Dreaming Rivers

Leena Habiballa

Winner of the Michael O'Pray Prize 2023 Leena Habiballa considers the physical reworking of a pioneering film’s 16mm print.

Dreaming Rivers, Judah Attille’s pioneering 1988 film, explores the intergenerational wound of migration by evoking the psyche of Miss T, a Caribbean mother of the postwar generation, and her children’s reflections on her life on the day of her wake. As a powerful allegory of colonial displacement and transnational belonging, the work is a mainstay of Black British culture. In the summer of 2021, Attille offered sections of the film’s 16mm print to members of the cooperative not/nowhere, inviting them to make marks – scratch, collage, paint, draw – directly onto the analogue film. This experiment, named Dreaming Rivers Found Footage 2021, or DRFF2021, was part of a direct animation workshop with the film co-operative; the resultant short film, A Considered Cut, which documents the fruits of this collaboration and the group processes around it, was screened at the conference ‘Cutting Edge: Collage in Britain’, hosted by the Paul Mellon Centre in 2022.        

For some, thinking of a classic work like Dreaming Rivers being cut up, altered and handled by numerous hands invokes a certain panic, activating a state of anxiety over the preservation of the original material. Intervening in the physical film in such a direct manner goes against all the instincts and best traditions of film conservation and archiving. Analogue prints are considered fragile and precious, and are preserved by being made untouchable, an act that intends to safeguard their authenticity, history and longevity. These practices emphasise film’s vulnerability to decay and degradation, casting it as an entity in need of protection and isolation.

While the work of preservation is crucial to maintaining the life of the film, the approaches employed within this tradition negate other modes of care and lend themselves to a culture of retro-fetishism. The preservation of the film in its original state is a feat of technical excellence but does not guarantee its activation in imaginative and exciting ways during its lifetime. Films privileged enough to be preserved are commodified into signifiers of their (continually re-appraised) value within an economy of ever-accumulating images. Preservation thus becomes a function of a culture that defines safety as enclosure and private property as the privileged subject of injury.

DRFF2021 inverts this logic, and opens up the materiality of the film itself as a space of encounter and reinterpretation, creating new discourses and readings of Dreaming Rivers. Altering the physical body of the film not only confounds its value, but also disrupts the idea of a fixed hold on truth and meaning, as well as institutional notions of care, means of engagement, legitimacy and authorship. I hope to reflect on some of DRFF2021’s various disruptions by focusing on its unique approaches to collaborative filmmaking.

Care in the traditional film context is predicated on a conservative logic that is defined in prohibitive terms (ie what cannot be done to or with the film), separating the material from its audience. It does not distinguish between different forms of intervention, reducing all transformations of play and exploratory permutations to neglect or vandalism. DRFF2021 inhabits these tensions, signalling a reorientation towards ideas of care: what if care was interference, an uncertain, experimental mode of extending the film’s lifeform by interacting with its materiality and bringing it into contact with us?

Far from it being a reckless, unmeditated act, direct animation requires an intentional and precise eye. Indeed, throughout A Considered Cut we witness a sensitive, careful dialogue unfold between Attille and her collaborators, illustrating their approach to the film’s palpable properties and expressive potential, as well as its limitations. As the analogue print of Dreaming Rivers is unravelled, we see the not/nowhere member Ibrahim Kargbo negotiate the film’s sprawling physicality and its stubborn occupation of space in relation to his body. We are aware of the film’s ‘agency’ – itself a collaborator – and the laborious scale of Ibrahim’s intended exercise. Care appears here as the patient, devoted and meditative work of the collective’s hand that speaks to the film’s slower, cumulative temporality. Being in touch with the film’s heartbeat, the frame-by-frame pulse that animates Miss T, builds a new intimacy to the various nuances, textures, and intensities of her emotion, commanding a deeper attunement and responsiveness to her subjectivity.

Some animated extracts capture Miss T in the opening scenes of Dreaming Rivers lying in her deathbed, contesting her children’s reification of her body from beyond the grave. Others display her spinning in a freewheeling dance, rehearsing her homeward flight that never came in time. Her body expands and contorts within the frame, resisting multiple enclosures of nationality, belonging and identity. The abstract marks play with and against her movement, sometimes emphasising her entrapment and alienation, at other times exaggerating its rapture and release. Miss T’s visible body, a paradoxical metaphor for her invisibility, is sliced and fractured by a collage of shapes and lines that appear and disappear in a rhythmic fashion.

The strokes exist as sculptural entities in and of themselves, as well as in relation to the work. They flicker and retreat, constantly speaking to their own absence of structure while not being totally formless. They stretch film’s messy semiotic relationship with the world to its extreme, liberating its sensory potentialities from the rubric of representation and identification. In this way the capacity to communicate that which cannot be languaged within Miss T’s psyche becomes more possible.

These additions are more than an accumulation of marks, but an embodied reinterpretation of the work. The lines are a stand-in or extension of the body, bringing a full corporeality into the creative act. The physicality of the encounter transmits internal states in ways that other forms of inscription cannot. Composing the impression of movement through the layering of strokes in turn awakens nameless feelings on the fringes of consciousness in the viewer’s body. Troubling the image through its and our own materiality thus brings the film outside of itself to participate in an outstanding space.

The numerous caring and altering hands the film passes through also complicates authorship and forces the relinquishment of authorial control. This surrender is reinforced by the fact that there appears to be no linear correspondence between the experience of physical engagement and the final outcome. One collaborator and visual artist, Ilga Leimanis, comments that viewing the animated work was disorientating: ‘My memory of the processes I executed did not correspond to the film I watched. I could not even tell which bit was mine.’

Muddying a claim to ownership in these ways invites the collapse of hierarchies between collaborators, freeing them up to determine the relations they wish to cultivate to each other and to the film. Suspending the impulse to control the work’s final affiliation, meaning or form has the effect of opening up a space of spontaneity and risk-taking, and enables a radical reconsideration of regimes of vision and representation in cinema. Attille and her collaborators seem to resist the temptation to delimit the film’s narration or master its representation in favour of the simple, direct pleasure of inscription. They stage a generous commitment to remain open to an incomplete form of seeing and knowing, and to a medium that is generative precisely because of its own fallibility.

DRFF2021 calls for a revaluation of ownership and a reimagining of film’s capacity to gather communities in order to make, share and create with all our senses activated. It is a gesture towards an alternative mode of physical engagement. The project restores the idea of a physical connection to the self and others as being integral to the work of filmmaking, and expands our understanding of how images are made, understood and function in the world. Moving at the speed of the body rather than at the pace of image-recording encourages a different occupation of space and temporality, one that runs counter to a capitalist sense of time and notions of progress. A constant impulse towards the new, bolstered by a capitalist logic of consumerism, robs us of reimagining and revisioning our relationships to existing works, and the participation in an ecology of collective memory creation around them.

DRFF2021 reconsiders the moving-image apparatus beyond traditional notions and expectations of preservation and restoration. It is a unique experiment in liberating ourselves from the traditional gaze and using film as the substance of our relationships to one another and to ourselves. It is an invitation to touch, feel and play; to gather around practices of freedom, trust, collaboration and pleasure mediated by the film object. Working together in order to foster new ways of making the image move and speak encourages us to collaborate with this material, rather than to regulate, rule over or contain it. It is a testament to the capacity for modes of filmmaking beyond the dominant film culture to give birth to new understandings, knowledges and relations, connecting us to other histories, traditions and practices that enrich our encounters with film.

Leena Habiballa is the winner of the Film and Video Umbrella and Art Monthly Michael O’Pray Prize 2023.

The Michael O’Pray Prize is a Film and Video Umbrella initiative in partnership with Art Monthly, supported by University of East London and Arts Council England.

2023 Selection Panel

Terry Bailey, senior lecturer, programme leader, Creative and Professional Writing, University of East London
Katie Byford, Projects Manager, Film and Video Umbrella
Kondo Heller, poet, writer, and filmmaker
Juliet Jacques, writer and filmmaker
Chris McCormack, associate editor, Art Monthly

Image: Judah Attille, 'Dreaming Rivers', 1988

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