Open City Documentary Festival

To Question the Habitual: an essay by Andrew Key

We invited five writers to reflect on films of their choosing from this year’s festival programme. Andrew Key examines Notes, Imprints (On Love), Inner Outer Space, and 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.


In his 1973 essay “Approaches to What?”, the French writer and filmmaker Georges Perec asks:

What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?

To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither questions nor answers, as if it weren’t the bearer of any information. This is no longer conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space?

Under the dominium of habit, we sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But, Perec tells us, if we find ways of paying close attention to the facets of everyday life—to the mundane, the tedious, the humdrum—we can find a way to interrogate and experience afresh the sensations to which we have become numb through over-familiarity. Even if we cannot re-enchant the world, we may at least attain some kind of fascinated surprise at what actually happens in it: we may “rediscover something of the astonishment that Jules Verne […] may have felt faced with an apparatus capable of reproducing and transporting sounds,” a defamiliarisation of the comfortable habitude encouraged by technology. Perec’s essay calls for a new aesthetic practice and the development of a domestic anthropology; a practice “that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what for so long we’ve been pillaging from others.” It is perhaps no coincidence that Perec wrote these words while he was in the process of making his first film, The Man Who Sleeps, a film that explores the urban settings of his childhood, seeking to make strange again the streets which habit has dulled.

The practice of non-fiction filmmaking provides ample opportunity for a refocusing of our attention to the ordinary details of the world—the things we might miss or ignore or forget about due to overfamiliarity; the things we might deem beneath our interest, unworthy of our curiosity. But, as Robert Bresson wrote, “The crude real will not by itself yield truth.” There has to be more than just a documenting and recording of the ignored and dismissed detritus that makes up the world. Through the process of making a film, the work of capturing images and putting them into new relations with sound, text, speech or song, something approaching truth can perhaps begin to emerge from these disparate quotidian details. This is especially the case for artists shooting on film, refusing the ease and speed of digital filmmaking in the service of paying a closer attention to the world. Through reflecting on and recording the process of observing and engaging with the everyday, and then making that process an explicit part of the final work, a sustained devotion to the content of the mundane can produce new sensations, new insights.

Alexandra Cuesta’s 16mm diary films, Notes, Imprints (On Love): Part I & Part II, filmed at a wide variety of locations between 2015–2018, consist of a series of fragmentary glimpses taken from the daily unfolding of a life: a period in a foreign city, spent looking at dilapidated post-industrial landscapes, places which have the sense of not being looked at very often (in an early shot, a passer-by looks into the camera with suspicion, seeming doubtful that anyone would bother to film a decaying factory building); some time spent with the filmmaker’s grandmother in her garden, “piecing together minimal details for safekeeping”. These films are the first two of a projected series of six, works which Cuesta has described as “offerings to love and the act of making”. By casting an editorial eye over the accumulated material from three years of daily recording, Notes, Imprints (On Love) seems to be already submerged in nostalgia. But whose nostalgia? In its proximity to the diary form, Cuesta’s work formally centres an experience of dislocated time: the time of filming, the time of editing, and the time of viewing are simultaneously brought into focus. There is a form of selective memory at work in the process of shaping the accumulated diary material into the final work which we encounter as viewers, and we in turn bring our own selective attention to the films, focusing on certain elements more closely than others, provoked by our own daily experiences. This might lead to a projection of our own nostalgia into the work, our own emotive response to the evocative part-objects of the film: the angle of the light shining into a diner in Binghamton, NY, while Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” plays; the inevitable changing of the seasons, the wind in the trees, plants silently growing, birdsong in the background of shots of empty buildings, unpeopled landscapes, tracking shots of the suburbs filmed out of car windows.

There is more than a hint of melancholy—the end of a love story, the vistas of urban decline—and a quiet suggestion that all things are fleeting in this world, that film is an uncertain way of preserving the flickering sensations of the quotidian. Perhaps at moments I found myself frustrated by this: wanting perhaps a less polished version of reality, a greater acceptance of the grimy tedium of going about our lives, the messiness and unfinished quality of the day-to-day. But this unfinished quality is reflected in the form of the work, the ongoing development of the project, which—like any attempt to capture the experience of rotating through the years—remains necessarily tentative and unresolved, and contains moments of real beauty.

Laida Lertxundi’s Inner Outer Space, her first film since returning to her native Basque Country after spending decades living in Southern California, is a triptych of interconnected short works—Teatrillo, Inner Outer Space and Under the Nothing Night. As with Lertxundi’s previous work, this is a film that probes the relationship between sound and image, between photography and film, between landscape and individual. To some degree Inner Outer Space feels like a film about learning how to make a film again, for the first time, in a new environment. After a career spent immersed in the geography around Los Angeles, Lertxundi’s most recent work is an attempt to come to terms with a new space—both topographical and psychological. It is a response to the strange twin-movement of dislocation and home-coming, and the result is a work that unfolds almost tentatively: beginning with a series of images placed in and cycled through uncertain and opaque relations to each other, before moving to a blindfolded woman trying to describe the landscape she’s been placed in solely from the sounds and sensations on her skin, then concluding with the final chapter, in which two women in bathing suits perform a slow choreography in front of a projection of crashing waves—trapped between the image and its projection—soundtracked by an obscure British psychedelia record (Complex’s “Am I”): a long, exuberant release of some ambivalent feeling, one that seems to resist easy translation into language.

Lertxundi has described her practice as “Landscape Plus”: her films are shot on 16mm in natural landscapes, and involve the introduction of ‘unnatural’ elements into these spaces—live or pre-recorded music, non-actors reading texts, field recordings and the capturing of accidental sound. Her works are preoccupied with the textures of everyday life but they refuse a realist approach, resulting in something closer to fantasy or dream: the kind which takes place in some familiar setting, suddenly distorted through the lens of blurry recollection, involving an unconscious personal mapping of a place, or an experience that hinges on the presence of some workaday object that suddenly takes on a significance and is changed, as if you’re seeing it for the first time. In Inner Outer Space we see people try to describe or draw the terrains they have found themselves in, a way of taking the external world inside, a way of making it their own, building a personal relationship to it in order to recreate or capture the oblique feelings that the natural world can evoke. By defamiliarising the locations and sensations of everyday life, Lertxundi’s work elevates the mundane into the realm of the oneiric. Through this process, her work returns to us an experience of space and embodiment; it refuses glib resolution or easy answers and presents us instead with something far more opaque, radical and transformative. 

Another work in the festival programme, Ana Vaz’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, is named for the Wallace Stevens poem which is recited in both English and Portuguese in the film—a poem which takes on a structuring role in the Vaz work. The film is the product of a period of experimental pedagogy; a collaboration between the filmmaker and some high school students developed over the course of a year, beginning as a state commission under the rubric of “Unschool”. The work documents the development of this practice emerging through the participation of its teenaged interlocutors: we see them, wearing Black Sabbath or Marvel Comics tee-shirts, ripped jeans, fresh acne on their faces, a little unsure about themselves and each other, awkwardly laughing, whispering to each other—normal high schoolers—being introduced to techniques like using a contact microphone to record the hum reverberating through a lamppost. They are given a camera and sent out to film whatever they want, and then asked why they filmed it like that, what they intend to do with the images. They ask a series of questions: What is perspective? What is the world? What is vision? How to see the world with another’s eyes? What are images? What are landscapes? How do you cut landscapes?

Vaz’s collaboration with these high schoolers feels like an experiment in the truest sense of the word: a process conducted to find something out, with the outcome not known in advance. Taking its leads from Stevens’ high modernist concern with the vagaries of perception, we see here the opening-up of aesthetic possibilities—a derailment of the anaesthetising effects of habit by encouraging a new attention towards places and things that the participants might take for granted. How strange it is, as a teenager, to go to your school when nobody else is there, and to see the empty buildings, devoid of their usual activity, and to record the hallways and staircases, which wouldn’t usually register as objects of interest. There is an almost utopian instinct at work in this kind of pedagogy and its results, the hope that by instilling in these young people some new aesthetic sensibility—as well as the techniques to practice and develop it—the hard crust of everyday looking could be broken, and new perspectives and attitudes could bloom. The camera becomes a pencil, sketching out something that can be revised, altered, or erased. Vaz’s film leaves us without answers or closure, but with a set of questions that suggest paths forward into further experiment.

In the essay quoted at the beginning of this essay, Perec wrote: “It matters little to me that these questions should be fragmentary, barely indicative of a method, at most of a project. It matters a lot to me that they should seem trivial and futile: that’s exactly what makes them just as essential, if not more so, as all the other questions by which we’ve tried in vain to lay hold on our truth.” Through paying attention to the things we may typically dismiss as trivial or futile, we can begin to find out what is really essential. This process is potentially unending, reflecting the ways in which the cycles of the everyday refuse completion and finality. All of filmmakers discussed here seem to recognise the need for a practice which is a process of opening-up, of refusing closure or easy, definitive answers. They ask the same challenging questions that Perec raised in the 1970s—Where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space?

Andrew Key writes the Roland Barfs Film Diary, a weekly Substack about every film he watches. His essays and criticism have appeared in various publications including the Verso Books blog, MAP Magazine, It’s Freezing in LA!, Lugubriations, Goodnight, Sweet Prince, Review 31 and 3:AM Magazine, among others. His novella, Ross Hall, is forthcoming in 2022. He lives in Sheffield, and is on Twitter.

Inner Outer Space screens alongside Icarus (after Amelia) (dir. Margaret Salmon) on Wednesday 8 September at 18.30, at Curzon Soho, as part of the festival’s opening night. Tickets for the screening are available here.

13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird screens alongside other works by Ana Vaz on Sunday 12 September at 15.20, at Genesis Cinema. Tickets for the screening are available here.

Notes, Imprints (on Love): I & II screen as part of Combined Programme 4 on Monday 13 September at 20.30, at Bertha DocHouse. Tickets for the screening are available here.