Seattle turns surreal in AKTIONSART’s “13 Chambers”

A still of Ellen Xu’s short film which was part of the anthology “13 Chambers.” (Screenshot via Smarthouse Creative.)

One film. Thirteen segments. Thirteen female Seattle-area directors. One dilapidated, abandoned building, scheduled for demolition.

Those add up to “13 Chambers,”a collection of horror and surrealist shorts produced by Smarthouse Creative in collaboration with arts collective AKTIONSART. The shorts are available now on Amazon Prime Video.

Each segment was filmed in a dilapidated building in South Lake Union that was set for demolition. The directors involved include Jessica Aceti, Megumi Shauna Arai, Lindy Boustedt, Claire Buss, Giselle Bustillos, Nancy Chang, Dayna Hanson, Kat Larson, Amanda Manitach, Wynter Rhys, Serrah Russell, Norma Jean Straw and Ellen Xu.

They were not required to reference the building in a direct manner, visually or otherwise, in their films. The directors took a wide variety of approaches, some emphasizing the horror angle, some the surrealist. Some use dialogue. Many don’t.

Julia Fryett at AKTIONSART invited director Ellen Xu to the “13 Chambers” project. Xu’s segment, titled with a circle, is the only one which does not bear a title in English.

Her story is a non-linear exposition involving a dog, a woman’s face, screens within screens, and sensual surrealist imagery.

The deepest horror is not about fantasy, but about reality, she said.

“’Horror’ or ‘uncanny’ is not just something spooky made up and pushed in your face; the deepest horror to me is when you recognize who you really are,” Xu said.

Her imagery explores various emotions, which are not necessarily just human emotions.

“The fear of death, the desire for food and sex, etc.” she said. “What is reincarnation and repetition? I believe that no matter our background, hiding inside us is a common ‘thing.’ This ‘core’ is not only shared between people, but also between people and animals, between people and nature.”

Xu made her film with borrowed equipment and on a very limited budget of a few hundred dollars. Her time was limited too, all the films were made over the course of a weekend in the dilapidated building that AKTIONSART was allowed to use for the project.

Xu said it was a good backdrop for her surreal vision.

“The old Seattle building is a real place, but in some way or somehow, it felt to me unreal, fantastical, illusory,” Xu said. “There, you are faced with both fantasy and reality and struggle to differentiate between what is real and what isn’t.”

“I am curious to see the interplay between the ‘real’ and the ‘fictional’ through shifting perspectives. I wanted to displace and discombobulate the viewer, to place them in my head and give them a first-hand experience of this process.”

Xu, who grew up in Hulunbuir in Inner Mongolia, said while she is not following a linear narrative, her background influences what she puts on screen.

“It’s hard to extricate my identity from my work, as it provides some of the context to my work, though it’s typically not a focal point of the work itself. For example, I’m often unsure whether I really like red or whether I’ve just seen the color red so much in China that it’s influenced me this way,” she said.

“In my family,” she adds, “sex is seen as dirty and unspeakable. The idea of sexual identity is not questioned. I often hear my family discuss dismissively about their friend’s children being over 25 and unmarried. This environment that I grew up in created a lot of the conflict and contradiction in my work. On one hand I want to clearly express the subject, yet on the other hand I am ashamed by the dirtiness of the idea. I guess this is the reason: my work often falls between revealing and concealing. When I use geoduck as a material, its wrinkly, soft and voluptuous form attracts me. I use this process of art-making as a means of accepting my sexual identity.”

Xu came to Seattle in 2014 to attend the graduate program in photomedia at the University of Washington. She graduated from UW in 2016. She also has a dual degree from Xiamen University.

Xu’s influences include David Lynch (“The Grandmother,” “The Elephant Man,” “Mulholland Drive”), Akira Kurosawa (“Rashomon,” “Seven Samurai,” “Dreams”) and the “Cremaster” cycle of films from Matthew Barney.

“These movies have always amazed me, as the directors seem to have a mysterious ability to hide their techniques in plain sight, leaving only an immersive feeling behind,” she said.

The star dog of Xu’s film turns out to be her own dog, named “little cat.”

Little cat has come almost as far as her owner — Xu found the puppy by the side of a Beijing road.

She “still hadn’t opened her eyes and had been abandoned,” Xu said.

“Maybe out of compassion, pity, or curiosity and love, but without any preparation, I started to take care of the dog. I brought her with me to the US, and during the past four years, no matter what changes came to my life, the only thing that didn’t change is her,” she said.

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