My favourite film from this year’s London Short Film Festival was fairly certainly MIRAGE by Srđan Keča. It was so good I actually caught up with it twice. First in the boiling inferno of the Hackney Picture House hosted ‘Architecture of Reassurance’ Screening (don’t worry I’m sure they’ve fixed the air-conditioning) and second right at the end of the LSFF awards ceremony accompanied by good old Kirin Ichiban after it picked up the Best Documentary Award.
It opens with a sustained shot of bleached desert contours, shifting almost indiscernibly with the wind. It holds the shot. It really holds it and If by this time you’re aware of the fact that it is 40 odd minutes long you would be forgiven for wondering where the nearest exit was. I did. I really, genuinely did. What follows, however, is an absolutely stunning piece of meditative documentary. Thoughtful, quiet and at times very moving the film moves maturely and steadily as it pieces together what Keča calls an ‘iconography’ of the ‘anxiety’ in the urban landscape: here Dubai.
The iconography that collages itself together through the verbatim accounts, letters home, claustrophobic interviews and the floating tracking shots of Keča’s camera takes on a fully spiritual resonance. The excess of Dubai at times becoming an unlikely Cathedral of reverie and optimism and at others emerges from the desert like the corpse of a giant insect civilisation, all iridescent carapace and exoskeleton.
This architectural grandstanding is contrasted with the individual suffering and hope of the migrant workers and the rather worn out hedonistic un-life of the expats. One languid eyed bikinied expat, caught by Keča in uncomfortable searching close up as she swims at a pool party laughs: ‘This place makes you have so many experiences’ catching the irony of their factory of fun in the hollow phrase. Dubai is figured as a switch board, a lattice of capital intersection. It isn’t a place for individual agency, it ‘makes you’, you don’t ‘make’ Dubai. As one of the Migrant Workers says : ‘there is nowhere to go’.
The film makes the most of these ironies, whether its the golf buggy that travels absurdly small distances carrying its lone golf partner or the terrifying sign that tracks into view as Keča’s camera rides the central monorail. We read:
<< WE BUILD AROUND YOU – DUBAI PROPERTIES >>
a slogan that certainly poses a threat as much as it does a promise. It is the sense that the city is now its own agent, with a ravenous appetite for further development and expansion that makes the film’s ability to get close to some of Dubai’s inhabitants so powerful. One scene mysteriously shows a man in tears at the Western Union exchange, wiping his eyes with his hat, indicated out, without unexplaination by a gruff looking security guard. We have no knowledge of context or history. Another moment has a reveller seemingly filming drag-queen dancers on his phone at an stag-do out in the desert. He appears to be filming the spectacle but the camera lingers over the blue-green mobile screen long enough for us to question whether he really is filming, or rather watching some other kind of entertainment on his mobile device. Boredom in the desert, imported entertainment. The film passes through these captured moments like a dream, scored by the aching strains of Messien, leaning heavily on our imaginations for any kind of reassurance in a place that seems built to reassure. Someone, at least, its hard to know whom.
In the film Srđan Keča marks himself as a visual artist of some stature, composing a long-form portrait of a city that goes some significant way beyond the sneery cliche’s and opposing PR feeds that have defined Dubai in recent years. The picture is humane and penetrative, suggesting levels of documentary access and trust that are seldom achieved at this level of film-making.
It is as he claims, an iconography; austere, stark and lacking in the kind of perspectivism that often just serves to create self-serving drama in less thoughtful documentaries. There is a startling lack of judgement in the camera, and what little there is that smacks of a moral stance is outweighed by the overriding sense of careful puzzled observation. The film is steady but never settles, it shifts uneasily, with a laboured gaze but the sincerity of that view is never compromised. It is a work of startling insight and impressive control which in its sanity, exposes the madness and sadness of its midas-like, prematurely aged subject.