The lights are off and everyone is home: History of Water- 10 years later
History of Water is a ‘cold open’ to my personal filmmaking and it offers a strange prolegomenon: a fictional document suffused with miniature realities. The production was informed by a body of short films and relies on the creation of an environment in which a certain level of ‘reality’ can dialyse the scheme or, inversely, whereby the scheme can infect a certain level of ‘reality’. The work I created up until that point had no budget and, in earnest, no resources at all. In hindsight, I notice that my filmmaking had taken the form of a bizarre ‘method’ practice, whereby cinema succumbed to a pathetic fallacy of characters and images; slice-of-life scenes or fly-on-the-wall recordings all mutated from real life. And yet, it is rare that a film would feature its catalyst. Throughout this stream of early work, there is a fervent desire to present an indirect dialectic, to propose a cinematic doppelgänger.
In 2011, I graduated from university and waded out into a national industry eviscerated by a recession. Whatever it was that you were planning on doing, it was best advised that you do it in as few moves as possible. Up until that point I had made over twenty short films, most of which were never submitted to film festivals. At that stage, it was no surprise that the industry’s two-stroke engine of 'short to feature' did not suit and so I felt little pressure to perform under such a regime going forward. One cannot help but feel short-changed by a system vying to reduce an artform into nothing more than a peacocking strategy or a ‘calling card’.
After graduating I was lucky enough to get work at film and TV production studios across Ireland. These jobs would provide the resources needed to create my first feature film and numerous short films. I embarked on History of Water without money, actors, crew or story. The film, a deranged home movie of sorts about a filmmaker creating a deranged home movie, splats its scaly palm on the shore without machination towards glory. It is a film born out of a phenomenological and primal need to create images. As I revisit the project now, ten years later, several disquieting aspects unfurl in my mind. The film depicts real people in everyday situations, most of them are performing in such a specific way that, over the years, I could be led astray by the fiction presented. History of Water was designed as a personal project about memory and, like most of my films to date, it engages with the fallibility of recollection. The title itself refers to how a droplet of water stores particles of most things it comes into contact with. In many ways, the film has succeeded in distilling the anxiety and nihilism of that time.
In a process similar to my short films, I initiated family and friends as actors and crew members. The camera itself became a Mekasian extension of my own presence. If you visited my home during the six months I was shooting History of Water you would have noticed that certain rooms were blindingly over-lit, others incredibly dull, and the remaining spaces with no light at all. Swapping out all of the lightbulbs, like so many other seemingly normal filmmaking activities, became a constant necessity and made a prolonged impact on those dwelling there. It must have been like living inside of a Pedro Costa mood board. Often in place of creating a scene, I would leave props in a space and then have the performers draw something together themselves; I'd roll the camera and walk away. What emerged was a strange diary film, an object replete with weaknesses and intuitions. What differs this film from preceding work is the need to address the tension between the real and the imagined. I decided to present people as true to who they were, friends and family, rather than attempt to dress them up as something else. Similar to the films that followed, History of Water is very much in tune with its own making and by extension, its potential for un-making itself. In my work, the filmmaking apparatus itself is a potential site of action, it forms part of a dramaturgy whereby certain processes, such as the recording, in addition to technical actions occurring before and after, are exposed in such a way that they too can be ingredients in the narrative. I would like to use the motion picture itself as a potential character, to allude, for a moment, that the film’s existence is beyond a body (carrier) and approach it as something that is materialising in a flow or a stream and constantly intercepting other cognisant organisms. I would like to present a film as a creature with an awareness of the characters inhabiting it, as well as the structures that bind them all together. Therefore it is only a matter of time before it becomes aware of you, the viewer; a film animal appearing as dasein.
At the time of History of Water, this hypothesis was in its very early stages. To instigate specific reactions from a performer I would enter a scene, off-camera, and create a distraction. At one point I began to film these distractions and include them in the narrative. From here, the entire thing evolved from 'Bowfinger' into a bizarre live-action Kuleshov. In turning the camera on these ‘motivations’ an additional layer of mystery settled on the narrative within which the relationship between cause and effect ceased to matter; the film was free to be whatever. In this 'anti-universe', as Jean Epstein called it, the boundaries between real, reenacted, synthetic and organic are completely dissolved.
A decade later and certain people, as well as specific filming locations featured in the History of Water, no longer exist. As time consumes the spool, the film finds itself as heir to the peculiar situation of being a fictional object and a record of time. And yet, it is a fictitious time; a fiction film with people reacting to dramatic motivations and it might as well be real. Cinema is a thinking machine and, by design, an apparatus of haunting. The act of film projection itself is a conjuring of spectres through rupture of the present. Its singular unit of time is a static memento-mori but when viewed as a stream or sequence the images become dead-alive in motion, allowing the spectre, and viewers alike, to slip the noose of clock time, if only for a brief moment of séance. As someone who has recorded vast portions of their daily life over three decades, I am inevitably drawn to the space between the frames, the space from which the film watches you. In this breach, I now look back between the stream of images for evidence of a real life.
When a death occurs the living are left with nothing but a string of memories in various stages of haunting. In these circumstances, the recorded image becomes a site bombarded by an extraordinary pressure for truth. In what taxonomy can we determine one version of the ghost from another when our process of recollection is intrinsically linked to images or manufactured memories. Memory itself is an echo through time, its own rapidly declining fidelity is as detrimental to its payload as a projectile deteriorating in transit. Just as a fungus corrupts information on the pointillist halide grains of colour on film emulsion, time and decay push elements of the memory mosaic further apart. To combat this, a certain level of probability, ‘a fiction in service of the truth’, is used to plug the gap. This form of entropy encoding integrates a perpetual loss, a chain of whispers that eventually compress the real into a blur, a precise movement lost to a swathe of impressionistic pixels. At that stage, is it possible to recall an earlier version of remembrance; a memory of remembering from a point in time more proximal to the source? The notion of 'time out of mind' becomes more complex when you are faced with the somewhat Ruizian prophecy of 'which time?' or, even more so 'which mind?'.
When you record something it refracts across a fiction spectrum and this reflection of reality is subjugated by the laws of cinema; a unit of time selected and shaped under the dominion of the eye. To paraphrase Jean-Pierre Gorin, in cinema the only ‘real’ aspect is our relationship to the fiction itself. By 2011, my own filmmaking became a traumatic exercise in which real people were exposed in fictional moments feeding off personal situations, both theirs and mine. My relationship to this fiction, in addition to the real people and their lives at that moment, is in a constant state of flux. Over the years any real-life memories from History of Water have been slowly digested by cinema's fiction doppelgänger. What is drawn to the refracted light distends into aberration at the edges of the glass and never shall it see beyond it for “there is no outside of the mirror”, as Deleuze wrote. Beneath the murk of these images, there was no controlled film set bustling with technicians, there was a shadow placing a camera in a room: an image that would become a capsized smudge on the crystalline lens of the subject’s memory- a potential encounter of the third kind. Ironically, over time these filmmaking memories have become a smudge on my peripheral vision. With each passing day, the fiction dissolves another node of reality as it glides off the mirror to meet the frame. What lies in place of memory is a shadow created by a blast, a final radiating form measured as disintegrations per second.
When a film is completed, a part of the filmmaker remains with it, trapped in time. The film feeds on the part that is left behind until nothing remains. Reconnecting with that part of you after so many years is similar to rebooting an old spinning hard disk; the contents of which are now garbled into strings of corrupted code. In such a case, part of the creator has been assimilated by the creation which, in turn, has been discreetly housed at the back of the mind. Even in a dormant state, it transmits a lost signal from past to present, its half-life glimpsed as images pulsing like a tropical malady or an intercepted broadcast from another world. A lost world, eerily reminiscent of our own.