Letter from London: Depth of Field

“The king is gone, but he’s not forgotten.” Neil Young, Farm Aid, 1985.


Not so long ago, I was writing from London about making a shift from film to words again. I was adamant about it. Of course, no sooner had this idea solidified in my head, for what that is worth, when I started thinking about film again. It was both a pragmatic thought and one in the context of lesser known conflict zones. The desire, once again, to make a kind of contribution must still run deep.

Inevitably, I began checking the latest kit. Everything technical outdates itself so fast these days, which is why robots get interviewed at press conferences in Geneva these days. (‘I’m not sure why you would think that,’ flashed one of them back to a journalist who had just asked if it intended to rebel against its creator: ‘My creator has been nothing but kind to me and I am very happy with my current situation.’) In general, I wish we could just let the cameras roll, but even the truth sometimes can make for monotonous viewing. In the end, we shoe-horn everything into whatever agenda suits.

Not always, thankfully. One live — unedited — screen experience last week was a webinar from London’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI) chaired by their humanitarian policy head Sorcha O’Callaghan. It was on the subject of Sudan, described straight away as the toughest place on earth. (The entirely avoidable mess which is Ukraine, alas, is not the only conflict in the world.) Laetitia Bader from Human Rights Watch then spoke of increased levels of violence in Sudan, with both the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) hitting residential areas as well as civilian infrastructures. Sexual violence, as people flee, was also on the rise, it was said, with the global response failing to mirror what is taking place on the ground. Nuha Mirghani, president of the Sudanese American Medical Association (SAMA), spoke of dead bodies left in the streets out of fear. She said the number of dead is rising ‘every single day’. She is now in Port Sudan: ‘We need global pressure, prayers and donations,’ she said. UN Deputy Special Representative Clementine Nkweta-Salami was hoping that following negotiations she could move aid soon into the Darfur area, but regretted this wasn’t happening yet. Three months in, she believed the response was still impacted by bureaucratic and administrative legacies of old. There were delays with visas and travel permits. One agreement signed in May regarding humanitarian and human rights law had still not been respected. In short, fighting continued to push millions into a state of desperation. With so much looting, it was said that at least 18 aid workers had died. Not only offices and warehouses being looted — the contents of one warehouse alone could have fed over 4 million people — but UN vehicles were disappearing, which meant a reliance on commercial transport. Also, everything was about to move into the rainy season and people were concerned about access as a result of flooding. The humanitarian response is struggling, with $2.6bn needed and only 23% of this raised. Hajir Maalim, regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in East Africa and Yemen, explained that even stable areas were now badly affected through a lack of access to Khartoum. He said people needed to protect what they had in terms of communities and aid organisations, at the same time as hold the fighters to account.

There are actual physical rather than virtual talks and conferences in London all the time. People, usually energised, often talking very fast, are constantly stumbling onto Tube trains with their lanyards still dangling from their necks. One conference has been exploring the acceleration of Artificial Intelligence across the media and entertainment industries, with AI now like that proverbial bee in the bonnet, or power-hornet in the helmet. Such events keep reminding everyone that AI is here, there and everywhere, empowering creativity, innovation and efficiency, while in reality it also dulls the senses and wants everything and everyone to be policed. It is hard not to see first and foremost growing numbers of people reacting robotically to robotic commands, blurring and numbing any kind of uniqueness that may lie between them. I am not against progress, by the way, just over-conformism.

On a lighter note, what AI can also do is play with old footage that was originally shot on that old fuzzy video many of us will remember. Through the use of AI-powered converters, at the same time as re-editing and re-grading, original video can be enhanced to 60fps (frames per second) or even 120fps — to a 4k resolution, if necessary. A number of old Elvis songs for example have been put through this type of visual wringer, presumably as part of that never-ending battle to get ‘Ol’ Snake Hips’ popular again among the young. Similarly treated footage of Neil Young in 1985 singing ‘Hey Hey, My My’ has been doing the rounds on a well-known Chinese-owned social media site, at a time when Young — the so-called Godfather of Grunge — remains self-banned from an equally famous Swedish audio streaming provider. (‘The king is gone but he’s not forgotten/Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?’) Memory itself is being played around with here, and we end up with a kind of visual super-reality, with only the familiarity of the song to guide us. It is not unpleasant and our visual memory banks anyway are so often footage-like these days, as we continue to remember not so much the events themselves as footage of these events, as I have reported before.

I met up at Tate Modern with London-based Irish animation director Paul Donnellon last week. He has finished work with a major Hollywood director on an exciting new movie project. Though it remains strictly under wraps, I can’t wait to see it. I love what Paul does. He was actually insisting during our conversation that I should shout out more about my own work from the past with various movie directors, mentioning in particular elements I produced for Michael Winterbottom’s ‘24 Hour Party People’. (Before a return to more hostile environments, there was a time when I seemed only to work on projects with numbers in their title — ‘28 Days Later’, ‘Millions’, ‘Second Coming’, ‘Code 46’.) The truth is, I am too restless, and life too short, to remember everything.

Tate Modern was busy, I noticed. A testament in a way to the continued power of visual imagery over words. Elsewhere, the commercial art world was continuing its march with the plutocrats. Its mind-set seems so many miles from so many artists. Small and very tight clusters of extremely wealthy people, perhaps with few creative bones in their bodies, telling the world on social media what it is to be a good artist, and what it is to be not. Even the fact art can be a spiritual place appears to have no apparent resonance for them. I suspect the best thing for an artist to do is to carry on regardless. As Cindy Sherman once said: ‘If I knew what the picture was going to be like, I wouldn’t make it.’

I am yet to see the Oppenheimer film by Christopher Nolan so am not in a position to write about it. However, I met my New Yorker friend towards the end of the week and he was reading ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. ‘I’m not going to learn anything from the film,’ he said, though he will see it after he has finished the book. I wonder if that is true: that the film cannot teach us anything. As it happens, I still know one or two things about the importance of nuclear non-proliferation, given that I have been quietly working for the past three years on getting that miniseries I have mentioned before off the ground on this very topic. It still might happen, by the way. In the meantime, I will continue with my research and development (R&D) on something else, avoiding where I can any possible pitfalls, especially development hell, which was why I went into one-person filmmaking in the first place. The people I had been working with at the time — this was about 15 years ago — were talking endlessly about a feature film they were making. Or not making. By the time I came back from shooting a film of my own based on a picaresque journey through Helmand in Afghanistan, all the way back to England, France, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and the United States, they were still just talking about it.



Peter Bach lives in London.