"There could never be a portrait of my love // For nobody can paint a dream." - Steve Lawrence, Portrait of My Love (1961)
People will always be interested in other people, so it is not surprising that character portraits are dominant across the programmes in this year's documentary selection at the London Short Film Festival. In some of the best of these, those featured are given space to tell their own stories, with the filmmaker finding ways to effectively guide and shape their narratives. From across the strand, three choice couplets - films featuring two artists, two duos, and two workers.
The world may seem chaotic, but "everything is in exactly the right place" insists the central character in photographer and documentarian Marie Cecile Embleton's quietly impressive The Watchmaker. As he tweaks a diminutive cog with a specialised tool, Embleton's camera zooms in on the infinitely complex arrangement under his thumb - a miniature world of intermingled tiny metal parts; the universe as seen in the swirl in a coffee cup. A practitioner of this rare craft who proves to be a meditative reflector upon his own work; with his long wispy beard, raspy voice and collection of secondhand stories and thirdhand watches, he is a bit of a cliché - watchmaker and bodhisattva rolled into one - but an irresistible one all the same. Embleton observes him at work, mixing a fascinating array of microscopic closeups of intricate watch parts and precise machinery with a canvas of ticking sounds and layered quotes - with much needed space left in between. His practise is a meditative one, he reveals. When working on a timepiece he is able to disappear inside its miniature world and forget this one. "Everything becomes normal again." Despite the fascination with intricacy, there's nothing too complicated in Embleton's film, but just enough of exactly what you need to make a good, straight short documentary: an eye for the right shot, the one that shows how things are without revealing too much; and an ear for the right line, which suggests a little more than it is saying; and the skill to mix, select and order these things so they function as they should. "It is important how you do things" says the watchmaker, "everything is art, everything is craft." But even the watch, which, as seen, seems infinitely complex when taken apart, is actually, quite simple, it seems. "It does what it was built for, it keeps time." Nothing more. Easy when you put it like that.
A differently styled film about another artist-craftsperson, Cecile Emeke's short hybrid-doc on Faith Ringgold, The Ancestors Came starts with a call. "Lift me up" says Ringgold at the start of Emeke's touching, thoughtful film about the artist and her childhood. After that, a small bell, a shuffling tambourine, and a flicker of light bouncing off a handheld mirror. Small gestures that make up a composite whole. Fragmented, scattershot and softly experimental, Emeke's film doesn't try to surmise Ringgold, or even explain her, but instead offer an impression of all that which goes into the work, and into a life. A portrait of the artist, made from a picture of her neighbourhood. Cutting between abstract, strikingly composed landscape shots of Harlem; scenes featuring children, mostly in nature, at play; and mobile, gliding recordings of Ringgold herself, Emeke builds a concise, evocative visual collage to accompany Ringgold's wandering, often charged musings. "You do have a lot of power as an artist. You can actually do what you want. You don't need anyone's permission to do it anyway," she says. "Now... will you?" As inspiring a rallying cry as can be imagined, it's the perfect line for the film's original placement, as one of the Tate's commissioned films for the Soul of a Nation exhibition in which Ringgold was featured.
From one memorable line to another. "Be happy for every breath you take, because, basically, every breath you take is a miracle." Sean Mullan's unwieldy, experimental Northern Ireland set portrait Inhale features a beguiling, enthralling opening sequence, one that immediately sets its narrator's discordant musings on grief and suffering within a less material, more ethereal realm. First seen are a series of indiscernible landmasses, the camera gliding over them in a top down perspective. Then, several extreme closeups of glistening eyes, some human, some evidently not, but all so close and so watery as to remain indistinct. Then another overhead perspective gradually reveals a green circular formation, the camera creeping up in a retreating track that marginally widens the frame. Almost as soon as the image becomes clear to the eye - a horse running in a spiral circuit, its rider a dot atop a whirl, the scene sphericised by the distortion of a fish eye lens - it's over. The sequence's tense violin soundtrack abruptly halted alongside a cut to black. From here, things are less abstract, the perspectives wider and the images not so obscured, but the same sense of wonder over the natural world remains. Mullan films a horse and its trainer, a brooding, pensive man whose situation and sentiment is revealed gradually, often through cryptic and lyrical aphorisms that tell little, but suggest more. Much misery has struck him, disrupted the course of his life and the stability of his mind, but his horses remain a constant. "An old man once said to me, from the outside a horse will take a lot of pain out of the inside of man". Difficult to follow, but satisfying somehow, if mostly in the strength of the images, Mullan's film proves to be less about the horse it begins with, and more about the man who looks after him. Grief and growth, stops and starts. "Emotional pain tends to leave more scars."
Next, another film with two characters, though both human and both female. "Ballet is woman in a way, but I do think it is still run primarily by men", says ballet dancer Beatriz in Andrew Margetson's Duet, providing a glimmer of context from which to process the subsequent dance that is observed. Concise, neatly composed, and well cut, Margetson's interpretation of the duet transcends simple performance-recording through the precision of its craft, minor edits, well chosen and almost imperceptible, that lend rhythm and life to what might be otherwise a flat recording of something that evidently would have energy if witnessed live. Duet demonstrates the slim line between too little and nothing at all, through the economy of its presentation as much as the slim provision of politics from which to engage with the recorded ritual. A film both about the dance itself, but also its relation to the space for which was created, the Royal Ballet, no less.
Also interesting, two films about women committed to their work. Daniel Ali & Louis Leeson's A Million Waves, surrounds KK, a surfer training to turn professional in Sierra Leone, who, in the film's accompanying interview-as-monologue calmly declares: "I have to surf, so that is the way." It is what it is, a calling is just that, something that must be fulfilled. A visual portrait that maybe veers too close to an aesthetic more familiar in advertising, smoothed visuals, drone-glides, near-constant slow-motion and a rolling synth score, A Million Waves is nevertheless a pleasure to absorb, with some awe inspiring aerial shots, crisply captured closeups and well considered compositions. Surface pleasures aside, the film is anchored by it's protagonist's unwavering commitment and enthusiasm for the pursuit, considering the context in which she enjoys it. Alluded to often, but never plainly stated, behind all of the endless blue skies, flittering sunsets and rolling tides lies a country facing frequent turmoil. But out on the ocean, its just her and the waves.
A different situation, but a similar sentiment. "I really love my job" says the eponymous character in Charlotte Wolf's Sally, a tender film about an ageing sex worker who has recently retired, if less by choice than necessity. Musing on her work and clientele fondly in a continuing monologue, she traverses the 13 years she spent in this trade with gentle humour and tact, offering highlights to the listener like the man whose requests for "pony service" seemed normal only to him; and the 87 year old client who stopped visiting, having gone "chasing angels upstairs instead." Always nostalgic in tone, "you get fond of the old boys, you can't help it," she adds. A simple film in focus and execution, Wolf deserves credit for facing the challenge of not being able to depict her narrator. (A problem also overcame, to more powerful effect, in Jade Jackman's Calling Home, also at LSFF) Short of the odd closeup of the back of her head, her nape, a tuft of hair, nothing too revealing, Sally remains invisible. Instead, Wolf includes miscellaneous shots of her home, the beach, flowers and wintery skies that move things along gently, alongside interspersed images that are more directly relational to the anecdotes being described. (Dramatising the pony service, especially, proves inventive.) Clever cutting patches it all together, and creates a fluidity that is not easy to come to. Before long, the film has passed, with nothing too dramatic said, but a message imbued that is quietly provocative. This sort of situation is usually depicted through misery, often for good reason, but it isn't always miserable. "I would like to thank all of the gentlemen who have visited me whilst I've been in this profession," Sally reads finally, reciting a touching and unpretentious letter to those clients that have been bereft in her professional absence that closes the film.
This was originally posted on the Open City Documentary Festival blog.