Deborah Stratman: Beneath the visible world

17 mins read

In collaboration with Visions, a monthly screening series focusing on the aesthetically and philosophically fertile intersection of experimental and documentary film, this year’s edition of RIDM presented a mini-retrospective of the work of Deborah Stratman. Seven films out of a filmography of at least 34 were presented over three evenings at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, displaying a breadth of techno-aesthetic approaches to a particular set of problems which, by way of persistent questioning and experimentation (and an aesthetics in which question and experiment appear as a singular gesture), become increasingly rich and multifarious.

Stratman’s official website states that she is “an artist and filmmaker interested in landscapes and systems,” and in the films screened in this retrospective, “landscape” is everywhere to be seen. A large part of Illinois Parables (2016) consists of static landscape shots from across the rural areas of the state, accompanied by diverse texts which work over the images; the visual part of From Hetty to Nancy (1997) focuses on the natural landscapes of Iceland juxtaposed with the words of a dead-bored narrator; O’er the Land (2009) takes us o’er the land of America, showing us, for example, landscapes of tranquil pines which become landscapes of simulated war; and In Order Not to Be Here (2002) shows the suburban landscape as a landscape of control. On the other hand, “systems” don’t reveal themselves as immediately; they are much harder to capture on film. The immediate view of a landscape which so readily offers itself up, however, is often deceptive or at least dissimulative, leaving much invisible—the embeddedness of a landscape in a larger system, its entanglement in human processes which may or may not leave their physical marks. Rendering this hidden portion visible calls for an experimental approach. There is not yet a technology of vision, like the camera used in the opening scene of In Order Not to Be Here to reveal bodies hiding in the woods by the heat they emit, that reveals the history of a place (that history’s relation to larger processes, that place’s analogical relationships with other places) when it is viewed through a particular optical apparatus. So Stratman’s experimentalism has an almost scientific drive—suitably, she studied physics for three years as an undergraduate, and still pursues it as a hobby—but more in the spirit of an amateur inventor than a CERN researcher: 16mm film in lieu of a Large Hadron Collider.

Physics itself is the subject matter of On the Various Nature of Things (1995), one of the shorter films in the retrospective and also the earliest. Its basis is a public lecture given as part of a series taking place every year on Christmas Day by Scottish physicist Michael Faraday in 1859. The text of the lecture is read as a voiceover, describing basic physical forces whose names appear as intertitles (MAGNETISM; HEAT; COHESION). (The shortest film in the programme, Immortal, Suspended, takes one physical concept, suspension, and runs with it in all its heteronymic directions.) The film thus mimics the form of an educational film, while the images respond in an obtuse rather than illustrative manner. An allegorical, interpretive layer is thus formed—one which suggests affinities between how matter is worked over by physical processes and how images are worked over by cinematic ones, and between a scientific gaze and that of a certain kind of filmmaking which is attracted to what is invisible within the visible.

Which brings us, in a way, to surveillance, a theme which recurs in at least three of these seven films, and centrally in two. In Order Not to Be Here, as mentioned, opens with documentary footage of two arrests carried out with the use of an infrared camera. We see the view from the helicopter, revealing the exact position of the bodies in the woods, invisible to the agents on the ground who are led to their precise location by radio instructions from above. The confluence of power and vision by means of optical technology could not be more nakedly illustrated as we listen to the invisible camera operator guide the white shapes of the armed agents through the darkness of the woods toward stationary figures awaiting an ineluctable capture. The closing scene of the film is a similar aerial shot, this time staged, showing a man fleeing for what seems like miles, crossing through fields, over fences and roadways, even crossing a river without leaving the frame until a final disappearance in the forest. These two scenes bookend a series of mostly static shots of suburban landscapes whose design is revealed as part of a larger system of control by visual means, where even the vast swaths of total darkness in the terrain vague between structures can be instantly illuminated—where darkness is no sanctuary from a pervasive visibility.

Hacked Circuit (2014) broaches the subject of surveillance through more subtle means, showing sound recordists at work in a foley studio dubbing a clip from the 1974 Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation, which shows Gene Hackman searching for a ‘bug’ planted in his room. The film moves from the exterior of the studio, where we listen in on the recordists at work as if through a bug planted in the studio itself, then to the interior where the methodical process of auditory simulation is revealed. While it is easy to watch the film as an interesting documentary on the foley process (which it arguably is, even though it is staged), the play of visibility/invisibility, hearing at first without seeing, the choice of the quoted film segment, and the film’s closing dedication to Edward Snowden gently push the viewer to consider a more insidious dimension.

O’er the Land, like In Order Not to Be Here, addresses surveillance and its relation to landscape in a segment on patrols at the U.S.–Mexican border, a landscape instrumentalised in order to restrict freedom of movement. We see the “virtual fence” made up of watchtowers with cameras and sensors which alert officers to the movement of bodies across a line, the crossing of which represents, to many, a crossing from unfreedom to freedom. But the interstitial zone (another sort of terrain vague) that the officers patrol is tightly surveilled—once an entry has been detected, the border patrol must only follow the signs left in the body’s wake (footprints on a dusty landscape regularly erased of any marks so that new ones can be more easily read) in order to halt the crossing, enforcing the restriction of the freedom of movement to the privileged. In an earlier scene in the film, we hear an RV salesman talk about the ecstasy granted by the freedom of movement and the privilege of landscape earned by a lifetime of work.

The theme of landscape and its relation to freedom is explored throughout O’er the Land, with its most impressive segment being perhaps its final one, which shows a tranquil forest transformed into a simulated theatre of war on the occasion of the Machine Gun Festival in Kentucky, which sees men in mismatched military fatigues run through a course in the forest, firing automatic weapons into the brush. In another area on the festival grounds, patrons empty their magazines into a landscape which is almost indistinguishable from an actual warzone—a smoke-filled morass of mud complete with burnt-out shells of vehicles—with no discernible targets to be seen; in yet another, men fire flamethrowers into an empty gravel lot with an attitude of purpose, as if it were their job, as though if they didn’t exercise this particular freedom it would disappear.

The most sprawling film in the retrospective, O’er the Land is difficult to sum up—it resembles an essay film in ways, but it has no original text, its questioning carried out solely by means of a slow and purposeful montage of mostly more-or-less raw documentary footage, only occasionally wandering into poetic territory. The central pillar in the film’s structure is the story, told in first-person in the middle of the film, of Col. William Rankin’s violent and nearly fatal 40-minute descent from 48,000 feet after ejecting from a fighter jet over North Carolina because of a mechanical failure. In a gripping account, Rankin describes being caught in an updraft and suspended in the clouds in the midst of a storm. Its relation to the scenes which surround it, and which converse with each other readily, is obscure, appearing like what Freud calls the ‘navel’ of a dream—“the spot where it reaches down into the unknown”—but given that this is a film and that the scene is there on purpose, its obscurity lends the film (without faulting it for that) a mysterious dimension and a feeling of something unresolved.

Illinois Parables, the longest and most recent film shown at the festival, sprawls in a similar way to O’er the Land, but within the narrower confines of the state of Illinois. The film, divided into 11 vignettes (“parables”) traverses the state geographically and temporally, beginning at around 600 C.E. with the mounds of the lost pre-Columbian metropolis Cahokia, and ending with the murder of black nationalist Fred Hampton in Chicago in 1969 (a final coda shows Michael Heizer’s earth-mound artwork Effigy Tumuli, echoing the form of the Cahokia mounds). Like O’er the Land, Illinois Parables is a kind of essay film that never grants itself the privilege of speaking for itself, and is all the more powerful for it. Instead, Stratman weaves together visual, auditory and textual materials that, in combination, reveal the embeddedness of (in the filmmaker’s words) “the political in the local.” Near the beginning of the film, in a segment on the forced migration of the Cherokee nation from east of the Mississippi to present-day Oklahoma, a particularly effective montage has a facsimile of the Indian Removal Act printed on a transparency sheet scroll across a static shot of a snow-covered road in winter; the irony of the document’s “transparency” is palpable, but so too is its indelible inscription on the land, the irreversibility of what it enacts.

The film traces other exoduses and migrations—Mormons fleeing persecution in Missouri and the Icarians who bought their land when they fled again to Utah—and makes pilgrimage to other sites of historical, military, technological and supernatural importance, sites of “thinness between past and present,” sites of “unresolved history” such as can be found in any territory. The sections are not parables in the sense of moral tales but in the sense that they reach beyond the merely local or temporal and demonstrate not only their implication in larger historical or more abstract, ideological processes, but also a mode of viewing landscapes that takes into account what is not seen but is nonetheless written, inscribed, marked upon them—a way of seeing that can be learned and universalized, and which may act as a tool of resistance.

From Hetty to Nancy, a much less oblique and political work, makes light of the dullness that our vision can lapse into—its narration a recital of an antique series of letters written by an unimpressed schoolgirl (actually a satiric piece by Irish poet Louis MacNeice) on a tour of Iceland’s natural wonders—while partaking of a way of seeing similar to that of Illinois Parables, taking note of curiosities (historic, natural, supernatural, mythical) lying beneath the permafrost as it embarks on its own tour. The landscapes themselves gently oscillate between sumptuous and austere and are beautifully captured by Stratman on 16mm, and the droning gossip and complaint of Hetty is contrasted not only with the beauty of the landscape but also with the stories that Stratman excavates, often recounting gruesome and heroic struggles between human beings and their natural environment.

The relatively small selection of Stratman’s works presented in this retrospective show us an artist of significance who has been for over two decades engaging as meaningfully and fruitfully with her subject matter as with her media. Her sustained interrogation of ways of seeing as means of both control and resistance is equally relevant to contemporary political aesthetics and to the documentary genre, where the transparency of vision is often taken for granted. RIDM’s inclusion of the retrospective and their collaboration with Visions is a welcome gesture of acknowledgement and support for important work being done at the interface of documentary and experimental cinema.


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