Politics and the English countryside

The Film Interview: Patrick Keiller on "Robinson in Ruins".

Patrick Keiller is a British director who trained as an architect. "Robinson in Ruins" is the third installment in a unique series of fictional film-essays that began with London (1994). In that film, a study of the capital after 13 years of Tory government, an unnamed narrator (voiced by Paul Scofield) reported on a journey around London with his friend Robinson, an obsessive academic. Its follow-up, Robinson in Space (1997), was similar in form, but took a wider journey, examining Britain's new architecture of container sheds and warehouses left by changes in the global economy. The new film is a study of the rural English landscape, narrated this time by Vanessa Redgrave.

How did the idea for Robinson in Ruins come about? Had you always intended to make a third "Robinson" film?

Well, there were two starting points. One was the idea of making another Robinson film, which had been kind of kicking around, well, probably since 1997, when the last Robinson film was released. At the end of Robinson in Space, he disappears.

I had it that he was incarcerated in some possibly psychiatric or just prison circumstance and that Paul Scofield's character [the narrator] had met a nice wealthy person and they'd either got married or formed a liaison and set up some kind of philanthropic thing, and then having done that they got Robinson out of prison and put him back to work again. And the subject of the project that they got him out for was some sort of coming catastrophe, which was either the first world war again sort of a hundred years later, or it was environmental or it was just unstated.

That's not the way it is in this new film but it was a kind of back story. I should probably explain that for all these films the photography is done before the writing.

So that's one starting point. What was the other?

In 2005, I had just finished a visiting fellowship at the Royal College of Art and I started to think about applying to something called the "landscape and environment programme" at the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

I wanted to make the subject of the film not so much the catastrophe but the problem of dwelling. So if London was about the problem of London, and Robinson in Space was about the problem of England, then this one was about the problem of dwelling. There is this huge cultural and critical attention accorded to mobility and displacement. But it's actually not a celebration of mobility: we have this melancholy, or regret and longing for some home or something, which doesn't exist or you can't get back to.

That discrepancy was the starting point for the project, and the method by which to address it was by looking at landscape and images of landscape. Can we find out something about it by looking at landscapes? Given that a lot of the melancholy is for the loss of the status of being what sounds suspiciously like a peasant and therefore connects us to the great transformation between feudalism and capitalism.

Why did you choose the English landscape in particular?

It seemed to me that it was entirely appropriate to make such a film in England, not because it was a film about England, but because the English landscape was where that problem first arose, if indeed you see it in those terms, in terms of transformation. There was a line that I picked up somewhere, a received view, that went: industrial capitalism evolved earliest in England because of the mobility of the previously agricultural workforce. I read a bit about it and looked it up and it turned out that this was not some sort of traditional structural or cultural characteristic but actually it was a very specific legislated change which took place in 1795 and was the amendment to the Settlement Act, which is what it says in the film.

By the time I actually started the pictures it was January 2008 and it was clear that something interesting was about to happen [in the global economy] so the subject, this thing about capitalist displacement, became much more directly present in a way. Although of course not in the landscape, because there are no pictures of Canary Wharf. There's almost nothing that portrays the financial events.

This film has quite a different tone to the previous two. Obviously having Vanessa Redgrave as narrator [rather than Scofield, who died in 2008] contributes to that, but it's also because it looks at a predominantly rural landscape. Were there any particular traditions of landscape photography or painting that you were either trying to emulate or work against?

No, I don't think so. I got quite keen on [Gustave] Courbet, but I don't think that had very much effect on the pictures. Courbet, it seemed to me, was interesting because of his relationship with Baudelaire, so if you were going to go from city, from urban landscapes to rural landscapes then that was something to think about.

But really, because the pictures are usually made under sort of difficult circumstances, there isn't a lot of time to think about them, so I never work out why they are the way they are until afterwards. There is on the other hand, clearly a tendency to put something in the middle. I wasn't quite sure what to make of that, except that it's sort of slightly anthropomorphic.

It's interesting that you use the term "anthropomorphic", because your camera actually seems to work in a very non-human sort of way. I mean the takes are so long that they sit just on the edge of human bearability. They force you to look again that landscapes and processes you might otherwise take for granted.

Yes, although the beginning of the film is much more conventionally paced. I think the first long takes are probably of oil seed rape fields. And in fact what struck me about that is that they looked like a crowd of people, and they looked as if they were saying "No". They are fairly industrial plants, and they have been kind of interfered with, they're not like, you know, wild cabbage or whatever they used to be. There seemed to be something going on in this field, which was a combination of these interestingly structured plants, they do move in a very strange way.

It's not so much whether one wants to make a long take, it's "can you bear to stop?" But it also had something to do with the way that the subjects moved. For instance the [shot of a] foxglove, which goes on for a very long time, seemed to be ... I mean it's obviously completely oblivious to the camera, but there seemed to be a performance going on here. First of all it disappears to one side of the frame for a bit, and then it comes back, and then you think oh that's alright I can stop now, but then it started going round the other side, so I couldn't stop, and when it came to edit that obviously one could cut it down to ten seconds, it would be very easy, and probably if someone else had edited the film maybe it wouldn't be the same film.

[The film] is long, longer perhaps than I intended, but these takes ... there didn't seem any point in cutting them. One could entertain the idea of editing in camera - that a take was that long because that was the way it was. And if you cut half a minute off the end you kind of spoil it.

Now I don't necessarily think that that is true, but on the other hand, there didn't seem to me to be a great deal to be gained by cutting half a minute off the end.. If people were going to be impatient, they would be impatient if you held it for twenty seconds, never mind four minutes.

But it also makes a kind of sense thematically. That idea of a non-human way of perceiving what's going on seems crucial to the film. It's summed up by by the Fredric Jameson quote which is read out near the beginning - that it's easier to imagine a decline in nature than the end of late capitalism and perhaps that's a failure in our imaginations. So, in a way, Robinson in Ruins is trying to stretch beyond the limits of a human imagination.

Yes, or the imagination as currently constituted.


Although it is rectangular...

Well, film obviously introduces other limits. But that idea ties in with the narrative themes too - first the account of the 2008 financial crisis, then the account of a poverty-induced uprising in the 16th century, then the account of the 19th century poor laws. It suggests that our lives are governed by systems that we can react to, but not fully perceive.

In particular there is this idea that there is something natural about markets. As [Edmund] Burke said, there are the laws of commerce which are the laws of nature which are the laws of God. And still, every morning on the Today program we are confronted with the same assumption, that the market is natural and that anything else is intervention and is artificial which is clearly nonsense, I mean it's just absurd. I mean you don't have to think about it from the point of view of a foxglove to think of it as being absurd, but maybe that helps a bit.

What's interesting is that rather than attacking the notion that the market is natural head-on, you have instead gone for the idea of nature itself. You've gone out into the English countryside, about which there are all sorts of preconceptions.

Although I don't use the word. I'm not allowed to use the word. Although it is in the film, partly because Jameson uses it, and Burke uses it, otherwise it's not mentioned.

This isn't mentioned in the film itself, but I was reminded of Henri Lefebvre's account, in The Production of Space, of how Renaissance perspective came about as a result of changes in medieval Italian agriculture: suddenly all these tree-lined avenues were planted, which gave that sense of a vanishing point. Again, it's this idea that the way we look at the world around us is informed by non-natural systems.

Well yes it is yes, but on the other hand, its quite difficult, with a ciné-camera, its quite difficult to avoid perspective. Certainly when I was making it, I didn't avoid perspective but I did tend to limit it. So there are a lot of details and there are a lot of flat things, like the road sign.

I always assume that the flat things are in there actually not because of that, but for a very different reason, which is precisely to do with the creation of an illusory dimension. I think the picture that most characterises that is that near the end there is a danger sign with a quarry behind. When I went to the lab they said "oh that looks like 3D".

There is a definite goal in the pictures to create not so much perspective but illusory stereoscopy. The attempt to mimic stereoscopy was very established in early cinema - Hepworth talks about the stereoscopic effect - although it was usually produced through differential parallax, with things moving, which I don't tend to do.

But at the same time there was a reluctance to make conventional perspectives, and when they are introduced like my shot of the Ridgeway, which is a very sort of pseudo-18th Century frame, it's almost supposed to be a joke. I don't think it comes across like that but there is always an element of parody in some of those perspectives. Partly because they are made in a hurry. You fetch up somewhere and you look through the viewfinder and you think "oh yes of course how silly of me to think of anything else" and you do it, almost for fun, and then you have to go somewhere else.

"Robinson in Ruins" is in cinemas now

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood