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Ronnie Close

Night Time Room, Ronnie Close
Night Time Room, Ronnie Close

Ronnie Close talks to Gary Thomas about his project Night Time Room. The film is showing as part of the group exhibition Based on a True Story at ArtSway in the New Forest, 3 July – 30 August.

Night Time Room was commissioned for a South West Screen/Picture This collaboration, Scripted Notion, offering artists an opportunity to make work that engaged with script. And it’s based on interviews you did with early ‘80s Republican hunger strikers in Northern Ireland. When did you do those interviews?

I’d already done the interviews – it wasn’t as if I’d made the interviews for the film or for the script. But through the process of the interviews I had already realised that, in a way, what I was encountering was a kind of memorial script that people had. There was a resistance to address certain themes and ideas or resonances of their experiences. And I felt slightly frustrated by that.

So the idea of being able to work in a fictional form – to transfer/translate or extract the interviews into a narrative film script – was a really useful opportunity to delve a little bit deeper; and to get kind of inside in the mechanics. To get a little bit inside the heads of some of the people I met.

And also, to get across some of the impressionistic things – because when you interview somebody it mightn’t be anything that they say to you, it might be the conditions of their house, their things. It’s the information you pick up by meeting somebody in their personal space. That’s what really interested me.

You said ‘memorial’ – but the interviewees are still here… it’s very much about now – so a memorial for what they were, but also it’s about consequences and how the world and people change, and how they remember…

Yes. And what I felt there were themes or ideas that they weren’t willing to discuss with me, or that they couldn’t discuss or they weren’t really comfortable with. And that is about the every day, because that’s the relationship we have with the past.

It’s very important that the film is set in the contemporary, because it’s looking at that schism if you like – when people get involved in that political violence. How does the sort of simplified and uncomplicated truth or narrative that they create in order to do that impose on them subsequently. That purity of belief versus the contemporary – and how inadequate or ill equipped that belief is to actually deal with the analysis and remembering – in what is a sort of post conflict/post trauma situation.

So there’s an interrogation in the film, but filmmaking itself is fictionalising – that’s an extra layer of confusion.

Yes. I see as a three way relationship between people carrying out acts, political acts if you like. They become mythologised or romanticised, and in effect, simplified through that – so that the violence is something digestible. And that in turn is re-presented, often through more propagandist forms, but also in contemporary art or in contemporary cinema as well.

And those representations feed back – and become part of a circuit of meaning and of understanding of history.

I’d like to think I’ve made that process evident. To make it a framework for some sort of thinking space around these kinds of ideas. I’m not trying to become part of the simplifying myth process – I’m trying to undermine it or make it evident.

So with those three interviewees – their selective and changing memory – were there commonalities or differences?

They’re totally different kinds of people. But having had essentially the same experience, having been in Maze prison at the same time, having been politically active.

But they were very different kinds of people. And affected if not traumatised by what they had done. And not only what they may have done through the hunger strike, but also I think by the impact of believing in something to the extent that you’re both willing to die for it, and also willing to kill for it.

And that’s what I mean by that sort of purity of belief. So it’s sort of an examination of a sort of fanaticism – terrorism. In his novel Mao II, Don DeLillo compares the terrorists to the writer. And he says that the writer no longer affects public consciousness but the terrorist does. And how the terrorist has occupied that territory now – to disrupt meaning, to disrupt normative values and so forth.

And certainly, it’s a westernised condition that we live under. Within our privileged position in the world, we live with this sense of underlying menace, and it’s an internalised sense. It’s not an external one; we’re not going to be invaded – it’s a sort of misunderstanding, a paranoia of panic. It’s not the air, but it’s eating away at things.

Sometimes I think it’s literally there – that fundamentalist Islamic group that said it would demonstrate at Wootton Bassett, where the soldiers’ bodies return from Afghanistan and they have those parades. They’ve never actually staged a demonstration but they’re always on the front page of the Mail.

Exactly – that guy literally just says it and suddenly he’s on TV.

And then quite happily a couple of days later he said, “Oh we can’t be bothered with that.”

But there’s an interesting comparison between the fear – with a second and third generation Asian immigrant population where some are attracted towards terrorism – and what occurred in Ireland. There’s a romanticism about the IRA. And that’s the sort of myth that growing up in Ireland I was completely conditioned by. In our history books we were taught about all these conflicts, all these martyrs, all these heroes that led to Irish independence.

But that relationship between Islam and Republicanism – because I think when there were a lot of bombings in Britain, the Irish community were seen as a sort of ‘other’. If the film can act as a device to think about how people are drawn to these quite abstract ideas that actually lead to violence and to death.

And it’s looking at a very personal consequence and aftermath of having been somewhere, but it’s a carefully unromanticised work. You show – visually – you show lots of Republican references – on t-shirts, drawings done, you know, done in prison and then there’s news footage of funerals. And notebooks. But in the voice over, which is drawn from your interviews, you leave out specific or explicit references to any particular time, place or event.

In the gallery, alongside the film, you show the actual interviews – one of the prisoners talks about retching green bile and stuff. But nothing of that is in the voiceover. So there’s that kind of disassociation. In the voiceover it seems as though the protagonist is lost – and you show him in that constricted, cell like domestic space.

Now… how is that a question?! What I’m wondering is, how did you set about thinking and organising that visual material with the voiceover?

The script came first. It was there with a certain amount of narrative – I don’t know how explicit it is and I’m not that interested in the sense of an A to B or a chronological narrative. It’s the other layers of the film that are interesting. And those ephemera, those photographs, were really crucially important, because they expanded the context of the film. And they were able to be signifiers of other meanings, of richer meanings that didn’t need to be talked about in the script or in the spoken monologue through the film.

So they play a very important role, spatially, in the film. And they’re also part of that representation process – that they are ephemera. Smuggled letters written on cigarette papers. When we were talking, one of the interviewees pulled out a suitcase and had a collection of these things that had been sent out. And that his mother had kept and so forth.

So these things are obviously important. And then there are the more propagandist things, which I encountered again visiting these people’s houses. No matter how contemporary their houses were, they had an awful lot of this stuff, and in a way it becomes a kind of anchor. It becomes something to lean on – that simplified belief, a kind of register. So that’s the role they play the film, rather than being about authenticity.

Though I think there is a narrative role they play in a very spare way, as a referencing of violence. Even in the short space of time, there’s that move away from a busyness of the narrative – to a point of catharsis really. The final shot in which the protagonist winds his head in the net curtain. There are so many things there – communion, his bride, suffocation, embalming. How did you come to that image or that action. Was it working with the performer?

It was in the script, but I can’t say it was there as something to be as emphasised as it was.

The script says he wraps his head and…?

Well, it says he looks out of the window. It was important to me because up to then you never see a view out of the window. It’s like a stage set and the film was contained within that. And thinking about the prison experience, the window’s a very strong motif because it is literally that view outwards on to another space. So it became a metaphor really that meeting between the past and the present. A point of redemption or release. And I had an idea of turning in it into much more of a playful thing and then we actually tried it. There were a couple of really practical things – he had to hold the curtain to turn in it otherwise it would just unravel sort of over his head. So – by doing that – it began to look a bit like this sort of communion…

And the performer, who is a performance artist, is a very sort of ritualised person. He’s a very detailed person, and he really embellished it. It came about really quickly. We saw it as – we rehearsed, ran through, and then shot it a couple of times. It became a very performative act, and the only time in the film where an act is performed outside of the banal, as it were.

Night Time Room, Ronnie Close

Night Time Room, Ronnie Close

It’s very much a film about watching. It’s about reflecting, and you’re a photographer. In working in film, having worked in photography, did you look at other photographers or filmmakers, artists… did you have visual references?

For me it was Alan Clarke’s Elephant – as a piece of very tight, restrained cinema. It’s focus is absolutely tight on what it wants to show you. And it reduces violence to a banal act by unknown people, in this cycle of assassination. And its meditative dimension was interesting to me. And also people like Michael Haneke, Chantal Akerman, the Dardenne Brothers. These are all people who work with a very sort of pensive camera, you know. It’s a thinking camera.

And then, when there is something occurring within the frame, or quickly or movement or whatever, it’s a very intentional move.

And editing is also part of being a photographer but in a very different way. How was editing film?

Editing was fascinating. On the first day, after a number of discussions, the editor said to me, “The only way I can do this is if you leave the room.” So I realised at that point that it had to be much more of a collaboration. Editing film is incredibly different to editing photos – a body of work into a series of photographs. Because we treat photographs in a completely different way.

In editing the film we removed scenes that didn’t feel appropriate, much like the shooting experience, where you have the script but it was very important to also to be open to possibilities of what else could happen – to experiment. Like the window scene.

We workshopped, but I think when you’re in that moment of being there you have to be quite aware of what’s possible then. And I found it very interesting being the position of the Director, being able to step back and let people do their job, but also open and aware of what could be done in certain times and places. Because if you just run through the script, and perhaps if you’re a little bit too closely involved in pushing it along, being the kind of motor on it, you’re completely missing the opportunity of what you’ve got there.

And because once you’re on set – there are things you realise you can’t get…

Absolutely – because up until then it’s all in your imagination.

So the film had a serendipitous sort of life of its own in the shooting. And also then in the editing – we stripped it down quite quickly to what were the basic scenes. And then it becomes almost a snail’s pace of really meticulously, almost frame by frame really, editing.

Was there a shot that you wanted that you didn’t get?

There were a number of things we didn’t use. We did a hypnosis session with the actor. He’d been politically active in the 80s, and felt he had a real connection to Bobby Sands in particular – and had vandalised a Welsh Army Barracks in Cardiff when he heard Bobby Sands died. He’d been active in the Troops Out Movement. And that was interesting because he’s South African, so that was interesting to kind of excavate that identification – and to try and draw on that.

So we used hypnosis. We got him to re-enact his vandalising in the Barracks. We got him to respond to questions. And through the hypnotist, I was asking him things and suggesting things – that he was back in a cell and so forth. Which was all very fascinating in some ways but then felt completely like different colour, temperature to the rest of the film.

It just felt completely wrong. That’s what’s good about working with an editor!

I think the film keeps you guessing. I was very conscious of empathy – I don’t want people feeling uncomfortable. It’s not about that. It’s about trying to create something that has a dimension to think about these issues. Not to think, do I agree with that person or not, or do I feel sorry for them. I’d like to think it’s a little bit more of a critical work in that way.

Do you want to make more films?

I certainly do. I’m developing a script on Rimbaud, which again, although it’s a very different context, has those elements of romanticism and mythology. Somebody that’s very transgressive and that really interests me. But I’m still undecided about why I want to make a film about that and why I think that’s important.

So I’m still thinking about that but it’s certainly a project to keep me occupied.

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