Tonsler Park ★★ review

by Jamie Brown

Tonsler Park plays in LFF’s Experimenta strand, which is essentially the festival’s modern art selection. Though the content is unpredictable and requires an open mind, even the most sympathetic to such material might struggle to get through all 80 minutes of Kevin Everson’s Tonsler Park.

Tonsler Park; dir: Kevin Jerome Everson; Festival strand: Experimenta; USA 2017, 80 mins

Shot entirely in grainy 16mm monochrome and set on US election day in November 2016 (yes, THAT day), the film consists mostly of extended static shots of election staff doing their work at various polling stations in Charlottesville, VA. As the camera stays in place, its view of the subject is frequently obscured by a voter visiting their desk, meaning that the audience spends a while staring at the back of a jacket or hoodie before the subject reappears. Roughly every ten minutes, Everson cuts to a new worker, and the process is repeated. The soundtrack is indiscernible hubbub, the conversations taking place inside the polling station all colliding with each other.

That’s really about it. At this point, the audience is going to be split into those that will call ‘emperor’s new clothes‘ vs those that talk ‘intellectual space‘. There’s certainly a lot of the latter to fill, but since the ‘action’ exists on the fringes of something so monumental, maybe that isn’t such a challenge. For a start, the subjects are all African-American. Black staff diligently processing white Trump votes is a certainly a thought-provoking image. How about if we imagine the same scenes in the previous election, with the same African-Americans helping to facilitate an Obama victory? How about the strange quirk of fate in the director’s choice of venue? The staff can all be seen wearing lanyards that say ‘Charlottesville’ on them; recent events there would seem to lend Tonsler Park a whole new resonance, changing the impact for the viewer. (The film’s director and I, it should be noted, did not agree on this point during the Q&A.)

The only time the film comes close to making a comment on what you are seeing is at the two bookends, where an election official can be seen having to take a strange, presidential-style oath to play their part in facilitating the process honestly; perhaps suggesting America’s commitment to vacuous public statements about its democracy runs right to the core.

There are a number of things you could occupy your headspace with to get you through Tonsler Park, but you will be reliant on that. Some might see the time and place for the setting of this film as false advertising. Aren’t we just waiting expectantly for two voters to bicker (or worse) about Hillary Clinton’s emails? Aren’t we worried that a Trump-supporting loose cannon is going to come in and deliver some racist tirade towards the staff? Surely we’ll at least get a partisan voter in a crazy costume to break up the boredom? Spoiler alert: it’s not gonna happen.

Perhaps the real question is: do you really need to spend 80 minutes staring at people’s backs to think about this stuff?

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