Re-narrating the past with Sarah Turner
Sarah Turner’s experimental film, Perestroika, is ostensibly a journey on the trans-Siberian railway. However, conflicting dialogues quickly shatter any concept of reality in a film that seeks to explore the limitless ways of experiencing time, bringing us to our ultimate destination, subjectivity.
With this in mind, Turner explains her choice of title, "the film is an active reconstruction, a re-enactment, a renarration. Perestroika is Russian for re-construction but that was an ideological project. I play with ideas around ideology and storytelling, the relationship between the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories other people tell about us."
To the first-time viewer, the experience is perhaps comparable to reading a novel and Turner’s film can be described in literary terms, "I spent years writing feature films commissioned by BFI and Film4 Lab but I also write short stories. I got really frustrated with the restrictions of a screenplay. Writing for film isn’t about language or prose so what I tried to do in this film was experiment with processes of writing."
Turner weaves several narrative strands together to produce a film that confronts many aspects of human experience. Sensations are important, characters complain of hot and cold which has dual meaning within the film’s context: "it is explicitly an environmental allegory. Hot and cold represent the relationship between inside and outside. Inside the train is boiling because of the heaters and thick glass but you’re passing through a freezing landscape. In the developed world we sit in our overheated units while outside our planet heats up. The change is evident in the landscape itself. There are great swathes without snow and they’re harvesting wheat, in December, in Siberia.’
The film opens and closes on the waves and rising steam of sub-zero Lake Baikal, another environmental phenomenon: "This is actually happening. The character Sarah Turner is mad by this point, she has been moved to a delusional space and experiences water being on fire. I then twinned this with the sense of loss after death of my friend and imagined my own fictional death, very much in the Russian tradition of mad person as visionary."
The film is also a ghost story, "A ghost is a story in our culture, it’s the stories you hold of ones you have lost and that they hold of you. Who are we if the other isn’t here to hold our story? It’s the same with this idea of Perestroika. Who are we when culture is renarrated? In the film there are recordings of both my deceased friends singing. But I, the character Sarah Turner, is also a ghost because she is someone without memory. I play with the idea that a photograph is a mini-death. The moment we are photographed in will never exist again."
Turner’s film references influential thinkers such as Judith Butler and Roland Barthes making her work intellectually challenging, how does she feel about audience perceptions? "We’re living in an interesting cultural moment. To push the boundaries of the languages that you work with is expected in any art form but for some reason that’s not happening as much in cinema. It’s not that audiences don’t want to be challenged but it is commercial. That doesn’t mean we’re going to throw our hands up and say ‘capitalism has won’. If you compare film with music, we know pop music is produced to make money and sell records to kids. We like diversity and difficulty in music as a popular cultural formbut is also a commodity. In music it is sellable to be innovative and risk-taking."
Winners of EIFF 2014’s short film awards and two of its documentary premieres have been nominated for 2015 BAFTAs.