I had a strong response to the text because it stirred associations to my own experiences of sexual assault. It felt like an opportunity to try and in some form express what is so hard to talk about. But I also quickly felt the difficulty of approaching a topic this complex, and struggled with an acute sense of responsibility, the wish to “do it right,” to make a piece that would reflect the impact of the text on me.
I chose to focus on Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006), which recently provoked a familiar uneasiness in me, that I could connect to the text. The main character, Jackie, is placed in an eerie world, full of unspeakable danger, which had initially made me (wrongly) assume she had been a victim of sexual violence. The film’s way of relating her perspective seemed to offer an opportunity to explore some of the complex layers of unspeakable experience.
What intrigued me the most were the scenes in the dark control room where Jackie works as a CCTV operator. Her job is all about framing and recording, cutting to a new frame, zooming in and out, and following what was identified as dubious. All the while, she is accompanied by a drone sound that erupts and subsides seemingly in response to her experiences of the uncanny.
As routined as she seems to perform in her work, she is unable to grab onto the actual danger that affects her personally. The more concrete eeriness starts when she recognizes a man, and when she starts to chase him in his daily endeavors, herself in the dark control room, she misses what unfolds elsewhere: the knife attack on a girl by other girls.
To me this is a crucial moment that seems parallel to the sexual assault described in the text, which takes place in a dark cinema. Here in the dark, it is an encounter with the abject – with what Kristeva describes as “what disturbs identity, system and order” (1982: 4). Jackie’s job is to be confronted with the abject daily, but for her it has become more personal – not only because of a trauma she experienced in the past that seems related to the man she is following. In this specific moment, she is confronted with the perceived abject within herself. In the last shot of the sequence, the image zooms into the bloody detail of the girl’s wrists. But it is not Jackie who is zooming in, it seems like the machine itself is tormenting her, pointing towards her guilt of not seeing what was unfolding.
The text and the film are told from the perspective of the person who experiences the abject. They are disorienting, guilt-laden and essentially inexpressible. So initially, I wanted to keep the essay abstract, without text and words, and focus on the moment of abject encounter. The soundscape is taken from a later moment in the film, when Jackie meets the man in the real world, dances with him and vomits after realizing that she got carried away, even enjoying herself. It is a moment that goes from revelling to brutal reality, and the impact of her encounter with the abject makes her physically sick.
I found the three sequences revealed a sense of the abject but needed more context to connect to the text. In the end, the use of quotes from the text and of the whispering of my thoughts solved the issue of otherwise too technical and disconnected words. It created a sense of closeness, of support, of knowing someone and offering some insights, a sense of trust in the darkness, but perhaps also of highlighting the disembodied-ness of voiceover, which can be quite eerie.
This and the typed excerpts from the text helped to solve some of the issues I was initially concerned about – to acknowledge all perspectives: the experience of the person who wrote the text, my experience of sexual assault, and those of anyone who has experienced (sexual) trauma. Being aware of the impossibility of doing justice to all perspectives, this was a way to include several voices that could speak for themselves. Struggling initially to find a form, it was useful having to work within the rules of video creation, which clearly demonstrated a way of expressing what I had felt was perhaps impossible before.
Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror. Columbia University Press.
Julia Schönheit is a video editor with an MA in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths University London. She works on ethnographic film projects and in broadcast news. The first Once Upon a Screen prompt during lockdown provided the starting point for her exploration of the videographic essay as a form of critical encounter and filmmaking.