Open City Documentary Festival

Wish You Were Here: an essay by Louise Benson

We invited five writers to reflect on films of their choosing from this year’s festival programme. In this essay, Louise Benson examines The Still Side, Rock Bottom Riser, The Blue House, and After the Crossing.

Shortly before the millennium, I travelled on the Eurostar from London Waterloo to Disneyland Paris. I was nine years old, and my single dad had decided in a flurry of generosity to whisk my sister and me off to the theme park on holiday.

I remember being feverish with excitement, imagining the fish that we would see through the windows of the train under the Channel, and the perfect spires of the Disney castle that had long adorned the movie studio’s logo, whose moralistic, cautionary films I had watched zealously since I was old enough to walk.

Of course, there were no fish in the darkened tunnel. And it didn’t take me long to discover that we would not, in fact, be staying in the fairytale castle. But I can still recall my anticipation before the trip as I vividly pictured the cartoonish images from my VHS tapes made flesh, transported into a reality close enough to my own that I could touch, smell and even taste them. It felt overwhelming, even impossible.

This was my first time at a theme park, where subtlety is not a strength. Announcements blared from rides and Mickey Mouse mascots danced to live brass bands, while narrow, cobbled streets mimicked the Parisian lanes that were just a few miles away.

I was reminded of that trip and its many layers of fantasy by El lado quieto (The Still Side), by Miko Revereza and Carolina Fusilier, and Fern Silva’s roving, meditative Rock Bottom Riser. Set in an imaginary Mexican resort and Hawaii respectively, both films conjure the strange disconnect inherent in spaces explicitly designated as tourist destinations, where synthetic fun is conjured by an exaggerated version of each place’s natural attributes.

The markers of the ideal holiday remain surprisingly consistent, and have changed little since the birth of mass tourism in the early 1960s, when planes became just affordable enough for a wider public to begin to experience relaxation abroad. Hotel buffet breakfasts, shimmering turquoise pools and a peach-purple sunset on the beach.

El lado quieto displays the spectres of these vacation motifs: water flumes, a zoo and aquarium, and even the advertised promise of live dolphin shows. In Rock Bottom Riser, the contemporary image of Hawaii as a place of luxurious relaxation is pervasive, from Blue Hawaiian cocktails to the distinctive silhouette of the swooping Loulu palm trees native to the island.

El lado quieto’s fictional resort of Capaluco offers a linguistic play on Acapulco, the Mexican resort town famed for its glamorous parties during the 1950s and 60s, which has in recent years been fraught with violence. This decline is mirrored in the film’s exploration of the ruins of a once-popular holiday destination. Beach hotels sit abandoned, lonely mirror balls hang in former discotheques, and pastel-coloured amusement park rides begin to rust and decay. A Coca-Cola logo adorns an empty fridge, a relic of a once-thriving cafe, and plastic chairs sit stacked as if waiting for a new day to begin.

Revereza and Fusilier conjure the mythmaking behind this human impulse to build idealised destinations even in the most remote of locations, emphasised by its gradual shift back to an earlier time before the land had been colonised and the attractions constructed. A lone bird sits on a ruined red-velvet staircase, while the colourful murals displaying exotic creatures sit in contrast to their living counterparts who roam these spaces. “Perhaps animals will find fake grass more comfortable than real grass,” a voiceover wonders.

The booming voice of a disembodied tour guide haunts the space, promising (or perhaps threatening) “not one second without fun.” This guide describes cruise ship receptions; restaurants with an open bar; spas, saunas and an oriental massage service. In Rock Bottom Riser, ‘tiki’ style hotel rooms give an essentialised, flattened image of Hawaii’s complex history. The troublesome notion of the ‘exotic’ pervades the projected vision of the spaces portrayed in both films , which highlight how a westernised vision of the ‘faraway’ and ‘unfamiliar’ gives form to a typically generic understanding of escapism.

“You are excused from doing the work of constructing the fantasy,” David Foster Wallace writes in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. “The ads do it for you. The ads, therefore, don’t flatter your adult agency, or even ignore it—they supplant it.” The same could be said of the so-called dream holiday, from travel brochures to ‘wish you were here’ postcards, to the imagery displayed even at the destination itself, namely of other people having more fun, more relaxation, and an all-round better time than you are.

This recycled idea of fun looms from every corner in the two films, coupled with the reality of their now-crumbling failure. El lado quieto, an untouched island colonised and adapted by humans for the purposes of pleasure, is now dominated by the ever-encroaching whims of nature, from darting fish to creeping lizards.

Polynesians meanwhile first settled in Hawaii as early as 2000 years ago; the British famously landed on its shores in 1778, and the islands became part of the United States just over a hundred years later in 1898. Its postcolonial reality is made painfully visible in Silva’s Rock Bottom Riser. Filmed accounts from navigators, historians, teenagers and tourists accompany interviews with scientists, which unravel the inherent contradictions of an island whose idealised image has a tendency to precede it.

Where El lado quieto deals with post-human architecture, Rock Bottom Riser contends with the pre-human. The film confronts Hawaii’s past through the remnants that can still be seen in its fractured present. Ancient and modern are brought together most clearly in its geology, and in the rock that lends the film its name. Silva opens with shots of molten lava as it runs down the side of a volcano, bubbling and oozing in vivid orange and black—a visual refrain that recurs throughout, and a metaphor for both the precariousness of the island and its vast history.

It is a contentious, charged slippage enacted in the film’s focus on the island pre and post-settlement. Vast swathes of nature, previously protected and upheld by the indigenous population, are transformed by new landings on shore. Why is it that ‘settle’ (to put in order or resolve) is the verb used to describe colonisation? Silva hones in on that loaded contradiction through vignettes that withhold explicit judgement, while drawing into question the colonisers’ desire for absolute control.

“It’s a self-destructive city,” the directors reflect in El lado quieto, in an informal speculative conversation that guides the latter half of the film’s dreamlike narrative, adding, “Any sort of empire is a post-apocalyptic cult.” The directors refer to the financial bubble and boom that led to the creation of spaces like these in Latin America, which peddle a specific form of fantasy to an international audience, and the economic crash that has left many of them in ruins. Set on an island, their imagined holiday resort embodies the introspection of both the empire and the cult, in which a singular drive for domination is disguised as a collective goal.

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We each build our own fantasies from the disconnect between imagination and reality, constructed in the place of the deficit that can stretch as a vast gulf between the two. The Blue House (Hamedine Kane) and After the Crossing (Joël Akafou) focus on African migrants intent on crossing European borders in the hope of building a new life for themselves.

They pick away at the threads that hold the migrant fantasy together, revealing it as an illusion upheld both by the refugees themselves, desperate to find safety and stability at last, and the European countries who first colonised much of the African continent. The false dream of Europe as a refuge is enough to propel migrants across borders at risk of death, often only to be turned away or left in limbo upon arrival.

Kane’s protagonist in The Blue House is Alpha, a Mauritanian migrant who lives in the notorious Calais Jungle in a self-built cabin covered with the bright blue tarpaulin that gives the structure (and the film) its name. He is warm and talkative, inviting Kane and his camera into his daily life without reservation; we see him rinsing his face first thing in the morning, and crouched in the darkness of his home at night.

He talks and talks, telling the story of his journey so far, from Syria to his time as a fisherman in Istanbul to a stint as a receptionist in a Greek hotel. He laughs about the sexual appeal of British versus French women, and just as quickly dismisses his joke as crude. He gives the impression of constant motion, flitting between resolution and doubt, excitement and despondence.

The subject of Akafou’s After the Crossing is Inza, a migrant from Ivory Coast living in Turin. Inza hopes to cross the mountainous border into France, where a woman awaits him, but is entangled in a series of quickly-escalating personal relationships, where the line between survival and service are blurred.

He lives with another girlfriend and her young daughter, flitting back and forth between the homes of friends and a hostel (that he calls ‘campo’) for refugees from which he has made the decision to flee. Pacing through the city at night, deep in thought, he longs to find work. The painful wait for asylum, and the limbo that each refugee must remain in until that decision is made, infuses both films like a disease that cannot be shaken.

The presence of the camera is keenly felt in both The Blue House and After the Crossing. The directors invite their protagonists to speak not only directly to the lens, but directly to them as people. Alpha asks Kane if he remembers cousins and friends from their village back home, while Inza and his friends share memories of the past in their home country of Ivory Coast with Akafou.

It is notable that neither film could offer the same unguarded intimacy were it not for the shared backgrounds of their protagonists and filmmakers. Lives hang in the balance as both men await the next stage of their journey, and the power dynamics are plain to see. It would be all too easy for these films to slip into voyeuristic territory, but instead they uphold the varied humanity of their protagonists, moving away from the one-sided victim narrative that is often portrayed in media coverage of the migrant crisis.

In contrast, neither the American-Portuguese Silva nor American-Filipino Revereza and Argentinian Carolina Fusilier have a direct, lived connection with the subjects of their films, set in Hawaii and Mexico, which lends them a distanced, anthropological tone over a collaborative one. Looking in from the outside, they form their own fictions that can never fully be swept aside. Just as Alpha and Inza uphold their own forms of fantasy when it comes to the promise of Europe, so do Silva, Revereza and Fusilier apply their own filtered version of reality to their chosen subjects.

The embedded, inherent connection between director and protagonist in The Blue House and After the Crossing is made more apparent still by the moments on camera when Inza and Alpha speak to others around them. Inza is advised by a charity worker to turn back from the border for his own safety as he huddles deep into his jacket, face impassive and unblinking, a world away from the openness and humour we see in scenes of him at home. Alpha meanwhile is shown performing for the cameras of others, as news reporters visit the camp seeking stories to broadcast.

At one point in The Blue House, a white reporter visiting the camp asks Alpha, “In what way does England represent the promised land?” He responds simply: “‘Because the Jungle isn’t in England, it’s here.” It is an answer that bitterly encapsulates the desperate dream of so many refugees who risk their lives in crossing oceans, for whom the next stage of the journey exists as an eternal imaginary resolution.

Alpha fixates upon his destination in the United Kingdom, creating collages from news clippings of David Cameron and Boris Johnson’s faces. In the closing shots of After the Crossing, Inza is shown blearily arriving into France at last. It is a troubled, unresolved ending, where the promised dream has become reality, and yet it doesn’t look anything like he had imagined. Alone and desolate, he seeks shelter to no avail, unwilling to call a cousin in the city due to pride and humiliation. “What we’re living here,” he says, “it is not a life.”

Fantasy and empire are never far out of sight in each of these films. As Inza puts it, “Because you spoiled our home in Africa we came here looking for work.” For the Hawaiians in Rock Bottom Riser, that colonisation exists in tandem with a projected ideal that lives on in holiday brochures and jewel-coloured cocktails at sunset. In ‘Capaluco’, that dream is already dead. As The Blue House makes clear, the dream alone of a faraway land is often enough to sustain hope even against the odds. That it rarely represents reality is an uncomfortable truth that shimmers just beneath the surface.

Louise Benson is a writer and editor based in London. She is the deputy editor of art and culture magazine Elephant, where she covers issues relating to gender and sexuality; identity and diaspora; mental health and the internet. She is also the co-creator of Scenic Views, an independent interiors magazine that focuses on the places that often go unnoticed, from hotel lounges to suburban driveways. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram

The Still Side screens Thursday 9 September at 18.30, at ICA. Tickets for the screening are available here.

Rock Bottom Riser screens on Sunday 12 September at 15.30, at Bertha DocHouse. Tickets for the screening are available here.

The Blue House screens alongside This House is Yet to Be Built (dir. Sílvia das Fadas; 2018) on Sunday 12 September at 18.00, at Bertha DocHouse. Tickets for the screening are available here.

After the Crossing screens on Monday 13 September at 18.30, at Curzon Soho. Tickets for the screening are available here.