Above Us, the Sky – A few questions
Lin Li, 2015
I have received a lot of feedback about the film during the Q&A sessions at the end of the screenings, and also afterwards in the form of verbal or written comments. Brian Quail was present during the Q&As and many of the questions raised centred around his actions and the campaign against nuclear weapons. The responses I received after the screenings are wider in scope and some viewers have said to me that they would have liked more discussion about the aesthetics of the film and related issues. Therefore, in this article I will consider a few of the questions raised by the audience in the following sections: (1) title of the film; (2) objects and domestic space; and (3) documentary or art.
Title of the film
Some audience members have asked me to explain the title Above Us, the Sky. One of the viewers wrote in her email:
‘How did you arrive at that title, given the subject matter, personality and settings conveyed in the film? Was it to convey the idea of simplicity and that we should value our natural world and appreciate the beauty of it and its freedom?’ (MG)
I like this suggestion and the fact that the title is open enough for people to articulate what they have got out of the film through their reading of the title. However, since a number of audience members have asked for an explanation, I feel there is perhaps a need to elucidate my thinking, whilst hoping that this would not pre-empt viewers’ own interpretation.
I chose the title of the film at the end of 2014 and not long after that, I found out that there were other films with similar titles, albeit not in English e.g. … und über uns der Himmel (1947, directed by Josef von Báky). Having re-considered my choice and looked into other options, in the end I still felt that Above Us, the Sky was the most appropriate because of the different associations it has for me.
The first association is directly related to a specific part of the narrative in the film. Towards the end of the movie, Brian recounted an incident in which he was taken ill during an anti-Trident action. While he was lying on the ground looking up to the sky and thinking that he was dying, he remembered his daughter’s blue eyes and was reminded of the reason for his non-violent direct action. Brian’s account made me think of a phrase in John Lennon’s song Imagine – ‘above us only sky’. Lennon’s song is about an imaginary utopia with ‘all the people living life in peace’. Another phrase in this song, ‘You may say I’m a dreamer’, is applicable to Brian, who, while fully aware of the difficulty and impossibility of achieving real peace in this world, nonetheless still continues to strive for such a goal. While Lennon’s belief is that above us there is only sky (no heaven or God), Brian’s anti-nuclear position is founded on his strong Christian faith. The sky could thus be taken metaphorically as the divine or the place where justice and peace prevail. Coming from a Chinese cultural background, I am also aware of the term ‘sky’ (天 tian) being used to refer to natural justice or the divine, particularly in the expression ‘the sky has/does not have eyes’ meaning the presence/absence of natural or divine justice.
Another association I have is a negative one. In the context of nuclear armament, the sky takes on a more ominous connotation. Atomic bombs were dropped onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the sky. Radioactive debris fell from the sky onto the soil of the Marshall Islands where nuclear weapons were tested. The sky therefore serves as a symbol of the unpredictability and vulnerability of our existence, which is perhaps inevitable but in some situations avoidable.
In the title, the term ‘us’ is important too. While the film focuses on a single individual, the issues it has raised have more universal significance. The potential global impact of nuclear weapons is obvious. Brian’s reference to his ‘humanity’ being a reason for his anti-nuclear stance emphasizes the interconnectedness of human beings. His action does not reflect the idiosyncratic concern of a single individual but is, as he said in the film, part of a wider movement. As individuals, we may differ in our views on nuclear (dis)armament but the weapons, if used, recognized no such distinction. Thus, the sky is above all of us.
Objects and domestic space
Another question which was raised by the audience concerns the visuals in the film. I did most of the filming in Brian’s home, sometimes in his absence. There are long sequences of images of his home with close-ups of his possessions. These images are accompanied by a soundtrack in which Brian talks about peace, his activism, and ageing etc. One audience member remarked that there seemed to be deep symbolism in the imagery and asked why there was no attempt to explain what the objects shown in the film mean.
Brian’s colourful and uniquely decorated domestic space was one of my main reasons for wanting to make a film about him. I had had the opportunity of visiting his home before I knew about his anti-Trident activities. His flat, where he lives on his own most of the time, reveals a character which had hitherto not been apparent to me. Seeing his home was therefore the first significant turning point in my journey of discovery about him as a person and was thus crucial in my portrayal of him. Our possessions, especially those which we choose to display at home, for our own appreciation and that of an imaginary other, are an extension of our identity. Apart from being a statement of what our aesthetic taste is, they could reflect our socio-economic status, personal history, beliefs or values. In the case of Brian’s home, many of his objects reflect the core of his sense of self – his religious faith, his political views, and his family relationships.
Some of the objects which the film focuses on are items which Brian had highlighted to me as his favourites. Others were included because they appealed to me, and my own psychology and background certainly played a part in what was filmed. The objects shown could be read on different levels with meanings varying from person to person. Some of the emotions and associations generated by the images may be felt only subconsciously. I decided not to ask Brian to elaborate on what the objects meant to him but to leave it open for the audience to respond to them in their own ways. The connection between the imagery and the soundtrack may seem tenuous at times but I think the two work together to provide a richer picture about Brian as a person than can be achieved by either on its own.
Using the starting point of the home as an extension of the self, I have structured the visual content of this portrayal of Brian around his flat. There is limitation to how much a film could show about a person, particularly a short movie like Above Us, the Sky. The work therefore focuses mainly on Brian’s peace activism, which is a central element in defining who he is. The narrative is fairly straightforward and moves from Brian’s public persona as an anti-Trident activist to him revealing more about his personal concern and regrets. This transition from the discussion of his political activities and related issues to the more personal reflection is accompanied visually by images showing his garden at the beginning and then moving through his more intimate interior domestic space (kitchen, hall, living room, bathroom, and bedroom), and finally returning to the garden. It may be a fitting tribute to Brian’s love of his garden that the film starts and ends there, where he has created a haven of peace.
This focus on Brian’s domestic space was commented on by a number of viewers, such as the insightful feedback from this person who is an activist herself:
“I think for me what was special about the doc is that it privileges domestic space and its resonance: unusual in a film about activism/ activists. … So often activists are filmed out on the highways and byways of life, in the throes of protests etc. But all these activists are ordinary people (not a trained elite) who see the extraordinary things that they can do to make the world a better place. We all have that ability: it’s just whether we act on it or not. But one’s domestic living space is powerful in the sense that it can refresh, comfort and inspire: and most activists will not tolerate blandness around them. Good bookshelves, photos, posters are important but so also are pictures of family and friends that ground us and make us feel that we are part of a bigger network for change, I remember an audience member asking why some of Brian’s mementos / ornaments hadn’t been explained on film: that would have been utterly laborious in my opinion, needlessly prosaic. I think your treatment let such heirlooms and indeed Brian and his beliefs resonate.” (BN)
Documentary or art
The juxtaposition of audio interview material with images of Brian’s home was possibly the stimulus for a question raised by another viewer – is Above Us, the Sky a documentary or an art film?
The question of what constitutes a documentary has been widely discussed 1. Many film festivals require submitted works to be classified according to genres and documentary is often one of the major categories. This presumes a certain level of consensus in how to define a documentary. However, many authors have pointed out that the boundary between documentary and other filmic categories is a fuzzy one 2. The use of the term ‘documentary’ can perhaps be better understood using Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family resemblance’, which acknowledges the fact that there is no one single quality which is shared by all documentary films which distinguishes them from other types of moving image work. Instead, there is an overlapping pattern of similarities between movies which can be classified as documentaries. Without delving into this oft-debated topic of classification, and for the specific purpose of responding to the viewer’s feedback concerning my film, I would refer to the frequently quoted definition by John Grierson, who is credited with first applying the term ‘documentary’ to movies in his review in 1926 of Robert Flaherty’s Moana. Grierson is said to have defined the documentary as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’ 3. His statement can serve as the starting point for my answer to the question of whether Above Us, the Sky’ is a documentary or an art film.
Capturing actuality or reality 4 is probably what most people would think of when they are asked what documentaries do. As far as ‘actuality’ is concerned, the making of Above Us, the Sky was based firmly on the methodology of interviews as well as observation of actual social events, and could thus be considered as a documentary. However, the ‘actuality’ which is depicted in the film is only a small sample in Brian’s life and living environment. This sample may or may not represent how Brian normally behaves and thinks, although the extracts of Brian’s responses to my questions shown in the film are consistent with his actions over the years and with what he had said to me during different conversations over a fairly long period of time. As most filmmakers who try to capture reality would acknowledge, their presence in the filmmaking process must have affected the nature of what they have recorded, regardless of how hard the filmmaker and her/his crew try to be a ‘fly on the wall’. Furthermore, however open and honest the person being interviewed tries to be, there are inevitably elements which could only be known by the person him- or herself. So what my film has captured can only be the reality as I experienced it in the particular context of my interaction with Brian for the purpose of making this film.
By focusing the content of the film on my interviews with Brian and on his home, I deliberately confined the ‘actuality’ to one which is observed from my subjective viewpoint, albeit a viewpoint which takes into consideration the multiple elements which can inform one person’s perception of another person (the latter’s physical appearance, voice, actions, interactions, possessions and intimate space etc.). In this respect, my film probably deviates from the conventional biographical documentary mode which privileges the ‘objective’ by considering the subject from the perspectives of a number of different people.
My decision of not interviewing other people who know Brian, for example, his family or fellow anti-Trident campaigners, was commented on by one of the audience members in an email I received after the screening. My response to this comment is that there could be many significant others in Brian’s life; including in the film interviews of a few other people would still be a selection of views, rather than an exhaustive account. There is also the question of my intention, which is to adopt a ‘self-portrait’ approach in the making of this work. I have allowed Brian to speak through the film, whilst being conscious of how this ‘self-portrait’ is shaped by the questions l asked and by various interpersonal factors 5. Although the image of Brian was constructed as a result of my editing which was done without his involvement, it was nonetheless a representation which Brian has consented to be publicly shown.
The editing is what constitutes the ‘creative treatment’ in Grierson’s definition of documentary, and is probably where the art of a film lies. Implicit in the question of whether Above Us, the Sky is a documentary or an art film is a common perception of a dichotomy between documentary (in films, photography, or writing) and art. One could argue that such a dichotomy is problematic, and as pointed out by a number of authors, documentary ‘stems primarily from the artistic field – beyond art, yet very much a part of it’ 6. The so called ‘documentary turn’ in contemporary art (e.g. documenta 11) and the diverse ways in which contemporary artists incorporate documenting into their practices attest to the breakdown of the boundary between art and documentary 7.
The question is perhaps not so much whether a documentary film can also be art, but in what way Above Us, the Sky differs from commercially available mainstream documentary films. In certain aspects my film are similar to other conventional documentaries, e.g. in the use of interview material, but there are also many features which it does not share with most commercially distributed non-fiction films.
One feature which is touched on earlier in this article concerns the relationship between image and sound. The soundtrack, which consists mainly of Brian’s answers to my questions, is often accompanied by images of his home and possessions, which do not always bear any direct relationship to what he is saying at that moment. I have tried to reduce the illustrative function of such images and hope that they could tell a story which complements or enriches the audio one. Unlike many conventional documentaries which employ what Peter Watkin called ‘Monoform’ 8 with characteristics such as ‘rapid and abrupt editing’, and ‘dense layers of music’, Above Us, the Sky includes long panning interior shots to create a contemplative rhythm which encourages listening and closer inspection of what is shown on screen. The inclusion of silence and the minimal use of music for commentary or affective purpose further create space for the viewers to reflect and explore.
Above Us, the Sky also differs from other mainstream documentaries in what it has left out. The film conveys only a small amount of factual information about Brian or about the issue of nuclear (dis)armament. Furthermore, there is no voiceover which offers links or explanation. An earlier version of the film did include more background information about Brian’s peace activities and some archival photographs of Hiroshima, but in the process of developing the film with the advice of Luke Collins (see acknowledgement below), I have removed these more factual elements. This has resulted in the work being focused very much on the subjective and on Brian’s personality, values and beliefs.
While deviating from some of the conventional documentary characteristics, Above Us, the Sky also differs from the more experimental moving image works in contemporary art. Its clear and basically linear narrative structure is unlike the more fragmentary and indirect aesthetics in many contemporary artists’ films. Nor is it the kind of ‘art’ which loses ‘any connection to a social referent’ 9. It is probably not important whether Above Us, the Sky is regarded as a documentary or an art film. When I was making the work, I was less concerned about its relationship to contemporary art practices or to mainstream filmic categories than about the sensitivity and sincerity of my approach. In the end a simple approach seemed to be more appropriate and perhaps more respectful to Brian, and hopefully this would not diminish the artistic value, if any, of the film.
I am extremely grateful to Brian Quail for agreeing to be the subject of Above Us, the Sky and for all the people who appear in the film.
The last stage of this film project was funded by Creative Scotland through the Open Project Funding and with this support, I was able to secure audio post-production help from Leo Saidenough (www.a-dub.co.uk), and mentoring from Luke Collins(Deputy Director, LUX Scotland) whose generous advice has been very helpful.
1. For example:
Eitzen, D. (1995). When Is a Documentary?: Documentary as a Mode of Reception. Cinema Journal, 35 (1), 81-102.
Hoenisch, M. & Sapino, R. (2011). What is a Documentay Film: Discussion of the Genre. Paper presented in an intensive seminar at Freie Universität, Berlin.
2. Juel, H. (2006). Defining Documentary Film. p.o.v. filmtidsskrift, No. 22 http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_22/section_1/artc1A.html
3. Hardy, F. (ed.) (1966). Grierson on Documentary. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, p13.
4. I use the words actuality and reality interchangeably in this article even though there is a conceptual difference between the two terms, which has been the subject of philosophical discussion concerning knowledge and metaphysics. For documentary films, it could be argued that actuality is more about the present and the observable, whereas reality is about the essence of lived experience and social structure, and about truth. For more detailed discussion, see
Furuhata, Y. (2013). Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mayer, D. (2014) A Quest for Truth in Documentary Film. http://sites.duke.edu/davidcapstone/
5. Making a film about people involves numerous ethical and methodological considerations such as those about interpersonal relationship and ‘hospitality’ as discussed in Callahan, W. A. (2015). The visual turn in IR: documentary filmmaking as a critical method. Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 43 (3): 891-910.
Also see Bershen, W. (2010). A Question of Ethics: The Relationship between Filmmaker and Subject. Documentary Magazine. http://www.documentary.org/feature/question-ethics-relationship-between-filmmaker-and-subject
6. Quoted from Lugo. O. (2008). Documentary: Authority and Ambiguities. In Lind, M. & Steyerl, H. (eds.), The Green Room: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art #1. Berlin: Sternberg Press, p35.
7. The documentary turn in contemporary art has been discussed by many authors such as:
Lind, M. & Steyerl, H. (eds.) (2008). See Note 6.
Nash, M. (2008). Reality in the age of aesthetics. Frieze issue 114 http://www.frieze.com/issue/middle/category/art_criticism/
Raczynski, A. (2013). The Moving Image: Expanded Documentary Practice in Contemporary Art, Art and Documentation (Sztuka i Dokumentacja), 9:125-133.
8. Watkin, P. (2014). The Media Crisis. http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/hollywood.htm
In his discussion of the media crisis, Peter Watkin argues that many documentaries follow the aesthetics of the Monoform, characterized by ‘rapid editing, montage, parallel action, cutting between long shots/close shots’, ‘dense layers of music, voice and sound effects, abrupt cutting for shock effect, emotion-arousing music saturating every scene, rhythmic dialogue patterns, and endlessly moving cameras’. Its ‘lack of time/space guarantee that audiences will be unable to reflect on what is really happening to them’.
9. Nash, M. (2008). See Note 7.