In Perestroika, filmmaker Sarah Turner uses documentary footage shot during a trip made on a Transiberian as an Art School student in December 1987-january 1988, and footage shot on the same trip repeated 20 years later. The film explores psychogeography, the unreliable nature of memory and the ambiguity between truth and fiction. The film contains a voice over spoken by a fictional character called Sarah Turner who both is and isn’t the film maker and addressed to ‘you’, who is Sarah’s friend who accompanied her on the first trip but is now dead. However, the use of ‘you’ gives the audience the ambiguous feeling that they are being addressed directly.
As the voice over monologue becomes increasingly hallucinated, psychic reality increasingly replaces documentary reality, culminating in an apocalyptic hallucination where Sarah believes the lake Baikal is on fire. In an interview with Sight and Sound, Sarah Turner explains: “I wanted the indexical and the uncanny to change places by the end of the film. I needed to believe in my stomach that that fictional character ‘Sarah Turner’ believed that the water was on fire. There are real facts of life within a fictional structure, but what is evidence, fact, and what is affect?”
I went to see the film at Cambridge Film Festival and she answered audience questions and commented further on her film. She considers that ‘memory is as much fiction as it is fact’ and the film was a ‘conscious decision to play with the space of fact and fiction’. ‘Everyone that makes some kind of artwork uses their emotional experiences and connects them to the real world.’
About the use of autobiographical material, she considers that the 1987-1988 footage has a quality of ‘unknowing naïvete’: in 1987-88, Sarah Turner realised only after a day that the camera captured sound. So when the students talk among themselves on the recording, they don’t know they are being recorded. Today we are used to the constant presence of cameras, we constantly perform for them. Turner calls our attitudes resulting from our constant expectation to be watched a ‘register of performativity’.
Sarah Turner also seems interested in cinema as a social phenomenon. She considers that, nowadays, ‘our experience of the world is mediated by lenses’. Cinema is ‘a social experience that we have anonymously’, ‘a collective emotional experience, that actually also occurs in public transport’, which she links to her interest in trains. ‘The only two places where people sleep in public are trains and cinemas’.
This idea of constant surveillance is echoed in the sound design where the recurring sound of a shutter clicking symbolises ‘the violence of photography’. Sarah Turner worked on the sound design herself and ‘all the sound in the film is recorded by the tape in situ, including the music’ (people were actually singing in the Church).
Commenting on audience engagement with artworks, Turner considers that ‘the most active experience is reading a novel where people project their own canvas on the frame provided by the author’.
She also gave a technical about how to shoot landscape from a train: one needs to ‘focus beyond the dirt on the window’.
I was interested in this film because of the themes of psychogeography and truth/fiction ambiguity which echo my own concerns, but also because it is an ‘artist film’ almost entirely made by one person with just a bit of technical help from others. It made me wonder how I could introduce some form of narrative in my video art while still continuing to shoot documentary/unstaged footage.