Sarah Wood: Lost Film Found Film (Artist’s Notes)

In a world saturated with the still and moving image, how does the documentary image perform truth? Does it? What is really found in footage? [Sarah Wood]

On March 19 (from 20:30), at the ICA, the Essay Film Festival will present a programme of films by Sarah Wood, including her 2014 work I am a Spy. We are delighted to be able to share, below, an extract from Mars (2014), her as yet unpublished artist’s notes on that film and some other works.

Sarah Wood works with the found image as an act of reclamation and re-interrogation. In the 2016 Essay Film Festival’s survey of her recent films, she questions not only our relationship to the documentary archival but also 21st century viewing conditions – of being observed while observing – ultimately asking how this influences the narration of history and memory. 

Mars is the god of war

War, however, is no longer the desperate, annihilating struggle that it was in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is a warfare of limited aims between combatants who are unable to destroy one another, have no material cause for fighting and are not divided by any genuine ideological difference

– Orwell, 1949

I am writing these notes during a time of war, in a country that’s at war, unofficially. Britain did not declare war on Afghanistan under the Taliban in 2001 or Iraq under Saddam Hussein in 2003. It has not officially declared war on another country since the 1940s. War, it would seem, has shifted from a state of legality to a state of being: a kind of banally ubiquitous constant as Orwell describes above in the fiction of Nineteen Eighty-four.

In my lifetime, war has shifted from Cold War grandstanding to a new cold war, a War on Terror, waged after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington in 2001, by the United States and its allies. War hysteria, as Orwell’s revolutionary construct Emmanuel Goldstein suggests in War is Peace, is ‘continuous and universal in all countries.’ In a world where there is little ‘material cause for fighting’ and also, proportionally, little material evidence of fighting, the current War on Terror is, as George Tenet, the Director of the CIA wrote five days after the September 11th attacks in a memo to staff, a declaration of intent. He describes this as ‘a worldwide war against al-Qua’ida and other terrorist organisations’ in which ‘all the rules have changed.’

What constitutes a terrorist organisation? The assumption here is that the person who can name the terrorist has the power to wage war on that individual or group. Edward Said describes how the use of the word terrorist in relation to the Israel/Palestine conflict ‘has spawned uses of language, rhetoric and argument that are frightening in their capacity for mobilising opinion, gaining legitimacy and provoking various sorts of murderous action. And it has imported and canonised an ideology with origins in a distant conflict, which serves the purpose here of institutionalising the denial and avoidance of history.’ What Said is describing is how the language of terrorism is used as an apparatus (in Foucault’s term) enabling military action without basis in historical precedence. History is arguably a narrative of consensus. The rhetoric of the War on Terror overrides the need for consensus. It asserts and enables a new purpose by privileging necessity.

For the object, anyone who could at any time be named a terrorist, the apparatus, represented by the language of the memo, communicates threat. The memo is reminiscent of how only a century earlier the Bolsheviks rounded up and killed anyone in the first instance simply because his or her name appeared on a list. Before the itemised programmatic killing of Stalin and Hitler defined the apotheosis of governance by terror for the last century, off to their deaths in 1919 went Moscow’s boy scouts, for instance, and in 1920 the members of all its lawn tennis clubs, simply because their membership meant their names had been placed on a list. Belonging to something, however benign, guaranteed suspicion. In 2001 this link between suspicion, information and punishment has simply been globalised.

What is interesting and chilling to me as a filmmaker is how, in the century since the rise of the Bolsheviks, the taking of power through assertion is not simply enacted, but increasingly mediated through and justified by the still and moving image. The ubiquitous use of the image as a shorthand for evidence suggests on some level that history does not exist without photographic representation. These are the conditions for image-making in the new century. How does this affect the relationship in documentary film between the viewer, the voicing of history and the recorded image as archival evidence?

I am suspicious of how the captioning of an image supports a performance of the recording camera as disembodied, as somehow mechanically objective. I am suspicious that once the image is explained in voice or caption it can be viewed as a given, a simple statement of fact. I am concerned that the captioning of an image is a stepping-stone to the naming of the perpetrator, in war, to the naming of the enemy. It is a bit too close to the arbitrary notion that having your name on a list demonstrates guilt. In the field of war optics, how can the image be prosecuted rather than the enemy?

  • extract from Mars (2014)

(Copyright Sarah Wood)