Architecture and Place in Documentary Film
All places are in a continuous, gradual flux of being built or unbuilt, both physically and ideologically. All buildings are temporary; some are just more temporary than others, as was asserted by the British architect Cedric Price. At times, structures are designed to be impermanent, even moveable and nomadic like the Canadian Newfoundland fishing communities that float their lightweight houses behind them when moving across water to new grounds. Others are built to last indefinitely like the Greek amphitheatres or the Pantheon but will in all likelihood crumble at some point. And occasionally places are forced into disuse.
Two contrasting documentaries examining places at key points in their own process of being constructed or unconstructed are Sophie Fiennes’ Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow and Sarah Gavron’s Village at the End of the World. In the first, an artist has taken on an abandoned space occupied by disused manufacturing works, he then builds multiple structures of his own, making physical his own idea of an imaginary space. It is the vast creation of one individual. When visualised on film it is often physical structure, inhabited and uninhabited, that offers visual clues to permanency. But this space is not intended for permanency or occupancy and instead is used to demonstrate the industrious process of art making. In the second documentary a tiny fishing village in Greenland may become abandoned as the population falls below 60. It has been lived in for countless generations and the handful of existing structures evolve to meet the necessities of the seasonal or quotidian activities of the inhabitants.
Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (2010) Sophie Fiennes
Fiennes’ film is a documentary study of German post-war artist Anselm Kiefer. Sophie Fiennes is well versed in art and cinema having first studied painting before working with the director Peter Greenaway. In the past Fiennes has directed documentaries that focus on a Pentecostal church (Hoover Street Revival, 2002) and an intense dance performance (VSPRS Show and Tell, 2007). There is a significantly meditative, religious quality to the way the buildings are filmed in Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow that reflects this previous work. She also worked with Slavoj Zizek for The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006).
The film focuses on the expansive, hermetic world of La Ribaute, in Barjac, France, a space Kiefer inhabited between 1993 and 2010. La Ribaute is the site of an old silk factory and now Kiefer’s vast studio complex where production has once again resumed. It’s spread over 35 hectares and encompasses multiple working ateliers, outbuildings, installations and living areas which Kiefer moves through during the film. Significantly this documentary was conceived as Kiefer was planning to depart from rural Barjac for the outskirts of urban Paris and leave the space to nature.
The film roams through mud walled tunnels, around precarious looking tower structures constructed from cast concrete slabs and through glass houses. The opening credits inform us that Kiefer built “tunnels, an amphitheatre, 47 buildings, bridges, lakes and towers”. We know from the outset this place is vast and complex, Fiennes’ camera work makes it seem practically immeasurable, infinite. It would be a task to map out La Ribaute.
It could be argued that the elaborate world of La Ribaute fulfils the concept of gesamtkunstwerk for Kiefer, a Wagnerian idea of a total all-encompassing artwork. Slow panning through one structure and into another further immerses the viewer as we are lost in Kiefer’s silent world.
The camera also spends some time following Kiefer’s working process of creative destruction and industrial art production. The human contact is a welcome intrusion to the eerie quiet in the earlier section of the film. He throws ash, smashes glass sheets and pours molten led over mounds of dirt. He also instructs an assistant in digging a kind of cave. Kiefer is forceful in making his mark on this landscape. His work and La Ribaute itself appear to be in a continuous process of quietly fervent destruction and reconstruction. Cement mixers and muscular assistants in overalls are in abundance and the industrialization of art is a key comment in Kiefer’s process of building up and breaking down. Some of the structures are reduced to post-war like ruins and they form a space that is sprawling but contrived. Kiefer’s landscape is also very cine-genic, it’s more like a film set than any ‘real’ city.
The most striking architectural part of the site Kiefer has built is a cluster of tall concrete towers. Fiennes’ camera encircles them, removing all sense of scale. This physical motif is also repeated in miniature in another shot where we see Kiefer gluing a version of them to one of his paintings.
Kiefer’s work tends to centre on issues of memory, loss and the dogmas and ideologies that allowed the Nazis to come to power in pre-war Germany. This dark past is ever present and is a consistent subtext in all his work. More recently he has focused on exploring the trauma and upheaval that entire societies undergo and the continual rebirth and renewal that occurs in life. Poignantly, in the director’s commentary Fiennes speaks of how parts of Kiefer’s buildings and piles of concrete rubble remind her of war-torn Gaza.
The Space overall acts as a repository for the concepts in Kiefer's work and the constructions and materials are in their own cycle of creation and destruction at the hand of Kiefer. The industrial tool he uses add an element of fabrication and assembly.
Working in the tradition of artists such as Gustav Metzger, Kiefer collects materials intent on breaking them or deconstructing them then reforming them as a new space or structure. There is a tension between enduring materials and temporary nature of the mimetic city structures he builds. The walls of the towers take cranes to lift them, there is a heavy permanency in the materials he uses contrasting with the fact that we know the buildings won’t be lived in; it is the process of building Kiefer is interested in and the imminent abandonment is almost an afterthought. The tunnels and corridors exist physically in Barjac but they also occupy a strong psychological space in Kiefer’s practice. They are ‘real’ but the way they are imitations of occupied spaces makes them feel at the same time ‘unreal’. It is a preconceived and a prefabricated ghost town. It’s highly self-conscious and appears to evolve in part according to a detailed plan and in part as a result of Kiefer’s impulsive intuition.
Village at the End of the World (2012) Sarah Gavron
Sarah Gavron’s Village at the End of the World (2012) is a mirrored but inverse exploration of the way a space is shaped by the people that use it but it is a far cry from the artist’s semi-derelict wasteland. The issue of abandonment which has been artificially illustrated by Kiefer’s empty buildings appears here as a real world example – the threat of abandonment looms as an ever-dwindling community in northwest Greenland is faced with ‘closure’ by a government that no longer considers the hamlet sustainable. The population has declined steadily from 87 in 1991 to under 60 people in 2010 when Gavron finished her documentary. Aside from the film in question Sarah Gavron has also directed Brick Lane (2007) a drama about a woman leaving Bangladesh for a turbulent new life in London and several shorts including The Girl in the Lay-By (2000) about a woman working at a roadside café in the Scottish highlands while dreaming of visiting New York. Thematic parallels to Village at the End of the World are clear. The ways ideas of a distant place can bleed into the experience of living in another and how the identities of people are influenced by this crossover of places is explored eloquently in Gavron’s projects.
We are introduced to Niaqornat, the Village at the End of the World in the opening shots. It is filmed from above, which vividly illustrates the isolation of the village in the landscape. It appears as an ideal of pre-industrial village life that is picturesque and twee to the point of unreality, something city-dwellers may have only seen on a postcard.
Certainly, the lure of the larger towns, cities and metropolitan life is pretty palpable for Lars, one of the lonely teenagers the film follows. He’s on Facebook and Google Earth a lot, connecting with highly populated places thousands of miles away, looking down the frenetic streets of NY through his screen. He spends time virtually exploring downtown New York and access to the internet has completely changed his mental landscape. Equally, you can see Niaqornat in surprising detail on Google maps; you can see their boats, their graveyard, the windows on their houses. Although there’s no Streetview yet. There can now so easily be an exploration and exchange of physical space in a virtual way and this amongst other things is changing Niaqornat.
In Niaqornat there’s a frequent invasion from the ‘out-side’ world, virtual and physical. At one point a cruise ship appears unannounced, Danish tourists unload and are taken on a brief tour of the inlet as villagers rush to put on traditional costumes to entertain them. IIannguage, the sewage collector acts as their guide, he can speak Danish and is the only resident not born in Niaqornat. He’s from South Greenland and moved there after meeting his partner while online dating, it’s another reminder the impact the internet has on this community.
Along with the interaction with the outside world comes a desire for another life beyond the island. Since the fish-factory closed families have begun to leave to find work in towns. Karl, the village’s Major has become an MP in Greenland since filming ceased. He is a passionate spokesperson for small Greenlandic communities. The irony is he has now has to leave himself in order to protect his village.
The biggest change facing Niaqornat is the possibility villagers could be forced to abandon their space altogether. Greenland’s government is keen to become financially independent from Denmark, which heavily subsidies Greenland. Some of the country’s tiny village and town settlements are seen as unsustainable as changes in culture have increased a demand for imported food and goods and environmental changes have made it harder to subsist on fishing and hunting. So there are plans to make people move into towns to push Greenland into a more independent situation. However in becoming financially independent people in places such as the village in Gavron’s documentary worry about losing their identities to larger towns and cities. There’s a population tipping point talked about: 50, when a population falls under 50 the government pushes to move people from their homes.
This village has 59 people and if they are forced to move Niaqornat could become as empty as Kiefer’s La Ribaute.
Autonomy is highly important to the villagers, the oldest member, Annie laments that even if the supply ships are cut off, she will stay. She recalls a time when the ice was thicker and they relied on seal blubber for light in winter, living only off what they caught. The 15 or so houses have no gardens as no one owns land in Greenland, they are free to shape the immediate environment they inhabit according to their collective need. Filmed in summer and winter it’s clear their existence is largely dictated by the changing seasons and the transformations in climate their small population endures is remarkable.
Towards the end of Village at the End of the World, the villagers strike a deal with the owner of the fish-factory turning it into a cooperative and allowing increased self-sufficiency, providing jobs that draw people back to the village. Niaqornat is free from closure until further notice but changes in the environment and the seeping in of the ‘outside’ world through increased connectivity continues.
Niaqornat’s inhabitants’ resistance to the dismantling of their community paired with Kiefer’s deliberate creation of an all-encompassing artwork at La Ribaute are fascinating binary opposites in terms of closure and construction and ideas of permanency. Kiefer is exploring and revelling in industrialisation while the inhabitants of Niaqornat have long resisted it. In La Ribaute Kiefer built close to 50 buildings; the unpopulated installation at La Ribaute would easily dwarf the genuine village in Gavron’s documentary.
These films both explore places where ideas of permanency and destruction of a space are central to the people who have built or used them and how imposing outside virtual, political or psychological ideas of spaces and the way they can be used end up shaping them physically. The concepts Kiefer explores in his work are the driving force behind the changing face of the landscapes he builds, it mimics the structures and motifs of a ‘real’ city, and he is conscious that it will change and disappear; in fact destruction is part of the process. In Village at the End of the World the community faced with ‘closure’ and relocation, resisting being forced out of a space they feel ownership over, while it is increasingly influenced by ideas of other places and the far flung delights the internet brings to their fingertips. While the pace of Fiennes film is slow and lingering, the speed of Gavron’s documentary is much faster and livelier. This is fitting as the subject of Fiennes’ film - Anselm Kiefer’s idiosyncratic and solitary building project - is about the considered alteration of a space and (as the title suggests) how this space will very slowly be taken over by nature. In contrast Village at the End of the World is about the spirited endurance of a community’s attachment to their space, the villagers willfully adapt to a quickening pace of life so a more rapid pace of film-making feels dynamic and apt.
Shown by Fiennes, Kiefer’s world is quietly mesmerising, devoid of people. He shuts out other influences, making contrived, artificial changes to his solitary environment; he pushes the landscape into a static existence only to leave it to nature. In contrast Niaqornat and Village at the End of the World are all about the community life force, the lebenskraft. The villager’s immediate landscape evolves according to outside influences, welcome or otherwise as they fight for existence and endurance.