by Rachael Disbury
The playground is a democracy of things. From birds, bees and berries to dominoes, data storage and derelict sites, the five films in Pastime Present Tense explore exploration – how human bodies interact, interpret and live with space.
In Birds of a Feather, Nora Sweeney creates a warm, endearing portrait of a group of elderly Armenian men playing backgammon in a park in Glendale, California. Sweeney cultivates a sense of ceremony in the game, showing each player arriving from different directions, to convene together. Subtitles are only provided for a few minutes, introducing us to the group’s conversation in their shared language. Sweeney creates a strong sense of the communication and conviviality, at play beyond words, through this omission, intimate close-ups of hands, and personal items – cards, keys, a bottle of cologne, and the tactility of analogue film.
In If play is neither inside nor outside, where is it?, Helen McCrorie takes us to Cultybraggen Camp in Perth and Kinross, Scotland. Originally built during World War II as a prisoner-of-war camp, Cultybraggen has also functioned as an army training base, a nuclear monitoring post, regional government headquarters, a data storage centre, an orchard and now – in McCrorie’s film – a world run by children. Through the authoritative presence of children without adults and a voice-over manifesto commanding a strategy of understanding the world through a process of assumption, exploration, testing and repeating, McCrorie presents the site not as something dark and concrete, but something challenged and understood only through the potentials of play and reinterpretation. More so than the lingering remnants of military debris, her inclusion of the data storage facility in the bunker beneath the children’s play-world, introduces an element of fear – the only site in the film which remains untouched and unexplored by any physicality.
Justine Abitbol’s Chant at Dusk explores the materiality of the outdoors in a muddy ritual played out by four siblings. The protagonist, Helen, grapples with mucky nature, holding close the wings of a little bird, and unearthing worms in her hand. For Abitbol, and for Helen, nature and human interaction within in it is serious and visceral.
In Garment/Movement, Lily Ashrowan explores space, physical response and time. Ashrowan depicts two women playing and performing amongst industrial debris, likening human arms and non-human levers in Hawick’s derelict Peter Scott mill, a site imbued with the past labour of women. A tense countdown booms out as the site’s discarded present is explored through the female body and entrancing gestures of the passing of time. Ashrowan challenges notions of play as simply jovial or as pastime, and fixes it firmly in real human experience, a method to understand the world.
Finally, James Hollenbaugh takes us to Animal Farm, a residence where animals are taken to die, their parts later being sold on or left to decay. The description of this site is recalled by the narration and drawings of young Sofia, whose Uncle Steve runs Animal Farm. By juxtaposing images of death and decay with Sofia’s colourful drawings and ambiguous understanding of the place, Hollenbaugh creates an uncomfortable tension between dark human reality and the optimistic worlds of children.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
Nora Sweeney – 18’41 – USA
IF PLAY IS NEITHER INSIDE NOR OUTSIDE, WHERE IS IT?
Helen McCrorie – 26’10 – UK
CHANT AT DUSK
Justine Abitbol – 5’57 – France
Lily Ashrowan – 2’21 – UK
James Hollenbaugh – 2’53 – USA
Nora Sweeney, Birds of a Feather
Your film is a warm, endearing portrait of a small, ageing community of Armenian men playing backgammon in Glendale, California. What kind of strategies did you deploy in building a relationship with them?
The first time I visited Maple Park, I was quite intrigued by the scene – almost every picnic table was packed with elderly Armenian men playing backgammon, cards, or dominoes. I sat down at the only free table just to observe the groups of men and think about how I might approach them. A few moments later, a group of the men sat at the table with me. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Armenian. I gestured that I could get up, but they motioned that I should stay. They immediately began playing cards in a very animated manner, completely ignoring my presence.
Searching for a way to be more than an observer at the table, I began to draw portraits of the men playing cards. The men liked my drawings, so I promised to return with copies of the drawings the next day. I continued to go the park and draw portraits of the guys playing games for months. I became known as ‘the drawer’ in the park. Eventually, I began to take photographs of the men and later began filming and recording sound with the help of a translator. I also learned some very basic phrases in Armenian. However, the drawings, which appear in the film, provided a way to communicate without language early on in my process and allowed me to give something concrete to the men.
The film takes much of its meaning from two aesthetic decisions: to film on analogue, which lends it a tactility that chimes with the men’s form of play, and your decision not to translate much of their dialogue…
I shoot primarily on 16mm film. It’s my medium of choice, and I’ll use it as long as I can. I’m more attached to the images I’ve made on film than those I’ve made digitally. I always knew that the film should be black and white – partially from looking at the black and white pieces from all of the games, but also because shooting in black and white allowed me to isolate the things that were most important to me about the people – their faces, their hands, their gestures. Also, to me, the men in the park were engaging in a practice of meeting in public space that has occurred in many different countries throughout history and is still occurring. Shooting on black and white film takes the film out of time – it could be now or 30 years ago – though I was careful to include small signs of the contemporary time and place such as the street signs and the cars.
As for translation, I did get the whole film translated and discovered that the men were usually just talking about the game – counting, calling each other cheater, telling each other to play, teasing each other – but the conversations didn’t vary much. I decided just to translate a section in the beginning so that the viewers would get a sense of what the guys were talking about early on in the film and otherwise just pay attention to the faces, gestures, hands, singing, and rhythms of movement and conversation. I could have decided not to translate the film at all, but I thought that the translation gives the guys more of a voice and adds some humour and absurdity that may not otherwise be evident. The section I translated has the most jokes, my favourite of which is, ‘The thief stole from another thief. And when God saw it, he was shocked.’
Helen McCrorie, If play is neither inside nor outside, where is it?
The military site, its architecture, is repurposed for play. Tell us a bit about how this location came to be chosen, and how you began to consider it in relation to themes of play.
Often my work takes inspiration from community projects that I am involved in outside of art. The military camp is a community buyout in my local area. I set up a free child-led playgroup there with a friend, when our kids were little. The desire to make a film came from observing the children’s endlessly creative play in this environment, their emancipated learning, in relief against these reminders of institutional violence and control. The site is full of variety and drama that is great for play, with a community orchard, woods, meadows and the former military architecture – an army assault course, a firing range and Nissen huts.
There’s a very dynamic mix here between handheld close-ups responding to the children’s play and more considered tripod-fixed compositions, master shots that suggest choreography and performance. Could you talk us through that process a bit?
I made it a rule never to direct the children, but it was a real challenge to film their play as their movements are so unpredictable. The more fixed shots capture the atmosphere of the site, the changing seasons and light, and are also a tonal contrast to the tactile intensity of play. Tripod-shots featuring children were often moments where I had taken a lucky guess of what they were going to do next! Or where I had set up a landscape shot and the children had entered the frame of their own accord. It was filmed over an extended time and a lot ended up on the cutting room floor, but video allows for this way of working. The children were comfortable with me and they are so used to being filmed and photographed nowadays that it generally wasn’t that interesting to them. They rarely engaged with me or the camera, but once or twice – as in the opening shots – I was invited into one of their games…
The camp is an interior space, but it’s also out in the open. The play that unfolds here, as depicted in the film, isn’t merely physical…
The title is a quote from child psychologist Donald Winnicott. He writes of play existing in the potential space between our interior psychological worlds and the outer world of the environment and others. He saw play as essential for our development and psychological wellbeing – how we first learn to mediate between our internal and external realities and, as such, the primary source of all creativity and culture.
The spaces here could be considered both inside and outside in different ways. As you say, all this free-play takes place within the perimeter fence of the camp. The cold war bunker, designed to keep people safe from the outside, has a powerful hold over the imagination, and now, as a data centre, it is essentially related to the world outside. The children are responding to the environment but also enacting imaginary worlds. The sound design uses recordings from free-play sound workshops that I did with the children, as well as location recordings, and studio foley made by myself and sound artist Mark Vernon. Sound is used to emphasise the intense haptic experience of the children and also to allude to the unfathomable spaces of the imagination.
Justine Abitbol, Chant at Dusk
Some of the scenes here feel very spontaneous, and some of them feel very performed. Tell us a bit about your relationship to these characters – how you came to make a film with them.
The film was in fact both staged and improvised. I had ideas in mind inspired by what I had already lived with the children, but the film was really crafted on the set, observing the children’s interactions with this wild and somewhat hostile environment in which they moved with almost total freedom.
Some scenes, whether visual or sound, were captured on the spot, as an observer. Others, for example when Alexander makes faces, were staged. The modus operandi was to simply give the children something to do, and to let them interpret it as they pleased.
Hélène in particular has a real cinematic charisma. Like the star of a Western…
I met the characters of Chant at Dusk while babysitting. Hélène was the best friend of the little girl I was taking care of. The first time I saw her was at the beginning of the school year, in a Parisian square. Some children in the park introduced her to me saying, ‘It’s Hélène, she looks like a boy, but she’s a girl.’ I immediately found her charismatic.
Hélène was always accompanied by her brother Alexandre. She showed me all the places where she would find animals hiding. A robin’s nest that she would regularly observe, a baby rat she had saved from a trap, the sparrows she enjoyed catching just for the pleasure of holding them for a few moments. It was not long before I got to know her two little sisters, who were captivated by Hélène’s performances.
I spent many afternoons in the park when I was babysitting. Over time, I bonded with Radoslava, the mother of the family, with whom I spoke for hours, but also in particular with Hélène, in whom I saw a movie heroine. She told me about her connection to nature, her love for rats, those animals that nobody likes because they are ugly, her desire to live on a farm with wild animals, the questions that come into her mind, like why people are surprised that she doesn’t like ‘girl stuff’. In some ways, she reminded me of the little girl I used to be.
At first, I just wanted to make a documentary about her and her family in Paris, but eventually I realised I wanted to film them in the countryside, because what fascinated me most about those children was their bond with nature. So, I asked to come visit them in their house in the mountains during summer vacation.
The starting frame of the film is the story of a strange family only composed of children who live a marginalised life in harmony with nature. The bias is to give free rein to their imagination and to enter their world. Hélène is the main character, the leader of the group. She gives a Western tone to the picture, embodying both the cowboy, by her refusal to comply with societal standards, and the chief of a Native American tribe, guiding his cadets towards discovering the earth’s mysteries.
Lily Ashrowan, Garment/Movement
Your choice of location – the former Peter Scott mill in Hawick – is interesting given that much of the shop floor labour that took place there was female. This is a film about female bodies existing in and responding to space.
The former Peter Scott mill is a very charged location, for both me personally and Hawick as a town. The historic cashmere industry and its decline has left these relics in the form of buildings and historic prosperity and economic disparity. I have many memories of running around the empty mill as a teenager, so I think it naturally contains these histories and memories within it. I was highly aware when making the film that using the bodies of the two performers, myself and Emily Webb, makes the movement inherently gendered.
This reflects and responds largely to my own personal experience, exploring my own autobiographical discomfort within my own body. For a woman, it became a reclamation of taking up space but also references a specific history of invisible women’s work, particularly within these cashmere mills. The strange way in which we relate to the building within the film was an intentional way of trying to tease out a history, excavate the ghosts of many hundreds of working women who were there before me. As female bodies within a space which is now empty, we become like ghosts haunting the space and I think that is partly why the film takes on such a sinister quality. I hope it brings these women into visibility.
In my wider art practice I had been exploring a breaking of traditional conventions of using space, and using this as a radical tool. Feminists such as Kathy Acker talked about breaking literary forms as a way of breaking out of patriarchal structures, and I wanted to explore ways of breaking the conventional use of space in order to tease out a new relationship between my own body and the architecture. This responsiveness was particularly important, as when we were shooting, we worked intuitively and so each movement was a two-way conversation. I wanted to reflect a particular type of feminine self-making, where your understanding of ego comes from reflection in, and dialogue with, another person, object or architecture which we encounter. The film is an exploration of this active and responsive female body.
You’ve described the sound elsewhere as found… could you elaborate on this, and on the playful rhythm of the editing?
I had been sitting with the footage for months, and it was the sound really which ended up building the rest of the film. As a result of the static way in which it was shot, I felt it needed some sort of drive or dynamism to structure the images around. All the sounds in the film were recorded in the space itself. On the day we shot the footage, there was this alarm going off throughout, which gave all our movements this unexpected rhythm.
I had never really worked with sound before in my films, but it posed a particular new challenge to me, so I looped and built the ambient sound from the film footage into a sort of musical score. I had been inspired by the filmmaker Elizabeth Price who uses such precision in relating image and sound. On the advice of a tutor at art college, I tried to treat the digital footage as a physical material, which allowed me the freedom to be playful and brutal with cutting and redacting bits of the footage and repeating motifs. Once I had this structure in place, it allowed me to be really playful in the process of editing.
James Hollenbaugh, Animal Farm
All those animal sounds, the opening hand-drawn picture, Sofia’s narration… it’s suggestive of an imaginary world played out in a child’s mind.
The combination of hand-drawn visuals, animal impersonations, and narration delivered and presented by Sofia Schuller – with help from her younger sister Hadley – shape the world the viewer experiences in Animal Farm. This child’s interpretation of a very surreal landscape almost makes the story seem fabricated, but it is in fact a very real place and a very real story. The farm is a world of wonder but also of bewilderment to a child. Animal Farm seeks to explore that confusion and the inner turmoil that occurs when trying to understand something that can initially be unsettling.
The power of the film rests in its mysterious qualities, heightened by the fact that the images seem to lend a darkness to the narration. But the film ultimately is quite ambiguous in terms of what this place and its functions are, and who Uncle Steve and his intentions are…
My experiences at the real ‘Animal Farm’ and with ‘Uncle Steve’ were also very mysterious and ambiguous. I believe this contributed to the possibly exaggerated and fantastical narrative that went through my head every time I set foot on the property. Maybe it was exaggerated or maybe it wasn’t. I probably will never know. It was a dark place to me. I assume that it probably was not a dark place for ‘Uncle Steve’. Uncle Steve seemed happy and was likeable. How could a man who seemingly without emotion slaughtered animals be a likeable person? What exactly was the purpose of this farm? What was Uncle Steve’s job exactly? How did animals end up on the farm? Was there illegal activity occurring on the property? My time spent at the property left me obsessed and with more questions than answers.