Watching Lester Alfonso volley ideas flying around the room during the Media Arts Peterborough potluck at Artspace is like watching championship table tennis. High and low ideas for M.A.P.’s open source film project are coming from the crowd, with themes that range from zombies to a daughter’s journey to find the father she never knew. Alfonso has not shot down a single one of them – he somehow finds a way to fit it in to a larger concept. He puts out the call – does anyone want to be cameraman? Any musicians out there who want to write a score for the video? He pulls us all in. He’s a teacher, he’s a juggler. I knew he was an accomplished filmmaker, but I didn’t know that he was also a talented community animator.
Media Arts Peterborough is Alfonso’s vision of an open studio film co-operative, designed to provide the tools, skill-sharing and content for a community of first time as well as professional filmmakers, sound designers, cameramen and scriptwriters – “locally grown open source media.” As artist in residence at Artspace in 2013 he opened the doors of its Media Lab to M.A.P. members and spurred the creation of some releases that will be screened at this year’s ReFrame Film Festival including What Is Art? and Bring ’em Back! (The Saga of John Greyson and Tarek Loubani).
Last summer Alfonso and I drove out to Dorothy Caldwell’s studio to gather footage for What Is Art?, a film he has worked on for several years and which is still evolving into a larger multi-part work. It has roots in the Artspace community, which welcomed him when he first landed in Peterborough. He never met local arts legend David Bierk, he says, but considers him a kind of spiritual guide and inspiration. He tells me he had interviewed Caldwell, one of the founders of Artspace, several years earlier and has footage of her answering the What Is Art? question. He wants to see if she remembers her response and if her answer has changed. He asks if he can film me driving the car as part of the journey, and just like that, I’ve become part of his movie.
As a video projection artist, Alfonso has used local architecture as a canvas for Artsweek, Market Hall and Blue Tomato, created light effects for theatrical productions such as Wisakedjak, and taken up the technical challenge of mapping film imagery onto moving circular surfaces in a dance performance with hoopsters Tegan Moss and Opal Jennifer Elchuk. The productions brandish a touch of Man Ray and some good old-fashioned psychedelics; it looks improvised but his timing and design are skilled and artful. He’s also a performer in his own right: Chapter Nowhere was created and staged by Alfonso for Public Energy in 2010. It’s part video ad lib, part storytelling, part confessional.
His film work reminds me a little of Ross McElwee‘s work – his own story shines through his films. In Trying to be Some Kind of Hero and Twelve he examines the world through the prism of memory and a childhood in the Philippines, looking for clues to his own identity through traces of the past, his own as well as those of friends and family. His editing has style and rhythm, and his choice of soundtracks, often drawn from local talent, highlights his musicality. It’s no surprise he was awarded Best New Movie Maker at the Optic-Nerve Film Festival and won the National Film Board of Canada’s 2008 Reel Diversity Competition.
On Wednesday afternoons at 5 pm Alfonso takes to the airwaves with his own homegrown radio show Ukebox on Trent Radio, where he shares his love of the ukulele and opens our ears to its soulful potential – everything from Les Mis covers to electronica.
If Peterborough had an official videographer, I think it could be Alfonso. He captures the heart of our arts community so well because he is part of it. On the wall of his uncluttered live/work studio are several John Climenhage paintings, and a grid of post-it notes over the desk where he does his editing, reminding him of all the people and ideas he wants to incorporate, philosophical concepts, word cues. You can find him almost anywhere on the spectrum of linear or non-linear, potent storyteller or abstract artist. He calls himself a local anthropologist, a collage artist, a composer of symphonic media. A photo of him dancing with abandon in a field of day lilies says it best – he believes in the power of spreading happiness, and that kindness given, received or witnessed changes our minds and the world for the better. We are all connected in Lester Alfonso’s cosmology and I’m glad to be part of it.
Trailer for What Is Art? Produced in part by ARTSPACE Media Lab with generous help from the Ontario Arts Council.
Video mapping on Market Hall, produced by Public Energy
Director / Concept: Lester Alfonso; 3D Animation: Scott Guy; Assistant: Sarah Hamilton; Dancer: Bill Coleman
This City Has Wings Winner of “Best Cinematography” at the Millbrook International 3 Minute Film Festival. Shot and edited by Lester Alfonso. Music by Red Hunter and Jonas Bonnetta.