Terrains vague

by Matthew Beaumont
21 October 2011

Still from 1395 Days without Red, a film by Šejla Kamerić. From a project by Šejla Kamerić & Anri Sala in collaboration with Ari Benjamin Meyers

‘The streets were deserted, as usually happens in the gaps of history, in the terrains vagues of time.’ This ominous sentence is taken from Nabokov’s novel Bend Sinister (1947), in which the exiled author looked back with a sense of calmly uncomprehending horror at the Europe from which he had recently fled to the US, and in particular its besieged, dispeopled cities, among them Berlin and Paris. The book’s title refers to a heraldic device, a bar drawn from the left side, but Nabokov used it to suggest, as he put it, ‘an outline broken by refraction, a distortion in the mirror of being, a wrong turn taken by life, a sinistral and sinister world.’ It is this kind of distorted, broken world that 1395 Days without Red evokes with quietly disturbing beauty.

Sejla Kameric’s and Anris Sala’s films, carefully mirroring and refracting one another, both track an ordinary woman’s journey by foot through the city. This is a city that at the same time is and isn’t under siege. We observe no identifiable acts of violence. The streets are not shaken by bombs or strafed by bullets. But they are nonetheless emptied of all traffic, and so seem eerily deserted – like one of Giorgio de Chirico’s mysterious, melancholic cityscapes from a century ago, in which the cruelties of history, never directly portrayed, fall as oppressive shadows across monumental squares from which the bustling public life of the city has ebbed. In 1395 Days without Red, the almost agoraphobic sense of emptiness persists even though numerous pedestrians can be seen walking through the city.

For these people are living ordinary lives in the face of some nameless, faceless threat. At each intersection of the city’s roads, in the sudden openings where buildings no longer offer a limited protection, people queue, looking at once listless and steelily determined. Then, abruptly, they rush across the empty space of the junction, sprinting or shambling according to their physical capacities, in an attempt to elude the enigmatic danger secreted in the city’s architecture, its geography.

These films are disaster films, then, and as such are distantly related to countless Hollywood movies that derive a more or less perverse pleasure from portraying alien life-forms destroying a metropolitan city. But the sense of horror evoked in 1395 Days without Red is a horror vacui, a fear of the emptied, asocial city (it is thus part of a tradition that runs back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), in which the eponymous character must finally come to terms with the fact that Rome itself, the centre of civilisation, is nothing but an empty museum of the past, a mausoleum). The crossings, tramlines and silent squares of Sarajevo literalise the gaps of history identified by Nabokov. In negotiating them – it is an irony that Nabokov would have recognised – the citizens of Sarajevo look as if they are playing a peculiarly grim children’s game, grandmother’s footsteps perhaps.

Each time the films’ main character, played by Maribel Verdú, sets off from some pavement at a run, her movements slightly hampered by her shoulder bag, we feel an irrepressible sense of panic. We never fully convince ourselves that she is going to make it to safety before being fatally interrupted by the snap of a sniper’s rifle. The films therefore evoke an unseen image – in which she collapses in the middle of an empty stretch of road, awkwardly flopping in her black clothes – almost as vividly as they trace her successful flight to the next block of houses or shops. The result of this is that we frequently find ourselves breathless. The films have a carefully calibrated physiological rhythm that mimes the desperate but triumphant movements of its protagonist as she makes her passage through the city.

The shots that track Verdú are intercut with scenes of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Sixth; populous interior scenes that foster a sense of tentative harmony, in contrast to the fractured silence of the streets and their scattered, uncommunicative pedestrians. Kameric’s and Sala’s films are therefore ‘city symphonies’, in some quite literal sense, and as such are heavily indebted to a cinematic tradition derived from Walter Ruttmann, Dziga Vertov, and others. They provide an arresting variation on this tradition, though, since in 1395 Days without Red, as if in a calculated joke, the city and the symphony, Tchaikovsky’s symphony, are gently disjoined from one another.

But if this deliberate disjunction also implies what Nabokov called ‘an outline broken by refraction’, some internal division of being, then these films nonetheless affirm the hope that this outline might be mended, in part perhaps by the collective effort of art itself. Their deepest conviction, it seems, is that the gaps of history, these terrains vagues of time, can ultimately be overcome – just as the deserted street crossings of Sarajevo are successfully traversed by the city’s stubborn, quietly terrified inhabitants, who in a double sense exhibit a heroism that is defiantly pedestrian.

Matthew Beaumont is a writer, editor and a senior lecturer at UCL. He recently co-edited Restless Cities, a collection of essays that define new ways of reading the metropolis.