‘Work That Is Useful and Work That Is Modest’: Artists in Glasgow Film Festival Aspire to a Different Kind of Cinema

From a travelogue drenched in the memory of colonialism to a bleak charting of European history in black and white, the festival presents urgent works for uncertain times

Teeming with found footage, from the Marx Brothers to Soviet era propaganda films, Thom Andersen’s feature-length The Thoughts That Once We Had (2015) is both a critique of Hollywood and a celebration of the possibilities of the form. With a thrilling disregard for linear narrative or genre and inspired by, and featuring, the writing of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, it splices together carefully selected scenes and text commentary with pace, humour and a deep commitment to the power of the moving image. There’s political anger, too – in particular at US imperialism and the use of film to reinforce the established order, rather than challenge it. Throughout, though, Andersen keeps the faith, ending with – to the strains of Marianne Faithfull singing ‘As Tears Go By’ – a plea-cum-dedication: ‘To those who have nothing must be restored… the cinema.’

The veteran LA-based filmmaker has said that what’s needed in film is ‘work that is useful and work that is modest’. It’s a mantra that sits well with the probingly curious yet chronically cash-strapped world of artists’ film represented in Glasgow Film Festival’s ‘Crossing the Line’ programme, which featured ten screening events and more than 20 short and feature-length films in total. One much-needed source of support for Scotland’s artists working with moving image is the annual Margaret Tait Award, a fixture at the festival. This year’s event saw the announcement of Jamie Crewe as the 2019/20 recipient of the £15,000 award, followed by the premiere of 2018/19 winner Alberta Whittle’s commission, between a whisper and a cry (2019).

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Jodie Mack, The Grand Bizarre, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Glasgow Film Festival 

 

Beginning in darkness with the sound of someone breathing in, holding their breath and then releasing it, Whittle’s 37-minute film is part historical travelogue, part joyous dance of resistance. Drenched in the memory of colonialism, here the Barbados-born, Glasgow-based artist combines personal and archival testimony, using the sea and global weather patterns as a way to track and decipher how our world has been shaped by the tyranny of slavery. In keeping with her performative practice, Whittle can be heard and seen at numerous points throughout the film: reading from Christina Sharpe’s 2016 book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being; sucking her teeth as she reclines in what looks like a colonial-era wood-panelled board room; on a windy Scottish beach, grappling with a large blue tarpaulin. Whittle conjures both the past and its legacy while seemingly alluding to the contemporary crisis of sea-bound migrants. It’s a mood-shifting, transfixing journey.

American artist Jodie Mack also evokes trade and the interrelated nature of the human world in her beautifully textured, colour-saturated film, The Grand Bizarre (2018). Using stop-motion and time-lapse photography to document an ever-changing collection of intricately patterned fabrics sourced from and photographed in a variety of international locations, she creates a dizzying film collage. Mack is interested in much more than surface, however. Describing the work as ‘a postcard from an imploded society’, the many different patterns on scarves, rugs and clothing call to mind grids and maps, systems of connection and uniformity – of cultural and societal differences hollowed out and subsumed into a global whole. In this round-the-world trip we skip from rice paddy fields to city streets, ports of entry to container parks. Frenetic but thoughtful with a visual rhythm soundtracked by compellingly minimal electronica, its 60 minutes fly by in a wave of exuberance. 

The contrast with the slow-moving works of Belgian artist and filmmaker Anouk De Clercq could hardly be greater. A screening of four of her short films was appropriately titled ‘Dark Light’. As De Clercq explained in an accompanying Q&A, the starting point of all her films is darkness, in part due to a love of cinema and the notion of a black box brought to life by the intervention of light. Her animated films are enveloped in blackness to an almost stifling extent; the tension between dark and light feels like a battle, the viewing experience akin to being sucked into the cracks of whiteness that penetrate the gloom. In the 18-minute Thing (2013), De Clercq uses 3D scanning technology to create an eerily angular world of modernist buildings and urban space, calling to mind architectural line drawings, floating and morphing in darkly menacing space.

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Thom Andersen, The Thoughts That Once We Had, 2015, film still. Courtesy: Glasgow Film Festival

There’s darkness of a different kind in Annik Leroy’s Tremor – Es ist immer Krieg (It’s Always War, 2017), which charts European history in all its bleakness – wars, fascism, the horror of the gas chambers – while offering commentary through the words and voices of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sigmund and Anna Freud, the poet Ingeborg Bachmann and others. Filmed in black and white, it begins with the image of a rumbling, smoking volcano, seemingly on the brink of eruption. That sense of tension, of violence just below the surface, is carried throughout this poised and prescient film. Mostly dealing in imagery and ideology from the past, the Europe of the present and future is ultimately the film’s subject.

This sense of past informing present, and of the struggle for a reinvented, better world, provides an unintentional thread through this disparate programme. It’s something that can seen in other highlights, such as Ghassan Halwani’s memorial to Lebanon’s disappeared, Erased,___ Ascent of the Invisible (2018), and Beatrice Gibson’s frantically personal I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead (2018). In these uncertain, fractured times, such films feel urgent, needed – and yes, as Andersen would have it, useful too.

Glasgow Film Festival took place from 20 February – 3 March 2019 at Glasgow Film Theatre and the Centre for Contemporary Arts, UK

Main image: Anouk De Clercq, Thing, 2013. film still. Courtesy: the artist

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt

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