobody. It hurts festivals and filmmakers, and it is driven by a scarcity model of programming that is purely about being first. I think most programmers feel frustrated by the same dynamics and situation. Very few people actually benefit from certain industry norms.
I think all institutions that exhibit independent film have to do better on compensating people. There is no excuse anymore. It’s not that they don't have resources, it’s that they haven’t made compensating labor a priority. I think that has to change. We touched on this earlier, but a lot of institutions make assumptions about what their audiences want rather than taking risks and that’s a problem. I worry a lot that by creating a festival, I am perpetuating a system that doesn't really serve anybody, so I’ve been spending time thinking about how to do things differently. If you listen to filmmakers and programmers, I think there are very few people who are satisfied with the current system. I think it's working for so-called “top tier festivals” and filmmakers making work at a very high level, but there are a lot of people holding the system up that are being damaged by it, and that is not an easy thing to solve. At the very least I would like not to contribute to it, but it remains to be seen if that is even possible.
That was a really good answer to a fairly difficult question I think. To end on a more positive note, I wanted to ask you what excites you about film curation today and about the future of programming. What are areas of possibility that you see as currently being underutilized and which communities are being underserved?
I’m extremely encouraged by the number of microcinemas popping up, and the independent curators creating their own platforms. I really would like to fight for a world where we are dividing our attention and resources between as many people and outlets as possible rather than pouring all our attention and money into a handful of festivals or streaming services. I think a cinematic landscape with a multiplicity of voices is richer for everyone, but it requires work on behalf of the viewers. You have to learn how to split your attention and make sure your watching is diversified, not just what you are watching but where you are watching it. We can only succeed as small-scale programmers and curators in festivals and microcinemas if people are willing to take the time and energy to do that.