by Michael Pattison
In the six films brought together in All Happy Families, the camera mediates, distils, liberates. The blood bonds depicted or hinted at here are sites of pain, curiosity, hidden depths – and revelation.
In My Mother Resents Me, Victoria Linares Villegas wonders if her mother has always been a sad person, and works towards an understanding of her own relationship to her that draws on old photographs and new discoveries – an exploration that takes the artist back to the Dominican Republic’s former dictatorship, and the idea that anxiety, solitude and sorrow can persist through generations.
Oreet Ashery’s Dying Under Your Eyes, similarly, is an emotionally complex foray into the artist’s relationship with her parents – an exploration catalysed by her father’s death that encompasses sleuth work, testimony and play. In the similarly wide-ranging At Home But Not At Home, Suneil Sanzgiri deploys a range of image-based tools to work – remotely and intimately – through a set of questions with his father, who grew up in an India under Portuguese rule, relating to identity and diasporic memory.
In the bold, visionary world of Transparent, the world is., Yuri Muraoka connects a snapshot of one family unit – a woman and two daughters – to the world as it was in 2018, deploying geometry, animation and colour to wholly singular effect.
In the last two films of the programme, family is rendered oblique, made abstract. Eric Butler’s Dysphoria is a rapid-fire triptych through a past, present and a future self – a dizzying procession through a family album whose would-be after-images are muted by equally intense sequences of mesh and letters. Hinting at intimacies unfolding just out of shot, Erica Sheu’s Transcript (the other version) combines exceptionally crisp close-ups of gypsophila and cyanotypes with the sound of a baby’s mutter to construct a self-enclosed world of shadow and light.
MY MOTHER RESENTS ME
Victoria Linares Villegas – 6’44 – Dominican Republic
DYING UNDER YOUR EYES
Oreet Ashery – 27’00 – UK
AT HOME BUT NOT AT HOME
Suneil Sanzgiri – 10’15 – USA
TRANSPARENT, THE WORLD IS.
Yuri Muraoka – 7’18 – Japan
Eric Butler – 4’40 – USA
臨摹 (另一種版本) TRANSCRIPT (THE OTHER VERSION)
Erica Sheu – 3’14 – USA / Taiwan
Victoria Linares Villegas, My Mother Resents Me
A film like this can germinate and gestate for quite some time before work on the actual production begins. What catalysed you, finally, to make it?
I made this film out of impulse. I was going through some changes both professionally and personally. The idea may have been in my subconscious. I saw those pictures all of my life. They were in my parents’ closet.
The film teases at further investigations, thematic expansions, ‘bigger pictures’ – but perhaps not deeper or greater understandings. For something so emotionally complex, the film is surprisingly short. You’ve exercised and demonstrated an impressive control over the material. How did you approach gathering and presenting this autobiography?
I used to write poems when I was a teenager but later, I traded them for scripts. I often used to write them when I was sad or heartbroken. So, I sort of went back to my teenage self and wrote about what I was feeling. After I wrote it, I went on to shoot footage with my former partner. It was just us experimenting with the camera in her house. Then I started searching through all the family albums and chose photos that went along with what I was saying and proceeded to do the stop motion animation as well. It was all a very sensorial experience as I went through the editing process. Sound really made the piece.
Oreet Ashery, Dying Under Your Eyes
The film opens with what is almost a challenge that you set yourself: making a film about death and grief following centuries of white men doing the same. To what extent was this a kind of self-justifying strategy on your part, and/or to what extent was it a serious concern for you in beginning to make and develop the film?
Good question! A very close friend of mine who is a white man said that to me when I first told him about the idea to make a film about the death of my father. He literally said, ‘Don’t do it! Men have done it for centuries.’ That conversation gave me some self-justifying framework in trying to speak from my own experience only and stick to telling a very simple story. Not getting into pathos was a serious concern, so the answer to your questions is both. I quickly learnt that one of the hardest things is telling a simple story. It is the first time I was creating a narrative with a beginning, middle and end and it’s not easy. I kept wanting to get diverted into other stories such as one about a Palestinian graveyard in Jerusalem that have been dug out to be made into a park, but that’s for another film.
You will have made this film again and again, we might say, in terms of imagining and developing it, devising and shooting it, editing and revising it, watching and exhibiting it… Are these stages distinct, for you, or part of a single, continuous process?
Another good question that takes me right back to that whole period of editing and watching and editing and watching and editing and then watching and watching and watching with other people and watching and watching and developing mighty migraines that I never had before and which took a few months to leave me. The body keeps the score. It all merged into one and it was also very healing. It was like an active grieving process in which I got to get closer to my father.
How does a sustained exploration of something as painful as grief affect one’s grief? How might any artistic delve into something as inevitably personal as a family death affect one’s understanding of that family death?
I did learn a lot by pulling all the material I had into one film. I never planned to make a film, I filmed my father just for myself. When I decided to make the film and started editing, my remit was quite limited in that sense but at the same time limitless. There are hundreds of films I could have made with the ready footage and at the same time only the one. I learnt a lot about grief and about death. I realised that for the living dying and death are perplexing, like a riddle, a mystery to be solved. I tried to find an explanation as to what actually happened to my dad, but I didn’t find any. Like a bad detective. I looked for answers and explanations so I wouldn’t have to feel the pain. When I finished the film, I lost my father again.
Suneil Sanzgiri, At Home But Not At Home
Thinking about the Stuart Hall quote at the start, about history being full of things not realised. What kinds of ‘things’ – feelings, intentions, interests – did the film start with?
So much of this work started from a place of not knowing – a not knowing of my own history, a not knowing what it was like to live under colonialism two-fold from the British and the Portuguese. I approached this subject matter the only way I knew how – through images. And with these images came a feeling of remoteness, a feeling so many of us can relate to now given our present isolation, both self-imposed and state-mandated. But I realised I didn’t have to feel isolated despite my remoteness, and that being remote is powerful in itself. So I started using these remote tools – Skype, drone footage, Google Earth, photo-scanning, animation, archival material, 16mm, and film clips – to help me break through the binary of here/there, self/other.
Your film is full of questions, propositions, provocations. To what extent did making it bring forth answers?
I don’t know if we can ever really look to art for answers. This work in a lot of ways was about a process for me – a process of understanding and a process of creation. How can I create something out of an absence? To go back to the Stuart Hall quote at the beginning of the film, Hall talks about diaspora existing in a void. For me a lot of this film brought about the ability to bask in that void, the void of history, the void of memory, the void of identity. For me, it was never about finding answers, but rather the search for understanding. Diaspora is a beautiful place to exist because it is so rich and so full, and if anything, being able to connect to that place is the only answer I needed.
Yuri Muraoka, Transparent, the world is.
This is in simple terms a film about a mother and her two daughters. But it’s also much more than that. The animation, the geometry, the portraits of faces…
This film is about an intense dichotomy inside and outside of me. It goes back and forth between the personality and the world or society. My daughters become social, universal existences from personal existences. The definition of red extends to life and appears as a powerless and religious Daruma doll which loses its arms and legs. And the world which is made of a mix of various colours becomes transparent. If you keep sticking with the personality, it changes to the world.
The colour scheme is extremely vivid. Could you say a little about those vivid reds, and the high-contrast black-and-white, what they might represent to you as an artist?
White and black are basic elements of myself. They express ambivalence, which is about to split me into two. And, when I face the realities of this world through of my injured bloody eyes, the world is always seen in red. Plus, sky blue is a symbolic colour of my adolescence. It derives from my room whose wallpaper was sky blue. I spent my adolescence in this room. It is kind of utopia.
Eric Butler, Dysphoria
Talk us through the family photos in the first section of your film. What kind of understanding of these images, or of these kinds of images, is your film trying to arrive at?
I find that personal history restricts the self to be one thing. Every action taken or done against or to you cements this idea of ‘you’ in everyone’s minds. Of course, everyone has different experiences with everyone else which shows, on a larger scale, that our identity is fluid and should be, but on a smaller scale – like your experience with a close friend – cements their idea of you, making it more difficult to take actions they would never dream of you taking.
Having said all this, the first part of the film is a reconciliation with my personal past. The present voice, at most, pops just above the surface of the crushing music and disorienting images to try to take control of the past (the first part), the present (the second part), and the future (the third part). As you can tell by the difficulty of parsing out the words from all the other sensory information, I do not allow myself or the audience the privilege to put ourselves in power over the time or environmental element of our identity. Past, present, future, and our surroundings are constantly being expressed through us.
Those sunny photos, that warm and warming texture… and yet the soundtrack is quite aggressive, disconcerting. The film doesn’t relent. The final third has a kind of sustained relentlessness, making an image in itself of repeated letters and words.
The third part is an expression of my idea of what the future actually is. The future in my mind is a conglomeration of ideas and what else can express ideas in the Platonic sense more efficiently than words? The words – SPIN, TWIN, MIN – that flash by are a direct reference to the free will theorem by Conway and Kochen, which ‘asserts that should such a freedom exist (free will), then the same freedom must apply to the elementary particles.’ For someone from the USA, the idea of freedom is deeply entangled with the future and to think that freedom may exist on a level that isn’t at all concerned about anyone or anything’s ‘being’ or ‘self’ interests me.
Erica Sheu, Transcript (the other version)
There are voices here, and there are inscriptions. Of what is Transcript a transcript?
Light transcribes the shadow of objects on sun print paper and cyanotype-coating film strips. The traces shown after developing are the transcript. The objects in the film are symbolled as the remains of intimacy between my parents. The recorded voices in Transcript (the other version) are the (oral) transcript of a mental surrounding. There is anxiety but also love in the voices. One of the questions I raised in the film is if a child is the transcript of their family, their caretakers, and how influences are ‘printed’ on them almost eternally.
The sound here – to say nothing of the light – is so evocative of an afternoon family gathering, of something happening close to if not immediately within the filmed vicinity. What was your approach, with Jenstar Hacker, in editing and mixing sound for this?
My friend and I had a conversation on how an experimental film can be a documentary. We discussed if Transcript was finished while my idea with the familial influence might not be clear, although the film has shown publicly in silence. I love it being silent, and think it makes sense to watch it silently projected on film in the theatre, so one can indulge in the details, which yields more sensation for individual interpretations. However, I was intrigued to explore Transcript’s potentials. As a result, I guess you can call it an experiment, or an exercise, I invited Jenstar Hacker into the project.
I had collaborations with Jenstar since 2017. I felt safe to expose my vulnerability in front of her, and I’m very grateful to have a friend like her. For the sound in Transcript (the other version), we started from a phone conversation in which I told her my idea behind the film and its structure and emotion – how it is a meditation process which involves observation and rumination, and how the emotion shifts from one to another. I sent her some voice memo recorded from my phone with very basic descriptions.
I have a habit of recording the sounds of my surroundings when I am getting overwhelmed. For instance, the voices at the beginning of the film are both of my parents on the phone simultaneously, in which they were both instructing the receivers on the other side of the phones. Jenstar doesn’t speak Mandarin, so I was curious about how she would capture the dynamic of the voices. Another question I raised in the film is if one can connect with the feelings and emotions of personal affairs even without knowing the facts. I thought Jenstar connected them really well, not just because of her keen sense of sound, but also of how she knew me well. From these clues, Jenstar completed the soundtrack with her windchime performance and foley recordings.
The mixing process was magical as well. I gave her very abstract feelings about what I was looking for. She frowned sometimes when hearing my vague descriptions, but would give me something that felt right soon after. I’m always amazed by how she can capture and elevate the energy of my film.