Theater of Cruelty

People without filters

video Essay
Regissør: Astrid Johannessen

TRAVEL LETTER / Some films have a rare ability to move the viewer in time and space. Visual artist Astrid J. Johannessen's last two video essays have this marvelous power.


Jerusalem – A portrait without a frame og Autumn Leaves

Gallery Balder 23.3. – 15.4.

Johannessen invites to his experience of places that the present seems to have forgotten. Jerusalem – A portrait without a frame lets you join the community among poor Russian Orthodox pilgrims. Autumn Leaves provides a meeting with the Georgian mining town of Chiatura and the people there. The camera is reliably angular, but precise. Where movements and composition do not have an agenda to impress, Johannessen focuses on a story on many levels.

Chiatura Garland Child

Seen from inside a rattling cable car, the old communist blocs are getting smaller and smaller as we rise toward Chiatura north in Georgia. The camera dwells on worn interior details in the prehistoric wagon before turning to the scratched window surface with lush vegetation outside. Sensory patterns – such as from a moving kaleidoscope – are drawn from the view and glass pane. Nevertheless, a strong sense of insecurity and insecurity spreads. The exterior images confirm the cable car's miserable constitution: The huge and photogenic metal structure is clearly a fossil from the former Soviet era and still the residents' only means of emergence. High up on the cliffs stands a lonely template high block. The beautiful panoramic view is mixed with a frightening abyss.

Without filter

A child bikes untouched in circles. A young girl, Ludmila, carries her little brother on the hip. The proximity between them shifts the perspective and tells something about the inherent strength and greatness of man, despite the harsh environment. Johannessen conveys people without a filter, and it seems that they let her in without reservation. In doing so, they become the hidden rooms from which she is able to tell, which arises between her and the people she meets. Her eyes are often on the children, as is the sibling motif she has also explored through analog photography. Various media allow for views on photography versus film scene. The Ludmila photograph is supported in its own holistic universe and allows for many layers of meditative contemplation. Substance it possesses the raw clarity and purity of the celluloid.

Johannessen conveys people without a filter, and it seems that they let her in without reservation.

It gives a richer opportunity to immerse themselves in the faces or in certain parties. The composition and the tranquility of the lines promote Johannessen's picturesque grip. The tonality of photography and video echoes the Eastern European Orwo negative with his love for the golden tones. It sounds of nostalgia and a hint of sentimentality. As a movie scene, the subject opens precisely to emotionality that colors subsequent scenes. At the same time, it changes the meaning of what we have foreseen: The scene will have a thought-provoking and reflective key function for the whole. This exchange between different adventure plans makes it worthwhile to watch the video at Johannessen's separate exhibition White Nights, which recently opened at Galleri Balder in Oslo. Here are a dozen photographic works (C-print) related to still images and environments from both video films.


Johannessen has long made a remark through very poetic and different videos. The moods she creates have tactile qualities. They can be reminiscent of elaborate tapestries, even though there are video works made with HD cameras. In the film from the secluded Russian Orthodox enclave of Jerusalem, the materiality of light is at an almost sacred level. Shostakovich's 15th symphony forms the framework for the film.

The music in this work is strongly emotional, but also arouses reverberation of film music used in a completely different type of film, namely the genre film which often allows a slightly larger pathos. The Russian contemporary composers formed a school for film music when it originated.
The dynamic is resilient between the classical music that points to the schooled – but in the film context it gives associations to the commercially used film music – set against the modest filming. The self-conscious choice not to be flashy creates an immediate closeness: Poorly crowded comrades on pilgrimage bow down to kiss the holy icon and rest their forehead for a brief moment.

Observing the impatience of the pilgrims after getting into position for their fifteen-second physical encounter with the shrine is liberating. Few people manage to recover quickly enough at the moment. It is pushed and pushed. Countless glass lamps hang in the raised canopy. The next sequence is a welcome reunion with the motif from a low-key but equally heartfelt photograph: a rest room populated by pilgrims with the opportunity to sit still or immerse themselves in prayer. The film is indirectly about something more than a close-up study of the pilgrimage. In various flashes in the video – and accompanying text – Johannessen suggests and points to the pilgrimage project of the tsar's son, the great prince Sergei Aleksandrovich Romanov and his spouse Elisabet Feodorovna Romanov, who form the back story of the pilgrimage site in the Holy Land.

It is a relief that Johannessen cinematically chooses to subcommunicate this story. The essence – the desire to preserve a place for another religion in the midst of a strictly controlled country – is clearly evident throughout the overall experience. The shifting focus – between the individual's spiritual quest and the collective pilgrimage story – provides many interpretations and entrances to one and the same film.

Ellen Lande
Ellen Lande
Lande is a film writer and director and a regular writer for Ny Tid.

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