Documentary Poetry:
A Conversation with Stephen Connolly

By Richard Birkett

Stephen Connolly in conversation at Union Docs / Photo: Christopher Allen


From diary to essay-film to observational work, London-based artist Stephen Connolly employs a variety of investigative and reconstructive approaches to his non-fiction filmmaking. Serious, yet never solemn, and infused with wit and passion, the work combines an urgency and complexity in the short film form. Connolly combines and layers seemingly disparate images, sounds, and narrative threads to explore the relationships between individual and social agency.

Connolly’s film The Whale (2003) is described by the artist as “an oblique meditation on safety, fear and notions of faraway places.” The dispassionate camera of Great American Desert (2007) explores an Arizona landscape to the chatter of a flock of Snowbirds. Más Se Perdió (2008) wanders through a revolutionary ruin in Havana, while respectfully appreciating the nuances of image making in this politically contested space. Martin Hebert describes the “angular, beautifully shot Film for Tom (2005), which broods upon the life and death of a bright, troubled outsider," as "breathtakingly measured and sure-footed.” ("New Contemporaries," TIME OUT LONDON 2006).

The following conversation took place following a screening of Connolly's work at UnionDocs on March 20, 2011. Based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, UnionDocs is a Center for Documentary Art, presenting a broad range of innovative and thought-provoking non-fiction projects to the general public, while also cultivating specialized opportunities for learning, critical discourse, and creative collaboration for emerging media-makers, theorists, and curators.


* * *


Richard Birkett: I'd like to start by asking you about Film For Tom (2005), as this work appears to lay out some key ideas that recur and are developed from different perspectives in your other films, particularly in the Afflicted States series. At the beginning of this film, we hear the eponymous Tom say, “I find it difficult to understand the notion of psychological space.  It seems to me I have no space to feel safe, no space to feel sure, no space to feel I could pick up my phone and I could phone someone without it turning into a conflict. And because I don't have that feeling of safeness, I therefore don't have a feeling of space.”  While the film is intensely personal and reflective on the desire to piece together Tom’s identity—who both in the manner of his death, and in subsequent depictions, was violently misrepresented—part of its strength lies in the indication of a broader experience of our relationship as individuals to society.  Can you explain how you came to produce this film in response to the circumstances around Tom's death, and the resonance that his story and words have for you?

Stephen Connolly: Tom was a very close personal friend for a number of years, although by the time of his death we had drifted apart. It was quite rare to hang out with him, but over a drink maybe a year before his death I persuaded him to speak to the mic.  I asked him what he’d been up to and what was on his mind, and I coaxed him into reflecting on the story of his life—which from my perspective is quite special.

Around that time I had felt a need to expand my filmmaking practice from a position of scepticism in narrative, towards an engagement with people’s stories—so I started with Tom, somebody I knew well. The nudge to do this was working on some public artwork films that dealt with notions of memory and place.  Simultaneously however, I felt wary of biographical approaches, which I understood as using narrative frameworks to “burnish” a set of circumstances and events, and perhaps excise the mess and disorderliness, the irresolvable conflicts and so on which are part of the fabric of any life.

Much later after that occasion on which I’d recorded Tom speaking, he was shockingly murdered.  He had two sets of friends; he’d hung out with squatters and homeless folk in Hackney, East London where he lived, and he also knew a bunch of professional people–academics, political and policy people and so on. On his death the former group melted away.  I was part of the latter group and the only artist, and so his photographs were bequeathed to me.

A year later his murderer was in court.  His lawyers pleaded provocation, so a week in court was spent dissecting Tom’s character and speculating on how he could have created the circumstances to induce his own death at the hand of another.  It was very bizarre, a kind of legal “category mistake.”  Evidence about the perpetrator was discounted or not discussed, while Tom’s character and lifestyle was examined exhaustively.

It was this context that spurred me on to make the film—the injustice of it stirred me deeply.  As a filmmaker, making a work was what I could do in response.  My first impulse was to work with the court transcript, however I was surprised to find this was not public record and needed to be transcribed at a cost of thousands of pounds.

I didn’t want to campaign—the realities were more complex than that would imply, and Tom could be very difficult and contradictory; he wasn’t heroic.  Looking through the photo archive and actively researching parts of his life that had been sketched out, many other issues came into focus—the partial nature of his life in images for instance, and the fragmentary nature of the official archives relating to his passage through a number of institutions.

Birkett: Did the form and structure of the piece come about through necessity?  The fact that you have certain recordings and documents of Tom's life, but that these elements clearly add up to a very partial chronicle, seems to infiltrate the works editing structure, conveying a sense of absence—of both the central subject, and the actuality of information.

Connolly: The form of the piece was partly determined by the documents available—the gaps within them and their partial nature as you point out—but assembled with a number of rules.  No moving images of him could be used in the work, because at the point at which the work was made he was dead.  Moving images animate of course.  Tom’s visual appearance in the film is withheld for as long as possible, in order to defer ascribing individual traits from an image, and to force an audience to consider the spoken word.  Likewise the images used were designed to be static, quiet, simple—devoid of “punch” or rhetorical qualities—to allow an audience to concentrate on Tom’s vocal content.

Tom’s voice, to English ears, is a mass of contradictions.  In the US some of the cultural resonances of this voice may not be apparent.  The equivalent here might be that his voice combines Ivy League and Bowery overtones in equal strength—in sonorous qualities and content, in what and how he speaks.  His voice provides traces of his social trajectory; he was born disabled in to a low-income family, rejected by them and brought up in a residential children’s home.  He left this institution at 16 to join the Hells Angels and then the homeless on the streets of London.  He learned to read in his twenties and later went to Oxford University—hence the street talk combined with the outspoken confidence and clear diction of an elite educational environment.

Hopefully the film is sparse enough—and uses the repeated visual gesture of lacing up the Nagra recorder as a constant reminder of the centrality of the recorded voice—for these evocative aspects of his voice to be given attention and allowed to breathe. Listeners can explore the qualities themselves.  The spiral editing structure—images, ideas, sounds, recurring and developing throughout the piece in new variations—contributes to the focus on his speech, but as Tom indicates, some of the issues of the scope for human agency he addressed were not resolved.

Birkett: Does the relationship that Tom describes between the feeling of safeness and the feeling of space, and the lack of both, set up certain parameters that have been intentionally developed in other films?  In the Afflicted States series there is an underlying connection between notions of space (public space, architectural space, the space of leisure and “freedom”), and the experience of “safety” in the face of a phantom threat.

Connolly: A brief autobiographical aside: In my twenties I was involved in the semi-legal activity of squatting flats, in East London.  Wandering the streets carrying the tools to force entry—with the legal implications of “going equipped”—forces a sense of contingency.  Relationships between space and power, individual agency and social sanction become palpable.  At least, this was my experience.  I’m sure it’s quite a common one; but once undergone, it’s not easily forgotten.  My work is informed by this experience in unemotional and un-experiential terms—it’s more interesting to me to abstract from this source and pose questions.

My belief is that space is organised by and for power, even if only on the level of enabling assumptions about movement, leisure and “freedom” as you suggest—this is the central theme of the film Great American Desert (2007).  I think film is the perfect medium to explore these structures, mirroring notions of structure in the temporal development of the work.  Yet I’d like to think there is never a perfect fit amongst the agencies involved in the production of space.  It’s not exhaustive or hermetic; and again in the depiction of these structures some new uncontrollable elements—aka wobbles—must be introduced!


Más Se Perdió / Stephen Connolly, courtesy of UnionDocs

I think a low level of threat to notions of safety” is becoming pervasive in the West.  The work responds to this by only very rarely offering an “unmediated,” or “verité” “documentary”; or—more appropriately perhaps—“neutrally plausible” rendition of what may be in front of the camera.  There is always an underlying unease.  This is apparent in the Cuban film Más Se Perdió (2008) in which the sound is derived from official radio channels, filtered and abstracted.

I’m very interested in the writings of Foucault—his”‘force field,” if you like, radiates at a low level throughout my work.  Yet if I were to suggest a refuge from the threat implied in and of space, it would be in the discursive.  In Film For Tom, Tom paraphrases Wittgenstein regarding language being a home.

Birkett: To expand on something that you’ve touched on here, around the formal and structural character of the films, one of the most striking characteristics of your work comes in the use of sound.  What we hear is often disjunctive from what we see—this occurs with both the presence of voice-overs (that are often not given any context through matching images), and, perhaps more emphatically, with a combination of sound effect and ambient noise that operates at a level equivalent to static.  The composer R. Murray Schafer coined the term “schizophony” to describe the era when industrial communications split sound from its sources, in his words sound “becoming a fearful medium because we cannot see who or what produces the sound: an invisible excitement for the nerves.”  You talked about the sound being derived from official channels in Más Se Perdió—can you explain further this decision, and how your approach to sound functions to induce a perceptual “antagonism” through its formal character?  Perhaps this is also relevant to Shoeshine (2002), where the relationship between sound and image is paired down to very basic elements?

Connolly: Maybe I can answer this on a number of levels.  Since the films are usually shot silent, the sound has to be recorded separately.  Of course sounds and image are then worked on together.  But often the picture edit can be very quick, and the sound takes months.  Yet mixing the sound to picture—the final step in making the work—is the most pleasurable and satisfying part of the whole process.

As I’m given to understand it, our ears are programmed to tune out sounds—in a crowded bar apparently our ears are trained to tune out the music and zone into the human voice. I can’t hear people in bars. Perhaps my tuning is missing, and so the soundtracks to my films are filled with atmosphere and other background sounds that might otherwise be edited out.

On another level – regarding voices – the image of a person speaking carries with it a certain persuasion. As an audience we look and make suggestions as to the character of the speaker – personality, biography and so on. If voice is used on it’s own, I’d suggest perhaps content is taken as a possibility amongst many – the validation of the visual human presence does not complicate this.

In a further development, in Great American Desert for instance, I wanted to include a conversation. This is unusual in Western media; documentaries normally interview people solo and if more people are present, interviewees take turns to speak. In documentaries from other cultures – India for example – a different approach may be used. Family groups are interviewed, for example. All can contribute, interrupt and express. So the content is multiple, may be intergenerational, and may allow for degrees of conflict to emerge. In a sense, a social truth can emerge. This I find interesting and want to explore, rather than the trajectories of individuals.

I also try to think of sounds which may be just out of shot, and which work with an implied action or narrative. So, in the new work Two Coronations (2011), the plane take off sequence is accompanied by the increasingly frantic sounds of kitchen utensils rattling in drawers and cupboards. Air travel was a luxury at the time the images were created, and I thought of all the silver cutlery and bone china bouncing around, creating both a nervous jangling sound – apposite for a time of great uncertainty – and reminding the listener of the galley area of a plane, from which passengers would be served.


Más Se Perdió / Stephen Connolly, courtesy of UnionDocs

With Más Se Perdió, I timed my shoot in Cuba to coincide with May Day. This is a really big deal in Cuba. Everybody must be seen to join in. If you wander a few streets from the huge procession in Havana on May Day morning, you hear a strange echo or feedback effect; the street PA amplifying the event interacts with the slightly delayed TV broadcast of the same sound – everybody has their TV at high volume, creating this intriguing mix that I’ve used at points in the film. There’s a constant play of echo and reverberation through the work. I’ve heard an expression used metaphorically in political discourse in the US – the ‘echo chamber’? In Havana on May Day the metaphor melts away and you can find the real thing.

Also, I was intrigued to find European classical repertoire quite prominent in officially sanctioned music in Havana – full orchestras accompanying May Day parades, and the cultural prominence of ballet and so on. The young people I met in Havana, generally associated with the visual art school, accepted this as an important component of ‘official culture’ and were seemingly interested because it was politic to be. That’s totally my interpretation, yet I was interested in how this music is deployed. I’m aware of and associate some forms of classical music with varieties of nationalism – as in building a national identity – a trope very evident in official discourse in Cuba. So I use it in the film as a kind of sonic noise or hangover. The soundtrack contains attempts to isolate the trace of this music, rather than the ‘tune’ or ‘motif’ of music deployed as an expressive element. Incidentally, the sound source is a Russian recording of Sleeping Beauty, referencing the ballet school story featured in the film.

Birkett: In relation to the ‘refuge in the discursive’ that you mention, how would you position the more intuitive aspects of your work? On a very surface level the physical and anachronistic quality of film induces a sense of the ineffable and the sublime – it seems that this is an important aspect of your work that allows for association beyond the parameters laid out by the ‘informational’ aspects of the work. For example, the black and white images of the City of the Dead in The Whale (2003) seem intentionally mysterious and ambiguous.

Connolly: The buildings visible in the ‘City of the Dead’ images are mausoleums for families, they form Cairo’s cemetery. They are important to the work because, while not explicitly related to violence, they pull notions of death into the frame. I had the fortune to visit Cairo in 2002, and The Whale was finished during the build-up to the Iraq war. The invasion was on March 20, 2003. The film is a montage of three elements – Hampstead Heath in London, The City of the Dead in Cairo and West German TV circa 1968, featuring Ulrike Meinhof.

In this montage London and Cairo must be diametrically opposed in the plastic values in the image. So, the verdant blue/green wide open yet populated spaces in the UK are contrasted with the claustrophobic black and white – yet warm – spaces of Cairo, through which the camera is continually moving or penetrating as if on a search mission. It is this play of opposites I was after: to suggest by the trace the real focus and point of interest in the fear mongering voiceover. The montage tries to intuitively make the images speak by a play of differences and contrasts. In my limited experience, digital media tends to downplay these expressive qualities, and adding further expressive gestures in post-production is not quite right for me. I do like to respect, in a gentle way, the indexical and documentary qualities of an image shot (in combination with the image carrier).

Birkett: And finally, can you explain why you have titled your screening at UnionDocs “Documentary Poetry?”

Connolly: I hope the work is clearly documentary in source and inspiration, but with added metaphorical layers and significant ellipses in ideas.  And perhaps to wrest “poetry,” when applied to film, away from a lyrical or individually expressive mode; to instead think about the structuring of the film work in terms of its deployment of metaphor; of a structured code of imagery and layers of meaning, all interacting in an ensemble of images and sounds.




Published October 17, 2011


Richard Birkett is curator at Artists Space in New York. He was previously curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and co-founder of Whitechapel Project Space, also in London. He has contributed texts to artist's monographs and art periodicals, and has edited publications including Dispersion (with Polly Staple), 2008 and Cosey Complex (with Maria Fusco), 2011.



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