Scattered Truth, part 2a (New York, The Visitor, ZONE, The Lost Days..)
By Laura Waddington
In response to Bidhan Jacob’s questions: “What is your personal story in the history of imaging technologies – film, video and digital media?” “Give some examples of your relationship to the world at the time of filming” “What role does the “blur” play in your work?” “What is an experiment for you and an invention of form?” “What is your relationship to digital video?” “What do you wish for in terms of future image technologies?”
“Technology will save us if it doesn’t wipe us out first” (Pete Seeger)
When I was twenty one, I travelled to New York. I fell in love with the energy of the city and stayed for a few years. I didn’t go to film school but worked on film sets in any roles I could: production assistant, production manager, camera assistant, art direction… while beginning to make my own short films.
Anything I know about film history, I learnt at Lincoln Center, MOMA and Anthology Film Archives, where thanks to excellent programming and MOMA’s system of an artist’s pass, I watched hundreds of films. Among the filmmakers, whom I discovered with astonishment and excitement was Samuel Fuller. I loved his bold, urgent films and the fact that he was a passionate and uncompromising maverick. Years later, I discovered that he had filmed some of the most important and nightmarish images of the twentieth century. As a young soldier in The Second World War, he had been part of the US battalion, which had liberated the last of the concentration camps, Falkenau, in Czechoslovakia. In horrifying footage, that his commander asked him to shoot, the local townspeople, who deny all knowledge of the camp’s existence and the putrid stench of the crematoriums, are ordered to dress piles of abandoned, emaciated corpses in clothes and give them a dignified burial, as the survivors look on. It was Fuller’s first movie. He said: “With a camera, you can do anything, anything you want,” and “I go by hunch, if the thing smells right.”
I learnt how to shoot film with an Arri S, a small 16mm camera, designed in Munich in the 1950s. It had a beautiful curved body with three rotating lenses, mounted on a turret and was built like a tank. Light enough to carry on my shoulder, it never once broke. It only took one hundred foot spools—about four minutes of film—so I had to hone in on what interested me in a scene and draw everything that I could out of it. Fascinated, I used to imagine all the filmmaker’s eyes that had gazed through the camera; the many places it had travelled and the scenes it had filmed and the talented craftsmen’s hands, that had assembled it, decades earlier. I filmed mostly in black and white because of the way it abstracted things and rendered them more powerful. Limited by the price of film stock, I’d sometimes wait hours for the right light to film for only four minutes. There was a magic in that.
When I sat down to write my first short film, I thought of an incident that had happened to me in a hotel in Venice. A chambermaid had gone through my possessions and mistakenly recorded her voice onto a cassette inside my walkman. The music tape was a gift from a friend so I continued to play it for years and the chambermaid’s voice wove its way into my life. Listening to that small trace, which she had left, I was fascinated by whether one can ever really know another person or only disconnected fragments.
We shot The Visitor (1992) in a weekend in a Manhattan hotel room, carrying the camera and equipment into the hotel, hidden in suitcases. The actress, Delfina Marcello, whom I had picked to play the chambermaid for her beautiful face and a mystery about her, turned out to have come from Venice. At the end of the shoot, she told me that we had already met. Years before, while studying in London, she had worked as a coat check girl in a restaurant and had always remembered a shy school girl, who had handed her a coin and smiled. I didn’t recall our encounter but it was, indeed, the restaurant, where as a teenager, I used to meet my father. That was my first introduction to the strange way in which filmmaking weaves in and out of life. Whether one makes a fiction or a documentary, reality seems to exist, suspended between the two.
I soon learnt that a film is never the story, which you set out to make but reveals, instead, the underbelly of our fears and dreams:
I was living in New York without residency papers. On my way back from a film shoot in Canada, I was arrested for being an illegal alien and locked inside a Canadian cell, while awaiting deportation. The director and his guards were brutal and perverse. My screams as four of them held me down on the floor and I fought with them in a corridor, led someone to rush over the border to alert U.S. authorities. Fearing for the safety of a young white woman, they arranged for my release that day. Kind US border agents drove me to a motel and left me free inside the U.S.A.
I returned to New York and carried on my happy, paperless existence but like a seed, growing each year stronger, the memory, which I tried to bury, seeped into my future films. From then on, as often as I’d write a different story, accidents and chance encounters would inevitably lead me around in a circle to make a variation of the same film, with its borders, lost journeys, abandoned people and imprisoned vistas, and the blurred trace of a sinister place, which I had discovered, almost in error.
When I started shooting video, I was constantly comparing it to film so I made the decision to film without using my eyes for a few years, in order to unlearn my habits and assumptions. I bought a spy camera and sewed it into the lining of a traditional Turkish waistcoat, covered in small circular mirrors. By removing one of the mirrors, the camera gazed out at the world, unnoticed. Connected to a small 8mm video recorder in a pouch around my waist, it could record up to ninety minutes of tape.
I boarded a transatlantic cruise ship, bound for England. Wandering the decks, I learnt to frame with the movement of my body, my shoulders hunched over to prevent the camera from sloping up towards the sky. Fascinated by the blurred boundary between documentary and fiction, I wanted to see if I could create a fictional story out of randomly shot documentary footage.
Later, I set about breaking up and destroying the video images, in an attempt to get closer to the consistency of film, scratched and eroded by the passage of time. I pushed the video to its edges—endlessly re-filming and recopying it, slowing it down and then speeding it up—until only a faint trace remained; blurred figures moved through the trembling boat, impalpable like phantoms. Out of the broken images, a story emerged: a mute narrator, who speaks only in subtitles, searches for someone, who perhaps doesn’t exist, on a lost ship, going round in circles.
ZONE (1994) quickly faded in my memory. Only the process remains and the final images of a Filipino sailor, hosing down the decks at four a.m. Yet hidden within a film is often the birth of another and if you fail to notice it, it sits patiently waiting. Years later, when I was commissioned by The Rotterdam Film Festival to make a video diary in a port, the memory of that man led me to shoot CARGO (2001). For I had often thought about the sailor, who had spoken to me in Tagalog and shown me the moon, and how hundreds of Filipino workers lived on the cruise ship below sea level, forbidden to take air outside and invisible to the passengers, except when cleaning their rooms.
When I recall those months, that I spent immersed inside layers of video, searching for something, which I never found— ZONE reveals little of the long experiment— I think of the words of Michelangelo Antonioni:
“Under the revealed image, there is another one which is more faithful to reality, and under this one there is yet another, and again another under this last one, down to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that nobody will ever see. Or perhaps, not until the decomposition of every image, every reality.”
I had failed to get beneath the shallow surface of video. Unlike the flicker of film which draws you into the screen, the flow of video images, which I re-filmed off my monitor were, like the story that grew out of them, hazy and opaque. I wanted to push the experiment further, this time passing through other people’s eyes.
At that time, there was still a lot of snobbery about video in the film industry in New York. I was inspired by young electronic musicians, whom I met, making and distributing music out of their small apartments. Fiercely attached to vinyl and determined not to renounce it, they were, at the same time, embracing every form of new and old technology and making it all their own—standing up to the industry in a way, which I hoped the film community would also do. If filmmakers didn’t occupy the terrain, cinema risked one day, becoming wholly dependent on tools, dictated by the market.
In 1996, I wrote a story about a young woman, travelling around the world, sending back video letters to a friend in New York. That year, I contacted people on the internet and ask them to videotape their countries with Hi8 cameras, as if they were my protagonist. A mixture of friends and strangers in fifteen cities sent me over fifty hours of cassettes.
The footage, which I received, was extremely diverse. Some people had filmed their towns for weeks, living inside my protagonist’s mind, others had recorded their daily routines, homes, family and friends. They included young photographers and filmmakers but also people, who were using a video camera for the very first time. The challenge was to transform such a wide variety of images into the rhythm of one person’s journey, and eyes.
Most of the tapes had been recorded in PAL, the European video format, which couldn’t be played on US equipment and would require an expensive standards conversion in a laboratory, too costly for so much footage, so I copied the tapes onto a VHS home video recorder, which could read international formats, and filmed the images directly off my television monitor with an American camera.
By reducing the footage to VHS, the poorest and cheapest quality of video available, and re-filming it off the TV, much of the information in the original images was lost; hollow and faded with a white line running through it – I had to find a way to build the picture back up.
I searched second hand stores for old video equipment. I began to re-film the footage off various screens, passing it en route through an old analogue colour corrector, which I pushed to the edges of its parameters and using my first ever digital video camera, the new SONY DCR-VX1000, whose manual options I constantly explored. It was the first three chip Mini DV camcorder and is called by some “the grandfather of digital cameras.” It was, to my mind, of more interesting quality than any digital camera of equivalent size and price on the market today.
After more than a year spent working on the footage, the video, full of glitches and slow grain, resembled neither the flicker of film nor the polished look of digital video but something in-between. The images, recorded by so many, had blended into a single gaze and felt suspended, like the character, who had filmed them, in limbo.
I loved cinema. Beamed into the communal space of a dark room, the flicker of celluloid, gave us the courage to travel deep into ideas and our unconsciousness. As I zoomed into the footage, isolating and re-framing it on different monitors, I became haunted by a time when cinema would be un-housed, its images broken up and projected onto screens so small and different, we couldn’t yet imagine them. Once we were alone, isolated in our viewing experiences, would we ever confront what it is to be human in such a profound way again or live distracted and restless?
For the nameless young woman of The Lost Days travels the world without being present. It is, ironically, her encounter with someone completely anchored in place – a man in Jaffa, who recounts to her the history of his centuries old house – that leads her to miss her flight home to New York and embark on her aimless journey.
Lost in fragmented memories of her childhood, her letters full of the romantic dream of travel as escape, her camera is no longer a way to go towards the other but a shield against life and direct emotion: filming has became a way not to look.
Unable to confront her own solitude, she runs so far, there is no way home again. In the film’s final image, shown, after she has given her camera away and gone silent, she zooms, at night, into the HSBC bank headquarters skyscraper in Hong Kong. Inside the illuminated building, the floors are full of financial workers: their blurred figures, barely visible, merge into hundreds of computer screens. The Lost Days was, unnoticed by most who watched it, the story of a suicide.
During the making of The Lost Days, life and fiction wove together and never really separated out again. I had only travelled outside the U.S. once, in the past years, due to my illegal status. As I worked on the tapes, the intricate fabric of my neighbourhood with its precious cultural mix was being eroded, as rents rapidly increased. In 1998, everyone in our building was served notice to vacate by our landlord, the local church. Anxious to avoid a court case, we agreed to leave our apartment but the church decided to include us in their eviction suit to prevent us turning against them in the future.
We searched for a new home but at viewings, we encountered lines of students with financial guarantees, stretching down the block, or a visit would come to an abrupt end, when somebody arrived with a year’s worth of rent in cash. We were becoming desperate; soon with an eviction on our records, it would be almost impossible to rent a place. Then, we were burgled and an opportunity opened. With the insurance money, we decided to leave the country for a while, hoping that the church would delete all trace of us from the case and we’d return with a clean slate and our new passports.
I only travelled on boats and trains because of a plane phobia. Faced with taking a flight, I picked the closest city in Europe, Lisbon, because of a dream I’d had, that I would, one day, live there. Early one morning a few days later, I found myself sitting on a bench, gazing at a view, which my protagonist had filmed, waiting for a small hotel to open. In my suitcase was a tape of edited images of The Lost Days, a music score by my friend Simon Fisher Turner, some DAT tapes of sounds, which I’d been creating, and a partially written voice over. That afternoon, I called up Stanislas, who’d filmed the young woman’s passage through Lisbon and he generously helped to find a sublet.
There, I continued to write the young woman’s letters. In the middle of her journey, she arrives at a house, where her grandmother was born in a small Lithuanian town. It is, she says: “the place I called my home.” I couldn’t understand why I had written those random lines. There were no images of Lithuania in the video, and her memories of childhood were of South America. But stories write themselves and the actress, Marusha Gagro, would read them over a snow filled image of Bosnia. My limited experience had taught me that once a film was finished, I inevitably rejected it and later only the mystery of the process and the blank spots within it, held me close to it. Maybe one made films not to communicate what one knew but to discover the enormity of what one couldn’t grasp: a vast, unknown continent, stretched out ahead.
After a few months in Lisbon, I went to Barcelona, where I worked on the sound design of The Lost Days and then I moved to Paris. There, I started to film the world directly with a small digital camera, the SONY TRV-900 and I came to love video as a form of writing but it was, to me, a completely different process from film and not the smooth development which the camera manufacturers would have us believe. It was a new way of seeing.
I didn’t return to New York for a decade and, then, it was only for a few days. After the attacks on The World Trade Center, in 2001, it became more difficult to live in the US without papers and many of the friends without whom I couldn’t have made my short films and videos, scattered across the globe
One day, after years of asking my father to write down something about his family in Ireland, of which I knew so little, he sent me some typed up pages. I learnt that I had a great grandmother, who was from Lithuania. It was the buried, latent things that kept me filming; shards of truth, revealed in the glitches.
In Paris, where boundaries and hierarchies were more rigid and the state and bureaucracy more present, I missed the spontaneous collaborations and generous sharing of tools and knowledge, which I’d known in New York, with its cross fertilisation and blurring of artistic disciplines.
For the first time, since leaving England, I continually came up against the limitations of being a young woman. Encountered on a daily basis, the heavy handed sexual advances and disparaging remarks, shaped the videos I made, far more than any of the films and ideas, which I felt so passionately about at the time or the many inspiring things which Paris opened my eyes to and led me to work in a more isolated fashion.
Objectivity and neutrality were, I realised, invented by men. A man could sit alone in a public place and watch the world for hours, in its continuity, but a young woman, who tried to do the same, was constantly jolted back to herself by a series of pestering strangers. Her vision was broken into segments, a scene transformed by her presence. To gaze uninterrupted, she had to keep moving or seek out places where the rules and categories of normal life didn’t apply.
Audiences have often asked me why I wasn’t afraid to shoot CARGO (2001) and Border (2004), amongst so many men but I didn’t encounter any problems. Focused on their own mission, many of the men, whom I met were wonderful. Once they’d established that I kept my word and didn’t exceed filming limits agreed upon, they behaved with the upmost generosity and respect. When life is stripped down to its essentials, a veil is removed, and you often see people for what they are. The return to daily life was, in that small sense, difficult.