The Ranging Gaze of Deborah Stratman’s Experimental Films


Probing the elusive terrain where technology, disruptive phenomena, and the contradictory human impulses for order and chaos meet (and often collide), the films of audiovisual poet/essayist Deborah Stratman set off alarms both literal and figurative. Curated into three thematically distinct programs, “Forces and Gazes” highlights the artist’s signature juxtapositions of everyday banality with haunting, evocative images and sounds. In the first batch, quick, careful cutting gives a nondescript upstate New York bungalow metaphysical gravity in The Magician’s House (2007), while its centerpiece, From Hetty to Nancy (1997), achieves an eerie whimsy. Blasé, whinging voiceover courtesy of the titular English tourist’s letters home from Iceland drones over shots of the island’s harsh landscape, as its hearty inhabitants nonchalantly go about their business, and periodic first-person intertitle crawls detail disasters far worse than the narrator’s leaky tent.

Closer to home but no less ominous, the second program includes a historical audit of comet fear that plays like Armageddon reinterpreted as historical fever dream (. . . These Blazeing Starrs!, 2011) and the harrowing, longer-form showstopper In Order Not to Be Here (2002). This disquisition on American surveillance—and the illusion of control it fosters—is bookended by infrared chase footage, with the climactic chunk orchestrated by Stratman herself. It leaves little doubt that the sci-fi dystopias cooked up over the past couple of centuries have unequivocally come to pass and, incredibly, has a happy ending.

The final program delves more fully into the politics of place and features a loving ode to Chicago’s South Side (Shrimp Chicken Fish, 2010), as well as the series’ weakest (Energy Country, 2003) and strongest (Kuyenda N’kubvina, 2010) entries.

Cumulatively, “Forces and Gazes” reveals Stratman’s vision as a deceptively complex, hyper-distilled alchemy of rigor and spontaneity. The pointedly repetitious Village, Silenced (2011) repurposes scenes from a 1943 reenactment of a Nazi invasion as a précis of oppression, while the moving and beautifully edited Kuyenda provides (among other things) an object lesson in how popular culture transcends social boundaries even as it’s inevitably defanged as the amount of money involved piles up. Shot in a relatively straightforward style in destitute Malawi, Kuyenda is as close as Stratman gets to documentary, and it puts most docs to shame. This uncanny versatility is bolstered by a mastery of sonic punctuation suitable for mainstream horror (albeit with a formal control that genre typically lacks), resulting in a rapturously cinematic body of work that coaxes us into seeing—and hearing—the familiar in invigorating, uncomfortable new ways.