This striking film by Anri Sala finished its screening on the 15th of July in the Annex of IMMA’s exhibition in Earlsfort Terrace. The film, shot along the stretch of road in Sarajevo known as the Sniper Alley’s during the 1,395 day siege of the city from 1992 to 1996, evokes the harrowing experience of moving through the city under the deadly gaze of their attackers in the hills above.
This was an unplanned visit to the new exhibitions at Earlsfort Terrace. As I approached the Annex I was suddenly rushed into the darkness of the screening room. I had absolutely no idea what it was about or where I was going, however the ushers were adamant that I took my seat as soon as possible, the film had just started (on the hour, as it does all day, every day at the gallery) and it wasn’t to be missed. They were right – but what was it??
I found myself letting the film tell its own story, the info sheet I had been hurriedly handed would have been too loud to open and inspect, and besides, it was far too dark to read in that room. So I sat there and just watched.
An orchestra is performing in an empty office building, as the focus of this work steps out into a deserted city street. The woman, played by Spanish actress Maribel Verdú, begins a journey through the streets. At first it seems she is being followed by another, and as she skips into a sprint at an intersection so does her stalker. However it soon becomes clear that it is not simply her, but everyone, that is being followed, and their stalkers are unseen. At every intersection those who are passing through the city collect at the corners… waiting, listening, before eventually running out into the deathly sunlight and not stopping until they reach the safety of the shadows on the far side of the road. It seemed the light itself was sucking the air from their lungs, like vampires fearful of burning up and exploding if they remained under its rays for too long.
Every intersection is a death trap. As she waits to pass yet another the reality of the situation echoes through the streets. A gunshot disrupts the ebb and flow of the music and the movement of the stone faced travellers, and while everyone in the room jumped from their seats those on screen barely flinch; they were already dead to the hell that was their city. The crack of gunshot seemed to present its own opportunities and the flow of movement started again at the intersection – ready to take that that chance as a sniper reloads or is distracted by his kill.
There is a real beauty in the interplay between the music and the movement of the people through the streets. Composer Ari Benjamin Meyers collaborated with Sala on the film and arranged a version of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. The orchestra, who continued to perform and practice throughout the conflict, provide a rhythm to life in the city and unify the personal and collective experience of existing in an environment where death is around every corner. Just as the woman would plunge into the light and the gaze of her attackers, the music would halt suddenly, like her breath, in fearful anticipation. After long sprints through open squares she would gradually find her breath again, and so too would the music gather itself to play once more. It reflected the inconsistency of daily life in the city and disruption of things that would have otherwise been taken for granted to continue indefinitely.
Throughout the siege, the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra continued to play. In Sala’s film, the orchestra rehearses Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, the Pathetique. The musicians stop and start, repeating different sections of the symphony, just as the woman stops and starts in the city. Hearing the music in her head, she finds the courage to carry on.
However this city, while deserted and silent save for the few that walk its streets, does not appear to be under siege. Yet the echoes of a time gone by are to be seen in a pile of broken glass from a window and a shield of linen on washing lines that block the sniper’s sight down the straight city streets. This is a contemporary city with a quiet yet horrific history.
After the screening I walked onto St. Stephen’s Green, quite moved by the film I had just seen, I couldn’t help notice everyone moving through the city in much the same way they had in the film; in this case they were dodging cars rather than bullets yet their movements and hurried purposeful walking were exactly the same. It struck me that Sala had given his wanderers a very natural and contemporary “city-purposefulness” – just moving from A to B like any other day. The world he had created merged a situation (that of siege) with everyday contemporary life… indeed this is what happened in 1992. As I watched people around me wait at street corners for lights to change and an opportunity to cross I realised the film had reminded me to take note of the peace I live in and to remember the hell that had once existed in a city and a society as civil as my own.
Before writing this I spent some time watching footage of the siege on youtube that had been recorded by news agencies throughout the conflict.
(Warning: Linked footage contains violent imagery)
It was quite shocking, hard to watch, violent and bloody – everything this film was not. Yet I came away from Sala’s film far more affected than I did after watching over an hour of real footage. There is a sense that we can so easily forget how different life was not 20 years ago. Desensitised by the equally shocking footage of death and destruction that now plagues the Middle East in conflicts that echo the horrific sieges of cities like Dubrovnik and Sarajevo – just another shelled-out building… just another corpse..
Sala’s film bypasses the familiar imagery of war and offers something far more powerful, a disruption, which is conveyed in the intense personal experience of his main character and the familiarity of contemporary city life. We all live her life, and we relate to the horror of that life being visibly sucked from her lungs at every city intersection. As a viewer we feel that this should not be happening, we get a true sense of the injustice of her situation, and we begin to place ourselves in the firing line, staring down the prospect of a 200 metre dash across a square in full view of a sniper. We begin to ask “why?” and think about what we would do.. and then it hits like a ton of bricks – what else can you do except continue to live your life as best you can?
Sala’s lady begins to hum the tune of the orchestra and briefly a smile breaks out across her face. Life goes on, she will make this journey every day just as the orchestra will continue to play regardless of the horror that surrounds them.
At one point in the Youtube footage I watched of the siege a lady attempts to cross an intersection on Sniper Alley.
(again viewer discretion is advised – while this section of the footage is without strong imagery the scene can be harrowing and traumatic to watch)
Shots are ringing out all around her and it is clear that bullets are landing close by. As she approaches the road she suddenly jumps back to escape a shot from a sniper… she is startled yet she waits to try again.. and while others skip past her and run the gauntlet she waits until she feels it is time. Eventually she goes for it, and again she must jump back onto the path. Amazingly both times she laughs and smiles… you know that deep down it is killing her slowly – but what else can she do but take a deep breath, crack a smile, hum a tune and just keep on going.
You may also be interested in…
The striking way in which war is documented through personal stories and emotional imagery can be seen in the work of the late war photographer Tim Hetherington. Read this article, written for Arthub last year on the release of his final shots, for more info.
Anri Sala’s “1395 Days Without Red” is sadly no longer showing at IMMA.
Full details on the work which will no doubt be shown at other events around the world.
1395 Days Without Red, 2011
A film by Anri Sala
In collaboration with Liria Begeja
From a project by Šejla Kameriæ and Anri Sala in collaboration with Ari Benjamin Meyers
Commissioned by Artangel