Reviewed by Avant-Garde Film Index

I Am the Hand of Death by Chris Gervais seeks to eulogize – visually and aurally – three people who died violent, untimely deaths in their cement plant workplace.  Knowing little about the details of the event beyond what the film exposes, I am struck by the melancholia and also the resilience that define each of the segments about the victims and those they left behind.  Ultimately, the film is a fascinating study in how much a viewer can glean simply from the context and clues the filmmaker chooses to reveal.

The tension between whether we are watching stills or stillness is engaging.  The film starts with a camera scanning down a still image of an extreme long shot of a cement plant building, which reads majestically, like a NASA rocket preparing to launch into a brilliant blue sky.  We know, however, that it is a still because the puffs of smoke from the smokestack are static.  The editing demonstrates that Gervais has a good sense of timing and pacing, allowing the footage to breathe, letting the haunting score do a lot of the heavy lifting.

The central concern of the film is how to do justice to the three lives lost?  How to account for the lack of them?  A calculus emerges, the filmmaker interrogating each victim’s – presumably – home spaces in different and meaningful formal conceits.  The first segment is for Allison Moore, age 29.  Punctuated by ambient nature sounds, the film at this moment tries to catch up with Moore – almost as if we keep missing her as we move from room to room.  We begin with a lovely little tableau of a pair of jeans left to dry in the sun on a backyard laundry line, the pants balanced by a planter of succulents in the extreme right foreground of the frame (an optical illusion of sorts, visually playing with scale); the breeze moving through the trees periodically threatens to overexpose the image in a pleasing way.  We then cut to a series of domestic still lifes:  a ceramic sink of dirty dishes, a coffee pot flashing 12:00 on its digital clock while two cutlets left to defrost next to it slowly spoil, an unmade bed, laundry spilling out of an open dryer, etc., a sequence that ends on a long shot of a forlorn little cat staring out of the backdoor from the kitchen.

I Am the Hand of Death (Chris Gervais, 2020)

Justin Voisine, 31, is the subject of the second segment.  After the intertitle introducing him, we see a large red paper heart taped to a door; a reverse shot situates us in a child’s nursery.  Voisine clearly is missed by more than a solitary pet – a toddler and partner dominate now.  Electronic music plays as the two figures navigate their new lives without their loved one.  We eventually move from the nursery to the exterior of the home, where we see the woman and child sitting on the front stoop.  In what is perhaps the only significant camera movement in a film comprising mainly static images, we follow the boy as he toddles down the sidewalk and away from his mother.  The boy walks back in the reverse static shot, wandering off and then on the frame again, single-minded in his purpose to return to his mother – an elegant game of peekaboo that at once delights and distresses.

The final segment is Douglas Pelletier’s, 62.  A young man wearing a baseball cap (Pelletier’s grown son?) enters from the right to play the drum set in the center of the frame.  We then cut to a beauty of a shot – a disorienting sideview of a deer head trophy hanging on the wall.  All the while, the drums play on as we cut to different images of the home, inside and out.  Like a visual refrain, though, we keep returning to the drummer until this segment abruptly ends – the young man not allowed to finish.

I Am the Hand of Death (Chris Gervais, 2020)

The remainder of the film aptly feels like an intrusion; we want to return to the spaces we have lost and avoid the weight of reality, the past.  The edits speed up, the images of “evidence” – shell casings next to rulers, blood on a cement floor, a gun, the cement plant strewn with markers indicating where bullets presumably hit victims, blood pooling around cobblestones, handwritten reflections from the suspect, still photos from the crime scene of people upset, bodies living and dead – mount up and are shocking, sobering.  The sense-making contemporary newscast that the film’s soundtrack ends on is the final injustice, the human need to rationalize away violence – something that happens to others and not to us – a destructive force itself.  More honest and kind, perhaps, to recognize the senselessness of it all.

Reviewed by Avant-Garde Film Index

Most noticeable about The Zebra and the Fly (2020) is the nice use of sound, starting, as the film does, on black leader: instrumental music punctuated by abrupt moments of silence, clips of recorded audio messages, and (what feels like) scripted voiceover. The agitation of the subsequent sequence – overexposed footage from a moving camera of houses, blue sky – coalesces to black again, before cutting to a muddy black-and-white still image of what looks to be first responders investigating a school bus without its bus; a dreadful sight. The visuals soften to seemingly innocuous tableaux of twilit woods, deserted back roads, voided locales, which contrast with the intensity of the voiceover content – the breeze moving through the natural world the only clue that, while the camera is static, the image is not. Most striking, at about 3:57, an empty and somewhat rundown baseball diamond.  Like a bizarre inspirational calendar – the imagetrack is inviting, almost soothing, while the soundtrack details sadness, anger, confusion. The film dances around the tragedy, never actually fully clarifying the details, a complicated kind of suspense enveloping the viewer, especially as the audio reveals a disgust for town outsiders who, agog, can’t fully comprehend the town’s pain. There is a compelling edit around the 9:06 mark, when the filmmaker cuts from a tended graveyard hugging the right side of the screen to a classic red brick building (presumably a school) occupying the left side of the screen – as if the school and the graveyard interlock, share space. Ultimately, a film that communicates the messiness and unfolding of grief, hope always tinged by hurt, calm by discomfort.

The Zebra and the Fly (Chris Gervais, 2020)

A second round of updating on the initial sample is long overdue. But, like most people out there, I have more projects on the go than time.

So Avant-Garde Film Index is seeking to partner with an instructor (or instructors) in the 2020-21 academic year who is teaching avant-garde film and is on the hunt for an applied-learning opportunity (as a graded assignment) to offer their students.

I would ideally want to start with the initial sample of films/filmmakers. Your students would become editors, responsible for: authoring text about their chosen films/filmmakers (from the initial sample), updating existing links, and sourcing new materials to link to, etc. You and your students would, of course, be credited on site pages for all work; and your students would have online publications to point to in professional documents (resumes, cover letters) upon completion. I handle all the hosting fees, so there are no costs to you or your students; and I make no money on this website, so can offer no financial compensation.

If you are an instructor (TA, TT, and adjunct faculty are all welcome!) and are interested in this opportunity, please contact me at avantgardefilmindex AT Many thanks! And I look forward to hearing from you.

The Avant-Garde Film Index is an ongoing project, supported by a Carnegie-Whitney Grant from the American Library Association.  Phase I of the project is now complete and available for use.  What you will find here is a framework, based on an initial sample of films and filmmakers, that can and will be expanded upon in the coming years.  Liza Palmer, the author, invites you to read the About page to learn more about the methodology used to compile the sample, as well as the plan for expansion and updates.

For now, the site can be searched by keyword, or browsed by films and filmmakers.  On the Films pages, you will discover links to entries from the Canyon Cinema Catalog and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative Catalog, which provide relevant synopses, as well as production details for the films. On the Filmmakers pages, you will find references to articles and archival collections related to the filmmaker and his/her films, as well as links to entries from the Canyon Cinema Catalog and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative Catalog, which provide artist statements and overviews.  Neither section is comprehensive but is rather based on the initial sample arrived at by Palmer’s methodology for inclusion.  This will change as the index expands; but for posterity’s sake, Palmer has linked to the Excel spreadsheet of the initial sample on the About page.

The Links page is an ever-growing list of recommended resources for additional research, and represents the institutions and organizations that Palmer seeks to highlight with her index.  Indexed Works is a bibliography of the resources that have, so far, been indexed in these pages.

Please do not hesitate to get in touch with Palmer, via the Contact page, if you have suggestions for films and filmmakers to add to the index or if you wish to be involved in the project.  She welcomes your feedback and input!

Finally, Phase II of the project will be announced in fall 2012 — a call for original entries on the films and filmmakers included in the initial sample.  For this to be a truly useful resource, it must belong to many and be reflective of differing perspectives and approaches.

Thanks for stopping by!