Saturday 5 December 2009

Journey to the Moon (Kutlug Ataman)

The song 'Dave the Moonman' by the Scottish band Looper concerns a character, the very 'Dave' of the title, who spends his time at parties biting people's ears of about the why the moon landings must have been a hoax, about dual light sources and the Van-Allen Belt, Kodak film and the impression left by footprints. "I thought he had a mission, Dave the Moonman, to prove to everyone that no-one had ever landed on the moon. But that wasn't it at all. He was telling everyone all this stuff he'd learned cause he was hoping someone could prove to him it was wrong, and it wasn't just a hoax. Cause dreaming was so much harder otherwise," the song ends. "Someone had managed to get there. Someone had managed to do that. A truly impossible thing." 

The new film from Kutlug Ataman, begins with a reminder of its own impossibility, "You cannot tell this story. Not now," says the narrator over a series of stunning black and white photos that move slowly from the harsh landscape itself, through the ruins of a former culture, to occupied rural dwellings, and finally, people. This brief montage and its attendant voice-over meta-narrative (in as much as it doesn't just tell us a story, but tells us that it is telling us a story, and, even further, tells us about the telling of that story, that it is a story which should not or can not be told), do more than simply establish the film's setting. It establishes this setting as scene, and as "scene of a crime" where, following Fredric Jameson, "the scandal and the violence, the punctuality and irrevocability of "crime" is simply shorthand for the unexpected emergence of the Event as such." The plot then unfolds through a mixture of expert testimony and these beautiful high-contrast photos, of a village in Turkey's Erizincan province. 

Set in 1957, three years before the military coup, a passing Democratic Party politician is forced by car trouble to stop in the village and decides to take the opportunity to engage in a little public speech-making. He boldly tells the villagers that he will bring modernity to them, that this small town will be the next Istanbul, the Paris of the East. He tells them about the Russian space programme and about Sputnik and makes them all sorts of promises. Of course, the villagers laugh and jeer at the man and his empty electioneering, but people from the neighbouring villages start to gossip, start to say that these villagers are crazy - that they think they are going to go the moon! Ultimately a group of the village's more eccentric or romantically inclined inhabitants decide that the only way to save the village's reputation is to do just that, and with the minaret from the local mosque and a couple of weather balloons they set about creating a rocket to take them to the moon. 

Kutlug Ataman left Turkey at the age of 18, and spent fifteen years living in America, during which time he studied film in Los Angeles. Now living between Istanbul and London, and working in both fine art and cinema, he claims he is most interested in working in those "grey areas" between the popular and the aesthetic. Journey to the Moon drifts through a number of these grey areas itself, between fact and fiction (apparently at its premier screening at a film festival in Istanbul, half the audience believed the story to be true), art and cinema (it was initially made and funded as an installation, with the photographs and interviews divided between two screens), and between past and future. His recent work, he claims, is moving from "dealing with issues of perceived identity and cultural identity as a construct. Now with this film, I am looking at history as a construct, and I wanted to look at the artificial construction of history." The interview subjects are real academics invited to pontificate in the manner of their respective disciplines on this fictional story, and the villagers are all (bar one) non-professional actors who lived in that village, but the story and the photographs are entirely staged - and even, at one point, photoshopped.

The director cites two principal reasons for presenting the film as it is, one was practical - photos are cheaper than film, and the project could only get funding from art institutions - the other to do with verisimilutude. "There is a rupture," he claims, "between frozen images and frozen history on the one side and the moving image - as soon as it starts moving it becomes less real, it becomes reconstruction." Black and white photos with added discourse is usually our mode of access to history. To return to Fredric Jameson, there is a peculiar dialectic to photography, especially in black and white, that makes it at once both always "realistic", even when openly fictional (in as much as the Vitorian genre of "fiction photography" nonetheless points to a certain historical reality of 19th century bourgeois life), and always "modernist", always drawing attention to its own frame, its production process and its author. "The event registered by the camera," Jameson continues, "includes history in the form of death (or the passage of time): photography is thus already a philosophically "existentialist" medium, in which history is subject to a confusion with finitude and with individual biological time; and whose costume dramas and historical records are therefore always close to the borderline between historicity and nostalgia."

Of course, cinematically, this combination of narration and stills with a sort of science fiction story cannot help but remind us of La Jetée, Chris Marker's 'photo-roman' on the theme of time travel which went on to inspire Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. Journey to the Moon, however, is far lighter and warmer in tone, wihout ever quite succumbing to the nostalgic celebration of local colour and lost innocence that seems forever to lurk just off screen. Less the dystopian nightmare of Marker's post-apocalyptic fantasy, than the utopian longing for the radical transformation and infinite potential of the Event. If there is a nostalgic element to Ataman's film, it is that of the moment dubbed 'hauntological' by Jacques Derrida: a nostalgia for the future, or rather for that in the past which opened the door to the future and to the promise of impossible things.