The song we sing

This was an accompanying statement I had to write for the assessed creative project element of an M.A. module in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths entitled Transcultural Memory. The short video work being described was shown at an exhibition entitled Overwriting which ran at Archive Gallery, Haggerston from 25-27.05.2018.

Deborah Stratman _Village, Silenced_ is a remix, a reply and an interrogation of a 1975 Hungarian documentary film, The Song We Sing is About Freedom, using that film’s images as its sole visual source. It is a short video work which explores numerous themes that have struck me as being particularly pertinent to the role of memory in the contemporary moment – namely the afterlives of documentary images and technology’s capacity to constantly reframe and rework images in what can often feel like an infinite loop. Combining these interests with an interrogation of how Welsh internationalist histories are narrated and remembered, is a timely and suggestive look at how memory travels across technologies and cultures, as well as across generations.

My strategy in creating the work took inspiration from Deborah Stratman’s 2009 experimental short film, Village, silenced. Stratman’s film is itself a reflexive re-working of the World War II British propaganda film The Silent Village, in which filmmaker Humphrey Jennings depicts the imagined fascist invasion and occupation of a South Wales Valleys coal-mining community as an eerie apocalyptic event, prefiguring something like The Twilight Zone in the How Green Was My Valley era. Stratman’s film, made 65 years later, is composed entirely of appropriated images from Jennings’ film, but she adds a subtly modern, dronelike soundtrack and alters the linearity of The Silent Village. As a result, the work’s distance from its source material is emphasised, and there is a strong tension created between the original intention of the images and our status today as viewers of them in a modern work removed entirely from any wartime or propagandistic context. Though her changes to the original materials are subtle, the whole meaning and emphasis of Jennings’ images are altered, and we are provoked by Stratman’s strategy to consider a host of very different ideas. We think about sound as a war-like technology and as a didactic force on par with image. We think about the ideologies which are embedded in any screen media and their bonds with viewers. And we think, perhaps most unavoidably, about the fluency with which we are able to gain dominance and control over images from eras past, about how easily memory can be complicated by even the most subtle and straightforward use of digital editing technologies.

While The Silent Village was a work of state-commissioned speculative fiction, by our contemporary standards the film might additionally be considered a work of experimental documentary, whose impact is grounded in its geographical specificity and realist approach. (It is easy to imagine 1940s audiences being terrified of Jennings’ film’s realism like the audiences of the Lumieres’ trains.) This understanding is also upended and problematised by Stratman’s repurposing of the images, suggesting a confusion across temporal lines between realism and reality as well as art and propaganda.

Shaken by my viewing of Stratman’s film late last year, I couldn’t stop thinking about the potentiality and originality of her approach, and what kind of new dynamics can be created from the most subtle alterations to contentious historical documentary media. A part of this excitement, and the dynamism I personally found in the film’s strategies, was its setting in Wales. As a Welsh person who counts contemporary documentary aesthetics and the different ways in which Welsh visual culture is made invisible by state subjugation as two of my main interests, Village, silenced spoke to one of the core foundations of my sensibility in an entirely new way, by emphasising the untapped potentialities of pre-existing images in making visible parts of your culture that have been made invisible.

In, I apply a similar approach to Stratman’s treatment of The Silent Village to the 1975 documentary film The Song We Sing About is Freedom, directed by Paulus Alaios. The Song We Sing… is a depiction of a transnational exchange between male voice choirs from Soviet Hungary and rural Welsh-speaking North Wales in the mid-1970s, an encounter intended to cool Cold War tensions in a celebration both of cultural difference and (masculine) camaraderie. Though the work was commissioned by a Hungarian state film company and is narrated from the perspective of the Hungarian choir’s journey (the original work starting with their stop at Karl Marx’s grave at Highgate Cemetery in London) its setting predominantly in North Wales, and the strong amount of Welsh spoken in the film, belie its status as a truly transnational work, particularly considering the scarcity of Welsh-speaking representation throughout cinema history.

I was interested in interrogating the work as a historical artefact using the medium of video itself. The Silent Village and The Song We Sing… are both, in their own ways, archival texts, and part of the fabric of Welsh visual history. In my edit, therefore, a double- or triple-play with archival reflexivity is enacted, as the work incorporates elements in different ways from three difference moving-image works (Jennings’ propaganda film, Stratman’s reworking of it, and the the 1975 documentary film). The soundtrack of my film veers in and out of legibility, thus probing the role of sound technology as an ideological device similar to Stratman’s film but in re-appropriating this work of appropriation heightening its themes of reworking historical images, to expose the complicated role of historical documentary images in shaping collective memory ever further.

The meaning of “freedom” to the Welsh and Hungarian milieus depicted, then and now, was perhaps the main impetus for my specific use of The Song We Sing About is Freedom as a case study in my exploration of archival, cultural and digital memory. I was interested in placing these source images in our contemporary context, due to the extraordinary and not uncomplimentary paths the two countries have taken since 1975. The climate in Hungary today is primarily characterised by the anti-immigrant paranoia exemplified by the figure of Viktor Orban, whose re-election coincided with my video’s editing process. Wales, on the other hand, is undergoing a long and slow period of depression and stagnation, with large parts of the country among Europe’s most impoverished and least developed areas and the anticlimactic promise of devolved government, established in 1997, having intensified the hopelessness which is the main characteristic of Wales’ political climate. The prevalent role played by class, then as now, in these dynamics, was something I was eager to communicate, as the original 1975 film is a beautiful and authentic example of truly transnational working-class solidarity.

I was also keen to engage with the hint of homoeroticism we see in The Song We Sing is About Freedom in the relationships depicted between the Welsh and Hungarian choir singers, not least considering Orban’s extremist attitudes towards homosexuality (or “faggotry”) as pervading all sense of morality. By looking back on the encounter depicted in The Song We Sing is About Freedom in this moment in in a way which foregrounds its own constructedness and historical distance to its source material, I hope to suggest that the work’s strategies put into praxis the necessity of remembering in order to progress.

I have been very conscious in creating the work of its status as a DIY digital object, created using free editing software from images all sourced from an unrestored, blurry internet copy of a barely-seen documentary. As I could not find a way to download the video from the BFI Player, where I first encountered it as a free-to-view part of its BFI National Archive, to gain the access I needed to its images to re-edit it I had to film The Song We Sing is About Freedom on my iPhone from my laptop screen. As a result the work is choppily edited and very low-res. This strategy (which is intentionally made visible in the finished film) ultimately hugely complemented and elucidated my work’s themes of copying and remixing as a way of interrogating transcultural memory. I am interested in Hito Steyerl’s ideas about how “poor images” circulate in her influential text ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’ and elsewhere, where she argues, convincingly, that contemporary visual culture is largely characterised by a “visual economy of the blurred and raw” and by “the rags of imagery that crowd the digital realms;” of which this documentary film from the 1970s is now inescapably a part.

An understanding of the poor-image regime which largely dictates the visual grammar of contemporary image-making is integral to how my video approaches memory, as something we can only gain access to using the apparatus of our present moment, even as we encounter images from eras past. My video is called – that is, the first part of the 1975 film’s title (“the song we sing”) translated into Welsh and turned into a file name. This was a way of highlighting the tension between the images’ forgotten historical status and the contemporary context of my ‘remixed’ version, thus foregrounding the historicity of the images themselves and our distance from them today as a way of making explicit the forgotten nature of the 1975 work, the encounter it portrays and the different things that encounter might signify to different audiences.

Late in the film, one of the Welsh singers says: “When they are grandparents, and somebody mentions 1975, they will say: ah! That is the year that the Hungarian choir came to Ffestiniog.” This is a quintessential example of how an awareness of memory, and of the subjects’ own places in history (looking to a post-Cold War scenario) is prevalent even in the original film. Ultimately, I hope my work can be both a generative investigation into and example of the digital repurposing of historical images as a means of exploring what we mean when we talk of ‘transcultural memory’ – as something situated inescapably in the regimes of the present, informed by a rigorous understanding of the past.