Local art for local people?

Can community newsletters constitute social realism? Inspired by Rose Hill Roundabout, one such publication produced in South Oxford during the 1950s and ‘60s, Maria Pask’s Déjà Vu was developed in collaboration with the area’s present-day inhabitants.

The resulting film has similar features to its subject matter, being at once trivial, long-winded, celebratory, and admonitory. Over seventy-odd minutes, its scenes of varying length present a predictable array of situations – tea-dances, allotments, discussion clubs, bingo games – inhabited by the same five actors and interspersed occasionally with more elusive offerings.

All this is simply and competently put together. It’s also surprisingly watchable: the plain yet colourful visual style, coupled with the improvisatory feeling of the piece, stop all but the most directionless scenes from properly dragging.

Yet overall Pask seems unsure of how best to use the peculiar nature of her source material. Using the same five actors throughout creates particular problems: the actors clearly play different characters in different scenes, and yet have more in common with each other than with the real-life locals whom they superficially interact with. This seems somewhat problematic.
Perhaps a greater difficulty is that the original newsletters (on display in the gallery) are at least vaguely politically and socially conscious, yet none of this finds its way into the film in any satisfying sense. The only way Pask seems able to move beyond the almost mythically parochial atmosphere she constructs is by being deliberately artificial.

The resulting juxtapositions can be quite humorous – an ‘old woman’ (actually one of the actors in drag) namechecks bitterly ‘what the sociologists call “individualization”‘ while railing against the breakdown of family values – yet it’s clear these aren’t supposed to be taken seriously, except perhaps as manifestations of Pask’s own problems in trying to reconstruct history.
It’s possible that Pask is aiming to play up an inherently idealized, artificial view of community in order to show its limitations. But focusing only on the parts of the subject which substantiate this view seems disingenuous, given both Déjà Vu’s original inspiration and also the collaboration it involved. The result is that it falls between two stools.

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Upstairs, Johanna Billing’s I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm presents a series of mostly quiet, elliptical and sensitively shot films, often meditating on situations in which the individual is complicit yet constrained by unknown forces.

Success varies – the diving-board dilemma of Where She Is At is let down by lacklustre execution, while the intriguing visuals of Missing Out and the title piece lack substance.

Yet Magic World, by intercutting a rehearsing group of singing Croatian children with shots of Zagreb suburbia, conveys well an implicit sense of the neutral receptiveness peculiar to childhood.

Even more effective is Magic and Loss: as a group of people pack up an apartment, their repetitive actions leave the mind free to ponder the significance of each object handled while building to an understated, cathartic conclusion.

Interestingly, several films have ends which run directly into their beginnings, often making it impossible to distinguish the two. Given the quietness of several of the films, allowing them to run concurrently within sight, the effect given is of truly dynamic ‘moving pictures’.