Experimental New York cinema might bring to mind Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas or Maya Deren but whatever your fancy it has the power to stimulate and draw out admiration, contemplation and so much more in the viewer. It diversely tests and breaks traditional aspects of filmmaking thus allowing the director to break free from narrative and to focus creative efforts on the statement being made. ‘STABAT MATER’ and ‘COUSCOUS’ by New York-based Italian Marina Sagona adroitly pay homage to her artistry and explore themes of family, memory and almost overbearing sentiments of longing and loss.
In ‘STABAT MATER’, a project perhaps bewilderedly named after a 13th-century hymn portraying the suffering of Jesus Christ’s mother during his crucifixion, we are teased with the reveal of a striking nude painting superimposed with a text we see repeating 15 times. The first line appears to be acting as a censor for what is within the open legs on either side. Why would we censor this woman, and what is this straight line actually going to turn into as the text becomes legible? I wonder as a viewer if the religious naming is reflective of these opening frames and where this is going.
The following individual 18 second frames slowly progress to reveal the entirety of the text which we soon recognise as a translation of the chattering we hear between a man and a child. The text itself masterfully brings the viewers attention to the background dialogue fading out as the joyous yet sorrowful sound of the musical composition of the Stabat Mater by Giovanni Pergolesi emcompasses our senses. Sagona describes the nude, a portrait of the artist herself painted by her former husband as “a powerful testimony of my biographical circumstances of the time.”
The glaring religious significance of the films title and the auditory chorus commissioned to Pergolesi by the brotherhood of Our Lady of Sorrows clash superbly with the aesthetic yet graphic nude figure who, whilst slouching informally on a sofa, screams of discomfort, pain and suffering. It is private, personal and yet undeniably relatable all at the same time and also arresting in its simple repetition. The pain Sagona is clearly dealing with is all over her face, only made more evident with the slow panning from the painting as the text fades away into an indiscernible size.
Sagona’s ‘COUSCOUS’ is an auditory journey with stunning and equally stylish vintage footage exploring the director’s own history and cultural and geographic legacy, spanning Libya and Italy. Sagona hails from a Maltese family who settled in Tripoli in the 1700s during the Ottoman Empire, only to be forced to flee after Muammar al-Gaddafi’s coup d’etat.
The split-screen film shows an emotional and linguistic decoding of a seemingly simple recipe for couscous which is actually describing and conjuring up the nostalgic family footage which evokes the smells, sounds and recollections of a life left behind. The musical voiceover and images expertly highlight the director’s expertise in visual media and is a true testament to one family’s unique and poignant story. ‘COUSCOUS’ makes me long for a simpler time which might be mere fiction and makes me envious as my family name Smith doesn’t hold quite nearly as much intrigue. Through both films I felt the director’s intentions, struggles and desire to tell a story. Experimental film may not speak to everyone, but for those who are willing to work hard at reading dissonant sounds and images, the end is worthwhile.