This series of events organised by the Pavilion visual arts project based in Leeds was screening at the Hyde Park Picture House and a small venue in the Grand Theatre complex in New Briggate. At the invitation of the Pavilion Herb Shellenberger [from Philadelphia but now resident in London] curated an ambitious programme of films by artists; some film-makers but some artists first. Will Rose introducing the opening event admitted that the programme was larger than originally envisaged. There were seven separate screenings with 33 separate films ranging in length from 4 minutes to well over an hour. In his introduction Herb explained that artists based in Yorkshire were contributing but that their art works would be placed ‘in dialogue with work from international artists.
The opening event on a Friday evening saw the Picture House screening two 35mm prints: ‘Bliss it was in that [even] to be alive’. And better still the main feature was one of the outstanding masterworks from the French film-maker, photographer, writer, traveler and eccentric, Chris Marker. Marker died in 2012 after a life full of quirky artistic work. He was a collaborator with Alain Resnais and a friend and colleague of the recently deceased Agnes Varda. These two shared a love of cats. All three were part of the ‘left bank group’ ; a key but overlooked movement within the nouvelle vague. Their films were more experimental, more political and more distinctive than the famous ‘new wave’ films. Marker himself is known for works described as ‘essay films’ and this title is a good example of that approach. Not exactly documentary but addressing the actual world Wikipedia defines [informal] written essays as characterised by:
“the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humour, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme,”
Much of this will be found in the Marker film. As well as his personal involvement in so much of the production of the film Marker also appears in slightly fictionalised versions of himself.
The film’s written component is a series of letters read [in parts] with comments by an unidentified female character. The letters are from a cameraman visiting a variety of places: Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco. The last includes locations used in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly regarded Vertigo (1958), a film that has pre-occupied Marker for years. He remarks that he has seen the film nineteen times; I am not sure if I have ever seen a film that many times, but it could be Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925 USSR). I actually did the same homage to the Vertigo with a French guide and Marker fan.
The largest part of Sans Soleil are the sequences from Japan and from Guinea-Bissau / Cape Verde; societies that Marker suggests are
“two extreme poles of survival.”
This is illustrated in the film. Marker also notes the political context with archive footage of the African Liberation struggle and one charismatic leader, Amilcar Cabral.
The original French version of Sans Soleil opens with the following quotation by Jean Racine
“L’éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps.”
(The distance between the countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of the time).
Marker shot the film on a 16mm camera in colour and standard European widescreen. There is found footage and stills/freeze frame in colour and black and white academy. And some of the film is synthesised by a colleague. He recorded the soundtrack in asynchronous manner, thus the sound does not always match the imagery. So this is ‘montage’ in the full sense of the word. The screening presented the original French language version in a 35mm print in good condition.
Sans Soleil was preceded by a short five minute film, also on 35mm. This was Black by Anouk De Clercq (Belgium, 2015). This was the only print of this art work which by now was showing signs of wear and tear. The sub-titles noted this suggesting the film picked up on a point early in the Marker film where the film-maker addresses the use of black leader. I did wonder if either film-maker had the Soviet artist Kazemir Valedich in mind.
The second screening I attended was titled ‘The Gentle Touch’ and presented five titles featuring:
“Stone, flesh, blood or electric circuit, feet on the ground versus data in the cloud. From automaton to avatar, artists reflect on the tension between our own individual, physical bodies and the animated, virtual body.” (Curator’s Notes)
Three of the regional film-makers attended and spoke about their work after the screening.
The first title was The Love of Statues (2019) by Peter Samson, based in Doncaster. This was a combination of film, found footage and archive stills. Shot partly in Paris at the museum of the Salpetriere Asylum containing a bevy of C19th objects. It was shot in black and white and partly in widescreen and partly in academy ratio. Peter explained that he had worked on the material several time over the years and this was the most recent version. He had to edit together materials in different ratios. The theme at the asylum was hypnosis and hysteria but the visual theme of this title was bodies in relation to both statues and automaton. It had an eerie feeling and much of the film was in chiaroscuro.
Self-digitalisation (2015) by James Thompson ran for nine minutes in colour and widescreen. This was in a single long shot of a picture gallery at Hospitalfield House where Thomson was on an artist residency. The film aimed to ‘re-interpret’ the room and objects as a young man took a series of digital self-portraits, ‘selfies’. These were done at speed in an arch manner. If we were meant to look at the art through these it failed for me; and as a satirical take on the ‘selfie’ it needed more angles or positions.
Dog’s Dialogue / Colloque de chiens (France 1977) was a 22 minute ‘photo-roman’ by Raúl Ruiz, screened from a colour 35mm print. The English sub-titles were projected digitally. A ‘photo-roman’ uses a series of still shots to offer some sort of narrative. This one was unconventional as it included moving images, both of the titular dogs and, later, of a location. The various dogs, mainly tied up and barking, were some sort of metaphor. The humans in the story proper went through a cycle of events that
“consists of news items collected in magazines. A melodramatic pseudo-detective thread woven round imagery from women’s magazines.” (Institut Français).
In what seemed to be a homage to the photo-roman’s founder, Chris Marker, at one point a ‘still image’ turned into a brief moment of movement.
This film was typical of Ruiz’s work in France, where he was an exile after the coup in his native Chile. His work was literary, ironic, sardonic and experimental. It was also, as with this title, always engaging.
Another film on 35mm with digital subtitles was Au Père Lachaise (France 1986) a thirteen minute title by Jean-Daniel & Pierre-Marie Goulet. This is a Municipal cemetery in Paris, apparently the most visited in the world It is the earlier example of as ‘garden cemetery’. Many famous people lie there, notably Oscar Wilde. And the Institut Français offered a quotation from another famous inmate, Honoré de Balzac.
“It’s all of Paris but seen through the looking glass, a microscopic Paris reduced to the dimensions of shadows, larvae, death, a human race that has nothing more than vanity’”
The vanity is obvious in some of the monumental graves, similar to those found in London’s Highgate cemetery. However, the film was more interested in the space, arrangement and foliage; something that disappointed at least one viewer.
The film used a series of tracking shots, interspersed with long shots to close-ups; reminiscent of the style of Alain Resnais. To its credit the film did end with an note about 147 people associated with the cemetery; the heroes and heroine so f the Paris Commune, executed nearby and commentated by a simple plaque.
The Turning of the Helmet (2018) by Rhian Cooke, an artist currently involved in the Yorkshire Sculpture International. The film ran 3 minutes in colour and 16:9, [television funding]. The opening of the film used animation techniques playing with ceramics and textiles to offer a sense of the helmet. The later stage expanded into actual cinematography to present a pill box which was an inspiration for work with a helmet. This was well done but [for me as is often the way with very personal experimental film] I did not really engage with the thematics.
I had a similar problem with Soft Body Goal (Finland, 2010) a four minute title by Jaako Pallsasvuo. This combined digital animation and dubbed sound with a bevy of bodies;
“Body without bone. Sloppy and improper. Body seepage. Naked sewer rats. Hairless aristocratic cats. Slime …. the body of the future ….”
However, the techniques used were impressive.
We almost did not see the final title, Ice Cream. This was a 1970 16mm film copied onto a digital format; I suspect there were compatibility problems because we had three false starts. However, the film repaid the wait. The director, Antoni Padrós, was an underground Catalan film-maker. Born during the Spanish Civil War most of his career was spent under the Francoist dictatorship. His film work was subversive, iconic and iconoclastic. This title featured two young people, explicit sex and the titular ice cream. It clearly subverted and made fun of the repressive values and censorship of the times. One could almost imagine a Franco stooge banning ice creams for a period.
I felt that the older European titles had political as well as aesthetic stances. Whereas the more recent British titles were far more personal and did not have overt political themes: They were also apparently more preoccupied with aesthetics. The former are closer to the key film of the programme, Sans Soleil, which combined politics and aesthetic in a complexly cinematic manner.
A third programme was ‘Sail the Summer Winds’. I was unclear regarding the overall programme title: sea-scapes seen a common feature.
The opening film was A Mysterious Devotion (1973), written and directed by Alf Bowers & Andy Birtles. They were fellow students at what was then Sheffield Polytechnic. This institution funded the filming. The completion and editing was done by Bowers whilst a student at the new National Film School.
Herb Shellenberger in his written introduction commented;
“Alf Bowers A Mysterious Devotion evidences several decades of wildly creative and experimental film-making in Yorkshire. The ambitious 16mm cinemascope film [in black and white] is an oblique narrative following several members of a family as they experience and process a traumatic death. There is no dialogue but the camera stalks its actors around the house and at the seaside, at times claustrophobically close and others in wide shots at the sea.”
Alf Bowers and answered questions after the screening. He noted that the film was based on ideas that were in
“the heads of the protagonists … things that could have happened.”
He suggested the only event that was certainly actual was the death of the father at the opening of the film. And the plotting followed the proposal by Jean-Luc Godard,
“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
The film was shot in a house in Sheffield and at Flamborough Head. The anamorphic lens used was a projection model, which made the camerawork extremely difficult, The film used filters for one shot and high speed cinematography for two sequence. The film stock used was Kodak Plus-X, [also used on Schindler’s List ( 1993). This produced a high-contrast image. However, whilst there is a 16mm print available the film was screened from a digital copy. There was apparently a technical reason for this. However, the digital copy did not really do justice to the high-contrast imagery: most of the film was reasonable but there were two sequences, including the end credits, where the images was not distinct enough. This was the first screening of the film for about 20 years so it is a shame we did not see a pristine version . It remains a powerful and impressive short film, running 47 minutes.
The Eraser / Keshigomu (Japan, 1977) by Shūji Terayama. This was a 20 minute film on 16mm in colour and academy. The setting is a seashore and we see several characters posing here and in an interior. But the image is overlaid by video filter patterns. And a hand appears frequently using the technique to erase part of the image. As Herb Shellenberger commented,
“a unique conceptual work that is difficult to define.”
Alaska (Germany 1969) by film-maker Dore O who co-founded the Hamburger Filmmacher Cooperative. In black and white and colour the film shared a technique with The Eraser: in this example polka dots cover and obscure a range of subjects, animals, people, settings. The film also has a distinctive sound track using musical instruments, machine noise and recorded sound. Herb Shellenberger’s comment is similar though:
“a film that resists all interpretations.”
All three films demonstrated film-makers working with unconventional and experimental techniques.
I was able to catch three of the seven programmes so my sense of the overall was limited. However, this was an impressive collection of artistic films, many of them rare, especially in theatrical presentations. It is good that The Pavilion and the Hyde Park Picture House were prepared to be so adventurous. The largest audience was for Sans Soleil, the best known work in the weekend. Other audiences were smaller but we are dealing with avant-garde work. It is nice to know that an audience exists for this less commercial but influential area of cinema.
This was an afternoon event of screenings and discussion of the work of a film/sound artist organised by The Pavilion together with Leeds Black Film Club. Trevor was a founder member of the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982. This collective produced a series of pioneering and experimental media products and films. Their work reflected what can be called ‘black consciousness’ in the 1980s. Their work was sited in the broader context of colonialism, the diaspora and movements of rebellion. Their productions worked through visual and aural poetry to present challenging representations around these themes.
Trevor Mathison worked on the soundtracks for their productions. He used performed music, noise and invented sounds to produce tracks that worked with the poetry of the visual material. He also worked as sound engineer on Isaac Julien’s Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1995) and on Pratibha Parmar’s Sari Red (1988), screened at an earlier Pavilion event.
The first screening was a work which was originally a two-part tape/slide presentations which had been transferred to digital, Expeditions: Signs of Empire and Images of Nationality (1983–84), These were the first works produced by the collective when they moved to Hackney from Portsmouth where they had studied at the Polytechnic. The two part video exemplified the poetic style that Black Audio developed and presented their key themes: representations around “race”, colonialism and empire, oppression and racism, and assertive consciousness. Each work ran for 25 minutes. The first part opened with Wagnerian strains and then developed a mixture of images and sounds. The second part concluded with the Congo and a voice-over with lines from Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.
Following this Trevor offered some comments and answered questions from the audience. He explained some of the process of production. The main source of images were various monuments around London, and specifically the Victoria and Albert Memorial. They used slide film and the transparencies were worked on and words were imprinted using Letraset. Trevor remembered the collective spread round a long table of materials and gels with the everybody working on the artefacts. The soundtrack was produced with similar techniques, However Trevor worked alone here, (partly from preference). And he recorded and re-recorded the various sounds. What was impressive was that he was using both reel-to-reel and cassette tapes yet the quality on the re-mastered digital version was excellent.
Each part was composed of four carousels, operating in tandem, each containing 80 slides. One technical problem was transferring carousels. But Trevor also thought that the ‘dissolves’ between slides were especially effective because of the slow pace of changes. Much of the music was from the collections of the members and they also investigated the material in a local bookshop.
At one point he used the phrase ‘the ghost in the machine’, a regular motif in Black Audio’s work. He suggested that the work involved stories of ancestors and their ‘ghosts’ Asked about the title of the event Trevor did not exactly explain this but did refer to the effective romanticisms of ‘soul’.
An early presentation of the work was at the Rio Cinema in Dalston. But the collective also travelled widely with the presentation, including to the USA. The approach of the collective was that the content and message were their responsibility and this involved for them alternative narratives. . They expected audiences to treat this critically.
The second work was Twilight City produced for Channel 4 in 1989. The video film ran 52 minutes in colour and with both voice-overs and interviews. The starting point was London after ten years of Conservative rule. So the film spoke to the present of 1989 but Will Rose (who introduced the event) suggested that it also spoke to the present of 2018.
The video started with a young Afro-Caribbean woman writing a letter to her mother who had returned to Dominique ten years earlier and was now thinking of returning to London. This was a neat conceit which enabled the young woman to retell London and its changes over the decade. At several points the film presented extracts from interviews with Afro-Caribbean activists. There was also footage of places and people including a Somali Centre in London and a Community Church. . There were recurring sequences, one of waves on the Thames: another of a car driving through the night-time streets of London, all light and shadows. There were photographs, engravings (Hogarth) and monuments, as in the earlier work. And there was older archive footage of wartime and the ‘Blitz’. All of these were paralleling and connecting with the voice-overs. The film ended with a night-time car drive and then a coastal shot with the sun rising over the ocean.
Trevor talked about the production of the piece. There was more division of roles and the end credits showed different functions including Reece Auguiste as director. He had produced the initial idea which was developed and then the collective obtained funding from Channel 4. At this time there was a scheme for publicly funded workshops agreed by Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians, Channel 4 and a number of public institutions including, until its demise in 1986, the Greater London County Council. Black Audio Film Collective, along with other groups such as Sankofa, benefited from this scheme.
In answer to questions Trevor said more about how he worked up the soundtracks. One example he gave was of dismantling a piano and using the sounding board to create particular noises. The narrative of a ‘returnee’ was invented but provided a focus for the narrative. And the film like the earlier works, combined poetry, symbolism and (amongst others) monuments around the city. One theme central to the work was ‘belonging’. He talked about one sequence that recurred several times of homeless sleepers at night. This was shot in the underpass across from Waterloo Station. And he saw rats there whilst they filmed. Now this was the site for the London IMAX, considerably changed.
The Black Audio Film Collective was wound up in 1998. Over its sixteen years it produced a range of works, including films and programmes aired on Channel 4. In 1988 the ICA published booklet on ‘Black Film British Cinema’. The Document profiled some of the workshop collectives including a discussion with members of the Black Audio Film Collective. They talk about their influences, centrally I noted Franz Fanon. They also mentioned influences on form and style, both Alexander Rodchenko, a Soviet pioneer of photo-montage, and, more recently, Henri Cartier Bresson. At the time they were also discussing a number of French intellectual, including Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser. These explained the interest that can be discerned in psycho-analysis and also a tendency, common in the 1980s, to use fairly complex theoretical language. Closer to home, an important influence was Stuart Hall, an important writer and theorist: he was far more accessible than the French theorists though with a tendency to reformism.
Referring to Expeditions Reece Auguiste commented;
“Expeditions (1983), which was our first cultural project, was a way of testing those ideas and trying to extend the power of the images and debates around colonial and post-colonial moment. In order to do that we had to articulate a particular language and vision of that moment.”
The ‘post-colonial, which I find anachronistic when we still have colonialism (just across the Irish Sea for one), is referenced in Expeditions by quotations from Homi Bhabha, a theorist in Cultural Studies.
Reece continued later on Expeditions;
“The way, for example, in which we would actually appropriate from English national fictions – like the Albert and Victoria Memorial – going back and really engaging with the archive of colonial memory. We were not only constructing a colonial narrative, but also critiquing what was seen as the colonial moment – critiquing what was seen as the discourse round empire.”
Twilight City followed later than the ICA profile. I found the work slightly hybrid in style. Much of the film used the visual and aural montage that was the bedrock of Black Audio’s work. But sited within this were a series of interviews. The early interviews were personal and concerned with memory. But later in the film they tended to be prescriptive around political issues. The montage work of the collective seemed to me to be rich in both denotations and connotations whereas some of these interviews were much closer to ‘realist’ documentary. There is something of the same dichotomy in their most famous work for Channel 4, Handsworth Songs (1987), addressing the riots/rebellion in Birmingham in 1985. This particular film occasioned strident debates including an angry attack by Salmon Rushdie in the letter page of the Guardian.
In answer to my question Trevor made the point that in their work for Channel 4 the collective had total editorial control. So I suspect that the use of more ‘realist’ forms was occasioned by the collectives sense of the medium and its audience. It should be noted that Channel 4 at this time was the radical edge of British television. It had a brief to present ‘new voices’, which it did very effectively. But once it settled in the predominant values of the British media gradually toned down its offering The workshop Ceddo had their film The People’s Account (1988) effectively banned by the IBA. The Derry Film & Video Workshop’s Mother Island suffered a similar fate, though that was later screened on Channel 4 with enforced cuts..
This was a fascinating and rewarding sessions. The Black Audio Film Collective work has been missing from screens for a long time and it amply pays revisiting. Trevor has a low-key and very affable manner: but he is also effective at drawing out the import and stance of the work.
The original collective consisted of seven people: John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Reece Auguiste, Trevor Mathison, Edward George and Claire Joseph. Joseph left in 1985 and was replaced by David Lawson.
In 1998 three of the members formed the new Smoking Dog Films: John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul and David Lawson. Trevor Mathison has worked on several of their projects as ‘sound designer’, a recently innovated term that describes his work more accurately.
One of these is The Stuart Hall Project (2013) presenting and celebrating one of their influential mentors. Unfortunately, whilst effective, the film follows the convention of television and reframes much of the Archive footage.
The Nine Muses (2010) is devised from an original exhibition work. It is a complex study of migration, structured around Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. It presents the visual and aural montage that typifies the work of both the Black Audio Film Collective and Smoking Dog Films. It is a brilliant but little seen art work and a key documentary in C21st British film.
John Akomfrah is one of the UK’s premier filmmakers and has been since Handsworth Songs, the documentary he directed as part of Black Audio Film Collective, won the John Grierson Award in 1987. It says something about British Cinema that much of his subsequent work has been for TV and that in the last few years he has become internationally known as a visual artist whose work is exhibited in galleries rather than cinemas. I managed to catch Vertigo Sea at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester just before its four-month run ended.
Vertigo Sea was first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It’s a three screen video installation lasting just over 48 minutes. At the Whitworth it was screened in a large exhibition space, suitably dark (but far too warm on a summer’s day) but with only three benches some distance from the screens. The large screens were placed almost next to each other in a straight line (i.e. not like the curved screens of cinerama). The ‘project’ was part-funded by the Arts Council and other agencies and ‘managed’ on tour by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Lisson Gallery in London and New York. Here’s the Arnolfini ‘trailer’ that gives a glimpse of how the installation appears in the gallery:
Black Audio Film Collective and its successor from 1998, Smoking Dogs Films, has been consistent in a focus on migration and memory and on an excavation of Black history and culture and in particular colonial and post-colonial narratives and representations. Smoking Dogs Films’ website introduces Vertigo Sea like this:
A meditation on the aquatic sublime, Vertigo Sea brings together a collection of oblique tales and histories that speak to the multiple significances of the ocean and mankind’s often troubling relationship with it. Touching upon migration, the history of slavery and colonisation, war and conflict and current ecological concerns it is a narrative on man and nature, on beauty, violence and on the precariousness of life.
The installation runs continuously and I arrived about two-thirds through the presentation. I then watched it all the way through so I ‘experienced’ it for around an hour. I would have liked to have watched it again but I don’t find galleries easy places in which to watch films. This is the big disadvantage of installations – if you have to travel 40 miles to visit them and there is no DVD to watch later. The three screens are utilised creatively, so although it appears that the same or similar material is showing on each screen, the viewer can’t be sure that there isn’t anything unique on a screen not being watched. What to do? Should you quickly scan all three screens, trying to keep all three in your field of vision – or focus on just one screen and watch the whole presentation three times, focusing on a different screen each time? Montage becomes a different concept with three screens and sometimes it feels as if the screens are bleeding into each other – while at other times the visual juxtaposition of one screen to its neighbour is striking.
The mixture of source material for Vertigo Sea is in line with John Akomfrah’s previous work. He is the great user and manipulator of archive material and here there are newsreel images and some beautiful footage from wildlife filming as well as some original images which echo aspects of The Nine Muses (2010). In that earlier film, lone figures stood in the snowy landscapes of Alaska. In Vertigo Sea, a range of figures, some historical, stand in landscapes of mountains and the sea in Skye, the Faroes and Norway. There are other elements including three archive photographs of Black males – a boy, a younger man, an old man. The black and white images with creases and scratches might be from the 19th century and I found them difficult to place. I also found them striking as just that morning I’d read a news report suggesting that new archaeological finds proved that the migration of people from Africa to Australia had taken place much earlier than previously thought – perhaps 60,000 years ago.
The starting point to the films is migration. In interviews Akomfrah has said that the initial idea came from a survival story about a Nigerian migrant who was thrown from a people smugglers’ boat but survived by clinging on to netting. The horror of ditching human ‘cargo’ in this way is then taken up with reference to the infamous treatment of slaves during the Atlantic trade – the Zong incident which became the subject of a court action in the UK in which the legal status of slaves was disputed. This case was featured in Amma Asante’s film Belle (UK 2013). In turn, this is then linked to the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America – the men and women (‘political prisoners’) flown over the sea and then ejected from the aircraft. This was exposed in Patricio Guzmán’s film The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015). Akomfrah provided me with a new link to the use of similar techniques by the French against FLN prisoners in Algeria in the 1950s. Why ‘Vertigo’? Is it the sense of plunging into the sea from a great height? The central connection in the film is between the jettisoned human cargo and the practice of whaling with its cruelty towards marine mammals – a link which is underlined by footage of carcases on the sea bed being devoured by scavengers and the bodies of slaves washed up on shore. There is a strong sense of an ecological discourse in this film. One of the most shocking archive sequences for me was the hunting of polar bears in the Arctic in which a bear is shot and skinned – and the carcase is just left on the ice. Inuit hunters would use most of that carcase and a rather different form of (white) migration in the 20th century disrupted the balance of people and wildlife in the region.
The sharp contrast between the beautiful images of natural landscapes and seascapes and the horror of slavery and whaling is stark and easily understood on a visceral level. In addition to images of migrations (and the loss of life), Akomfrah also forces us to think about the pollution of the sea by nuclear testing. Less easily accessible is the use of the stationary figures in landscapes and the arrangements of incongruous objects – clocks, bicycles, prams. Again, as in The Nine Muses, these images are complemented by readings – in this case from Melville (Moby Dick), Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation) and Virginia Woolf. Reading some of the reviews of Vertigo Sea, I realise that I missed some of the symbols in these sequences and I certainly didn’t make all the connections. I think another two or three viewings would be needed. The three films do also have soundtracks of music, sound effects and the readings mentioned above, plus the commentaries on the archive newsreel footage. I think that sometimes there are competing soundtracks on the three films, but again I wasn’t always sure which sounds went with which images. I think I remember the sounds of whales.
For convenience I’ve referred to John Akomfrah as the ‘author’ of Vertigo Sea, but really this is a Smoking Dogs production and John would always stress his commitment to collective production. Original Black Audio founders and Smoking Dogs partners Lina Gopaul and David Lawson plus sound designer and original Black Audio member Trevor Mathison all worked on Vertigo Sea and I was intrigued to see Ashitey Akomfrah down as Production Manager. The credits reveal a number of ‘Archive Consultants’ and archive sources but it would have been good to list the sources in more detail. Was that a feature film that included the sequence of the African slaves thrown into the sea?
I found Vertigo Sea to be disturbing, shocking, beautiful and provocative – so much so that I abandoned a planned trip to the cinema afterwards, feeling that I couldn’t cope with another narrative. But I didn’t appreciate the gallery setting. The benches were uncomfortable. I would have liked a cinema seat (to support my back and help my concentration) and I would have liked to get closer to the screens so that they filled my vision, but to do so by sitting on the floor would have interrupted the view of the others in the ‘audience’. I have heard John Akomfrah argue that film, television and installation work are different forms with their own conventions and I know too that there are reasons why working on installations makes economic sense given the state of contemporary film funding for production, distribution and exhibition. But couldn’t we at least get the chance to see this work via DVD? Vertigo Sea is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to a gallery near you and there are several other Smoking Dogs installations dealing with similar issues. Interviews with John Akomfrah and with John and Lina together are posted on YouTube. They are excellent talkers and have a body of work and an evolving practice of over thirty years. Here’s John talking about the collective’s work, Vertigo Sea and “Why History Matters”.
This is the first full-length feature from Chantal Akerman, made in 1974, a year before her best-known work Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It showed in Picturehouse Cinema’s ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot last night. Much of the time I think the ‘Discover Tuesdays’ programming idea is an insult to audiences and a general excuse to show foreign language films just once. However, on this occasion it offered a genuine opportunity to see a film which would otherwise not appear in UK cinemas. The selection of Chantal Akerman films is possible because of ‘A Nos Amours’ – the partnership of Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts – who have negotiated a deal with Picturehouse. Their programme of Akerman’s films continues at the ICA.
Chantal Akerman was born in 1950 and she was only 23-24 when she made this 90 mins feature – which in itself is an outstanding feat. After just a year at a Belgian film school she left and took off for New York where she became an experimental filmmaker in the thriving New York avant-garde community. Something of American structural film of the 1970s is evident in Je, tu, il, elle, but so is something of European cinema.
Je, tu, il, elle comprises three parts of roughly equal length – that is my assumption, I didn’t time them but I suspect the first part seems longer. It features ‘Julie’ (Akerman herself) as a young woman seemingly trapped in a room where she performs four sets of routine operations – she re-arranges the furniture, writes pages of a letter which she then revises and shuffles the pages several times, she eats sugar straight from a bag in spoonfuls and dresses and undresses – often lying naked on her mattress with her clothes draped over her. Eventually someone passes by the full-length windows and she seems to want to expose herself. A little later she opens the windows and walks out. The structuralist element of this for me comes from the repetition of actions and the weird way in which eventually a kind of narrative rhythm emerges, complete with a kind of hermeneutics – what will happen in the end? What will she do next? Is there a pattern etc.? In themselves the actions are not very meaningful, but as a structure they fascinate. This section also reminds us of Godard’s play with sound an image. Akerman offers us ‘direct sound’ from the street and then she deliberately ‘mismatches’ a voiceover describing the actions with the actions themselves which happen well before or after they are described. I assumed that the voice was the director’s. It sounds like a young girl’s voice and doesn’t match the physical presentation of the mature woman.
The second episode, by contrast, sees ‘Julie’ hitching a ride with a truck driver (a young Niels Arestrup). I found this quite a conventional narrative sequence (at least, conventional for European art cinema). It reminded me of some of Wim Wenders’ films from the late 1960s, early 1970s – but without the pop music on the soundtrack! There is a sequence in which the driver (or Julie?) flicks through the channels on a radio which mainly seem to be American, another example of the sound/image split? The scenes in the cab and various bars do evoke an intensity and an intimacy in which it is the male character who is the subject of the gaze and who talks about himself. Julie feels like kissing him and seems quite happy with herself as she watches him shave and wash – and earlier when we barely see her at the edge of the frame as she fulfils his request for sexual relief as he drives.
In the third episode Julie visits a young woman – her friend or former lover? Her host says she can’t stay but then gives in to Julie’s demand for food and drink. Julie is aggressive in what is I think an eroticised encounter – she feeds with a lascivious voraciousness. Before long the couple are naked and making love in the sequence for which the film is best known. Like much of the rest of the film, this encounter is filmed in three or four long takes over the ten minutes or so of the whole session. The two young women are shown in long shot (so the whole body fills the frame) on the bed but not beneath the sheets. The standard viewpoint on this sequence is that Akerman has ‘de-eroticised’ the lovemaking. We hear the sounds, the grunts and exclamations, the sounds of flesh on flesh and flesh on sheets. It is too ‘real’, too ‘raw’ to be eroticised or for us to enjoy a voyeuristic gaze. I’m not sure about this. These are two attractive young women. Chantal Akerman is not conventionally beautiful perhaps but she has personality and a voluptuous figure. Her partner is more willowy. How challenged do we feel presented with their urgent sexual needs? I’m sure some audiences would be aroused by this couple’s lovemaking no matter how it was shown. Annette Foerster (see below) states that “we see only the lust and the violence of this love, and it is an uncomfortable experience”. But this is not accurate: we see moments of tenderness as well and I was moved by these.
I think that if I’d seen this in 1974 I would have felt ‘challenged’. Now the context has changed. It occurs to me that when I saw avant-garde and counter-cinema films in the 1970s/1980s it was usually in an academic context and so it was odd to watch Je, tu, il, elle in a commercial cinema. Taboos have also changed. The most shocking aspect of the film for me was Julie eating sugar by the spoonful – I couldn’t bear to watch it.
Researching the film after the screening I was surprised to discover that several of Chantal Akerman’s later films were released in the UK and I would be interested to see how her work developed. She clearly has been an important director for feminist audiences and scholars. Judith Mayne brackets her with Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, Agnès Varda and Trinh T. Minh-ha in ‘Women in the Avant-garde’ (in Experimental Film, The Film Reader, Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (eds), Routledge 2002). She quotes Akerman as saying that she wouldn’t have had such a clear idea [in making Jeanne Dielman] if it wasn’t for the women’s movement. Yet in her entry on Akerman in The Women’s Companion to International Film (Annette Kuhn with Susannah Radstone (eds), Virago 1990), Annette Foerster tells us that “Akerman does not want to call herself a feminist”.
The film ends with a song that plays on on after the brief credits have rolled. This was not subtitled but from the few words I caught it sounds like some kind of commentary. Is it a children’s song, a folk tale? – I picked up ‘dancing’ and ‘the woods’ and I’m sure I know the song. Does anyone know what it says?