Focii - Jeanette Iljon, 1974
Comprehending film, video, performance, music, installation and dance, Jeanette Iljon’s is a complex, inventive and transversal practice.
It has, over the duration of 30-odd years, engaged with themes like cultural and historical shifts, gender identity, subjectivity, feminist activism, and the social and formal materiality of media. The bulk of her work that is available in Britain was produced in the 1970s and early 1980s when she was living and working in Britain; she has been travelling, working and teaching throughout Central Europe, Africa, New Zealand and the Far East since then. That approximate decade was a period of intensive activity for Iljon, a time when she made a pivotal contribution to the creative and educational initiatives for women’s collaborative practice in London’s independent film/video community; organising workshops within the London Filmmakers Co-op and promoting training access for women, such as the 1982 Co-option network. The following text will attempt to provide a schematic chronological account of her work in the context of independent film and feminist self-organisation of that era, along with a close analysis of four films: Focii, Mantra, That’s Entertainment/The Conjuror’s Assistants, and No Laughing Matter.
While still a student at the Royal College of Art, Jeanette was already making forays into the polymath aesthetic that would come to inform her work, using duration in sculpture and performance and colliding those media with film and video. The mid-
Starting with a semi-still of a toddler wearing a party hat and sitting in his excited mother’s lap, a title is superimposed after about a minute: “That’s Entertainment”.
On the most literal level, we see the magician’s performance to a crowd of delighted or scared children and their indulgent parents as a metaphor for the experience of watching a film. The willing suspension of disbelief induced by the hypnotic sequence of moving images that are not really moving at all links up with a desire not to know how the trick is done. The conjuror could be an allegory for the action of cinematic spectacle, the pleasures of suture, of emotional investment in what you know is not real but seems more real at that moment than anything else. Though this is the most immediately palpable analogy, and even perhaps an obvious one, other analogies, a multiplicity of associations, suggestions, intuitions emerge out of this throughout the film. The variable speed and framing, the depth of field that ranges from medium focus to granular close-ups, the difference in contrast, the fluidity of transition between action and rapt stillness – all these start to construct a genealogy of the film image that draws parallels between recollected time, experienced time, and filmic time.
The manipulation of the film stock through the optical printer acts as a visual reminder of how images are subjectively ordered and transformed, with isolated moments or faces being held for longer before they dissolve into the chemical substrate of the film, as they dissolve into the relentless elasticity of consciousness. These privileged moments of the film, a close-up normally indexed to high drama or epiphany, appear over and over in the film, with one of the children’s faces presented and re-presented in moments of awe, confusion, elation, discomfort, reacting to the magician’s act. Each time the close-up looks slightly different, and the image quality also brings with it specific contexts – once it looks like a photo from an archive, sometimes it looks like a still of lost star in an irrevocably decayed 1920s film, sometimes a clip of a baffled victim in candid news footage of a disaster, each type of socially demarcated image trailing another set of affective elements for the viewer. The mutability of the image is like the instability of a truth or the indexical relation of image to fact that we reflexively assign to footage marked as ‘documentary’. Here it’s enacting a vital trope of structural filmmaking. It is rendering visible or overt the plasticity of the image and arbitrary nature of assemblage, with the visual matter of the magic act foregrounding this tension between veracity and illusion.
Another salient theme of the film is temporality and the often-theorised inscription of death in the photographic (or filmic image).
On a material plane, the image is subject to processing, manipulation, change and decay, as much an image of the organic life process that can be found in the frame. It is the signifier of an absence, or acts as a substitute, for living presence, a record of being or experience rather than experience itself. It is another sort of experience and mediation. Yet a sequence of those images in a narrative film can so closely simulate lived experience just by moving at a regulated speed. This can only work through an elision of the mechanical fact that fosters this illusion, but, like consciousness, it is capable of reflecting on itself as mediation. This is just what Iljon does, intervening in the illusionistic moment and allowing us to see not just what the magician is actually doing, but the closeness of the film to a magic spell that distracts from the grounding conditions of lack of motion, lack of presence. The processes of stopping, dissolution of the image into febrile granules of stock, aleatory cutting and silence ruptured by snatches of fairground music serve to bring about at once alienation from the spectacle as such (magic show, picture show), and a more intimate perception of the limitless affective and physical potential of the film image in time.
In the earlier Focii, Iljon’s interests in Surrealism and movement crystallise into an intense and rigorous piece that takes as its object the permutations of identity, race and desire. A sparse composition of one, then two dancers, conveying isolation, fear and curiosity, it unfolds through a physical syntax in a space bisected and framed by a faceted structure that takes on various functions through the film. Focii develops Iljon’s preoccupations with the formal possibilities of dance, masks and costume to evoke ambiguity and the construction of the self.
The original print was tinted aqua, as Iljon wanted to convey an effect of underwater slowness and reflections in the sea. Later prints do not have the tint. The film is also silent, underlining the forceful language of the movements. The film employs medium shot and close up to establish a tempo which comes to provide a thread of continuity in an otherwise unsettling filmic space. The dancer can never really determine who she is looking at, and neither can the viewer. She mimics the other figure, attempting to catch her out with rapid, erratic movements. The other figure could be a reflection of herself, or a self she is projecting onto another. The Lacanian mirror-stage is implied, when the infant subject first comes to see herself as an individual by recognising her image in the mirror. It also suggests the splitting of the self seen in a mirror, and the childish attempt to deal with this anxiety by pretending the person in the mirror is someone else, the uncanny quality of the not-yet self.
The dancer is dressed in white and covered in white makeup, and sometimes she is wearing a white mask with African features.
Significantly, it is not the white makeup of a mime or a clown, but an all-over white pall over non-white skin that could be taken for an even coating of plaster dust. The mask and the makeup could be read as an allusion to racist imperatives that the other must reconfigure herself in the image of the dominant culture or risk violent rejection, and this revisits the dynamics of self/other.
The dancer’s gestures are initially tentative, then more and more forthright. They track a kind of trajectory of getting to know another person, whether it’s the stranger in the mirror or another being who comes to mirror the self. The substance of the barrier also seems to change and gain transparency: at first it is almost definitely a mirror, with the dancer’s reflection moving over the facets. As there is more and more divergence between the gestures of the identical white-clad figures, a definite split, the mirror turns out to be a mesh and the dancers make contact. But this is still far from a simple conciliation of self/other: if the dancer started out spellbound by her own image and looking for another to release her, there is now another but things are no clearer than before. Whether it ‘really’ is another or her double or a split self, a narcissistic union that tried to exceed the original mirror stage but failed, is left open. The concluding sequence is as stylised as it is erotic, its excess signalling a plethora of possible readings.
An even earlier piece that explores the conjunction of film and choreography is Mantra. An intriguing exploration of the impact film can have on the dance performance, it shows that it need not only act as a means of documentation but can provide a toolkit of expressive possibilities. The piece initially conflates the movement of dance and the movement of film through a camera. The dancer’s moves are segmented into stills, as the film can be segmented into frames. Then it proposes that film is specific due to its capacity to synthesise many different kinds of movement and media, as the jerky black and white film stills of the dancer flip around, turn into negatives, into fast-flowing and sinuous animated imagery, then back. Another layer of segmentation and synthesis in the film is the Stockhausen score that collapses into three parts, with the rhythm of edited movement modulated in accord with the music to a degree.
No Laughing Matter, envisioned by Iljon as “the other side of the coin to Focii“, counteracts that film’s lush Surrealist inflections with droll structuralism.
It is embedded in 1970s avant-garde film discourse that seems more incidental in her other films, but subverts it the more effectively for that. A basic composition of brick wall and man seated facing the camera, laughing his head off. No temporal or narrative framing is ever given, it is just the person, the action, and the manipulation of the sound and image that describe the conditions of being in front of and behind the camera. Most of the sound heard is the man’s laughter but there are also snatches of conversations in the room and music and speech emanating from the radio. Initially the man is facing the camera and laughing in normal time for the first two or three minutes, but the sound and image gradually become independent, and exponentially more wayward. Some of the sequences have been refilmed several times, and there has been a lot of close work with the optical printer. The man’s gestures and expressions are slowed down until they are almost visible in their constituent parts, unsettling when combined with the distorted sound.
The film was shot in three continuous takes, and it draws attention to the materiality of the ‘profilmic’ event not through duration but via the ‘postfilmic’ processes that unrecognisably alter the filmed event, drawing attention to themselves and away from the event . A fit of laughter has no more spontaneity to it than the filmmaker chooses to put there; after all, it is happening not in front of our eyes but in front of a camera. It is always already a performance, situated as it is in social and affective relations and in representational codes. The premise of naturalism is at first mediated, then sharply confounded in the film.
Following this period, Iljon became increasingly active on the organisational side of feminist film practice. She saw the sporadic availability of film skills training for women, as endemic in nominally progressive avant-garde film circles as in the mainstream industry. In 1980 she helped to initiate a series of cheap, open-access courses at the London Filmmakers Co-op organised and taught by women filmmakers for women filmmakers eager to gain more familiarity with their craft. Caroline Sheldon and Rebecca Maguire were also instrumental in running this pioneering education programme, and the courses were soon taken on tour and taken up by groups in other cities. There was also much cooperation in terms of skills and equipment sharing across groups, multiplying opportunities to make, teach and exhibit work, the latter spurred on by an emergent crop of feminist film festivals. Iljon was also one of the founding members of the women’s film and video distribution network Circles (that went on to become Cinenova).
In the early 1980s, Jeanette Iljon, Rebecca Maguire and Jini Rawlings started the ‘Co-option’ project at the LFMC. ‘Co-option’ was partially an attempt to broach the film/video, ‘art/politics’ binaries that had led to specialisation and separation in the feminist art and film community, and it was intended to appeal to women who, by reason of background or circumstances, did not habitually think of themselves as artists or filmmakers. As part of its community programming remit, the collective was commissioned by the new Channel 4 to produce a film about Sylvia
This essay was originally commissioned for luxonline in 2005.
Marina Vishmidt is a writer and editor who teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work has appeared in South Atlantic Quarterly, Ephemera, Afterall, Journal of Cultural Economy, Australian Feminist Studies, and Radical Philosophy, as well as a number of edited volumes. She is the co-author of Reproducing Autonomy (2016, with Kerstin Stakemeier), and her monograph Speculation as a Mode of Production was published with Brill in October 2018. She is a member of the Cinenova Working Group, the Marxism in Culture collective and is on the board of the New Perspectives on the Critical Theory of Society series.