Beyond Representation, Into Life in Border
By Elena Marcheschi
Translated from the Italian
The dimension of migration and the impossible paths of refugees are at the heart of the work of the English filmmaker Laura Waddington’s (1970, London)29 nomadic observer who, has succeeded in portraying these subjects with great sensitivity, in a body of work that operates, first and foremost as human and social research and secondly as artistic investigation. With a literary studies background, and having lived as an illegal migrant on a trajectory that took her from Europe to New York and back, Waddington began by making independent short films and videos with a highly experimental vocation, before her continued experiences living around the world, brought to the centre of her life and gaze the very painful experiences of an exiled humanity in desperate search of a place to live, to rebuild dignity, to find peace. Her experiences in the Middle East, around the Balkans, in Kurdistan were for the filmmaker the physical and mental terrain on which she began to forge her own filmic gaze, one that goes beyond a journalistic viewpoint, displaying, instead, a willingness to transparently adhere to reality and a visceral desire to observe, understand and give visibility and voice to an invisible and tortured humanity. It is out of these conditions that Border (France-Britain, 2004, 27’)30 was born.
In 2002, Laura Waddington spent a few months in the countryside around the Red Cross camp in Sangatte, a small French town located in the Nord-Pas de Calais region, refusing to join the government-authorized journalists, given access to the Red Cross set up.31 There, she closely followed Afghan and Iraqi refugees as they attempted to pass through the Channel tunnel connecting France to the UK. Joining them, with a small DV camera, she filmed their nocturnal routine, the escape attempts, the chases through the fields, the sporadic waiting, the repressive interventions of the police, up until the clashes that took place around the closure of the camp. The images, always shot in the dark, grainy, confused, trembling, convey the yearning of submerged and desperate lives, with a courage and a clarity of gaze that does not yield to reality, but which finds in it the strength of representation. Tireless, attentive, lucid, Laura Waddington restores to us a point of view that does not act upon the refugees, but moves with them, in the cold of the night, and the fear of being captured and not making it. As Moroccan filmmaker and critic Bouchra Khalili wrote, […]
this is perhaps what is most essential in the cinema of Laura Waddington, a certain capacity for negotiating with fear, with the visible and its requirements – what could be called a constant moral negotiation with reality,32.
It is therefore not a question of a hand-to-hand confrontation with reality, but of a total, transparent adhesion to it, as if the artist were searching for a visual cancelation of her subjective gaze, to become part of those fields, of those panting breaths, of the attempts to race towards a new life.
The images of Border, in proposing themselves as direct testimony, in an inorganic and at times hallucinatory language, communicate the violent alienation of existences on the margins, located not only at the borders of states and at the borders of societies, but also at the borders of human understanding. And if it is possible to trace a beauty in this, it reaches the eyes of the spectators subtly through the repetition of the gesture of escape, and through the very human obstinacy to want to pursue one’s purpose, one’s desperate desire to cross the border.
While from a visual point of view, the author has sought to transmit the most “objective” reality possible, her true and compassionate presence emerges in her voice-over narration that fills the entire video, unfolding along with the background music. flowing like a continuous wave, always the same and incessant. Here too, the writing is neither coverage based nor journalistic, lacking in sensationalism and the will to report. The filmmaker unveils a sort of intimate diary and, whereas the sense of the images was to fix a reality in the viewers’ imaginary, the words flow like a whisper that reaches directly to the heart. The personal and emotional story of her own experience intersects with the dramatic stories of the refugees that she recounts, where which paths strewn with loss, death, but also stubborn hope, emerge. Among them too, are the bitter reflections of those who made it through, those who managed to pass through that tunnel, without however having found the world they had expected beyond that border.
The overall effect of the video is powerful and disorienting. Laura Waddington immerses herself in the drama of this cross-section of life, observing it so closely as to exceed even the most radical requests for adherence to reality advocated by the avant-garde, underground cinema and cinema verité. It is such a delicate and crucial contact that the documentation of a personal experience explodes into a universal abstraction full of meaning, triggering a series of questions and reflections that require the spectator to take a human and political position. The filmed material, confused and fragmented, as the scholar Eva Kuhn argued:
is a witness to its object, without showing this object. Or, showing here is always connected with concealing, and the filmmaker’s testament implies the inaccessibility of the visible. This approach testifies to a media-ethical stance: Laura Waddington’s protagonists hide in the noise of the image. She protects them from being dis-covered […]This runs entirely contrary to conventional TV journalism, or even to critically intended documentary films, in which faces often serve as the most important carriers of identification.33
Light years away from conventional cinema, far beyond the formalism of experimental cinema, radically opposed to the language of television, refusing the informative stance of documentary, the author shares in Border her active experience of video-militancy in action, working on the frontier of images and with a sense of emptiness and loss – anchoring inside her memory and that of the spectators, almost like an oxymoron, the undefined presence of those without a face, without documents, who go in search of a future, reclaiming their right to exist, to be recognised by the world, and to live.
Laura Waddington’s uncompromising images manage to create a fertile short-circuit between reality and imagination, between testimony and representation and, alive and incisive “like fireflies “,34 they lightly pierce the darkness of the ethical void into which contemporary society seems to have sunk.
“Oltre la rappresentazione, dentro la vita in Border di Laura Waddington” from the book “Videoestetiche dell’emergenza: L’immagine della crisi nella sperimentazione audiovisiva” by Elena Marcheschi (publ. Edizioni Kaplan, Torino, Italy, 2015)
29 For the biography of the artist confult http://www.laurawaddington.com/.
30 The video can be seen on the page https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0×42CxOomqQ. Border was a great success and received international awards and recognition. In 2005, retrospectives of the author’s work were organised at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in Germany and at the 41st International New Cinema Festival in Pesaro.
31 Cfr l’intervista di Filippo Del Lucchese, The Two Speeds of “Frontera”. Interview with Laura Waddington, visibile alla pagina http://www.laurawaddington.com/article.php?article=13.
32 Bouchra Khalili, The Pain of Seeing. The Videos of Laura Waddington, in AA. VV., 51. Internationale Kurzfilmtage Festivalkatalog, Karl Maria Laufen, Oberhausen, 2005, p. 171. La traduzione è mia.
33 Eva Kuhn, Border: The Videographic Traces by Laura Waddington as a Cinematographic Memorial, paper presented during the conference: Images of Illegalized Immigration presso l’Università di Basilea in data 01/09/2009. Rintracciabile alla pagina http://www.laurawaddington.com/article.php?article=41. La traduzione è mia.
34 Georges Didi-Huberman in his recent baook Survivance des lucioles, Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 2009 (tr. it. Come le lucciole, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino, 2010), traces the lines of a “politics of survival” in the face of the obscure contemporary barbarism that, in his opinion, can be contained by seeking meaning and support also starting with the reading and understanding of film images. Among the various examples listed, from Godard to Lanzmann to Resnais, Laura Waddington’s Border occupies a prominent place.