The initial aim of making The Missing Page was to make a visual record of my parents’ home, without knowing where it would take me. Their home was vacated when my mother was admitted to a care home – my father had already been in care for some months and the family had decided to sell the property. Given that the house had been my parents’ home for over forty years, their presence was engrained in the fabric of the building. I was interested in how this could be represented through the moving image, and how the story of my mother Dorothy, a dementia sufferer, and her disappearance could be told.
This Exposition provides a space for reflection on the processes of production used in the making of my moving image piece. It is a case study to share observations and findings, and deepen my understanding of the issue of practice as research within a creative process.
"...the conditions of creative practice research seem to fall into two categories. Firstly, there are those who use the research environment to better understand their practice, explicating what they know tacitly about the work they create. Secondly, there are those who use research to generate new ideas and concepts that either changes [sic] the way they practice (process), or that changes [sic] the fabric of their practice (content)" (Batty et al., 2015, p.3).
This reflection takes on the spirit of the former category by explicating what I ‘know tacitly’ about the making of The Missing Page. However, the latter also has relevance, as the making of this project has prompted other pieces of work, such as In Search of a Past, an art installation exhibited at the APT Gallery, London, in 2018, and a new documentary called Love Lost about those lost to dementia.
2. Ideas: Gathering Visual Data, Building Knowledge and Concepts
"Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss. The language of hunting has a luminous word for such mark making: ‘foil’. A creature’s foil is its track. We easily forget that we are track-makers, though, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete – and these are not easily impressed" (Macfarlene, 2012, p.13).
The project began with the process of gathering visual data, in an attempt to build knowledge of the location and search for ideas on how to construct a moving image piece based on my parents’ vacated home. Amongst the abandoned personal effects were ornaments; a clock; wall hangings; family photographs; furniture; and other belongings. I used a digital video camera to record these items, which took on an ethnographic mode and is described by Behar as having the function of ‘finding stories we don’t know we have lost’ (Cole & Knowles, 2008, p.530). The types of ornaments, the way they were organized on the mantelpiece and presented in the living space signified a lower-middle-class ideology, indicating a reasonably comfortable existence afforded by a first-world economy.
In order for the visual data to move beyond an assortment of recordings, it was important to connect the disparate audiovisual components and make a set of cohesive relationships among them. My initial responses to the space required further interrogation into the meaning of the images, and how they could fit into an edited sequence. My previous work had used long takes and I had become interested in the style of slow cinema, so I wanted to explore this aesthetic further through my practice. I had a sense of the pace and rhythm of the piece: it was the order that was missing.
3. Gathering Data: Use of the Camera
During filming, the process of recording was creating a ‘disconnect’: the confines of the viewfinder isolated objects from one another and the engagement of ‘doing’ was distracting from the act of ‘looking’. The decisions I was making about the formal aspects of framing rendered my view an objective one, what the Russian Formalists called ‘defamiliarization’:
"The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception, because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged" (Shklovsky, 1917, p.12).
Assorted paraphernalia such as photographs of smiling grandchildren, a vase purchased on a Greek holiday, and a ship’s brass compass bought by my father in Covent Garden Market on a particularly cold damp morning, all held strong personal memories; but during filming, they became a formal constellation of line, colour and proportions. My method – employing a simple frame by means of a tripod, considering each frame as a moving photograph, working only with existing lighting (a method which is taken from the observational documentary filmmaking tradition) – had the ability to isolate each arrangement within the room. During this process, the concerns of cinematographic craft became the priority. The matters of focus, depth of field, colour absorption and lighting contrast took priority over personal connotations as a new context was forged.These configurations produced a collection of small vignettes to present an assemblage of intriguing images, designed to engage an audience and create an interaction. Dubious ornamental heads simulating African Art pieces, bought from Woolworths, are a reminder of times of unacceptable points of view – and bring into question the process of over-dependence on form and the notion that "art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known" (Ibid.). Yet, even these temporarily became shape and form. This was reviewed in the editing and the heads remained in the film as a reflection of my parents’ generational taste, and of the way in which ‘high art’ filters into the marketplace and becomes consumed by the masses without critical attention.
Given my interest in the Topographic photographers (who in the mid-1970s saw poetry in banality, anonymous landscapes, and uninteresting road intersections, which gave their pictures an anthropological viewpoint), it was their aesthetic I chose when filming. All the images I shot on location were captured using a static frame. This encouraged long-takes and slow editing, to emphasize the passing of time and highlight aspects of the metaphysical. It encourages a contemplative state within the viewer, fostering a critical perspective.
"All works of art are founded on a certain distance from the lived reality which is represented. This 'distance' is, by definition, inhuman or impersonal to a certain degree; for in order to appear to us as art, the work must restrict sentimental intervention and emotional participation, which are functions of 'closeness'. It is the degree and manipulating of this distance, the conventions of distance, which constitutes the style of the work" (Sontag, 1961, p.30).
It is this distancing that became an integral part of the aesthetic of the work, which was fostered during the collection of visuals and ‘manipulated’ in the post-production phase. A sense of interplay between these two states was cultivated through the use of time and long takes. This gave the viewer an opportunity to shift focus between meaning (content) and form, this also applies to the representation of the location as place or space.
"The world of place is the world of subjective human experience and significance. The world of space is the objective world of points in space-time that are meaningless to humans, abstractions that can be represented in mathematics or physical geography" (Walden, 2008, p.148).
"The journeys told here take their bearings from the distant past, but also from the debris and the phenomena of the present, for this is often a double insistence of old landscapes: that they be read in the then but felt in the now" (Macfarlene, 2012, p.33).
'The journeys told here take their bearings from the distant past, but also from the debris and the phenomena of the present, for this is often a double insistence of old landscapes: that they be read in the then but felt in the now'. (Macfarlene, 2012:33)
In this next section, I will analyze the film’s structure and some of its content, to help expose the importance of narrative in shaping a piece of art. The film opens by taking the viewer on a journey via the surrounding county to the location of my parent’s home. It evokes British wartime films such as This Happy Breed (1944) or Listen to Britain (1942), which emphasize the story of everyday people in an ordinary place, who found themselves ‘all in it together’. These opening sequences serve to create an objective viewpoint, with a voice-over to help direct viewers’ attention, set the scene, and introduce the characters, shifting these from an objective perspective to a subjective world. In This Happy Breed, which is set between the wars, the camera shows an aerial view of the City of London and the picturesque streets of Clapham, South London, then homes in on one house in particular. It sweeps into the hallway, where we see the Gibbons family arriving in their new house. In comparison, The Missing Page takes us on a journey via a neutral eye, this time to a small bungalow in a suburban street, by means of a series of edits, which creates a similar effect. This home is empty, left abandoned. The location is quiet, only a distant sound can be heard, a garbage truck collecting rubbish from the surrounding streets. This opening is focused on establishing the setting as an everyday home that has been left, which could almost be a metaphor for Dorothy’s state of mind. The sequence establishes a context, a location on the edge of a small city in the rural West Midlands, situated beyond the industrial hub of central Britain. The house has suburbs on one side and agricultural landscapes on the other.
Once indoors, the film creates a sense that the occupants have momentarily stepped outside and could return at any moment. It is as if we have stumbled into this space, and are drawn to a collection of vignettes. These vignettes or frames piece together a narrative, confirming a vision of the future (abandoned), and its familiarity renders it as ‘place’. I came to realize it was a story that was required, in organizing a structure for the pictures I had gathered. While initially my recordings had focused on the physicality of the space and the intrigue of possessions, a story held the key to bringing meaning to the collection of images. As Wenders wrote,"I have always been more interested in pictures, and the fact that – as soon as you assemble them – they want to tell a story" (Wenders, 2001, p.18).
The story I wanted to tell was of Dorothy’s futile attempt to break free. Unfortunately, her escape to a better place only existed in her imagined past. It was her response to the dire situation in which she found herself, a desperate act made in the hope of returning to a secure and familiar environment.
My mother’s departure from her home and admittance to the care home was prompted by her disappearance, confirming the early signs of dementia had worsened. The Missing Page addresses this and builds a narrative which is part truth and part fabrication, what Humphreys and Watson call ‘semi-fictionalized ethnography’. They describe this as a "restructuring of events occurring within one or more ethnographic investigations into a single narrative" (Humphreys & Watson, 2009). The initial filming on location happened in 2015. I thought I was just documenting a significant place, and it wasn’t until later that I considered the importance of Dorothy’s narrative and the implications of this in a wider context.
5. Ethnography as Methodology
Ethnography has references to colonialism: it means employing methods to study cultures and people in far reaches of the world, to identify difference as a way of sustaining the power of Western civilizations. As Ruth Behar put it, it "has its origins in the flagrant colonial inequalities from which modernity was born and in the arrogant assumptions that its privileged intellectual class made about who has the right to tell stories about whom" (Behar, 2007, p.529). Given this history, it is difficult to see how ethnography has any relevance to the contemporary world, although slow cinema is a form that depends on an ethnographic or anthropologic approach. Whether it is people in the forgotten village of Zhikharevo in northwestern Russia (Bread Day, 1998), or in Calabria in Italy (Le Quattro Volte, 2011), or a forest in Aberdeenshire, Scotland (This Is My Land, 2008), there is most definitely an interest in observing cultures and individuals and discovering otherness in their stories. These films have an observational quality and one that often focuses on place and objects to highlight difference through visual means where the camera witnesses a style of life that might be considered special and therefore of interest. It is the inventive way in which these filmmakers bring a synergy to content and form that makes these films noteworthy. Their salient nature attempts to develop a new and engaging approach to the moving image.
While these films suggest an ethnographic approach, they do not have the systematic approach required by an ethnographic study, although they provide insight and knowledge, and place an audience close to the subject. In her book Doing Visual Ethnography, Sarah Pink writes,
"Rather than being a method for the collection of ‘data’, ethnography is a process of creating and representing knowledge (about society, culture and individuals) that is based on ethnographers’ own experiences. It does not claim to produce an objective or ‘truthful’ account of reality, but should aim to offer versions of ethnographers’ experiences of reality that are as loyal as possible to the context, negotiations, and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was produced" (Pink, 2001, p.7).
This statement departs from the more traditional view of ethnographic study which dominated from the 1960s to the early 1980s, when "many social scientists resisted the use of the visual in ethnography, claiming that as a data collection method it was too subjective, unrepresentative and unsystematic" (Ibid.). These films take on an aesthetic similar to what one might expect to see in a contemporary ethnographic study – indeed one could argue this is at the centre of the approach: long takes, lack of music and no engagement with the subject. The observational approach suggests there is little selection in the shots used and the camera is allowed to run on. Editing is minimal, providing audiences with time to watch and view the subjects existing in their own environments, creating a sense that the unexpected might happen and placing an emphasis on audiences drawing their own conclusions as to what they are witnessing.
While these films appear to be objective, one could argue they are in fact very subjective, with authors often having an in-depth understanding of the region, the subject matter, and the people they are filming. There is an interplay between the two states of subjectivity and objectivity. While the filmmakers might not originate from these specific communities or live with their subjects, they do have an understanding of the society they are portraying. In Bread Day, Sergey Dvortsevoy deals with the issues of an isolated community and its complexities in a tacit way, using simple observational camerawork, concentrating on the banality of village life to emphasize the lack of infrastructure, the struggling economy and the subsequent impact this has on individuals.
My approach to sound on this project was to ensure that picture and audio worked together, sometimes in an obvious way, at other times in a more surprising way, in order to enhance meaning and atmosphere. I used the natural sounds of the location and allowed this to resonate through image and audio.
"Image and sound are linked together in a dance. And like some kinds of dance, they do not always have to be clasping each other around the waist: they can go off and dance on their own, in a kind of ballet. There are times when they must touch, there must be moments when they make some sort of contact, but then they can be off again" (Murch in Payne & Murch, 1981, p.15).
The sound of suburbia was pervasive and a constant reminder of how life continued regardless of the events that occurred inside the home. The Missing Page is steeped in silence and yet also in atmospheric sounds such as distant traffic, crowing birds, and the gentle sound of delivery vehicles sublimely creating space, isolation, and distance.
"We feel the silence when we can hear the most distant sound or the slightest rustle near us. Silence is when the buzzing of a fly on the windowpane fills the whole room with sound and the ticking of a clock smashes time into fragments with sledgehammer blows. The silence is greatest when we can hear very distant sounds in a very large space. The widest space is our own if we can hear right across it and the noise of the alien world reaches us from beyond its boundaries" (Balázs, 1970, p.216).
I have already discussed the opening sequence, but I would like to add that the sound underpins the concepts mentioned earlier by indicating a change of landscape, from rural surroundings to suburban settings. The audio creates a cohesive and seemingly natural partnership between sound and picture, as we hear birdsong and see a gentle wind moving trees.
"If the sound or voice is not tied up with a picture of its source, it may grow beyond the dimensions of the latter. Then it is no longer the voice or sound of some chance thing, but appears as a pronouncement of universal validity" (Ibid. p.120).
Towards the latter stages of the film, the silence is pierced by the ring of a telephone, which is designed to break the sense of security and comfort of everyday sounds. The telephone continues to ring and soon we realize there is no one in the house to answer the call. The notion of absence is confirmed, the ring of the telephone takes us to a series of exterior shots, we see a country setting and the sign of a care home, which signifies Dorothy’s destination.
7. Palimpsest (2016)
In the making of the film Palimpsest (2016), which was developed at the same time as The Missing Page, I explored the notion of the long take in order to create a state of contemplation within the viewer. It was an important and successful part of audience engagement, which then became a crucial aspect in the making of The Missing Page. Palimpsest was different in that it used a collection of screens to convey its meaning rather than a single one, but similarly, it included a response to place – except these were locations identified in a collection of letters and images from a family archive, sent from the Front during the First World War. The correspondence was sent by Rifleman Barny Griew, who was the great-uncle of Sarah Kogan, a British artist who commissioned Palimpsest for a multi-media arts exhibition called Changing the Landscape, funded by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
Unlike Palimpsest, The Missing Page had to generate a sense of contemplation through its own aesthetic and while it also relied on the stillness of the camera and observation, allowing time to unfold within the frame, it was presented on a single screen. This style of filmmaking draws on the work of filmmakers such as Yasujirō Ozu, Robert Bresson, Abbas Kiarostami, and Andrei Tarkovsky. More recently, filmmakers such as Michelangelo Frammartino, Shaun Wilson, and Sergei Dvortsevoy have pushed this form even further, focusing less on story and more on observation for their content. These latter filmmakers share in the traditions of Frederick Wiseman, Don Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, and the Direct Cinema filmmakers, who experimented with observational techniques. In all of their work, time, rhythm, and pace are a key part of the aesthetic. "Rhythm, then, is not the metrical sequence of pieces; what makes it is the time-thrust within the frames" (Tarkovsky, 1987, p.119). In The Missing Page, time within the frame is purposely emphasized and invites the viewer to consider the image. The length of a take is relative, what might be a long time for one viewer might be acceptable for another. What is important is that the shot is long enough for a viewer to become conscious of time and consider the cinematic linear development of the piece in an unexpected way. The passing of time should diminish the expectation of the ‘cut’ and the appearance of the subsequent image, in order to engender an understanding of narrative which is not dependent on ‘cause and effect’ but on the integration of image, visceral connection, events and comprehension. This means the viewer is invited to focus on an undramatic narrative, which heightens the importance of visuals and emphasizes moments in time in a considered way.
"...using the time-image as one of its main construction tools, a cinema of slowness invites us to form a different relationship to the images we see, to relish them as self-contained units of time and space, and to see them unfold at a pace that allows time to take its own time" (Lim, 2014, pp.18-19).
Slow cinema is now a recognizable cinematic form, discussed by film theoreticians and historians and used in many practice-based research pieces, gallery installations, and art films. One of the first people to coin a term to describe this phenomenon was French film critic Michel Ciment, who in 2003 used the expression ‘cinema of slowness’ to describe the works of Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Abbas Kiarostami. In February 2010, Jonathan Romney wrote in Sight and Sound, about ‘slow cinema’ as a form of filmmaking which is dominating film festivals, in April, also in Sight and Sound, Nick James wrote an editorial called ‘Passive Aggressive’, in which he questioned the critical validity and efficacy of slow films. In 2012, the AV Festival in Newcastle, England, presented ‘Slow as Possible’, a curated event of screenings and discussions around the theme, which was recognized as a key event in establishing the practice as a genre.
My own awakening to this style of filmmaking was Bread Day in 1998, a film by Sergei Dvortsevoy. This extraordinary film is set in an abandoned Russian village, whose only inhabitants were elderly people, alcoholics, and goats. Each week a delivery of bread would arrive, only to be left in a train carriage at a railway junction five kilometers from the village. The locals had to collect the bread from the railway junction and the film opens with a wonderful 10-minute shot of the villagers pushing the train carriage along an abandoned railway track with the bread delivery for that week, into the heart of the village. Then we see the process of distribution of bread to the locals from a shop, which is a neglected rural building, lacking in any shop fillings one might expect, instead a dusty barn-like construction shared with the occasional wandering goat. We meet the various characters from the village as they arrive to buy the limited supply of bread and we soon witness the tensions among them as they make their purchases. The issues of food distribution for rural communities are highlighted and we are able to reflect on the convenience of life in a modern city with its supermarket chains and easy access to amenities. These enlightening interactions are interspersed with extended takes of goats that wander in and out of scenes, creating a subtext to the main storyline. A Time Out reviewer wrote, "That writer/director Dvortsevoy turns the absolute concentration of his camera on goats, dogs, and sheds as much as on people should not obscure the work's central interest in how to maintain one's place on earth" (Time Out, 2018).
In conclusion, I have reflected in some detail on the various aspects of my project and exposed my working methods, interests, influences, and achievements in regard to the making of The Missing Page. I hope this serves adequately as a case study for those working in creative research. Also, the text suitably addresses the complexities of creative decision-making that I encountered and reflects on the concerns of form and content.
The initial motivation for making the film is clear and the final artifact fulfills the aim of creating an artwork that shines a light on the events leading up to Dorothy’s departure from her house and the issues facing her. Since producing this work, I have gone on to make other artworks that address similar themes, and this project has changed the direction of my research.
I would like to point towards Sarah Pink’s observation that ethnography is not just a method of collecting data, but "a process of creating and representing knowledge" (Pink, 2001, p.7). This, coupled with one’s ‘own experience’ and with ‘semi-fictionalized ethnography’, has contributed to the construction of narrative and the organization of images, through the use of visual and contemporary evidence, to create The Missing Page.
The issue of Walden’s notion of ‘space’ and ‘place’ is one that comes up time and time again when making site-specific work, and both terms are used throughout this writing. These issues are also related to the role of palimpsest and both create an interplay between two different states, to create a rich dynamic in producing engaging images. In regard to Dorothy’s house, I felt my familiarity and memories with its surroundings and objects brought a point of view, which could be described as ‘place’. This is counterbalanced by the acceptance that this shell is no longer the home of my parents, and at this point it is rendered as ‘space’.
The influences of slow cinema are important in relation to this project, as I have been drawn to this aesthetic throughout my time as a filmmaker and artist. Its roots are not only in the films of Ozu, Kiarostami, Wenders, and Hanneke, as mentioned previously, but also evident in the images of topographic photographers of the 1970s, such as Adams, Baltz, and Shore, and have influenced photographers such as Ruff, Gursky, Bernd and Hilla Becher. These filmmakers and photographers create powerful images based on a series of moments characterized by what is left out, as much as what is left in, creating a "paradox of humanity’s presence by its absence" (Desser, 2010, p.610).
My approach to making this film has meant that production implications are reasonably low, and it is this method that allows for space and time, speculation, experimentation and exploration during the filmmaking process. The possibility to work with a film idea that emerges through engagement with materials allows the filmmaker to set out on a journey where the destination is often unknown. The developing technology has also facilitated slower, longer takes, enabling filmmakers and artists to push the boundaries of the language.
Finally, this project has presented me with a number of challenges along the way and the Exposition has provided an excellent space for sharing my thoughts and reflections. The aim of this project was to produce a piece of art that recorded a moment in time, and to rationalize the events that changed Dorothy’s life. However, it has also brought a reminder that the language of art enables us to reflect on complicated subjects in a powerful and nuanced way. Elliot Eisner, US arts educationalist, wrote,
"The deep strength of using the arts in research may be closer to the act of problematizing traditional conclusions than it is to providing answers in containers that are watertight. In this sense, the products of this research are closer in function to deep conversation and insightful dialogue than they are to error-free conclusions" (Eisner, 2008, p.7).
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