A Conversation between Anri Sala and Michael Fried at the BMA by Kerr Houston
For the past five months she moved through the weirdly still city, dressed discreetly in black and pausing nervously at intersections – and always aware of the possibility of sniper fire. Every now and then she came across other pedestrians, but they too were preoccupied, and when she sprinted across the broad streets she was simply exposed and alone. And perhaps in order to allay that sense of vulnerability, she hummed as she walked, breathing passages from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, his final completed symphony. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the fearful city, an orchestra assembled, tuned instruments, and began to rehearse the day’s program – which was, significantly, also the Pathétique.
For the past five months, then, her harrowing progress and the evolving form of the music developed in a complex tension. And for those five months visitors to the BMA could observe that development, as the Black Box was the site of a looping screening of Anri Sala’s 1395 Days Without Red. A 43-minute film directed by Sala and Selja Kameric, it traces the perilous itinerary of a female pedestrian (played by the Spanish actress Maribel Verdú) across war-torn Sarajevo, along a major boulevard that became known as Sniper Alley. Built largely around tightly cropped shots of Verdú’s face, but also structured more generally around the motifs of breath and motion, the film is in part a study in the physical embodiment of socio-political instability: what, it asks, does civil war feel like?
This past Saturday, in turn, the film was the subject of a conversation at the BMA between Sala and Michael Fried, the Johns Hopkins art historian and critic who has repeatedly explored Sala’s work in recent years. Before a crowd of roughly 50, who braved a substantial snowstorm, the two engaged in a mannerly hour-long chat that shed a good deal of light on Sala’s thought processes and guiding aims. Fried structured the conversation: at the outset, he noted that “My job is to draw Anri out,” and with a series of focused prompts he did just that, as the filmmaker spoke at length and in concrete terms about a range of subjects, through the lens of his art.
Fried began by asking Sala how the work had come to be – and was rewarded with a series of interesting details involving the development of the film. Granted, many of these were primarily anecdotal, but they were illuminating nevertheless, and occasionally even Fried seemed pleasantly surprised with the minor revelations. For instance, Sala noted that the idea of featuring the orchestra was derived from a documentary that momentarily pictured their wartime venue (a concrete shell used after their regular theater had been shelled). Similarly, he explained that the brief appearance of one character in the film was motivated by a celebrated wartime photograph that depicted a woman named Meliha Vareshanovic walking, head high, past an armed guard. Sala’s team managed to find Vareshanovic, and gave her a role in the film; nearly twenty years later, Sala said, “her attitude was still there… had not grown one year older.”
Sala also described the process by which he and a team of collaborators had settled upon Verdú as their primary actress. Quickly, the filmmakers decided, the work should feature a female –largely because men, in militarized Sarajevo, could never be neutral (they were either in uniform or suspicious because they were not in uniform). Next, they addressed the rough age of the woman, and they decided to seek an actress who might be seen as either a mother of a child or a daughter of still-living parents (or both): in short, a middle-aged figure who might generate a multivalent air of empathy. Finally, they realized that they didn’t want an actress from the Balkans; rather, they wanted a foreigner who would naturally create a sense of detachment, or experiential distance. Enter, then, Verdú.
The choice of Verdú was inspired, for in a very basic sense she drives the film. But we could also say that she is driven by the film: indeed, Sala emphasized his interest in creating a basic sense of linear propulsion. Fried, in turn, noted the consistent left to right tracking, which also contributes to our sense of an almost inevitable momentum. And then, too, there’s the music: at points in the film, Verdú’s progress seems to be related to the juxtaposed performance of the orchestra. Certainly, her path is consistently threatened by the prospect of sudden, awful violence. But at the same time it is motivated by a certain air of irresistibility that acquires, in the context of the film, a defiant tone, as if it were an act of political resistance.
Even as the strains of Tchaikovsky buoy Verdú’s character, though, they also wobble and distend, suggesting her frayed mental state. In speaking with Fried, Sala explained the choices of the Pathétique: he had sought, he said, a piece of music that would clearly betray changes in tempo but would nevertheless be able to overcome such rhythmic hiccups. The Pathétique, he concluded, was suitably plastic, and so he began to manipulate it, compressing certain passages and dilating others, in rough concert with Verdú’s hectic breaths and momentary moments of relief. Thus, the tune that she hums is occasionally unnaturally fast (she wore a small earphone and was sent, Sala noted, pulses in order to help her hum in different tempos); conversely, when she feels safe, order is restored. And in the process, we thus become deeply alert to the importance of breath: of the staccato breaths that convey her precarious sense of security, and of the breathy reediness of the bassoon that she mimics in her humming. “Breath,” claimed Sala, “is time,” and so the film becomes in part a meditation on the subjective, lived aspect of time.
Inevitably, then, it is also a film about memory. On Saturday, Sala was emphatic about this aspect of his project, which was never meant to recreate or to restage events that took place during the siege of Sarajevo. “It was not about,” as he put it, “making a film pretending to be what it was; it was a film about remembering.” Thus a further appeal of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, which is familiar enough that viewers can tell when it’s altered; thus, too, the artificially graceful camerawork and the blunt lack of concern with strict continuity (the film was shot over a number of days, in different conditions). Illusion was not a goal. Rather, Sala was interested in exploring a particular aspect of memory: namely, physical memory. Verdú, again, is Spanish, but most of the actors who played the musicians were Bosnians, and had experienced the siege personally: a fact that is, Sala suggested, somehow perceptible. “What is interesting with them,” he said, “is how their bodies remember the siege… It’s a film about how the body remembers.”
Given Sala’s interest in memory, it’s not surprising that as we watch his film we are distanced from the depicted events, and rendered alert to the artifice of the work. There’s a self-consciousness, you might say, about the entire project that insists on a certain distance between historical event and the film’s makers and audience. Or that, as Fried would put it, prevents a sense of immersion. “That it is a film,” Fried observed, “is conveyed every split second of the film.” Such a self-consciousness is due to, ultimately, to a variety of factors: to the elaborate conceit of the film itself; to the awkward sensitivity of the actors to the camera; to Verdú’s more subtle awareness of being filmed (in Fried’s view, “in every second, she is aware of being filmed”). Even as we empathize, we are simultaneously kept at bay.
And yet, Fried’s insistence upon the film’s active self-awareness also opened onto a broader and more complex set of ideas – and, perhaps, to a meaningful divergence in the positions of the two men on the BMA’s stage. Fried, of course, has been writing about immersion for decades; way back in his seminal 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” after all, he was already thinking in detailed terms about the viewer’s relationship to works of art. In that essay, moreover, he argued that the movies, by their very nature, escape what he called theatricality: that is, that they absorb the viewer, instead of reminding her of the circumstances in which she views the work of art. In more recent writings, though, Fried is prone to argue that successful films (such as Sala’s) consistently evoke or foreground our position in relation to the work. Indeed, he opened the conversation on Saturday by recalling the particular circumstances in which he had first seen Sala’s work: Fried was the very sort of self-conscious viewer he once deplored, and he delighted in it.
On the other hand, Sala staked out a slightly different position. Where Fried insisted upon Verdú’s perpetual awareness of being filmed, for instance, Sala subtly demurred, contending that “she knows how to make us forget that there is a camera.” But in fact we might say that the very selection of Verdú is striking, in another sense. In an essay on Douglas Gordon in his 2011 book Four Honest Outlaws, Fried complained about the distancing or opaquing use of film stars, whose very familiarity can divert our attention from the work and towards the mannerisms of the actors. Verdú, of course, is a star with a resumé that includes major European and American credits – and yet Sala apparently feels that she can function, nonetheless, as an effectively transparent element.
For the most part, though, the two spoke in comparable terms, generally agreeing about the theoretical logic of the film. Even when they seemed to agree, however, there were a few surprising moments. This listener, for instance, was struck by Sala’s assertion about the potential neutrality, or indeterminateness, of women in 1990s Sarajevo. Fried let the point pass unmentioned – but, given the atrociously high rates of sexual violence during the siege, it’s difficult to accept the idea that a strikingly handsome woman moving alone through Sarajevo was ever anything less than potentially contested. Indeed, the threat of sexual violence is part of what makes the Tom Stoddart photo that inspired Sala so powerful: the soldier’s gun, after all, is aimed at her genitals.
Still, the conversation between Fried and Sala was richly informative, and generally engaging. There was always, it seemed, more to say. For instance, even as the two developed the idea that the film was characterized by a certain linear energy – a forward motion, implicit in Verdú’s trek and in the music – Sala then complicated that notion with the brief observation that “Every time you cross somewhere, you have to go back.” It was a remarkably salient comment that worked simultaneously on several levels. On Sniper Alley, each step was attended by the realization that a return trip would be equally fraught. But for Sala, those perilous crossings would also become the subjects of memory – and thus, too, of his film about the experience of remembering. And as Sala and Fried sat on stage on Saturday, aware of the audience and yet absorbed in their conversation, they too remembered, reconstructing the making and the viewing of a film that urges us to go back, even as it moves on.
Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.
Top Image: Still from Anri Sala’s 1395 Days Without Red (2011)