Gardens of the Moon : The Modern Cine-Nocturne
By Scott M. MacDonald
Border (2004) by Laura Waddington
British video-maker Laura Waddington’s cinenocturne Border is an unusually direct and powerful invocation of a political struggle, a set of events that took place in France in 2002 but that continue to have obvious implications for many nations. Border is a meditation on Waddington’s many days and nights spent with Afghan and Iraqi refugees in and around the Sangatte Red Cross refugee camp in northern France near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel. As is true in Kristallnacht and Innocence and Despair, the political elements of Border are filtered through the emotional consciousness of the filmmaker, but here that consciousness is more obvious: Waddington narrates Border, providing information about the refugees and her experiences with them. She has commented on her use of narration:
After, with Border I had the constant feeling I couldn’t communicate what I’d seen in Sangatte. I knew it was impossible for me to speak from the point of view of the refugees. All I could do was speak about what it is to come from a societymthat allowed this situation to happen. I knew I could only leave a very small and incomplete trace. I think Border is a video full of loneliness, and one in which I am mistrustful of my own attempt to speak. In the voice over, I tried to say very little and to talk in an understated way, in the hope the audience would keep in their minds, the incompleteness of the picture I gave.48
Filmed at night, using only the illumination from the lights of passing cars and sometimes streetlights and searchlights, Waddington’s depiction of the refugees is deeply poignant, both visually lovely and full of the deep respect she came to have for them; her narration explains, “Even when the refugees came back gassed or injured, they’d talk to me so warmly and sometimes laugh and sing. I’d rarely met people so dignified and strong.” Individual Iraqi or Afghani refugees are seen hiding in brush beside a road, walking toward or away from the camera, demonstrating against the French decision to close Sangatte. Early in the film,a young man is seen dancing with a blanket under a streetlight (Figure 10.13) – he seems to evoke the powerful, enduring spirit of the men and women Waddington met and, in some instances, traveled through the darkness with.
Waddington’s video camera is handheld and sometimes moves with her gestures so that it captures and creates streaks of light. The shots of men hiding in a field near a road are granular, reminiscent of some of Blakelock’s more abstract Moonlights; the blanket dancer’s spirited movements evoke flickering flame; and within the action of the demonstration, as refugees get knocked around, Waddington’s camera is expressive of the violence: the images captured by the camera look like abstract expressionist painting. While these stylistic aspects of the film might strike viewers as “arty,” in fact, with a single exception, what we see in Border is precisely what the camera recorded. Waddington has explained:
It (Border) was shot with a very small mini-DV camera with the shutter open wide since the only ambient light was from distant lamps on the motorways or passing car headlights and that is indeed what led to the stuttering effect. I didn’t work at all on the image, except that because the police would sometimes flash very bright torches into my lens if they found me, I began to develop white points all over my images, which I believe were burnt pixels. I passed the images through a computer in post production to remove those white spots but I didn’t change or correct anything else.49
In other words, the beauty of the nocturne here is less an artistic gesture than an effect of the collaboration between the video camera and night itself.
Throughout Border, the visuals are contextualized by music composed by Simon Fisher Turner –night music, reminiscent of Debussy –which begins even before the visuals and is interrupted only during the violence of the demonstration.50 Once the music and visuals are under way, Waddington begins commenting, in a quiet, somewhat nostalgic voice, about her memories of meeting with, running with, and in many cases losing contact with refugees; what these experiences meant to her; and, insofar as she has been able to determine, what they meant to those refugees she was able to make contact with later on, many of whom wanted only to forget their experience of being on the run.
Border suggests different forms of solitude from the other nocturnes that have been discussed here. The refugees are, of course, isolated from their homelands and in many instances from loved ones, and they function out of sight of all but those charged with controlling or harassing them in and around the camp (and the few who, like Waddington, made records of their presence). And while Waddington mentions near the end of Border that “more than sixty thousand refugees passed through there,” she herself is isolated from these men, women, and children,not only in terms of her background and as a person witnessing and evoking their plight, but also in the deeper sense that she is unable to ameliorate the suffering she sees. All she can do is record the little that can be seen of the refugees struggling through the night to find their way to England and perhaps to a better life. In this case, the nocturnal darkness is simultaneously a literal darkness (one never lit by natural light, but only by the lights of the institutions charged with keeping the refugees under control and in Sangatte) and an ethical one: these refugees are the casualties of political decisions in Western nations that are now refusing to accept the responsibility for the damage their decisions have caused.
In its way, Border is as beautiful, even as romantic, as the musical nocturnes I discussed earlier and as Whistler’s and Blakelock’s moonlit landscapes, not because Waddington is comfortable with what she films or is ignoring the suffering her imagery cannot quite document, but because she realizes, in retrospect, that the experience of meeting these people was powerful and revelatory. What Waddington was witness to, and what she tries to communicate, is the beauty and strength of a group of people motivated by hope to attempt what seems impossible. What she saw in the darkness around Sangatte was always moving and sometimes tragic, but it was also a form of spiritual light in the darkness, something to be celebrated and remembered, brought insofar as possible out of the shadows.
Extract from “Gardens of the Moon : The Modern Cine-Nocturne” by Scott M. MacDonald in the book “Technology and the Garden” (Publ. Dumbarton Oaks, US 2014, edited by Michael G. Lee and Kenneth I. Helphand)
48 From Olaf Möller, “Interview with Laura Waddington,” in the 51st Pesaro International Film Festival Catalogue (2005), available at http://www.laurawaddington.com, accessed December 19, 2012.
49 E-mail from Laura Waddington to the author, June 1, 2010.
50 Waddington has explained how the music was arrived at: “Simon had not seen the footage but I’d discussed with him via email how I was looking for a soundtrack that would be almost like a cloud lying beneath the film— something between music and sound, very repetitive to mimic the way the refugees went constantly back and forth to the fields. Before beginning and following on from our discussions Simon decided to send me a CD of tryouts and experiments he was working on. Amongst them there was a small section of music, a few minutes long which was a loop he had made of a sound that originally lasted only a few seconds. I called Simon and asked if it was possible for me to just take that small section and repeat it constantly throughout the film and he agreed and that’s what I did” (ibid).