Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: The Lake and The Lake / Land Underwater, Stemming the Flow

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Marcus Jack looks at two mid-length films that examine bodies of water. Sindhu Thirumalaisamy’s The Lake and The Lake and Maddi Barber’s Land Underwater are available in Block 1 (Wed 9th Sept midday – Sat 12th Sept midnight BST)

Beneath the surface of Gare Loch, twenty-six miles from where I live, the United Kingdom’s only nuclear weapon programme, Trident, circulates in submarines equipped with up to eight missiles and forty warheads each. Amongst dogfish and mackerel, the sea loch conceals the latent potential for catastrophe, the prospective rupture of its opaque grey surface portending mass atrocity. Bodies of water have long provided cover for the most abominable habits of industrialised society. When their contents erupt, spilling onto the terra firma, an encounter is brokered between clandestine projects of militarisation, ecocide, or extraction, and the communities which surround them.

In 2002, after nearly a decade of protest, the Itoiz dam in Navarre, Spain, was flooded by the Confederación Hidrográfica del Ebro authority, submerging 2,000 acres of territory including seven evicted villages and three nature reserves. Promising a hydroelectric supply, irrigation and drinking water for nearby Pamplona, the reservoir now also conceals a contemporary Atlantis, preserving its own destructive history, vitrine-like. Maddi Barber’s Land Underwater revisits this incident of ecocide with a lens that glides stoically over the artificial waterscape, now only punctured by treetops, bone-white and bare. 

Through the reflective testimonies of resistance group “Solidari@s con Itoiz” and archival video of their direct action (cutting powerlines, sabotaging machinery) the documentary dredges memories of another region sacrificed to the march of industrial development. Camcorder footage records the dismantling of picturesque townships, later the encroachment of thick green water, heavy with sediment. One activist dreams: “I see a giant wave coming towards me.” The vigilante action of “Solidari@s con Itoiz” positioned a community against the apparatus of its undoing, ultimately failing to obstruct the campaign of progress: a more diffuse, ideological threat.

Bellandur Lake, Bangalore, the site of another spillage, is the subject of Sindhu Thirumalaisamy’s The Lake and The Lake. Assembled from footage of the everyday labours and extraordinary phenomena that cohabit upon the lake, the video essay records environmental damage in berserk mode, accelerating in the Silicon Valley of India’s perfect storm of deregulation and exploitation. Sheets of toxic foam, brilliant white, merge into one another like a one-hundred-million-year timelapse of continents colliding. Wrinkling, warping and folding into a frothy topography, this quilt-like man-made Pangaea soon obscures the water beneath it. A diorama of deep time sped-up, this image is a fitting analogue for the ecological crisis unfolding under global technocracy.

Yellow text on screen translates: “all the fish died in one month / now there is only one breed left.” Revellers at a foam party, generously anonymised by extreme close-ups or with faces cut out of frame, lather themselves in the iridescent scum whilst indiscriminate EDM thumps, the bland transnational anthem of the anthropocene. Both speak of the eradication of biodiversity: capitalism permitting the proliferation of the monoculture: one species, one way of being. A finger scrolls through an album of photographs of too many sunsets over the eponymous lake in tones of pink, orange, red. Yellow text on screen translates: “your phone has a really good zoom / every photograph is perfectly cropped / nothing but the water and the sky.” Behind the thumbed phone screen, the same landscape, now filtered by the blueish haze of pollutants articulates a different narrative. The film’s duplicate title might describe the severance between these, the cultivated image and poisoned reality of the lake.

Despite their disparate contexts, these recent works of moving image offer two case studies in aquatic occupation. They record instances of uninhibited greed through destructive practices where spillage allegorises the clash between industrial priorities and the socio-ecological welfare of a region. Where Barber’s film mourns past tragedy, Thirumalaisamy’s describes inaction in the present tense, containing therein a potential, albeit frail, of stemming the flow before it’s too late.

Marcus Jack is a curator, writer and researcher based in Glasgow. He is currently undertaking an AHRC-funded PhD looking at the history of artists’ moving image in Scotland and is the editor of DOWSER, a new publication series on the same field.

Tickets for The Lake and The Lake / Land Underwater are on sale now.