by Savina Petkova
In Charlie Shackleton’s artistic approach, truth and fiction are never truly opposed but their continuous interaction is what fuels an innate curiosity. Introspection is closely entwined with a certain cheerfulness towards the filmmaking process itself, and can be found in abundance in works as diverse as Beyond Clueless, Personal Truth, or Criticism in the Age of TikTok. The prompt for our meeting this time was a work which is yet to be seen by a wider audience since its material nature quite literally defies the streaming habits enabled by the covid pandemic.
The Afterlight is an essay-film with hundreds of protagonists, and all that unites this ensemble cast is the fact of their death. Yes, film fragments from archives around the world have been conjoined together in a single 35mm film print which, as a testament to mortality and effervescent life, deteriorates with each showing. I was lucky enough to see the film in a sold-out screening in London a couple of months back and a lot of my questions have to do with the notion of spectatorship and the changes it has endured. Charlie was generous enough to share his process and doubts along the way, and out of that we ended up discussing the emancipatory potential of loss.
SAVINA PETKOVA: Given that the precarious state of film and film viewing is kind of already embedded in the film’s existence, while you were working on The Afterlight, how did you reconcile the limitations and the joyful possibility of audiences sharing such a precious viewing experience?
CHARLIE SHACKLETON: Yeah, it’s funny… With most of the work I’ve made, projects have sort of developed and evolved over the course of many years, and I’m usually working on lots of different projects at the same time. I’ve never been a filmmaker to have an idea executed and release it within six months, or even a year. In terms of the context of how a project is received, it’s always slightly out of my control.I might start a project because it feels timely, or it feels like culture is asking the sorts of questions that it addresses. But there’s no guarantee that the same will be true in three or four years, when I finally finish it and it’s ready to be shown. And so with The Afterlight, obviously, it was always clear that the shifting state of film as a communal experience, and especially archive and repertory film as a shared cultural exercise would always be a fraught subject because it’s changed so much in the last decade alone. But obviously, I couldn’t have imagined how supercharged that subject would become, over the course of the pandemic, when collective film viewing has been completely decimated by the reality that is COVID.
I say it’s funny but I don’t relish that having happened, for any number of reasons and it certainly hasn’t made things easier either. But I think it has definitely changed the resonance of the film, and of the screenings, which already have a sense of momentum to them. With the precarity of these collective viewing experiences being so much more rare than they were, I think that adds a certain kind of ephemeral effervescence.
This is exactly how I remember feeling in the screening room during and after the showing! I’m curious, what was the moment when you gained clarity into how you would be viewing the films, fragments of which now comprise The Afterlight?
Because I mainly work in nonfiction, I think I often view fiction films and especially repertory fiction films through a bit of a nonfiction lens so that I feel like I am experiencing them both as – obviously – fictional narratives, but also these sort of accidental records of the past. Meaning everything: from past places and past atmospherics, but also the people and the performances they gave, that were captured and have been resurrected for many times since by viewers revisiting these films. So, the genesis of this project was really thinking about cinema as a kind of repository of memory, and a record of the past. And that was what led me to the central idea of The Afterlight being an archival film in which everyone who appeared on screen, every performance that was contained within, was delivered by someone who was no longer alive. But even then, I didn’t quite have a sense of what that would look like or what that would feel like. In fact, that’s what I wanted to find out. And so I started from that constraint of starting to trawl through archives, to absorb as much film material as I could. With these constraints in place, it becomes much easier to find material. The 1960s became my rough cut-off point, and then you find that the vast majority of the material you’re looking at is black and white and in the academy ratio. Gradually, the aesthetic form of the film became clearer, just through the archive that was presenting itself to me. Still, I didn’t quite have a handle on what I was looking for in the material. I would see certain motifs reappear in certain spaces and environments, communal drinking spaces being a prominent one, which ultimately became this sort of bookend device within The Afterlight. But I still didn’t quite have a handle on what and how I wanted the material to function as an expression of the memory of the past that it stood in for.
And what was that spectatorship like for you, the act of continuously viewing all these films and being with them?
It was an incredibly rich viewing experience. I mean, I felt almost like it was my kind of DIY film school because I was just seeing such a breadth of material that I hadn’t seen before. Discovering a lot of directors for the first time, a lot of national cinemas that I was very unfamiliar with, and getting to at least kind of dip my toes into their own cinematic history. So obviously I was doing that explicitly through the lens of thinking about who all of the individuals within the film were, and the lives that they led. n parallel, I was doing a lot of research about them both on a prosaic level to establish that they were no longer alive, but also to kind of understand their lives and, and think about their work within the context of their lives. Which was its own reward. None of that context is given in The Afterlight. But for me, it’s certainly very much present there, whether you know it or not.
I thought of Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time, just because it works with the source material while decontextualizing it in a certain way and placing it in a certain historical, but also geological record. What struck me is that like watching both that and The Afterlight, was the fact that these characters, they present themselves first and foremost as people, because of the recontextualization. And that’s a very, very particular thing to do with performance, because performance is supposed to ground the viewer within the narrative, but by extracting it, something more than a tribute is achieved. It’s laying bare people, not stars.
I think the way you described it is certainly very close to my thinking. And I think, to a degree I’m sure that in the eye of the beholder – because I’ve had other conversations with people who’ve seen the film – for whom the sort of shreds of fictional narrative that remain, or that pierced through at moments, were the things that for them, were most poignant about it. But I, like you, I think, forget those very quickly. And it does become much more about a sort of corporeal record of our people. And performance more in the sense of a very basic kind of physicality as opposed to the embodiment of, you know, a character in a fictional narrative.
I remember that there are a few times when shot/reverse shot composition would play out really well between different films because they were edited together to fit. But not a lot of continuity to begin with. How important was it for you to include close-ups of faces?
I hadn’t necessarily imagined that the film would be so focused on people. There are obviously moments in the film that aren’t, but the vast majority are individual people alone in the frame. Which I think is because those are the moments where the performances become most pure, in a sense. They’re often the least verbal moments, because the characters are alone, and so there’s a real kind of wrestling with space, and wrestling with interiority that comes to the fore in those moments, which I certainly found very appealing. And then the attention to facesis the apex of that where everything else gives way to the facial features and facial expression. As for the connectivity of shot/reverse shot, where there’s the sensation of coexistence… To me it is certainly a very alluring thing but also feels like something of an illusion, literally since it’s an editing trick, and also, figuratively, in the sense that I never really wanted the film to be this sort of sentimental tribute to cinema as a kind of universal language that is the same across cultures, and a level playing ground between, you know, performers, and artists, and everyone else. The connective tissue is the thing that disconnects one piece of material from the next, both in terms of its basic form, and style and content, but also the cultural reaction to it, and how much it’s seen as valuable, both commercially and culturally.
I really liked your corporeal metaphor and it certainly resonates a lot with what I feel is the ethical stance that the film is taking, because I think it somehow liberates the building blocks of the film, which are actually the people. So the idea of liberation also got me thinking about the search for continuity that I think viewers would be, as you said, tempted to engage in, especially with the source material often being Classical Hollywood. Could you say a bit more about the steps you took to defy continuity as a principle?
For me, that really was the central tension: between continuity and discontinuity. The film obviously makes ample use of a certain kind of match cutting, a certain kind of somatic grouping. You know, right from the opening, there is a sequence maybe 10 minutes long, but it’s just people walking through various environments and you go from one to the next – with a sense of continuity just in that the journey continues. But at the same time, I wanted as much as possible to push against the notion that those disparate materials could be easily collapsed into each other. And so while there’s this basic similarity of contents, between each shot, there is a real disparity in other ways, the pace setting the quality of the image itself, how well it’s been preserved. The sound as well is dependent on the integrity of the original recording, and then the integrity of the preservation taking place. By keeping in all those differences, my hope is that you, the viewer, is alert to both the continuity and the discontinuity at the same time. And that the more we are drawn to the temptation of thinking of The Afterlight’s journey as a unified one, the more we’re also pushed away from it.
Sticking to sound as a distinguishing device, can you tell me again about your politics around the use of silence? There are different kinds of silences that you use in the film…
Wherever possible, I wanted every film that I use to look and sound as it does in its natural state, i.e, how it looks today, based on how it’s been preserved, not how it looked when it was first made. And so visually, that was fairly easily accomplished, in that I just made no effort to clean anything up. But sonically, it was a little more complicated. Well, I knew I wanted to remove the scoring, from the films that I use, for a couple of reasons, partly just to not have the jarring experiences of being thrust into a new, often quite melodramatic score every few seconds, which I think would become so prominent in the experience of the film that you wouldn’t really be able to focus on anything…
That would be an entirely different film!
Yes, it would be a different film. There’s plenty of good montage films made in that way, but I felt like that was the tone I was going for. But then I really wanted to return the viewer as much as possible to the feeling of all the context, I suppose, of the moment of performance. Obviously, there is all kinds of artifice that is introduced between the moment an actor delivers the performance and then the release of the film in which that performance is contained. But as much as possible, I wanted to kind of shine a light back to that original moment. When a scene did have scoring, I essentially recreated the sound of film minus the scoring, by using sound from elsewhere in that same film. So I built up this library of2-300 silences, which were essentially isolated from other silent moments in the same film, and then used those when reimagining the scored moments I was to use. That’s why when you watch The Afterlight – even when there are sequences that are cutting between multiple scenes, in which very little happens, and in theory, you can’t hear anything except the silence –that silence still varies hugely from clip to clip. Some of the silences are definitely kind of deafening. But when you are within them, you just sort of accept it as a base.
When you were performing this act of reinstating, getting back to the pristine situation of how things would sound without the scoring, did you notice any kind of tension in the fact that you’re dismantling this artifice by replacing it with another type of artifice?
Of course, yeah, I mean, the whole process of making the film was this dance between remaining completely true to the source, and then subverting it. And I think the limits that you set then define how the film feels, and what an audience might take from it, even if I never feel completely at peace with the limits I put for myself, it felt like the right thing to do. Because, for me, the sacrifices were less integral to the meaning of the film than the benefits. If taking the scoring, from a scene where someone paces around a room and looks out a window, could transform it from something that was very much located in the language of melodrama into something that had a kind of strange serial uncertainty to it, then that, to me felt like a benefit and outweighed any sense of betrayal of of the original material.
But with death and loss inflicting the stakes of the medium that you’re using both aesthetically and ethically, The Afterlight becomes an emblem for a sort of “cinema of loss”, capturing that loss and reanimating it, I was thinking about how this relates to to the way you think about archive…
I think the second I settled on that central method metaphor, you know, giving the film itself a kind of material impermanence, in order to symbolize the themes of the movie, then, any discussion or thought of archive became all the more charged. Suddenly decisions that archives make around what to preserve and what not to preserve, what to make available, or what seems to be commercially viable, become about more than just cultural products, but you know, society and individuals and life and death. It certainly made me more alert to the politics of archiving. And, as a result, the politics and the representational questions of the project, which were, to some degree within my control, but to some degree outside of it, suddenly sent me down a road of negotiating that representation. For one thing, I wasn’t sure how much to passively reflect the biases of cultural memory and how much to push against them.
And how did you navigate that part of the process?
For instance, you know, probably 90% or more of the material that was available to me, and that has been put into the world by various film archives around the world is in the English language. And, to a degree, I wanted to reflect that, because it felt like the terms of the film were exploring the reality of what gets preserved and what gets remembered and how dependent it is on a kind of cultural soft power. But in the end, it felt like if I purely passively reflected that, it would be so overwhelming, it would almost feel like a kind of intentional intervention. In the end, it became a case of actually dialing back the imbalance to some degree in order to make people alert to it at all. I think the final film may be a third English, which is a lot less than 90%, but it is still the most heavily represented language by far . I think that allows people to engage with the relative presence of different languages even more than if it was just as completely overwhelming as it is in reality. And so that was always on my mind. This is not to exclude myself from having myriad biases and prejudices that will inform my own choices about what I’m including and what I’m not. The process made all of these things very live issues, and made me only more dismissive of certain other collage films, in which the material is essentially interchangeable.
Was there some part of you that was…I hate to say it, but, sad? Or an ambivalent feeling after you decided that the film is also going to slowly disintegrate and follow the same fate? I’m asking because you’ve gone through that negotiation process, put together dislocated pieces of archive that may, I don’t know, disappear as well. And, in its turn, The Afterlight could potentially become the only place they would be preserved…
There’s certainly something melancholic about it, as there always was, but the process itself has only heightened how I feel about the following. The reality that whether or not something is being technically preserved, or theoretically, can last forever, is much less important than whether it’s being actually seen. And I think this is the weird flipside of most archives. Any archivist will tell you, the majority of what they hold, is never viewed, and will never be viewed. And it’s hard to say whether that is, therefore, any less last than something whose last prints went up in a fire 30 years ago. And I think that ties it very closely into the digital cinema age, where there is this illusion of, you know, ever-present access and total, digital permanency, whether it’s through the cloud or anything else, which I think is an illusion that makes us even more likely to end up losing precious things. Because we’re so often not asking, the more important question of who is actually being given access to this? And is that access being taken up in any meaningful way? You know, I’ve no doubt that there are films I’ve made that probably no one has watched in the last year. And they might watch them again tomorrow, but they might not. And I’m not sure if the fact that, you know, technically they’re on Vimeo or they’re on a hard drive somewhere in my office makes that existence more meaningful than if they cease to exist.
And what about access with regards to The Afterlight?
Putting the limitation of a single print on the film, obviously, has access complications. And a huge part of my time since I completed The Afterlight has been dedicated to working out how to best counterbalance those downsides. Also, how to make sure that the film isn’t just seen in the same major cities that have 35 millimeter screening capacity, or festivals for the same kinds of privileged audiences who get to see a wide variety of arthouse filmmaking. And that’s challenging. I’m not saying that I will manage to offset those problems entirely at all, but I think there’s a temptation on the other side. For instance, with festivals that choose to make a section of their programme available for streaming online or, you know, release plans that highlight accessibility, often it’s through the terms of, well, “We’ve made it possible for an infinite number of people to access this thing, you know, in theory, the world’s population could now get a pass because some balance and watching online”, or whatever. And I think the risk is that that’s considered enough. We stop at the point of basically enshrining a self-selecting audience that has “total access”, but only if they take it upon themselves to seek the work out. And so I think both sides have had their own blind spots, that that needs to be quite carefully negotiated. And I’m increasingly interested in the actual material reality, people seeing work. I can’t see any more press releases, from streaming services you’ve never heard of, claiming to have viewerships in the millions, that are clearly based on, you know, absolute nonsense metrics. But they are unchallenged because in theory, it’s possible. And I think that’s been one of the downsides of the digital shift in film culture is it has been metricized film viewing, to the point where it’s very hard to verify that it exists at all, in some cases.
Because there’s different modes of existence. While one concerns potentially existing, it’s a whole other thing to have it in actuality, and be actualized. I’m thinking as well about the ways in which I can communicate, as a critic, what the film does, as the pandemic makes it difficult to access…
That’s the other reason I can’t feel too sad or too worried about it. For me, it is clear that the sense in which the film exists is that all is in the act of people seeing it and the possibility of people remembering it. And so obviously, I hope that you know that it doesn’t get lost in transit tomorrow and have only been seen by a couple of hundred people. But the thought of its gradual loss is very much offset by the thought of a growing number of people who take some part of it with them.