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Runa Islam by Willem de Rooij

When actress Elisabet Vogler, one of the two protagonists of Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 classic film Persona, decides to stop speaking she is advised to take some time off at the seaside. Together with Alma, a private nurse played by Bibi Andersson, she ends up in a summer house on the rocky coast of Farö, a deserted island in the archipelago of Stockholm where Bergman has been living since the early sixties and where several of his films were shot. Elisabet’s deliberate muteness, and her retreat to Farö, can be read as attempts to isolate herself from her surroundings by simply refusing to interact with them. At the same time, she can’t help but pick up on signals from those same surroundings. The ongoing confrontation with Alma and radio broadcasts of Bach make for intimate psychological encounters with herself and those closest to her, while the world at large comes in through two significant ‘borrowed’ sources. Before leaving for Farö, Elisabet watches TV in her hospital room. The television set is filmed showing documentary footage of anti-war protestors in Vietnam, followed by images of the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk: highly topical at the time Persona was filmed. The images are inter-cut with close-ups of Elisabet’s horrified face. The second documentary ‘insert’ is historical: when Elisabet opens a book a photograph (that probably functioned as a bookmarker) falls out. What follows is a sequence of details of the photograph that turns out to be one of the most enduring images of the Holocaust: seven-year old Tsvi Nussbaum raising his hands as Nazi soldiers force Warsaw ghetto dwellers to surrender after their May 1943 rebellion. Both scenes are accompanied by a dramatic musical underscore by Lars Johan Werle, intensifying the visual experience.

These drastic formal juxtapositions, in fact documentary inserts in fictional frameworks, recall Martha Rosler’s 1967 collage series Bringing the War Home, in which Rosler intricately inserts journalistic still images of the war in Vietnam into cut-outs from lifestyle magazines. In both Bergman and Rosler's position the territories of documentary and fiction still seem clearly divided and connotated. The fictional is associated with middle class decadence, the documentary with the (victory of) truth and (consequent) moral superiority.

Runa Islam’s How Far to Farö consists of three large-scale video images projected onto three joined, free-standing screens. Each screen measures about 3 x 4 metres and reaches to the floor. The three screens are positioned at a slight angle to one another, so that the suite of projected images becomes a sculptural entity rather than a two-dimensional construct. The monumental character of the imagery, the fact that the piece as a whole is a loop and that the three screens disable primary identification with each individual image, further enhances the strong physical quality of this set of moving images. The piece is structured as a series of short scenes that are divided by intervals, during which the screens turn black. All the scenes combined have a duration of just over thirteen minutes, each scene a triple-sequence of meticulously framed, lit and timed images, all with a certain thematic and/or formal coherence. How Far to Farö could be seen as a road movie, capturing the travels of a film-crew sailing from Stockholm to Farö. Most of its images are panning or dolly shots, making for a slow, deliberate pace. Islam carefully scans, not only all dimensions of her physical surroundings (sky, earth, wind-directions), but also all elements present: the ocean, the vessel, a forest on an island where the crew makes a stop-over, the film-crew and its equipment, the process of image production, and the artist herself. At the same time, Islam seems to go through great lengths to avoid any deeper identification with these elements. Actors and crew members are seen in a blink, out of focus, or positioned partially out of the frame. Sometimes their shadow is the only proof of their presence. The ship’s monumental architecture appears in details only, giving no clue to its entire volume. The camera’s angle remains narrow, on the ocean, in the forest. Only once does Islam allow herself to be tempted by the visual splendour of Stockholm’s archipelago, inserting a short but breathtaking wide angle shot of the bay and its islands. Thus How Far to Farö is a story of a virtually face-less crew setting out to film an un-scripted film, on their way to an island that’s never reached.

Islam’s suggestive images appear simultaneously reduced and dramatic. They are obviously staged, but whether they were staged to appear as documentary or fictional remains open. Where Bergman used the emptiness of Farö as a metaphor in his highly constructed narrative, Islam avoids interpretation of any kind, creating another sort of emptiness. The non-committal blandness of her compelling imagery seems by its negation to reflect upon the crisis in contemporary image production and interpretation.

Most of the 500,000 rickshaw pullers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, are countryside migrants; the families they left behind often depend fully on their income. They face internal struggles fighting off competition and crime. At the same time, Dhaka’s government tries to ban them from main roads, blaming them for the cities endless traffic jams.

The First Day of Spring was filmed in Dhaka in 2004, when Islam returned to her place of birth for the first time in 23 years. It can best be described as a group portrait constructed almost entirely out of slow tracking shots around and in the midst of a group of motionless rickshaw wallahs resting on their bicycles. As in How Far to Farö, Islam clearly indicates floor (the dusty ground under the rickshaw’s wheels), ceiling (the sky seen through a roof of leaves), and all sides of her location. She takes several points of view, ending in a series of close-ups of each individual character, before watching them drive off into the evening sun. In contrast to How Far to Farö however, in The First Day of Spring the protagonists are being placed ‘centre stage’ as Islam puts it: ‘One is more used to looking at their necks than at their faces’1. The intense visual gratification of the footage is thematised, not avoided, and while there is no narrative as such, the way Islam positioned and filmed her subjects makes for a highly stylised, seemingly rehearsed and fictional whole.

Notes

1. From an e-mail conversation with Runa Islam, August 2005

First published in ‘Runa Islam’, File note #7, Camden Arts Centre, London, 2005