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The Persistence of Spirit: The Films of Nina Danino

By Helen De Witt

1. Introduction

Nina Danino is one of the foremost experimental filmmakers of her generation. Her films explore the relationship of image to sound, and of theory to practice. She draws upon her own personal history as well as literary and artistic works, which are filtered through a poetic interpretation of feminist theory that foregrounds women's personal experience and expression. These inspirations are restructured through image-making, editing and voice performances to create original works of striking intensity and emotional force.

Born in Gibraltar, Nina Danino began as a painter of large abstract field paintings while she was studying art in the late 70s at St Martin's School of Art in London. She became disillusioned with the male-dominated art world and was disappointed by the lack of a critical stance to art production. She became attracted to writing as the first process of filmmaking. In the mid 1980s many filmmakers were turning to the portable, cheap video technology to make conceptual pieces. Danino chose not to do this as she felt that video was too cold and immediate. Instead, it was important for her to explore the material properties of film, narrative, time and space, the voice as a way of communicating of intimate experiences for the viewer. Later, she did use digital post-production techniques in Now I Am Yours and The Silence is Baroque. Temenos also incorporates video imagery, but it is used as a stark contrast to the searing intensity of the black and white film.

Although her films are highly organised, she never followed the previous generation to become a structural filmmaker. Structural film was an almost entirely male domain concerned with a purist, but limiting, visual practice. Instead Nina Danino wanted to push the formalist boundaries and engage in political and theoretical feminist discourses to produce a new aesthetic able to take on the urgency of female subjectivity and desire. She uses editing and durational time in a systematic way to communicate atmosphere and emotion. It was crucial to her to use the voice as a means of expression. All her films have her own voice-over and with very controlled delivery she speaks her own words, as well as those of other artists and writers, which she incorporates into her meditations.

Between 1980 and 1990, Nina Danino worked for Undercut, the journal of experimental film and video, first as a member of the collective editorial committee, and then as co-editor. Undercut was a vital publication as it allowed artists, filmmakers and critics to engage in debate about the work that was being made. It maintained a critical discourse that was unrivalled within artists' moving image. In 2003 she co-edited an anthology of writing from Undercut.

All of Nina Danino's films have been exhibited in international film festivals, national cinematheques and independent cinemas worldwide. Her feature film, Temenos, played at the London Film Festival in 1999 and is released on DVD. In 2002, she began working on a new feature film.

2. Early Films

Nina Danino's first major exhibition piece was First Memory (1981) which started as a two-screen work that included Super8, tape-slide and sound. Later it became a 16mm film. Over shadowy images of household objects, faded wallpaper and darkened rooms belonging to a bygone era, the filmmaker's voice, as a grown-up woman, recounts the drab and decaying interior. The disjuncture between the adult voice describing a strange and isolated childhood has a haunting effect. The images are also disjointed, interrupted by black and then suddenly illuminated by shafts of sunlight entering the frame from the outside world, emphasising the enclosed space, physically and emotionally. The woman's voice speaks of a mysterious and inert female presence, seemly oblivious to the company of another. She is in her own world, drinking cognac, smoking cigarettes and endlessly looking out, waiting for fulfilment of an unrequited desire. Tension in the film is created through the inter-cutting of black and abstract distortions as the voice describes her perplexed reactions to this female presence who is related by blood, but couldn't be more alien.

The next film, Close to Home (1982/85), is about family division within post-War Germany and between Spain and the filmmaker's birthplace of Gibraltar. In the first part, the camera travels around West Berlin like a tourist, picking out historical monuments and describing their military significance. Despite the rhetoric of the conqueror, the circling claustrophobia of the camera reveals the confinement of the walled-off city as the filmmaker details the history of the blockade. She reads a family letter expressing the formalities of separation. Like the people of the city, the writers are kept apart by forces that they cannot control. The film exposes the contrasts between global power politics and familial intimacy. We are told in another letter that she has missed the excitement as Franco's sanctions on Gibraltar are lifted after nearly twenty years. The Rock is filmed from a boat leaving. It's as if it's too late for the divided places and families. The injuries sustained by these cruel separations are too deep to heal.

Stabat Mater (1990) is a structural film, in that it is quickly edited to create a sequenced rhythm of hand-held images. It opens and closes with laments sung in Holy Week to the Mater Dolorosa. Filmed in Gibraltar, it has a luminous Mediterranean light, but alongside the images of the sun-drenched city, parks, and sea, there are English road signs that look peculiarly out of context. The dominant image is a statue of a young Madonna. Her benign presence is comforting, in contrast to the manic female voice on the soundtrack, performed by the filmmaker. She speaks of her love of flowers and of a man who understands women. She quotes from Joyce's Ulysses, who himself was drawn to Gibraltar, one of the Pillars of Hercules that keep vigil at the intersection of Europe and Africa, and the meeting point of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, The words of French feminist theorist, Helene Cixious, enforce the female presence at the heart of the film. Together with Joyce's disjointed prose that matches the unpredictable cutting of the Stabat Mater, they create a sense of longing and desire, possibly for a home-coming.

Now I am Yours (1993) was made as a meditation on death and the possibility of resurrection. It focuses on the ecstatic experiences of Spanish mystic, St Teresa of Avila. Danino filmed Bernini's statue of The Ecstasy of St Teresa in Rome, a magnificent Baroque sculpture showing St Teresa about to be pierced by the arrow of God's love, held by an angel. Over a montage of images, showing the sculpture from every angle and in increasing detail, we hear the filmmaker recite from the saint's writings about her experience of meeting God. She is at the point of death but she doesn't die. She is unable to move and is wracked with pain, but it is a sweet pain leading her from longing to abandonment and rapture. The film unites the work of art, which contains St Teresa, with words that are her own free expression. It captures a delicious moment of transition between one level of experience and another. Deep and piercing sounds from Diamanda Galas and Shelley Hirsch blend with the spoken words. Intercut between images of St Teresa, is the Catholic Mass, another moment where humans make contact with the divine. Scenes taken from a Spanish film contrast sharply with the stillness of the sculpture as it shows the saint about her convent life, throwing herself to the floor in prostration; thus making a distinction between the life of the physical body and the experience of the spirit which traverses life and death. At the end of the film, there are shots of flowers in a cemetery. Life will always be found in the midst of death.

The Silence is Baroque (1997) is an episode that Nina Danino made for the Dutch-produced European artists' portmanteau film, Rainbow Stories. The film was shot at the Easter Processions in Seville and Granada, where a large statue of the Virgin enthroned and tableaux of Christ's Passion are paraded in Holy Week. El Silencio is the name of a Baroque sculpture of Christ at the moment of death. Among recorded sound from the streets, every aspect of the statue of the Virgin is recounted in detail, including the materials she is made from and the paintwork of her clothing. The film communicates the mundanity of religious practice in the hustle and bustle of the streets. The opening quote from Pasolini's Accatone is about the flowers and mud in the Divino Amore cemetery in Rome (the title is also a scene from Christ's Passion), it denotes the meeting point of exhalted and the low vernacular forms of art as in the street processions of sacred images.

3. Temenos

Temenos means sacred site, ritual precinct. Temenos (1998), is a searingly beautiful invocation of the persistence of place, that has the power to inscribe contemporary political and social circumstances with the memories of the past, and to transform the landscape itself.

Nina Danino visited sites of apparitions of the Virgin Mary including Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugorge in Croat occupied Bosnia where the Virgin is still said to be appearing. She films the landscapes that have witnessed these transcendental appearances, imbuing them with a sense of the sacred. They appear remote and mysterious, somehow occupying a place between heaven and earth. In the first section of the film the screen glimmers with a silver glow, as if the viewer is also witnessing an apparition. The viewers' eyes scour the screen for visible evidence of the divine, but what they are given is the magic and holiness of the space itself.

The landscape, with its intricate detail of twig and grass blade, links the specific thing to its universal form. The place is both local and unlocateable since the viewers are never told where they are. The viewer is taken on a journey, where they experience the raw exposure of emotion and haunting voices that penetrate the soundtrack. It is composed of extraordinary performances by operatic soprano, Catherine Bott, and voice performers, Sainkho Namchylak and Shelley Hirsch, who provide pastoral voices calling in the landscape, bitter weeping, gentle humming, unearthly sounds, sounds of nature, the scream of dementia and angelic arias.

Black and white 35mm film gives way to colour video footage of the city waking. A cacophony of media noises contrast strongly to the luminous photography of the sacred places, reminding us that a vision is a temporary experience, but simultaneously, permanent state within. It is this fleeting emotional state that the film grasps at and strives to represent. Like the land itself, the film embodies the ineffable and the transcendental but remains material and temporal.

The camera pans in circular movements giving a feeling of unworldly weightlessness. The memoirs of the Marian visionaries, Conchita Gonzalez, Bernadette Soubrious and the Medgorgjian children are spoken by the filmmaker over the now empty landscapes. Their words are particularly poignant in the case of Medgorgjia, the meeting point of Islam with Orthodox and Catholic Christianity and the scene of atrocities during the Bosnian war.

At the end of the film, Danino again draws from the work of Pasolini, this time, the final scene from The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964). After his Resurrection, Christ walks on the Sea of Galilee towards his disciples in a small fishing boat. The disciples are incredulous, but then realise that it is not contradictory that in a world where they need to fish, they can also witness the divine. Marxist filmmaker, Pasolini, imbues the Christian narrative with a social message of the dignity of working people that reveals the transcendental within a secular world. Like Pasolini's fishermen, the viewer has to live in the real world, but in this film for an illusionary period, the can visit the Temenos and know its frightening and beautiful secrets.

3. Illusions, Images and Ideas

All of Nina Danino's films concentrate a complex connection of ideas, images and illusions into tightly filmed, edited and performed works that create an intense and emotional effect in the mind.

Her films have a material presence. She is keen to make the viewer aware that they are watching a film, a projection that is happening in time and space in which the film comes into presence before the eyes. The physical properties of film are exploited to the full, whether in the crystalline quality of the images in Temenos or the swirling hand-held camerawork and saturated colours of Stabat Mater. Although her films are not narratively driven, Danino is concerned about progression. She leads the viewer through an experience of gathering intensity, but always, returns them to an earthy reality, whether in the city in Temenos or the cemetery in Now I am Yours. Nevertheless, the experience of the film transports the viewer to a place transformed, seen with new eyes.

As a filmmaker, Danino is unusual in her privileging of the voice. She sees the voice immediate and pure, unencumbered by material form. She performs the voice-over in all her films, describing her own experiences and thoughts, and quoting from others- visionaries, poets, writers. Combined with that are vocal performances by established sound artists.

Religious experience permeates the majority of Nina Danino's later films. They are imbued with a Catholic understanding of spirituality, but whether it is the Marian visionaries in Temenos or St Teresa in Now I am Yours, the transcendental experiences are personalised through the experience of the women themselves. Here, the strictly conformist Catholic interpretation breaks down and the power and pleasure of the women shine through. They are visionaries, their apparitions and thoughts cannot be controlled but instead carry them to another realm of fulfilment and abandonment. The way that Danino portrays St Teresa with close-ups on the mouth and figure reclining backwards, there is no doubt that she is experiencing sexual ecstasy. Her body, as well as her mind is penetrated by the divine. This is jouisance- performed excess, a physical response to the performance of the camera and the performance of the voice.

Disruption is a key theme in Danino's work. She disrupts the image though her structured editing, at once giving it presence and absence through the cut. She interrupts the dominance of the image though the intervention of sound that distracts the viewer from the tyranny of the visual. Her work is about traversing boundaries between present and absent subjects, known and unknowable experiences, defined and undefined spaces, rational and irrational understandings, and, of course, the ultimate boundary, that between life and death. At the heart of her work is a struggle, a yearning to grasp the ungraspable. Her films present an irresistible allure to follow them into the realm of angels, at whatever cost.

Helen de Witt

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