Director: Gijs Besseling
Writers: Isa Goldschmeding & Tim Sabel
Maintaining that ‘constructive’ thread throughout Indy Film Library’s output is important. Because the majority of festivals won’t tell you why they rejected your film (however much the submission fee was), we are one of the only ways independent filmmakers can get impartial feedback on their work.
Admittedly, though, there are times where I find that impossible. It is difficult to find the energy to advise a director on how to improve their work when you do not feel they value the time or opinions of anyone watching. More specifically, I have a history of losing my rag with meandering filler-content labelled as ‘experimental’.
The genre is a victim of its own success in this regard. Experimental film is about breaking down boundaries, of exploring new formats and finding different ways to communicate via audio-visual arts. As such, it is hard to argue that something is or isn’t an experimental film – let alone whether it is a good or bad example of one. So hacks from around the world have unfortunately converged on the genre, in the knowledge that even if their hodgepodge collection of snippets from disparate, failed projects and grainy home video is excruciatingly tedious, they can find an excuse for it.
After all, you bring, like, your own interpretation to this. So, if you don’t like what you see, isn’t that kind of your fault?
A sizeable portion of Perceived Reality teeters on the brink of this contemptuous sub-genre. Some lengthy segments of the film are taken up by grainy home movies from the early 2000s. Others seem devoted to off-cuts from a particularly dour episode of Limmy’s Show. One of those scenes sees several grown adults head to a concrete-clad youth centre, before being intimidated by a skateboarding child dressed as a bat. Another sees the whole gang marching down a darkened corridor toward the camera, again and again and again, to ominous music – each dreary repetition bringing the viewer closer to some kind of delirious, cackling breakdown.
Throughout these seemingly endless sequences, it is hard not to feel as though you are the butt of a joke. I wonder how long we can get this pretentious bastard to watch an ‘experimental’ film before he realises this is just utter nonsense?
I don’t think ‘contemptible waste of time’ is where I come down on Perceived Reality in the end, though. There is a lot here which I could have done without seeing. But there are two segments which stand out as suggesting there is something here that was once worth pursuing.
The first is literally the first half of the film. It is an enclosed story, unfolding silently in the shadowy apartment of a young woman who becomes obsessed with social media. Is it anything new as a story? Not really. But its execution features a number of stylish and well-executed quirks that would make it a worthy standalone short.
The story follows a violinist, played by Isa Goldschmeding (credited as one of the film’s writers). When she realises her performances are gaining an audience via live-streaming, her personality increasingly comes to revolve around a persona she has curated for the camera. As she becomes more intoxicated with this fame, she drifts further from her true self, and from the talent that made her famous in the first place. Then in the middle of a final performance, as Goldschmeding plays her violin, an audience member walks between her and the lens. In the moment in which our line of sight is broken, the violin’s bow disappears, leaving her to mime playing with an empty hand. The number of followers then starts to fall dramatically.
Thematically, it’s a clever way of examining the way modern life has polluted our passions. A hobby was once a way of relaxing and escaping from the horrors of the working day – now it is a way to monetise our spare time. There is no room to enjoy anything for its own sake, only to make it about accruing clout and profit. And in doing that, we often alienate ourselves from what made that activity special in the first place. Some cunning cinematic trickery enhances that aspect of the story, and rewards us for our patience in a way the rest of the film never bothers to.
Then, there’s the all-too-brief animated sequence. A child, speaking what we are told is a made-up language, takes us on a journey through the underworld. It is a charming piece of filmmaking, reminiscent of a side-scrolling platform game, but when it ends, that charm only serves to underline how difficult it is to tolerate the rest of Perceived Reality’s second half. The cute visuals and warm electronic ambience of the music deserve to be a film in their own right.
In the end, then, I don’t think this film is a cynical attempt to sling out tired old footage as an ‘experimental’ film. Rather, it is an important lesson to be learned for aspiring filmmakers. While it could have focused on delivering one idea really well – either its conventional silent story about a musician, or its strange and imaginative walk through the underworld – it is not ruthless enough to throw out many, many more dead-end ideas it would have done better without.