The Days and Years of My Travels

Olaf MöllerThe 51st Pesaro Film Festival Catalogue, 2005.

By Olaf Möller

Laura Waddington is afraid of flying: She doesn’t board a plane, ever (well, ever….). Instead, she travels by bus or train or ship – the latter, the most archaic in a lot of ways, being the locus of two videos, ZONE (1995) and CARGO (2001). The old-fashioned ways used nowadays mainly by those lacking the funds for luxuries like time (by the way: train never means 1st, always 2nd or 3rd class, and ship more often than not means freighter, not cruise ship.) The world slows down like that while growing back again to an older yet more natural size. It’s 19th century redux, befitting an oeuvre with a social agenda which for so many of the airplane-internet-mobile-set, Today’s People, feels passé but isn’t for the majority of human beings on this planet, Earth. The slowness makes one see peculiarities and uniquenesses – no such flippancies as, “This-and-that film from Taiwan perfectly expresses the economic malaise of Peru”, or some such. That’s the way the world looks from an airplane hurrying the skies across borders and peoples and cultures, blurring all differences into a single superficial movement.  It’s the market’s, the management’s perception, Globalizorama.

Laura Waddington, instead, is always precisely There, crossing all those land and seascapes, often for weeks and months, becoming one with the moment, place and time, savouring its particular flavour. It’s a way of moving in the world which gets one close to – often in close quarters with – people others just pass by, not noticing them or taking their presence=service simply for granted. To fully experience such journeys, their potentials, one has to be open enough and willing to accept one’s occasional needs – for help, food, shelter, love and/or friendship – and one has to be unafraid, open, also for strangers and their kindness.

One cannot see this in the works themselves. Or rather, it’s there but not on the surface. It becomes present only when one knows. (When introducing her works, Waddington more often than not pretty soon starts talking about her fear of flying and how that influences her artistic approach=process, so…).

Another approach, actually a kind of trajectory or even vector, is to be found in the work itself, always the best place to start anyway. One doesn’t need to look too deep, it’s pretty much out there in the open, for Waddington’s works carry their heart on their sleeve, as they want, need to be understood. Starting with her ‘maiden film’ The Visitor (1992) and ending with Border (2004) – after which, she says, something completely different has to come and happen – the work ‘describes’ a movement out into the open. From the enclosed spaces of work and home in The Visitor, breeding desire, which is (also) the need to get away – each fuck another country, and each desire squashed the go-by-go nobody wants. On with ZONE and CARGO to the enclosed spaces of journeys by ship in the company of some of the most wretched human beings on earth, seaman whose working=living conditions have considerably worsened in the last 20, 30 years. A tribe of the working class that in several ways has no fatherland. More often than not they’re prisoners of their vessels, its flag, as well as their own passports (if they have one): they can’t leave when the ship enters a harbour, more often than not they have to contain with looking at yet another country. On to a most symbolic final destination, the Red Cross-refugee camp at Sangatte in Border, where she stayed for months with refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq, men and women who’ve crossed thousands and thousands of miles escaping certain-seeming doom and who’re now trying to catch an illegal ride through the channel tunnel to yet another promised land, the one of hope and glory. It’s her sole video that’s basically set only in the wide open, with refugees, silhouettes in the sheltering darkness, moving in the wind and the rain, crossing landscapes, anonymous to the eye yet known by name to the narrator, Laura Waddington.
That her first cinematographic journey – for that is her oeuvre till now: a journey, also to herself – would end among refugees has a certain logic in Waddington’s own life. She lived for several years as an illegal immigrant in the USA, and her current life in France is also not without problems; in her fatherland, England, she doesn’t want to stay, for artistic reasons.

So, in a certain way, it’s also Laura Waddington standing there in Border, finally being able to face that which is there. As for a long time she was afraid of even looking through a camera, making the images herself. The Lost Days (1999) was made by asking friends around the world to shoot images for her which she then refilmed and refilmed until they got the unified look of somebody not really looking, just passing and taping. ZONE, then, was made with a spy camera filming ‘accidentally’. CARGO, it’s true, has Waddington again looking through the view finder, making the images, but it seems that she’s still a little reluctant to truly be there – or, let’s say, she’s getting back into the motions. With Border she has, if one might say so, finally found herself. There’s a heroic compassion of quasi-Kurosawa’ian dimensions to each image, a justness to each movement that in its humbleness speaks gloriously of all the growth and learning done in all those years on the road.

Also, something got lost on that journey: the need to shield oneself by a layer of fiction. The Lost Days is, if compared with Waddington’s following works, fictitious on several levels. There’s the fiction of the story told – a woman running away from a relation(=)ship wrecked – a story that was there before the images. And there’s the fiction of the images made by so many yet made over by just one. And there’s another layer: Waddington doesn’t narrate the story herself – and thereby authenticate the images – (That, too.) There’s the voice of Chantal Akerman for the prologue (mirroring somewhat the prologue of her “Histories d’Amerique: Food, Family and Philosophy” (1989)) and there’s Marusha Gagro for the story itself.

That said, The Lost Days is actually supposed to be the story of somebody alien to herself: Travelling the world but seeing only the same everywhere which, in the end, is the blurred self one cannot confront, one’s loneliness (in The Visitor and The Lost Days homosexuality becomes, for the self-centred/lost protagonists, a symbol of exclusion. Men reject her in her essence… Read: The body as prison, a fortress of solitude). ZONE and CARGO both still feature comparable stories of love lost/fled but in a more muted key and used more obviously as distancing devices. It ends with Border: There’s no need anymore to distance oneself – now, there’s the need for contact, to be there.

Finally, there’s something deeply erotic to Waddington’s works, particularly since The Lost Days when she stopped – then out of material necessity – to work with images running at normal speed and started to use slowed down moments made more passionate by Simon Fisher Turner’s soundscapes. Travelling becomes one with loving, the drawn-out, hyper-present moments become memories grasped at, the way one commonly tries to elongate the flow, fleeting moments of passion. The difference between passion and compassion vanishes, borders fall, each body a vessel of change.

Olaf Möller “The Days and Years of My Travels”, The 51st Pesaro International Film Festival Catalogue, Italy, 2005