Notes From The Cinema

explorations through the world of film

Stephen Willats: ‘I’m Not Making Movies’

The downpour began when they normally do. Evening rush hours, typically Mondays. My umbrella turned itself inside out several times en route to the Tate Modern. Stephen Willats was there to show his work for the first time outside of a gallery context and I had no idea what to expect. It was a risky evening in that respect.  But it was the title of this event – Street Talk – that had piqued my interest.

Reading the description of Willats’ work reminded me of American urbanist and fellow Pennsylvanian William H. Whyte  and his obsession with New York City sidewalks and what happened on them. If you can tap into even a minuscule inner trainspotter tendency then the work of both of these men will fascinate you.

Willats (born in Britain, 1943) apologised throughout this night at the Tate which began at 18:30 and ended after I left.

It was a long evening, sometimes boring but still worth it in the end.

This is not the way they were meant to be seen, I hope you are not bored, people generally watch 30 seconds in a gallery, not 3 minutes. I’m not making movies!  

Willats was overly conscious of his audience but enthusiastic, talking a bit before, after and sometimes during the clips. The most interesting of his work was Assumptions and Presumptions, a video installation from 2007 at both Rayners Lane and Sudbury Town underground stations in London. Two video screens showed people arriving at both stations and on the platforms while a third, middle screen showed the footage shot with a camera affixed to the front of the tube. According to Willats people stopped dead in their tracks when they first saw the installation. It seems surprising that in the day of CCTV and reality television people will still queue for a glimpse of themselves or people they know going about the most banal of daily routines – commuting.

One of Willats’ works showed people walking in pairs on a sidewalk – friends, lovers, siblings, colleagues, etc. A field day for all of us who love studying body language. And it was this piece I felt which summed up the pure but compelling quality of Willats’ work.

Willats’ non-narrative work reminds those of us who juxtapose images to tell stories that these visual moments – these ‘data streams’ in Willats’ words – are the building blocks to those stories, the visual moments we as filmmakers have to get right in order to construct a compelling and believable whole.

The evening at the Tate marked the publication of Willats’ book Street Talk. If you are in New York then you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to see Willats’ work the way it was meant to be seen at the Reena Spaulings Gallery through 23rd October 2011. I can guarantee it probably won’t be raining.

My Reincarnation: Jennifer Fox’s New Documentary

‘I really wish I could see you,’ Jennifer Fox tells her audience more than once via Skype after the London premiere of her new film My Reincarnation [held at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green, Sunday 4th September 2011] She is smiling on the big screen in front of us, perhaps from her kitchen table in New York, and we are all watching, which is something Jennifer has allowed us to do before when she turned the camera on herself in her previous film Flying: Confessions of A Free Woman.

I read between the lines. It’s the filmmaker’s curiosity of her audience, her desire to gauge our reactions but also her desire to fully engage. This intense desire to connect that drives Jennifer’s work is what I love most about it. She smiles and waits for a question, a comment, for us to find our nerve. Some of us are still drying our eyes.

I can never watch footage of Tibet without bursting into tears,’ my friend had whispered into my ear during a particularly moving homecoming scene. I cannot say I felt this way before but somehow on this night I knew exactly what she meant.

Jennifer’s new film My Reincarnation actually began over twenty years ago when she picked up her camera and started filming the Tibetan spiritual master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and his family. At the time Jennifer was working as his private secretary, a job that granted her tremendous access. By her own admission she had no idea what would become of the footage and she wondered when the material took shape whether it could have appeal beyond a Buddhist audience.  But she sensed to keep filming, year after year.

Even when filming stopped the road was not easy.  Like many filmmakers – including myself – Jennifer needed money to finish and so she started a campaign on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter.  It was a huge success and after raising over 150,000 USD she is currently one of the site’s record-holders.

When the London audience recovers and the questions and comments roll in they are overwhelmingly positive. During the Q&A session Jennifer draws a parallel between meditation and filmmaking as both requiring awareness. The audience is rewarded by her presence (mental, not physical) in the tiny moments throughout the film where another filmmaker may have turned off the camera already satisfied that they got what they were looking for.

After twenty years of filming what emerges is the story of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and his Italian son Yeshi who at birth is recognized as the reincarnation of a well-known spiritual master. During the course of the film we witness not only Yeshi’s changing relationship to his father but also the evolution of Yeshi’s relationship to himself.

Once again Jennifer has traveled to another world – specifically to a Tibetan master’s family in Italy – and brought back a film for all of us. My Reincarnation is about the journey home.  Not necessarily to a geographic place, but to one’s self.

For more information about the film visit the website.

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