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IFFR 2023 Tiger Competition

Review: three sparks


- In her latest effort, Naomi Uman initially crafts a peculiar “motion-picture book” followed by far less powerful observational sequences

Review: three sparks

New York-based, Mexican visual artist Naomi Uman’s three sparks [+see also:
film profile
is one of the titles taking part in the Tiger Competition of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam. It is a cinematic curio that is difficult to define, combining several original ideas in its first part with significantly less effective directorial choices in the second.

Even though three sparks is officially divided into three parts – titled Jumping into the Clouds, Free Until Dawn and Xixa – we can identify two main aesthetic components characterising this feature. For about an hour, Uman deliberately elicits the feeling that we are browsing the pages of a special “motion-picture book”. She does not refrain from using numerous intertitles, often accompanied by parallel translations in the Albanian language, adding page numbers and dividing the chapters on screen. The text is interspersed with 16 mm shots wherein ambient sound is barely perceptible and the Albanian folk music-based score gains prominence. In these shots, there is little camera work, the colours are usually paler, and sometimes images are slowed down or repeated, creating peculiar phenakistoscope- or GIF-like loops. Some of these scenes are clearly staged, whilst others feel authentic or, at least, rather natural.

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In this first part, we realise that the director initially went to Albania to make a film about the relationship between people living in the countryside and their dogs, and after the tragic demise of her own beloved Kvasol, she came back as she found out that the physical place where her pet had died was built on a foundation myth involving the sacrifice of a beloved being. Somehow, this discovery pushed Uman to go back to Albania to complete her work. In this first part, the helmer does not hide her personal takes or creativity throughout, though it is mainly informative and stands up to anthropological scrutiny. Specifically, we learn that Northern Albanian villagers still follow the rules set out by the Kanun, an archaic set of customary laws based on the principles of honour regulating family life, gender norms and socially acceptable behaviour. For example, women who do not wish to marry may be allowed to live as men, inherit property, smoke and drink, and sterile couples may adopt the child of one of their relatives and bring them up as their own.

All in all, this “motion-picture book” choice is fascinating, even though it may become harder and harder to follow as time passes. It also creates some distance from the subjects, who all seem to be part of the book’s “illustrations”.

After an hour, Uman transforms her work into an observational documentary, and she begins filming her subjects and Rabdisht (the village she has been living in and documenting through her camera work) from a closer distance and through the lens of a modern, digital camera. Such a switch ultimately proves to be too sudden and overly forced. Most of the shots depict her subjects involved in menial activities or interacting with her or her camera, but all of them look a bit too “impromptu”, leading three sparks to a dead end.

three sparks is a Mexican-Albanian production by Naomi Uman. Lisbon-based sales agent Kino Rebelde is in charge of its world sales.

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