The “Strange Truth” of the Non-Fiction Imagination

The ninth installment of the film series focused on contemporary social justice concerns and included a live performance for the first time.

Though a March nor’easter delayed a screening of Theo Anthony’s Rat Film until next fall, this year’s Strange Truth series soldiered on through the snowy semester with a screening of Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ Whose Streets at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and a live, on-campus performance, Parts of Speech/Parts of the Body, by the multimedia artist and composer Pamela Z. This shift away from the series’ exclusively cinematic focus of years past was part of resident Visual Media Scholars Vicky Funari and John Muse’s vision: to uplift artists who “seize upon realities of the day and shape them into works,” regardless of the medium they use.

The theme of this year’s series was the different ways in which the featured artists engaged with “the intimate connections between memory, language, and gesture; the struggles over urban space and history; and the power of resistance.” Both Rat Film and Whose Streets?, for example, were chosen because they explore some of the physical locations at the heart of contemporary American social justice movements. The former is about the city of Baltimore, the site of Freddie Gray’s infamous vehicular death; the latter, the town of Ferguson, the site of Michael Brown’s infamous shooting death. Even Pamela Z’s work, though often consciously apolitical, ventures into that realm as well. “Although I don’t often do work that belabors those issues,” she says, “I will say that occasionally there is a reference to them just because they’re a part of my life, and my work is about my life.” For example, her 2001 work “Gaijin,” the Japanese word for “foreigner,” expresses the alienation of those in the United States who “don’t speak English, speak with an accent, or have an outward appearance that brands them as ‘other’ in some way.”

In keeping with Muse and Funari’s desire to explore the “non-fiction imagination,” Anthony, Folayan and Davis, and Pamela Z all impose their own artistic styles onto events firmly grounded in reality, creating an audience experience that ultimately proves subjective. Parts of Speech/Parts of the Body utilized a variety of techniques, like digital looping, sampling, and gesture control, to create hauntingly surreal symphonies of sound from a range of media—human voices, musical instruments, TV static. While fragments of spoken-word poems occasionally appear in her compositions, more often than not, there is no linear storyline. Pamela Z describes her work as “theatrical in a weirdly abstract way, even though it’s about something.” Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, on the other hand, uses the eponymous “rat” as a metaphor for the way people in positions of power often view communities of color: with fear, suspicion, and disgust. While Anthony grounds his narrative in a city notorious for its recent instances of police brutality, he doesn’t constrain himself to a focus on them, choosing instead to explore the phenomenon of racial injustice more broadly, whether it manifests as institutional policy, residential segregation, or inequalities of infrastructure. Folayan and Davis’s Whose Streets?, by contrast, narrows its scope of investigation to the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death—that is, the birth of Black Lives Matter, arguably 21st-century America’s most visible civil rights movement yet, and the activists at the heart of it.

Started by Funari in her first year at Haverford College, the Strange Truth film series has historically derived its material from a diverse array of artists. While it could seem to the casual observer that there has been an implicit focus on marginalized communities, Funari rejects that characterization. “One of the things I have tried to do with Strange Truth,” she says, “ is to bring films that reflect key contemporary trends in documentary cinema.  I pay attention to cinema from the margins, to national cinemas not always easily seen in the U.S., and to cinema from diverse aesthetic and political perspectives. I try to bring films, artists, and now performances, that can illuminate for the Haverford community some of the core contemporary issues being explored through time-based media.”

An emphasis on audience engagement has always been at the forefront of Strange Truth, and this year, as always, students had the chance to “interact with the [artists] in discussions after the film, [schedule] one-on-one consultations with visiting [artists] about their own works-in-progress,” and work with them extensively in class. Pamela Z even gave an artist’s talk the day after her performance, making use of audio and video, as well as some live demonstrations, to discuss her creative process with the campus community.  “The real value of the series,” says Funari, “is that the college community gets to do more than just watch one film and go home.”

Photo by Cole Sansom ’19.