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Flashback from a Partisan Filmmaker
Lis Rhodes reflects on her filmmaking, and the politics of film, for Filmwaves Magazine Winter 1998/99

"It is dangerous to step out of line - and lethal not to."
A double-take by Lis Rhodes

Most writing is written from left to right, or from right to left. All writing is when in the present, from a particular past. Individual reminiscence, sequences of events and comments selectively recounted, is one vital part of the process of looking back. This implies there is something to look at, to see. A metaphorical stage or film set, where the rehearsal and reconstruction of events can take place in the forecourt of the present-participants, surrounding contexts, voices, familiar faces - all re-emerge and the action is replayed, and redirected. The new story outstrips the original action. As I write this I have just been told that the average temperature of the world is the hottest it has ever been, since records were kept. I am grateful that the overheating of the world is on record. My regret is that records tend to record symptoms not the causes. The study of the first may lead to the diagnosis of the other. But remedies are unlikely while living and working here depend on an overheated economy. And any record or measurement made must be from a position of partial collusion.

In the recounting, retelling of anything, whether by a person or an 'authority', there is always a rehearsal, a selection of facts, memories. Things are bound to happen. Tragedy, comedy and nostalgia, the dramatics of memory colour recall and re-telling. Inevitably someone will summarise and edit, and film directors and writers are particularly adept at reducing years into minutes, actions into seconds and fiction into fact. Since my films are as verbal as they are visual, the texts themselves can be seen as an account from which I have selected a 'scratch' record of excerpts, of stills, that could be spoken to the tune of times change, and so they do and so they don't. Mostly they don't, because there is no intention that they should. The scale alters, records increase, resources diminish, there is no relief in acceleration for most people suffocating in the fumes of an overheated world.

As an artist, as a filmmaker the investigation (the Flashback) becomes a composition, a geographical tracing of the political nature of emotion, the economies of thinking, and invisible subjects in a competitive environment which relies on repetition to mask its insecurity, let alone its overheating.


"The answer and the question occupy the same space. They are already familiar, if not known to each other. Emotionally they live within the same political order." "it wasn't easy to find each other / the distance had grown year by year / she watched the emerald sun / roll round the world a bullet on a saucepan lid"
(Cold Draft, 1988)

"it wasn't as if it wasn't seen / it was / it was seen and they went shopping / they spoke about it, worried / and went to bed I they will ask themselves / how was it we never knew?"
(Just About Now, 1993)

"there had been other things that I had meant to say / but memories are foreshortened tin a cold snap / angels blossom in graveyard kitchens / forgetting to sharpen their knives / hold contradiction under the tongue"
(Deadline, 1991)

Sounds are affective. Images are instructive. In reversing, turning over, the notation, or perhaps the connotation of images and words, it becomes alarmingly apparent that words - (and not only in their relationship within sentences) - are to be believed, or not, and are therefore emotional. This is why lots can be said and nothing happens, or nothing is said and a lot happens. One person's word against another's. The answer and the question occupy the same space. They are already familiar if not known to each other. Emotionally they live within the same political order, that is of manipulation and persuasion.

Images do not 'say'. They are instructive. They are said 'to speak for themselves'. And I think they do. Seeing one is a rare occurrence, in itself. There is little space for reflexive meaning in reflection. The one is the other, if not in geometry, certainly in time. The values of a social system are continuously displayed and reproduced. Repetitive distribution re-enforces acceptance, protectionism masquarades as 'free' choice.

But the explicit nature of images always remains implicit. You can look at them. They are made to look at you. Even chance cannot avoid recognition. Abstract or configured instruction is within the image. Even nothing much is something. Meanwhile the needle goes round and round the record irrespective of the recording. Tape wraps round the head and the disc spins. "Read my lips" - he said. Hopefully we didn't bother. Seeing is never believing, or lip sync a confirmation of authenticity. But the combination of instruction and affectivity is very effective. Anything care be sold in between, anything that necessitates the political construction of emotion. In a series of films and live works I have investigated the material connections between the film image and the optical sound track. In Dresden Dynamo the one was the other. That is - what is heard is seen and what is seen is heard. One symbolic order creates the other. The film is the score is the sound.

This led to a series of experiments, (guaranteed to fail), into the 'optical sound' of words. I tried to find the equivalent 'sound pictures' of words that had worked in the case of sound notation. To do this I printed used typewriter tapes onto 16mm film. These filmic experiments demonstrated the impossibility of making a material connection between 'what is said to be seen' and 'what is seen to be said'. There is no apparent connection between saying and seeing other than perceptually. So much of this material came to be part of Light Reading, with its realisation that the making of meaning is the manipulation of instruction and emotion, through the grammatical duality of object and subject. This film was seen as sinister, shocking, and violent when it first came out. To me it was a logical move from the visual composition of sound to the dissection of and decomposition of language.


"Money has a way of distorting an issue, particularly when that issue is the buying and selling of ideas..." (1994)

"she arranged the nail parings under the lens the bus passed and occasionally returned one day it didn't"
(Cold Draft, 1988)

"competition an ethic; gambling an economy"
(Running Light, 1996)

"she refused to be framed I raised her hand I stopped the action"
(Light Reading, 1978)

"she thinks she imagines really she sees"
(Pictures on Pink Paper, 1982)

"the performance will have to be postponed"
(Orifso, 1998)

Money itself has a way of distorting an issue, particularly when that issue is the buying and selling of ideas, that is the representation of cultural meanings. It is also important to remember the capitalist need for technological consumption, and that the re-reading of the work is tied into the technology itself. This is not the case with the written word, where literacy itself is the controlling factor. Schematically, the economies of production and distribution in film practice are every bit as restrictive as monetarism. The making 'visible', the distribution network, the publicity, the marketing, the capitalisation, all may be private, but the public pays in the end. We subsidise the ads when we buy whatever it is the advertisement suggested we should buy in the first place. And we pay again with 'Pay TV'. This huge cultural subsidy is rarely spoken about. Simply, the 'raison d'ĂȘtre' of this system is making a profit out of the public.

Any single system seldom sees the need to question itself, or test its validity. Its reality is imposed to be believed. "Only the permitted is really visible in a culture which equates 'real' with 'visible'." If you are perceived as profitable, you are considered real, and so are made visible. This is the reverse of populist/popular culture which limits private ownership and is affecting, concerning and open to all or any of the people. The decisions as to who is 'real' are becoming concentrated in fewer hands primarily for two reasons. The costs of films are becoming more inflated while the costs of television are being squeezed. But, 'Television' is also the television of a particular perception. Hang on a Minute, made with Jo Davis, despite six one minute episodes being transmitted, was suddenly said to be "not television", and the remaining episodes ended up in the television company's legal department. The accuracy of the Film was not questioned. Perhaps not upsetting an international mining conglomorate was considered more important than the dismissal of the work, and the issues it raised.

It is difficult to assess how much or how little attitudes of control have fundamentally changed. A recent report suggested that even the few upwardly mobile employed women in the UK are currently stuck between a glass ceiling and a sticky floor. Unscrambling the sound bite, this means that they may get promotion, but they still do not receive equal pay.

In 1980 UN statistics revealed that - "Women are 50% of the world's population, work 75% of the world's working hours, earn 10% of the world's income and own 1% of the world's property." Despite a so-called world economic revolution, there has been no change in basic economic relations since I used that UN data in Pictures on Pink Paper in 1982. Hasn't men's oldest profession always been making a profit out of women?

One small change is that feminism is now prefaced with 'post'. If economic history is deliberately misread, centuries of womens' and working class struggles worldwide are rubbed out. But the subjects are here to see, to be photographed, to be filmed, even to be exploited yet again. That is economy of thinking... reduction to a single exploitative system... a theme that reoccurs in Cold Draft.


"The making of meanings has beome concentrated in fewer and fewer hands ...The crisis is not of economics but of politics. 'Television' is the television that suits a particular economy of perception..." (1994)

"can warnings warn / when there is no place to go?"
(Cold Draft, 1988)

"the shock is not that things are / but that they are arranged - as they are" (Deadline, 1991)

"Only the permitted is really visible in a culture that equates 'real' with 'visible'. Like most systems it has a rational explana- tion for its existence. It's property. Who owns it?"
(Running Light, 1996)

"the question of subject is in all questions of proof"
(Deadline, 1991)

"when I think / of all the history that she's made / unrecognised / all the meanings she's made / unused / I thought - she said /it only takes two wrongs / to make a right she laughed - we know!"
(Four Women Artists, 1982)

"who can do more than resist / and less than subvert?"
(Just About Now, 1993)

"you've got to have a pool of quiet cheap workers"
(Running Light, 1996)

"freedom to choose - she laughed / the choice of bracelet or manacle"
(Cold Draft, 1988)

"Men difference is made different to mask conflicts of interest"
(Running Light, 1996)

"They have said that there is something round the corner A bit of luck. A change in the wind. A chance in a lifetime for a lifetime spent waiting"
(Running Light, 1996)

"It is dangerous to step out of line - and lethal not to"
(Cold Draft, 1988)

To be at odds with common sense and in opposition to the status quo leaves a very immediate problem - how to represent the 'as is' without imposing itagain, visually and aurally. Maybe this apparent impasse needs the precision of forensics and the flexibility of poetry to help prise it apart.

Invisible subjects leave symptoms and traces. You can't see 'wind', but you can see leaves moving in the draught. Narration and description are often vague, even spendthrift with meanings. What does this or that event mean? This arrest. That triumph. The films I make do not show events. They refer to events. These events do not occur during or in the films. But the films do make use of events which have happened, do happen, and might happen again.

In Deadline the arrests do not happen in the film. In Running Light you do not see the people trapped with 'no papers'. People are changing their names and nationality every day in order to avoid deportation. They have to lose their identity in order not to be sent back. Few things are made more easily divisive than identity by identification.

But this is not my main point. Films have lots of events. There is almost never not an event, something happening, all the time, in every film. I don't object - only to the repetition of similar events in a similar order. The space for a non-event is very small. I do not film a person with 'no papers', someone in trouble, at risk. This would require someone to 'act', or put the real person at real risk. I am arguing that having 'no papers' is the critical condition, something that is part of a deliberate order of things which is inconsistent and inequitable because some people must be put at risk to maintain it for others. This is its necessity. But it is the order of things itself which is out of order - in its divisive structure. It is precisely 'things as they are', the status quo, which is the subject of filming, the condition itself, not the evidence for it.

The records suggest that the temperature is rising. This could change the direction of the storm. It will certainly strengthen the down-draught. But whether the weather, or wither the 'global' economy - a place of many exits and no entrance. Forecasting is an even more dangerous pastime than being an artist.

The narrative outstrips the work itself. Explanations are not redoing the work, or the work itself in another guise. They are new afterthoughts. The work becomes a footnote to intention. You get shut up - with your West questions. And a website is no answer to questions that cannot be asked. It will take more than a revolution in technology, or the National Lottery, to determine whose meanings are allowed to be represented.

Lis Rhodes

Lis Rhodes
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