Harbouring History: Stella Polare and the Sound of a Place

By Andy Birtwhistle

stella-polare-anthea-kennedy-ian-wiblin.jpgStella Polare, 2006

Shot in an old European port city, whose actual location is never revealed, Anthea Kennedy and Ian Wiblin’s Stella Polare is a powerfully elegiac meditation on history and memory, violence and loss, refracted through the multiple registers of cinema’s complex temporality. At the core of the film is a series of hypnotic shots of a jetty – sometimes bathed in the melancholic light of late evening, sometimes crowded with families and tourists out for a Sunday promenade, or deserted and glistening-wet after a thunderstorm has chased its visitors away. With each return, the subtly shifting reconfigurations of this enigmatic monument foreground the concrete materiality of the cinematic image, and its power to affect us. Harnessed to the ambiguous and speculative narrative that weaves through the film’s images and sounds – suturing together fragments of histories, events, incidents and ideas – the affective power of the film’s haunting visuality renders Stella Polare a prism through which cinema itself becomes visible.

stella-polare-anthea-kennedy-ian-wiblin-2.jpgStella Polare, 2006

Beyond the jetty, this nameless city is constructed and negotiated through a disembodied, yet subjective, tourist gaze: hand-held camera-work records the contents of shop windows, while dense, murky super-8 silently documents the view from a room overlooking the port, the movement of people in a street, or the texture of a woman’s hair. Reflected in the glass of a jeweller’s shop window, a Nazi swastika instantaneously connects Europe’s past and present. Elsewhere the camera explores the interiors of opulently furnished 19th century apartments and museum vitrines of stuffed birds, where the dusty, faded traces of a glorious imperial past encounter the present-tense materiality of the video image.

Stella Polare allows the sonic dimensions of cinema an audibility denied by most films. Its refined, carefully crafted soundtrack presents a cinema for the ears that is not reliant on simple density or layering. The film opens with a velvet silence that gradually gives way to a measured musique concrète of portside activity and distant city soundscapes. Severed from images that might impose a single identity, many of the sounds that populate the film stand for themselves as much as for the profilmic spaces to which they are sutured. Relieved of their mimetic duties, metallic, electrical, musical and human sounds reveal their material and affective dimensions, while at the same time sounding the nameless city through their ambiguity and familiarity: “This port city... It’s much like any port city. It’s everywhere and nowhere.” This sonic latitude is sharply foregrounded in one sequence where the sound of distant thunder might also be that of gunfire. Signalling the ability of sounds to support a range of meanings, this audible semantic shift allows us to hear ourselves listening to the film, negotiating and registering the flux and flow of its audiovisuality.

stella-polare-anthea-kennedy-ian-wiblin-3.jpgStella Polare, 2006

The constructed nature of the soundtrack is signalled early in the film, with the careful staging of sounds introduced to ‘accompany’ the image of the jetty. Silence is at first punctuated by the isolated cries of gulls, following which we hear the wash of waves, then the distant hum of a ship’s engine, indistinct music, and finally the sounding of a ship’s horn. But this additive technique is no weary deconstruction aimed at destabilising naturalistic cinesonic codes, and the film’s sonic materiality is never foregrounded simply to adumbrate processes of signification. Rather, in differentiating elements of the soundtrack, Stella Polare allows us to taste the affective intensity of what Deleuze termed ‘pure optical and sound situations’.

Throughout the film, we are located as conscious, active witnesses of its engagement with issues of imperialism, war, terror and resistance. Static shots of the jetty present the viewer with a globalised visual field in which our attention may alight on the languid gestures of a single individual in a crowd, but may equally linger on the play of rain across its surface, or the swell and eddy of the sea nearby. Over these shots we hear the soft, hypnotic voice of an anonymous narrator, situating us as the film’s unseen witness – a tourist wandering through the city, a spectator and listener navigating the fragments of sounds and images that make up the film: “You’re answering the question of a soldier. He’s marched to the end of the jetty where you’re standing. Although he’s not in uniform, it’s clear that he’s a soldier.”

stella-polare-anthea-kennedy-ian-wiblin-4.jpgStella Polare, 2006

Under the direction of this gentle acousmêtre, individual figures in a crowd become terrorists, photographers, writers or shopkeepers, each of whom has an experience to relate. These narrated fragments of past histories, events and incidents bleed into the present, subsequently reinscribing themselves onto the images and sounds that map this nameless city. Thus Stella Polare becomes a film of multiple reflections and refractions, through which we might catch a partial view of something already glimpsed, something overheard, but from a vantage point that has shifted subtly but significantly – shoppers become terrorists, soldiers become victims, and the fabric of the city and the movements of its inhabitants appear both banal and powerfully affective. But most importantly, the film allows us to catch a glimpse of ourselves, watching, listening, and remembering, as we are drawn as spectators into the internal reflections of this cinematic prism.

Stella Polare is showing at the Athens Ohio International Film and Video Festival at the end of April.

Vertigo will host a screening of Stella Polare with the film-makers present at London’s Curzon Soho cinema in June/July. Check the Vertigo website and www.curzoncinemas.com for more details. See also page 36.

Ian Wiblin’s exhibition of photographic work, Recovered Territory (work from Wroclaw, Poland, 'recording' past histories of the former German city of Breslau), opens at The New Art Gallery, Walsall in July. Stella Polare will be screened alongside the exhibition.

Andy Birtwhistle is a sound artist, filmmaker and a principal lecturer in Film, Radio and Television studies at Canterbury Christ Church University and has just completed his PhD, entitled Cinesonica: Sounding the Audiovisuality of Film and Video.