Lucy Reynolds created the new MRes Art: Moving Image at Central Saint Martins – the first of its kind in the world – after realising that artist films were high on the curatorial agenda of major galleries but research wasn’t keeping up.
“If you go to the Tate, or any other gallery, you’ll see projections,” she says. “You wouldn’t have seen that 20 years ago. Think about the Turner Prize – two of the four nominated works [by CSM graduate Laure Prouvost and Tino Seghal] were in moving image. So there was an awful lot of practice but there was absolutely no discourse about it.”
Along with Lucy, staff, students and alumni across UAL are re-thinking the potential and significance of film and moving image. At London College of Communication, graduates of the MA Documentary Film are producing provocative, challenging films, such as Sahra Mosawi’s Beyond the Burqa, which looks at women living amongst the Taliban in Afghanistan. And at London College of Fashion, the MA Fashion and Film course looks at how fashion film has become a competitor to catwalk shows as a showcase for collections.
From Sahra Mosawi’s Beyond The Burqa
Students on Lucy’s MRes Art: Moving Image course look at theory and practice in contemporary moving image, along with screenings, seminars and readings and gallery visits. The programme doesn’t only attract film-makers; it also draws in students with a background in art, criticism and curation who are looking for new ways to think about moving image.
“The tendency in artists’ film at the moment is to use research as a strong basis for the creative,” she says. “Research becomes a much more creative process.” She points to directors such as John Akomfrah and CSM lecturer Uriel Orlow, who use research to dramatic effect. Akomfrah, co-founder of the influential Black Audio Film Collective and a recent honorary doctor at University of the Arts London, is known for using archival footage to create moving, thoughtful documentaries such as Martin Luther King: Days of Hope and The Stuart Hall Project.
From John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs
The course launches at a time when documentary and fine art film are increasingly influencing each other. “Artist’s documentaries are an important strand,” says Lucy, whose own curatorial work has toured galleries across the UK, including Tate Britain, and who has published widely on the history of British cinema. “Over the past 15 years, artists are using conventions we’re used to seeing in documentary.”
Joshua Oppenheimer, who completed a PhD at Central Saint Martins, is foremost amongst a new generation of film-makers who are using fine art traditions to push documentary form. His latest acclaimed film noir documentary, The Act of Killing, blurs the line between fact and fiction. In the documentary, which was executive produced by film-maker Werner Herzog, the principal character Anwar Congo describes numbing himself with alcohol and drugs to erase his memory of the thousands of lives he took. Then he stands up and dances. Congo was one of the death squad leaders who killed more than a million Indonesians following a military coup in 1965. He re-enacts his crimes for a work the Los Angeles Times said “could well change how you view the documentary form”.
When asked for his tips for young film-makers, Oppenheimer is very clear and direct: “You need profound curiosity, and to be able to analyse what you’re doing so you don’t settle for easy answers. Second, you need the courage to imagine and do things you’ve never seen in a film. And this might sound peculiar, but it’s important to imitate. We stand on top of the research of others.”
At LCC, Pratap Rughani, course leader of MA Documentary Film, agrees that the lines between art and moving image are increasingly burred. “This is a fantastically rich time for the relationship between fine art practices,” he says. “Ten years ago, who would have predicted that gallery work would be so informed by the use of documentary approaches?”
Consider the emerging director Leila Hussain, a graduate of Pratap’s MA course. Her lyrical short film, Halfway at Sea, documents life at Beachy Head, one of the sunniest spots in Britain that happens to have the second-highest rate of suicides in the world. Hussain’s film is nominated for best student documentary at the 2013 Grierson Awards, which honour excellence in British documentary film. Halfway at Sea combines voice-overs of locals remembering the area, time-lapse shots, archival footage and even shipping forecasts to tell the story of the community.
“It was important for me to play with the documentary form,” Hussain says, “because I was studying it so closely. During my MA I was watching so many documentaries and experimental films, as well as reading about them. It makes you want to test the boundaries for yourself.”
Hussain started the MA with no film experience. It was a way, she says, to learn practical techniques for film-making, while also learning film theory. “I was lucky enough to get a scholarship, and so it was an offer too good to refuse,” she says
It was also an opportunity to learn from fellow students, many of whom didn’t come from a film-making background: “Being at the university means you are likely to meet some talented people, and there were so many opportunity for collaboration – which is a fundamental part of film-making.”
These strands, from the intellectual adventure of research into moving image to the nuts and bolts of creating a documentary, create what is perhaps one of the broadest, most comprehensive film studies offerings at the postgraduate level in the UK. Whether it’s a documentary that blends drama with documentary or the thought leadership of those investigating the history and future of artists’ films, the moving image is moving into a new phase of diverse and dynamic expansion.
See postgraduate courses at UAL with a January 2014 start date.