Avant-garde film artist Peggy Ahwesh held a screening at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Union Theater on Oct. 12. Set up by UWM’s Film and Art departments, as well as the Women’s Resource Center, the screening displayed several of Ahwesh’s short films, which touched upon a variety of topics, mostly pertaining to feminist ideas.
Ahwesh has been a filmmaker for over 30 years; she got her start filming scenes from the punk and feminist movements in the 1980s. Now a professor of film at Bard College in New York, she has garnered a reputation as one of the more controversial filmmakers today. She is also notably eclectic in here filmmaking styles, saying that her film career “spans many technologies and many experiments.”
Elena Gorfinkel, a film professor at UWM and the one who introduced Ahwesh, described her filmmaking as “anarchic and irreverent.” This seems to be true, as Ahwesh’s films discuss themes as diverse as sexuality, death, childhood, reality, cultural dichotomies, and the past. Gorfinkel also likened her to Andy Warhol and Jack Smith (an acclaimed underground filmmaker), and mentioned her work with George Romero (known for his iconic zombie films).
The screening was attended mainly by younger students, most of whom were involved with UWM’s art or film programs. There were also several teachers in attendance. The art and film departments had been trying to get Ahwesh to UWM for quite some time, as she claimed to have a connection to the city.
“Milwaukee’s very important to me,” she said during the opening of her presentation. She then described the positive reception among students and the overall underground community her films received here. “That helped launch my sensibilities, in a way,” she said. “It was a very, very important moment for me as a filmmaker.”
The films shown during Ahwesh’s presentation were Bethlehem, Martina’s Playhouse, The Third Body, The Deadman, Collections, and Beirut Outtakes. The longest of the films, The Deadman, clocked in at only 39 minutes in length. That said, each film had a great deal of content. The first that was shown (after taking care of a few technical issues that had tampered with the projector) was Bethlehem, an 8-minute barrage of ambiguous, vaguely troubling imagery, such as a girl with badly bruised legs and a man blankly watching an optical illusion on a computer screen.
From then on, the entire screening was a ride through several wildly different stories and storytelling methods. Martina’s Playhouse is a 20-minute story of a young girl and her performance-artist mother. The Third Body is a short retelling of Adam and Eve centering on the concept of virtual reality. The Deadman – arguably the most controversial of her collection – tells the story of a young woman’s sexual misadventure fueled by her despair over losing her partner. The two that followed, Collections and Beirut Outtakes, are a compilation of photographs of artwork taken in museums and a compilation of forgotten film clips discovered in Lebanon, respectively.
Though her films may have appeared jarring to most people, most of the students in attendance were not surprised at what they saw. “I’m familiar with her work,” said film graduate student Matt Rossoni. “It was exactly what I expected. I enjoyed the Beirut Outtakes quite a bit. I also really liked The Deadman.”
After the screening, Ahwesh offered a Q-and-A session to discuss her films. During this time, more about her past was revealed through discussing Martina’s Playhouse.
“That’s a movie that got me in a lot of trouble,” Ahwesh said. “And it was freaky.” The film depicts a young girl named Martina and her mother – a performance artist – who were friends of hers; Martina was nude in several shots, and there was one particularly bizarre scene that showed her and her mother engaging in role-reversal, with Martina as the mother and vice-versa.
“I got in trouble when that aired on TV in San Francisco,” said Ahwesh. “There was an investigation by the District Attorney’s office. They decided it was disgusting, but not illegal.” Ahwesh went on to describe how this reinforced her “underground” mentality, saying “there’s a point, a threshold, for me, I should not pass.”
Her two compilation films, Collections and Beirut Outtakes, also seemed to strike a chord with the crowd, with many pointing out the almost frenzied shifting from image to image and film-to-film. Collections represented themes of being bombarded with culture, and how that ends up reducing its value.
“Those are all images that I shot,” Ahwesh said. “So I got in the habit of going around museums. There’s just this quality of overload that I’m thinking of, and the leveling of value.”
Beirut Outtakes, on the other hand, deals with Orientalism and the stark contrast between cultures and time periods. “They just spliced it together, without even looking at it,” Ahwesh said. “I had it for 15 years. There’s a lot of distilled information in those movies.”
Through it all, Ahwesh seems comfortable with her unique place in film. “I guess we’re all living in the past, then, and thinking about the future,” she said. “Revisiting [the films] is interesting.”