Jerwood Space, London, until June 2
In 2018, for the sixth year of this award, Richard Whitby and duo Caitlin and Andrew Webb-Ellis were chosen from 145 people to produce a film work around the theme ‘Going, Gone’. While offering a fairly open remit, the theme was meant to reflect Britain’s departure from the EU, as the original date of leaving coincided with the launch of the works. But here we are, still very much in the going segment of the phase, with no clear path out of the situation and in a state of angry division.
Whitby has chosen to address the issue of citizenship directly, creating a hermetic, dystopian future vision of what might be required of all residents to prove their right to remain on the island. Part Orwellian set-piece, part fantastical meditation on the pantomime machinations of the media, it offers a compelling and wry look at British identity and the role of the State in how we define and conduct ourselves.
Webb-Ellis allow us to imagine the future of Britain through the eyes of its youth. Having established a relationship with different groups of kids during a summer Whitby, Yorkshire, their split-screen docu-film-essay essentially follows a day in the lives of these young people as they go about their (mis)adventures, reflecting on their experiences and hopes for the future. The sense of uncertain conditions – regarding the kids themselves and as a result of its manufacture, where the rolling action appears to mirror the childhood sense of living from one moment to the next – perfectly situates the film within the current moment.
If Ann-Sofi Sidén had guest directed an episode of Black Mirror, I can imagine it might look a little like this. Whitby’s ‘The Lost Ones’ has the feel of an absurdist TV series, as well as maintaining the uncomfortable theatrical tension and high production values that video performance can bring. It’s therefore interesting to learn that he worked on the script with TV writer Alistair Beaton, and the cast of actors have improvised much of the dialogue. Most of the action takes place in one suffocatingly sterile waiting room, cut with the stop-frame animated suggestion of a rat-like protagonist living in the cavities of the building, who may or may not be the despotic arbiter of their fate.
Over and again we return to an ensemble cast of individuals and pairs as they pace, sweat, loll about and attempt to answer a range of perfunctory and ludicrous questions issued by a disembodied female voice. This demanding and unreasonable authoritarian presence wilfully misleads them into a series of fraught and frustrated answers. Often their replies are simply met with the sound of laughter and “if you say so”.
Everyone appears to be treated equally with derision and suspicion. But this is not the case, for it transpires that the only accepted ethnic categories are “white” and “non-white” and the successful candidates have all been guided through the process by a lawyer (they have had the funds to pay).
What is your sexuality?
“Do you have a cat flap?”
“How old is Big Ben?”
“Is there anything you don’t like about this country? The correct answer is “no”.”
“Where did you buy the toilet brush? When and why?”
There are several painfully comic scenes where the interviewees are asked to physically map-out on foot particular spaces within their homes. And all the while the creature gnaws chicken wings and nests creepily within the remnants of the candidates’ official documentation, which they unwittingly post into a shredding machine that deposits into its lair.* The suggestion of time passing and irrationality taking hold is implicit in the repeat behaviours witnessed and the camera’s return focus on the benign details of the room.
It’s a poignant and carefully plotted Venn-diagram performance articulating the most obfuscatory and dangerously divisive aspects of regulated and unregulated modes of social control: from the automated security phone check, to the equal opportunities monitoring form, via the loan application and the citizenship test.
It’s not, of course, such a big leap from reality to this hellish process, or even the idea of being regulated to the point of insanity. In the telling of this story we are reminded that history is full of stranger, sadder accounts of individuals caught on the wrong side of political systems. But perhaps that’s Whitby’s point, to show us how small a gap the present, the time in which to act, provides between the past and the future.
This sense of being on dangerous territory, or how odd it is to be living now is also very much felt in Webb-Ellis’ ‘For the First Baby Born in Space’. In their FVU Frames interview, they explain that initially they hadn’t planned to include much dialogue. It was absolutely right they did, for the conversations in play serve to expand the action in all manner of extraordinary, heart-twisting ways, calling the viewer out on any possible presumptions – about what it means to be young right now, and growing up in a Northern English fishing town – almost before they arrive.
“I’m scared more of being a failure than dying, if that makes sense.”
It’s clear the duo secured the trust of this real-life cast of adolescents, perhaps in a way only people with local knowledge, and in Caitlin’s case a (soft) Yorkshire accent, could – Whitby is her hometown, while Andrew has family connections there. Even in intimate and serious talk-to-camera moments, there is little sense of awkwardness, the group seem at home with the fact of their lives being recorded. Though the artists also explain that, at the start, the kids couldn’t understand the interest in them and what it was about their lives that could possibly be worth filming.
The work has been staged as an installation rather than a single-channel film experience. The movement of the different imagery, side-by-side, materialising upon and vanishing from the two screens, conveys some of the same magic of watching home cine films, when adolescence felt like a separate island in the sea of growing up. Webb-Ellis’ careful handling and framing of their subjects makes them appear, similarly to the animals and wildlife they capture along the way, like a vulnerable species that needs protecting.
“Do you think humans are special?”
“I think we are, we are, aren’t we?”
We watch them go about their ordinary rituals, experiencing things together that will likely connect their stories for life. It’s hard not to become fully invested in the flashcard world of their friendships, all fishing, funfairs and beach parties, but there are a few scenes that sear themselves on the memory. The pudgy hands of a young lad as he deftly but rather brutally guts a fish; the tender application of glitter on faces; hands playing with hair; a portrait moment of a beautiful girl with acrylic nails lost in thought; the awkward solidarity of a group acquiescing to their friend’s demand to kiss a plank of wood; a lad eloquently explaining his evolution as a person and what it is to feel judged; a night-time dancing segment of teen bodies moving in improbably choreographed sync that at once connects all generations but remains entirely of its own time.
It’s a work that pokes at the fabric of moving-image traditions. Webb-Ellis’ awareness of their privilege and responsibility as observers, and refusal to adhere to any specific disciplinary structures or deliver a single message, elbows a place for their approach within the wider film canon. Living at this moment in a divided country, both of these exceptional films underline the vital role of artists in seeking new and open means of recording everyday experiences in difficult times.
* Mutant Ninja Hero Turtles’ Shredder?
All photos © Jerwood/FVU Awards