Above Us, The Sky: A Documentary by Lin Li
I was originally from Hong Kong and have been living in Scotland for over twenty five years. In the last two decades I gradually changed my career direction from being an academic researcher to developing a fine art practice. Since 2011 my artwork focuses mainly on moving image and audio pieces. With funding from Creative Scotland, I completed a short documentary (39 minutes long) in 2015 entitled Above Us, the Sky. In my presentation for Edinburgh Ragged University on June 1st 2016, I am going to show the film, talk about my experience in making the documentary and conduct a discussion with the audience.
Above Us, the Sky is a portrait of Brian Quail – a retired teacher in Glasgow who has been campaigning against nuclear weapons for decades and has been arrested numerous times for his non-violent direct actions. The film includes my conversations with Brian, which consider the meaning of his actions and what constitutes peace.
Extracts from these conversations are combined with video clips of Brian’s direct actions, his interaction with his son, and various objects in his home. Whilst focussing on an individual and his peace activism, the film raises questions which have wider sociopolitical and more universal significance, such as: the issue of nuclear (dis)armament; or an individual citizen’s responsibility and ability in influencing state policies. At a different level, this film also touches on more psychological and philosophical questions – what constitutes a person and is the person a coherent, unitary subject?
One of the ideas explored in the film is the relationship between identity, space and objects. A person is embedded in and shaped by the space he lives in – be it public or private, social or physical space, and increasingly the cyberspace where the public and the private converge. While the public space is one which is contested by Brian’s actions, he has relatively more freedom in modelling the private space of his own home, just as he has in constructing the narrative of his life.
Using the premise of the domestic space as an extension of the self, which thus plays an important part in our process of understanding a person, I have structured the visual content of this portrayal of Brian around his flat, in parallel with a soundtrack which moves from his public persona as an anti-Trident activist to his revealing more of his private self. Through the objects he puts in his home, Brian projects, consciously or subconsciously, who he is and what he holds dear, and at the same time creates a space which, as Gaston Bachelard wrote in his book The Poetics of Space, “shelters the dreamer”. Brian is a dreamer, one who dreams of peace, justice and love, and a better world for future generations. It is a dream founded on the belief in the meaning and sanctity of life.
In Above Us, the Sky I endeavour to share with the audience some facets of a complex character and hope that they will be able to find something in the film which they can relate or react to. In many ways, this film is a new departure in my moving image work, with its duration and approach being quite different from my previous shorter, more experimental pieces. The making of it has been a learning process for me. Producing a film which is reality-based and involves situations which I have little control over presents certain issues.
There are also concerns about balancing my artistic intent and sensitivity to Brian with the question of ‘truthfulness’ in representation – a question which many documentary filmmakers have to deal with. As an artist-filmmaker who has not gone through an art school education, the sharing of my work with the public and the latter’s responses will contribute significantly to my learning process. So I look forward to sharing this piece of work with you and listening to your feedback, and discussing the issues raised by the film or the process of making it.