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A tsunami of black, computer-generated goo rushes along ancient streets, floods a courtyard and inundates a chapel. Fires break out, smoke and flame billowing around minarets and churches. The opening scenes of Larissa Sansour’s 2019 film In Vitro are gripping enough, before you realise that the city in question is an apocalyptic Bethlehem, where time runs in several directions at once, and there’s a big, black, sci-fi sphere haunting the basement of a brutalist sanctuary. All this must be a metaphor for something or other. “Bethlehem,” one of the protagonists says, “was always a ghost town, the present upstaged by the past.”
Philosophical ruminations about time and memory, played out by a dying Palestinian revolutionary who spends her time in bed and either her daughter or her clone (I found all this confusing; maybe it is meant to be) take up much of In Vitro’s beautifully shot, split-screen, black and white half-hour.
One of the six works in the current Film London Jarman award, In Vitro is an uneasy mix of futuristic plague and ruination, memories of bucolic days picking olives, of exile, family relationships, abandoned houses and CGI effects. An olive tree goes up in flames and a nun walks the street of this little West Bank town, a gas mask poking out beneath her wimple. I thought for a moment she’d wandered into the daylight from some subterranean BDSM club. Derek Jarman might have liked this last image, and might also approve that the judges have decided to split the prize equally this year. This is not a time for competitions. However, we are entitled to like some things more than others.
Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings’ In My Room takes its title from Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 song, which a bearded guy sings, unaccompanied, in what appears to be an abandoned nightclub. Two other guys dance, smoochily, in what was once one of Birmingham’s gay clubs, till it was closed down. In part an elegy to queer dance culture and the gentrification of queer spaces, In My Room also takes us, moodily, into wintry spinneys and commons at night. We don’t come across any actual cruising, more’s the pity, but men do slowly undress, to camera. There’s dancing in the electric twilight of the disco (David Byrne singing I’m Lazy seems an odd accompaniment), and a woman pole-dances athletically to Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Boys want to have fun, too, but it is all oddly chaste, and not at all as sexy or as transgressive as Jarman’s work could be (let alone Isaac Julien’s, or any number of queer radical film-maker, going back to Kenneth Anger and beyond).
The energy and focus kicks in with Jenn Nkiru’s Black to Techno, a visually stunning and playful montage dedicated to the birth of techno in Detroit; how it developed from rap and the Motown sound and the repetitive, insistent clamour and din of the city’s automobile industry. The work explains that the machinery “built into the daily movement of black bodies the mimesis of movement, morphing later into a technology of rhythm”. A group of women DJs bend over record decks in the car factory, as diligent and focused on the turntables as any machinist or lathe operator. Even Ford got into the beats with an ad that announces Detroit Techno, Ford Focus. Black musicians drum on an empty lot, and we cruise past the grim little house where legendary record producer and rapper J Dilla grew up with his family. His mother was a former opera singer.
The metronomic four-to-the-floor beat leads us back to stock footage of the repetitive, mechanical labour of picking and baling cotton, and forward via the automobile industry to Berlin’s techno scene and the Tresor club, first housed in a former East Berlin department store. As important as the rhythm itself are the silences between the beats, which teeter on emptiness and evoke the fractured histories of black experience. The African drum was the first telephone, we’re told, and techno broke the Berlin Wall. Nkiru’s film is phenomenal. It bristles with ideas, and histories, with none of Sansour’s portentousness. Meanings proliferate naturally as we watch. It is like a bomb going off.
What Peckham-based Nkiru does for Detroit, Andrea Luka Zimmerman attempts, in a very different way, to do for Newcastle upon Tyne. Zimmerman’s Civil Rites takes Martin Luther King’s visit to receive an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University in 1967 as a starting point to a journey through the city, visiting places where acts of social protest and resistance have taken place. A garbage truck draws up in front of the bookshop where in 1792 freed slave and anti-slavery campaigner Olaudah Equiano was based. We find ourselves at the road junction where Arthur Conan Doyle gave a speech denouncing atrocities in Congo in 1909, and stand outside a Job Centre on whose site the Workers and Soldiers Council for the Russian Revolution held a meeting in 1917. One anonymous doorway gives no indication that here was once a prison where suffragettes on hunger strike were force-fed, or that, beyond the entrance to a locked swimming pool, there was a swim-in against pool closures a few years ago. Subtitles mark the spot, on ring roads and in Grainger Town, outside shopping malls and chippies, on back streets and in suburbs. The entire city appears to be a psychogeography of protest. Voiceover interviews interject subjects of racial harassment and poverty, while in numerous shots we see evidence of homelessness.
What we might see as an activist turn is also the focus of the Hastings-based Project Art Works, whose Illuminating the Wilderness is a film documentary of a visit to Scotland by film-makers (including Ben Rivers and Margaret Salmon), who accompanied a number of neuro-divergent adults, their carers and families on a two-week trip to the Highlands. It rains and it rains some more. There is much trampling through mud, and playing gleeful games of I-spy while cramped damply together in Land Rovers. There is much staring into the undergrowth. Do you want to walk to the bothy? It is only six miles. Someone finds a worm. Look, there’s a frog. Autistic artist Sharif Persaud insists on wearing a homemade Al Murray mask, and gets his wellies mired in the mud. Subtitles announce that someone is “happy blowing” or “rocking”. The upbeat voices of carers cut through indecipherable chatter. “It is very boring here,” Sharif says in the gloaming, truth speaking to power. I find all this problematic.
Michelle Williams Gamaker’s 2017 House of Women, one of a trilogy of short films, takes Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 movie Black Narcissus as its starting point. In the film, white actor Jean Simmons, wearing pan-stick blackface, plays the non-speaking but central role of an Indian dancer. Through a series of screen-test auditions, Williams Gamaker interviews young south Asian actors for the role, although her real purpose is more complex, and she uses the opportunity to discover something more about the young actors’ ambitions, returning them the voices, and presence, denied by the original directors of Black Narcissus. Both invasive and intimate, the film is itself a house of women, and a series of in-camera encounters. Tender, unsettling and oddly compelling, House of Women is pretty good, but Nkiru knocks everything else out of the park. As it is, everyone’s a winner this year.
Source: The Guardian
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