Naomi Uman was inspired to travel to Albania by the writings of the British anthropologist Edith Durham, who documented the nation’s remote highlands and its folk history throughout the early 1900s. It was there that Uman made three sparks (2023), her latest community-oriented documentary. The film takes the form of a lopsided triptych. The first chapter, Jumping into the Clouds, sets the stage, linking Uman to the land to which she’ll devote most of the film. She considers its mythical origins in tandem with revelations about her own tragic first contact with the nation’s unforgiving mountains. Here, the camera is always spinning as Uman recounts her harrowing experiences, occasionally seizing upon images of nature that offer a respite from the unspooling chaos. The film settles down its second leg, Free Until Dawn, a poetic account of ritual that takes up the majority of the runtime. The film’s final chapter, Xixa, is a self-reflexive segment mostly filmed on a camcorder by a group of rambunctious children. Each segment of three sparks differs from the last, as each fold in its structure enacts a humble gesture of revolt, collapsing dissimilar voices, experiences, and aesthetics into a quicksilver vision of collective being.
It is Uman’s custom to film over extended periods of time and produce compendious volumes of work. When she traveled to Ukraine in 2005, she ended up staying ten years, during which she made a series of short films collected as The Ukrainian Time Machine (2008). Uman dwells among people whose lives are at once foreign and familiar to her. From their interactions she stitches together perspicacious treatises on the everyday. In three sparks, snapshots of trifling events—children rolling down hills, women harvesting potatoes, flowers flitting in the wind—pack a poetic punch eschewed by most direct documentaries in their devotion to the newsworthy moment and the soundbite.
In a recent interview with The Creative Independent, Uman describes herself as a “vulnerable observer,” like a child soaking in their surroundings. From the amount of time Uman spends among kids in three sparks—chasing frogs, dancing, and testing the durability of her camera by having children jostle it—it would seem she shares the same tendencies of anarchy and curiosity that drive most unbridled youngsters. She, like them, is still learning about the world, and her camera is the sketchbook upon which she records her impressions of it. Indeed, the use of intertitles—which include her own observations alongside historical anecdotes—gives her film the feeling of a book, an assemblage of pages sourced from her own trek through the highlands.
three sparks screens tonight, May 5, at DCTV Firehouse Cinema as part of Prismatic Ground 2023.