Steady-stare surveillance, or the spatial turn in nonfiction films

In a world that increasingly overturns geographic specifics, is attention to space a new mode of artistic dissent? Michael Pattison considers the question in light of two new landscape documentaries, Edward Lawrenson and Killian Doherty’s Uppland and Ivan Ramljak’s Home of the Resistance.

Michael Pattison

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Ivan Ramljak’s Home of the Resistance surveys the one-time Memorial Home for WWII Resistance Fighters and Youth of Yugoslavia

Ivan Ramljak’s Home of the Resistance surveys the one-time Memorial Home for WWII Resistance Fighters and Youth of Yugoslavia

Picture it: the fixed-frame, tripod-mounted shot of some nondescript residential street corner – or an eight-lane motorway, or a river-spanning bridge, or a dormant theme park – that’s allowed to play out, unfold over time. The durational aspect is concomitant: our gaze, provoked by a lack of narrative incident, searches the peripheries, begins to believe everything is of equal interest. The chirps of unseen birds complement the harsh roar of an off-screen layby. Meanings are layered.

When Iain Sinclair refers in his docu-novels to “steady-stare surveillance”, he’s mostly describing the CCTV deployed in policing his beloved London. But the phrase might also befit a particular and increasingly popular strand of nonfiction filmmaking, one in which mediated observation itself is reified. “Patrick Keiller is steady stare, in control, counting every frame,” Sinclair said in 2014. “Even the camera never moves.” Making Robinson in Ruins (2010), Keiller allowed his camera to record for longer than he had in London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997), as if working on the assumption that there was even more to say than usual about the landscapes he was filming.

Two films at this year’s Open City Documentary Festival are emblematic, in their own way, of this prevailing steady-stare current. Screened together, Edward Lawrenson and Killian Doherty’s Uppland and Ivan Ramljak’s Home of the Resistance unearth some of the material strata and spectral traces still present in the manufactured landscapes and architectures of the recent past. Both films’ considered framing, the attention they pay to the arrangement of existing features, emphasises landscape and/or architecture as a thing to be looked at, investigated, studied.

Uppland (2018)

Uppland (2018)

In Uppland, Lawrenson accompanies Doherty on a research trip to Yekepa, the once-prosperous mining town in the Liberian highlands, now defined – in visual terms – by gaping quarries and the corpse-still machinery of an aborted industry: avatars of corporate-colonial aggression and the in-out turnaround of Lamco, the Liberian-American-Swedish Mining Company, which began extracting iron ore there in 1955. In Home of the Resistance, Ramljak turns his gaze to the Memorial Home for WWII Resistance Fighters and Youth of Yugoslavia, built in 1974 (and closed in 1991) on a hill overlooking Kumrovec, a small village on the Croatian-Slovenian border and birthplace of Marshal Tito.

By making a point of staying still – the mediated observation of steady-stare surveillance – both films intensify time. Just as the temporal element innate to cinematography makes itself known, so too does history itself: in the images of rusting machines, upturned vehicles, once-active technologies that have gone untouched long enough, now, to appear as natural as pillaged land. Ramljak’s film can be specifically contextualised against wider attempts to reappraise Soviet and Yugoslav architecture, including an ongoing exhibition at MoMA, as well as everything from Igor Grubić’s Monument (2015) and Salomé Lamas’s Extinction (2018) to coffee-table books on brutalism and the Instagramification of socialist modernism – the more insipid examples of which Owen Hatherley has labelled “concrete clickbait”.

In film, the steady stare is accentuated by hard cuts and the shot-to-shot ruptures in sound that accompany them: the site encountered, our navigation of it, is fragmented. “Yekepa and its surrounding area is a place of contrasts,” Lawrenson tells me. “The more or less deserted town, the strange orderliness of the evangelical school, the eerie calm of the mountain and so on. The different sonic texture assigned to each of these zones helped established this sense of contrast. The sound designer Philippe Ciompi and I worked on this during the edit, and the hard cuts between the spaces accentuated the distinctions between the different locales: visually you sense you’re still in roughly the same geographic area but the shifts in the soundscape hopefully suggest other forms of discontinuity – historical, economic, spiritual – between the places.”

Uppland (2018)

Uppland (2018)

This is not slow cinema; the takes aren’t necessarily long. Indeed, if there’s a tendency in these kinds of films to be contemplative, Lawrenson and Doherty’s is surprisingly rhythmic. There’s a tension in Uppland between a visual method seeking to uncover some topographical essence and an editorial awareness of how easy it can be to overdo it.

“There was definitely a seductive quality to the landscape,” says Lawrenson, “especially when populated by these artfully rusting pieces of machinery, and there was a temptation to linger, to immerse ourselves in the spectacle. But then the risk with this visual approach is that it tips into ruin porn; it drains the images of the political, social and economic context we wanted to explore. We wanted to play with that tension, especially at the end when my voiceover speculates what the relics mean for the actual inhabitants of the area today. I guess that called for a variation in pace. We didn’t want the spectators to feel comfortable with these images of desolation.”

For Ramljak, a strict adherence to a location’s image-sound is new territory. “In my filmmaking I’m always giving myself some tasks or obstructions: that’s how I function,” he says. “The idea was to build the film as a slowly revealing mystery. I wanted to use only the vistas, sounds and people that we found on location. I don’t like to use non-diegetic sound, especially in documentaries. What we tried to do here is to create atmosphere with the sounds that really are or were hearable in and around that space. The only sound that can appear to be non-diegetic, the funeral march towards the end of the film, was actually recorded there. On one of the shooting days, on the neighbouring hill there was a funeral going on, so we recorded it.”

Home of the Resistance (2018)

Home of the Resistance (2018)

Eventually, people do appear in Home of the Resistance. Cleaners, caretakers, gardeners: their inclusion makes the otherwise unpeopled nature of the complex all the more curious. At points, the film recalls Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), or Lisandro Alonso’s Tsai homage Fantasma (2006); in all three films, the token human presence simultaneously emphasises broader absences – a loss in architectural function – and makes us aware of our own position as human spectators. One of the on-site rooms seen in Ramljak’s film is a cinema: seating preserved, an immaculate set-up, empty.

What’s happening here? There are the in-frame dynamics: textures, energies, the contingencies of the actual world experienced in real time. But there’s a more reflexive component too: the fixed rigidity of the frame, highlighting the (typically scarce) movements within it, poses fundamental questions about the very mechanisms of spectatorship. Moved to ask why we’re being made to watch something – and why we’re acceding to such a demand – we’re also more likely to question our ongoing relationship to the work. Such a process can, if you’re so inclined, be enthralling, even empowering.

All of this might be seen as a loose continuation, a distorted re-emergence, of Tom Gunning’s cinema of attractions – driven underground, though a prominent part of the cinematic avant-garde, since about 1907 – not so much in its reliance on human subjects returning or soliciting our gaze, but in the way viewers are made to consider the particularities of a place as worthwhile points of interest. Indeed, there’s more than a trace here of the actuality film – what the Lumière Brothers coined as ‘actualités’ – short reels, less than a minute in length, transforming the mundane minutiae, the involuntary rituals, of everyday life into new spectacles of fascination.

Home of the Resistance (2018)

Home of the Resistance (2018)

Ramljak observes his characters, but unlike Lawrenson and Doherty he doesn’t interview them. “The idea was to let the audience decipher what was actually going on there just through visual means.” Here, he hints at a particular mode of viewing: a process contingent upon decoding. Absent narrative, place is prioritised: as in Heinz Emigholz’s films, the nooks and crannies of a building are no longer taken for granted.

Steady stare, steady listen. They call it the spatial turn. Mapping, placing, situating, locating, positioning: these are the literal tools of, and the figurative terms for, an interdisciplinary method that has, over the last three or so decades, sought to reassert space as a central condition of everyday life and our understanding of the histories and subjectivities lived and shaped through it. It goes beyond – way beyond – human geography: “hardly the product of a few ivory tower intellectuals,” as Barney Warf and Santa Arias have put it. “Rather,” they continue, “this shift in social thought reflects much broader transformations in the economy, politics, and culture of the contemporary world.”

In basic terms, the spatial turn is a response to the myriad forces of globalisation – which have, for better and worse, brought new attention to place as a key factor in shaping identity. At a time in which more and more people are being geographically displaced (and materially dispossessed) by capital, this shift assumes new and obvious urgency – to say nothing of the seemingly irrevocable ecological catastrophe now awaiting us.

Robinson in Space (1997)

Robinson in Space (1997)

The good news for filmmakers – forever broke, perennially marginal, fighting the good fight – is that it suits a cost-effective mode of production: the cameraperson as detective. While Keiller drove a Morris 1100 to and from the shipping ports seen in Robinson in Space, lighter shooting equipment also accommodates foot-based exploration. We might consider, here, Madison Brookshire’s East Hollywood Street Series, a set of nine shorts focusing on the particular rhythms one encounters at certain Los Angeles intersections: “Though it comes out of a desire to make a portrait of Los Angeles, its small scale and simple means make it life-sized as opposed to monumental – a study of a neighbourhood, not a city symphony.” Similarly,  James Davoll’s Adlais (2017), an excellent place-portrait of the disused Dorothea and Pen-Yr-Orsedd slate quarries in Wales’s Dyffryn Nantlle Valley, is a document of the artist’s own walking itineraries as much as it is an imaginative – and yes, tripod-fixed – response to landscape.

As a critic, filmmaker and programmer, it’s not hard to see how in vogue place is. There are obvious reference points. James Benning, as steady-stare as you can get, has built his entire filmography around questions of landscape. Ditto Jonathan Perel, who in films such as 17 Monuments (2012) and Toponymy (2015) frames and connects disparate locales in Argentina with structural precision. Homo Sapiens (2016), the Nikolaus Geyrhalter film that did the rounds a couple of years back, is like the moving-image appendix to a chic hardback about abandoned places. Even more recently, Travis Wilkerson’s exceptional – and exceptionally personal – essay film Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017) is steeped in the specificities of Dothan, Alabama; Jonathan Rosenbaum points to the film’s “extraordinary beauty”, not as “some aesthetic ‘extra’ but as a central part of the film’s anger and fury and eloquence and passionate attentiveness”.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017)

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017)

The point, here, is that such projects are more or less achievable on a modest budget. Encountering the spatial is ineluctable: no pejorative intended when observing the ease with which this can be maximised for artistic purpose. Predictably, however, there’s a gender and racial dimension to acknowledge, whereby the freedom or ability to explore a physical landscape is a precondition for visually conceptualising it. In other words, territorial liberties are historically embedded in both whiteness and maleness, which in everyday practical terms means that certain filmmakers – and no prizes for guessing what we look like – will find this kind of work easier to get made than others.

Lawrenson does his bit, at least, by recognising, through an intelligently framed voiceover, his own positionality. He is both in the film and not in the film, punctuating the steady stares with straightforward interviews with locals. “It felt wrong to go down a more traditional observational route – that we were somehow invisible facilitators – especially during the scenes that take place towards the end of the film, when a difference emerges from what I think I want from the film and what the villagers in New Yekepa prefer to present to us. Without overstating the case, we felt there were some uncomfortable parallels between our roles as European filmmakers and researchers in this remote part of Liberia and the historical attitude of Lamco towards the local environment. The voiceover was a way of hinting at this parallel and exploring this sense of discomfort.”

Uppland (2018)

Uppland (2018)

Needless to say, all of this is political. The topographical features of any given landscape are the outcome of political decisions – enclosure acts, land use zoning, agrarian policies, barricades. As such, by necessity, artists have always been attuned to the political character of their immediate environment. Martin Warnke notes, for instance, regarding the then-unprecedented attention paid to new forms of infrastructure in 16th century landscape painting, that “prominence was clearly given to motifs whose objective purpose was gaining in political importance; painters became aware of roads as means of conquest, trade, communication and economic development.”

Ramljak’s film bears this out. Looking to capture the spirit of a place, he ends up filming a structure conceived as a totality: accommodation, sports, leisure, community. The building, an open space, resists him. Like an inverse gestalt, there are no postcard views here, and the architecture seems all the more alive as a result: an all-weather, multi-purpose monument reactivated by the filmmaker’s lens.

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