Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Victoria, A Place Disconnected

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Jordan Rowe examines the complex contexts and connections of the place visited in Sofie Benoot, Liesbeth De Ceulaer and Isabelle Tollenaere’s Victoria. Victoria is available in Block 1 (Wed 9th Sept midday – Sat 12th Sept midnight BST).

In this unexpected film about history and agency in the Californian desert, we follow Lashay T. Warren, our narrator, through the barren landscape of a vast planned community 100 miles north of Los Angeles. California City was founded as a private venture during the post-war boom years and modelled as an alternative to the perceived decline of the country’s existing urban areas. The fear of incoming Black neighbours and the hysteria over inner-city blight led to a process of “white flight”. Yet for California City, the expected growth never materialised, leaving behind a sparse population spread out across an area large enough to be the state’s third city. 

Half a century on, Lashay and his family move from the dense streets of Compton seeking a fresh start. Led by poetic excerpts from a diary he keeps, we slowly follow him through work, study, and the encounters and discoveries he makes across the terrain. What initially appears alien in its unfamiliarity—the tumbleweed, the reptiles, even the clouds—slowly unravel into an opportunity. “The streets of California City are not laid out for my needs… [I] make my own road, walk my own way.”

Working over six years, Belgian directors Sofie Benoot, Liesbeth De Ceulaer and Isabelle Tollenaere have crafted what feels like an historic epic. It stands entrenched in traditional calling cards like the American Dream but is dosed with the reality of inequity and institutional racism. These are never explicitly spoken, but are vaguely present. The film knowingly (and provocatively) makes an analogy between Lashay’s unfolding experience and that of the pioneers who migrated and settled in the West. Whilst simultaneously learning about them in a US History class, Lashay finds agency in his own situation, re-founding and taking ownership of the landscape of California City. He poignantly places himself on the map and leaves behind his diary as a historic document. 

Victoria excels at portraying the complex individual connection we have to place, and the historical contexts that condition our relationships to them. Los Angeles is repeatedly reminisced about as home, yet the emotional, social and political baggage of the city weighs down on our protagonist. In one scene, Lashay and a friend travel through Beverly Hills using Google Street View, joking that it’s not their hood. Instead they quickly return to Compton, where Lashay points out the houses of friends who have been killed. At another point the city is compared to a black hole: “Everything pulls you in, everything goes around and around. And once you’re sucked in, a lot of people don’t get out”. California City is a place disconnected, but how much more connected would you be in Compton? How much more agency would you have over your own situation in the circumstances Lashay finds himself in?

In spite of the bleak atmosphere of the surroundings, and the tentative outlook for the future, a restrained sense of hope remains present. In a year shaped by a global health pandemic and heightened racial awareness through the Black Lives Matter movement, Victoria comes to us at the right moment.

Jordan Rowe is a writer, curator, and researcher on urban culture, nights, heritage, and identities. He is Centre Manager of UCL Urban Laboratory, Urbanist in Residence at the Museum of London and a Research Fellow at Theatrum Mundi.

Tickets for Victoria are on sale now.