Scattered Truth, part 2b (CARGO, Border, the blur, new technology...)

In response to Bidhan Jacob’s questions: “What is your personal story in the history of imaging technologies - film, video and digital media?” “Give some examples of your relationship to the world at the time of filming” “What role does the “blur” play in your work?” “What is an experiment for you and an invention of form?” “What is your relationship to digital video?” “What do you wish for in terms of future image technologies?”     

(...Continued from Part 2b) 

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The new Mini DV cameras had brought different limits. Whole vistas and nuances could no longer be captured, while new possibilities revealed themselves and paths opened. Filming often became about following your subject and seeing where the characters’ lives led to; a slow process of discovering your story, and how it should be filmed, en route.

In 2000, The Rotterdam International Film Festival, commissioned me to make a video diary for its thirtieth anniversary project "On The Waterfront" and I travelled with my small camera, for a few weeks on a container ship with Filipino, Rumanian and Polish sailors, who were delivering cargo to Syria and Lebanon.

I purposely blurred the line between reality and abstraction in CARGO, heightening the colours and changing the speed of certain scenes, while including certain contradictions in my voice over. I wanted to create doubt in the spectator’s mind as to the veracity of my account, and for the video to hover on the border of documentary and fiction. For I knew that I couldn’t portray an accurate picture of life on the ship, my presence with a camera, completely altering the environment.

On the ship, away from the habitual anchors and markers of daily life, as later in the fields of Sangatte, a person was only as they appeared in the moment, their past blurred. I was fascinated by how much of an individual’s character remains in a liminal space, where the codes and confines of daily life fall way. What survives, and becomes stronger, when people are obliged to abandon all that had previously defined them?

Although these questions are never fully explored in CARGO and Borderthey are in part, what drove me to their locations. I was haunted by the dark spaces on the edges of the developed world, to which increasing numbers of people were relegated. What did the periphery tell us about our over lit centre and all of us who inhabit it? To that end, my presence in the videos, was only intended to act as a filter.

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One of the sailors on the ship, said to me: if you travel to the edges, you can never fully return to the centre and what changes inside you, cannot be communicated in words or images. It took me a long time to understand him.

We had been in Syria and were now floating at sea; the sailors sleeping. I went out on deck and sat amongst the containers. They had been hot, exhausting days, the sailors obliged to work with decrepit and malfunctioning loading equipment. They hated the Syrian ports. Shortly before I’d boarded the ship, two of the crew, sleepless and overworked, had been crushed by falling containers, as they unloaded cargo there. A voice had come over the satellite radio, ordering the ship to carry on its endless journey and they had had to abandon their paralysed shipmates in a hospital, with a promise to return later.

I had spent the time hidden inside the boat, crouched behind a porthole. It was a military port, full of soldiers, and the captain had warned me, that if they discovered a filmmaker on board, I’d be arrested and the ship would have to set sail without me. A few times, some men banged violently and insistently on my cabin door but I stayed silent and unmoving, while my camera recorded fragments of a life below: soldiers running, a man stealing wood, figures on a submarine…

Out in the night air, I breathed in the sounds and smells of the sea. Gradually, the stars in the black sky faded. Red, orange and pink streaks appeared on white and yellow. It was dawn. I picked up my camera and started to film one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, the port of Beirut in the distance. Later re-watching the footage, I discovered that I had recorded almost nothing: the vast sky and far off city, were imprisoned in a small electronic box, a tiny, diluted imprint. 

A few times, in the years after, I met up with one of the sailors. We were in Rumania. He’d managed to get away from the sea life, which he hated, and was working in a petrol station but the city, with its dusty streets and wild dogs, seemed too small for him. He appeared hemmed in and restless without the sea. When he called me next, he was back there, a tiny figure in a vast ocean, going around in circles, he said, seeing nothing. During my time at sea, I had filmed only fragments at a porthole and my own lack of understanding.

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The SONY TRV 900 was my favourite digital camera. It was a three chip “prosumer” camera, designed both for professionals and amateur enthusiasts, and was essentially a professional camera, sold at a relatively affordable price. Small and lightweight, it had the advantage of resembling a tourist camera and putting people immediately at ease.

As well as filming CARGO with it, I used it to shoot Border (2004) in the fields around the Sangatte Red Cross camp, in France, with Afghan and Iraqi refugees, who were trying to jump on the freight trains, that passed through the channel tunnel to England, each night.

I used to sling it around my neck, with a waterproof cover over it, to protect it from the mud and rain. This allowed me to run across the motorways and fields without slowing down the migrants, who I accompanied, while they were hiding from the police and trying to reach the tunnel.

I’d hold it in one hand, as we crawled around in the grass and undergrowth, the viewfinder up against my eye, permanently recording. Its body was a mixture of plastic and metal and had it been any lighter, like the TRV950 or the small HD camera, which succeeded it (1), it wouldn’t have provided enough resistance to my hand to keep it level, as I filmed in the wind and rain.

For I was filming with the shutter wide open, to compensate for the lack of light in the fields, and this produced images, which were stuttered and blurred, and sensitive to the slightest movement of my hand. If I breathed too heavily, shivered or trembled, the blur in an image would become too great, and the refugees would dissolve, like ghosts, into the reeds and bushes.

Whenever I sensed that an essential image was about to appear, I’d abruptly retreat deep into myself, and impose a kind of inner stillness. During those shut off moments, I blocked out sound, and the cold winds didn’t effect me, my hand providing a completely solid base for the camera to rest upon; although it shook a lot, as soon as the shot was over.

I remember the violent contrast between those moments of extreme immobility and silence, which passed as if in a dream, everything abstract and in slow motion, and the sudden bursts of frantic movement, bright light and police violence.

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There, my understanding of what constitutes a true image of reality completely changed, and I have never looked at images, or reality, in the same way again. Where the only available light was that of distant car headlights, far off street lamps, and police torches, I constantly brushed up against the limits of what my small video camera could capture. Fragile and at breaking point, the images which emerged, were on the verge of disappearance.

The abstract footage with its dancing grain and stuttered movement, strangely resembled my own perceptions. I have a health condition, which leads me to lose consciousness frequently, and in the hours or minutes that precede it, I see things blurred. The disoriented images, recorded in those moments, evoked the hostile nature of the land, better than anything that I had filmed intentionally.

Later, I had the impression that my camera had conspired with Sangatte. In struggling with its own technical constraints, it had gotten to the essence of the refugees’ invisible and precarious condition, far more effectively than I, with my learnt notions of how to film, could have managed without the accidents of materials and chance.

For the migrants were both highly visible and invisible. Portrayed in parts of the European press, as the threat at our doorstep, their individual stories were obscured. Many of them mentioned to me with astonishment that their only contact with the people of France, was the glare of passing headlights, as they walked along the roads towards the fields, each night.

Smuggled along clandestine routes during months or years, they had left parts of their identities along the way: family members and companions had perished; beards, long hair, turbans and traditional dress had been removed to blend in; savings and possessions had been stolen or spent…

And if they made it to England, they knew to delete all trace of Sangatte and their journeys from their past because Schengen laws only allow migrants to apply for asylum in their first European country of entry. Their histories vanished in the tunnel and most arrived in Dover, wearing ill fitting shoes and donated clothes, and in a few cases a small back pack, light enough to run with.

How many stories got lost in the tunnel? Testimonies and experiences, that our society needed to hear. I used to dream that the huge corrugated iron hangar, where the migrants slept, was a vast processing plant for the suppression of memory and history: fragments of the migrants’ past, and our shared future, blocked from travelling across the border, without which we wouldn’t understand the terrifying years to come. Our vision would remain blurred.

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Some of the migrants taught me to look at landscape differently, drawing my attention to its beauty. At first glance, the flat, grey wastelands around the tunnel appeared ugly, and dismal but several of the men, who had strong links to nature, were constantly pointing out small, unnoticed details. In their presence, and at twilight, the fields were transformed.

One evening, while accompanying a large group of Kurdish men, we took shelter under an underpass during a heavy downpour. The men sang songs about their hard journeys, which one of them had written in the camp, based on Bollywood tunes, while others drummed on their knees and banged on the concrete structure in accompaniment. When the rain stopped, shortly before nightfall, and we emerged into the fields, a huge rainbow appeared in the clouds.

My companions were determined that I should film it. They kept pointing at it, singing beneath it, and beckoning my camera to follow them, although I never used the footage because I was worried that their faces could be clearly seen.(2) One of the men, an elementary school teacher from Kirkuk, told me that with the rainbow, the singing and our conversations, it was one of the most moving evenings of his life, and asked me to show the fragile beauty of the fields in my film. I lost him and his friends, later that night, as they ran from the police. Perhaps they made it to England, because I never saw them again.

Later, in the editing room, when I discovered that the stuttered footage had its own kind of beauty and several people questioned if it was wise to keep it in, encouraging me to rework it or to find footage, closer to people’s expectations, and more obviously aligned with the tough subject, I was determined to keep the images exactly as they were. It was a silent nod to the teacher from Kirkuk and my memory of that night with the rainbow, which I couldn’t show.

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Does the arrival of a new technology - photography, small video cameras, the Internet, smart phones - completely transform a society? Or at moments in history, do events in the making, call out for and conjure into being the new tools, needed to document them, the old forms no longer able to seize them, suddenly rendered redundant, until one day, no longer relied upon, they may be re-visited in a completely fresh way?

You tube didn’t exist yet. What images could be shown in the media, and who was allowed to film them, felt from the vantage point of the fields of Sangatte, with its myriad of stories and experiences, completely restricted and anachronistic.

There was a striking contrast between the glaring light of the police torches and the dark night, in which the refugees sheltered. Everywhere, there were blank spots, seemingly outside the reach of police surveillance, subject to other laws; the land crisscrossed by invisible lines, marking out the different zones, controlled by numerous people smugglers.

Sometimes smugglers sought me out away from the fields, when I wasn’t filming. They smoked and talked about their countries. One spoke to me at length about the presence of Ansar al Islam, the Islamic extremist group, in the mountains around his home in Halabja, in Iraqi Kurdistan, whom he said were harbouring members of Al Qaeda and torturing local villagers. He told me that he had a video, that his brother had recorded, of a mass slaughter. I remember his intense worry about what was coming to Iraq and the accuracy of all that he predicted.

Something in my encounter with the smuggler, with his video cassette that would probably never be shown, and his lack of credibility as a criminal, convinced me that the landscape of media was about to radically change. If we wanted to understand our fractured present, we needed new tools to perceive the scattered truth, strewn around the edges.

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Sangatte was a mirror held up to the world, and we had chosen to turn our backs to it. I tried through gaps and holes in my narrative, to create uncertainty, and even a measure of distrust, in the spectator, as to the ability of an outside observer to convey, a clear or balanced picture of the situation.

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Certain audience members reacted with such anger to the perceived “beauty” and abstract quality of Border’s images, that it became apparent, after a while, that some were reacting to more than a questionable film, or what could be seen as my narcissism, in speaking only from my point of view. In discussions, it emerged that certain people wanted the images of migrants, that they had come to expect from the media.

But the “real” images, portrayed in the media, entailed their own process of fabrication, which it turned out many spectators had thought little about. The relatively clear faces and figures, which the public had grown accustomed to seeing in news reports about Sangatte, and which many people described to me as “neutral” and “transparent” had often come at their own cost.

The television journalists, who I saw in Sangatte, worked with lights, mounted on their large cameras, and sometimes an extra lamp, carried by an assistant. Making their way through the fields, they attracted the attention of the police to where the migrants were hidden, completely transforming the situation.

Their images, broadcast around the world, were in many cases, essential. What preoccupied me was how little it was acknowledged or admitted, that an objective and impartial appearance is a surface, and that the majority of filmed images come at the cost of having to alter reality in order to capture it.

I wanted, in proposing an alternative vision, to draw attention to the way in which all images construct truth, and to shine a light on how we were absorbing the media’s portrayal of places like Sangatte, often without question. For the journalistic depictions of the camp, were perhaps not only influencing the way we perceived the flow of migrants into Europe, but the political decision making process too.

The divisive discussions, which I participated in around Border, made me realise how imprisoned we still are in the belief that a representational or objective image is closer to truth, and more revealing of reality, while abstract images are often seen as ornamental and decorative. I was convinced that each approach was only a possible path into the subject: shards of truth, none of which could capture alone the terrible phenomenon, that was Sangatte.

Interestingly, such experiences were confined to Western audiences. Spectators with whom I had the chance to interact elsewhere, particularly those, on the run from war, or whose situations mirrored in some way that of the refugees, told me that they found the questions around Border’s abstraction, completely misdirected and irrelevant.

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What I carried away from Sangatte, and my research along the clandestine routes of Europe and its edges, sadly wasn’t caught on tape; the migrants, endlessly wove stories and created moments of beauty, and meaning, out of an almost hopeless situation. Often, just at the point that I feared that one of them had succumbed to exhaustion and the terrible conditions, he’d pick himself up, and invent a new way forward. There was enormous creativity and intelligence there.

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I called the video Border, not only in reference to the physical border, originating somewhere in the sea and stretching from Dover to the fields of Calais but in memory of all the borders, which the migrants faced. I was most haunted by the blurred border, which we create in our minds: the invisible line, which we each put down, in order to shut out the other, and say that another human being’s suffering, or point of view, or is not of our concern.

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In exile, people constantly re-invent themselves and shed things in order to adapt. Inadvertently they leave behind what they only later discover, they can’t recover. How much of a migrant’s story gets supressed because the telling would cause discomfort and confusion, and the distance from loved ones, has grown too great?

Is the new self, with its gaps in narrative, and untold secrets, a fiction? Or in travelling to the edges of experience, and confronting the self, that you never expected to confront, do you become the person, who you were always meant to be, and find a fragile home? The people, who I met while making Border and CARGO, taught me that character is a process, not something finite or fixed.                                       

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How to continue filming when the act of recording and looking at an image has radically changed, and the space in which we look at images, is an ever less communal and potentially transformative, one?

Is it still possible to draw the spectator into a space, where they can look at an image for the first time, without the uncanny impression that they already seen it, and all the images yet to come? 

Is there a way to push away the clutter, that clouds our vision, and simply look? Or has the act of looking changed forever?

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When, in 1992, I picked up an Arriflex for the first time, I knew that I was looking through a camera, designed for a person to go towards the other and discover life, documenting what they saw. Today the ubiquitous small cameras on our devices, serve as a means to transport our fixed identities everywhere, moving around inside a permanent gated community of the mind. I think of it amidst the constant clicking of cameras and taking of selfies in museums, as if we have become determined not to look, not to feel, not to risk experiencing life directly, without the safety of a camera to protect us, and shine our image back at us.

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In the museum in Lisbon, there is a completely black painting. Black appears to grow out of and belong to the canvas, instead of being painted onto it. When I initially discover it, my eyes take a few seconds to adjust, until slowly I make out a thick cross in its centre. Some children notice it. They crowd around, curious but are ushered on by impatient parents. Gradually, my eyes start to understand that black is not an absence or a dead end but a colour. I wait a long time. The black begins to float and all the tones and forms, hidden behind it, start to dance and reveal themselves; space opens. I am out beyond words, on the edge of perception.

I wonder how Ad Reinhardt moved from his work as an engaged and committed cartoonist to painting this. He said: “I am quite simply making the last paintings that anyone can make.”

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You ask what I wish for in terms of future imaging technologies. Cameras and gadgets, and the market’s need to access everything, have invaded our minds, and we are almost blind, our eyes satiated and restless, as we shine bright lights and technology into some of the last corners of human experience and emotion.

My wish does not concern a specific new technology, but how we might approach it. It is contained in a story:

A few decades ago, while teaching in China, the great literary and cultural critic, George Steiner met some archaeologists, who were digging up the terracotta armies. They were, he discovered to his astonishment, putting the earth back over large sections of the warriors, leaving instructions for future generations of archaeologists to locate them. Amazed, Mr Steiner asked them why. An archaeologist explained to him that each figure had a different expression on its face, and that those, which they were keeping, would fill their eyes with wonder for their own lifetimes. They wanted to leave to people of the future, the joy of uncovering more.(3)

I dream that we will one day learn the wisdom and courage of those archaeologists, who left part of what most counted to them, invisible and buried in the earth - for the future.


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“Technology will save us if it doesn’t wipe us out first” (Pete Seeger)

(Berlin, July 2014/ amended 2015)




(1)The TRV900 was replaced by the TRV950, and then a small High Definition camera, the HDV 1080i, which was unable to record in low light. Alienating to film with, its settings were only accessible via a menu, that you had to call up on the viewfinder’s display, scrolling through long lists of options, superimposed on the very image, that you were trying to record. The magical process, whereby a filmmaker almost becomes one with their subject, while filming, was broken, shots invariably lost. It would not have been possible to film in the fields with it or with any of the other small compact HD cameras that came out in the following years (while the large professional HD cameras, that could film in low light, were too heavy for me to hold still, and prohibitively expensive).

(2) Because of the EU laws, obliging all migrants to apply for asylum in the first European country reached, I made a promise to those whom I met, that I would not film their faces in a way that the could be recognized, or wait a decade before showing any images in which they could be clearly seen; and so the night and the naturally occurring blurred nature footage helped me. The only exception was during the demonstration after the camp closure (at the end of Border), when many of the migrants, had become so desperate, that they had asked to be filmed directly, in order to draw attention to their plight.

(3) George Steiner television interview by Wim Kayzer: Of Beauty and Consolation VPRO, 2000