Open City Documentary Festival

24th–30th
April 2024
across London

Andrew Northrop on Anyox

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As part of our series of new writing commissioned around new film’s in this year’s festival programme, Andrew Northrop writes on Anyox’s unravelling of history.

When we engage with archival documents in exhibitions and museums, we often do so from fixed vantage points. Pages appear reproduced in stasis, often away from the intervention of touch or movement. These set-ups have their preservation-based reasoning, but this modus operandi regularly bleeds into documentary film, with the moving image often becoming immobile. In Jessica Johnson and Ryan Ermacora’s Anyox (Canada, 2022), documents are far from static, and instead become animated. A camera peers down the viewfinder of a microfiche machine, its crosshairs visible, running back and forth between moments of significance.

Microfiche and microfilm machines are screen-based machines that show a sheet or roll of film through a series of prisms. They feel relatively utilitarian but share resemblance with pre-cinematic enablers such as the Magic Lantern and the Mutoscope. To sit and operate a microfiche, the researcher sits and raises their arms towards knobs and buttons. The machine becomes an extension of the body, with the visual field actively engaged. In Anyox, the cinema screen becomes a 1-to-1 representation of the microfiche’s screen, placing the spectator in an embodied position, as if they themselves were the operator.

Soft edges, the pages behind revealed by a crumpled paper edge, and the tilted misalignment of the film’s grid. These forms forge a landscape, one that, through company documents and Socialist newspapers, paints a historical portrait of the titular area of Anyox in British Columbia. Its modern-day environment consists of stained sediment, slag heaps, rusted machinery, and intervening wilderness; the result of historical industrial extraction and smelting. The movements of the embodied operator on the microfiche grid mimic the act of sifting. In one match on action, the shuttling movement of the microfiche machine transitions into a modern day shot of material being hurried along a mechanical belt, as if the viewer has been transported from one timeline to another.

Outside of the microfiche’s lens, Johnson and Ermacora’s decision to shoot the film on 35mm and 65mm film adds deeper complexity to the portrayal of the area. The geological complexity of the region and the patinas of history – rust, rot, staining, decay – make their homes in the large format imagery, the celluloid a thoughtful home for these natural textures. Anyox’s current environments feel like a monolithic reminder of modernity’s industrial activity, and this is underlined by black and white archival footage depicting the factory in its heyday.

In underground sequences, the older film stock struggles to capture an image, with workers washed in grain and the cosmetic damage on the film’s surface. These archival films are accompanied by an enveloping, string-heavy score that wraps around the images, making the environments seem harsh and impenetrable. Workers shovel material, machines churn, smelted material pours on to the landscape with a brightness the film can barely convey. One of the earliest archival shots of work underground mimics the movements of a lift, taking the viewer down through multiple layers where staged men carry out tasks, ending on a congregation of workers who then enter. As the camera passes through each sedimentary layer, the film print’s patenas flicker in the darkness, as if these spaces are an organic nebula.

It can often be the case that, though well researched and sourced, archival collections in documentaries appear on screen in a way that is too hurried or throwaway, but both the microfiche and archival film sequences in Anyox have their own distinct formal qualities that make them feel as if they exist within their own vivid spaces. A voice-over tells the storied past of workers’ newspapers in the region, and the intertwining of other labour movements in the 1920s and 30s, the moments in which the past of Anyox is witnessed.

The ledger of the 1900s is so heavily marked by World War II that the decade in advance of it often finds itself condensed, but Anyox searches through this history, heightening the impacts of strike action and capitalistic exploitation. Sifting through history is never an immobile act, it always involves the mediation of touch and sight. A cinematic mirroring of a microfiche’s screen is a step towards manifesting that experience more profoundly.

Andrew Northrop is a film journalist based in London. His writing and interviews have appeared in BOMB Magazine, MUBI Notebook, Hyperallergic, Little White Lies, Millenium Film Journal, Cineaste Magazine and more. He is the Film and Media Technician at the Slade School of Fine Art.