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Kika Nicolela’s ambitious multiple-channel video installation The Film That Is Not There lays bare the inner workings of classical narrative cinema while belying its propensity for precise and unwavering meaning. This particular investigation of narrative form takes as a starting point the artist’s script developed as if she had been in the process of writing, planning and producing a feature film. While the script in the end provides only an armature for the final work, the ghost of this narration is found everywhere in its intimation of an advancing plot, even if it appears, or is perceptible, only in fragmentary form.

The basic footage for the piece was collected from numerous auditions in five countries with hundreds of actors of different national, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The final work consists of multiple takes of the same scenes enacted by all these different actors shot against a stark decontextualizing black background. The resulting video montages are screened in three specially constructed chambers. Two of these are octagonal rooms connected by a diamond shaped space, such that they flow one to the other unimpeded, and so its screens maybe viewed easily at various vantage points in the space. In the first octagon, one is presented with a three-channel video where actors appear and disappear repeating the same lines sequentially in different languages and with differing acting styles and presentational modes. Opposite to this, and connected to it by a diamond-shaped or square room, a second octagonal space contains a double-screen projection where simultaneity and multiplicity are enacted. Here, Nicolela’s editing and montage techniques multiply the personages of her theatrical construct. The third and middle chamber houses a single-channel projection where the actors appear as ‘talking heads,’ like the ones seen in so many documentaries, and yet here too, the actors are scripted. This confusion or slippage among, or between, cinematic forms further elaborates the active role of the perceiving spectator in the production of meaning and, yet, this is a melodrama at heart and the role of drama is pertinent to it. Other more non-linguistic elements equally constitute ‘acting’—the ability to produce affect, or feelings, is the most important. This melodrama contains suspicious individuals. Hector who is ill and has poor powers of recollection; Amanda, who undergoes plastic surgery, sometimes also known as Rick; and a cast of seemingly detached or uncaring characters such as Hector’s wife Laura. None of them ever coalesce into someone we might recognize as a human being and yet we are affected, drawn into the story.

While this narrative and these characters are never fully formed, we are poised to feel and interpret them, which brings us to the audition, the prototypical space where the enactment of affect occurs. For the audition is all about the repetition of the same, only it is different each time. If this existential concept of repetition were not fully anticipated in tragedy, or the theatre in general, then the audition, which the audience rarely sees, is both the testament of, and test for it. For the multiplicity of repetition marks the lack of an original and, as such, one could say it marks the essential characteristic of classical narrative cinema, that there is no truth in moving pictures save our own affective relationship to those images.

Additionally, the multiplicity of actors playing the same characters in many ways also reinforces a kind of psychosis. In an ingenious double layer, The Film That Is Not There serves also as an allegory about filmmaking: an homage to the psychosis implicit in the process of feature filmmaking, made by many people, populated by many people and yet in the end all neatly sewn up into a unitary point of view, which can be tidily and easily consumed by movie goers. The cinema as reimagined by Nicolela for this video installation is the exact antithesis of this kind of storytelling. In fact, as both story and allegory, the work is simultaneously comprehensible and non-linear. Actors (in the double-screen section) act out scripted parts simultaneously, and mirror each other across the space, splitting the authorial point of view into many. This synchronized cacophony is eclipsed by the actors’ individual personalities. Through the multiple layers of content, meta-content and multiple actors addressing the same plot line, in The Film That Is Not There, Nicolela achieves a new kind of storytelling that is both spatially and experientially beyond conventional single-screen cinema.

In a 2007 essay by Mieke Bal, a multi-screen video installation by another film artist, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, is examined from a primarily literary point of view. House (2001) tells the fantastical story of a psychotic woman both through her own eyes and those of an omniscient narrator whose point of view is suggested through the use of alternate camera angles in this three-screen installation. The fairytale aspect of the narrative becomes increasingly replaced by a pervading sense of psychosis, which is especially disturbing as a naturalistic portrayal. What Bal finds so fascinating about the work is the fact that, in viewing the supposed fable, “the mixture of two opposing moods fills the interaction between work and viewer with affect,”i which Bal reasons is the medium of the work. Her point is that Ahtila produces an intellectual break between what is rational and irrational. This gap is paradoxically breached by an affective experience.

So while the multiplicity of actors acting sequentially in the three-screen segment of The Film That Is Not There illustrates a lack of singularity in narrative cinema, the double -screen section doubles the characters, but it also doubles points of view, and in the repetition from one actor to the other the character is multiplied outward and beyond. The space that is elaborated here is now not only a cinematic space, but a narrative space, that space which viewers inhabit. This figurative space is full of contradictions and here that a friction occurs between artistic intent and audience reception. This friction constitutes the mechanism of our own desires as projected into the cinema. And it is here that our feelings and attachments are created. 

In the lunch scene between the recovering Hector and his wife Laura, the latter describes having been made in the image of a sculpture of a woman. She has undergone multiple surgeries to look like this inanimate object, because as she puts it he “fell in love with this statue,” and anyway what wife would not want to be loved in the same manner. Yet he cannot remember any of this. Her claims seem belied by the curt manner of her delivery, which seems matter-of-fact for such a painful reminiscence, and, his lack of recollection. In point of fact, because Hector doesn’t remember and seems a rather sympathetic character, one might think this a cruel joke on Laura’s part. For all of this imagining, all of this caring is deeply and truly false. This indeed is where the fault lines of narrative cinema fall, and into these crevices so, too, we go willingly, as viewers.

i. Mieke Bal, “What If? The Language of Affect,” in In)ter)discipline: New Languages for Criticism, eds, Gillian Beer, Malcolm Bowie and Beate Perrey (London: Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing, 2007): 6-24.

published at the catalogue of solo exhibition 'THE FILM THAT IS NOT THERE', Palácio Gustavo Capanema, Rio de Janeiro, 2012

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