Solomon Nagler interview

The phrase “low-budget experimental film” is enough to send shivers down even the most dedicated cinephile’s spine. It conjures visions of baffling Dadaism and interpretive dance — an incomprehensible language accessible only to those who spend a lifetime studying its subtleties. The fact is, though, there are no prerequisites — understanding experimental film is child’s play.

“Experimental film starts from a point of naiveté,” says filmmaker Solomon Nagler. “What we’re interested in is pure emotion with no preconditions as to a specific lexicon of filmmaking. What we’re interested in is the same sort of thing that a child is interested in when they see different tones of green for the first time — just this pure, guttural impression.”

Nagler is an acclaimed filmmaker whose work has been screened at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Lincoln Center in New York, as well as at festivals and cinematheques across North America. He’s also a professor of film production at the NSCAD University in Halifax — in other words, he might seem overqualified to make such a statement. After all, since emerging from the Winnipeg film scene, Nagler has spent a lifetime grappling with the intricacies of experimental film. His resumé doesn’t change his point, though, and Nagler isn’t the only one who sees super-independent cinema as a childlike — if not necessarily childish — affair.

“There’s an experimental film festival in Paris where part of their programming mandate is to show these experimental films to children,” he says. “It’s because children have this idea that there’s nothing stopping them from being able to see film as pure experience, and not necessarily coming to it with preconditioned needs to understand a film in a certain way.

“I want people to feel my films more than understand them,” he continues. “What I’m hoping for is that people who come to the screening don’t have a history of experimental film and don’t have an understanding of certain underground filmmaking techniques, because I want them to experience things freshly, without any preconceptions.”

That’s exactly how Nagler was introduced to the medium. Originally a philosophy student with an interest in music and photography, he stumbled into film almost by accident. It was only through trial and error that he found his voice in film and gained an appreciation for all of the influences that go into a single strip of celluloid.

“When I first was introduced to the filmmaking process, [what interested me] was that it was this medium which embraced almost every single art form and just sort of synthesized it into one medium,” he explains. “If you have an interest in music, the rhythm and the structure in music is really related to film structure — in fact, it’s probably one of the art forms that is closest to it. If you’re interested in theatre or poetry, writing, everything really is integrated into film.”

On Thursday, March 5, Calgary audiences will have a chance to put Nagler’s beliefs to the test. The Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers is presenting a retrospective of Nagler’s work, dubbed Prairie Mysticism after one of his more narrative works, at the $100 Film Festival. Like fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin (who will coincidentally be at the Alberta College of Art and Design on Thursday, screening his My Winnipeg), Nagler’s films run the gamut from inscrutable images to highly stylized narratives, mixing documentary and fantasy elements. Even if you can’t piece together what’s going on, the films have a dramatic, unsettling resonance — they stick with you in ways that mainstream films can’t. And that’s exactly the purpose of the $100 Film Festival.

“It’s an incredibly sophisticated festival, and I think people will be really rewarded if they go and are open to explore something which is really particular to this city,” Nagler says. “It’s something that is really reaching world-renowned status. It’s intimate cinema — it’s not about amplifying everything. Intimate cinema is another form of cinema that’s more about [communicating] person to person than person to 10 million people, and people will be very rewarded and very inspired to experience these films.”

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