This is an affair of glances and reflex gestures, a local drama in which willed tenderness finds resolution in the quantum of cruelty. A young man, proud of his innocent moustache, travels in a car of floating lights. Reds, golds, yellows and blues play across a troubled face. The colours are metropolitan: the viral fuss of signage and prohibition. We are invited to notice the way the pilgrim’s head moves, twitching in an occulted rictus of displacement. That experience, the cab in the strange city, is a commonplace estrangement: a birth into difference. The traveller is helpless as a child. A sleeper returning to a body that is not his own. He rubs tired eyes, allowing heavy lids to fall. The warm café - limp money, crisp playing cards – becomes a mirage of safety, the thing that is most familiar, most dangerous. A tight but shifting community prepared to welcome and exploit new blood.
‘Work hard. Keep yourself to yourself. This is London.’ Along wet streets, the haunted aftermath of a market, a screenwriter coming back to his Stoke Newington safe house is not the only ghost. The character in the film, the exile, does not progress through time. A revenant, he advances by a series of dissolves. He doesn’t happen to this place, it happens to him. Tony Grisoni, put to the task of justifying the product he sets before us, speaks of having lived in an area where ‘Little Cyprus evolved into Little Kurdistan’.
A loud bone-moon, emphasised, hurts a dark-smoke sky. ‘And in that time angels walk among men.’ Kingsland High Street. Ridley Road Market. A freshly conceived version of an old truth: heretical geography. Privileged territory (privileged by the corrupted indolence of its councillors) sickens towards a taxonomy of objects: rubber bands, used-pink lipstick, sugar lumps, spoons in strong tea. Grisoni (with his researcher, Lily Grimes) teased out stories. He defines the process as ‘archaeology’. (We have to think of those driven, troubled men setting up camp in hot, unforgiving places: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Crete and what used to be called Asia Minor.) The Dreamer, this first provisional chapter in an uncompleted epic, folds back into its excavated particulars: a swift and inevitable sequence of dignified rituals - men with women, men with men, men alone at windows - triggered by musical cues (unheard by the actors).
Grisoni said: ‘I was looking for a way to connect with whatever was happening around me.’ He lived in a place where bad things were happening. He was a filmmaker, an artist of the drifting world. And a witness too, a professional of the steady gaze. Nothing, in his philosophy of cinema, needs to be overdescribed or articulated in language. The director is keen to stress that writing continues after the film is delivered, direction happens before the first shot is made: as the life of the Kurdish community in Hackney and Haringey goes on, undisturbed, when the crew decamp. Many stories are told, absorbed: they procure a single narrative, stark as one strand from the Istanbul soap operas that flicker, through the hours of the day, in a Kurdish minimart. Dream-fiction analogues of the perpetual CCTV footage in the basement of the Stoke Newington surveillance centre. When we are watched, all of the time, drama is redefined. It’s not the killing, the deal going down, it’s the suspect number plate triggering an automatic response. Operatives, almost as low in the food chain as yellow-tabard security men paid to lurk alongside blue fences, are the editors of a new urban cinema. The grammar is stark: get a clean face shot, secure the evidence, and allow the drama to play itself out in any way that takes its fancy.
The kernel of Kingsland was an episode on Grisoni’s doorstep: the street battle, the infamous ruck on Green Lanes. Investigation revealed, not a turf war between competing drug and criminal interests, but an aggrieved response to the power of one family, the Abdullah Baybasin clan. Anger was aroused when a neighbourhood mother found a gun under her son’s pillow. Accounts of the fight were ‘harvested’ as a ‘social act’: listening is participating. By persistence, good humour, contacts within the community, Tony Grisoni won the trust of the translated tale-tellers and the others, the volunteers who would play a part in his film. Which was not a re-enactment of the initial incident, nor a quasi-documentary exposure, but an optimistic strike: towards the condition of poetry. The placement of symbols. The secret that is not quite spoken. Gesture following gesture. Taboo on taboo: a malign tarot of fate. This novella is the shape of something that isn’t there, another and more complex history: alienated inner-city space, stark economic imperatives, tribal loyalties, religious sensibilities, family breakdown, old time and slow time in a neurotic fast-twitch environment. Eroticised melancholy.
Expectations of masculinity. Feminine generosity and guile. The way that the trajectory of a chamber tragedy is orchestrated by stolen glances in the market café, right back at the beginning, before the story realises that it is a story. A man toying with rubber bands, by being noticed and catalogued, is granted meaning. The acceptance of a cup of chai is the entry point to a sequence of events with only one conclusion, the splash of blood. Ravens calling on the soundtrack.
The elements, memory revised, never change. In 1989, at the start of his public career, Grisoni’s script for Jon Amiel’s Queen of Hearts, places a café at the centre of the script: after a successful gamble, the waiter buys the place. A device repeated here, but rapidly overtaken by the hurt of the conclusion. The lunar bullet that will trench the pilgrim’s skull. His right hand, in death on London pavements, lies within the outline of a diagrammatic moon. The victim, arriving like a shepherd with satchel on shoulder, has been transformed by loneliness and unfocused libido, into the city’s bridegroom. Illuminated windows of wedding cakes in angel-sugar are a rebuke to his solitary status. Flashbacks to a lost culture of white temples in Mediterranean light. An older woman, a mother-figure he calls ‘sister’, has washed and ironed his shirts. Now she dresses him, tight suit, oversize collar, correspondent shoes, for his assignation with death.
Pain observed is sentiment disguised. It attaches itself to the myth of the immigrant: somebody is making an account of another person’s experience. In In This World, Grisoni and Michael Winterbottom, using DVD cameras, tracked a pair of Afghan immigrants, who were not quite immigrants or actors, across real landscapes: an act of emotional displacement, rigour and risk, and an acclaimed production. Safe in the settled world, we welcome confirmations of suffering and hardship that challenge our complacency, without obliging us to take any other action. The players in Kingsland have already made their journeys, made their place in a new culture. Grisoni’s quest is to create a story from their stories, without exploiting mere exoticism, difference. His solution is to promote ‘the sacredness of everyday life’, the siren song of the mundane; every slight movement weighed and intended. The dream is posthumous. And its meaning flows backwards.
Cinema, that stubbornly redundant technology, is a maggot. Two other films, invading this territory, Dirty Pretty Things (2002) by Stephen Frears and Eastern Promises (2007) by David Cronenberg, were written by Steven Knight. What they have in common, and what Grisoni avoids, is that they import a developed and constructed script, which must then be imposed on a submissive topography. Barber shops converted into Russian clubs. A live market as an interesting backdrop. Authentic research factored into an hysterical mise-en-scène. Grisoni’s method, after a lengthy process of retrieval, is to allow his characters to find their own voices and gestures, and then to guide anticipated accidents of personality towards a fable with magical intensity, the stripped-down drive of an afternoon soap opera. Arrival, work, expulsion, apparent resolution, death. The denial of love.
Bits of narrative business are the least of it: actors who don’t act, staying natural while not playing themselves. Delivering lines with easy emphasis: ‘Fucking lazy Kurdish retard’. The titular dream is insinuated within fugues of escalating action. The way men sit at a table. The walk through the market, during which ‘real’ stallholders have been coached to avoid the camera’s promiscuous glare. The maggot of sexuality: the warehouse owner, the businessman with his trousers down, lasciviously watching an image of the sea. The doomed boy playing with lipstick. The older woman gazing at him as he sleeps. And how, sitting on the floor to eat, she talks of her son-in-law’s gifts, the shrouded television set, the three-piece suite. And, in the café, the way a saucer is dropped, breaking into pieces.
The sea film, playing in a room above the market, is called The Discovery (An Attempt at Drowning and an Attempt at Disappearance). There is a body lying on the shore. Perhaps an economic migrant who didn’t make it to Italy? Allowing this film of London to become the drowned exile’s dream. Grisoni speaks of ‘ordinary people beatified by cinematography’. He mentions Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers as a touchstone inspiration. Kingsland can’t have that operatic grandeur. It is a fragment, a beginning: but we can imagine ways in which the process of cinematography itself could be beatified by the presence of these people. When shots like the high view of the night market are allowed to breed and proliferate, the tight landscape of the café, the supermarket and the dark alleyway, could evolve into a realised city of the imagination.
Iain Sinclair’s new book, Hackney, That Rose Red Empire (Hamish Hamilton) is published in February and is accompanied by many readings, discussions, installations and performances across London, as well as a screening programme at Dalston’s Rio Cinema in early March, where Kingsland will be shown with Tony Grisoni present.