by Rhea Storr
Voice and gesture weave their way through I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On, whether it is through meditative song, an intimate account, many voices rendered unintelligible or a broken command. In each of the seven films in this programme, there’s an inkling that filmmaking enables an element of control not afforded to the body.
In Spontaneous, Lori Felker recounts a miscarriage. Choosing to describe rather than show the experience, which unfolds at Sundance Film Festival (cue obscure references to John Hamm), Felker evokes the struggle to work in a male-dominated field and a woman’s body acting against social expectations.
Through a landscape dream sequence with few written words, Ana Bravo Pérez’s Woman with a Suitcase asserts the value of the performative in relation to the fields upon which one dreams. Julia Parks‘ The Girl Who Forgets How to Walk offers up precise descriptions – and the poems of Cumbrian writer Kate Davis, which diligently recount the process of learning to walk following a childhood diagnosis of polio.
Considering sound over language, Colleen Pesci’s Cat Secrets explores the purr of a cat, its frequency and hum, as a method of healing. Cat Secrets’ narrator spends much time in the bath, exploring what a body should do to heal, a practical sensibility with an intimate home movie feel. Hannah Beadman explores a different approach to the body in Aphrodite, in which a beautiful grey texture flattens a scene of bathers. Light on water and social bodies at play are interwoven with airy voices, singing without words – although their emotion is clear.
While Power Grab by Nicola Singh and Helen Collard focuses on the interplay of bodies in opposition and harmony, Svava Tergesen’s Aural Fixation obscures language through many competing voices and focusing repeatedly on the mouth.
Lori Felker – 14’00 – USA
WOMAN WITH A SUITCASE
Ana Bravo Pérez – 8’06 – Argentina/Colombia/Netherlands
THE GIRL WHO FORGETS HOW TO WALK
Julia Parks – 16’30 – UK
Colleen Pesci – 8’08 – USA
Hannah Beadman – 3’40 – USA
Nicola Singh, Helen Collard – 6’11 – UK
Svava Tergesen – 3’03 – Canada
Lori Felker, Spontaneous
The narration here is raw, confessional, direct. There’s a whole complexity of emotions being conveyed, both in the remembering of painful events and in the painful events remembered. This is a potentially loaded question given the title of your film, but to what extent is a personal script like this edited, thought through, revised?
It took me a long time to finish the writing for this, mainly because I didn’t know what it was. The event occurred in January of 2016 and as soon as I was back from Park City I started taking down a few notes, but really the story version grew and solidified as I re-told my story to friends and family over the next few months. That following summer I was pregnant again, then Trump got elected, and I found myself marching at seven months pregnant with thousands of women with PRO CHOICE painted onto the belly of my shirt. In that time, I was thinking a lot about where a person begins and ends and who makes choices.
I spent more time writing about what happened in story form. I sat in coffee shops, notably pregnant, tears falling down my face, remembering and trying to find the voice that was in my head at the time. I thought that perhaps the story would be a good blog post and that other women would need it just like I needed all of the miscarriage stories I found online for my own education and comfort. I read so many. Adding up all of the possibilities and feelings helped me to find my space in the collective narrative.
But, I’m not usually a writer, so I tucked it away in the cloud, not sure of exactly where it would go. I was distracted by a new kid, but would periodically log in and add another detail from my memory. In the spring and summer of 2019, I finally ‘saw’ the movie version of it. I pictured that torso, lying down in her own back yard, resigned to telling her story, microphone in hand, frustrated, dreaming back into memory, headless, made only from the section of herself that features prominently in the tale.
Then a bunch of states in the US started to push for stricter anti-abortion laws that also closed down women’s health clinics, suggested that miscarried foetuses need to have a funeral, and just generally confused their one religious focal point with so many other aspects of women’s health and rights. I was furious and all of a sudden it felt like my story could add to the conversation. That woman lying in her backyard had something she needed to say. Once I was sure I was making the film, I mainly had to keep cutting the text to keep it moving and a reasonable length. I wanted it to be 10 minutes, but in the end I needed the 14 minutes to say the minimum of what I wanted to say. I’m still thinking about publishing the fuller version of the story that takes more like 20 – 25 minutes to read.
The image of – and tension between – a mind making decisions and a body actively fighting against it is very powerful. To what extent did this amplify or complicate the decisions that had to be made during the creative process; did you find yourself questioning creative decisions more than usual, given how close the material is?
Yes! I love this question. One of the main ways this tension presented itself was in deciding whether to be honest about what the voice in my head was saying when I was scared and in pain, or if I wanted to re-write it to sound more like me now, or me on any other day. I don’t often walk around thinking, ‘There are so many fucking boys…’ Even the use of the word ‘boys’ is really kind of mean and condescending, but when you’re sweaty and lonely, you’re mean in your head. I just wanted to talk about how I was feeling with someone I trusted and have someone look me in the eye and really understand when I said, ‘It feels like 10,000 periods at once.’
I also share little jokes and quips that were fleeting private thoughts, a way for me to amuse myself, and it was embarrassing to put them in the piece at first. But I decided that if the film was anything, it had to be true to me and it had to put people in my body/head in the moment. To feel my frustration and pain, you have to hear it and see it. This also meant I had to re-record the voiceover numerous times to get the right tone. Early on, a friend told me she liked the voiceover, but that I was pretty snarky. There’s some snark, but I wanted it to be sadder, more self-reflective. So I recorded it again and almost cried while reading it and that version sounded too sad, none of the ‘jokes’ worked. So I tried relaxing on my couch while recording it and avoiding the idea of ‘tone’, but instead imagining myself storytelling at a party which, for the sake of making it interesting, would have to go fast and run the emotional gamut.
Julia Parks, The Girl Who Forgets How to Walk
Your film takes its name from a book of poems by Kate Davis. Could you tell us a bit about your relationship to the poetry cited here, and to the landscapes depicted?
My initial encounter with Kate’s work was through a live performance in Barrow in late 2018. When I was later asked to make the film, I first started by dipping into the book at random whilst on the train which travels along the west coast of Cumbria. Looking back at my initial notes, I wrote down:
the land – hospital – childhood – disability – cruelty – secrecy – whispers – deep time – loss – the sea – geology – awe – the past and present – ageing – rhyme and repetition – sinister – shame – concealment – symmetry – pattern – the body
Together we walked the limestone pavements around Urswick, on the Furness Peninsula, visited the farmhouse and the farming neighbours she grew up alongside. We traced the ancient tracks through woodland and down to the tarn. All these places and people are referred to in some way across the book.
Throughout the filmmaking process, Kate and I worked alongside one another, talking, observing and discussing choices of images to film. These discussions informed some of our decisions. Kate talked about the way she and her granddaughter had found a snail shell full of maggots on a drystone wall locally – so this image, although not directly referred to in the poetry, felt relevant to the work and the place.
The poems eventually revealed themselves. Nine felt they represented the themes across the book including the element of time from childhood to now – and the effect of having polio and learning to navigate the shifting landscape.
How did your research into Kate’s polio inform your approach to images and editing?
Before making the film, I knew very little about polio and it was not until spending time with Kate and the poetry book that I really began to understand the disease and the different ways it affected the body.
Kate’s book refers to the many apparatuses she saw during her time in the isolation hospital – the iron lungs, the leg braces, the slings. Her poem ‘The complete mechanisation of the post-infectious child’ applies mechanical instructions to the child’s body – record, fix, mark, repeat. We spent time watching various polio films which have been made available through the Wellcome Collection’s archive. They included films for public information, medical records and interviews with doctors and scientists primarily from the 1950s.
At first, we explored the idea of trying to access an archive of objects and to include these or set up a shot which showed the way the doctors interacted with Kate’s body – ‘they press her feet, they bend her knees’ – but the images in the archive film felt much more relevant and offered a glimpse into what a polio hospital was like.
Sound also became important and I drew on the BBC’s sound archive they have made available through creative commons licencing – they had historical recordings made directly from hospitals. Throughout the film, I have tried to relate the body to what was found in the landscape locally – the stark, bone-like whiteness of limestone in the wood, a seed pod which looked just liked the microscopic virus. Animal skeletons and bodies found washed up on beaches, such as the gannet, refer both to the disease and the effect on the body but also Kate’s ongoing fascination with taxidermy and the interior landscape of living things.
The project was hugely rewarding to make, particularly after being able to spend so much time with it, engage in the landscape and assemble a response through images to accompany Kate’s powerful story.
Colleen Pesci, Cat Secrets
Your film suggests the healing process is also a learning process. Your essayistic style here is full of facts, trivia, things we wouldn’t ordinarily know…
I found that the healing process is very much a learning process. In addition, often the only cure for loss is time. We tend to all these little healing rituals to alleviate some of the pain. Sometimes, we feel internal shifts towards lightness that we associate with our new rituals. But more often than not, it is simply that time has passed and we have been given the space to align with a new perspective.
There’s a beautifully judged shift, in the final stretch of the film, to a narration-free sequence. It speaks of acceptance, contentment; the images are given their own space.
Yes! It is in this moment of acceptance, when we shed the frenzied healing ceremonies, that we begin to allow time to do the work. It’s also a little tongue-in-cheek because as the viewer goes outside, along with the beautiful floral images, there is a cat eating a mouse. The very animal that was supposed to do the saving is now acting out its most savage animalistic nature.
Hannah Beadman, Aphrodite
There is a clear interplay here between sounds sung and bodies seen, but it seems to be an associative and fluid relationship rather than structured or determined…
Three versions of sound were recorded live in a booth while we watched the film. These tracks were overlaid in post. The intention was to ‘call to the sound of the water’ and become it across duration, just as the water’s behavioural nature interchanges with its figures or spirits along the timeline. In linguistics, English nouns are often indigenous active verbs so that specificities in nature become enlivened.
There’s a richness in the abstraction and sparseness here. It’s suggestive of broader research interests, as if it’s the outcome of some distillation process – a stripping away. It’s subsequently quite soothing to watch…
Cinematography and editing specifically collapse the othering gaze between water, actors and camera, for non-hierarchical interrelational effect, where film grains’ materiality similarly disintegrates. Focus then is immersive, within touch and gentleness, where water like love, is a dissolving principle. Abstraction disassociates lens’ objectification perspectives and intimates being, body, water-body as integrating subjectivities.
The companion film Evening Star evokes sexuality at night, people unseen, where hot springs’ modernist architecture dissolves into the land, undermining the concrete. Technology is HD with mild pixelation.
These were part of the Aphrodite project, a site-specific solo show at ART Gallery Tecopa, Death Valley, with large drawings, 16mm printed stills and a performance mask to bring rain, integrated from meditations at other temple sites.
Partially in answer to these texts: Jean-Louis Comolli’s Technique and Ideology: Camera, Perspective, Depth of Field [Parts 3 & 4], (1971), and Maurizia Natali, The Course of Empire: Sublime Landscapes in the American Cinema (2007).
Svava Tergesen, Aural Fixation
Your film asserts a relationship between voice and image, body and text. But it also makes the audience work to unravel the meanings at play. One hears certain snippets – ‘chanting and prayer’ – ‘during the late Scandinavian iron age…’
A lot of the text is drawn from literature on the voice as a tool for coming into being. The first passages are from Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim Two Birds, and other snippets are about Seidur, a Nordic magical practice that involves spell-ing or incanting the future, as well as French quotes from Tiqqun’s Theory of Bloom. While these texts focus on how language creates worlds – and how this is a primal, almost magical process – I was also interested in the power of noise, destruction and unintelligibility as equally powerful methods of communicating oneself. Deciphering is the other half of communication, and I feel like Aural Fixation dramatizes this process – that mutual understanding is the result of work but also of intuition. On the flipside, not all experiences are meant to be understood by everyone, and so those barriers remain intact.
The mouth is a sensual instrument. A vehicle and delivery device, but also an active agent in moving beyond the limits of language. There are many close-ups of mouths, here, and of course also that shot at the end. It feels like a release…
I think of the last scene as the moment of understanding between two people, and it’s a moment without words. As if communication has reached a climax and the mouth takes over physically. A lot of the film relies on physicality: of the medium of 16mm film, of the sensory experience of cinema, and of the eyes, ears, hands and mouth as tools of communication. In the end, the voice gives way to this primordial, sensual experience of the body. In that moment, everything else falls away.