“Her films are like a serene sea, without waves, paddle-ball paddles, or the shouts of the lifeguard. On the occasion of a new exhibition at the Jaffa Port, Vivian Ostrovsky tells us why she keeps shooting on Super8”
“Come dive into the dark of an abandoned hangar in Jaffa and find yourselves inside a spray of waves splashing up against the grey walls, sunlight framing black shadows, birds diving and taking off towards the horizon, black and white stars spinning dizzyingly in the wind, and grainy images flickering within the frames.”
This is the text of the invitation to the new-old cinema installation “Splash!” which will open on the 10th of the month at Hangar 2 in the Jaffa Port, sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. The lyrical spirit that imbues the exhibit’s instruction manual reflects the escapist stance at the base of the experimental installation and is testimony to the humoristic tactics of its two creators. “Splash!” is a cinematic installation in 16mm, a third collaboration between Vivian Ostrovsky and Silvi Simon, who have already presented other versions of the exhibition in Portugal and Paris.
In the Jaffa Port, into the darkness of a spacious hangar, six projectors will cast images shot on Super8, a documentation of the Tel Aviv and French shores. In a virtually infinite loop, the projections land on different surfaces, such as a fisherman’s net or a disco ball, on their way passing through Silvi Simon’s optic sculptures – simple, hand-made mechanisms. One of the emblematic works of Simon, the 1970-born French artist, is a tight swarm of glass slides hanging in the air, breaking up and dispersing the projected image in all directions, a kind of inversion of Muybridge’s late-19th-century Zoopraxiscope, which created the illusion of continuous motion from a series of static images.
The theme of the exhibit is the seashore. Hence the title, “Splash!” – wind, sea, beach, fish, bathers, “while also being a metaphor for film, for the sand’s erosion, for the passing of time, for the vast ocean between the analog from the digital, between pixels and emulsion,” Vivian Ostrovsky recounts from her remarkably organized studio in Tel Aviv, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Cinematheque. Ostrovsky, who defines herself as an avant-garde filmmaker and curator, was born in 1945 in New York but spent her childhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, near the sea. The ocean and the sights of the beach across the street left their mark on her.
Likewise, art and cinema always played an important part in her life. In the footsteps of her mother, a photographer, she recalls, “I started taking pictures at a young age, observing the world through the camera’s eyepiece.” She completed her studies at the Parisian Institute of Psychology, but, as she puts it, “it was so boring that instead of studying I would go to the movies every day, and that’s how I came into the world of cinema.” She began taking courses at the Sorbonne’s School of Cinema, where she took classes with French New Wave director Eric Rohmer, and at the Cinémathèque Française, under Henri Langlois, a key figure in those heady days.
In her father’s footsteps
In her cinema studies she was interested primarily in theory and history, not surprising given that these were the days following May ’68 and the golden age of the Nouvelle Vague and auteur theory, which placed the director at the heart of the film industry. These were the boom years of Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, Resnais, and the discovery of the Japanese cinema. “I was sure that all this was completely normal, that this was how you made movies. Only later did I discover that that was not at all the case,” she says, without a grain of nostalgia. At first she channeled the revolutionary spirit of the time into other people’s cinema. For a while she traveled around Europe in an old van, establishing women’s film festivals and helping women filmmakers distribute their films. “Later I discovered that it’s more fun to be on the other side – to film and to create on my own,” she explains.
From the beginning of the 80s and to this day, Ostrovsky has never stopped making movies or being active in the world of cinema, and in recent years also in the art world. Alongside her documentary work, she has made many films that are generally categorized as experimental. Her films have been screened at festivals around the world, her installations bought by leading museums, but she isn’t resting on her laurels.
Her first significant connection with Israel is related to her father, George Ostrovsky, an engineer cum wealthy businessman. Her father, who was an avid Zionist, donated a lot of money to philanthropic causes. In the 1970s he decided he wanted to find a meaningful cultural project to support in Israel. Vivian and her sister suggested establishing a cinematheque in the capital of the Holy Land.
“We took him to cinematheques in Paris, London, Berlin, and finally he agreed,” Ostrovsky recounts. “Later we met with Lia van Leer in Haifa, and my father told her that he was interested in donating a significant sum of money to build a cinematheque in Israel. She refused, saying that when people in this country give their money they also want control. She preferred going the independent way. But my father liked a challenge, and he was happy to see that she didn’t just jump at the opportunity.” The relationship between Ostrovsky and Lia van Leer tightened and they became good friends. After about a year, Van Leer gave in, and in 1973 the ambitious project got underway. George saw the project through, but what was supposed to take two years to build, opened only eight years later, in 1981. Ostrovsky’s father died a short time before the inauguration of the Cinematheque, and after that Vivian became more involved in the Jerusalem establishment. “The Cinematheque was my second home. I worked on the festivals, I was on the board of directors, and I had an excellent relationship with the staff,” she tells. “In those days when I would land in Israel I’d go straight to Jerusalem and not spend a minute in Tel Aviv, because I wanted to get straight to work. When I think about it today, I wouldn’t want to spend a single night in Jerusalem.” Although she doesn’t work at the cinematheque anymore, she continues to contribute her experience as a curator of avant-garde programs to the Jerusalem Film Festival and the Cinematheque. She also initiated the “Intersections” program, which includes the only prize-bearing competition in the country for Israeli experimental film.
Experimental cinema, sometimes also known as avant-garde, is close to Ostrovsky’s heart. In her life as in her films, she takes a liberated and unfettered approach. Almost every day she shoots a few minutes of footage on her Super8 camera, not knowing what, if anything, will come out of it. Her films are playful, with a hand-made, amateur quality to them. The people and landscapes in them are always undirected. The films have the feel of a personal diary, even when they are based on ready-made raw footage. Although she doesn’t shy away from filming on digital media, her films are usually made on celluloid, “because of the pulse, the flickering, the texture, the scratches, the flaws, and the low resolution of the image. Video for me is too flat, too perfect, too smooth.”
Like Canadian photographer Jeff Wall, currently showing at the Tel Aviv Museum, or British artist Tacita Dean, Ostrovsky is part of the life-or-death struggle for the survival of film. “Photography never killed painting, for example. Now, with the advancement of digital video they want to kill off film, for economic reasons. I like YouTube, Instagram, and all the rest. Sometimes I shoot on video, mostly at night because of the sensitivity, but why kill film in the name of video?” she wonders.
Categories and formats never really preoccupied her. She doesn’t do films from a position of “anti-,” fighting against some body or other, or for the sake of intellectual stimulation, but simply because she enjoys it. “I don’t need philosophy to make a film, it’s something more immediate for me. I’m not a person with a conceptual orientation, I’m more straightforward and impulsive. I don’t stop to think about what I’ve done and what I’m going to do. I’m just ‘do,’ and if it works, then great,” she tells with an utter calm that is the complete opposite of the dramatic bluster of most fiction films. Her films, including those in the present exhibit, are like a serene sea, without waves, paddle-ball rackets, or the shouts of the lifeguard. “My works are playful, and I’m sure this goes back to my Brazilian background,” she explains. Rio de Janeiro is a hot city, like Tel Aviv, and we had all sorts of problems there, for example, water outages. The city was growing at such a fast pace, and when they’d be fixing the rusted pipes on one end of town, they’d burst on the other end. So for a while we lived without running water. And then in the evening we’d hear a shout – “Water!”, and the entire neighborhood would go down with their pots and buckets. Sometimes the lights would go out, sometimes there was no sugar in the stores, and people always joked about it. Nobody took these things seriously. If something like that happens in France, people get hysterical. In Brazil everything is calm, and I think that stuck with me. I have a humoristic approach to life, as if I’m looking at life from a distance, I don’t take things to the melodramatic extreme but to the ironic.”
Ostrovsky is one of the last of the classical experimental filmmakers. In the present exhibit she makes demonstrative use of all of the features of the old genre: the conventional Aristotelian narrative is replaced by a free flow of by-the-way images; the celluloid is treated by hand and not in an editing program; the Renaissance vanishing point splits into tiny, almost accidental, fragments; instead of causality and continuity there is play with colors, pace, and composition; the predictable, fixed length of the film is exchanged for an infinite loop; the perfect repetition of the film at every viewing transforms into a once-only experience that evolves with the erosion of the material; and of course, the active role of the viewer, who is invited to go with the visual flow, and not be struck by the cinematic shock image. Her films are purposely not reflexive; they shun their status and context. “I’m not here to tell a story or convey a message,” she clarifies, “the work does not have a message; all I want is for the viewer to do with it as he sees fit, to interpret the work in his own way. I do what I love to do, and the viewer’s reaction is entirely his own responsibility.”
But nonetheless, the exhibit is being shown in Israel, on a slice of territory with high tension.
“At first we wanted to use orange crates from Jaffa, to place the projectors on them, but that didn’t work out. Some of the filming was done in the vicinity, so in that sense there is a kind of intervention in the immediate surroundings. This is how we work. I like the Jaffa Port, and the proximity to the sea suited the exhibit. I see and hear things, and I have opinions about what’s going on, but I don’t feel qualified to express them in public. I am completely aware of the situation in Israel and in Jaffa, but I don’t relate to it because that’s not what I do in my works.”
Perhaps just holding an experimental exhibition is a political act?
“You sound like Melina Mercouri [the Greek singer and politician – E.B.], who said, ‘forget the others, let’s go to the sea.’ Meaning, throw out your troubles. This is a naïve way to look at it, but maybe it will work better than the peace talks, which aren’t going anywhere. The truth is that we have a deep lack of faith in the politicians, in everyone.”
You’re a kind of free spirit. Moving around the world all the time, without worries.
“Free? Do you know anyone who is free? After four years of psychology at the university I developed an aversion to everything that begins with “psych-.” That’s why I’ve never been through analysis. I assume that I have anxieties like everyone, but I deal with them with composure. I admit that here in Israel it doesn’t always work.”