Monday, October 29, 2012

Things and Thinking

A fascinating and wonderful day with Rosanna Raymond and the Indigeneity Project - this was the first Laboratory workshop for a while, and really served our aim of using the Laboratory to generate ideas for where our work might go.  Rosanna began the day by talking about the Polynesian concept of Va - a form of space which does not separate people and things, but which joins them together.  And the practical work of the day became an expression of that, as one by one we showed things we had brought with us, linked to ideas about identity and migration, and shared their stories.  Very soon we were seeing things not in the museum way of "the object", but in terms of their relationship to the human, their agency in relation to people and movement, their presence in the world.

This became especially exciting when some of us moved out into the streets, taking our things with us, to display what we started to call a 'Musée de l'extérieur'.  We tried different ways in which the things could be shown on the streets of London: beside a statue, held by people sitting on Boris bikes, on a row of bollards, held by people standing on a monument.  The versions with the people who knew the stories of the things was most effective, especially when they were positioned so that they were framed by an existing monument or piece of architecture.  And, of course, this sets up a dialogue with the monument itself - which, given that it's London, is almost always in some way to do with imperialism.  These interventions led to members of the public engaging with the things and their stories - asking us about them or photographing us as we held them.  

It's richly suggestive of something we can really develop for the Festival.  Watch this space! 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

London Film Festival

Ship of Theseus
I've hugely enjoyed the London Film Festival over the last few years - so I felt a certain trepidation about the arrival of a new director, Clare Stewart - particularly as her first festival came saddled with the inane strapline "Feel It", and the programme was divided into emotional categories like "Dare", "Thrill" and "Love".  I've always felt a bit uncomfortable about marketing copy which is based around how a work of art will supposedly make me feel, rather than what it actually is - although all the marketing professionals, and our own experience, point to that sort of copy being exactly what brings in audiences.  Now, it seems, an entire festival is being built around sensation.

It's a coincidence, but an instructive one, that this festival has coincided with the publication of David Thomson's new book on the history of cinema, The Big Screen.  A key moment in cinema history, for Thomson, was Jaws - the moment when the capacity of the medium to thrill and seduce was permitted, indeed encouraged, to eclipse its capacity to generate meaning.  "The commotion", says Thomson, "meant nothing.  The sensation eclipsed sensibility."  And this, of course, is disastrous.  If our culture comes to purvey emotion without thought, then it becomes a fascist culture - a space of rabble rousing and misdirected desires.

Which said, the films I saw in this year's festival belied both Thomson's gloom about the decline of the art form, and the event's literally sensationalised packaging.  It was great, with a view to next year's Origins, to see some very perceptive new documentaries around indigenous peoples: I particularly liked Sarah Gavron's Village at the End of the World, which followed the lives of some very winning Inuit personalities against the background of the melting icecap and encroaching globalisation. The Ethnographer, which concentrated on British anthropologist John Palmer's absorption into the society of the Wichi people of Argentina was refreshingly frank about just how much of our way of living, particularly our ethical code, is a cultural construct, to which there are perfectly viable and consistent alternatives.  

Among the features, the one which I found most immediately stimulating in terms of my current creative journey was Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love (categorised with the crassest of literalism under - you've guessed it - "Love").  The film, set in Japan, is essentially a three-hander between Akiko, a young girl who is working as a prostitute to put herself through college, her obsessively jealous boyfriend, and the elderly Professor who hires her for a night.  The early sequences, with Akiko agonising over the fact that she can't meet her grandmother on a short visit to Tokyo, form a very compelling portrait of urban alienation, which I found very useful for some of the ideas forming for Consumed (not in a "oh I'll do that too" way - but in terms of atmosphere).  But the film didn't resolve why the Professor had hired her in the first place.  He was clearly not interested in, or even expecting sex, and there were hints about her resembling his dead wife and daughter...  but nothing solid enough to make sense.

Caesar Must Die is a fascinating film about a production of Julius Caesar in an Italian prison. It's based on true events, and the actors in the film are the prisoners - but it isn't a documentary.  The revelations about parallels between the play and the lives of the criminals did not happen exactly as portrayed, or necessarily to the people shown.  So it's fictionalised - which is just fine, but begs the question why professional actors weren't used - as the quality of the performances is what lets the piece down.  But it's a very humane work about the redemptive power of art.  Gloriously uncynical.

My favourite film, though, was Anand Gandhi's Ship of Theseus.  Three stories, thematically linked through the idea of organ transplant, turn out to be physically linked as well - in a way that reminded me of the transcendent ending of Jesus of Montreal.  The fact that the middle story centred on philosophical debates around the ethics of such transplants, while the first one investigated their psychology and the last their political implications in the unequal world so highlighted in India, made the kaleidoscopic structure very powerful.  I loved the understated acting and the intellectual depth of it.  And the fact that it was totally un-sensational.

Maybe the packaging is something distinct from the substance.  

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Author's Voice / Gaze

Our old friend Mahesh Dattani (pictured) is in London.  My work with him in India was what led to Border Crossings being established in the first place, and his play Bravely Fought the Queen was one of our first productions.  More recently, he was involved as a dramaturg on Re-Orientations.  So it's always a good thing to meet up with him.  Oddly enough, he was speaking yesterday at a conference for Kings College, and the other person on the panel was the South African writer Craig Higginson.  Craig's play Dream of the Dog was one of the pieces I discussed with Janet Suzman the other day - he's a really important voice in modern SA.

What was wonderful about their conversation was the way they overturned the conventional wisdom doled out to writers (and other artists, actually) to "write from experience", to "write what you know".  Writing about yourself, Craig argued, is narcissistic.  Making work about people who are somehow foreign to you, people who are different, is what stretches the writer, and so will stretch the audience.  It requires imagination and empathy.  It moves us out of the comfort zone.

Mahesh agreed completely.  To his way of thinking, there's been far too much concentration on something called a "voice" in the critical discussion of artists.  If we concentrate on finding a "voice", we become limited.  Both of these writers try to do something different, and to sound different, every time they make a new play.  What Mahesh felt was more important than the writer's voice was the writer's gaze - how a writer sees and hears the world.  Much of writing, much of creativity, is actually not to do with making things at all.  It's to do with absorbing things and responding to them.  That's why neither Mahesh nor Craig is didactic in political terms.  As Mahesh said: "It's not my politics that shape my writing - it's my writing that's shaped my politics."


The other topic I've been wanting to blog about is not really related to this - but I want to say it anyway.    What has got into opera managements?  I went to see Julius Caesar at the ENO the other night. It's not great.  As so often recently, this was an opera directed by somebody who doesn't direct operas.  In this case, it's a choreographer (a very good one, I may add - but not someone who knows this form).  There have also been film directors, documentary makers, actors, conductors and administrators.  Having directed an opera before seems to be an actual disadvantage in this area.  If Madonna wanted to direct an opera, she could - it would be a press story, right?

What's so odd, and so insulting about this, is that nobody would ever dream of hiring such people to conduct the opera, or to sing it, or play the violin.  Somehow the art of the director is still regarded as the preserve of the imaginative amateur.  Nobody seems to have noticed that it helps to know what you're doing.

I once heard one of these amateurs comment that she could direct opera because she'd been going to see operas for many years.  Well, I've been on a lot of planes.  That doesn't make me a pilot.