What Distinguishes the Past (2020)

Ben Russell

What Distinguishes the Past Ben Russell France/USAS16mm > digital4 min2020

The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.

 – Stephen Hawking

Featuring a soundtrack melted out of a Cyndi Lauper CD, here is an attempt to find a way through the everywhere fog of 2020. Filmed between the Carpathian Mountains, Vilnius punk clubs, and Belarusian Independence Day celebrations, this is an overgrown path, a ghost-poem, a companion piece to Jonathan Schwartz’s For Them Ending (2006)—and a memorial for Jonathan completed two years after his death. 

Swallowed up in the sky, the sound sustained by echo, always fading. The nature of a season, moving forward with growth or death or growth. Or I was wondering how to make New England fall colours linger so if you couldn’t visit soon the yellow, oranges, and reds would still be waiting for you. – Jonathan Schwartz

The weed was almost swept away;

it struggled with its leaves,

lifting them fringed with heavy drops.

A few drops fell upon my face

and in my eyes, so I could see

(or, in that black place, thought I saw)

that each drop contained a light,

a small, illuminated scene;

the weed-deflected stream was made

itself of racing images. – Elizabeth Bishop, “The Weed” 

Streaming Details

This film is available to stream globally.

Program Partners

This film is co-presented with Movimcat.

Image credits: all artworks, stills, and portraits courtesy of the artist © Ben Russell.

about the artist

Ben Russell (France/USA) is a multi-disciplinary artist, filmmaker, and curator born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1976. He works in avant-garde cinema, live performance, installation, painting, photography, and other media. His formal investigations into the historical and conceptual relationships between early cinema, visual anthropology, and structuralist filmmaking have resulted in immersive experiences concerned at once with ritual, communal spectatorship, and the pursuit of a “psychedelic ethnography.” He received a BA in Semiotics from Brown University (1998) before joining the Peace Corps. He completed an MFA in Film and Video from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2003). Russell has made 30+ short and feature-length films, which have been widely exhibited at festivals, museums and galleries internationally, including Centre Pompidou, Tate Modern, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Sundance Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, FIDMarseille, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, Kunsthalle Darmstadt, Seoul Museum of Art, Wexner Center for the Arts, LUMA Foundation, Close-Up Film Centre, Toronto International Film Festival, Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, LUX, New York Film Festival, Museum of Modern Art, Northwest Film Center, mumok, REDCAT, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Vdrome, Open City Documentary Film Festival, Viennale, Documenta Madrid, a 14th-century Belgian monastery, a police station basement, and a 17th-century East Indian Trading Company building. He is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades, including Grand Prize, Media City Film Festival (2011); a Guggenheim Fellowship (2008); and Princess Grace Awards and grants (2002, 2010, 2019). His third feature Good Luck (2017) was voted Best Experimental Film by the National Society of Film Critics (2017). It premiered at Locarno Film Festival and was exhibited as an installation at documenta 14. Writing about his practice has appeared in Artforum, Cinema Scope, Slant Magazine, Film Comment, Mubi, and Filmmaker Magazine. His work is in private and public collections, including The Museum of Modern Art. He lives and works in Marseille, France.

Artist interview