Open City Documentary Festival

24th–30th
April 2024
across London

Doing Things with Light: On Cinema and Magic [an apparition]

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Clodagh Chapman explores how the films in Combined Programme: Fire Spells explore the notion of cinema as magic as part of a series of essays commissioned around new films in this year’s programme.

In Tom Chick’s Fire Spells (2022) –  a documentary portrait of Judith Noble – a fire is lit with wood and foliage. Noble discusses her relationship with witchcraft, and paints eye-like circles in fire ash and water. “One of the usual magical ways of referring to a circle,” she explains, “is that it is outside normal time and normal space”.

Perhaps film itself has a sort of magic to it. I’m thinking not just of the stumbling-out-of-screening cinema-corridor daze, but also of the inherent witchiness of capturing an image via light – be it onto photographic film or a digital sensor. Cinema, after all, emerged out of a Victorian fascination with the occult and the mystical: it began in sideshow attractions, promising ghostly apparitions and pictures that appeared to dance. In Argileak (2022), Patxi Burillo takes this literally, supplanting a supposed apparition in 1930s Gipuzkoa with a present-day community film screening.

Argileak loosely translates as “those who make light”, which feels like a useful way for thinking about all this. Light is different to other objects because it’s the thing by which other objects become watchable. In its final moments, Argileak (2022) casts light over the subjects’ faces in an otherwise dark forest: cinema is both the thing they are watching and the thing that makes them visible to us. The filmmaker, then, has control over not just what is there, but what is seen – something Ben Rivers exploits in IJEN/LONDON (2022), with his hazy post-apocalyptic landscapes full of flashes and smoke. Cinema isn’t a static object that is made visible through light: it’s fundamentally and materially created from light.

Film, then, has the locative power to make things literally appear and disappear: to conjure up light-made spectres of times and spaces, which exist according to their own rules (think: flames don’t cast shadows). Paraíso (2022) pulls together the human and non-human dwellers of the woods near Lakabe, but also the artistic practices of its co-directors, Maddi Barber and Marina Lameiro – depth maps intermingle with children’s tent-torch shadow puppets. Film lets the filmmakers set alongside the illuminated ghosts of things – and what is a spell if not a folding-together of disparate things? Princes and frogs, sure, but also presence and absence, light and darkness, the maker and the made, the filmmaker and the subject.

Noble, as well as being the subject of Fire Spells (2022), is an artist-filmmaker in her own right. Her moving image work (Mysteries & Red Sea, both 1982) recasts time as something cyclical, drawing parallels between the rhythms of her own body and those found in the non-human world: menstrual cycles and tidal waves. In pulling these cycles together via light, she’s able to create ghostly superimpositions of sea foam and big red boxes: the footage, and the evidence of her having captured it. Spell meets caster – and, in the words of Pilot (1974), “oh oh oh it’s magic”.

Clodagh Chapman is a Manchester-based writer and maker. She has previously been part of the programming teams for Sheffield DocFest and BFI Future Film Festival, and created events for BFI London Film Festival and HOME Manchester. https://clodaghchapman.co.uk/