still/here, by Christopher Harris (2001)

By Ivonne Sheen

Christopher Harris’ films still/here (2001) and A Willing Suspension of Disbelief + Photography and Fetish (2014) unfold the cinematic experience in its experimental practice and the documentary narrative as a possible anthropological hybrid device for profound ethical questions through a self-reflected audiovisual experience.

The evocation of both films can be read from its titles. Beginning with still/here (2001), the word still denotes quietness and lack of movement, but it also describes a permanence of something in a same place: therefore, time has passed but something remains. Naturally ,as a consequence of time and despite the lack of movement, there is always change and transformation. Here” denotes a specific location where the voice of enunciation is found. St. Louis in Missouri, in the United States of America, is that here from where Harris constructs an essay that juxtaposes the stillness of ruins and abandoned buildings with testimonies about the place and its actual order, which is fundamentally based in abandonment, in a sort of non-existence, of living dead, of living in a parallel time and an urban scenery afar from modernity and social integration. An urban symphony, one with a hopeless rhythm, a still composition that introduces us to raw bricks, inside the interior of buildings, whose presence resembles the figure of violated bodies. In this way, the author turns this scenery into a metaphor of an African-American collective body who has suffered, who has been opened and left to its own faith. A female voice talks to us about the nature of those bricks, of those buildings, built with people’s hands, by bodies and souls. Harris stops -and stops us- to contemplate and absorb the energy of this town, the ghostly presence of a historical experience which karmically still remains in the feelings of discrimination against the African-American community, which still exists in oppression and violence. Harris’ poetical composition between images and sound, is a counterpoint which breaks the walls of description to locate us in a place of bifurcations, where there isn’t a totally intelligible message, but where the nature of the state of things, of reality, shines with a brighter light. The place from where Harris enunciates his film is not only a reference to his experience in this urban space, but mainly one to his own identity as an African-American citizen.Therefore, the signification of here becomes more of a spiritual one, related to a present collective memory.

This aim to unfold the complex historical state of things regarding African-American identity gets a deep conceptual approach in A Willing Suspension of Disbelief + Photography and Fetish (2014). As an alchemical formula, Harris willingly suspends the components of Disbelief, Photography and Fetish to represent the ethnographical visual representation as one based in a colonial relationship with subaltern individuals. Harris juxtaposes a discourse which recalls the Lacanian concept of The big other, but confronted to the body presence and performance of an African-American woman, of an African-American body and soul, whose voice also enunciates ideas and concepts which come from a western colonial tradition. Harris gives her voice a powerful agency, for example, when reading a quote from Barthes’ Camera Lucida while holding the book in her hands, unfolding the meanings underneath her representation. She seems to come from the 18th or 19th century, but becomes alive thanks to photochemical processes to speak to us not only about her time, but also about the present and all the time that has passed and is passing. In this line, the technology of photography is also stunningly shown, opened as in a taxonomical study. We are confronted to its physical elements and processes, and at the same time, to the relationship that it builds between an agent, an operator in Barthes’ words, and a reality and body which is going to be ontologically transformed by the performance of being photographed. The meanings that surround the specific act of photography as one in the context of colonial ideologies are put into discussion: Harris breaks the common format for wide screen cinema to create a moving composition with small frames, like the first photographic formats -such as the daguerreotype- to get us closer to the experience of reification of this body, who speaks to us about its nature, the nature of photography and the wide meanings underneath the resulting image. Harris orchestrates a powerful performance with a precise work with the filmic format, which is also represented  in the process of capturing the image, in the process of becoming alive by the absorption of energy from a reality, becoming alive from bodies in an specific time and space, from bodies with a specific imposed meaning.

Christopher Harris rummages in the deepness of his identity, reaching collective essences, not to find answers or resolving formulas, which will probably become into a colonial act of trying to understand things and find truths, but to create a poetical discussion about the colonial organization regarding the African-American community, which can also apply for other subaltern communities.

A Willing Suspension of Disbelief + Photography and Fetish
Directed by: Christopher Harris
US, 2014, 16MIN

Directed by: Christopher Harris
US, 2001, 60MIN