Interview: Esther Johnson
Retreating the Line, 16’30”, 2017
Hinterland, 12′, 2002
MC: Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with the Yorkshire Coast and how that became manifested within your films 'Hinterland' and 'Retreating the Line'?
EJ: I grew up in Hull and my family would frequently go on Sunday drives up the Holderness coast and on to Bridlington and Scarborough. As a child the distinct coastal landscape and the dotted static caravan sites and ‘plotland’ communities had a lasting impression on me. I made ‘Hinterland’ whilst studying at the RCA and it was after another Sunday drive during a Christmas visit to Hull
that I decided to venture and talk to members out living on the cliff edge of Skipsea. Film and Video Umbrella had admired this film and years later asked if I’d thought of making a follow-up film, which is something I had planned to do and so made ‘Retreating the Line’ 15 years after ‘Hinterland’ which was the time Charlie from the original film [who has since sadly passed away] thought the sea would have consumed his house.
MC: In Hinterland we hear the voices of a number of individuals living on 'the edge', how did you go about fostering those relationships and was it a conscious decision to not show their faces?
EJ: The making of ‘Hinterland’ came from a curiosity of what it might be like to live on a cliff edge and why might one decide to live in such a risky environment. The meeting of folk living on the cliff came naturally from this curiosity and directly chatting with residents and being open about my fascination. My dad (and ex-merchant seaman who has taught me countless things about the sea and coastal regions) and I met several residents (later contributors), and over plenty of tea, chatted about what attracted them to the area and what it is like to live with your home constantly under threat of being washed away. I was captivated by the stubbornness, endurance, and philosophy
of many of the residents so went back to record oral history interviews and shoot the distinct structures on the cliff. The weather is brutal on the cliff, and filming in January/February was a battle with the elements. I wanted this battle to have a physical presence in the film, and decided to shoot handheld long takes with a Bolex and BW 16mm film.
It was a conscious decision to not include footage of the individuals themselves as I wanted the film to be more meditative and focus the audience on imagining and placing themselves living in such an environment, which I think is harder when you first see someone else inhabiting that situation. By not physically seeing the contributors I think there is a closer attention to what they are saying. This is a technique I’ve repeated in several of my films.
I think genuinely being interested in others’ lives is crucial if you want to make films that include an element of documentary. One of the reasons I love to make films is the excuse it gives you to explore and inhabit lots of different worlds. Oral history recording also allows
me to sometimes occupy others spaces more intimately than being present with a camera that can potentially intervene or inhibit contributors.
MC: The sound is very different in 'Retreating the Line'; could you talk a bit about your collaboration with sound designer Jez Riley French?
EJ: Both being from Hull, I’ve known Jez for some time and we’d talked about collaborating before. When the opportunity came along to make a sequel, or coda to ‘Hinterland’ I thought this was the ideal time to collaborate as I wanted the protagonist of the second film to be the landscape itself having eaten away the land where the residents in the previous film had once lived. Jez is an expert at contact micing/recording and I thought these techniques would be an intense way to harness the fearsome voice and rumble of the land. We went to Skipsea together and got on with our respective elements, me filming, and him sound recording. The second film has a 4.0 soundtrack in order to envelop the viewer in the film installation set-up in which the film originally screened [‘Somewhere Becoming Sea’ at Humber Street Gallery during Hull 2017]. ‘Hinterland’ had very minimal sound with the focus on voice, and the elements — the wind and the sea — and much less composed than the second film. Like the scratchy B/W 16mm film image, the recording was rough with minimal tech and aimed more at emphasizing the harsh and oft-deafening environment of the cliff top and bottom.
MC: Process is obviously a really important part of your practice, and you use both digital and analogue film in your works, how do you decide what type of film/camera you will use?
EJ: You’re right process is really important and I like the time of experimenting and discovering at the beginning of a project — a time just as important to me as the final outcome. One of my favourite books is Robert Bresson’s ‘Notes on the Cinematographer’ and there are countless quotes of his I bear in mind when making films, such as, ‘The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance. That is the brilliance with which your images must shine’ and ‘Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.’ The shooting medium and technique lies firstly with the core of the film’s intended tone, location and shooting situation, and
secondly with time and economics. Whatever the medium used, the important thing is that this has to be activated by the artist or filmmaker.
Obviously film is expensive and takes time to process etc, however this slow process is one that I do love as it offers a very specific space of attention and reflection which can sometimes be lost shooting digitally. It sounds romantic I know, but I do really find the tactile haptic quality of film enchanting. Being able to see and measure time. To save money when I was at the RCA, I roped a friend into sitting outside a film-developing machine to spool up my 100ft reels of 16mm film, which I was feeding the raw film into the machine in the dark. It took nearly 50 minutes for a 100ft roll of film so I owed a lot of favours. I certainly appreciate the painterly depth film can
embody and very much like the process of developing myself — those moments are really magical to me. However, this hasn’t always been practical for some of my films. In production, setting up with film does take me more time and that’s fine if it’s just me on a cliff top,but not always fine if, for instance, shooting in a hectic environment with contributors.
I am also fascinated by archive film and how this can be repositioned to tell difficult alternative histories. When working with archive film. I first trawl through mountains of footage, and then spend a lot of time with selected footage to really become acquainted with it and how
different sequences of this material can potentially live together in a new arrangement. Two more Robert Bresson quote’s come to mind here, ‘An old thing becomes new if you detach it from what usually surrounds it.’ And ‘Bring together things that have not yet been brought together and did not seem predisposed to be so.”
In ASUNDER I mixed archive film with sequences of contemporary footage shot for the film. I’m currently working on a new feature called DUST & METAL which also integrates archive film from particularly difficult to access archives in Vietnam.
I like to understand and experiment with new technology and am currently shooting with a range of digital cameras however, it’s the lenses that are most important to me. I was lucky to undertake a workshop in 360-degree cinema in January so am undertaking tests with a 360-degree camera at the moment to understand the possibilities this form might have. At the same time I’ll shortly be shooting BW 16mm film on my Bolex for SHIPS in the SKY as I want to make a counterpoint to some archive material a Hull cine club made in the ’50s and ’60s of a building in Hull, and see what that looks like now on the same medium they shot their original footage. I’ve also shot digitally for this project on HD, 4K and utilized drone footage, and will be experimenting with animating digital scans of the building interior in order to look at and consider the space of the building in a new way, one from a more technical, scientific and dispassionate viewpoint.
MC: How was it experiencing your film 'Retreating the line' with different sound from melostme/jayne dent during her performance at Shifting Sands?
EJ: The communal and cosy atmosphere of the ‘Shifting Sands’ event was exquisite and very different to when 'Retreating the line' was installed as an installation with 4.0 sound at Humber Street Gallery. It was terrific to be able to directly connect with audience members and hear their thoughts about the event and how my film with Jayne Dent’s music worked for them. The evening was particularly special as the screening location was not that far up the coast from where ‘Retreating the Line’ was shot, so the proximity made the theme of coastal erosion even more poignant and prescient.
MC: This is also not the first time that you have been to Scarborough, could you tell us a bit about the music video you made for the band St. Etienne and how Scarborough inspired the film?
EJ: My sister was born in Scarborough when my folks lived there for a couple of years before I was born, so my family has always had a connection to the place. I’ve been visiting since a child and have always found it so charming with the many spots I loved then still being there today, such as: the funicular railways (South Cliff is the first in the UK), the Rotunda, the hole in the road, the Spa, the Harbour Bar and Pacitto’s, the (now gone) Futurist, the mini battleships at Peasholm park, hand-painted signs, and the many brightly coloured illuminated neon amusements. I also remember as a kid my gran and granddad saving up to stay in the Grand Hotel and them having a photo in their flat of them on the sweeping staircase in the hotel. I stayed in the hotel when I made a Saint Etienne music video as I was curious to explore behind-the-scenes at the hotel. It’s sad to see how jaded the hotel now is when it was once the height of chic in the UK’s first spa town.
Saint Etienne had asked me a while back to make a music video for them but I was busy in production of another project at the time so was unable to make then. I was delighted that they invited me to make a video for ‘Dive’ when I was a freer. My first impression of the track was the giddiness of summer, and a UK summer from my childhood meant trips to the seaside for ice-cream and fish ‘n’ chips — namely at Bridlington or Scarborough. So I pitched an idea set in Scarborough where a girl meets her sailor boyfriend for a day ofseaside frolics, and the band loved it. It was an excuse for me to film all the enchanting locations and details that I’d loved for years in the town as many are still intact. Although we do not see Saint Etienne physically in the video, I injected them into it in small ways. For instance the band members names appear in sticks of rock, and I put up a large Saint Etienne album poster I’d asked their manager to send me up outside The Futurist which was still there. The acid ice-cream colours of the poster blended perfectly with the lemon yellow
of The Futurist and there was a consideration of mid-century English public realm vernacular also synonymous with elements of Saint Etienne band member interests. The songs immediacy and in the momentness suggested the video should take place in a day, and was edited in a rapid-fire manner to accentuate the urgency and joy of a couple being together for a short space of time. There is also a
heavy nod to the French New Wave and I dedicated the video to Jeanne Moreau who died during post-production. I’ve also worked with Saint Etienne on Abstractions of Holderness made for a celebration of the work of Basil Kirchin during Hull 2017, and Bob Stanley worked on ASUNDER. This film is also shot along the Holderness coast and pics out various curious details of the coastlines.
MC: What is the project/s you are currently working on, would you consider returning back to the erosion on the Yorkshire Coast?
EJ: I’d definitely consider returning to coastal erosion as a topic and have a box full of clippings on the topic since I made ‘Hinterland’. My dad tirelessly saves any related stories from local press for me. I think with the knowledge and concerns of climate change being more prevalent it’s an even more timely and urgent story. I’m also interested in how some coastline areas all over the world are sacrificed for wealthier or economically sound areas.
Current projects include a feature-length live cinema work titled DUST & METAL that combines archive film, new footage, and crowd sourced material to explore alternative stories of freedom through Vietnam’s enduring love affair with the motorbike. The score is being created by Vietnamese composer Xo Xinh and will be performed live at the premiere. I’m also working on Liberation Radio an audio-
visual installation with BBC broadcaster Matthew Sweet and Vietnamese sound design Nguyen Nhung, which will be exhibited later this year at Manzi gallery in Hanoi.
Also SHIPS in the SKY which is a social history arts project recording the many lives of Hull’s former Co-op and BHS building, and the Alan Boyson murals on/in the building, including the largest mosaic in the UK, the ‘Three Ships’. This project is ongoing with several elements including a film installation, photographs, an oral history archive, and a collection of materials related to the building. The aim is to eventually have exhibitions of the work and potentially some wraparound project activity including workshops and a series of talks.
For more information about Esther's work: http://blanchepictures.com
Interview by Martha Cattell
DUST & METAL, 2020 // feature-length film in-production
Still from music video for Saint Etienne, Dive,2017,3’38”