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Island Race
Al Rees reviews William Raban's Island Race for Tate Magazine, Summer 1996

Island Race
William Raban

Crystal Aquarium
Jayne Parker

Arts Council / Channel 4 1996

Reviewed by Al Rees

Island Race (1995), was partly made on the Isle of Dogs during an election campaign featuring a leading British National Party candidiate. Traces of class and racial conflict are sprayed on walls and posters, edited between shots of traffic, busy streets and the London Marathon. Scenes of daily life in East and South London are punctuated by crowd-gathering rituals - rapt flag-waving families greeting a navy flotilla, the anxious solemnity of the Kray funeral, a street party and VE-Day celebrations.

The eye scans and questions those images, which connect and contrast in form, scale and angle. Blurs of passing traffic seem to flatten the screen, Tower Bridge and Docklands bathe in different lights, close-up participatory shots are cut against cooler static images. Live sound (with no voice-over commentary) is expanded by radio clips and by David Cunningham's music for the framing metaphor which opens and closes the film - a high-speed car ride out of and back into the Channel Tunnel.

Raban's recent films revive the lyrical documentary associated with Humphrey Jennings and Free Cinema, but participatory art, and a firm sense of structure, have been Raban's hallmarks for more than 25 years. He began making films in the 1970s to "record changes in the landscape" and to document the passage of time, interests which grew from process-based or "systems" painting, Raban was then one of a group of young artists at St Martins and the London Film Makers' Co-operative, who turned to film not as a commercial medium but as a way of exploring perception, time and chance procedures.

With landscape as Raban's main subject, the English Realist tradition, and its eye for detail and place, seeped into this advanced outpost of conceptual art. At the time, however, the new movement was better known for its minimalist and quasi-scientific approach to art, notoriously rejecting lyrical abstraction and romanticism in the US underground cinema. Raban's single and multi-screen films of the 1970s investigated natural light and movement, using time-lapse and variable speeds or lenses to explore the paradoxes of camera vision with the viewer as a participant observer.

After such large-scale perceptual studies as the three-screen Thames Barrier (1977), Raban turned to the social theme implied in his choice of environmental subject matter and urban dereliction, even in such "formal" films as Autumn Scenes (1979). He also made (with Marylin Halford) his only narrative drama, the lyrical Black and Silver (1981) based on 'Las Meninas' by Velasquez. A stylish play on painterly and cinematic illusionism, it heralded the new romanticism of the early 1980s, although Raban himself soon returned to objective film form. His one-minute Sundial (1992) briefly sums up his London documentaries such as Thames Film (1986) and Al3 (1994); here, the oppresive shadows of Canary Wharf tower mark the hours of the day. By contrast, Island race is on a human scale, with people at the heart of urban space.

Al Rees
A.L. Rees is author of A History of Experimental Film and Video (BFI, 1999.) He is currently a Research Tutor in the Department of Communication Art and Design at the Royal College of Arts, London.
Tate Magazine
Tate Magazine: AL Rees on Island Race
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