“Histories that we’ve missed”: Jesse Lerner on Ism, Ism, Ism [Audio]

Throughout its Fall 2019 season Block Cinema screened selected programs from Ism, Ism, Ism, a groundbreaking touring film series that offers the first comprehensive survey of Latin America’s vibrant experimental film history. Organized by filmmakers and curators Jesse Lerner and Luciano Piazza as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time II: LA/LA initiative, these programs featured key works made between the 1930s and the 2000s across the Americas. Presented in conjunction the Block’s Fall 2019 exhibition Pop América, 1965-1975, the museum hosted five programs from the series, and co-presented another six programs at venues around Chicago, partnering with ACRE Projects in Pilsen, Comfort Station in Logan Square, filmfront in Pilsen and the Nightingale Cinema in Noble Square.

On October 11, 2019 The Block hosted curator Jesse Lerner for a discussion of the Ism, Ism, Ism project. In a wide ranging conversation with Michael Metzger, The Block’s Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts, Lerner shared more about the origins, planning, and stakes of this history-rewriting film survey.

Listen to the Conversation

Conversation Highlights

There are a lot of books about experimental film and almost all of them focus on experimental film in the United States, Western Europe. Maybe there’s a reference to an experimental filmmaker in Japan, but most of the other parts of the world kind of get left out.

And similarly, there are a lot of books on Latin American film, some of them in English, more in Spanish, but the vast majority of them focus on narrative films. Maybe a few about documentary or a chapter about some other genres, animation, but very little about experimental Latin American film. So it seemed like between these two, something was getting lost, and when we were putting together this project, it just seemed like too much material, too many countries, too many archives to visit, and too much detective work for any one curator, or two curators.

So what we did, we got together this team of nine curators from nine different countries and most of them had published previously on histories of some experimental film in a national context. Experimental film in Argentina, experimental film in Mexico, or something more specific. And we were able to bring those nine curators together, first for a meeting where we just did show and tell, and exchanged previous experience and materials. Lot of passing of digital files back and forth from one computer to another, since a lot of this material’s hard to access. And we then invited everybody that was in that group to propose a research project. What is it that you’d like to do next, and what archives would you like to visit?

We were able to fund that research, and then we reconvened a year later where we did another show and tell, at this point with drafts of the nine principal chapters of the publication, the Ismo, Ismo, Ismo book in hand that we could then circulate and critique. That became the core foundation of the publication, and then in order to put things together in programs, rather than thinking in terms of national schools, it seemed like it was more useful to cross international boundaries, and put things-side by-side and choose large themes that allowed us to put Argentine films from the 1930s next to a Mexican film from the 1990s, next to a Colombian film from the 1950s and you see certain themes and common concerns that emerge.

Jesse Lerner, on the origins of Ism Ism Ism

I think until relatively recently, film archives were really sort of focused on the important films, which are the 35mm feature films made by the A-list directors that would then go on to win a prize at Berlin, or Venice, or some important film festival. So films that are shot in Super 8, amateur format, or that are made by a painter who only made one film, they’re more likely to get overlooked by these institutions until relatively recently. There’s now the beginning of an interest in amateur cinema. How does that change our understanding of the whole history of cinema, or orphan films, or kind of expand the corpus the written film histories.

Jesse Lerner, on overlooked films and formats
Ism Ism Ism program at Comfort Station, Chicago

I’d say the best part of touring these around is finding new things you didn’t even know to look for, right? That you show it and somebody comes up to you afterwords and he said, “Why didn’t you include so-and-so’s films. She used to live across the street from my cousin and she made these crazy Super 8s in the ’70s, and they were really wild and who knows if they’re still around.” New things appear and again, it sort of caries from context to context, and I don’t always go with the program, so sometimes the program goes on its own, and who knows what it stirs in the minds of the public. It’s something that probably raises as many questions as it answers, and then hopefully there’ll be a new generation of young scholars that pick it up and say, “Well, let’s chase it after this, and find something else, and research this other thing that they only mention in passing, or that’s the footnote on the bottom of page 370.”

Jesse Lerner, on continued Ism Ism Ism scholarship
Triple projection for Jose Rodriguez Soltero’s DIALOGUE WITH CHE, part of the Ism Ism Ism program presented at Block Cinema

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