Among the shorts selected for the Ammodo Tiger Short Competition at the much anticipated (partially) online 50th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), now under the new direction of Vanja Kaludjercic, there was one short that particularly stood out: Morgan Quaintance’s 16mm Surviving You, Always (2020), an investigation into the essence of film, its materiality and its possibilities. By disconnecting its formal elements, Surviving You, Always manages to elevate the personal recollections of Quaintance in the form of photographs and subtitles by placing them in opposition to the narration consisting of audio material of Timothy Leary, the famous American psychologist advocating the psychedelic properties of hallucinogenic drugs. While we hear Leary’s voice continually speak about the mind-expanding properties of LSD, the words that simultaneously appear on the imagery speak of a very different experience with the drug in 1990s South London as Quaintance explores his own memories. This stark division is perhaps most clearly explored in the film’s material weight, as the photographs and moving imagery reveal his memories of a woman whom he loved, a troubled relationship that weaves the whole film together and speaks of the impossibility of youthful love. It becomes a film that is meant to be liberating, while representing the creative side of deconstruction and formal invention.
The film was to later win Quaintance the Jean Vigo Best Director prize at Punto da Vista festival in March. Though having already won several awards for his short films, Quaintance is still relatively new to directing moving image work; his first two short documentaries Letter from Tokyo and Bataaxalu Ndakaaru (Letter from Dakar) appeared in 2018 and 2019. He has otherwise predominantly been known for his work as a curator, radio and podcast host, and as a writer contributing mostly to publications such as Art Monthly, The Wire and The Guardian.
All of Quaintance’s shorts unfold in time – recollection and the connection between the continuously moving present and the past form a common thread throughout his texturally rich work. Most of his short films rely on these temporal relations and add up to an exploration of buried or forgotten histories through memory via the reconstruction of the past through photographs and archive material. It seems that Quaintance’s work forms the embodiment of what Thomas Elsaesser discussed in his text on film history as media archaeology, namely cinema’s role in transforming the past and historical present into a collective memory, ultimately emphasising cinema’s invisible hand in our daily lives.1 What becomes clear is that the lived life is an essential element of his films, through their particular anatomy, structure and autonomy. His films make clear both the power of solidarity and the power of the individual and the collective, while simultaneously highlighting the complex distance, disconnect and lack of identification between the realities of people of different backgrounds in experiencing the same phenomena. But above all, Quaintance’s shorts are incredibly personal and full of references to his own experiences and youth in both London and Chicago, often intertwined with discussions of both race and class.
For example, South (2020), which was awarded the New Vision Award at CPH:DOX and the Best Experimental Film Award at Curtas Vila Do Conje, draws parallels between the anti-racist movements in the American South, South Chicago, South London and South Africa during the ‘60s, the ‘80s and the present day – places separated by time and distance, but very much linked in their specific and complex histories and geographical location. In Missing Time (2019) the idea of selfhood is explored in relation to colonialism and how both concepts are constituted and maintained through memory. There is often a disconnect between form and content, between imagery and sound, through his specific use of a 16mm camera, as is also the case in Early Years (2019). This short film forms a portrait of Quaintance’s mother, the Jamaican-born Barbara Samuels. It explores the hardship that Samuels’ mother May Thompson had to endure as a black immigrant in the United Kingdom and Samuels’ own experiences growing up as the child of a mixed-race couple in an unwelcoming society.
Seeing all of Quaintance’s short films together reminded me of Raymond Bellour’s notion of the cinema as a body of memory – a thought that relies on the idea that the film has a body of its own and that the film experience is ultimately based on the relationship established between the body of the film (the projection itself but also its formal elements) and the body of the spectator.2 A cinema that gains meaning through its audience, thus, as Abbas Kiarostami said, “resulting in hundreds of films”3 as each individual spectator interprets the film differently and the film continues to exists as a memory. Most of Quaintance’s shorts rely on this co-dependence between the film and the spectator and often invite the spectator to reflect on the imagery through its disconnection formal properties.
Quaintance’s work is also an indirect reflection of his critical writings on contemporary art, as his ideas find their way into his visual work. Another Decade (2018) forms an investigation into the seeming amnesia of the art world since the 1990s and especially draws attention to the fact that the UK art world still has a very distinct elitist character and remains mostly inaccessible to black, queer and female artists, relying heavily on traditional institutions that claim to be progressive but simultaneously have nothing to show for it.4 Quaintance emphasises the transference of power from the actual artists to the institutions controlling the spaces where work can be featured, as “taste” is still defined by high culture.
The pandemic has forced us to rethink our relationship with art and has drastically changed the way we access it. Surviving You, Always, for example, was only accessible online during IFFR – ultimately altering the role visual perception and the body play in the spectator’s interaction with the virtual environment of the film and our conversation took place via Zoom. But this online environment perhaps also offers an opportunity to view art without the restrictions and traditions that weigh so heavily on the space of the physical museum or any other institution.
Perhaps to start off with, I’m very curious about your creative process. Your shorts are very rich, in material, in different textures, but also in how they combine poetry, music, photography and visual art. Where do you normally start?
Usually, I have some ideas that I’ll want to explore and I’ll bring those to the first bit of filmmaking I do. To start with, I’ll probably shoot about 400 foot of film (which is approximately 10 minutes). Usually when I get the footage back from the lab there’s a period of panic. Because I might not get what I expect, in which case I have to be a bit more reflexive and respond to the direction the material is leading me in. The reason I’m able to be flexible is because I’m researching all the time, I’m reading all the time. I tend to always be listening and looking out for things with an eye to using them, or thinking of things that I want to do in film. That way I can react and say, okay, that idea isn’t working, let me try this one. Also, because of my background in writing criticism and doing interviews, once I hear a narrative line or see a formal idea emerge, I’ve got quite a good sense of how I can contain it within a limited period so that it is fully resolved by the film’s end.
Do you feel that the fact that you’re also a curator, writer and critic, makes a difference to the way you approach film?
I don’t really think of myself as a critic, although I sometimes have to use the term to describe what I do. In reality I just write about art, and I don’t think of myself as having a kind of superior opinion, like the style prevalent in newspaper criticism, or anything that could be descended from that Greenbergian perspective of detached delectation by a ‘superior aesthetic mind’. Writing is an excuse for me to be close to cultural production, and to spend time thinking deeply about it.
For me the root of everything I do stems from just being involved in art, and realising that being involved in art is what makes me feel fulfilled and human. I mean art in the widest sense here: contemporary art, dance, theatre, music and so on. I was a musician for a long time, before that I studied theatre and when I was really young I was involved in contemporary dance. All of that stuff is exposure to cultural production, exposure to the imaginations of artists and it’s all enriched my life and made me who I am today.
Something you immediately notice while watching your shorts is that they nearly all are very firmly rooted in both historical and contemporary actuality and try to create parallels between historical conflicts and conflicts that we are faced with now. How did you come to that specific approach?
You know, it wasn’t conscious! It is the first time someone actually made that connection. I never really thought about maintaining this back and forth between the past and the present when I make a film. But it just so happens that’s what satisfies me when I’m working with images. In some ways it’s the nature of 16mm as well; the limitations of working with a Bolex camera that can only shoot 20 second takes. It’s hard to film things actually happening, because you’ve got such a short amount of time. I think that is why there is this mixture between yesterday and today so to speak, because of the limitations of the equipment that I have. It forces a certain type of engagement with the present.
This fragmentation between still images and moving images comes back in nearly all your work. A disconnection between spaces and time, but also aesthetic disconnection. For example, the narration very often seems to be disconnected from the images or stands completely separate from it. Or the discrepancy between the human on screen and their voices that do not match their movements.
Again, that is partly to do with the limitation of working with a Bolex camera. But it is also definitely a very deliberate aesthetic choice. There is something that you access when you have this lack of synch between the image and the narration. You begin to experience the film differently. The image is the image and the narration is the narration, and I like that separation. I am always looking for ways to separate the films that I make from just average filmmaking. And I know that sounds odd, but it is just that people are making so many films at the moment and telling so many stories that I’m happy if what I do seems slightly different, to engage with viewing in a different way.
These disconnections allow the viewer much more freedom of interpretation to make those connections between the images and narration.
It is something I did deliberately in Surviving You, Always. In a way that is the whole point of that film. And I was really pleased that I was able to convincingly achieve that formal innovation. I feel, objectively speaking, that that film does something quite unique, especially in relation to artists moving image. In Surviving you are being asked to watch something and simultaneously engage with two different narrative registers, or even three. I was looking for a way of communicating directly in one sense and indirectly in another, to have them both happening at the same time. On the one hand, very direct communication and then this other thing that is much more poetic, or slightly harder to recognise. The two of them together is something that creates a rich viewing experience and leads to a singularly affective ending.
Do you think this process of co-dependence got disrupted or that that relation with the spectator became different because of the fact that your film was only accessible online during IFFR this year?
I’m not sure about this. I think a lot of things were disrupted this year because of screenings having to be online only, but I don’t think that format was especially harmful to Surviving. I think it’s a film that can connect to people on their laptops and on the big screen. The only challenge on the laptop is that there are other potential distractions for viewers, courtesy of the world wide web, and I can’t control how people are listening to the work. So all the sound design I spent time on might just get crushed when played through tiny little speakers on a computer, but then some people might listen through their stereos, or even at the more intimate scale of headphones, which would be great.
In relation to the question above, do you think the pandemic has forced us to rethink our relationship with art and has drastically changed the way we access art? Perhaps also offering a new way of engaging with art online, outside of the institutions.
I hope so, but it’s difficult for me to get a perspective on all of this because I’m still very much in the pandemic. I’m still struggling with isolation and am becoming frustrated with having to be online so much. But it has been exciting having film festivals make the online component so accessible.
Surviving You, Always is an incredibly personal film where you use your own memories in the form of photographs and subtitles, very starkly juxtaposed with a narration of a very liberal idea of drugs from the 1970s – drugs to expand the mind versus drugs to escape reality. Was this film a way to create a framework via memories of your own?
I didn’t realise it while I was making the film, but Surviving You, Always directly relates to the last line in another film I’ve made called Missing Time. The last line in Missing Time is spoken by a woman who believes she was abducted by aliens in the past, and that the experience was highly traumatic, she says:
“I think for a long time I had the feeling that I had lived through a tragedy in some way. And sometimes, even now, I still have this feeling. Because it’s something that’s haunting. It’s something that’s always on my mind. No matter where I go, or what I do. Because I do lead a very active life and I have many, many interests. But always that’s in the back of my mind. It’s the last thing that I think of when I go to bed at night, and it’s the first thing that I think of in the morning when I wake up.”
That’s exactly how I felt about what happened in Surviving. I suspect it’s also a universal description that sums up the complexity of people’s inner lives; how memories can sit behind many of the things that you do and nobody outside would recognise. For a period, the series of events in Surviving were things that I thought about in the morning and when I went to bed at night. Even though I have a very full life, I still have these memories that are a fundamental part of my soul or being.
However, the film didn’t start out with me sitting down and saying “I want to make a film about this”. I actually started to make a film about something completely different, but during that process I shot footage of this photograph of mine to see how it would look (the first image in the film). When I got the material back I thought it was the best shot out of ten minutes of footage. And then I started talking about what happened around that picture and it led into the experience of my friend. I just told it chronologically and at that point the film began to take shape and I started consciously moving it in that direction. It kind of made itself.
Memory is a particularly slippery concept; do you feel film allows you to somehow capture it? Is that also partly your aim?
Well, it goes back to me going as far as I can with the apparatus that I have. I think someone else might have a different take on how to use a Bolex, but for me history and memory are always present because of the distance in time between whatever I shoot and see. When I film something with the Bolex I have to wait one week for it to come back from the developers and so retrospection is a kind of in built, structural factor.
At the moment the cameras that I am using are a Bolex, a DV camera and maybe a VHS camera, and I use them together because they complement each other texturally. If I put my digital Canon C300 in the mix with the analogue, it just wouldn’t work. They’d both highlight each other’s flaws. The digital makes the film and video look not high enough quality, whereas the film and the video make the digital material look completely flat and without any depth. If I get my hands on a camera that will allow me to shoot ten-minute takes, then that would be a completely different style of filmmaking that I would be able to explore and would create a different relationship to time as I’d be able to explore things unfolding in the present, in a style that doesn’t echo a kind of journalistic or reportage-like, digital flatness. Digital film, at least what I can achieve with my C300, feels very much like a reportage apparatus. Maybe it’s because of the ‘run and gun’ nature of the machine.
Your way of working reminds me of the beginning days of cinema, when they would just let the roll run out and film what was happening in front of the camera.
Yeah definitely, I am conscious of that. Especially those films such as Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. That’s a dimension of filmmaking that would open up to me if I could shoot longer takes. And I really have the desire to shoot that sort of film, to work with time as a parameter. In another project that was part of a recent residency, Letter from Sapporo (2021), I asked people in Japan to shoot things with their phones because I couldn’t travel to Japan. I was trying to get people to shoot really long takes of everyday activities, and I received lots footage of people clearing snow, working, driving and walking. This is something I would like to try next (well after I’ve finished the current film I’m working on titled A Human Certainty). I feel like I’ve taken a style of 16mm filmmaking to a certain level and I want to expand it. For example, moving into working with actors, or rather constructing situations and filming the results, that’s a dimension I’d like to try out. It’s funny, that was actually the plan for 2020, but it was just the worst period of time to work with people. It’s almost like I had to go back a step. Still, Surviving You, Always, is definitely what I wanted and needed to make, but it is a film that I made in complete isolation in my house and in my head, shooting footage of photographs.
Would it have turned out differently if you hadn’t been stuck in your house by yourself because of the lockdown?
It’s difficult to say, but probably. I might have done something else, or I might have tried to work with actors and then been drawn back to the events that were explored in Surviving. Sometimes you really can’t choose what will be your next film. At least, in my experience I seem to guided by other things. Practically speaking, however, I won an award for South and I wanted to make a film with the award money. The subject matter in Surviving You, Always had been on my mind for years and I’d avoided exploring it in film before, but this time I went with it. There was that impulse, and then a personal goal of mine is to always keep working and developing as a filmmaker. So I knew that I had to make something during the lockdown period and in a way, the conditions of isolation made it impossible for me to hide from my own thoughts and feelings. That’s how they made it into the film.
In your films you often show both the power of the individual and the collective, while simultaneously highlighting the complex distance between the realities of people of different backgrounds in experiencing the same phenomena. Is this something that happened organically or is it a subject you really wanted to explore?
I think this is something that perhaps happens organically. I tend not to follow a set of subject specific commitments in the films I make. For example, I don’t make a habit of exploring race, gender, class and so on. Sometimes they appear in my films, but they are rarely what my films are actually about.
In your film Early Years, you create a beautiful portrait of Barbara Samuels. How did you discover her and why did you choose her as the subject for that short film?
I’m really glad you liked the film. Barbara Samuels is my mother! The film really came about because we were having a lot of conversations about her life whenever I’d visit her. So one day I thought it’d be great to try to record stuff as an interview. I had no intention of making a film. We recorded a couple of two-hour conversations and then after I listened back to part of it, about a week or so later, I thought that maybe I should try to make a film. The resulting work only takes in a really short part of her life. It’s funny, but I think Early Years is an example of a work where the things that people focus on in the story, as important events, really say more about themselves than Barbara. For both of us the point of the work is how art and creativity were these vital life-affirming and life-changing forces for her.
In all your films there is a very specific focus on concrete structures, or buildings and houses. Where does this interest in architectural structures, or perhaps the practice of architecture in connection to social questions of displacement, especially in the city, come from?
That’s a really good question. At the moment I’m not really sure where it comes from or why it happens, except to say that the built environment is a major part of modern life. At least, it’s been a major part of my own life. For example, on Surviving the housing estate I grew up on was such a presence and character in many key moments. I haven’t been back there for years, but I could take you to spots where I’ve kissed people or had fist fights (both happened frequently). The last time I walked through it was about two years ago. It’s more or less dead now, because of gentrification, but I still felt these ambiguous and powerful emotions of fascination, fear, attraction and revulsion. So, I think usually buildings will be used in my films for what they contained, or the events that happened in and around them, rather than straight architectural appreciation. That was a really interesting question though. You’ve got me really thinking about it now.
- Thomas Elsaesser, “Film History as Media Archaeology,” in Film History as Media Archaeology: Tracking Digital Cinema, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2016, p. 71. ↩
- Hilary Radner and Alistair Fox, “Cinema and the Body: The Ghost in the Theater,” in Raymond Bellour: Cinema and the Moving Image, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2018, p. 53. ↩
- Abbas Kiarostami, An Unfinished Cinema, 1995. Text distributed in December 1995 at the Odéon Theatre in Paris, you can find a version here on the Sabzian website. ↩
- See his text “The New Conservatism: Complicity and the UK Art World’s Performance of Progression”. ↩