Review: The Veiled City
- In her short that world-premiered at the Berlinale and is now screening at Vienna Shorts, Natalie Cubides-Brady works entirely with archival footage of London to create an ecological cautionary tale
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Being exposed to archival footage, peering into humanity’s past through still or moving images may sometimes feel akin to digging into the Earth, whereas the footage we encounter is often bound to be seen and understood at face value: that is, through the lens of its current form rather than what it used to be. Indeed, most archives we get our hands on are rarely more than mere fragments, shells of a distant life, whispers of a bygone era. It’s like lifting a rock out of the ground. We may theoretically understand that this small piece of sediment once was a majestic boulder the size of a house, but in reality, it’s surprisingly hard to conceptualise matter (in this case, a rock) any other way than what is lying before our very eyes, right here, right now.
Because of its partial nature, especially as we dive further into the past, archival footage also has an innate tendency to create distance between the audience and the filmed subject matter. Look into the eyes of a man crossing a street in black-and-white 1950s London and try to picture him being sad, angry, or overflowing with joy. It’s certainly possible, but hard without a conscious effort from the viewer to connect with such a distant character. Indeed, human empathy, as complex as it is a strong phenomenon, needs a plethora of stimuli (movements, colours, sounds, even smells) to enable a sense of identification with someone we encounter and to allow ourselves to recognize that they are, in fact, “one of us”. One has to watch colourized and remastered ‘street scenes’ of early 20th-century cities, widely available online, to acknowledge how our empathy grows exponentially stronger with every stimulus added to our viewing experience (colours and sounds, for example). On the other hand, of course, by removing some of the aforementioned stimuli, our ability to empathise with one another drops significantly, and that is partly what British-Colombian filmmaker Natalie Cubides-Brady has opted to do with The Veiled City.
Sitting at the intersection of documentary and fiction, her most recent film allowed her to work entirely with archival footage of London to create an ecological cautionary tale. Shot during the Great Smog of 1952, the fragments of films she uses, showing streets, parks, metro stations, and various urban landscapes, are edited in such a way that the viewer never really gets a chance to connect in any way, shape or form with the many silhouetted characters portrayed onscreen. Rather, the heavily degraded nature of the footage, the overwhelming presence of coal-induced smog, the high contrasts, and the many industrial buildings casting big dark shadows over the camera all convey a dreamlike, otherworldly view of this event. Instead of trying to counteract these side effects, Cubides-Brady decides to embrace the images’ imperfect nature to create a lasting emotional response. Indeed, as an unknown voice-over recites fictional letters from a post-apocalyptic future, claiming she managed to travel back in time to investigate the origins of what seems like humanity’s extinction, the barren streets of smog-covered London appear so dramatically alien to our modern eyes: it’s as if it never really belonged to our universe. Even if we all know it undeniably did.
(The full review is available here).
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