Caption: Still from Once Upon a Time (2020), Hân Phạm, 2020.

Tiny Movies at the End of the World

A Preview of the First Annual Small Files Film Festival
Yani Kong

At the Small File Media Festival, over one hundred international moving image works challenge the intellect, the senses, and the idea of the moving image. At no more than five megabytes per file, these tiny films also offer the gentle reminder that streaming media, as ephemeral as it seems, bears a massive material impact on the environment, thought to be the cause of about 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions.* This statistic might be enough to make you fall off your chair when you consider that many energy resources are unsustainable, with heavily wired countries like South Korea for instance, depending on coal as their power source, or here in Canada, where hydroelectric dams affect land use, disrupt natural habitats, release Methane into reservoirs, and occupy Indigenous territory.  

The work in imagining the impact of streaming involves connecting our Netflix and Chill to the energy source that powers it, thinking beyond the socket to the territories whose land this power disrupts, the coal that is burned, the waste that is generated. It’s easy to bypass this hefty mental exercise because the damaged planet we inhabit is still livable. The works in the SFMF help to produce this ecological consciousness by making streaming’s environmental load a sensible experience. Simply, these small movies are hard to see. Ranging from thirty-five seconds to about six minutes, there is little narrative that is meant to be followed, even the porn (so included because it assumes 0.27% of total greenhouse gas emissions) is very difficult to watch, and not because it is too sexy, but because it barely is sexy, since it is barely there.  

Doughporn #1 (2014) by Pierre Leichner offers a humourous example of this. More sound art than moving image, a black screen plays a conversation between two people in a sex shop. You hear the shop keeper ask the hilariously blunt question, “what do you like about sex?” Which leads to the racy but equally direct sex play, mashing various exclamations of, “that feels good,” with dogs barking in the background, and questions of, “how does that feel?” Leichner’s unsexy sex had me dying of laughter for something I’m so glad I couldn’t see. This is somewhat different from the laughs I had watching Dooley Murphy’s animated gif, A Shameless Plug (graphic match) (2020), which switches between an insertion of a plug into an electrical socket and something else far more intimate. It took me several views to realize I was watching a gif on repeat and could stop watching at any time, which also made me laugh at my own crude understanding of the internet, matched with this crude imagery.

Humour and joy are high among these short films. Films such as Moththth (2020) by Weihan Zhou, and Jason Livingston’s film Alexa, What is Decolonize? (2019) layer voiceover on nearly still images to tell darkly funny truths. In these films, as in those described above, sound is emphasized over visuality, as audio utilizes less bandwidth.

As festival founder Laura U. Marks says, “Small file movies can be a little hard to see, but you can feel them.” This quote reminds of Marks’ early work in her book Touch (2002), that speaks of a love for the decaying cinema in the archive. Hard to view projections involve a kind of sight that demands the eye must work for what it sees, and this work produces a connective bond between the viewer and the film being watched. The glitch art and experiments with datamoshing in this festival provide the opportunity to put Marks’ ideas to the test, where blurry images in films such as Derek Kwan’s bombaybeach (2020) push the eye over heavily pixelated scenography. As glitches appear and disappear, the sound of the bells rings clearly when nothing else does. Hân Phạm’s Once Upon a Time (2020) is also a uniquely beautiful film, where an unmade bed gives way to what appears to be unsettling news footage that blurs and transforms into a range of Vietnamese song, theatre, and stock footage. Phạm uses the blur deftly, as images wave in and out of visibility like a dream sequence from an eighties sit-com. The empty bed, the messy sheets, the waves -- I wonder, am I dreaming? Am I already gone? I encourage viewers to embrace the fuzzy qualities of these experimental images and let the work of viewing connect your mind to the physical strain on the planet caused in the era of binge watching, something otherwise, so easily, overlooked.

Small File Media Festival
August 10-20, 2020
Vancouver, Canada, and streaming at low bandwidth worldwide
$1 membership, and by donation

Yani Kong is a SSHRC Doctoral Fellow of Contemporary Art at The School for the Contemporary Arts at SFU. She is the managing editor of the Comparative Media Arts Journal, a freelance writer and critic, and an instructor and TA in Art History and Communication.