Beside ourselves

In anxious times people tend to become more inward-looking. That’s when I need cinema the most, to nudge me off the boring orbit of my self. A few films I watched over the last week or so, at the newly-minted Sands Film Festival and the always exciting Glasgow Short Film Festival, helped with that. I thought it would be worth sharing a few notes on here to justify my continuing to pay for web hosting, if nothing more. Here’s what I watched:

  • Most of the (Im)material worlds programme, a collaborative curatorial project instigated by Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn (Chulalongkorn University) and Philippa Lovatt (University of St Andrews) with Emma Dove and Tina Fiske (CAMPLE LINE) and Kitty Anderson and David Upton (LUX Scotland), and which played at the Sands International Film Festival of St Andrews in March 2022, and also online.
  • A couple of screenings in Glasgow Short Film Festival, though I’ll mainly be talking about the one that wasn’t a short film – Theo Anthony’s All light, everywhere (2021)

One obvious way in which cinema can move beyond the self is by gathering bits of experience from other perspectives. Moreover, cinema can do this through other means of perception beyond those available to a human body. Maeve Brennan’s Listening in the dark (2018) makes this point through the history of scientific attempts to understand bats. Microphones and pitch-shifters are needed to hear, see, and record bats’ sounds, and to discover echolocation as a new form of sensing that can be redeployed by humans through technical means. I learn from the film that insects have also done this, evolving varied sensory organs to detect and avoid bats.

Theo Anthony’s All light, everywhere is an interesting counterpoint to this, looking at the history of camera-based visual surveillance. Janssen’s revolver and Marey’s photographic gun starts with natural curiosity, about the transit of Venus and the flight of birds, and is quickly appropriated for artillery targeting. But precision is not always the goal of the militarised image; it is also a rhetorical device and an extension of power. The guy from Axon, the company that makes both Tasers and police bodycams, explains that the cameras should retain some of the limitations of the human eye and perspective. This is, in particular, the police officer’s perspective. The camera is not there to record ‘what happened’ but how the officer may have perceived it. Another guy tries to present an alternative, a bird’s eye view that he claims would be more neutral. But only some kinds of action in some kinds of places are visible to an aerial camera, and only some people in certain positions can choose to use recorded images to defend themselves or incarcerate others.

There is a great pull to use image-making as a tool for social control. Both the anthropocentric technologies of facial recognition (from eugenicist physiognomy to AI) and the seemingly detached perspectives of cartography and geo-sensing appeal to a scientific materialism that is supposedly neutral. Neutrality is not a path to justice. Neither is solipsistic subjectivism, however. Thinking critically about the colonial lineage of technologies of sound and vision can also mean a recognition of the ways they open up non-human perspectives. Perhaps technologies are not entirely predetermined by their histories. Arguably, the whole trajectory of decolonial moving image practice is embroiled in this dialectic.

In Shireen Seno’s film, there are photos of trees, with humans for scale. White men. Scientists again, observing, measuring, collecting the Filipino flora. “Photographs as a catalogue of the resources of the colony”, as Seno puts it, as concise a statement about colonial image-making practices as you’ll get anywhere. There are also photos of women, not white, with potted plants (perhaps for company, Seno speculates). These are harder to read and more demanding. One goes back to Édouard Glissant and opacity as anticolonial resistance. To become unrepresentable in order to become ungovernable. In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Vapour, opacity is literal; fog fills the frame and the figures appear and disappear as they go about their toil. Perhaps you’d want to use sound to orientate yourself in this shifting cloud, but there is no soundtrack. Ethereal as this may seem, people are working or going around on motorbikes; this is an earthly landscape. Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa’s Promised Lands skewers the kind of mystifying, exoticist encounter with landscape that sometimes informs liberal ecocinema. Her on-screen words speak back to the voiceover, sternly rejecting its poetic flights. NO. I REPEAT NO. NO TO YOUR EMPTY SPECTACLE.

Alia Syed uses a similar anti-spectacular strategy, fixed long takes with voiceover, on Meta Incognita: Missive II. The language of colonial exploration and resource extraction from an old captain’s log is flipped on its head once transposed into a dystopian future. It’s an incomplete story that demands an imaginative effort, while the slow changes in light and tide challenge the viewer’s attention. The archival underlayer and geographic coordinates invoke a documentary principle, an external referent that might or might not fill the gaps of the incomplete fable. Emilia Beatriz’s many-layered tale of two islands separated by a whole ocean, but linked by their resistance to becoming mere military target practice, also goes to the archive and to the future. As the multiple screens connect Vieques (off Puerto Rico) and Garvie (off Scotland), their anticolonial resonances necessarily oscillate between historical and speculative registers. The land itself can tell human time: this is how much peat you’d use in a year, this is ten years, or forty. A moving scar that slowly heals, if done properly. A few days earlier I had watched a BBC documentary about another Scottish island, contaminated with anthrax by the British army in the 1940s. By the end of this unseasonably warm week, the island was on fire.

These fires are apparently fine, though. It just looks cool.

I don’t know what good it may do to watch films while there are fires everywhere. In their introduction to a dossier on the work of some Southeast Asian filmmakers, Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn and Philippa Lovatt invoke animism “as a way to acknowledge a different mode of ontology and cosmology, a way of being in the world where humans are not superior or centred” (2021). Without necessarily ascribing any single spiritual hypothesis to these very different films, they do share this decentring, made possible by cinema’s means of perception. Their perspective is subjective but not human-subjective; they are films of and about the world, of which people are a mostly perplexed, often careless, sometimes disastrous part.

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