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Voice over is a method of narrative storytelling which suggests that an authority, usually reliable, is overseeing the film from an external position, as privileged to the action, if not more so, than the audience.

It is used conventionally as a controlling device, offering a shorthand to meaning that images alone cannot suggest e.g. voice over can be used to describe something that has happened off screen or a reading of the image that is not apparent. Voice over requires a passivity in the viewer's response: to trust the word.

Artists have responded to this by calling into question and often challenging the authority of the voice over. One aspect of the conventional voice over is its supposed neutrality. Filmmakers have disrupted this, for instance, by sharing intimacies through voice over and by making obvious the prejudice of the speaker. An anecdotal voice over highlights the nature of narrative storytelling so that in a film like George Barber's Walking Off Court as Barber recounts the supposedly true story of a man's breakdown - the anecdotal, informal nature of the voice over counterpoint the ever more loosening images. Like the hero's breakdown, the blank landscape of suburbia is cunningly made at once odd and familiar by the interplay between voice over and image.

This approach to voice over has been further satirised by artists who expose the voice over's supposed control of narrative. Famously, for instance, John Smith's Girl Chewing Gum employs an unseen narrator who, as the film evolves, controls more and more of the action. His supposed narrating impartiality is revealed.

Films like this also question who is the voice of authority. What does voice mean in the context of British film? The class, the racial background, the gender of the speaker are all important and too often taken for granted. Patrick Keiller's different choice of narrator brings this to the fore. Employing an actor with a noticeably non RP(Received Pronounciation) accent in The Clouds in comparison to say, the RP of the authorial voice over of Robinson in Space, highlights audience expectation of where and with whom authority lies. He playfully and politically asks us to reconsider how much we take for granted the voice of impartiality.

Stuart Marshall takes us into the orifice itself in Mouth Works' unnerving close up of a mouth as he explores the repetitions and patterns of speech. The 'voice of God' authority of the television news reader is undermined in David Hall's witty exposure of the mechanics and illusions of televisual truth in This is A Television Receiver, in which famous 1970s newsreader Richard Baker reveals he is only a television signal. Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's film Riddles of the Sphinx also challenges the authoritative voice, offering instead a questioning voice, 'a voice asking a riddle' represented by the iconic myth of the sphinx. On the other hand, Harold Offeh's film Five Ways to Feel Amazing uses as it's model the soothing tones of the self help video in a playful deconstruction of society's insecurities.

Still from The Clouds

The Clouds

A semi-narrative/part documentary journey through the North of England.

Still from Girl chewing

Girl Chewing Gum

An authoritative voice-over directs the events on a London street. Or does it?

Robinson in Space

Patrick Keiller's voyage round mid-1990s Britain.

Walking off Court

A mans changing relationship to his normal circumstances.

This is a Television Reciever

In This is a TV Receiver, the materiality or the very objecthood of the monitor is intrinsic to the piece.

Riddles of the Sphinx

A film with questions to answer rather than answers to give.

Four Ways to Feel Amazing

Offeh's video offers the visitor a four-step plan to a better life.

Mouth Works

An extreme close-up of a mouth is used to examine speech patterning, perception of mime, vocal cavity resonation and the electronic fracturing of speech.

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