Now entering its 63rd year, The Flaherty has long enjoyed its position at the frontiers of independent and experimental cinema. Nine years ago, the Flaherty NYC film series was conceived with the warm hope of connecting audiences to new understandings of the human condition through challenging and innovative film. Tasked with upholding this tradition is Ruth Somalo, programmer of the upcoming Winter/Spring 2017 series, “Broken Senses.”

Having grown up in Spain, Ruth has travelled the world making films and is the founder and director of production company Horns and Tails. She recently completed a year as a visiting research fellow at NYU, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. After moving to New York eight years ago, Ruth was enchanted by what she saw at the Flaherty Seminar – an annual “magical retreat” where artists explore the potential of the moving image – and cites this as the “biggest teaching tool for curating.”

Embracing the freedom granted to her by The Flaherty, Ruth conceptualized “Broken Senses” as an immersive multisensory experience, and a means to explore the often dysfunctional nature of humanity. Over six nights, the program will exhibit a slate of international artists whose works span several decades, delving into personal histories with both humor and melancholy. POV sat down with Ruth to discuss the ideas behind the series.

Engaging the Senses
Central to “Broken Senses” is the phenomenon of synaesthesia – a neurological condition arising from the interconnectivity of the brain’s sensory pathways. Those with the condition may smell sounds, see tastes, or hear colors, for example. For Ruth, investigating the relationships between the senses allows you to “free yourself from the strict narrative,” and doing so creates a unique, physical engagement with a given film, she explained. “Some experiences live in the mind, and some experiences live in the body. I wanted to figure out if one could access films through experiences that happen in the body, but also give them the right space and connections so that things will also happen in the mind.”

Through exploring these associations, “Broken Senses” seeks to offer alternate perspectives on the issues at hand. “I think all of the artists [featured in the program] are very subversive. They take their discourse to another location, and that location is the body. The body does all of these things we never talk about…For example, the fluids in the body have long been taboo, death is taboo. Talking about issues through corporeal experiences…gives us a common language and starts a conversation in different terms.”

Evoking “sense memories” — sensory associations that we have to particular events in life — is a goal of the program, and through its achievement audience members will be immersed in the cinematic experience. “I may have no idea how the filmmaker felt during their experience, and they have no idea about who I am. But somehow, through a given film, we both absolutely connect in sharing something meaningful that has to do with both of us,” Ruth said. “This is magic.”

Accepting Brokenness
To Ruth, synaesthesia stands as a symbol of the ‘abnormal,’ and she questions such categorizations. “Who is to say what is broken and what is functioning? Synaesthesia was thought to be a confusion in the brain, whereby people were confusing memories with actual experiences, and it’s not…Maybe the possibility of numbers having a colour, or sounds having a smell, actually opens a window to a different way of thinking.”

“Talking about something not working ‘properly’ is way more useful and interesting than talking about something as if it were perfect.” The “open-hearted” films featured in “Broken Senses” embrace dysfunction, and Ruth sees this as the path to a greater understanding of ‘the other.’ “The idea of something in perfect harmony, working like a machine, is not human. There are always catastrophic events happening in our lives at any given time, as well as in our bodies. It’s part of living. This idea of the perfectly functioning…has been used in the past to oppress all kinds of different people – women, people with disabilities, people of different races, and so on.”

A crucial starting point for Ruth in building “Broken Senses” was Jorge Leon’s Before We Go (2014) (screening as part of ‘Tracing Touch,’ on Tuesday, March 14th). A blend of fiction and documentary, the film is a delicate exploration of pain and fragility in which three terminally ill people visit La Monnaie opera house in Brussels. Greeted there by dancers, musicians and choreographers, the three guests dance with them and together dive into the terror that lies at the end of life. For Ruth the film was a profoundly moving “embodied experience…it broke me down and stayed with me for two years,” she said. “It puts things in perspective. ‘Them’ is us. There is no other.” By falling into the physical experience of a film, Ruth believes that the audience member can engage with their own emotions — a first step toward understanding others.

Experiments in Programming
Since its inception, The Flaherty has championed experimentation, and the upcoming series proudly holds onto this philosophy. Ruth sees many of the chosen films as “experiments in humanness,” in that they often, almost scientifically, investigate the embodiment of emotion. Clint Enns’ Let Me ASMR You (2014) (screening as part of “Synesthetic Memory”, January 31st), for example, is in itself an experiment. The film attempts to elicit an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) in the viewer – the feeling of shivers running down one’s spine. With a program full of innovative works like this, Ruth is continuing Flaherty’s hope of discovery ‘beyond known limits’ – “we have a word in Spanish,” she said with a smile, “mojarse, it means to get wet. And that’s it – you have to get wet… you have to get your hands dirty. There has to be things at stake.” For Ruth and for all of the filmmakers with work in the series, “there is much at stake, and you can feel it.”

Emotion and instinct were the main drivers behind the choices for “Broken Senses” – “I felt something when I saw these films…My intuition was that they needed to be seen together, that they make sense together, and that they’re relevant in the context of today.” Above all, Ruth’s hope for the series is “that it gives people something…that they feel compelled to create something, compelled to act. That’s what good film and good art is about – making you feel as if somebody has given you a gift, and what you do with it is up to you.”

The Flaherty NYC Winter/Spring 2017 “Broken Senses” program runs every other Tuesday night at 7pm, from January 17th to March 28th at Anthology Film Archives. Some filmmakers will be present for discussion at the end of each event.

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Cameron Nicoll is a writer and filmmaker living in Brooklyn, New York.