In 2017 I visited the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester to watch Vertigo Sea, an ‘installation’ film by John Akomfrah. A few weeks ago I managed to catch Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves in the same gallery. I first came across both artists when they were young independent filmmakers in the workshops Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa respectively. Isaac and John both became directors recognised in international independent/festival/auteur cinema before moving into more art-orientated forms and attracting wide attention for their installation works. Both have focused on issues associated with their own ideas about identity. John Akomfrah has long been fascinated by migration and it’s interesting that Isaac Julien should join him in making a piece about a specific tragic moment of contemporary migration.
The deaths of twenty-three Chinese migrants in Morecambe Bay in 2004 was a horrific event which resulted in the conviction of three Chinese for trafficking with one also as a gangmaster responsible for manslaughter. Isaac Julien was shocked by the events and he teamed up with the Chinese poet Wang Ping to make a trip to Morecambe Bay and then to explore a multimedia arts project about Chinese migration and the sea. This was the beginning of the project in 2006 and it was completed for the Sydney Biennial in 2010. Since then the work has been on show in several galleries, sometimes as a complex nine-screen multi-media show and sometimes, as here in Manchester, as a three-screen video installation accompanied by two large photographic exhibits. Since I’ve already written about the viewing conditions at the Whitworth, I won’t repeat my complaints, but it’s a shame that an otherwise excellent venue can’t do more to make viewers more comfortable. Like Vertigo Sea, Ten Thousand Waves takes around 49 minutes for a complete run through its narrative and most people stayed for only part of the full experience when I watched the film. Unlike Vertigo Sea in which the three screens seemed sometimes to offer different material and sometimes to produce meanings by the juxtapositions of sounds and images on adjacent screens, Ten Thousand Waves seemed to be playing the same sequence of images, slightly out of synch with each other, on all three screens. But since it is impossible to focus on three large screens simultaneously, I can’t be sure. I entered the installation partway through and stayed until I was sure I’d seen the whole thing.
There are three distinct sections of the narrative, although two of these also use two or more different kinds of material within them. What I assume is ‘found footage’ from the screens of the Liverpool Coastguard shows helicopter footage of the discovery of one of the survivors of the tragedy in Morecambe Bay and is accompanied by some of the phone and radio dialogue associated with the emergency. A further sound layer has Wang Ping’s poem about the events read by the British-Chinese actor Benedict Wong. This is all very affecting, although the poem strikes an odd note with references to the ‘North Wales Sea’ since no such body of water exists (it’s the Irish Sea and specifically Morecambe Bay). It’s an understandable mistake for a Chinese poet, but a bit sad that a British filmmaker doesn’t know his geography. Perhaps it is deliberately a ‘fantasy name’? Either way it’s odd for someone like me who knows that coastline well. The second section is filmed in Shanghai and offers sequences of the actor Zhao Tao (known for her work with her partner the auteur director Jia Zhang-ke) dressed in 1930s period costume on the streets of the Bund as it would have been in the film melodrama The Goddess (China 1934). This is presented as a reconstruction so we see the camera following the actor as she goes into buildings and a tram clanks down the street. It occurred to me later (when I learned of the intended The Goddess connection) that Julien here is mirroring the work of Stanley Kwan on the film Actress/Centre Stage (Hong Kong 1991). In that film, Maggie Cheung plays the 1930s actor Ruan Ling-yu (the star of The Goddess) in a biopic which also works as a kind of documentary-drama about Maggie Cheung herself and her performance alongside interviews with survivors of the 1930s Shanghai film industry and archive sequences from the original films. I’m assuming that these streets in Shanghai are preserved/reconstructed as both tourist attractions and film locations. After Ten Thousand Waves, I watched Lou Ye’s 2006 film Purple Butterfly, possibly filmed on the same streets for a 1930-set Shanghai film. Isaac Julien also offers us short scenes of modern Shanghai (urban motorways) and other brief images which might be of young people in some form of protest march (I didn’t take notes, so this was just a fleeting image).
The third major section of Ten Thousand Waves is also in two parts and also features Maggie Cheung. Ms Cheung is now largely retired from feature films but here she appears in flowing white robes as if dressed for her part as ‘Flying Snow’ in Zhang Yimou’s Hero (China-HK 2002) (but also wearing an incongruous pair of white sports shoes). Once again, Julien shows the construction of this footage so we see Maggie on wires being pulled along against a green screen with a wind machine blowing. These movements are then laid over footage of a river gorge in South China in which also we see a group of men travelling down the river in period costume. It is from this footage that the two large still photographs exhibited alongside the film are taken, one of Maggie Cheung in flight (‘Maiden of Silence’) and one of the men (‘Yishuan Island, Dreaming’). Also in the studio, we see master calligrapher Gong Fagen who uses a large brush to write on glass, which is then rubbed off. The notes accompanying the exhibition also mention ‘video artist Yang Fudong’ and the music score which “incorporates music and original score by Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra as well as by the classical composer Maria de Alvear”.
What does all this mean? The notes tell us that:
. . . the film interweaves moments of Chinese history, custom and legend to explore contemporary experiences of desire, loss and separation. Central to the film is the ancient Chinese myth of Mazu the Sea Goddess, the protector of seafarers, alongside scenes of the Ghangxi province in Southern China, where the cockle-pickers’ spirits journeyed back to the ‘middle kingdom’.
I find it difficult to articulate what I felt watching the film and thinking about it later. A few weeks earlier I had sat on the banks of the River Kent estuary in Morecambe Bay watching the ‘Arnside Bore’, the racing tide which is signalled by warning sirens. It’s horrific to think of cockle-pickers caught by such tides at night and totally unprepared. Whether that feeling of helplessness and horror that comes from the archive footage can be linked to the Shanghai footage so that, to quote the notes again, “[the film] penetrates the realities of labour, landscape and migration that continues to define our times” is an open question.
Since I know something about the two cinematic references the installation uses, I suppose I can make some kind of connection. I was also to some extent primed for the experience by the Manchester-based Chinese film scholar Felicia Chan who sent me her paper ‘Cosmopolitan Pleasures and Affects; Or Why Are We Still Talking about Yellowface in Twenty-First-Century Cinema?’, Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, Issue 14, Winter 2017, pp. 41–60. Dr Chan is concerned that the orientalist images of ‘exotic China’, first created or ‘captured’ in the West and then repeated within contemporary Chinese culture, have come to dominate global representations of ‘Chineseness’. She uses Ten Thousand Waves as one of several examples, picking out a comment by the Guardian‘s correspondent in a report about the acquisition of rights to present the installation at the Whitworth:
. . . these images are continually reprised for Western ‘cosmopolitan’ consumption, even when spoken of as a ‘homecoming’ to the north of England (Brown 2016). The ‘local’ on this occasion, whether of Morecambe, the north of England, or the plight of the Chinese migrants cannot really compete with the scopophilic power of the Chinese exotic once again.
(ref: Brown, Mark, ‘Film on Morecambe Cockle Picker Disaster Bought for UK Art Collections’, the Guardian, 22 March 2016, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/22/film-isaac-julien-morecambe-cockle-picker-disaster-uk-public-art.) (Felicia Chan is the author of Cosmopolitan Cinema: Cross-Cultural Encounters in East Asian Film. I.B. Tauris, 2017)
I’m with Felicia Chan on wondering why Isaac Julien chose such well-known images and references from Chinese recent visual culture in constructing his story. I’m also saddened to realise (admittedly only some time after experiencing Ten Thousand Waves) that Julien might have discovered other historical migration links for the waters of Morecambe Bay. A few miles south of Hest Bank (the closest coastal settlement to the site of the tragedy) is Sunderland Point, on the headland of the River Lune estuary. In the 18th century this tiny village became part of slave trade practice. Lancaster was then the third largest English slave port and ships that were too large to reach its rapidly silting docks dropped cargo at Sunderland. As well as slavery, the ports of the Irish Sea were also embarkation ports for migrants from the UK to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. (The main English port for migration from the region would have been Liverpool). Finally, just south of Lancaster is another possible Chinese connection via the silk mill at Galgate which operated from 1792 until 1971. Each of these connections might have enabled a different kind of analysis of the local-global perspectives on the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers tragedy.
Viewing the 3 screen installation seems like a somewhat diminished version of Isaac Julien’s vision and in the clip below he talks about the 9 screen original and its sense of immersion. In other similar clips on YouTube he talks about the visual qualities of his work (shot on 35mm) and the importance of the best available projection. From the glimpses of the 9 screen version I can see that the moving camera becomes more noticeable – and there also seems to be material that either isn’t in the 3 screen version, or which is less pronounced in the overall presentation. As an artwork, Ten Thousand Waves is certainly impressive but the questions it raises need discussion.
This is a fine picture from a writer-director making her début. Jenny Lu began in the industry in 2011 and graduated from assistant/second director to make first a short and then this feature. She benefited from film festival support in developing the script and production. I’ve read some quite uninformed reviews from ‘professional’ critics and one excellent and perceptive review by IMDb ‘user’ Joe Bevan which I recommend.
The Receptionist brings together a number of familiar scenarios and references several key films (which Jenny Lu might not have seen – I’m not suggesting she borrowed ideas or that her script is not original, merely that it is recognisable). Tina (American-Taiwanese actor Teresa Daley) is an Eng Lit graduate in London searching for a job (it isn’t clear if her degree was in Taiwan or the UK). Her search becomes more urgent when her boyfriend loses his first job as an architect’s assistant. Tina must find the money to pay the rent and some to send back to Taiwan. Eventually she is forced to take a job as receptionist/dogsbody at a small brothel set up in a suburban house somewhere in London. This reminded me of the film Personal Services (UK 1987) inspired by the real-life case of Cynthia Payne in the Streatham street where I delivered the Christmas post in the 1970s. Tina’s brothel is an undertaking by ‘Lily’, a Taiwanese madam and her two workers SaSa (also Taiwanese) and Mei (Malaysian Chinese). Soon after Tina starts work, Anna (from rural China?) also starts work. What follows is part tragedy and part comedy with a mixture of brutality and humanism. Despite what some reviewers convey, not all the men who visit the house are ‘disgusting’. Some are and the violence and misogyny are there on screen. But some are sad older men who appreciate the welcome they receive. The real humanity though is expressed between the women, who despite the pressure and the squabbles over money do care for each other, despite protestations of indifference. The film’s final section deals with Tina’s eventual return to Taiwan where she becomes involved in clearing up and renewing her home town after the impact of a typhoon.
In some ways the film works as a chamber piece in the claustrophobic setting of the brothel. The claustrophobia is emphasised by the curtains and sealed up windows necessary to stop the smells and sounds of sex work reaching the neighbours. Symbolically it is represented by the worms which die in the back garden/yard – they “can’t live too long cut off from the earth” as one character puts it. (These looked to me like brandling worms which don’t live in soil but are found in compost heaps or any pile of rotting vegetation.) The function of this chamber narrative is to stimulate the women to reflect on their individual lives, their families and their ‘journeys’ which for the three younger ones are most wrapped up in migration. We don’t learn much about Lily (except that she has become pragmatic above all) and I would have liked to know more about SaSa. I think she could become the central character of another complete narrative. I wonder why Jenny Lu set her film in the UK? Her film set me thinking about several other films I’ve seen over the last few years. Farewell China (Hong Kong 1990, dir. Clara Law) is one of the earliest, following Maggie Cheung’s difficult journey to the US and her husband’s subsequent attempt to find her there. Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (UK 2006) tells the story of the Chinese cockle-pickers who died in Morecambe Bay and A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK 2013) deals with Chinese migrants living a marginal life in the United Arab Emirates. I was also reminded of Lilting (UK 2013) a micro-budget British film about a Chinese diasporic character by British-Cambodian-Chinese director Hong Khaou which though a very different kind of narrative has a similar power to expose an audience to life for migrant characters.
Alongside Teresa Daley, director Lu has assembled a fascinating cast for The Receptionist. Sophie Gopsill as Lily is a Hong Kong-born singer who has appeared in many opera houses and theatres in South East Asia and in the UK where she has lived for several years. SaSa is played by Chen Shiang-Chyi an accomplished and celebrated actor who first worked in Taiwan for Edward Yang in the early 1990s and then for Tsai Ming-liang. More recently she was the lead in Exit (Taiwan 2014) in a very different role in which she was equally good. Teng Shuang who plays Anna appears to British-Chinese? She trained as a lawyer but decided to pursue her love of acting. After shorts and theatre work this is her first feature. It’s also a first feature for Amanda Fan, an experienced Taiwanese actor whose previous credits have all been in Taiwanese TV series. The Taiwanese-UK connection is carried through in the production by editor Hoping Chen, whose career began in Taiwan and who then studied at the National Film and TV School in the UK and edited another form of migrant film in Ilo, Ilo (Singapore 2013).
I hope audiences aren’t put off by the setting of The Receptionist or its ’18’ certificate. I think is a very worthwhile first feature and I hope we get to see more films exploring the migrant experience. The film is showing at the Regent Street Cinema in London on August 14 with a Q&A. Well done to Munro Film Services for getting The Receptionist into UK distribution.
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.
The Charmer is classified by IMDb as a ‘psychological drama’ and that may be a possible description, but this is a complex film which draws on several genre repertoires. It might not be a unique take on a modern phenomenon and I’ve certainly seen elements of the story in several other films, but I don’t think I’ve seen them combined quite like this before. We are in the world of migrants attempting to achieve something ‘better’ in a new land, but the narrative begins with a rather shocking action which seems to be immediately forgotten, only to re-appear as an issue much later. Those of you who enjoy second-guessing the mechanics of the plot will probably see the moment coming well before I did.
The ‘Charmer’ of the title is a handsome young man (perhaps in his early 30s?). He appears to be facing the chop from his girlfriend after the couple have attended a social event in a beautiful house and garden. We follow him as he disconsolately travels back to what appears to be an upmarket hostel of some kind with quite pleasant rooms. After an interview we realise that he is a migrant applying to stay in Denmark and that his time is running out. The hostel turns out to be less inviting when we watch officials arriving to take one of the other migrants away.
Our charmer is called Esmail and he’s from Iran. He earns money by working for a removals firm alongside Amir who has been in Denmark longer. Esmail makes occasional calls home, often being cut off or perhaps deliberately cutting himself off. At night he frequents an upmarket wine bar hoping to meet Danish women who might agree to a longer term relationship and provide him with an opportunity to stay in Denmark. But they could easily turn out to be married and just looking for ‘a bit on the side’. The narrative changes when two things happen which suggest different genres. One refers back to the opening of the narrative and creates the threat of the thriller. The other involves Sarah (Soho Rezanejad) a young and attractive woman who is from an Iranian family which is established in Denmark. She sees immediately what Esmail is up to, but she seems interested him. What will her interest lead to? Together these two events will determine Esmail’s future. I won’t spoil the plot further. First time director Milad Alami, working from a script he co-wrote with Ingeborg Topsøe, handles the narrative and his lead Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili) very well. (Alami was born in Iran, grew up in Sweden and now lives in Denmark.) We are never quite sure where the narrative is heading and what kind of genre conventions might pop up. The film looks terrific as photographed by Sofia Olsson – who I note shot the film Volcano (Iceland-Denmark 2011) which I saw in Bradford a few years ago when it won a European Cinema Award.
Esmail is in a sense a double bluffer. He has learned enough Danish to ‘pass’ as a resident. How long has he really been in the country? But also, who is he? What could he do apart from move furniture? Who is in the family back home? There are answers to some of these questions, but we realise that migrants who make the journey as undertaken by Esmail will always want to keep aspects of their identity under wraps.
A film like this might fall foul of the censors in Iran, so sequences set in that country were filmed in Turkey. This is a well-made and engaging film with good performances and I think it should please audiences across Europe and beyond. This was screened in programme strand of ‘Pioneer’ – first or second films by directors. Unfortunately it hasn’t yet been sold for UK distribution.
My short visit to LFF2017 ended with a journey across town to the Hackney Picturehouse. I first visited this cinema a couple of years ago and again we were in the mammoth Screen 1. I was disappointed by the size of the audience since this was the new film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, one of just two major international auteurs whose films from francophone Central and West Africa have kept alive the strong reputation of the region over the last ten years. (The other one is Abderrahmane Sissako whose film Timbuktu made a big splash in the UK in 2015.)
Haroun has previously set his films in his native Chad. I missed his 2013 film Gris-Gris which showed at LFF but I don’t think was released in the UK. Gris-Gris and his earlier features Abouna (2002), Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010) were all set in the Central African country. Prior to A Season in France, he directed a documentary, Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy (2016) about the dictatorship and its fall-out in his own country that led to his exile. His new film, as the title suggests, is set in France – though I’m not sure yet what the reference to a ‘season’ means, unless it’s a satirical reference to a hunting season? Haroun himself is based in France so he knows the issues likely to be faced by asylum seekers such as Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney).
Abbas is an asylum seeker in France after fleeing his home Bangui (capital of the Central African Republic). He has with him his two children, Asma and Yacine, but his wife was killed during the family’s flight from CAR. Abbas was a French teacher in CAR and so was Etienne (a philosophy teacher), who I think might be Abbas’ brother-in-law, another who is seeking asylum. The children call Etienne ‘uncle’ but I did wonder if this was just the common usage of ‘uncle’ for any older male known to the family. Abbas and his children move constantly from one rented or borrowed room to another. Etienne has even less to call home and survives as a doorman/security guard outside a pharmacy. Abbas works on a stall in the market and develops a relationship with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire) who has a floristry business linked to the market stall and whose family is Polish from a different wave of migration. The strain of the asylum application process is very heavy. Haroun presents the waiting room and the security guards at the office dealing with asylum seekers – but we never see the bureaucrats. Instead the asylum seekers receive official letters. If the strain is too great, the asylum seekers can all too easily ‘fail’ in their attempt to achieve permanent status.
In several ways, A Season in France resembles I, Daniel Blake and other Loachian dramas in which individuals without money or status have to deal with a state bureaucracy. (But it also includes dream sequences, which I can’t recall in a Loach film.) I don’t want to give out spoilers, so I’ll just suggest that the film presents a stark moment of tragedy and a gradual loss of hope but has an ‘open’ ending that in a couple of ways is heart-breaking. This is a tough film and an angry film told in a straightforward way. It needs to be seen and I hope it moves audiences to think again about how Europe treats asylum seekers. In some ways, especially to do with the involvement of the French citizen Carole, the film is similar to Welcome (France 2009). French citizens face severe punishment for helping ‘illegal’ migrants. Like Welcome with Vincent Lindon, A Season in France has the presence of Sandrine Bonnaire, one of the best actors in France. I hope this will attract audiences in Europe. Eriq Ebouaney is very good as Abbas and I was interested to see his very long list of acting roles in French and international cinema. I had thought of Claire Denis’ 35 rhums (2009) because of the presentation of an African family in the grey suburbs of Paris, and especially the railway bridges and rail journeys. Ebouaney has a small part in that film and several others I’ve seen. It’s good to see him now in a lead role. A Season in France opens in France in February 2018. Somebody please pick it up for the UK.
You can download a Press Pack with excellent interviews and background from: http://mk2films.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2016/08/pressbook-a-season-in-france.pdf
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”.