Beyond the Museum of Present Pasts

Toponymy (Jonathan Perel, 2015)
Iván Villarmea Álvarez explores the politics of memory in the contemporary city essay film.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “The Essay Film and The City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

The politics of memory underwent a turning point in the 1980s, as Andreas Huyssen has explained: a sea change that left a deep imprint in both urban policies and the essay film. The industrial and urban crisis after the 1973 oil shock prevented politicians and urban planners from continuing to imagine what Huyssen calls ‘present futures’ for two reasons. On the one hand, the crisis led the people to lose confidence in the future and, consequently, to idealise the past; on the other hand, public administrations lacked the necessary money to built present futures from scratch. Nostalgia then became a dominant feeling: not only nostalgia for idealised pasts, but also nostalgia for unachieved futures, to the point that future utopias could only be imagined through their previous formulations, that is, as an anachronism. More than utopias, the hegemonic genre at the time were dystopias; it seemed that the crisis fuelled the imagination for the worst rather than for the better. Under such circumstances, there is no wonder that the past looked like a safe place, although it was a manipulated and biased version of the past.

This paradigm shift coincided in time with the gradual replacement of Super 8 with video as the main domestic format, which entailed a significant increase in the volume of production of amateur filmmakers. As more images were recorded, more images were also recovered and reused. Since then, the past can be preserved as an image that can be easily stored and reproduced by almost anyone. The later emergence of digital technology has led to the sudden obsolescence of analogue formats, which have been mostly forgotten and discarded, but has also speeded up the production of the past as an image. Nowadays, the present becomes past in front of the camera: a film camera, a video camera, a surveillance camera, a smartphone camera, etc. The resulting digital archive—composed of both digital and digitalised images—can thus be regarded as an archaeological site where essay filmmakers can excavate in search of raw materials, beginning with old images of missing cityscapes, which must be understood as a vestige of film heritage able to show a record of the architectural and social heritage of a particular place at a particular time. The systematic revision of this archive contributes to turn both the city and the screen into a palimpsest—even a museum—of ‘present pasts’, which can be endlessly recovered, rebuilt and reproduced as images. This is the reason why images of cityscapes usually give rise to memoryscapes in essay films, which can ultimately become mindscapes in those films in which filmmakers release their urban imagination, such as Lost Book Found (Jem Cohen, 1996), My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007) or Ruins (Manuel Mozos, 2009).

My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)

City essay films usually depict endangered places and communities, as happens in D’Est (Chantal Akerman, 1993), The Empty Centre (Hito Steyerl, 1998), In Vanda’s Room (Pedro Costa, 2000), Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003) or Foreign Parts (Véréna Paravel & J.P. Sniadecki, 2010), but they actually seem more appropriate to reflect on the passage of time in a particular place, as can be seen in Thames Film (William Raban, 1986), London (Patrick Keiller, 1994), California Company Town (Lee Anne Schmitt, 2008), Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, 2008) or The Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann, 2013). The essayistic approach allows filmmakers to move back and forth in time without losing their main line of argument, as well as to address urban history from a subjective perspective, focusing on certain processes and events that have remained hidden in the official chronological account. In fact, by drawing attention to forgotten episodes of local history, city essay films contribute to develop the linked processes of place-making and sense-making, which are essential to create a sense of belonging to a place that can later prevent its oblivion and destruction.

Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, 2008)

At worst, however, some essay films run the risk of getting caught in the nostalgic and reactionary dimension of present pasts. In this regard, the best antidote against solipsistic discourses is simply being aware of the historical present in which a film is made, that is, introducing the historical time within the film rather than positioning it outside the flow of time. Thus, some films establish a contrast between the past and the present, like Hito Steyerl does in The Empty Centre, as well as James Benning in the diptych One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later (2004) and Cynthia Beattin both Cycling the Frame (1988) and The Invisible Frame (2009). Other films capture the current experience of being in a place with a particular historical meaning, like some recent observational documentaries, such as On Rubik’s Road (Laila Pakalniņa, 2010), People’s Park (J.P. Sniadecki & Libbie Dina Cohn, 2012) or Toponymy (Jonathan Perel, 2015). Anyway, in order to preserve their critical gaze at the city, the essay film must go to meet city life, wherever it is. It must go beyond historical downtowns, which have become a museum of present pasts, to explore the diffuse constellation of nondescript suburbs in which most people live, as Patrick Keiller already suggested in London. Twenty years later, some filmmakers seem to have followed his example, from Gianfranco Rosi in Sacro GRA (2013) to Miguel Gomes in the final segment of Arabian Nights (2015), without forgetting the case of Ziad Kalthoum in Taste of Cement (2017). They all know that the city is always changing off-screen, waiting to be momentarily depicted before its next mutation. Accordingly, in order not to be blocked in the dangerous complaisance of present pasts, the city essay film needs to think the present from the past in an attempt to imagine the future: a urban future rooted in the present and aware of the past, of course, but not necessarily a future copied, inherited from the past.

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