Kris Rothstein's Blog

VIFF 2018: The Proposal

Kris Rothstein

The Proposal is a documentary film by the American artist Jill Magid. It springs from her explorations of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán. I was familiar with the story from a 2016 article in The New Yorker. Otherwise I would probably never have heard of the architect, even though he is considered to be widely influential. The reason for his relative anonymity is that access to his work, and the reproduction of any image of any of his work, including photographs of buildings he designed, is controlled and massively restricted by the owners of a Swiss furniture company who purchased his archive and with it, his copyright.

Barragán designed colourful, modernist buildings. He advocated for architecture which held emotional expression, specifically serenity and to that end was meticulous in planning his use of light as well as natural materials like stone and wood. When he died, a friend sold his archive abroad.

Magid became aware of Barragán’s work while showing her own art in Mexico. She became intrigued by his work, and delving into his aesthetic and creations became the focus of her next project. She was invited to stay at the artist’s former home in order to respond to his life and creations. When she requested access to his massive archive in Switzerland she did not foresee that it would be the beginning of struggle so complex that it would shape the very nature of her artistic practice.

The film is powerful and intense. It has a strangely deep emotional impact, despite its removed and even clinical repose. Magid is always calm and thoughtful, never losing her cool, even when all her requests are rebuffed. The construction and execution of shots contain the serenity that Barragán himself espoused. The subject matter is inherently fraught and fascinating, but the film itself is just as compelling as the story. The story is revealed subtly and develops slowly and organically. Magid develops an ingenious conceptual project which is strange and beautiful, news-worthy and is also a genuine plea to have the Barragán archive made accessible to the Mexican people and the world. She also makes a daring film, which is always skirting the edge of violating draconian copyright laws and seems to put herself at a high degree of risk of being sued every time she films a Barragán structure.

Despite the equilibrium of Magid’s approach, some aspects of the story go beyond nuance. No matter how Magid frames her correspondence and interactions with Federica Zanco, the Swiss woman who controls the archive, Zanco comes across as a megalomaniac and a selfish monster who wants to keep the artist locked in a basement (her literal underground bunker archive which no one else can enter) all to herself.

The wonderful and heartening inevitability though, is that the evil can’t win in this case. By being thoughtful and creative, Magid found a scheme that would only lead to her goal - which is that Barragán would once again enter the public discourse. With the family's permission, she disinters his ashes and has some of the carbon turned into a diamond, which she offers to Zanco. In so doing, Magid started an intense discussion (observe the footage of highly-contentious TV debates) about power and capitalism, who should have access to art and information and how we can protect the public interest.

Showing on Thursday, October 4, 2018 at 11:15 AM at Vancity Theatre and Tuesday, October 9, 2018 at 6:15 PM at International Village 8.



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