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.

Alchemy 2019: Notes from a weekend away

This year I finally made it to the Scottish Borders town of Hawick for Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival. I had been hearing about Alchemy for years, as it build a reputation for its fresh and knowledgeable programming, and for staging a distinctive event using the official and hidden infrastructures of the town. Due to the festival’s interest in artists’ moving image, video installation and mixed-media projections in unconventional sites are an integral part of the programme. This, along with the premiere of Phil Collins’ feature documentary Ceremony, persuaded me to get on the train and bus to the Borders during a weekend on the cusp of summer.

Dudendance, Out of the Wild

Dudendance, Out of the Wild

According to the website 147 works were screened over five days. I was there for two, and spent some time answering emails from coffeeshops and climbing the somewhat underwhelming motte, so I only saw a fraction of them. Enough to get a sense of how special this festival is. The variety of venues is certainly an attraction: shopfront venues up and down the high street, in the museum, the archive, and of course the very well equipped arts centre. The festival is a visible presence in the town, without commandeering it. The programme shows a serious labour of research, curation, and presentation, sourcing films that would hardly be available elsewhere. I didn’t like them all – but that’s irrelevant. They give me something to think with and some time to do it. Experimental films, especially those that draw attention to the surface of the image, and to the flow of time, are devices to untether the mind from its obsession with yesterday’s petty failures and tomorrow’s little problems. They make time for something else – sometimes more abstract, sometimes more visceral.

The first film I watched, in the superb auditorium of the Heritage Hub, was Tondal’s Vision. This is a highly stylised reinterpretation of a single-reel early silent film, stretched to feature length. In its fascination with patina and decay it is in the tradition of Bill Morrison, but it departs more radically from the existing footage. Slowed down to an extent that is either meditative or exasperating, depending on how much coffee you’ve had, the footage is looped, mirrored, repeated, and reframed. The filmmaker hijacks the film’s tableau aesthetics, dwelling on the contortions of condemned souls in a nightmarish circular journey. The sticky, flattening effect on the emulsion had its moments. At its best, it abstracted the figures until their movement, the articulation of their joints, was all that mattered. This modernist strategy was intensified in the segments of blank lead film, dirty and scratched and tinted with rainbow colours. I found myself thinking I would like to freeze the frame and paint my room in those colours, or have a t-shirt made; this is how decorative this film is. The catalogue says the technique used to unpick the nitrate figures from their backgrounds is called mordancage, a word I had never heard and which has led me to a very pleasant ten minutes of internet browsing. I was taken with the neon colours, pushing the boundaries of the spectrum, and found myself disappointed to learn the colourising had been achieved digitally. Not because I necessarily hold on to the romance of celluloid, but because I had hoped that these colours were accidental discoveries, rather than design choices.

No such disappointment with Esther Urlus, whose 16mm works were shown a bit later. There she was, as full of light and mischief as her films, with red hair to match, standing by the emergency exit just in case. Each film was a genuine experiment; I could imagine the filmmaker in the dark room, trying this or that chemical bath, strips of celluloid running through her fingers. I tried to imagine the artist-run film lab in Rotterdam where this was made. I watched the impossibly flat landscapes of Idyll or Red Mill and wonder what it is like to grow up without mountains. She told us of a homebrew emulsion she used for the somewhat hermetic Konrad and Kurfurst, a historical tale told against the grain. The approach to sound was as uncompromising as the images. Like Tondal’s Dream, some of the films here – particulary Elli – used flicker and rapid reversals to produce physical discomfort. This was a formal strategy that reappeared in several other films, but here it was used in small doses to greater effect.

An example of a more all-encompassing take on flicker was Take It Down, a short included in a programme addressing memory and history. I really wanted to like it, as it played with documentary footage of the movement to remove statues glorifying racists from American university campuses, and of local reaction. The decolonisation of universities and public spaces is an important struggle. Unfortunately, this film’s formal strategies felt unjustified, and this diluted its political stance. The relentless flicker and solarisation of the little Confederate ceremony at the start did not counteract the fact that the audience gets to listen to their arguments for a solid few minutes. The film platforms these white supremacists and, rather than confronting them, just makes them painful to watch. This is not critique – this is the ‘enough rope’ argument that has made Farage a constant presence in the supposedly liberal BBC. The second part of the film, with the visual removal of the monuments, was less jarring but more disquieting. The postcard images of the sites were improved by the removal of the offending statue, but this seemed to absolve the very institutions standing right behind them of their blame. Yes, of course the statues of confederate warriors should be taken down from the front of the court house, but let’s not pretend that black people are not going to still be imprisoned much more than whites. The pretty colours added here were less distancing than embellishing. I am not here doubting the anti-racist commitment or the intentions of the filmmakers, but acknowledging that it’s really hard to make sufficiently sharp socio-political critique through the medium of experimental cinema.

In the same programme, I liked Morwenna Kearsley’s string of reflections laid along a train journey I make often. But while I get off halfway, she goes all the way: To Perth, to those reflections on cultural memory that I always abandon as too complicated and unproductive. Her project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and in unpicking the thread of injustice that holds together the institutions of heritage, there was one bit that she didn’t pull: The connection of the Lever fortunes with forced labour and genocide in the Belgian Congo. (Disclosure: I was also funded by the Leverhulme Trust till last year.)

But it was the first film in that programme, the simplest, which held my attention. Armindo and the Dark Chamber (Tânia Dinis) was possibly my favourite film in the festival. Apart from two bookending sequences, it is simply a continuous shot of a metal band carrying old photographs one after the other, from right to left, and her voiceover. The writing is precise and well paced. As we looked at endless provincial children and weddings, she said that we strive to find ourselves ‘in other people’s faces, in other people’s houses’, a grasp for recognition. That ease of recognition was poignant for me, because it necessitates colonialism. I can recognise myself in those Portuguese provincial middling classes because my whiteness is like theirs and it’s the same Catholicism that produces the rituals to be photographed and that makes grandmothers look like one another.

Another film that builds on a romance of analogue media is That Cloud Never Left, but its documentary lyricism is harder to pin down. I was intrigued by this, a collaborative work that doesn’t stop to explain its process. In an Indian village, people make toys out of scrapped 35mm film. Young men build a platform and a giant version of their rose-tinted cellophane lens. The red filter is also the blood moon. On television, spellbinding animations explain the lunar eclipse, awaited by the town. I am fascinated, as always, by making, craft, tools: the curved knife to peel fruit, the handsaw to cut clay. I am drawn to re-use, and this, like so many places in the global south, is a scavenging place. The staged elements get in the way of my ethnographic desire to see and understand the ‘authentic’ way of life of the village’s inhabitants, which is a way to say I didn’t enjoy them but think that’s as it should be. At the end, we tried to Skype with the director, but we couldn’t hear her, which was a much better outcome.

On paper, Phil Collins’ Ceremony is a similar type of film: Video documentation of an intervention, a process carried out with a collective. In intention and execution, it is the opposite: prosaic where That Cloud is lyrical, expositive where the other is more cryptic. This comparison is not intended as a value judgement, though I did think that there was too much Momentum-style certainty to Ceremony. In short, Collins orchestrated a public outdoor event during Manchester International Festival, the centrepiece of which was a statue of Friedrich Engels brought by road from the Ukraine. The journey is the best part of the film, as people in Eastern European towns half-recognise Engels with a mix of Ostalgie and mistrust. That ambiguity is diluted in the celebratory and celebrity-led street party. That is understandable: this is not a time for subtleties. On the other hand, it is not a time for Great Men From History either.

Image from What does she see when she shuts her eyes (Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff)

Image from What does she see when she shuts her eyes (Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff)

There were, by the way, several special programmes, all of women filmmakers (eat your heart out, Cannes). And lots of individual works by women. Before getting the bus back out of town, I stood in a low-ceilinged room at the back of an empty shop, watching as a rocky, snowy path stretched across two screens facing each other. Sequences of words swirled towards and away from the viewer, simple sentences announced by a tinkling of tiny bells or beads. It was joyous and cold, the playfulness of the WordArt defiant amongst the sharp edges of the rock. The words were about dogs and desires for a good life. Simple, mundane things; a simple, small setup. The work is called ‘What does she see when she shuts her eyes’ and it is a collaboration between Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff, but also a kind of memorial to Ott, who died recently. The information sheet says the rocky paths are Icelandic lava tubes. Somehow, in this austere room, in the intimate words moving between the two projectors, I feel hopeful.