Sarah Turner on Perestroika
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Sarah Turner on Perestroika
Sarah Turner

Sarah Turner

APEngine talks to Sarah Turner, about her new experimental feature, Perestroika, which premieres at the London Film Festival.

Why did you start making films?

Oh god, I wasn’t really expecting a question like that!

I went to art school because basically I was useless. Like everyone who goes to art school. There’s a quote – something like “People who go to art school don’t know what to do with the world and the world doesn’t know what to do with them.”

But I did have a very strong craft base for observational drawing, and I always wanted to go to art school. When I was first at school I began to write a lot and to take photographs, and both are time based mediums, and the relationship between the two is somehow a relationship of language – by which I mean ideas in time.

Film was the logical conclusion, but I trained within fine art. My course at St Martin’s was Fine Art, Film and Video, and then I went to the Slade and did another two years within the media department, so again working in time and space.

What kind of work, what kind of artists, filmmakers, were influencing you or were you looking at?

I was more driven by the novel to be honest; by literature. I had more access to literature than I did to artists’ film. I was pretty much obsessed with Marguerite Duras, people like that. But once I was a student, I was compelled very much by people like Lis Rhodes, William RabanTina Keane.  And Sandra Lahire. Sandra was a very good friend of mine and I found her work extremely compelling because of the way she used a formalist discourse but there was intense emotion in the work.

And Duras was someone who also made films. You left the Slade, you started making your own work, and you also worked at the London Film Makers’ Co-op.

I was working in distribution – I went back later to curate the launch programme of The LUX Cinema, with John Thomson. I had access to thousands of very interesting films, and also a fantastic community of artists; that was the most exciting thing about working there.

I was also programming – that’s what you did in distribution so I took over doing the avant-garde showcase at the NFT from Tony Warcus, who’d set up that and was doing fantastic work.

Perestroika, your new film, is feature length, but it’s not your first feature length film, is it? You made Ecology before that. But they’re very different films, aren’t they? I mean, how would you describe Ecology?

There are similarities. Ecology uses a more straightforward approach to narrative. A really big part of my practice as an artist is writing. My short film Cut was a short story before it was an experimental film.

Having gone through a very long period of working – making short films with funding from the Arts Council and Channel 4, I was being commissioned by the BFI to write a feature film, and at that time, you know, however kind of left field they were – and they’d supported some wonderful left field work like Andrew Kötting’s Gallivant, Patrick Keiller’s work, and they’d worked with Sally Potter.

But in the late 90’s, there was a movement towards recruiting artists to make more commercial work, just on a very low budget. For me to be commissioned to write a feature script was really fantastic. And a really interesting challenge as a writer.

But because I trained through the art school, I then had to train myself to write in a completely different way – the paradigm of screenplay. It’s a lot of work, to learn to do that. It is a craft, and it’s a brilliant craft to learn, screenwriting. Because of the way you have to use compression and the image in the space.

I learned an enormous amount from doing that, and also from working with very talented script editors. In hindsight it was a really positive process. There are frustrations.

That developing a script doesn’t necessarily get a film made?

That’s one of them – a core frustration to an artist who’s used to making work and putting it into the world. I spent two years writing a feature film script, and it’s an interesting piece of writing, and an interesting process, but actually that script exists in a file that only a series of writers and producers and commissioning editors have read. The BFI script was actually bought by FilmFour Lab and I then went on and did other drafts of it.

The process in some sense becomes more and more frustrating, because that form of writing is mediated by other people’s desire. And those desires are contingent on many other ideas – their ideas around market and commodity really, and particular ideas of audience, in this cultural moment. I think there are moments in British history where that hasn’t been the case.

Derek Jarman was certainly left alone to write his scripts, which wouldn’t have been that coherent on the page, but still very strong pieces of writing. But they certainly don’t conform to the three act, rising action line, in a conventional narrative structure.

Was there a stage, having been through that experience, that you decided that what you actually wanted to do was actually make a film… was the way you set about making Ecology in response to what you’d been through?

It was more than that, because a really big part of my practice was as a writer, and I felt extremely frustrated not just by the semi-commercial paradigm. I also felt completely constrained by the limitations of the screenplay form, which isn’t about language, actually, because nothing that is on the page in a screenplay ever is on the screen other than dialogue, which for me is the least interesting thing in a screenplay.

So as an artist, I found that a very constraining to work within that. So Ecology wasn’t just about getting a film made, it was about a form of performative writing and using a form of experimental writing within the feature form. I’d spent by that time five, six, seven years writing screenplays. So for me, I couldn’t have gone back to making a short film.

I could now – it’s the difference between a short story and a novel. But the stuff around duration and complexity of ideas was so much by that point in my kind of blood, that I needed to – just for simple self-development, really – to push that further as an artist, and take what I’d learned from the training of writing more conventional work.

So how did Ecology write itself?

Well, I wrote it. It evolved out of the experience of the landscape that it was shot in. And the constraints, potentials, and limitations of that landscape, and the experience of being there, the experience of being on a writer’s retreat working on another film, and probably realising by this point that it was emotionally destructive to go down a path of writing another screenplay that I would need half a million pounds to make, and I would lose all control. Basically, I wanted my control back.

So in that landscape, I had the idea, and the idea was complete for Ecology – I had key images and the emotional movement of each character, and then I wrote it bit by bit.

So you had a script of Ecology and then you set about making the film – they’re separate films?

I wrote three short stories, so it’s actually a piece of experimental writing that exists on its own, that are in no way a script, because they’re a stream of consciousness monologues. And the writing itself performs the characterisation, in terms of the way of ‘she’, ‘you’ and ‘I’ are used. So the personal pronoun frames experience.

And it’s about a relationship, relationships and there are actors who play characters in it. Whereas in Perestroika there’s a more explicitly autobiographical trigger, isn’t there?

Yes is the blunt answer to that.

What triggered you to make this film?

Wanting to make another long form piece of work, which again had an experimental approach to writing and would formally stretch me. And not repeating myself. The autobiographical trigger was that I’d made this journey as a very young woman, I was 20, and I became 21 – I was a second-year student at St Martin’s, and it was the first time I’d properly used a video camera. I shot out the window. I’d never done anything at all with this footage from 20 years ago. And in the ellipsis between then and now –

Sarah Turner, Perestroika (2009). Image courtesy of the artist

Sarah Turner, Perestroika (2009). Image courtesy of the artist

You shot through the window of the Trans-Siberian train.

From Moscow to Irkutsk. I shot other footage on that trip, but the bulk of my rushes from then from 1987, 1988, were from the window of the train, and we see a lot of that footage in Perestroika. And between then and now, 20 years, there’s been an awful lot of change, social, cultural, historical, political, and obviously personal.

So the personal experience is, well, I’m 20 years old then; that’s interesting in itself, to return to the self, experience of self, and there’s an awful lot of loss involved in that around time, and memory. But key to that loss is the loss of two of my best friends, who were both on that train. One, Sian Thomas, whose voice we hear extensively, who actually facilitated that trip for me. She was killed in a cycling accident in Siberia in 1993. And Pat Finn, who I became close friends with on that trip, because we were the only young single women. We were travelling for four weeks, and Pat and I developed a very intense bond, and became, very, very close friends. Pat died just before Christmas in 2000 of breast cancer.

Death is a big part of this. I can talk about it up to a point. But obviously in the sector that we work in, as you know, we’ve had lots of losses as a sector, and key to that is Sandra Lahire. Sandra was a very close friend of mine as well, and I wanted in some way to explore the idea of some kind of loss. I’d been back many times – Sian married a Russian and lived in Moscow – but I hadn’t been back since her death, so that was quite a challenge.

What I became fascinated in is an idea about the relationship between photography and death, which an awful lot has been written about. But very little has been written about the relationship of sound, in terms of technologies of memory, if you like, which is how I started thinking around this. I was much more compelled by sound, and I can’t explain it, but it’s the voice that continues to echo and reverberate, because we hear it now, right?

We can look at a photograph of someone who’s dead and it’s..the ‘index’, the indexical experience, the trace of that moment, and the trace of that person, and it’s very Roland Barthes. It really is that moment of death. But in sound, we don’t have that separation, because we’re re-experiencing it – now. These things are things that were driving my writing.

So I was more compelled by the sound than by the images, and that’s what I really worked with. And then obviously what’s happened in that twenty years is the much wider cultural and historical significance – Eastern Europe has ceased to be the Eastern Bloc, and communism within Europe has ceased to exist. So, to return to a culture that I experienced as a Communist culture, and in this particular moment, when of course world capitalism is finally collapsing!

It’s making a comeback.

Yeah. Sadly not. So there parallels, between the social, political, historical material.

I think that all comes through in the film, but it also strikes me that there’s a kind of fictional premise, in that it’s a therapeutic journey for the main character. The narration is about a psychological struggle, but there’s this whole epic journey – there’s the whole of Russia outside the window of the train carriage. Was that a disjuncture that you set out to explore?

Very much, and for me, the film very explicitly functions as an environmental allegory. Here we are, and we’re experiencing the narration through the psyche, if you like, of the character who is Sarah Turner, who has retrograde amnesia which was caused by a brain injury in a cycling accident. So it’s a memory work, re-experiencing an experience. And here we are on this train, and almost literally we are boiling – the train is very hot.

I wrote Perestroika in the same way that I wrote Ecology, in that I had an experience, and then I wrote in response to the experience. And key to that experience was the difficulty of returning, the difficulty of being on the train because of the heat, and the astonishing experience of the change in the landscape. I travelled on the same dates – so we were on that train on New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day, we left on the 28 of December, so we were travelling through the middle of Siberia in December, and this time there was no snow, for vast portions of the journey, when there was before – cutting between now and footage from 20 years ago.

Metaphorically, and symbolically, so we are seeing something which is actual, but the film is exploring ideas of what is real, what is fact, what is evidence, what is recorded. What do we think we are seeing and what are we actually seeing? There’s a kind of cultural amnesia happening generally at the moment, because here we are, sitting in our overheated little units, our overheated units of quotidian domesticity, while the planet boils.

At the very beginning, there’s the voiceover, saying about your bicycle accident, “I understand the context of manic and reckless.” ‘Manic and reckless’ becomes applicable to much wider political issues doesn’t it.

Yes, I’m grateful for that observation, thank you! No, I am, seriously. Obviously the train itself is a metaphor – and a key symbol of the Industrial Revolution and all of the things that we equate as progress. So we literally swathe through landscape in this train, while the world outside our window is heating up.

It’s an epic journey. And at the end of it. where have we arrived?

Literally and emotionally in a form of hell. If you’re in any way interested in environmental politics, which I very much am, just with regard to the science, Siberia is one of the world’s tipping points. Where the planet will do much more damage to itself than we could possibly do in 200 years of excessive carbon emissions. The Siberian permafrost covers a significant portion of the world, and underneath that is vast amounts of methane. As the permafrost melts, the methane is leaking, and of course, methane is a very very intense carbon gas. The science of it is astonishing.

Siberia is the site of some of the world’s most important resources – its oil, gas, minerals.

You say it’s the world doing damage to itself, but that’s triggered by us?

By us, of course. But there are lots of tipping points that we can’t control, unless you literally deflect the sun. Lake Baikal is now a world heritage site – the deepest lake in the world. An extraordinary natural geological phenomenon, it’s the oldest and the deepest lake in the world, and it’s of enormous scientific interest and a geological resource.

You mix Hi8 footage from 20 years ago with pixillation shot with a stills camera and HD. Generally pointing the camera out of the train window. Were you expecting to capture such exquisitely beautiful imagery, just by pointing your camera out of the window?

Yes, I was. And with very little grading. Matthew Walter, who did the photography with me, is a stills photographer, but an absolutely brilliant cinematographer as well. For myself, as a filmmaker, I’m interested in beauty both as an aesthetic and as a device, and that’s a choice. Many artists work against beauty, against that as a set of values and ideas. I choose to worth with, if you like, ideas of the sublime, and work with beauty.

And key to that is our craft base. So we didn’t just stick the camera out the window – although of course we did – and there’s a lot of reflexive commentary on that which is playing a game with it. We worked non stop on the train to frame and compose and constantly have those stills cameras clicking on timers. What I was interested in there was film history, film as a series of stills – so the train became a natural shutter.

There is an image from the first trip which I’ve used, which I have on my wall – of Sian with a camera, photographing me, filming her. I have that still image which I didn’t take, and I don’t know how I have it, or when it was given to me. It’s interesting in terms of history – autobiography and storytelling – that I don’t understand my own narratives, my own stories, because we forget.

Photography is telling us something that we don’t know. It wasn’t until I was really looking at this footage that I realised that this moment was the moment of her taking that image, which is shocking – that here is the dead person, who’s alive in the moving image footage, taking a photograph of the living person who is ‘dead’ in the still photograph. All of these ideas, which are complex, and available to some audiences and not available to others, and not interesting for other people – they are there in the thinking of the film.

But again, that’s paralleled in the ecological interests in the film, isn’t it, in that it’s a recording of the planet then and now, and it’s a different planet.

And key to that is ideas of storytelling and who’s telling which story, which story is framed, who’s telling it and how has it been told.

You used the word sublime, and I think it’s sometimes misused, because sublime isn’t just about beauty, it’s actually about terrible and terrifying – Edmund Burke said “terror is in all cases.. the ruling principle of the sublime.”

I’m using it in that way – the apocalyptic movement in the film at the end.

And even more so in this film than in your other films, because this is a film about the planet, and the world, it’s a film about light, and it’s a film about colour, and it’s a film about beauty which is terrifying, it’s luxurious film to experience, do you think?

I hope it’s very visceral experience. I work very hard at that, and the discipline of that – of very disciplined formal approach that we only see out of the window, or the movement through the carriage, and the movement up to the hotel. So we never see the person seeing, other than briefly in an out of focus still, which is speaking about the inadequacy of the family photograph, the happy holiday snap – well the inadequacy of all photography.

There are reflections. Which seem to sum up the film…


Ghosts. Things we can’t grasp.

Yeah, yeah. Ghosts.

  1. Sam Nightingale says:

    I have just come back from the London Film Festival after seeing Perestroika. I can not say enough what an amazing film this is. As someone who also works with time based media, I constantly question the image’s ability to represent experience. In this film Sarah Turner questions this notion head on and in the process achieves an intensity of represented experience that is quite extraordinary.

  2. GILLIAN says:

    I agree, it is a wonderful film, stunning and haunting me still. Please see my review of it.

  3. Abina says:

    It’s many years since I worked with Sarah at LFMC/Lux, but I can hear her through this interview! I hope I get a chance to see Perestroika. Great!

  4. Jo Ann Kaplan says:

    right on. keep on truckin’.

  5. Diana says:

    I seriously can’t wait to see this. It looks superb and I have only seen wonderful reviews. I have just booked my tickets to see the film at the ICA and hear Sarah in the panel discussion afterwards on the 1st.

  6. Experienced Perestroika at Cork Film Festival yesterday evening. Conciousness altering film!

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