Tag Archives: Film

John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea at Bristol’s Arnolfini

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaVertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?

We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah “Vertigo Sea” (2015). Installationsview. Nikolaj Kunsthal. Foto Léa Nielsen

Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Arnolfini. Photo Stuart Whipps

Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea

There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaFrom the exhibition guide:

The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.

But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.

We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.

Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.
Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Again, the pounding of oceans. Elizabethan costumes vs white draped simplicity, the deep roar of passage and rending, black skin in water and warmth but there is the looming English presence behind and you long to call out, to warn. Too late.
John Akomfrah, Tropikos,
John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016 | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.

Tropikos, John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Always there is the sounding of oceans.

Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.

Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.

Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea (2015). Still. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy

Go see them if you can.

For more on race, environment and empire…



Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov - The Man with A Movie Camera 1929Just saw Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929) and had one of those moments where you realise just how splendid a film of the city can be. One of those moments where everything changes about how you see film.

(An aside: The first film I remember doing that was Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) which my Uncle Milton showed me when I was 17 or 18, and the last film that I remember doing that was Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and that was seven or so years ago…

Funny that they’re all from around the same time.)

I haven’t seen the other city symphony films, have only vaguely heard of them (but always meant to track them down). Some say that this is the best, and I believe it — on a foggy Sunday afternoon when all too often I enjoy a little snooze, I sat entranced at scenes of Moscow, Kiev and Odessa seamlessly edited together.

But what I loved is that the cameraman (as courageous hero) and the woman editing the film itself (women fill this film, working everyday women) — as well as its initial audiences — are always present, reminding you of how reality is moderated, cut up and represented in film.

Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera

This is not neutral, the process is anything but seamless. There are many shots that go from still to moving pictures, playful and charming. It reminds you constantly how it is you see what you are seeing, that choices are being made. It takes you from the everyday into split screens, kaleidoscope effects, occasional stop-motion and surreal compositions of eyes and watchers and movement. Unlike many a black and white film I have seen using such effects, they improve the whole. They give a sense of the city as mediated by our own vision and the vision of others. It challenges us to think about not just what we are seeing, but how we are seeing it.

It does this with exuberance, not with pretension. In 1929. With the few avant garde films I have seen from the 1960s onwards, I find the lack of pretension amazing and most wonderful.

All this, and then oh…the life of the city that it shows. Cities as we shall never know them now, full of trams and horsecarts and early automobiles. Pedestrians everywhere. Life brimming over its streets not dominated by fast-moving traffic — that piece of my brain obsessed with transport adored this aspect of it, down to the woman pouring oil in the tram tracks in the very early morning.

Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera

This is a film of movement and labour and social leisure — unsurprising in a film that of the soviet revolution just before Stalin’s crackdown. It shows people in these aspects of their lives — at work in factories and mines, a ceaseless flow of associative editing from beauty shop to laundry to automated spinning wheels to film editing to operators connecting calls to typewriters to beaches to babies being born and funerals and movements through the streets. Life filling these great boulevards, (but very little in homes, nuclear families, neighbourhoods, a telling political and social focus)…


The factories were the not the most popular of screen grabs, but can I just say again how wonderful to see the screen full of women. A few of them of that beauty that usually finds it way to the movies, but most of the beauty that does not. Smiling, laughing, making cigarette boxes, walking and telling stories and working and bearing children.

Most wonderful. I shall enjoy seeing it again, and know I shall see much more.



The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes

9781781687765-e406078c7d60b6e833cbb24f8c19c712Patrick Keiller (2013) Verso

I loved The View From the Train, my only critique is that it’s a bit repetitive…but with a collection of essays I suppose that’s par for the course. I’m a big fan of the Robinson films, and it is so so cool to get some of the thinking behind them and the process of making them — narrated in much the same fashion. They also start in a very different place, and hold very different assumptions than I do, though our side is the same as is our love of wandering and obsession with the city.

Both London and Robinson in Space had set out with a perception of economic failure, the result of a backward, specifically English capitalism; but in the second film, this gave way to an understanding that the UK’s social and physical impoverishment was not a consequence of some inevitable ‘decline’, but of the successful operation of a particular economic system in the interests of those who own it. The ‘problem’ that the film had set out to examine was revealed as the result of political decisions that could be challenged’ (6).

It is unique and more theoretical (Lefebvre is used in wholly new ways), and at the same time in the same vein of other London writers and ‘psychogeographers’ (Sinclair especially), which in itself I find fascinating. But they all pull from much the same canon (which I love, but there area few others I might just love more). Two quotes:

–from Benjamin’s essay on surrealism, ‘where he identifies the revolutionary potential of “everything we have experienced on mournful railway journeys…on godforsaken Sunday afternoon” (4).

–Bernard Tschumi writes that for Bataille ‘architecture covers the scene of the crime with monuments’ (18).

The rest of the cannon includes De Qincey, Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Aragon. Among them, as Keiller writes:

The desire to transform the world is not uncommon, and there are a number of ways of fulfilling it. On of these is by adopting a certain subjectivity, aggressive or passive, deliberately sought or simply the result of mood, which alters experience of the world, and so transforms it (9).

This formulation of the revolutionary nature of the writers, surrealists, situationists so often cited is an interesting one. I never knew that the surrealists tried to organise a ‘tourist’ event, on 14 April, 1921. Organised by Breton, it was to bring their insights gained from brothel and suburb exploration to the public, to ‘put in unison the unconscious of the city with the unconscious of men’ (14). But it rained, no tourists arrived, the rest of the tours were cancelled.

I also love some of the ideas behind the photography:

This visual material deliberately depicts places that are nearly or altogether devoid of human presence and activity, but which because of this absence are suggestive of what could happen, or what might have happened…. The aim is to depict the place as some sort of historical palimpsest, and/or the corollary of this, an exposition of a state of mind (11).

I loved the insights into decline, from ‘Port Statistics’, a wonderful examination of the docks and in 2001, an interesting foreshadowing of what was to come:

In the UK, wealth is not confined to a conservative nomenklatura, but the condition of, say, public transport or state-sector secondary schools indicates that the governing class does not have a great deal of use for them. People whose everyday experience is of decayed surroundings, pollution, cash-starved public services, job insecurity, part-time employment or freelancing tend to forget about the UK’s wealth. We have been inclined to think that we are living at a time of economic decline, to regret the loss of the visible manufacturing economy, and to lower our expectations. We dismiss the government’s claims that the UK is ‘the most successful enterprise economy in Europe’, but are more inclined to accept that there might b less money for schools and hospitals, if only because of the cost of financing mass unemployment (46)

From ‘The Dilapidated Dwelling’:

…under advanced capitalism it is increasingly difficult to produce and maintain the dwelling. This is especially odd given that dwellings constitute the greater part of the built environment, that they are the spaces where most people spend most of their time, and where arguably the real ‘work’ of society is done. Modernity, it seems, I exemplified not so much by the business park or the airport, but by the dilapidated dwelling (54)

Interestingly though, we differ greatly in the meaning of home and the meaning of dwelling. I myself love these old houses, these Victorian and Georgian rows. I dream of a city where the are neither dilapidated nor obsessively maintained to historic code by the wealthy. But I would welcome genuinely new architectural designs for homes and common living, and agree that none have been forthcoming, at least not here. Written in 1998,this comes before the majority of the ‘loft’ and ‘luxury flat’ development for wealthy young professionals emerging from regeneration. Part of me thinks they deserve those boxy and unimaginative and shoddily-constructed status symbols, if only the rest of us didn’t have to look at them. If only to build them, they didn’t first have to destroy. For myself, and perhaps from the vantage point of the next generation, it is hard to imagine this:

The volume of new construction is now less than it used to be, and western cities have not change anything like as much as was expected in, say, the early 1960s (70).

But gentrification is in here:

in London now, psychogeography leads not so much to avant-garde architecture as to gentrification
…. The great irony of the UK’s psychogeography phenomenon is that its invocation of the flaneur only narrowly preceded an almost immediate commodification of café culture (71).

The same idea in relation to psychogeography’s surrealist and situationist antecedents:

At the time [1990s], I suggested that their purpose had been overlooked: the derive and psychogeography were conceived, in a more politically ambitious period, as preliminaries to the production of new, revolutionary spaces; in the 1990s they seemed more likely to be preliminary to the production of literature and other works, and to gentrification, the discovery of previously overlooked value in dilapidated spaces and neighbourhoods (186).

This brings us to the urban and capitalism:

Capitalism both destroys and creates places, but the places it creates seem always, at least to begin with, less substantial, less rich, than the places it destroys…On the other hand, modern capitalism also gives place high value–partly by making its sought-after qualities scarce, partly by concentrating power in the global system in particular places: New York, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Paris, London, and so on. In the interstices of all this–in more or less dilapidated domestic spaces, as ‘consumers’ (neither passive nor docile)–we live our lives (73)

And finally just the voice:

–‘The UKs production of desirable artefacts is certainly lamentable (and confirms the stereotype of a nation run by Phillistines with unattractive attitudes to sexuality’ (45).

–repression and S&M hunt the Conservatives in a way that cannot be put down simply to the influence of the public schools (48).

This is just an odd collection of thoughts to do with what I am working on now, but there is so much more here on film and SF and an entertaining narrative of a trip to Rochester and some modern pictures inset with old pictures matched perfectly to the streetscape in ways that destabilize our sense of reality — the strength of film and photography perhaps as he argues.


A Touch of Sin

I loved this film. I saw it alone (my first cinema visit alone I am ashamed to confess) at the Barbican. It was showing as part of their Fall season City Visions, and a nice contrast with the photo exhibit which I had seen earlier, constructing worlds.  I left the theater full of it, a feeling that its violence lurked in the brutalist cityscape around me and within me as I walked to the station and I could not stop thinking of it on the tube back to Brixton. The woman who introduced this film mentioned its nods to Tarantino, but I did not feel that this was the violence of a teenage boy who thinks it’s bad ass, Zhangke’s is a compassionate gaze that does not shrink from the worst within us but with a greater focus on that inflicted by the structures and environments of our world. It consists of four separate stories of violence, linked by a background character or association, though the end circles back upon itself. It opens with the unique brand of gangster capitalism, the current accumulation by dispossession taking place in China that is removing collective assets and enriching a fraction of the people which forms the backdrop to every violent act, is itself the most pervasive form of violence. The rule and power of money. Looking upon the landscapes in the film are like facing this reality in material form, extraordinary speculative buildings that become ruins before their completion, huge industrial works that loom against the sky, the equally large scale of working class housing and its poverty are everywhere.  It made me start to think through the way this structural and spatial violence are intertwined with the potentialities that always lurk within ourselves for snapping, for killing others.

This is presented with great complexity I think, despite the often obvious symbolism — the boy and girl with the internet handles ‘little bird’ and ‘fish seeking water’. The sauna receptionist being beaten with a wad of money, the men simultaneously signalling their insecurity by claiming she is acting above them yet at the same time demanding the rights their money buys them in a brothel. The later scenes of the ‘nightclub’ where the girls march in ranks through the reception area dressed in skimpy red army uniforms.  The scene of traditional Chinese theater set up in the street in the village where the first story takes place that is commentating on recent events — as it did in the first story — and asking the final question, ‘do you understand your sin?’ They are almost playful and never felt heavy, thrown in and then undermined and yet surfacing again as a truth. I didn’t feel that there were any easy equations here, violence erupts from the boredom  of village life (though the backdrop is still the great towers of city life in the far distance — or near distance depending on what the air quality is) as much as it does from the city itself, and any degradation it creates. That is the character so often played by the city in film, it was refreshing not to see it here.

The whole is open to widely different interpretations I think, depending on the politics you bring to bear on it. Possibly I might feel different after another viewing (I would like another viewing), or if I were more familar with the politics of China or able to catch the multiple cultural references that I am sure I missed given my ignorance. But I loved the first story, the acting out of that fantasy that many of us share of just shooting the hell out of those people in power fucking you over, and their sorry henchmen just following orders and facilitating their takeover. Their wives, well, that might have been a bit overboard. Dohai is fighting back, but all alone in his anger at the stripping of all assets and power from the people of his village and their concentration in the hands of an old school fellow. And alone he compulsively names it, pushes it, fights to stop it. He is the only one to ever really have a smile on his face. He lays bares his oppression and he shoots it, knowing that he does so. The others do not have this consciousness, only varying degrees of stubborn resistance that erupts almost in spite of themselves — though arguably the second figure was just psychotic and bored. Which I liked. The ambiguity I liked, and so I choose to find the framing in that first story.

One final thought. To the ignorance of Western eyes this was a series of amazing landscapes — I am unsure how much of a spectacle this presents to those from China. But what I loved most was how much it showed of work, of everyday life. Nothing here was slick, glamourised. And this focus on work, on interiors as much as exteriors and the ways that people occupied them underlined for me the strange way that we are all connected through this capitalist system of exploitation and brutality. The girl playing on her tablet between johns, the boy who is crushing on her will go on to work in a factory making electrical components for just such devices. Just as his story opens with his work in a garment factory, sewing our clothes. I am surrounded by objects created in  workplaces like those I watched this evening, in the streets I walk among people who have fled these realities to seek a better life, and it shames me just a little that I do not know more of this world. That final question, ‘do you understand your sin?’ It applies to us as well, the western viewers no less than Chinese, the consumers of this industry and this labour. We in the UK or the US are also a part of the structural violence, and often victim to it though the ways in which we are enmeshed in it are different. And offer a qualitatively better way of life, as we benefit from low wages producing cheap goods. And finally, we too, as human beings, are as capable of breaking.

Cairo as Seen by Chahine

These are simply some impressions as this was my introduction to Youssef Chahine, ‘one of Egypt’s greatest directors’ and presented by the Barbican as part of a double feature with Cairo Drive. I hope with respect, I worry about these things and I liked that the film demanded that I worry. It’s short, only 22 minutes, and has a meta-narrative of the filmmaker himself discussing a request from Paris to make a documentary on Cairo and questioning the western gaze. He asks the actors what they think the French want to see: pyramids is the answer, belly dancers, the souk, the Nile. If not tourism than a film of poetic realism, no, social realism. As they speak the film’s subject changes, so in a way it is about all of these things. There is another thread of narrative of a young man recently graduated from college and unemployed, his search for work recurs, as does the face of another student, dedicated leftist in college now turned to fundamentalism — but the lines between what is real and what is acted are blurred and uncertain, much as in life.

What I love most though, is Chahine’s own reflection on Cairo, his love of the city — but that the city is above all its people. He speaks of his love for this people, their character. How their existence in tiny cramped urban spaces means they must learn to get along. There are shots that capture a sense of life in these spaces, fragments of experience and stories in domestic interiors. Others capture something of what it is like to occupy these spaces, to pray in them, to play in them, to search for work in them. They do this with great effectiveness — I think this is partly because these are things the director has approached with love, but there are technical aspects to it I need to think through more. The power of some of the images is one way:


The above screen shot is from a blog called the Cairobserver —  I found it looking for images, read it, recognised its awesomeness and aspired briefly to such heights. This blog will probably never reach them. It looks at the way this film problematises the rapid development of Cairo, the way speculation started eating up agricultural land, creating issues of overcrowding and (non) sustainability, where international markets and government policies have worked to destroy support for farming and Egypt’s production of its own food. Real Estate people and residents being evicted both speak directly to the camera with the assumption that you are on their side.

And then back to fundamentalism, life in the city, a hint of the first gulf war (it is 1991). It was a joy to see Cairo through the eyes of someone who knows it, loves it, is aware of the limiting orientalist vision of others and escapes those limits.

For more on Chahine himself I have copied a short bio, it can be found with a listing of his films with some synopsis here.

Chahine was born in 1926 of Christian parents in Alexandria, a sophisticated and multi-cultural city that was to figure prominently in many of his films. From an early age, he was a fan of Hollywood movies, and, as a young man, spent two years studying acting at Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles. As a film director, he was both a social realist and a canny entertainer, fearlessly blending genres to forge his own unique style of story-telling. He even incorporated newsreels, musical numbers, and home movies into his work, notably ALEXANDRIA, WHY?

Themes of openness and tolerance are threaded through Chahine’s work. A pioneer, he often faced opposition, and films including THE SPARROW had been banned in Egypt upon first release. Audiences responded to the overt sensuality of CAIRO STATION by rioting and ripping the seats out of cinemas. Chahine’s frank treatment of sexual relationships and homosexuality was a first in the Arab world, as was the unabashed autobiographical nature of some of his work. A true original, Youssef Chahine told his own story even as he told Egypt’s story in the age of cinema.