Using footage shot on a trip to Mexico, this essay film explores the childhood memories of Irish artist and film maker, Nick Stewart, and Mexican writer and artist, Helen Blejerman. Stewart was brought up in Ireland and lived in Belfast through the darkest days of the conflict there. The experience of that time runs through the dozen or so stories that make up his half of the script of the film. Blejerman has written another set of stories that similarly explore her Mexican childhood and subsequent move to the UK. These stories counterpoint footage shot by Nick Stewart while traveling in Mexico. The film weaves a network of associations, memories and observations together in a non-linear narrative that is, by turns, political, biographical, poetic and factual.
From an interview with Nick Stewart.
When I travel I am confronted by my past. On the one hand, it draws me out of myself into sights and sounds and smells, impressions of difference. On the other, a part of me is overwhelmed by images and events from the past. Mostly there is little cause and effect to this: memories aren’t often prompted in a rational manner from the experience at hand. Instead, they seem to rise from the unconscious in ways that are not consciously grasped. Memory is, itself, a poetic process. The ‘logic’ of this is one that translates well into film.
I went to Mexico to record a project for Dougald Hine, the writer, teacher and culture-maker. So, my being in Mexico was not for me to make a film. However, back in London certain ideas and themes began to emerge from the footage I shot during our travels there. The extent of my recording allowed me to conceive of discreet sequences and I began to realise that it might be possible to create something more ambitious than the usual artist’s gallery video sequence or short film.
It was only when Helen Blejerman, an artist and writer from Mexico, now living in Sheffield, was contacted, that this began to come into focus. Though I remained as director, Helen quickly developed a critical role in the evolution of the project. The fact she responded to my invitation with a beautifully written story of her father’s death, precisely edited to imagery that I had sent to her, set a benchmark for me.
This was never going to be a documentary. I was very clear about my position being a transient tourist, largely ignorant of Mexican politics or daily life, as I say in the film. Rather, it’s an essay film, in the traditional sense of that genre. It’s an open form, built on a poetics of association and imaginative engagement. I’m not interested in disposable narratives that, once experienced hold no further interest.
We worked through a lot of variations of editing and sequencing of what we now referred to as “chapters.” We wanted to acknowledge that the politics of place and identity is an integral aspect of our lived experience. I also wanted to maintain a balance between that and the reality passing in front of the camera. It was important that the viewer would not be thinking, ‘why am I watching this image with this voice-over’? The associations needed to fit. We tried to get a feel for a narrative arc, however tenuous that might be: we wanted a sense of beginning, middle and end. From the start I was clear that the graduation ceremony would, somehow, be at the end. This, and the also obvious beginning chapter, gave us two clear anchor points to work between.
I generally dislike the professional look of much film today. Digital editing and effects are too often used to create a spurious filmic reality that quickly becomes mannered. A camera is a tool to facilitate perceiving the world more clearly. The frame creates relations between things that otherwise would remain separate. Vision is intensified. Time is made perceptible. If wielded with sensitivity and focus, a camera might even be said to alter consciousness through an intense engagement with detail and immersion in slow time. Essentially, it enables a poetic process, a way of engaging with the poetry of the everyday. When I’m shooting my objective is to bring formal, poetic precision to what I’m recording, while avoiding unnecessary, tricksy, camera work and effects. Does this mean it is amateur? Yes, if we accept that the root of the word means, love.
My background is in art. I worked with video art for a decade or more. So my interest in film is grounded in an appreciation of direct, everyday imagery, as employed by many in the history of avant-garde film and video art. In this film I have tried to extend that to a more ambitious level.
As well as my and Helen’s editing, I employed two editors, one to work with me to master the final edit and one to colour balance it. The audio mastering was done at Pinewood Studios. Technically, the final edit is at a fully professional, cinematic standard. Artistically, it has enabled me to conceive of future film ideas that previously seemed to belong exclusively to the world of cinema.