Film London Jarman Award 2020


24 September – 19 November 2020

Review by Rina Arya

The six shortlisted works for the 2020 Film London Jarman Award are thought-provoking, exquisitely produced films that are markedly diverse and address concerns, in different documentary-style formats, that are at the forefront of social consciousness. They showcase the best in contemporary artists’ filmmaking and are being taken on a virtual tour to venues across the UK from 24 September to 19 November 2020. A prominent theme in the shortlist concerns archaeology, made manifest in the evaluation of the past or the uncovering of layers.

Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings’ ‘In My Room’ (2020), is a powerful examination of the relationship between male homosexual culture and queer spaces. The film, set in male-only locations like gay bars, examines the culture of dance as a form of self-expression and power politics. The choreography of the dancing in interiors is visually arresting and communicates the subtleties of the representation of power through codes and gestures. Jenn Nkiru’s fascinating documentary, ‘Black to Techno’ (2019) is a dynamic portrayal of the Detroit techno scene. Using edited archival footage, the film uncovers the scene’s multi-layered history – what Nkiru describes as the “cosmic archaeology” of Techno – including the rise of the automobile industry and the repetitive sounds of machinery, the factory production line and the significance of certain DJs. A sensorially stimulating film, both raw in its energy and refined in its historical wealth, we experience the coming together of the machine and the human spirit – two enterprises at the heart of Techno. Another documentary in the shortlist is Michelle Williams Gamaker’s ‘House of Women’ (2017), a fictional documentary that follows the audition process for the role of Kanchi in the 1947 film ‘Black Narcissus’. The audition becomes a recasting that is both transformative and a revision of the past; the role of the silent dancing girl Kanchi, given to a white actor in the original, is now being offered exclusively to non-binary actors of Indian ancestry. The silence of the original Kanchi is replaced by eloquent voices querying colonial codes of representation under the confrontational lens of the camera.

Larissa Sansour’s science-fiction drama ‘In Vitro’ (2019) is visually stunning and enigmatic. She employs science fiction to explore, in black-and-white, themes about the social and political aspects of her Palestinian homeland. The film is set following an ecological disaster. In an underground facility in Bethlehem, scientists are planning to re-emerge and sow the land with their stockpile of seeds. In the hospital wing of the facility, the founder of this scientific project enters into dialogue with a younger cloned version of herself, who has never been above ground. The two explore memory, experience and exile. The imagery is compelling and reminiscent of Kubrick with its detached sense of filmmaking, specifically in scenes such as the opening where a torrent of blood fills and courses down the stone crevasse of a town street.

‘Civil Rites’ (2017), a film-poem by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, is based on the acceptance speech Martin Luther King gave upon his receipt of an honorary doctorate at the University of Newcastle in 1967, in which he focused on the impact that poverty, racism and war have on society. The film shows key locations in the city’s history of resistance, many of which have now been transformed into shopping centres and other mundane spaces. But the inclusion and presentation of these sites serves as a sombre tribute to the legacy of the city. The film shots work in dialogue with audio interviews – snippets of the memories of residents and others. The film is markedly simple and understated. The streets lie deserted, empty, and the scenes linger in their prosaic banality. The shots move slowly, almost lifeless, unabated.

‘Illuminating the Wilderness’ (2019) by Project Art Works is the most refreshing contribution. It is a far cry from the monochromatic wasteland of ‘Civil Rites’. It documents the experience of a group of neurodiverse individuals who have low tolerance to sensory stimuli. Thrust into the Scottish Highlands, the group explore the glens, reacting with a mixture of delight and discomfort to nature’s bounty. Sensitively done, this beautiful and educational film, takes a phenomenological approach to the atmospheric changes that mark the film. During the forty minutes of the film, shot from multiple viewpoints, there is an almost contradictory sense of human understanding generated through group interaction, which contrasts with the rugged remoteness of the landscape. The viewer feels as if they are on a journey of physical endurance and are aware of the diverse ways in which people come to interact and understand their environment.

The winner of the Award will be announced on 24 November 2020.

Published on